English sportsman and eccentric
Born 1796 Died 1834

Sir John Mytton, also known as the Squire Mytton or as 'Mad Jack' Mytton, "was one of the most heroic sportsmen that ever lived"1 who devoted his life to hunting, gambling, racing and imbibing prodigious quantities of alcohol on a regular basis.

Born on the 30th September 1796, his father died when he was two, leaving John his property at Halston Hall in Shropshire and a considerable extent of land. Quite possibly it was the lack of any paternal guidance coupled with the prospect of inherited wealth that caused John to turn out as he did. His education was somewhat patchy; he spent a year at Westminster School but was expelled for fighting the masters; he was then sent to Harrow School where he lasted only three days. Forced to be educated privately he tormented his tutors with a series of practical jokes, one of whom was once forced to share his bedroom with a horse that the young John had coaxed upstairs.

Granted a place at the University of Cambridge (Mytton ordered 2,000 bottles of port to sustain him throughout his studies) he thought better of it and proceeded on a Grand Tour of Europe instead, before joining the 7th Hussars. A year spent drinking and gambling in the army seemed sufficient to the young John who then decided to retire to his estates and live the life of a country squire. Shortly afterwards at the age of twenty-one he came into possession of his inheritance of £60,000 and estates worth £18,000 a year, which he proceeded to spend at a quite unsustainable rate.

He briefly contemplated a career in politics and in 1819 spent some £10,000 getting himself elected as the member of parliament for Shrewsbury by the simple expedient of handing out £10 notes to the voters2. But having travelled to Westminster to attend Parliament he found the debate of little interest and left never to return again. Having abandoned any notions of a public career thereafter he devoted himself to a life of pleasure as understood by the Squire Mytton.

"There goes Squire Mytton!"3

The nineteenth century equivalent of a boy racer, John Mytton's life has been described as simply "a series of suicide attempts"4, such was the reckless disregard he displayed for his own life and well being. Although it is worth remembering that since 'Mad Jack' was in the habit of drinking eight bottles of, initially port and later brandy, each and every a day, he was most likely in a permanent state of intoxication, which may well have had a bearing on his behaviour.

He was fond of riding his horse at the most dangerous obstacle he could find and once galloped full speed over a rabbit warren just to see what would happen. What happened was that his horse fell and threw him to the ground. Both horse and rider survived the experience but it illustrated John's attitude towards danger, as it was said of him that "not only did he not mind accidents, he positively liked them". Indeed, nothing delighted him more than to race around the country lanes of Shropshire in his four horsed gig at break neck speed, tearing across crossroads or around corners without regard to anyone's safety, most particularly his own. He once tried to jump a tollbooth in such a gig, thus establishing to his satisfaction that whilst the horses could reach the other side, the carriage was inevitably left stranded where on the side where he had begun.

The most famous anecdote regarding the squire's driving habits was the incident when he was driving with a companion and asked him if he'd ever been badly hurt after being upset in a gig. "No thank God, for I was never upset in one", was his passenger's response. This apparently shocked Mytton to the core; "What, never upset in a gig? What a damned slow fellow you must have been all your life!" and promptly crashed the gig thus rectifying the omission in his acquaintance's experience. Fortunately neither Mytton nor his passenger were seriously hurt but doubtless the latter decided to walk in future.

A keen huntsman who had kept his own pack of hounds since the age of ten, Mytton was clearly fond of animals as he kept sixty cats and two thousand dogs at Halston Hall together with a stable of horses. The horses not only provided the raw material for his suicidal jaunts around the county but also supported his other great passion for horse racing. For a number of years he was regularly to be found at race meetings up and down the country, where he raced and bet on his horses with great enthusiasm. The most notable of his racing stable was probably the colt Euphrates' who won him the Gold Cup at Lichfield in 18256, but his favourite horse was probably 'Baronet', who was allowed to join him indoors at Halston Hall where they would lounge in front of the fire together. Unfortunately the squire's tendency to treat horses as his boon companions ended in tragedy when one named 'Sportsman' died after being fed a bowl of mulled port. He also kept a large brown bear named 'Nell', which on occasion he would ride for the entertainment and edification of his guests. To the credit of 'Mad Jack' when the bear took exception to this treatment and bit him on the calf, he took it all in his stride and refused to blame the bear whom, he argued, was simply acting in accordance with it's natural instincts.

