Who was the Old General?

Image of the Old General from The Every-Day Book, Volume II (1827)

From the Nottingham Review, 20 January 1843:

‘What person acquainted with Nottingham is there who cannot picture himself “Old General?” Who is there that has not known Benjamin Mayo, or as he was familiarly termed “Ben?” We use the past tense, for alas! the “Old General” has passed the Rubicon of life, and is numbered among the conquests of death.

That he was a singular man, none can deny; singular in his habits, singular in his appearance, and singular in all he had to accomplish or say. If we may use the term, he was the quintessence of singularity.

Benjamin Mayo, humble and idiotic as he appeared, was a character universally esteemed; esteemed, not on account of moral worth or the other qualifications which ensure the regard of others,- but through certain recollections treasured up in the breast from youth upwards. “Old General” was a “public character,”- and that in every sense of the word; the public and her were on the best terms of familiarity; he everywhere met with risibility of countenance. Few could resist the arch expression of his face, as he looked upwards to meet the customary friendly recognition.

Benjamin Mayo is believed to have been the proper name of the subject of this memoir. His other appellations were derived from having been the ringleader of the boys of the town, on Middleton Mondays especially, throughout his life.

The glory of “Ben” was always at its meridian on Middleton Monday. To the school boys in the town, it has invariably been almost a general holiday; and though “General” was great on all occasions, he was especially so then, for compared to him, the mayor, the coroner, and the municipal authorities, were subordinate officers in the estimation of the youthful tribes. Previous to the Middleton jury commencing the annual survey of the liberties of the town, away trotted “General,” with several hundreds of boys at his heels, to secure the sacred and inviolable right of a holiday. Two or three urchins, with shining, morning faces, led the way to their own schoolmaster’s, who, in violation of “the orders of the day,” was seated amidst the few children whose parents had refused to grant a holiday, and therefore dared not to “play truant.” Some “devoted Decius” in miniature, would then venture in, on the forlorn hope of gaining liberty for the rest. Down would drop books, pens and pencils, to the increasing cry of “Out, out, out!” The Commander-in-Chief would then arrive, amidst the cheers of his enthusiastic and devoted troops, would take up his position opposite to the door, and command the outset. The advanced guard would assail the portal with redoubled blows of their pocket-handkerchiefs, and old rope-ends, knotted into tommies, and the main body of the belligerents would throw mud. Ere long, not unfrequently a random stone would break some window; a second and perhaps a third crash would succeed; the master sallies out to the seize the culprit, his sentinels are overpowered, the invaders rush in, the besieged are unmercifully belaboured till the capitulation is completed, but no sooner do they join the liberating “army,” than a shout of triumph is raised, and the place is abandoned. The aide-de-camps would then report to “the General,” what other fortresses held out, and the nearest of them would be attacked in the same way. It often happened, however, that a parley was demanded, and the “General” shamelessly received a bribe to desist. Alas! that one so devoted to the cause of liberty should have been so easily corrupted – twopence would induce the commander-in-chief to withdraw, with his faithful followers, of fickle principle, and leave the anxious garrison to the uncontrolled power of its wily governor.

Many years ago, opposition to the General was rare, but schoolmasters of late years better knew their strength. One individual successfully resisted during a three hours’ siege; the house for years bore marks of the mud with which it was pelted; but ever afterwards, that master was triumphant, though frequently at the expense of an oaken staff, or an ash sapling, broken in repulsing the invaders. After repeated assaults, “the General” deemed this “hold” impregnable, and desisted from his attacks.

So many of the disciples of learning being emancipated, or made prisoners, for “the General” could either liberate or capture, he was accustomed to march forward with the “surveying council,” escorted by his army, to commence the perambulation of the town. If a projecting scraper endanger the shins of the burgesses, it is recorded, and the Middleton jury pass on; but the juvenile admirers of summary and instantaneous justice would insist on the immediate removal of the offender. Perhaps the good old dame of the house “liked not these regulations,” and would take up a strong position in its defence, armed with a mop and bucket of water. After a momentous pause, a hardy champion rushes forward to seize the offensive iron, and wrench it from its seat; he retires, overwhelmed and half-drowned; hero after hero passes on, and is defeated, till some modern Ajax grapples with the mop, and making a division in favour of the assailants, the luckless scraper would be borne off in triumph.

