Oldham Historical Research Group


17th AUGUST, 1929

Helen Bradley Oldham artist.
The Glodwick Hermit
by Frederick J. Stubbs from 'The Oldham Chronicle' 17th August, 1929
[The Subject of this article was the son of James Butterworth and the brother of Edwin, both local historians]

Billy Butterworth, the Glodwick Hermit was born in 1782 and died in 1834. For many years he lived in an 'Elysian Cot,' half cave and half cottage, built on Glodwick Lows. The Oldham Museum possesses a pleasant water colour, by Andrew Ashton, of the Hermit's home. A hundred years ago the Lows were green fields, with hedgerows and fine trees, especially in the parts above the Manor House; apparently this was the site of the cot. The Hermit cultivated flowers and shrubs and ornamented the garden with shells and fossils and grotesque carvings in wood and stone.

He is described as a tall, handsome man, with beautiful, long, black hair and beard, and romantic eyes. One historian says he was of 'moderate intelligence,' but it is hard to know exactly what this means. Usually he was dressed in the 'Spanish style', with a black velever tunic, open at the throat and girdled at the waist; breeches wide and gashed in Spanish fashion; stockings white, The cap just presented to the local collection at the Oldham Museum is of brown velvet, with a black ostrich feather, and a brooch of twisted gold wire set with amethysts. Inside the crown is an ancient label showing that it had been exhibitied at the Lyceum Exhibition in 1845. When I looked up the catalogue of this show I found that it had been lent by Mr. Nicholson (the printer, of Lees). Mr. Nicholson, in the 'Oldham Chronicle' for 1879, had several articles on Billy Butterworth; 'Jerry Lichenmoss' added other details in the same paper. Miss Nicholson gave the cap to Mr. Chas. E. Higson, who in turn has given it to the Museum.

Hermits were fashionable a hundred years ago. So were the Elysian Cots. The Glodwick one was doubtless modelled on the more famous Pope's Villa at Twickenham. But hermits have to live, and Billy sold sweets and ginger beer and cakes; he was an actor; he sang old songs, and recited in Public Houses. Very often he would tell the story of his love, and how his dear one (Alice, the daughter of a Glodwick farmer) had deserted him to marry another man. His beautiful, sad eyes and long hair, and velver coat, added largely to the pathos of the tale. Billy occasionally took small parts at the Eagle Street Theatre. Sometimes he was the star turn in pantomime; as 'Bluebeard' it is remembered that the elephant on which he was making a triumphant entry broke in two and let Billy down in more senses than one. The elephant consisted of four colliers (one account says two) in a pasteboard hide.The front half turned to the right; by misunderstanding, the hinquarters wheeled in the opposite direction. This pantomime was staged at the Red Lion, Bottom o' th' Moor. He ran another pantomime at the Bull's Head, Millbottom, and at the Brown Cow, Glodwick. These places were then little rural inns. The Hermit started life as a weaver, but was afterwards a house painter. He painted portraits of himself, on sheet iron, and sold these to visitors; there is an example of this art in the Museum. Another source of revenue was from the sale of plaster casts of his own face.

Visitors to Oldham found that the Glodwick Hermit was one of the local sights not to be missed. Canon Raines confided to his diary that Billy did not like the work. A London artist was so impressed by the man that he painted Billy's portrait. Many years later this picture was recognised by Sir J.T. Hibbert in a shop in London. He bought it, and later it was won in a lottery at the Oldham Church School Bazaar - this event was perhaps about 1850. The winner lived in Belmont Street, and perhaps the picture is still in existence somewhere.

The illustrations from a small photograph of a painting of the Hermit by Daniel Orme - doubtless the very picture found by Sir J.T. Hibbert. Possibly Orme was an Oldham man by birth; the name occurs in the local records of that period. He lived in London, painting portraits in oils, and miniatures. From 1797 to 1801 he exhibited at the Royal Academy, but but is best known today as an engraver; his engravings of Morland's pictures fetch high prices. The reference books give no particulars of Orme's birth or parentage, but this portrait of Billy Butterworth suggests that the artist had rather more than an outsider's interest in Oldham. Further research in old records might possibly result in Daniel Orme being added to the list of illustrious artists born in the town.
In the museum we have a handbell, reputed to have been used by the Hermit. Fifty years ago Mrs. Wild of the Cranberry Inn, treasured his silver shoe buckles; Mrs. Leach, of Roxbury, treasured also the three-cornered wooden moulds used in making the spice cakes for the Hermit's funeral.

General Steel, of Wood Park, which seems to be somewhere in the south of England, had a lovely hermitage in his park, but no hermit; for, about that period no estate was complete without its hermit. And I gather that such pets, like white mice, were liable to become offensive. But the Glodwick Hermit was different. His cot was always spotlessly clean and neat, inside and out; he spent much time dressing his hair and beard; he was always dressed in velvet (except in winter, when he wore sheepskin, clipped and dyed), and always prided himself on the curves of his calves. He was offered the job of Resident Hermit at Wood Park. The hermitage was reglazed and a new camp bed was installed. For a while he shone in his new home, and all the young ladies of the district came to see him. Finally, he began to pine for the sylvan beauties of the Rocher Vale, and the views of the Saddleworth Hills from the door of his cot. One moonlight night, when he should have been sleeping in his nice, clean hermitage, he stole quietly away, and Wood Park knew him no more.

This episode came in useful once he was back on the Lows. Later on he was lured to London, on a visit, and was shown the sights of the West End. But he did not think much of London - Glodwick was good enough for him, although he admitted that England as seen from the top of a coach was good to look at. By a sad accident, the Elysian Cot got on fire, and was destroyed. His fortune, in banknotes, was hidden in a crack in the wall so he lost this also. The poor Hermit made a fresh start, but the place was never the same, and one night while he was alone he was taken ill and died with no-one to help him. Billy was a relative of the two historians, James and Edwin Butterworth but the historians do not mention Billy in their writings on Oldham notabilities; to them, he would be the skeleton in the family cupboard. He was a picturesque skeleton, and made a good thing out of his profession, besides giving innocent pleasure to the younger generation of a century ago. A walk through Rocher Vale, returning by Wabbow Hills (we call it Abbey Hills now), to call at Billy's for ginger beer, and to marvel at his camera obscura and his megaphone, would naturally impress any youngster. And so, for half a century after his death, the hermit was remembered as a delight, and we can still listen to second-hand echoes of his old fame. The Lows never looked the same after he was gone. All the trees died, and the grass vanished from the stony earth, as we can see today.

Sourced and contributed by Mary Pendlebury

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