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John Mounsey 'King of Patterdale'

Page Editor: Chris Darvill

Page last Reviewed: 26 Aug 2014

In the Parish of Barton, in Westmoreland

Mr Mounsey was distinguished by the title of King of Patterdale; the owners of which place, for time immemorial have been honoured with this appellation: a distinction which probably arose from some of the property being allodial, as it is independent, and held of no superior. The royal family have the titles of king, queen, prince, princess and duke. The palace, pleasantly situated at the head of the lake Ulswater, makes but an indifferent appearance; neglect for half a century hath left it almost a ruin. To get money with the late owner was a principle that almost absorbed every other idea. This propensity broke out very early in life, and appeared on every occasion. The wild mountains, which almost surround the village, afford the beautiful Westmoreland slate, and lead ore in great abundance; and some of them are covered with wood. Of wood and slate he had a large share, most of which was conveyed down the lake in boats, and, when a boy, he could not be restrained by his father from the drudgery, of the oar. His brother, the duke of Stybrow, was no lover of work, he was a fine jolly fellow; which made the old man, a respectable country gentleman, in his mirth observe, “he had three children of very different dispositions: the oldest son would be drowned in Ulswater; the other in the mash-tub; and the daughter, the devil could not beat her for pride.”

No change in his manner of life (at least for the better) took place at the death of his father, which brought him into the possession of more than three hundred pounds a year; he persevered as if he daily dreaded the want of common necessaries of life; no work or hardship was too great for him; and he was lucky enough to engage one Dick Pearson, a true and trusty slave, into his service. They loaded the boat, rowed it down the lake, unloaded, and returned, at all seasons of the year, and at all times of the night. Sometimes he would sleep in barns, or other out-houses, when a few pence would have afforded him a comfortable bed at a public house. In dress he was the figure of misery itself; his stocking heels were made of strong leather; his clothes patch upon patch of any colour ; and according to the custom of the country, he wore wooden shoes (provincially clogs) heavily shod with iron. Nature had formed him for labour, of a robust make; he was always equal to every thing. He had another happy requisite; he would never flinch from any weight he was able to stand under; and anecdotes are not wanting of his extraordinary strength. A storm, however, would set all his powers at defiance; and once, at least, the prediction of his father was nearly fulfilled. He was ferrying a lead of wood down the lake, with no other help than his old companion Dick Pearson, a violent and unusual hurricane arose, and they were every moment in danger of going to the bottom. To throw the wood overboard was too great a sacrifice, though their lives were in the most imminent danger. They were however, so fortunate as to reach an island, a bare rock just rising above the lake. The storm increased; for two days and nights they were exposed to all its violence; a pile of stones, which they industriously raised, was their only shelter, and here, it was said, the king took care to secure what provision they had for his own use. In this there is reason to believe he was unfairly used. He contradicted the report himself; and, as he was not possessed of fine feelings, it is unlikely he would have given himself that trouble had it been true. All the posse vicinitatis were collected, but no one had courage to attempt their deliverance, notwithstanding the temptation of a considerable reward from the queen dowager. The storm at length abated; and they landed safe. This might have furnished him with an useful lesson; but it did not, for he never desisted till old age compelled him to stop.

When he had particular business to transact from home, where he saw the necessity of appearing decent, he would call upon a friend on the road, with whom he could take the liberty, and borrow his clothes. In two or three days he restored the loan, and returned home in the dress he set out. Upon the mountains he had an extensive right of common; and four shillings was the price for a beast-gate. When applications for joist were wanting, he would travel the country on foot, beating up for recruits. In one excursion it was remarked that he could only collect one solitary heifer, which he himself drove from Alston Moor, Cumberland, a distance of near forty miles. From such a strict economy it is not to be wondered that his property was daily accumulating: his house-keeping, it is supposed, never exceeded thirty pounds a year, some say not twenty pounds; and his annual income at the last was at least eight hundred. Indeed he seldom ate at home, as he let his lands by stipulation, his tenants to give him so much hard cash, and so many meals, some one a week, some more, and he generally took care to have them before due; even cockles, cabbages, &c. by measure or count, became sometimes the consideration for a trifling rent. In some things he would indulge himself ; he was remarkably fond of sugar, gingerbread, and all kinds of sweetmeats, which he always kept in his pockets ; and in one instance he agreed with a tenant to supply him with thirty six pounds of sugar yearly.

To prevent the risk of being robbed, he would frequently hide his money in old stone walls. Something or other created suspicion, and he was watched. An industrious woman privately removed many a stone with little or no success, but would not give it up; she had therefore recourse to stratagem; she tumbled the stones about as he approached, and ran off with the appearance of very great surprise, as if in actual possession of treasure. He was taken in the snare, and called out that he would give her one half if she would return and deliver it up. This feint had the effect, she was now convinced that near the place money was hidden, and took the opportunity, before his majesty recovered from his consternation, to make a more diligent search, and by this manoeuvre, which was in the end successful, actually carried off the prize. That he recovered any part of the money is not very probable : he had such an excessive dread of law that his subjects might almost say or do anything with impunity.

When more advanced in years his dress was at least decent, he attended markets like a common farmer, and there was nothing in his appearance to attract the notice of a stranger. He nevertheless studied economy in every shape, and to the last had his new stockings lined with leather at the heels. Once he joined with a neighbour for a horse, but the partnership soon broke up : the poor animal when upon travel had a sorry time of it, provender was scarce, and turnpike-gates caused many a tedious journey; but a penny was saved. Riding one day to Penrith market, by the
side of Ulswater, he made a full stop, stripped, and into the lake he went. From the bottom he picked up an old stocking, which he very carefully examined. “It might very likely have something valuable in it, as it did not swim to the side,” was his answer to a clergyman who joined him upon the road, and whose curiosity, from this odd circumstance, was not a little raised.

Willson, school-master of Patterdale, acted as his secretary, and ten pence was the price agreed upon for making his will. After the first, alterations, additions, and codicils became so frequent that Willson was tired of the price, and for once got it raised to a shilling. He afterwards made a bolder attempt, he asked half a crown; this was too serious, and another person was employed. Not many years ago, he was so ill that his recovery was doubtful. His son, the prince, advised him to leave two hundred pounds to the poor. “No, he had lost a great deal by the poor, but he never got any thing by them in his life, why leave anything to them?” But the amiable youth, reasoning with him on the awful scene before him, “Well,” says he to his only child, his heir, and executor, “I will leave one hundred, if you will be fifty of it.” Whether ever in his life before he hit upon so curious a method of cheating himself is unknown to us. This was not the finishing of his reign; he recovered, and in his eighty-ninth year, lamented the shortness of life: “Could we but,” said he to his old friend Willson, “live to the age of Methuselah, we might then have some chance of getting rich: but we no sooner find ourselves in the way of getting a little together, then death comes upon us and spoils all.” – Death, however, overtook him on the 15th October, 1793, in the ninety-second year of his age. He was succeeded in his title and estate by his only child John, who had a numerous family.