In the seventeenth century, the Protestants of France—including the Huguenots—suffered persecution from both church and state, and many fled to seek refuge in the nations of Europe that had rejected Catholicism. Amongst them was a family named Labilliere: two brothers, Pierre and Paul, are thought to have come to England in 1688 as part of the Glorious Revolution that brought William of Orange to the throne. The brothers ultimately settled in Ireland, and Pierre went to his reward in Dublin in 1746. There he earlier had had a son, also called Pierre (later Peter), born 30 May 1725. This son was to become the Walking Dunghill.
But before he achieved notoriety in Darking Hundred for his eccentricities and his filth, Peter Labilliere led a rather surprising life. When he was nineteen years of age he entered the army, his commission being signed by the Third Duke of Devonshire, who then served as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. Over the next fifteen years Labilliere rose to the rank of Major in the 92nd Foot, though he may never have had the opportunity to prove his mettle on the field of battle. When the 92nd Foot was disbanded in 1763, he retired from military life.
About 1760, as told by tradition, he fell in love, but his suit did not prosper; this—or some other event unrecorded—appears to have been a source of trauma that changed the course of his life. Later he often referred to himself as a Prodigal, apparently in reference to this transformative event, whatever it may have been. For some years thereafter his time was divided between Dublin and London, where by the end of the decade he settled. Also during the 1760s he was granted an annual pension of £100 by the fifth Duke of Devonshire, the grandson of the duke who had signed his first commission. He retained a connection to the Duke’s Cavendish family for the remainder of his days, being invited to stay at one of the family’s seats for a month every summer.
In London he became much preoccupied with religious and political ideas, favouring the radical end of the political spectrum. He was deeply affected by the massacre at St George’s Fields that took place on 10 May 1768, later alluding to ‘the Zeal I have shewn in Defence of [God’s] Moral Government, since the 10th of May 1768’ (Christian Political Bee-Hive, 1794). As readers are doubtless aware, this is a reference to that unfortunate contretemps wherein supporters of radical politician John Wilkes gathered in St George’s Field outside the King’s Bench Prison, where Wilkes was being held, agitating for his release. The Riot Act was read but they did not disperse, instead throwing rocks at a detachment of Horse Grenadier Guards present at the scene. The Guardsmen in turn opened fire on the crowd, killing a number of people and wounding others. Major Labilliere appears to have deeply reprobated the spectacle of British soldiers opening fire on their fellow citizens.
Throughout the 1770s and 1780s Major Labilliere was a significant figure in the revolutionary politics of the metropolis. He is often mentioned in association with Wilkes, Stephen Sayre, Patience Wright, Edmund Burke, and others, and he was a known participant in radical organisations such as the Friends of Freedom. Many of his activities focused on opposition to waging war against the American colonies; he wrote and distributed pamphlets exhorting soldiers to refuse to take up arms against the colonists. He was even embroiled in a plot to seize King George III on 26 October 1775—he stood accused of doling out ‘£1,500 in bribes to neutralize the troops’ protecting the King (Lander, Peter Labilliere, 2000, p. 24). It was only thanks to conflicting testimony from two witnesses that the co-conspirators escaped punishment.
Major Labilliere persisted in the furtherance of his political aims throughout the 1780s, whilst his political writings took on ever more religious overtones. His words are known from two collections of miscellanea he published during this period, Letters to the Majesty of the People (1784) and To the Majesty of the People: The Christian Political Mouse-Trap, or The World Reformed, by Order, Truth, and Good-Humour (1789). Through these works a picture emerges of his political spirituality, or spiritual politics—the subject of Part the Second in this series.
It was about the time of The Christian Political Mouse-Trap that Major Labilliere departed London and retired to Darking. Here he rented quarters in a cottage known as the Hole in the Wall in the southwestern part of the town, on Butter Hill not far from the workhouse. He lived with his landlady, Mrs Watford, and her five children. By this time he was already perceived by many who met him as eccentric or even slightly mad, though kindly and harmless notwithstanding. Despite his impoverished appearance he was never without funds to buy a coat or shoes for a needy stranger, and he gave pennies to children who recited the Lord’s Prayer. He derived pleasure from passing time in meditation on Box Hill, ‘especially on the threatened approach of a thunderstorm. It was on one of his visits to the hill that a serious disaster occurred to him, for, falling down among the underwood, one of his eyes was gouged out’ (Rose, Recollections of Old Dorking, p. 54).
He continued to write, though his words became more incoherent; the last of his publications to appear was The Christian Political Bee-Hive, in 1794. In 1799 he foretold his death to his landlady, and on the date he had specified for the event, he dutifully passed away. John Timbs, in A Picturesque Promenade round Dorking, in Surrey (1822), tells us that ‘By his own request, he was buried, without church-rites, on this beautiful eminence, with his head downwards’; the funeral itself is the subject of Part the Third of this post.
Major Labilliere was a unique figure in Darking Hundred. It is evident that he was a man of strong feelings, passionate about his countrymen and earnest in his desire to pursue a virtuous course through the world. In his single-minded focus on this goal, he was seen by more equivocal contemporaries as a lunatic, though many of the common folk around Darking believed him instead to be a prophet or a seer. I see him as something of a wise fool: he holds up a mirror to those of us who cross his path, and how we perceive him reveals much about who we are ourselves.
26 April 2019
Peter Labilliere, Christian Political Bee-Hive, Containing an Assemblage of First Principles, Manifestly Calculated to Promote Universal Amity and Good Government, and to secure Real and Permanent Felicity to Every Individual who hath any regard for Truth and Liberty or Pure Christianity (London, 1794).
———. To The Majesty of the People: The Christian-Political Mouse-Trap, or The World Reformed, by Order, Truth, and Good-Humour (London, 1789).
James Lander, Peter Labilliere: The Man Buried Upside Down on Box Hill (Chertsey, 2000).
Charles Rose, Recollections of Old Dorking, 1878, reprinted in Memories of Old Dorking, edited by Margaret Kohler (Dorking, 1977).
William Thorne, The Garden of Surrey or a sketch of Dorking, and of the beautiful country surrounding it (London, 1829).
John Timbs, A Picturesque Promenade round Dorking, in Surrey (London, 1822).