I am indebted to Michael Stead of Bournemouth Library for this entertaining portrait of a unique local character.
The ‘How to build a golf course’ check list:
- Find a large open space and make sure the cottagers of Throop can no longer graze their goats or cut turves out of the ground to fuel their winter fires. Tick (Poors Common, now Queens Park).
- Bring in a golf professional to advise on the design of a course. Tick (golf Champion J. H. Taylor: thank you http://www.qpips.org.uk/history/history.pdf. I think we can forgive the Queens Park author the oft repeated myth – we’ve all done it – of Bertie, Prince of Wales visiting Lily Langtry in Bournemouth. The PoW didn’t, and in any case it was Emily Caroline Langton Massingberd that he never visited).
- Make sure no one breaks the rules governing the land by building a whopping great road across it. Whoops! (Well Wessex Way hardly counts does it? Or Queens Park Avenue, or Queens Park We- look, there’s nothing to see here, move along please. And who’s ever heard of the Bournemouth Corporation Act 1904 anyway?)
- Get rid of the snakes. Tick. Wait . . . the what????
Yes, in 1900, the heathland south of Strouden was covered in adders and they were a sufficient problem that many gateposts had a small hollow where snake oil was kept to treat wounds. In the absence of a Saint Patrick to help with step four, the most obvious solution to ensure Queens Park golfers wouldn’t suffer a nasty nip in the rough was to call in Harry ‘Brusher’ Mills, the renowned New Forest snake-catcher.
When Bournemouth Council sought the aid of Brusher, he was famous for clearing snakes, with a tally of several thousand vipers caught. His main tool was a forked stick. Recalling his employment in 1972, the Bournemouth Echo reported ‘He did the job effectively, working weeks in difficult conditions for parts of the area were a swampy morass’. The Echo said he ‘although bitten many times, went on to live to a ripe old age’. He was 65 when he died. You know, the older I get, the farther ahead ‘old’ seems.
On 19th June 1943, the Echo published a painting of Brusher Mills, which had spent 30 years at the Knyveton Road home of Mr Kerrison Preston. The painting was the work of Bournemouth artist Frank Richards.
For 20 years, claimed the Echo, Brusher lived in a hut he had made for himself, far into the forest at Lyndhurst. Some accounts have it that he retreated to the hut following a family row, in 1885. Writing in ‘Hampshire’ magazine in September 1961, Cerita Stanley-Little (née Brown) said that the hut was about a quarter of a mile from the high road between Lyndhurst and Brockenhurst, near Queen’s Bower; it was ‘a cone shaped charcoal burner’s hut furnished with a bed of dry bracken, biscuit tins of fire wood and empty jam jars . . . although poor, he earned enough to rent himself a cottage had he wished. But even when growing old he preferred his lonely independent life in his rough quarters, in the silent forest’.
George Perry, writing about Brusher for the Sunday Times in August 1976, managed to track down (in the possession of Mr A. W. Coysh, of Hurstbourne Tarrant, Hampshire) a picture taken by Lyndhurst photographer ‘Harvey’, in the 1880s, which showed a more sophisticated version of the hut, clad in pads of turf. All the classic elements of Brusher’s attire are there, the gaiters just under his knees, to prevent unwanted incursion by snakes, the tongs hanging from his waistcoat, the stick used to hold down the snakes. And, in his right hand, one of his snakes.
Cerita Stanley-Little observed ‘His strange way of life appeared to suit him, for he always expressed himself content with his lot’. Speaking in 1903 he said ‘I can’t get about as I did. I took influenza 13 years ago and it made me weak. Still I can’t complain. I’m 63 and only bad weather takes me in the chest’.
The Echo described him as short, stocky, bent by old age, with bushy eyebrows, wrinkled mahogany skin, and a thick white beard. He wore several waistcoats, a ratcatcher coat and a battered hat, all suitable forest camouflage. Cerita Stanley-Little said Brusher was ‘an upright figure of a man, old with a grey forked beard and bright keen eyes. He always wore a shovel hat, gaiters and two coats, over two waistcoats. He was hung about with tins for the reception of his snakes and across his waistcoats was slung a pair of scissors bent at the top to pick them up with’ (Echo writer T. P. Hattersley describes these more as angled steriliser forceps). Brusher was said to be a clean man, despite his rough exterior, with great self-respect. He was said to regularly visit a Lyndhurst relation for baths and a change of clothing.
He caught over 5,000 snakes. Most were sent to the London Zoological Gardens (‘where they formed the sole diet of certain fastidious larger snakes’) some specimens went for laboratory research. Cerita Stanley-Little said Brusher claimed to have caught 4,086 adders and 29,396 other snakes, over 21 years. That sounds a lot, but it is just over 4 snakes a day. Some of his snakes were sold for their skins. Brusher’s primary patron was Lord Londesborough, tenant of Northerwood House, Lyndhurst, who paid a shilling for every live ringed snake or adder. Whilst Londesborough presented some snake specimens to the London zoos, it was unlikely that he had benign intentions toward the remainder, for he retreated to Northerwood to train his falcons.
