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  • Peterborough Immortal, 180 Years May 29, 2017

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

    ‘Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,/ Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,/ Silence the pianos and with muffled drum/ Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.’

    2 Apr Fri, 1830, Britain’s oldest inhabitant died. Solemn notices appeared in the newspaper

    Death Extraordinary. On Friday se’nnight [a week Friday], at the Palace Garden, Peterborough, universally regretted, the celebrated tortoise, which had been inhabitant of that place for near two hundred years.

    This ‘scurvy obituary’ brought out more extensive effusions in the press for an animal who ‘was naturalized amongst us, when our great grandfathers were red-cheeked, clambering boys, and played truant, and trundled the hoop with the best’. ‘We look upon its shell with the same feeling that we should gaze upon a piece of the Pyramids!’ Northampton Mercury (17 Apr 1830).

    To think that a creature, even though that creature be but a tortoise — one that may have breathed and rejoiced in the summer air, when our own walked the earth—when Sidney deified the beauties of Elizabeth’s court—when Spenser sang—when our great Bacon thought to know that such a contemporary has, till within these few days, been moving amongst us…

    As always with these wonderfully rhetorical passages facts rather deflate the sentence. Sidney died in 1586, Spencer died in 1599, Elizabeth I in 1603, Bacon died in 1626, whereas the tortoise was born c. 1630 according to this report: there is actually a case to be made that the tortoise was only 180 years when it died (Northampton Mercury 13 Jul 1889, 11). However, the accuracy is generally ok afterwards (save James, 1603, and Raleigh, 1618), so roll on with the thunderous sentences and ‘let the mourners come’!.

    It has seen the pragmatic James upon the throne, the murder of Sir Walter Raleigh, it has heard the funeral bell of the crowned pedant; the rejoicing trumpets of the anointed Charles; the clamour of civil war; the ruffling of cavaliers and round-heads; the sentence of a captive King; the burly orders of usurping Oliver; the pealing bells, the huzza and the shout of England welcoming back the Second Charles. The Revolution found it alive; the wits of Anne quarrelled and wrote, and still the tortoise lived; Garrick acted, Fielding penned, and Hogarth painted, yet the denizen survived; our wars with France and America were again renewed and ended; Waterloo was fought, and still our subject cropt its daily meal.

    The author finishes with the marvelous epitaph that heads this post: Beach has to confess that tears rolled down his face as he read it. He has six wonderful tortoises of his own. Is there any pleasure to be matched with drinking something fizzy in the late afternoon, while watching a seven year old tortoise, nursed from the egg, chew on the most beautiful flower on the garden, with an arched neck, like a lawn-sized brontosaurus?

    A much later newspaper report tells us, Northampton Mercury (13 Jul 1889), 11, that the Peterborough tortoise died from an ‘accident’. Perhaps a cretinous gardener with a spade while Nestor hibernated. The same report tells us that ‘Bishop Jeune’ had its shell preserved with an inscription.

    Other immortals: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com