Unfortunately not only did John Mytton suffer from a complete disregard his own safety but he also had an equal disregard for money. His acquaintances were later to recount how they would come across handfuls of bank notes scattered across his estates where they had fallen from the pockets of the distracted squire during his travels. There was also the notable occasion when he was returning from Doncaster Races and fell asleep in his carriage; several thousand pounds (which he had been in the process of counting) was blown out by the wind and scattered across the country. Such losses did not appear to unduly discomfort the squire who continued to spend freely on the upkeep of his foxhounds and horses, on keeping his cellars well stocked, entertaining his friends and generally enjoying himself. Unfortunately in the seventeen years following his coming of age he spent something in the order of £500,000, thereby dissipating his inheritance and incurring debts far beyond his capacity to ever pay.

Eventually the pressure from his creditors became such that in 1832 (after a brief spell in the King's Bench Prison) he was forced to abandon his estates and flee to Calais. It was whilst he was a resident in France there occurred the famous incident of the Nightshirt and the Hiccup. Plagued one day by a bout of hiccups and convinced of the belief that these could be cured by means of frightening the sufferer, he seized hold of a lighted candle and set fire to his own nightshirt. Where it not for the intervention of his friends, who leaped upon him and eventually doused the flames, this might well have been the end of Squire Mytton. As it was he was merely badly burnt, not that these injuries appeared to have had any effect on his composure as he simply announced that "The hiccup is gone, by God" and went to bed.

Given his overindulgence in alcohol and erratic lifestyle, it is not perhaps surprising that Mytton had something of a chequered marital career. He married his first wife in 1818 but she died less than two years later in 1820, whilst his second wife, a Caroline Giffard, left him in 1830. In 1832 he met an attractive women on Westminster Bridge and offered her £500 a year to become his companion. Her name was Susan, and the two were said to have spent two happy years together at Calais before ill health forced his return to England in 1834. Once he was back in London his creditors soon had him arrested and made areturn visit to the King's Bench Prison. There he soon died "worn out by too much foolishness, too much wretchedness, and too much brandy" according to one account, although others focus on the last of these three and blandly state that he died of alcoholic poisoning

.

He left a daughter named Barbara Augusta Norah Mytton who, on the 15th April 1847, married Colonel Poulett George Henry Somerset, the son of Lord Charles Henry Somerset (a younger brother of the 6th Duke of Beaufort).


We know a considerable amount regarding the life of John Mytton as his friend and neighbour Charles James Apperley, a fellow hunting devotee and sporting journalist who wrote under the pen name of 'Nimrod', composed an account of his life under the title;

Memoirs of the Life of the Late John Mytton, Esq., of Halson, Shropshire, formerly M.P. for Shrewsbury, High Sheriff for the Counties of Salop and Merioneth, and Major of the North Shropshire Yeomanry Cavalry; with Notices of his Hunting, Shooting, Driving

Published in 1837 this largely reprinted a series of articles that Apperley had written regarding his friend's exploits in The New Sporting Magazine. Copies of the early editions of this work sell for between $2,000 and $3,000.


NOTES

1 According to The Cambridge History of English and American Literature.
2 At the time, a fairly common way of ensuring that the electoral process reached the desired result.
3 "As the country people would say" according to Edith Sitwell. 4 According to Jeffrey Thomas.
5See Edith Sitwell.
6 When John Mytton's debts forced him to dispose of his property the one thing that he refused to sell was 'Euphrates', whom he entrusted to a friend, with the request that the horse should be shot rather than suffer the indignity of being "put to the drudgery of drawing a coach, or any other ignoble purpose". 'Euphrates' was duly shot in June 1832.


SOURCES

  • Edith Sitwell, English Eccentrics (Folio 1994) based on the revised and enlarged edition of 1958
  • William Donaldson, Brewer's Rogues, Villains and Eccentrics (Phoenix, 2004)
  • The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two. VI. Caricature and the Literature of Sport. § 15. “Nimrod”. See catterall.net/CHEL/XIV/0615.html
  • See also descriptions of the Memoirs of the Life of the Late John Myttonat
    http://www.jeffreythomas.com/cgi-bin/jthomas/6513.html
    http://www.polybiblio.com/jrwindle/426.html
  • Information on 'Euphrates' derived from http://www.bwpics.co.uk/gallery/oldcanal.html
  • Information on Barbara Augusta Norah Mytton derived from the genealogical survey of the peerage of Britain at www.thepeerage.com

The National Portrait Gallery lists a number of depictions of the Squire Mytton see http://www.npg.org.uk/live/search/person.asp?LinkID=mp53741

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