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Peter the Wild Boy

A mysterious child from northern Germany, portrayed by William Kent on the King’s Grand Staircase, became one of the sensations of the Georgian age, as Roger Moorhouse explains.

Gravestone of Peter the Wild Boy at St Mary's Church, Northchurch, Hertfordshire
Gravestone of Peter the Wild Boy at St Mary's Church, Northchurch, Hertfordshire

In the summer of 1725 a peculiar youth was found in the forest of Hertswold near Hameln in northern Germany. Aged about 12, he walked on all fours and fed on grass and leaves. ‘A naked, brownish, blackhaired creature’, he would run up trees when approached and could utter no intelligible sound. The latest in a long line of feral children – in turn celebrated, shunned and cursed through the ages – ‘The Wild Boy of Hameln’ would be the first to achieve real fame. 

After a spell in the House of Correction in Celle, the boy was taken to the court of George, Duke of Hanover and King of the United Kingdom, at Herrenhausen. There the young curiosity was initially treated as an honoured guest. Seated at table with the king, dressed in a suit of clothes with a napkin at his neck, he repelled his host with his complete lack of manners. He refused bread, but gorged himself on vegetables, fruit and rare meat, greedily grasping at the dishes and eating noisily from his hands, until he was ordered to be taken away. He was given the name of Peter, but was variously known as ‘Wild Peter’, ‘Peter of Hanover’, or, most famously, ‘Peter the Wild Boy’.

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