By eleven o’clock, “the General,” with his forces, would have drawn up in front of the Castle lodge, and have demanded admittance into the Castle yard – a summons always evaded by the distribution of a quantity of cakes, buns, and gingerbread. On the General’s word of command, the precious sweets were thrown, one by one, over the gate, and the confusion of an universal scramble ensued. After the whole was distributed, the popularity of the General rapidly waned; hundreds were reduced to scores, and scores to ones – at noon he generally was

“Deserted in his utmost need
By those his former bounty fed.”

In memory, however, of his departed greatness, he never deigned to work for the rest of the day.

Before the approach of Middleton Monday, fifty times a day the important question would be put to the General, “When will it be Middleton Monday?” Once he replied, “I don’t know yet, the mayor hasn’t ax’d me what day’ll suit me.” On the following Saturday he answered, “The mayor sent his respects to know if I’d let it be Middleton Monday next week; and I sent my respects, and I’d come.”

Ben Mayo has ever been “null, void, and of no effect,” except in his character of “General.” He was a harmless idiot, and during most of his life had been an inmate of St. Peter’s poorhouse. If erect, he would have been about the middle size, his stature not being more than four feet nine inches. He was very round-shouldered, and towards the conclusion of his earthly pilgrimage, stooped exceedingly. His eyes were dark grey, and rather lively; the lower part of his face was no way remarkable, but his forehead was high, and singularly prominent in the middle; his head, which was thinly covered with hair cut very short, always projected before him in his shuffling gait, which was rather a run than a walk. His vestment generally consisted of the “hodden grey” uniform of the pauper, but latterly, when in public, he wore a scarlet coat, with military epaulettes; his shirt collar was usually unbuttoned, and displayed his copper-coloured bosom.

Like other military gentlemen, “General” was a favourite with the ladies, inasmuch as he was known equally to high and low, and made promises to all indiscriminately (who pleased him) that he would marry them “next Sunday morning;” at the same time, he was accustomed to caution the favored fair not to be later than half-past seven, “for fear somebody else should get him.”

Formerly, Ben’s usual occupation was to sell the cheap commodities of the walking stationers, such as horrid murders, calendars of the prisoners, last dying speeches and behaviours, prize fights, or lists of the race horses, a practice which he continued to within the last twelve months, when allowed to go abroad. Sometimes, when these papers came quickly in succession, he made curious “varieties in literature.” A few years since, he was calling “A right and true calendar of all the running horses confined in his Majesty’s gole, owners’ names, horses’ names, and colours of the riders, tried, cast, quit, and condemned before my lord judge, this ‘sizes, and how they came in every heat of the three days, with the sentences of the prisoners.”

Of the many anecdotes related of “General,” the following authentic ones will display the union of shrewdness and simplicity common to persons of the order of intelligence which he possessed. – On a certain occasion, when public attention was directed towards the late Duke of York, one evening in the twilight, Ben began, “Here’s the grand and noble speech as the Duke of York made yesterday.” A person, who had heard nothing of such a speech, immediately purchased one, and on approaching a window, found himself possessed of a piece of blank paper. “General,” said he, “here’s nothing on it.” “No, Sir, the Duke of York said nowt.” – Being set, at the workhouse, to turn a wheel, he did so properly enough for about half-an-hour, but becoming tired, he immediately began to turn backwards, nor could he be persuaded to the contrary. – He was once observed to run about the streets, shouting in a breathless manner, “They’ve got me in, dead! They’ve got me in, dead!” – at the same time pointing with his finger to a particular passage in a newspaper he held, stating the General was dead, meaning some personage in the army. – A blockhead tried to make him quarrel with an idiot lad, as they were employed in sweeping the street together; “Oh!” said he, “he is a poor soft lad, and beneath my notice.” There is another instance of his dislike of work: having been set to weed part of a garden, he performed the task by pulling up all the flowers and herbs, and leaving the weeds growing. – He once found a sixpence, and ran up the street shouting “Who’s lost a sixpence, who’s lost a sixpence?” “It’s mine, General,” said one. “But had your’s a hole in it?” “Yes”, said he – “But this hasn’t,” rejoined General, and away he ran. – His mode of running was remarkable, inasmuch as one leg was considerably shorter than the other, which gave his body an up-and-down motion. One peculiarity was, that when he had any fresh papers to sell, he would never stop to take money till quite out of breath, and arrived at the extremity of the town.