The most widely accepted explanation for ‘Brusher’ Mills’ nickname, credited to Mr R. C. De Crespigny ‘who is one of the first authorities on all matters pertaining to the Forest’ was that in his youth Brusher would enthusiastically sweep the cricket pitch at Bolton’s Bench. Writing for the Echo in July 1973, T. P. Hattersley delicately explained that the cricket pitch ‘suffered from the perambulations of the New Forest ponies’: hence the need for them to be swept clean from time to time, and Harry Mills earned the fond nickname ‘Brusher’ from the locals, in appreciation of his efforts.
‘He was the son of a forester, and the Forest was in his blood’. T. P. Hattersley reported that Brusher was a witness to a debated element of forest lore, saying that he had witnessed on many occasions in July and August, that adders certainly did swallow their young to protect them in times of danger. Doubting the veracity of this phenomenon, the ‘Field’ newspaper (somewhat cruelly) offered a reward of £5 to the first person who could send them an adder with its young sheltering inside.
There was a popular postcard of Brusher ‘decked with tins, carrying a forked stick and scowling at some children’.
He never took to poaching to support his squatter lifestyle in the forest. Cerita Stanley-Little wrote that Brusher ‘would never touch the game of the forest, not even an egg or a bough’ Brusher did carry a green bough in one hand to keep off the flies. And also perhaps to offset the inevitable aroma of one who dwelt free of the usual lavatorial arrangements.
On 19th June 1972, The Echo described Brusher as a self-made legend, hermit and enigma. He used to be seen at Lyndhurst carrying a tin of writhing snakes. He was supposed to have a great knowledge of reptiles, but seldom spoke to people. The following day (20th June) the BBC’s ‘Country Calendar’ told a different story, that Brusher was often found with his snakes near a forest hotel, and in return for the payment of a 2d tot of rum, he would tell stories of his forest adventures. In this way it is calculated that he drank a bottle of rum a day. Cerita Stanley-Little said in 1961 that Brusher was kindly and talkative ‘though it was hard to understand his speech as he had a cleft palate’.
Writer Brian Vesey-Fitzgerald reported seeing Brusher at the Crown and Stirrup, and he was reputed to visit various inns. T. P. Hattersley states that on one occasion, finding his favourite inn so crowded with day trippers that he couldn’t reach the bar ‘he threw a couple of snakes on to the floor and the room cleared in a very short time’. Brusher was said to use similar tactics when charabancs of visitors arrived: he would mingle with the party, drop a harmless snake and when the shrieks started he would step forward, capture the snake and pass his hat round to take a collection from the grateful company.
According to the Echo, Brusher invented an ointment made from adders which served as a ‘vaccine’ for snake bites. T. P. Hattersley wrote that when Brusher sold the skins of certain snakes, he would boil the skinned snakes to render their fat, from which he would concoct his ointment. Cerita Stanley-Little informed her readers that Brusher’s cure for a snake bite was to cut out the area of the bite with a penknife, let the wound bleed freely for a while and then rub it with an ointment compounded from adders’ fat. If you didn’t fancy that, another common remedy was to take a dose of ammonia or hartshorn, before rubbing the bite with oil. Hattersley claimed that Brusher’s ointment was ‘sought after on the Continent where it was reputed to be particularly effective in relieving rheumatic pains’.
The Echo and BBC stories about Brusher Mills prompted Mrs Annie Cherrett, of Columbia Cottages, Ensbury Park, to contact the Echo and tell that she had once lived in a lodge on an estate near Brusher’s hut, which was hidden under a holly tree. She said that despite an unfriendly reputation, Brusher was a good neighbour and was kind to children, making friends with her three year old daughter Louie. Brusher, she testified, treasured a memory of being visited by King Edward VII, who invited him to lunch.
Cerita Stanley-Little related that officials pulled down his hut and forced him into more conventional accommodation where he could be cared for, but he ‘hated this new way of life and died soon afterwards . . . in the open air he loved so well, beneath the summer trees’. This last fond farewell was such an egregious misrepresentation, that it moved John P. Garrad, of Park Lane, Fareham, to write to Hampshire magazine, offering an account of Brusher Mills’ demise, taken from the ‘Hampshire Telegraph and Post’ of 1905, which reported on the inquest into Brusher’s death. There it was written that when the Crown authorities burnt down his hut, Brusher moved into another on the New Park estate, with the permission of the owner Mr Webley, of ‘Webley & Scott’ the revolver firm. Opinion was divided as to whether his hut was burnt down to facilitate his removal to healthier lodgings, or to prevent him from establishing squatters’ rights over the site of his hut.
