Hainault Forest Website

Written, Designed and with Photographs by Brian Ecott

Social History

 Dr. William Bell, Hainault Forest Hermit

Census 1901 Chigwell Row.  

147 Tent on Forest                   Tent     William Bell        Head   Single 70    Herbal doctor                 own acc       born Bethnal Green

 

 Known locally as Old Dido.

We live in the meadows,

And we toil in the soil,

Far away from your cities and glooms;

More cheery are we,

Though in rags we may be,

Than the pale faces are in your rooms.

 

"I was born in Bethnal Green on 5th March 1831, and christened at Shoreditch. I was the youngest of eight children and orphaned at the age of 11.Some of my relations were rich. One of my sisters married a captain; another owned a lot of property at Leytonstone. Although poor, I always upheld myself. I worked at the twine ground which stood where Mile End Union house is now. I sold fish. For nine years I was in the East India Docks and suffered three accidents there - given up once I was , but they didn't know Dr. Bell. I was always fond of the forest at Chigwell Row. I've blackberried here for over 62 years and never missed a season. I have walked to London many times to sell my produce. I have never darkened the door of a Union house, I have never begged from anyone and never been accused of theft. I have no hoard of gold to tempt a robber. Some people think there's gipsy blood in me, but there isn't. I'm pure English. I may be poor man but I have caused more excitement in this country that  even the King has done.  I sit here at night, smoking my clay pipe with an easy conscience, and sing with the birds. I've composed a lot of songs to sing.

My shelter is a tarpaulin sheet and some sacking suspended on a wire between two trees, and I sleep on a bed of rags. I cook in the open and have a charcoal fire in an old bucket. An old battered frying pan and a tea kettle suffice. I keep my food and other necessaries in bottles and jars. It can be difficult in wet summers but I am very fit. I tend a small plot in the forest in which I grow potatoes, cabbage and French beans. I have repaired the hedges and ditches to prevent the straying of cattle and not even received a farthing for it. Although I am of short stature with unkempt iron grey hair and beard, with corduroy trousers, a waistcoat and jacket people say that even if my age is beyond the Psalmists allotted life span I appear hale and hearty.
I became a doctor at the census. My diploma was duly accepted by the British Government. It was entered up on the census form for me, 'William Bell, so on and so on, profession: quack doctor.' They say I'm very clever, too. I cure lumbago, sciatica, and indigestion with ease. My elder-flower ointment is good for leg ulcers. I sell my herbal cures to herbalists in London, having first tried them on myself.
Did I ever tell you what I said to the Magistrate at Stratford when I was charged with keeping my two dogs Jack and Snyder without a licence? I presented the Chairman, Mr Tabrum with a pictorial postcard on which I was represented as Dr Bell in the forest. Mr Tabrum said I was a very nice looking man according to the picture. He asked what I was a doctor of - laws or languages. I said I am Dr Bell and a bit of a doctor of Divinity as well. People laughed throughout the proceedings. I continued in verse -


"I have been squatter at Hainault Forest for many years;
'Tis well known my work was there more'r less every day,
For fifteen years I never asked anyone for pay.
I kept hedges up in repair,
So's cattle couldn't get out as was a straying there.
I thought in my mind, sir, I was a very good forest keeper,
And keepers and shepherds, I've heard, can keep dogs without pay,
And I never let mine go astray."


I was fined 10 shillings which he trusted me to pay in after Christmas [1903]. Say I, "Yes, sir" Dr Bell always keeps his word." I spoke middlin' loud, so as to cause laughter in Court.

On the 16th May 1904 I was summoned to Romford County Court for alleged damage by digging in the forest and damage to trees. This was brought up by the London County Council who had recently taken over the forest and were trying to remove the gipsies. Judge Tindal Atkinson ordered me to pay 1 shilling costs and gave an injunction to me to remove from the forest in three weeks, to which I replied "Thank you, your Honour. I have not been an idle man."

I went out for a short while on 14th June 1904 and when I returned to my greenwood home I found that my little garden had been destroyed and my tent torn down. I got shelter in Chigwell Row for the night. I told a reporter of the Chronicle as I mournfully regarded the scene of my late abode that it's hard, after spending some twenty years in that one spot to have to leave. I was 73 last March. I have never felt myself to be a hermit and I am well known in the district and around and there is a friendly feeling for me despite my idiosyncrasies. I am at a loss to know what to do. If I went into the Union I would die straightaway. I am determined to spend my days in the forest if I cannot spend my nights there."

Dr William Bell tends his plot in the forest. His beans are growing on the left of the picture.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Left: The Hermit of Hainault Forest

Who has lived in complete seclusion for more than 20 years.

From The Tatler No 57. July 20th 1902

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                Below:   Dido's Oak, Sheepwater.  Photo Peter Comber

                 Compiled from newspaper reports:

 

Western Times December 23 1903

Worcester Chronicle December 26 1903

Portsmouth Evening News May 17 1904

Essex County Chronicle May 20 1904

Essex Newsman May 21 1904

Western Times May 24 1904

Chelmsford Chronicle June 17 1904

Edinburgh Evening News June 17 1904

Lemington Spa Courier June 17 1904

Essex Newsman June 18 1904

 

"I've blackberried here for 62 years and never missed a season. I have walked to London many times to sell my produce."