Hi propensity for acting the “General” seems to have displayed itself in early life, for when but still a young man, he was in the habit of drilling a number of boys in the Market-place, as soldiers. On one of these occasions, while actively employed in marching the boys, one of them displayed a little awkwardness, which was remarked by some officers who were amongst the bystanders. “Well, Ben,” said one of them, “what shall you make of that one; he’s not fit for the ranks.” “You’ll see,” replied he, with something more than his usual archness; at the same telling the awkward youth to leave the ranks. Having regulated the others to his mind, he proceeded to the one who had been placed aside, and putting his hand to the boy’s shoulder, exclaimed, “There, then, I’ll make you an officer.” Whether intended or not, this was rather a keen reflection on the officers and their class, and as such was received by the lookers on, who greeted this sally with much applause.

It was somewhat singular to observe the manner in which the “old General” would strive to avoid answering the oft repeated question, “How old are you, Ben?” On one occasion a person, knowing the aversion he had to telling his age, and also his love for a drop of “Nottingham ale,” thought he would see whether the aversion or love were strongest; and offered him half a pint of ale, if he would say how old he was. He consented, but would drink the ale first; afterwards, being much pressed to fulfil his part in the contract, he said, “Why, you know where they fate the battles abrode, over yonder,” at the same time pointing at random. “Yes,” was the reply. “Well, there’s a church there, and that church and me’s just of a age.” Then, breaking out into one of his droll chuckling laughs, he would be delayed no longer, and started off.

In the year 1823, at Lenton fair and wakes, which are always at Whitsuntide, and numerously attended from Nottingham, being only a mile distant, some wag set General to proclaim the Lenton fair. On this occasion, he mounted an enormous cocked-hat of straw, and had his wand in his hand. He jumbled together pigs, gingerbread, baa-lambs, sheep, &c. in a confused mass; whilst the latter part of the proclamation, though perfectly true, was very far from being “quite correct.”

During the greater part of his career, the subject of our narrative was invariably seen without a hat. Rain, wind, or snow mattered little to him, and it has only been within the past three or four seasons, that he was seem with any covering on his head. A sort of military cap was what he usually wore. His remarkably crooked legs were finished off with coarse stockings and rough quarter boots.

At the time of the dissolution of the old poor law system, in 1836, poor Ben was about to be transferred from St. Peter’s to the union house, but in consideration of his peculiarities, Mr. Hudson kindly took him into his house, where he remained until that gentleman, now deceased, left the town to reside at Beeston. He then became an inmate of the union house, where, owing to the decay of nature and an unfortunate accident, (the details of which appear in a report of the coroner’s inquest, inserted underneath) poor “General” ceased to exist.

Previous to the period of his removal, Ben was an attendant at St Peter’s Church, where his behaviour was serious. He would on no account be seen about the streets on the Sabbath, for, being one of the public characters of the town, he considered it would be setting a bad example. In politics, he was a staunch supporter of the powers that be; on occasions of political excitement, Ben was sure to be seen with a bunch of blue riband to his coat, and he has, on more occasions than one, been seen dusted with powder blue from the crown of his head to the skirts of his dress. He had, however, no objection, either under the old regime or the new, to aid “the Jacobin corporation,” as far as in him lay; and according to his own account, he was perfectly intimate with the mayor for the time being, whom he allowed to be the first man in the town – himself being second.

In the course of his career of notoriety, Ben was placed under the artist’s hands times innumerable, and many portraits and casts of him are in existence.

We understand that a correct phrenological model has been taken of his head, and that in a short time, busts may be had by the public at a reasonable expense; the taker of the model, although poor, is a very deserving man, and merits encouragement.

