John “Mad Jack” Mytton was born to a family of Shropshire squires with a lineage stretching back some 500 years earlier than his day. The surname may have originated as ‘Mutton’ or be associated with the placename of the village of Mytton near Forton Heath just a few miles to the west of Shrewsbury, upstream on the River Severn. In common with many of his ancestors and his peers in class and privilege, Jack was privately educated but only after expulsion from both Westminster and Harrow. Mytton attempted to serve in both parliament and a cavalry regiment, the 7th Hussars. His father (also John) died young, at 30, when Jack was but two years of age. Being the heir he therefore inherited (at age 21) the family seat at Halston Hall, Whittington near Oswestry in Shropshire, worth £60,000 (£4.3 million today ) and an annual income of £10,000 per annum (over £716,000 today ) from rental and agricultural income.
As a young boy, Jack was sent to be educated at Westminster School, but after only one year was expelled for fighting a master. He was then sent to Harrow school but only lasted three days there before being expelled. He was subsequently educated by a disparate series of private tutors whom he tormented with practical jokes including leaving a horse in one tutor’s bedroom.
Despite limited educational attainments, he was granted a place at Cambridge University, where he arrived with 2,000 bottles of port to sustain him during his studies but left without graduating, finding university life boring. He then embarked on The Grand Tour around Europe’s major capital cities and ancient sites.
On his return from the Grand Tour he was commissioned into the army, joining the 7th Hussars. Their uniform was particularly elaborate and ornate even by the standards of the time. As a young officer, a Cornet, he spent a year with the regiment in France, as part of the occupation army after Napoleon’s defeat, gambling and drinking before resigning his commission. He returned to his country seat and the duties and obligations of a country squire in preparation for coming into his full inheritance at 21 years. Once he had inherited he set about spending his inheritance at an unsustainable rate.
Back to Shropshire
In 1819 he entertained ambitions of serving in Parliament, a tradition in his family with Myttons having been returned as MPs previously. He secured his seat through the expediency of encouraging his constituents to vote for him by offering them £10 notes and through spending £10,000 (£750,000 would be a modern equivalent) he became MP for Shrewsbury. He found political debate boring and attended parliament only once and apparently for just 30 minutes.
Instead he indulged his enjoyment for horse racing and gambling and enjoyed some success at both, mainly by first buying already successful race horses such as the horse Euphrates which was already a consistent winner and entering it in The Gold Cup at Lichfield in 1825, which Euphrates duly won. Jack had the horse’s portrait painted by William Webb and exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1825.
In 1826, as a result of a bet, he is said to have ridden his horse into the Bedford Hotel (later Midland Bank), opposite the Town Hall in Leamington Spa, up the grand staircase and onto the balcony, from which he jumped, still seated on his horse, over the diners in the restaurant below, and out through the window onto the Parade.
Another obsession was fox hunting. Jack had hunted his own pack of hounds from the age of ten. Mytton would go hunting in any kind of weather. His usual winter gear was a light jacket, thin shoes, linen trousers and silk stockings – but in the thrill of the chase he could strip down and continue the chase naked. He is also recorded as crouching naked in snow drifts and swimming winter rivers in full spate. He also continued hunting despite being unseated and sustaining broken ribs -“unmurmuring when every jar was an agony”.
On a freezing winters day he would lead his small army of stable lads on rat hunts, each stable boy equipped with ice skates.
At Halston, he would get out of bed in the middle of the night, take off his flimsy nightshirt and set off completely naked but carrying his favourite gun across the frozen fields towards his lake. Here he would ambush the ducks, fire a few shots and return to bed apparently none the worse for his ordeal. He frequently got up again half an hour later – stripped off and went through the whole process again. His most extraordinary day’s shooting came when… he got fed up waiting for the birds to come within range, stripped naked, sat on the ice and slowly shuffled forward on the slippery surface until he was within range. It took over an hour but he never caught a cold or seemed in the least unwell after this or indeed after any of his naked shooting exploits.
