Website of the Laceby History Group

Bobby Mapples - Hermit of Laceby

On 17th March 1927 an old man was found dead in a ditch alongside the roadway running south from Irby upon Humber towards Welbeck Hill. It was the start of a local legend that has amused and interested the people of Laceby since then. The old man was Bobby Mapples who became known as "The Hermit of Laceby"

Over the years his life and his ways have been recorded several times in writing, and people still living in the area have personal memories of him. So what follows are the various accounts, of this man.

In the Laceby Chronicle of 1977

Cats running to all points of the compass amid explosions fit for the 5th of November, this was the beginning of the end for Bobby Maples known as the Laceby hermit.

It has always been thought that Bobby first appeared in the village just after the first world war, but in fact he was Laceby born and bred. He lived as a boy in the cottages which once stood behind what is now the Countryman Store, it seemed that even in his younger days he wasn't too keen on work, but used to keep his tooibox in Stevensons blacksmith shop where he used to help out as and when he felt like it.

At some stage he must have settled down somewhat as he married a local girl who unfortunately took ill and was sent to hospital in Lincoln where she later died, but for many years after he often used to bring out his top hat and white gloves which he claimed he was married in.

He used to wander about the village wearing several coats no matter the weather and desporting a long, dirty grey straggly beard, which he washed along with the rest of his personage once a year, said always to be on August Bank Holiday during his annual visit to the sea at Cleethorpes.

The stories told of him are legend among the older residents of Laceby and certainly he was constantly receiving the attention of the village children who used to taunt him until he got perhaps a little to close, whereupon they would run away amidst squeals of horrified delight. He had the habit of feeding dogs with meat off a fork, the meat being pushed so far up the prongs that when the unfortunate dog went up for the meat he was pricked on the nose for his trouble; it was also claimed that such was his appearance that on receiving money from Bobby for goods bought, it would be disinfected with carbolic before being passed on to any other hand.

He was, we are told, a gunsmith extraordinaire and spent many days cleaning and maintaining his guns for use during his other talent of poaching. Many tales are told of his ability to "whistle up" a hare to a state of virtual hypnosis before his quick accurate shot made another contribution to his larder.

But Bobby had other talents too, he could often be found singing hymns whilst accompanying himself on the melodian, however although he was largely law abiding he did have several brushes with the law resulting in him spending various spells in jail, to which he consistently referred us his visits to college. Perhaps the worst of these problems was the occasion when he had been poaching in Haycrops and was just coming out of the gate when the local policeman chanced upon him. Bobby did not take kindly to the suggestion that he be relieved of his booty or gun and in the resulting struggle the unfortunate policeman was shot in the arm, for this Bobby was rewarded with 18 months in "College".

But what of the cats? Bobby lived in a hut on the Laceby-AylesbY road built for him by the then rector Canon Knight and here he kept a number of guns and ammunition together with, it is said, some 22 cats who lived in the hut with him. One day the hut caught fire and with the resulting explosion the hut was virtually demolished, he was not injured, but having nowhere to live he was sent to the workhouse at Scartho. It was here that Bobby received what was probably the best scrubbing he had ever had. It would seem that life there was not to his liking as he was seen some days later back in the village where his beard now was as white as driven snow.

Bobby, having nowhere to live, now wandered about the village and on one very cold evening he was found in a dyke, and shortly after died of pneumonia at the age of 77 years.

It was 17th Harch, 1927, and many people say that his death was really the result of that fateful scrubbing.