Several descriptions of “Old General” have appeared in literary publications; from one of them, Hone’s Every Day Book, some of the above particulars are taken.

In accordance, as we understand, with his own request, the mortal remains of the old man were deposited, on Monday afternoon last, in the Broad-marsh burial ground. An immense crowd rush in, the moment the gate was unlocked, and all appeared anxious to see the last of “poor old Ben.” The Rev. R. W. Almond, rector of St. Peter’s, read the burial service, attended by Mr. Kidd, the clerk. The coffin bore no inscription, and was of the most ordinary description. Six paupers were the bearers, and two others followed behind. Thus, in an obscure corner of the Broad-marsh burial ground, without anything to denote the spot where he reposes, lies the body of Benjamin Mayo.

By his death, the whole of the public “characters” for which Nottingham was formerly renowned, have passed off the stage of life. “Whistling Charley,” “Shelford Tommy,” and “David Love,” exist only in remembrance.

INQUEST

On Friday last, an inquest was held, at the Union Poorhouse, on view of the body of Benjamin Mayo.

William Gibson Jalland, of Nottingham, surgeon, said – I am surgeon to the Nottingham Poorhouse Union. I have known Benjamin Mayo, deceased, as long as I can remember; he has been the inmate of the poorhouse a considerable time; his health was generally good. I believe he was 64 years of age. On the evening of the second of this month, I was called to see him in the hospital; he complained of great pain at the back of his neck, vomited a good deal, and had excessive bleedings from the ears; he was insensible. I understood he had had a fall; he has been ill ever since. I found, on examining his neck at the time, a cupitation at the back of his neck; since his death, I have made a post mortem examination of the body; I found the ligaments connecting the first and second vertebrae lacerated; there was no fracture at all; I think the laceration and the shock of the fall caused his death.

William Walker, an inmate of the poorhouse, said – I know Benjamin Mayo, the deceased; he had been in the poorhouse a long time. Last Monday but one, in the evening, just before bed time, I was standing near the door of my room, and heard Benjamin Mayo fall down the steps leading from the day room to the lodging room; there was no one else on the steps but me. He was above me, and did not fall so low down as I was; gave information directly, and John Eagle came to his assistance, and I believe he was carried to the hospital. Don’t know that there was anybody on the stairs with him; did not hear anything else.

John Eagle, an inmate of the poorhouse, said – last Monday night but one, Wm. Walker came and told me that Benjamin Mayo had fallen on the steps; I went and found him lying on the third landing, going to his bed room; he was sensible, but did not tell me how he had happened to fall; did not ask him; the stairs were dark, but I took a candle with me; there was no one on the stairs when I got there but Walker and Benjamin Mayo. I took Mayo in my arms, and carried him to the hospital. I could not see any wound on his head; there was blood on the back of his head; think Mr. Jalland was with him in about a quarter of an hour after we got him into the hospital; the place where I found Mayo lying was eight steps from the lodging room door; his stick lay under him. He had been accustomed to go up those steps every night, and waiting till the door was open; he refused to stay in the day room till bed time, as he said the gas affected his eyes.

Verdict, “Died from the effects of an accidental fall.”


From Old and New Nottingham by William Howie Wylie (1853):