He had a wardrobe consisting of 150 pairs of hunting breeches, 700 pairs of handmade hunting boots, 1000 hats and some 3,000 shirts.
He also had numerous pets in his manor. Including some 2,000 dogs comprising fox hounds and other breeds such as gun dogs, pointers and retrievers, his favourites were fed on steak and champagne. Some dogs wore livery, others were costumed.
A favourite horse Baronet had full and free range inside Halston Hall, and would lie in front of the fire with Jack.
The reputation of Mad Jack was already sealed but he continued to confound and surpass his eccentric behaviour by lying between the hooves of dangerous and nervous horses. His life was described as “a series of suicide attempts”.
He sought thrills through reckless driving of carriages. He would drive his gig at high speed at an obstacle like a rabbit hole only to see if it would turn over. Once he tested if a horse pulling a carriage could jump over a tollgate. It could not. He managed to survive these incidents without serious injuries. It was said of Mad Jack that “not only did he not mind accidents, he positively liked them”. He raced around the country roads in a four horse gig tearing across crossroads and around hairpin corners with total disregard for his own safety or any other road users. In one anecdote he was driving his gig with a new companion, of whom Mad Jack enquired whether he had ever been upset in a gig. No the man replied “Thank God, I have never been upset in one”. “What!!” cried Mytton, “What a damn slow fellow you must have been all your life!” and promptly drove the gig up a sloping bank at full speed tipping himself and his passenger out.
On another occasion he invited a local Oswestry Parson and Doctor to dine at Halston. As they left on horseback, replete and at nightfall he quickly donned a highwayman’s garb and mask, complete with a brace of pistols and by a circuitous route caught up with them at the edge of his estate, where he burst from cover fired both pistols over their heads and called “Stand and deliver!” and related the tale of them galloping for their lives with him hard on their heels.
Contemporary society found his behaviour scandalous. Once he picked a fight with a tough Shropshire miner who disturbed his hunt and the bare knuckle fight lasted 20 rounds before the miner gave up. He arrived at a dinner party at Halston Hall riding a bear and when he tried to make it go faster the beast bit into his calf. His biographer ‘Nimrod’, Charles James Apperley described it thus: ‘‘He once rode this bear into his drawing-room, in full hunting costume. The bear carried him very quietly for a time; but on being pricked by the spur he bit his rider through the calf of his leg.’’ Despite being bitten, Mad Jack kept the bear Nell as a pet. However, it later attacked a servant and Jack had it killed.
Mytton was also a drinking man and could drink eight bottles of port wine a day with a helping of brandy. He managed to kill one of his horses, Sportsman, by making it drink a bottle of port.
Rather than sit down to a formal dinner every evening he would sustain himself throughout the day with ‘pounds of filberts’ when in season, a type of hazelnut, or dine with his tenant farmers eating full fat bacon and quaffing a quart of ale beside their fire before returning to Halston Hall, where his cook and servants would have prepared a full dinner which he would now be unable to eat.
Mytton was an enthusiastic dog-fighter and gambled on the outcome of fights between bulldogs, mastiffs and terriers. He also apparently beat his own fearless bulldog with his bare fists, a dog whose favourite method of quelling his opponents was to put a vice-like bite on their snouts. He is also said to have bitten fighting dogs with his own teeth, even standing upright with a mastiff held in his own jaws without using his hands to support the weight. He was also rumored to have put his wife’s lapdog on the fire in a jealous rage, burning it to death. Though witnesses claim what actually happened was he threw the dog high in the air, caught him and his butler yelled ‘sir you will kill him’. Many rumours were started about Mytton many of which were unfounded.
