Mathews (first name unrecorded) was a 70-year-old widower known as the Norwood Hermit. For 28 years, he had lived in a cave created from earth, fern and wood on Sydenham Common, having been given leave to do so by the governors of Dulwich Common.
He earned a living doing gardening for members of the local gentry, who liked and trusted him. On Sundays, he would sell beer from his cave, and made a fair bit of money, as people would visit out of curiosity for his way of life as much as for the beer.
Around 1797, his cave was broken into, he was beaten, and had his money stolen. This led him to start sleeping in other people’s stables or haylofts for security. After about 18 months, he returned to his cave.
But in December 1802, he was discovered dead near the entrance to the cave, with his jaw broken and a bad wound to his cheek. The press reported:
“The body was discovered by some boys, who, at Christmas time had always made a practice of paying the old man a visit; he was covered with fern and under his arm was an oaken branch about six or seven feet long, which it is supposed the villains put into the cave in order to hook him out…it appears likely the hook had been hitched into his mouth, there being a hole of the size of it quite through the cheek.”
Mathews had been seen with money in the French Horn inn in Dulwich the night before his body was discovered; three men were later questioned, taken from a nearby ‘vagrant tenant encampment’, and a ‘gypsy by the name of Spraggs is in custody on suspicion of being the murderer’.
Christmas Cheer was not in evidence in this part of Surrey in 1802, with a vulnerable man being targeted by others who were not part of mainstream society. I wonder how good a Christmas the boys who found Mathews’ body had, too, with that memory to live with. Perhaps, to them, it simply became a story to tell others – “Guess what happened to me last Christmas…”.
Source: The Morning Post, 5 January 1803