In 1969 in an essay "The Most Remarkable Character I have ever met" Mr. H. Shaw wrote about the Hermit:

Shakespeare once said, "The world is a stage and every man must play a part. " This man of whom I write, made his bow as the curtain rose on my young life. He was an occasional passer by. A queer, dirty looking man, of whom I might have been afraid but for the safety of our bay window, behind which I made my observations. Little did I know then, as he made his way into Grimsby, that I should see him in Mr. Stevenson's blacksmith's shop at Laceby, dimly outlined in a dark corner like an owl settling down after its nocturnal visitations. I don't recall any conversation other than a grunt or two, so my early association really lived in the flickering light of a Smithy's forge. My son recently took a flash bulb photograph of this same Smithy to record a dying craft and add another picture to his collection of "Old Laceby" before the passing of time obliterates it from our memory. Little did I know also that I should return to live in this same place, meeting people and discussing this strange character of whom I write. So these 'traits' are not legendary but culminate from many a contact whom I have been glad to call my friends .

Robert Harris, for that was his real name, was born between the years 1850 - 1855. He attended the Laceby day school. As a young man Bob did not like work and would not be tied to a regular job. He preferred a day or two occasionally doing any odd job that he could pick up. He was very fond of a gun and in after years called himself a gunsmith. He would spend days repairing any old gun that he could get, which, when finished to his satisfaction would load and fire at a piece of tin to see how it would spread shot. If it was alright he would take the target to show the blacksmith (in whose shop he did most of his jobs) and remark "Pah - ha Tom , if an old hare had been sitting there she would have got a shock". No doubt the next time he fired that gun someone would get a cheap dinner. He had other ways of catching both rabbits and hares. As he often used to say, "I like to see ' em in a necklace", referring, of course, to his much acquired art of setting up a snare.

Most people knew him as Bobby Happles , but how he came by that name I cannot say. In the summer time he could be found asleep under a hedge or in a field, no doubt with one eye open against surprise like most of the wild life with which he used to associate. Most of the cold winter days he would spend around the blacksmith's fire. Although Bob's conversation was very limited with strangers he missed nothing of what visitors and customers were saying in his presence. He was like a present day computor taking it all in and coming up with the right answer when it suited his purpose. One day after a 'Big Shoot' in the vicinity the forge was visited by one or two of the beaters with many a tale to tell; who had shot what and how many etcetera. Bob listened in silence to a story of how one beautiful hare had been hit for certain but had escaped all attempts to retrieve her, dead or alive - but die she would. Where was Bob?

Nobody was really interested for he would come and go at will.

However he returned later in the day, one of his large invisible pockets sagging a little more than usual. He had slipped away, sure in the knowledge that he could find her and he had plenty of time - better not be too obvious! "Has all them chaps gone? Ah yes! Well Tom, how's that for a bit of good luck. That's one they won't be able to show their fine friends, I know".

He used to say that, "Policemen were not worth three half pence a thousand." Of course it was through them that he had to spend so much of his time on 'His Majesty's Service'. When Bob returned from these occasional trips we used to ask how he had spent his time, and if he had not been worked too hard or had been pottering about in the blacksmith's shop, he would say, "I've not had half a bad time". On one occasion the governor of the goal had set him to work in his own garden. It was not in Bob's line and on returning to Laceby, he told us he didn't think the old Governor would have many cabbages as the last day he was there he pinched all the hearts out of them.

Bob disliked soap and water and at times his old face looked as if it had been blackleaded. During the war when things begain to go up in price, someone said to him "Do you know that soap has gone up Bob? His reply was "I don't care I shall use less".

One would have thought that Bob was the last person on earth to find any woman to marry him, but he was lucky enough to do so. She soon found that she had the living to make and when people told Bob that he ought to be ashamed of himself he replied, "Well, one in a family is plenty to work and I often take her a dinner". The wife did not live long and died shortly afterwards. This was a disastrous blow to Bob who went from bad to worse and was pleased to live in a disused pigsty.

His mode of dress left much to be desired. Old slouched hat and coat tied round with binder twine (known as the farmer's friend) ; boots of unkown origin, calling out for 'Cherry Blossom' made up his attire. They say history repeats itself. Perhaps he would not have looked too much at 'sea' on Cleethorpes Prom mixing with the 'Hippies' or the 'Flower Men', at least his hair was long enough, but then he was a loner - a game man, called by many 'The Laceby Hermit', spending his time in the wilds, not thumbing lifts by the great highways of today. I don't think Squire Fields, on whose estate my house now stands, would have picked him up in his Gig with trotting mare as he went from Laceby to Grimsby to market. This I have seen many times myself.