Mytton was spendthrift and cared little about warnings that his money was running out. He would drop bank notes in his estate and gave his servants lots of spending money. Visitors to his estate would find banknotes secreted around the grounds, whether left on purpose or simply lost by the drunken or distracted squire was uncertain. Once he lost his racetrack winnings – several thousand pounds – at Doncaster races when the wind blew them away. His workmen and tenants regarded him as a generous man. Over fifteen years he managed to spend his inheritance and then fell into deep debt. He totally ignored the advice of close friends and of official advisers such as his agent. His agent had calculated that if he could but reduce his expenditure to £6,000 pa for the next six years his estate would not have to be sold. Jack considered this option for a mere minute before replying “You tell Longueville (the agent) I wouldn’t give a damn to live on £6,000 a year!” His fate was sealed at that point. At first creditors were hard pressed to find the services of a bailiff who was prepared to take the risk of arresting Mad Jack but in 1830 he fled to France to avoid his creditors, prison and court.
He had married, taking his first wife, a Baronet’s daughter, in 1818 but she died in 1820. His second wife Caroline Giffard ran away in 1830. His wives bore him children who he would affectionately toss into the air as babies and pelt with oranges.
In Calais he fell in with a company of shady English adventurers whose occupations kept them by necessity away from English justice. He had met an attractive 20 year old woman on Westminster Bridge and immediately offered her £500 per annum to be his companion and flee with him to France. She took up his offer, which says a lot for his charisma, influence and personality. This woman, Susan, stayed with him for the two years until his death.
During his stay in France he tried to cure his hiccups by setting his shirt on fire. It did work but only the intervention of his friends spared him more serious injuries from burns. Nimrod was present at this event:
‘”Damn this hiccup!!” said Mytton as he stood undressed on the floor, apparently in the act of getting into bed “but I’ll frighten it away”; so seizing a lighted candle applied it to the tail of his shirt – it being a cotton one – he was instantly enveloped in flames. A fellow guest and Mytton’s servant beat out the flames: “The hiccup is gone, by God!”, said he and reeled, naked, into bed’. From bed he quoted Sophocles in Greek the beautiful passage “wherein Oedipus recommends his children to the care of Creon” according to Apperley / Nimrod.
Apperley visited Mytton in his room the next morning, to find him ‘not only shirtless, but sheetless, with the skin of his breast, shoulders and knees of the same colour as a newly singed bacon hog’.
After a couple of years he decided to return to England and ended up in the King’s Bench debtor’s prison in Southwark, London. He died there in 1834 a ’round shouldered, tottering old-young man bloated by drink. Worn out by too much foolishness, too much wretchedness and too much brandy’ in one account.
The Literary Gazette’s review of Nimrod’s biography contrasted the youthful Mytton:
“ . . .heir to an immense fortune, gifted by nature with a mind susceptible of noble cultivation, and a body endowed with admirable physical powers with the wretched drunkard who died in a gaol at the age of thirty-eight, a worn-out debauchee and drivelling sot ”
Nimrod, Charles James Apperley, a neighbour, fellow hunting devotee, close friend and peer felt compelled to record the life of Mad Jack in ‘The Memoirs of the Life of the Late John Mytton, Esquire, of Halston, Shropshire, formerly MP for Shrewsbury, High Sheriff for the Counties of Salop & Merioneth , Major of the North Shropshire Yeomanry Cavalry ; with Notices of his Hunting, Shooting & Driving’.
Published in 1837 this often reprinted series of articles written by Nimrod in The New Sporting Magazine sell for thousands of pounds when originals or early reprints come up at auction.
Maybe the last word on the life of Mad Jack Mytton should be left to Nimrod, a man who knew him well and had a full and lengthy insight into the enigma that was John Mytton : ‘It was his largeness of heart that ruined Mr Mytton, added to the lofty pride which disdained the littleness of Prudence’. But it was also Nimrod who asked:
“ . . . Did the late Mr Mytton really enjoy life amidst all this profusion of expenditure? No. He lacked the art of enjoyment. He was bored and unhappy. There was that about him which resembled the restlessness of the hyena. A sort of pestering spirit egged him on’