James Hirst, known as “Jemmy" was born in 1738 to a farming family at Rawcliffe, near Goole in Yorkshire.
Although his parents had hopes of the priesthood, expulsion from the grammar school in Pontefract for his pranks, brought an untimely end to Jemmy’s education. An early fascination with animals saw him keeping a pet jackdaw and training a hedgehog to follow him around.
Apprenticed to a tanner, James fell for his master’s daughter and they became engaged. When he rescued her from a flooded river, she contracted smallpox, from which she died. He took to his bed, suffering from "brain fever".
On recovery, he returned to his father’s farm and there he trained a bull called Jupiter in order that he might ride it like a horse. Jupiter would also haul Jemmy’s home made carriage, an affair of wicker with oversized wheels resembling an upturned lampshade. A homemade device was attached which would ring a bell after each mile travelled. When Jupiter found the going hard, a sail was fitted to the conveyance. This had an embarrassing outcome when it crashed into a shop window in nearby Pontefract. He was thereafter banned from the town. Jupiter was still a favourite mount and was ridden in the local hunt, not accompanied by hounds but by pigs!
On the death of his father, he inherited about £800 which enabled him to buy a premises for a corn and produce dealership. The business prospered and Jemmy was able to retire in his mid-forties.
Hirst’s attire was nothing if not eccentric, He wore a red coat with blue sleeves and harlequin breeches. The waistcoat was of duck feathers and his head was protected by a lambskin hat of a nine foot circumference. On a Sunday he would summon the elderly and the poor to tea, served from his favourite coffin. This was equipped with glass doors and a bell to call for help.
Jemmy was something of an inventor. Besides his carriage, he built a threshing machine and a flying machine. He issued banknotes which he had engraved and printed in Hull. These had a face value of £5 but were worth only two or three pence. Some still exist, preserved in the village.
James Hirst eventually married his housekeeper. For the ceremony which was conducted in sign language, he wore a toga.
Jemmy’s fame reached London and intrigued King George III
who invited him to visit. He responded with an apology; he was busy training
otters to fish but would come later. He travelled in his carriage wearing his
outlandish costume and was feted in the Capital for a week. He found the
Monarch “a plain looking fellow” and issued him with an invitation to
visit Rawcliffe to enjoy a good brandy.
The King declined but did present some bottles from the palace wine cellar.
Hirst died in 1829, aged 91. Eccentric to the last, his will provided £12 for twelve old maids to follow his cortege accompanied by a fiddler and a piper. His lawyer, John Bingley was left a rope to hang himself ! "I give to John Bingley attorney at law now at Rawcliffe, a small rope which we call a falce line such like things are used with unfortunate people at the gallows at York and other places, when he likes to call for it, his roguish and rascally villainous and scandalous deceiving behaviour to me for carrying on a lawsuit against my mind and orders which cost me two hundred and fifty pounds he said it should cost me nothing he would do it at his own expense. I hope this will be a caution to some others to keep away from the above place of torment. I also wish and desire a copy of this to be put up in some public place on Rawcliffe Feast Monday in August every year as long as the said John Bingley shall live. I promised I would leave him something on my death and I always had a great liking to be as good as my word."