‘BENJAMIN MAYO, the “Old General”, was born at Nottingham, about the year 1779. The glory of “Ben” was always at its meridian on Mickleton Monday. Before the jury commenced the annual survey of the liberties of the town, the General was accustomed to trot away with several hundred boys at his heels, in something like military order, to secure the sacred and inviolable rights of a holiday for every schoolboy in the town. A couple of urchins, with shining morning faces, would lead the way to their own schoolmaster, who was seated probably amidst the few children whose parents had refused to grant a holiday, and who therefore dared not “play truant.” While the “devoted Decius” in miniature parleyed with the master, down would drop pens, books, and pencils, to the increasing cry at the door of “Out! Out! Out!” Frequently did the liberating army commit serious damage to the schools which held out against the besiegers; but alas! that one so devoted to the cause of liberty should so easily be corrupted, a bribe of twopence would induce the commander-in-chief to withdraw his faithful followers. During the greater part of his career, opposition to the General was rare; but latterly the masters did not capitulate so readily. One individual successfully resisted a three hours’ siege, whose premises for years bore indelible marks of the mud with which they were pelted; but ever afterwards that master was triumphant. The General, deeming the “hold” impregnable, desisted from his attacks. His army being, after some tough exertions, emancipated from scholastic thraldom, Ben was accustomed to march forward with the “surveying council.” The obstructions which the worthy burgesses were content to note in a book the General and his forces were accustomed to remove at once; and, after a fierce contest probably with some angry dame, the doorscraper, or whatever it might be, was borne off with triumphant shouts. At mid-day the General drew up his forces in front of the Castle lodge, and demanded admittance into the Castle yard – a summons always evaded by the distribution of cakes and gingerbread. After the scramble for the precious sweets, which were thrown, one by one, over the gate, Ben’s popularity rapidly waned. Hundreds soon melted into scores. At one o’ clock he was alone. In memory of his departed greatness, however, he never deigned to work for the rest of the day. For several weeks preceding the advent of Mickleton Monday the important question would be put to the General, “When will be Mickleton Monday?” “I don’t know yet,” he would reply, “the mayor hasn’t axed me what day’ll suit me.” On the following Saturday he would say, “The mayor’s sent his respex to know if I’d let it be Mickleton Monday next week, and I sent my respex and I’d come.” In his earlier days Ben was a flying stationer, and vendor of “horrid murder” sheets, and “correct card-lists of the races.” He was a harmless idiot, and during the most of his life was an inmate of St. Peter’s poor-house in Broad marsh. During the greater part of his career he never wore a covering to his head. Rain, wind, or snow seemed not to affect him till he had attained his sixtieth year, when he donned a military cap. Many anecdotes of the “Old General” are still current among the good folk of Nottingham. Once, when public attention was directed to the Duke of York, Ben ran excitedly through the town, crying “Here’s the grand and noble speech as the Duke of York made yesterday,” excusing himself to those who purchased the blank sheet of paper which he held in his hand by saying that “The duke said nowt!” One day, Ben having found a sixpence, a claimant presented himself, and said he had lost one. “Had your sixpence a hole in it?” asked Ben. “Yes,” was the ready reply. “This hasn’t, so it’s not yourn,” was the equally prompt rejoinder. Ben died in the Union workhouse on the 12th of January, 1843, aged 64.’


From The History of Nottingham by John Blackner (1815):

‘There is a silly and very singular character now living in the town, who…will be long remembered; whose real name is Benjamin Mayo, but who is only known by the reproachful term of General Monk. This will serve to show in what sort of estimation the name of that traitor and socialized barbarian is held in Nottingham; for, because this silly creature was prone to mischievous tricks when a boy, and assumed, in burlesque, the functions of a commander over other boys, he must, to be sure, be styled General Monk. Since the death of his mother his residence is in St. Peter’s workhouse; and his practice, during many years, has been to go about the streets, without a hat, “regardless of wind and weather,” in quest of any trifle he can find. But on Middleton-Mondays he appears in his element: he then collects as many children as he is able to do, and proceeds to every common day school in the town for the purpose of fetching out the scholars, at the head of whom he parades the streets; and, notwithstanding the lameness in his hips, he exhibits pranks which excite as much entertainment as those displayed by a strolling mountebank. As a contrast to this, is his conduct in heading every procession of gravity or solemnity which he can get near, even those of funerals, and the Judge’s going to church. Here you will see him with a grave countenance, his arms hanging loosely from his stooping body, while he measures his steps with the regularity of a soldier at exercise; and every passenger will make way for the general. Several useless attempts were made to induce the general to work, the naming of two of which shall suffice:- The overseers sent him to turn a wheel for a person that ground knives, &c. but when he had turned it one way about half an hour, he determined to turn it the other way, or give over; and no means could be devised to induce him to alter his determination. On another occasion he was set to weed a flower bed in a garden; and when left to himself, he plucked up all the flowers and left the weeds. How strikingly emblematic was the conduct of this idiot, on these occasions, to the political tergiversation of his namesake, General Monk !