When he was turned out of his pigsty abode, the Rector, the late Cannon Knight of Laceby, took pity on him and put him in a small wooden hut on the outskirts of the village. This field was known I believe, as North Crofts. In the hut was a stove. One day when it was very windy, the stove smoked Bob out when the door was closed, and if opened, it blew fire all over the place. The things he said for over an hour my pen refuses to write. At the end of that time the wind had settled a bit and Bob took his cat on his knee, stroked it from head to tail, and looking upwards said, "He thinks he's aggravating us with his old wind, but He isn't, is He pussy?"

As Bob got older he became more and more of a recluse. This brought with it the inevitable chance for teenagers who had at that time less attractions for themselves such as clubs, television and such like, to poke fun at this eccentric old man. When ever he did appear in the village, especially in the evenings, they would call after him with jeers and abuse. Naturally Bob would retaliate with oaths and curses to suit the occasion, but when left alone he was a peaceful man and interfered with no one. However there are stories (I think mostly exaggerated) of him hiding in the shadows and jumping out to frighten young girls as they passed, even spitting at them. If this was so he probably thought that surprise was the best weapon of attack, but as far as I know he never came to grips with any of them.

Bob would look very much out of place in this village today. Many new houses stand where once he roamed and central heating was not for him.

Eventually his hut did get burned dowm, a very sad day too for old Bob and his furry friends. He was over seventy then and was taken to the institution where the bathing and cleaning process which he had to undergo, broke his heart and he died shortly afterwards.

In the Grimsby Evening Telegraph on March 5th 1953 the following account appeared:

Laceby Hermit - Bobby Maples
Here was a real character now dead those 23 years. 
His fame or infamy is summed up by Mr. H. Stevenson, the Laceby Village Blacksmith, "He was just like a modern cosh boy". A wizard with guns, he would spend days carefully repairing his own pistols and rifles. It was said he never bough flesh being so quick on the trigger. He lived in a hut which Canon Knight built for him. Before that he lived where he could. No one ever saw inside the hermits den and when it was burnt it was like another Western Front around the village, with rifles, pistols and ammunition exploding.

Once a year he washed, always on August Bank Holiday Monday - when he went to Cleethorpes on his annual one day holiday to the sea. When told soap was going up he said "Then I 'm going to use less of it".

After the fire he was taken to the Workhouse (Scartho) and scrubbed clean forcibly. He appeared days later in the village, and his black beard was snowy white. He did not go back into the workhouse, and was found dead in a dyke. He had died of pneumonia - aged 77 years.

Again in the Grimsby Evening Telegraph this time 21 Harch 1983 he is again remembered:

Hermit

The picture of Bobby Maples, the Laceby hermit, in our most recent Bygone Grimsby Special, brought back a flood of memories for Mr. Albert Sykes, of Castle Street, Grimsby.

He recalls Bobby well from his Laceby boyhood. Bobby lived, he tells me, in a small wooden hut in Butt Lane, off the High Street. The land belonged to a farmer, Mr. Curtis, who let Bobby stay there .

According to Mr. Sykes, Bobby was supposed to wash twice a year, once before going to church at Christmas, and once before paying a yearly

visit to his sister in Grimsby.

However, as he also remembers the name of the lady who did Bobby's laundry for him, perhaps this was just one of those malicious village tales!

In spite of our picture, Mr. Sykes insists that the hermit was always to be seen in hard hat and an ancient swallow-tail coat.

He seems to have been of a local pet, and the Rectorthe Rev. H. W. Knight, it was said, used to arrange for his little hut to be decorated and wallpapered every year.

Bobby was not poor. A skilled craftsman, he was "one of the finest gunsmiths in Lincolnshire", and could sometimes be seen at the blacksmith's shop, making use of the forge for some of his gunsmith's work.

