I am always on the lookout for examples of genuine eccentrics in the grand old English tradition. People who follow their own path in life, even at the expense of ridicule from others. Individualists who may be odd, even barking mad, but are also both harmless and somehow lovable too. One such was John Fransham, a Norwich man deemed by many at the time to be a pagan and a polytheist. In today’s terms, he’d probably be judged a freethinker, who believed the universe was governed by natural forces rather than any kind of deity.
This is what was said of him soon after his death:
John Fransham, the Norwich Polytheist, a very eccentric character, was born in St.George’s Colegate. He was an excellent mathematician, and was a great admirer of the ancient writers on this science. He frequently took rapid solitary walks, with a broad brimmed hat slouched over his eyes, and a plaid on his shoulders, and was supposed to sleep often on Mousehold Heath. He died on February 1st, 1810. His biography was written by his pupil, Mr. Saint.
He was born the son of Thomas and Isidora Fransham some time early in 1730 (he was baptised on the 19th March). His father was probably the sexton of the parish of St. George in Colegate, Norwich, though some writers say he was the parish clerk. Either way, young John was a precocious child and both the parish minister and an unnamed relative encouraged him to aim for a university education and entry to the church. It was not to be, since the relative died and the money ran out.
Finding an occupation
This is when Fransham’s eccentricity and his determination to choose his own path in life first showed itself clearly. He seems to have tried out several potential apprenticeships. He tried becoming a cooper at Wymondham, but soon rejected that. Next came a short period helping a veterinary surgeon, a Mr Joseph Clover, with menial tasks. He gave that up following a difference of opinion over the practice, common then, of docking horses’ tails. All this time, it’s said, he just about supported himself by writing sermons for clergymen, though his extreme poverty forced him to go about Norwich barefoot.
Nevertheless, the lad must have had something about him, since his biographers claim Mr Clover taught him some mathematics, while the famous Dr John Taylor, then a local Unitarian minister and theologian, also gave him instruction free of charge. A legacy of £25.00 paid for a few lessons from Mr W. Hemingway, a land surveyor, until the money ran out — though he spent part of it on buying a pony, which he didn’t ride but kept as a pet. He even tried working in an office for an attorney. Despite the efforts of other staff members to help him learn, he seems to have given that up quite quickly as well.
In 1748, he even joined a company of strolling players, who seem to have been so poor as actors that they mostly lived on turnips stolen from the fields. Fransham left them rather than be a party to theft.
A wandering life
After leaving the actors, he took ship from Great Yarmouth intending to visit Scotland, but got no further than North Shields, where he enlisted in the army, but was soon discharged as bandy-legged. Once again, he had neither money nor employment. It is said he made his way back to Norwich with only three halfpennies in his pocket and a piece of rough tartan cloth.
Back home, Fransham set himself up working with Daniel Wright, a freethinking journeyman weaver. Naturally, little about the arrangement was usual. He and Wright set up their looms facing one another and engaged in philosophical discussions amidst the clattering of the looms. Fransham might even have continued with employment, for he said Wright possessed “a finely philosophic spirit and a soul well purified from vulgar errors”. Sadly, Wright died in 1750 and the 20 year-old Fransham immediately gave up weaving.
Throughout his life so far, Fransham had managed to accumulate an unusual degree of learning for a person with such a humble background, let alone one who rarely had two pennies to rub together. This he now put to work, starting as a tutor to a farmer’s family at Hellesdon, just outside Norwich, and rapidly gaining a reputation in preparing young men for university. By this means, he earned enough money to haunt second-hand bookstalls and amass a library of some 200 volumes.
Even here, his eccentric nature showed through. One day he bought a book for two shillings and showed it to a friend, who said he had a good bargain, for the volume was worth seven shillings at least. At once, Fransham returned to the book stall and insisted on paying the astonished woman owner the ‘missing’ five shillings!
Many other stories were told of him as the years passed. How he amused himself with a child’s toy called a ‘bilbao-catch’. This was a stick with a pointed end with a ball tied to it by a length of string. A hole in the ball fitted over the point and the object was to toss the ball up and try to catch it on the point of the stick. In time, he could do this around 200 times in succession and boasted that he had caught it 666,666 times in total. He also carried a stick around with him and threw it, measuring the distance of the throw each time.
In later life, Fransham wrote various works of philosophy and theology, often setting out his ideas of Nature as the only ‘ruler’ of the universe. The Norwich Record Office holds these items, for example: ‘Memorabilia Classica’, essays, including ‘The Code of Aristopia or Scheme of a perfect Government’, ‘Synopsis of Classical Philosophy’, ‘English Politics’, Illustrations as pencil and wash sketches. Needless to say, while these brought him some notoriety, they made him little money. He was reduced to writing begging letters and persuading relatives and various acquaintances to let him lodge with them.
Of course, he had to be an eccentric guest. He refused to allow the walls of the rooms in which he slept to be whitewashed or the floors wetted, never made his bed more than once a week and had such a fear of fire that he kept a rope-ladder dangling from his window and practised going up and down it to make sure he could leave as quickly as he thought might be needed.
He continued teaching a little, but his health gradually failed, not assisted by the experiment of sleeping outside on Mousehold Heath, wrapped only in the tartan cloth he had brought back from Newcastle. In January 1810 he became bed-ridden, but though he was carefully nursed he refused any medical aid and told those attending on him that, if he could live his days again, he would have nothing to do with women. He also had a morbid fear of being buried alive, so gave minute instructions on what was to be done to prove he was dead before he should be buried. He died on 1 February, 1810, and was buried in the churchyard of St. George, Colegate, where his father had been sexton 80 years before.
What strikes me most about Fransham’s story is not his eccentricity but the surprising light it throws on Georgian life in Norwich. Here is a child of a poor family, albeit a gifted one, who managed to amass enough education one way and another to become a respected teacher; a man who could make enough of an impact on others to be able to have his writings published and stories told about him long after his death; and a freethinker whose views on animal cruelty, diet (he was a vegetarian and a lifelong teetotaller) and honesty in business dealings (witness the book purchase) are curiously modern. We tend to see Georgian times as both class-dominated and socially rigid. John Fransham’s life suggests neither of these was entirely correct and that, even almost 300 years ago, people could respond to one another’s humanity rather than see them as stereotypes.