William Robert Hicks, Mayor (1865). Artist unknown
Born in 1808 in Bodmin, William Robert Hicks was a musician and wit, famed for his stories written in the Cornish and Devonian dialects, he was once described as ‘the most amusing person to be found in the West of England’. But his fame spread throughout the country; he was also regarded as the best storyteller of his day and was a regular guest in London society. He was also on ‘intimate terms’ with men and women of ‘humbler classes’ which may help explain why this convivial socialite took the appointment of Governor of St. Lawrence’s Asylum in 1840, where he remained for twenty years, instigating many reforms in the treatment of the patients.
There is little doubt that when Hicks took over as governor, the treatment of those in the asylum was in need of improvement. Local writer Sabine Baring-Gould described Hicks’ disgust at the existing regime at St. Lawrence’s, claiming he “found the old barbarous system of treatment of the insane in full swing”. By contrast, Hicks took a more compassionate view: “He at once adopted gentle methods and in a short while radically changed the entire mode of treatment, with markedly good results”. Baring-Gould relates a story of the success of these newly employed methods: “One poor fellow, whom he found chained in a dark cell on a bed of straw as a dangerous lunatic, he nearly cured by kindly treatment. As the fellow showed indications of great shrewdness and wit, Hicks released him and made much of him”. The man in question is probably ‘Daniel’, who, through Hicks’ narratives, would become something of a celebrity.
Hicks pictured in The Tales and Sayings of William Robert Hicks of Bodmin.
Daniel appears repeatedly in the book by Hicks’ friend W. F. Collier, The Tales and Sayings of William Robert Hicks of Bodmin:
‘One of the great characters in the asylum (many great characters were there in Hicks’s time, as you may suppose), whom I will call Daniel, on the principle that no real names shall be used, he found on a bed of straw, chained, in a dark cell, and treated as a dangerous lunatic. He discovered that this person was a very clever man, though possessed with some mischievous delusions, a great wit, and a philosopher in his way. Hicks released him; found him safe; employed him in the asylum to take care of the pigs, and do other useful work; and made so much of him and his sayings that he became a well-known personage in the county’.
In his later years, ‘Daniel’ was even considered safe enough to be sent home to his friends, but continued to be the subject of monologues by Hicks and such became his notoriety that some of Daniel’s sayings ended up being published in Punch magazine.
As a friend and guest of Hicks in the asylum, Collier offers us an interesting insight into his methods of reform, noting that ‘When Hicks first took charge of the asylum he gave a supper to those of the inmates whom he considered safe’. He even went to far as to undergo a treatment then practiced on patients himself to gauge just how cruel it was: ‘One of the methods for quieting a refractory patient, I believe still in vogue, is a douche bath applied to the head; and as Hicks thought it a very severe remedy, he tried it on himself that he might know what it really was. He told me it was very severe’.
On December 31 1860, after 20 years of service and sweeping changes, Hicks resigned his connection with the lunatic asylum, retiring on a full pension.
In 1865, he became mayor of his home town of Bodmin and revived the ancient tradition of Beating the Bounds, a custom in which the locals walk the parish boundaries of the town. Although not a uniquely Cornish tradition, Hicks gave it a distinctly Cornish twist by concluding the ceremony with a game of Hurling. It is a tradition that still survives to this day and is performed every 5 years or so.
In 2010, when the ceremony was most recently performed, local resident Vic Legg explained its historic roots: “The beat the bounds event was important in the 19th century because it was important for people to know where the boundary stones were, because if anyone moved outside the borough of Bodmin and they fell ill, they were not entitled to receive relief’.’ This question of community care was one that was obviously of importance to Hicks.
The ceremony was revived in several Cornish towns, this painting is of the event in Penzance:
1853 “Beating the Borough Bounds” at Alverton Penzance – oil painting by J T Blight.
Hicks died in 1868 and is buried, fittingly, in the town that was his home and employment for so much of his life, his contribution to Bodmin commemorated in a stained glass portrait in the local church.
W. F. Collier, The Tales and Sayings of William Robert Hicks of Bodmin
Joseph Pollard, Truro, 1903