The usual story about his having a lot of money stashed away was current in the village, but nothing was found after his death.

That came about rather tragically. His hut caught fire and the fireman could not get near it because of exploding ammunition, his gunsmith's stock-in-trade presumably.

His home gone, he was taken to the workhouse, but refused to stay there and set out towards Irby. But it was winter, and poor Bobby was later found dead in a dyke full of snow.

During 1976 an account of the Hermit appeared in the church magazine "Laceby & Irby Parish News".

The Laceby Hermit

On Harch 17th 1927 Bobby Maples died. But even to this day he is remembered in Laceby. For he was a real character. He was the Laceby Hermit. 

There are many tales told about this man, and like all tales they have become distorted with time. There is a photograph of him in Mr. Hallgarths collection, but apart from that and a very old tattered newspaper cutting, there is no documented evidence of the Laceby hermit .

Here then is part of his story, gleaned from the people who really remember him. His real name in the Parish Register is Robert Harris, and he was not a Laceby person at all. He appeared in the village just after the First World War, and was soon a target for the jeers of the village children. His appearance was that of a tramp. Old clothing, long straggly beard, and always wearing several coats whatever the weather. He washed once a year, and that was always on August Bank Holiday Monday, when he went to Cleethorpes on his annual one day holiday to the sea. He once remarked when told that soap was going up - "Then I'm going to use less of it". He covered his skin in grease, and the smell about him must have been awful. After he had sat on the low wall outside the butchers shop in the Square, the butchers wife would go out and scrub with hot water the part where he had sat. It is therefore not surprising that he was a Hermit or that wherever he went there "where always cats following him.

The newspaper cutting referred to earlier described him as being 'just like a modern cosh boy'. What he ever did to warrant that description is not known.

Like a true hermit he lived alone in a small hut on the edge of the village in Butts Lane. The Rector at that time, Canon Knight, had built it for him. Nobody ever saw inside the hermit's den, but it was knowm that all sorts of guns, rifles, pistols, and ammunition 'were kept in there. For Bobby Maples was "a wizard with guns", and spent his days carefully cleaning and repairing these weapons. He never bought flesh food for he was quick on the trigger, and Mr. Jesse Marshall recalls that he had seen Bobby catch a hare in a field just by talking to it. He more or less hypnotised the animal with his voice . The Hermit must have been no friend of the local gamekeeper.

The end came for Bobby Maples in a sudden wayOne day his hut caught fire and the resulting explosions from ammunition made it seem like 'the second front'. He was not injured, but with nowhere to live he was taken to the workhouse at Scartho where he was forcibly scrubbed clean. He was seen in the village a few days later and his black beard was really snowy white.

Of independent nature, the hermit would not go back to the workhouse, but lived rought around the village. He was found ill in a dyke, and later died of pneumonia at the age of 77 years.

But to this day it is known in Laceby that what really killed the hermit was the fact that he never really recovered from the scrubbing he was given. That was the real cause of his death.

In a letter from Mr. David Knight dated October 9 1977 he also recalls Bobby Mapples :

I visited him with my father several times down at the Glebe field on Aylesby road. There was a small waggon shed - brick built with a lean-to in the corner of the field near the gate on Aylesby Road. Bobby lived in the lean to on the side away from the road. And I'm not so sure about the guns. Not then anyway. The story about the whistling up of a hare was, as he told it to my father, that he stood in the middle of the field and continued whistling. The hare would circle round him getting closer and closer, until Bobby would quickly reach down and take it with his hand. Daddy - and I can hear him now was so dramatic in telling the story that I almost believe he ' d witnessed it . After all if you have a gun - why whistle. The poacher's whistle is more authentic . Maybe also he did not die in the ditch but in the lean-to on the cart shed.

From an undated and unknown source is another memory of him.

Bobby Maples

Cats running to all points of the compass amid explosions fit for the 5th of November; this was the beginning of the end for Bobby Maples known as the Laceby Hermit.