Rather than poetically dying beneath the summer trees, Brusher had a heart attack on the privy at the back of the Railway Inn, Brockenhurst. He had gone there for a meal of beer, bread, cheese and pickles. Brusher finished his meal, went out the back and didn’t reappear; the landlord going to look for him twenty minutes later, found him dead. At the inquest a doctor related that he had seen Brusher Mills about his heart some months earlier.
As the result of a public subscription, an impressive monument was erected to mark his grave at Brockenhurst’s Saint Nicholas’ Church.
Some of Brusher’s equipment was put on display at the Railway Inn for a while after his death. His forceps were left to a forester Benny Bessant, who continued Brusher’s snake catching, the work being taken over in turn by his son Douglas Bessant, who supplied snakes to all parts of the world. When Douglas emigrated to South Africa, no one took over the New Forest snake catching work.
Brusher came from a large family. His parents were agricultural labourer Thomas Mills (1800-1871) and Ann Stote (1802-1878) who married at Lyndhurst in 1833. Brusher’s siblings were Emma, 1826; Fanny, 1830; Maria, 1832; Ann, 1834; Sarah, 1837, Lucy 1842 and (Joseph) George, 1847.
In 1866, a Henry Mills was acquitted at the Midsummer Quarter Sessions held at Winchester, of uttering counterfeit coin. If this were he, his trial can’t have been the proudest moment for his parents: his father Thomas Mills had improved his lot to become a gardener, living on the Street at Lyndhurst, but the family already had the stigma of one illegitimate grandchild, Edward Mills. By 1871, Thomas had slipped back to being a general labourer and his wife Ann was taking in laundry to add to the family income.
By 1881, with both his parents dead, Henry was lodging with Fanny and Maria Whiteham, at Clay Hill, Lyndhurst.
In 1886, a Henry Mills was convicted of larceny (theft) at the Michaelmas Quarter Sessions at Winchester; with a note that he had a previous conviction for felony, he was sentenced to 6 months’ imprisonment. There is not sufficient information to establish beyond doubt that the imprisoned Henry Mills is the same as our Brusher Mills. What can be said is that before this date he can be found in the records as Henry Mills, the unremarkable Lyndhurst labourer; afterwards as Harry ‘Brusher’ Mills, the New Forest snake catcher.
It was around 1886, that he went off into the woods to live alone in his hut. Later stories of Brusher said that his independent spirit sometimes got him into trouble before he ‘mellowed’. Cerita Stanley-Little suggested that Brusher was ‘difficult in his youth’ and would not talk about whatever troubled events led to his hermit lifestyle, beyond remarking ‘I was born a gardener’. Brusher was said to be antipathetic only toward gipsies for ‘their thieving propensities’. Perhaps he felt he had some reason to blame a gipsy for encouraging his criminal behaviour? It is a calumny often repeated by settled folk against the Romany people.
If we are looking for any single incident to explain the dramatic change in his lifestyle, the shame to a generally honest man, of becoming a convicted criminal, seems quite sufficient. Add to this the harsh economic circumstances of those too poor when the hard times hit, to sell stocks, or raise rents on their tenants, so that their frequent recourse is crime. This, compounded with the misfortune to get caught, makes it reasonable to suppose that the imprisoned Henry, is our Brusher Mills. What made him remarkable was the decision and wherewithal to reinvent himself from a run-of-the-mill labourer, to the most famous and unique New Forest character of his time.
Having been counted in every census since his birth, Henry/Harry/Brusher disappears for the 1891 census – presumably living too deep and too obscurely in the Forest to be found. However by 1901, he was sufficiently celebrated that Lyndhurst enumerator George Charles White sought him out at his hut at Withy Wood, Lyndhurst, to record his details. Harry informed Mr White that he was a single man aged 61, and that his occupation was ‘New Forest Snake Catcher’. He gave his birthplace as Emery Down, Lyndhurst. It was said that he was a tolerably genial old soul in his veteran years.
Brusher’s younger brother George had several children, with his wife Elizabeth Drodge; one of whom Marie Adelaide Mills – Brusher’s niece – married Joseph Jones, who worked as a Crown labourer for the Woods and Forest Department. Marie and Joseph settled at Elsham Cottage, Queen’s Road, Lyndhurst and had six children. One of their daughters Sylvia Nancy Jones, married Arthur J. Puckett, and lived at Gardener’s Cottage, Rushington Lane, Totton. In 1964, Sylvia composed a ballad about her great uncle, Brusher. In 1978, having moved to Exeter, Devon, Sylvia found a local folk singer to record the song; but its release didn’t trouble John Travolta and Olivia Newton John at the top of the pop charts. A copy of ‘The Ballad of Brusher Mills’ is listed amongst the holdings of the New Forest Heritage Centre.
In an earlier age, Brusher might have accrued myths, and shed facts, to fade into legend. As a son of the 19th Century, there are sufficient reliable records of his life that he remains a genuine New Forest character, with a meaningful Bournemouth connection.