Forest Figures: Brusher Mills

On the ground floor of the New Forest Heritage Centre lies a rather ordinary pair of metal tongs which, at a first glance, I would have passed by with little thought. However, this simple tool tells a far from ordinary story. Despite having lived in the New Forest my whole life, I ashamedly had never heard of Brusher Mills, the person to whom these tongs belonged, and therefore did a little research into his life and his particularly unusual occupation.

Born as Henry (Harry) Mills in 1840, it seems ‘Brusher’ most likely acquired his nickname from brushing the cricket ground at what is now the Balmer Lawn Hotel. Although, it has also been suggested it was a result of his clearing the ice for skaters at Foxlease Lake – perhaps both are true! Interestingly, however, neither of these activities provide a clue as to Mills’ most famous skill; snake catching.

Brusher Mills lived what one may call an unusual lifestyle, living not far from Brockenhurst in an old charcoal burner’s hut fashioned from branches and earth. He led a simple life with few possessions, though was clearly also a regular sight amongst the community. In particular he was a frequent visitor of the Railway Inn in Brockenhurst, which is now aptly named ‘The Snakecatcher’.

The metal tongs formed part of the quintessential image of Mills, along with a pair of knee-high boots and a forked wooden pole, which can be seen in the many postcards and photographs of him found in the Christopher Tower Reference Library. After driving snakes out of the undergrowth using the wooden pole, the tongs or ‘scissors’ which hung around his neck were then used to pick up the snake and put it into a sack or container slung over his shoulder. In a period of just six years Mills had captured close to 2000 snakes, and over the course of his lifetime this number is estimated at 30,000-35,000. As someone who has only ever seen one snake during my walks in the New Forest, this number is unimaginable!

The snakes were sold to collectors, namely Lord Londesborough, who regularly stayed at Northerwood House in Lyndhurst to train his falcons in the grounds. Lord Londesborough then sold them on to the London Zoological gardens, most likely to feed other snakes and reptiles. In later years, it seems that Brusher’s spreading fame also provided the opportunity to profit from the many tourists visiting the area. He would be highlighted by guides during the many coach trips that passed through Lyndhurst, and would reportedly release snakes from the containers slung on his shoulders before subsequently recapturing the snakes with ease. His entertained viewers would often reward him with tips, and he would also perform similar tricks at fairs and fetes, much to the simultaneous fright and delight of his audience.

In addition to being well known locally and featuring in the local press on multiple occasions, Brusher become an object of national fascination, particularly after a snake-catching trip he went on with Major general A.W.Drayson. Drayson subsequently proceeded to write about the expedition in both a popular sporting Journal and in “Boy’s Own Paper”.

Sadly, however, it seems Brusher was not popular with all local people and, in 1905, Brusher’s forest home was vandalized and burned down. It is likely this was done by locals wishing to stop Mills claiming squatters rights on the land he had been living on. The stress and upset of this event is believed to have been a leading factor in his death which occurred just a few weeks after the incident. His grave can now be found in St. Nicholas’ Church in Brockenhurst; his headstone being easy to identify by it’s engraving depicting Mills stood by his forest home with a handful of snakes. The life of Brusher Mills continues to intrigue people today, and he is still remembered around the New Forest.

Sources:

O’Donald Mays, J. (1989). The New Forest Book: An Illustrated Anthology. Burley: New Forest Leaves, pp.38-42.

 

Vesey-Fitzgerald, B. (1966). Portrait of the New Forest. London: Robert Hale Ltd, pp.130-131.

 

Walford, M. (1979). Pollards, People and Ponies. Corsham: Short Publication, pp. 73-77.

 

http://research.hgt.org.uk/item/northerwood-house/

https://www.thesnakecatcher.co.uk/about

Forest Figures: Félicité Hardcastle

The New Forest has inspired many throughout history to research and write about its natural beauty and unique past. However, recently, whilst volunteering at the New Forest Heritage Centre, I was drawn in particular to the work of Félicité Hardcastle of Burley; a woman of a great many talents and interests. As well as being a pivotal member of the Burley village community, she was an archaeologist, historian, an amateur botanist. Born in 1901 in Oxfordshire, Miss Hardcastle moved to Burley in 1918 with her mother shortly after her father’s death. Despite being a newcomer to the New Forest, Félicité developed a deep love for the area and became a much admired figure in Burley and beyond.

 

Miss Hardcastle devoted much of her adult life to researching the history of Burley village, culminating in her book ‘Records of Burley: Aspects of a New Forest Village’ published in 1950 and subsequently extended and revised in 1987. The book provides detailed notes on every imaginable aspect of Burley, including its archaeology, schools, charities, trades, place names, and flora to name a few. She also includes a great number of photographs, newspaper clippings, and drawings of various buildings, people and events in the village. The book is both wonderfully broad in scope whilst providing a very personal insight into everyday life in Burley. A particular highlight for me is the description of one local man – Charles Dennett – who would sell lollipops to the local children occasionally seasoned with cayenne as a punishment to those who would eat sweets in church!

 

In addition to her knowledge of local history, Miss Hardcastle was also a wildlife enthusiast. She saw nature as crucial to understanding the history of a place and its people, writing in the preface to her book Records of Burley (1950): “…especially in a Forest village such as Burley people must be seen against the background of woods and fields, birds and beasts and even the very soil itself”. Félicité had her own ‘Nature Notes’ feature, in the monthly Burley Parish Magazine, in which she would write her own observations of the local landscape and its flora and fauna. Living in a cottage very close to Long Pond, many of her jottings were informed by the birds and animals that she would see and hear around the water. Her Nature Notes columns make for very pleasurable reading, and were a well appreciated feature of the local magazine.

 

All the research and knowledge that Félicité had of Burley’s history and wildlife she was keen to share with her community. Together with her book and publishings in the local magazine, Miss Hardcastle frequently gave lectures at the Avon Tyrell Youth Centre, introducing young people to the history and wildlife of the New Forest. She also came to take up many important roles within the village community including Parish Councillor and School Governor. She was also involved in the Scouting movement, acting as the local Cubmaster for almost 30 years which earned her the Scout Medal of Merit.

 

In December 1987, Félicité was awarded the British Empire Medal for her services to the community in Burley: a well deserved honour. She passed away the following year at the age of 85. The Christopher Tower Reference Library now has a collection of her notes, newspaper cuttings and correspondence which serve to highlight further the love and care Miss Hardcastle had for her village and her work. It is a real privilege and pleasure to be able to read an account of one New Forest village’s people, environment and culture in such detail, and the popularity and value of her work today is a real testament to her evident enthusiasm, optimism and dedication.

 

Sources:

Hardcastle, F. (1987). Records of Burley: Aspects of a New Forest Village. Spalding: Chameleon International.

O’Donald Mays, J. (1989). The New Forest Book: An Illustrated Anthology. Burley: New Forest Leaves, pp.46-49.

Sibley, P. & Fletcher, R. (1986). Discovering the New Forest. London: Robert Hale Ltd.

Whiteley, C. Miss Felicite Frances Hardcastle. Online: www.royhodges.co.uk/Miss Hardcastle of Burley.pdf