The story starts shortly after the first world war when a shabby unkempt man found his way to the village, his real name was Robert Harris but for some unknown reason he was always known as Bobby Maples.

He used to wander about the village wearing several coats no matter the weather and desporting a long, dirty grey, straggly beard, which he washed along with the rest of his personage once a year, said always to be on August Bank Holiday during his annual visit to the sea at Cleethorpes.

The stories told of him are legend among the older residents of Laceby and certainly he was constantly receiving the attention of the village children who used to taunt him until he got perhaps a little too close, where upon they would run away amidst squeals of horrified delight. He had the habit of feeding dogs with meat off a fork, the meat being pushed so far up the prongs that when the unfortunate dog went for the meat he was pricked on the nose for his trouble; it is also claimed that such was his appearance that on receiving money from Bobby for goods bought, it would be disinfected with carbolic before being passed on to any other hand.

He was, we are told, a gunsmith extraordinaire and spent many days cleaning and maintaining his guns for use during his other talent of poaching.

Many tales are told of his ability to "whistle up" a hare to a state of virtual hypnosis before his quick accurate shot made another contribution to his larder.

But what of the cats? Bobby lived in a hut on the Laceby Alysby road built for him by the then rector Canan Knight and here he kept a number of guns and ammunition, together with, it is said some 22 cats who lived in the hut with him. One day the hut caught fire and with the resulting explosions the hut was virtually demolished, he was not injured, but having nowhere to live he was sent to the workhouse at Scartho. It was here that Bobby received what was probably the best scrubbing he had ever had. It would seem that life there was not to his liking as he was seen some days later back in the village where his beard now was as white as driven snow.

Bobby, having nowhere to live, now wandered about the village and on one very cold evening he was found in a dyke, and shortly after died of pneumonia at the age of 77 years.

Here are other memories of the Hermit that have been recorded, together with their source .

Mrs. V. Bowen of Laceby
"When her mother sold Bobby fish, the money she
received was put into a jar of carbolic."

Mr. Sewell Taylor of Irby
"Remembers Bobby helping ,.,rith the threshing at
Irby and described him as "a dirty old man" who
went home in the evening covered in chaff. If
he came the next day he looked as he was when he
left - Not having washed at all. He was arrested
for poaching and was an excellent shot - boasting
that "he never missed". His hut was full of guns."

Mr. S. Broddie of Laceby
"Remembers children being chased around the
Rectory Garden by Bobby."

Mrs. Larder of Swallow
"He lived in a shed in Wilsons Terrace, Cooper Lane,
Laceby. He was a clever man with guns. He was
a tinker and could make keys, and solder pots and
pans. "

From other memories for which there is no source of information.

"Policeman met him once by Herbcrops gate and
wanted to take him - he wouldn't go and shot
the policeman in the arm - Got 18 months"


"
Bobby lived with his mother in a cottage behind
what is now Tates' shop in Caistor Road, Laceby."

 "It was on New Years night of 1927 that his hut
burned down. The fire engine was there. Canon
Knight was there and he kept saying "Stop your
noise Bobby - give over swearing" . After the
fire he lived in the parsonage yard."

"Kids shouted after him - "Bobby Mapples stole
the apples."

"He used to go to prison. Once it took six men,
there was Special Constable Leeson, Freddie
Cash, Billy Blanchard, Mr. Cross and two others
sturggling to get him on a Grimoldby's Bus handcuffed
and with his legs tied. When Bobby came
back from prison he would tell people he's been
to college."

"His wife's name was Susie - she went funny and
died in Lincoln when she was in her 30's. When
he was married he lived somewhere in Seed Close
Lane, Laceby."

"Bobby neither smoked or drank."

The Laceby Hermit - Bobby Mapples or to give him his real name Robert Harris still lives on in legend after 57 years. A real "character" - because he was different, and his memory remains with us to amuse and entertain for years to come.