“Random encounters with the unusual” is a repository for the oddities that me and Mrs J have encountered on our travels, which we find interesting or amusing in some way. Have a look, maybe you will find something interesting or amusing herein.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

The New Forest Snake Catcher

St Nicholas’ churchyard in Brockenhurst, Hampshire, is home to an unusual white marble headstone. The headstone depicts an old bearded man in a wide-brimmed hat holding a handful of snakes, standing  outside what appears to be a crude hut in a forest. The inscription on the headstone reads:

This stone marks the grave of Harry Mills, (better known as “Brusher Mills”,) who for a long number of years followed the occupation of  Snake Catcher, in the New Forest. His pursuit and the primitive way in which he lived, caused him to be an object of interest to many.  He died suddenly July 1st 1905, aged 65 years.

This eccentric man was born on the 19th March 1840 and for the early part of his life he lived in the village of Emery Down near Lyndhurst in the New Forest, where he worked as a labourer. In his forties Mills decided to move and to take up living in an old charcoal burner’s hut in the New Forest, just to the north of Brokenhurst. Armed with just a sack and a forked stick, Mills struck out on a new occupation as a snake catcher. Mills offered his services to rid the grounds of local properties of snakes, and he also set about catching snakes in the forest. The snakes that he caught were often sold to London Zoo as fodder for their snake eating animals. Word gradually spread about Mills and his eccentric ways, and he began to become a tourist attraction. This new found fame gave Mills the opportunity to sell ointments made from snakes and snake skeletons to curious tourists to further supplement his income. Some estimates suggest that during Mills’ 18-year snake catching career that he caught an astounding 30,000 grass snakes and 4,000 adders - which is an average of about 5 snakes per day!

Having lived in a small hut in the forest for many years, it seems that Mills decided to improve his lifestyle and build himself a larger hut. Sadly however, this hut was vandalised before it was completed. This crime for which nobody was caught, was possibly committed to prevent Mills from claiming any kind of squatters’ rights on the land which he had made his home. Following the destruction of his hut, the heart broken Mills took up residency in one of the outbuildings of his regular haunt, the Railway Inn in Brokenhurst. The destruction of Mills’ hut seems to have had a significant impact upon the man, as he died suddenly and unexpectedly on the 1st July 1905, not long after its destruction.

In honour of this local eccentric, Brockenhurst’s Railway Inn is nowadays named The Snake Catcher.

Harry Mills' gravestone.

Mills outside his hut in the forest, holding some captured snakes.

Mill's favorite haunt, The Railway Inn, now known as The Snake Catcher.

The pub sign.


Update: 10th March 15 - A scan of a recently acquired postcard showing Harry Mills and some of his snakes.

Pictures: Hampshire (February 2015).

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