New Forest Snake Catcher
Published Countryman magazine June 2011
The old man had a huge forked beard and wore a large hat with an upturned brim. In one hand was a tall pronged stick and dangling from the other were some kind of metal traps. The shabby attire included a substantial long jacket and leg gaiters. I was later to discover that he’d been dead for over half a century when my dad bought the framed postcard of him from our local second-hand shop in the 1950s. ‘He must have been a rat catcher,’ said father that day, and showed me the artist’s signature in the bottom right hand corner. Brusher Mills it said.
Three decades later I was passing through Brockenhurst in the New Forest, where ponies wandered leisurely across the road, thatched cottages basked in the sun, and a villager cycled through an ancient ford. I stopped to photograph its delights and, realising it was lunchtime, decided to eat at the nearby pub. Barely had I got through the door than I was mesmerised by sketches and paintings that lined the walls. In a variety of styles and sizes they all had a common theme; ‘our’ rat catcher. According to the landlord, Brusher Mills was not an artist or a rat catcher: he caught snakes and had been a regular in this pub which was originally named The Railway Inn. In honour of Brusher, after his death, it was renamed The Snake Catcher.
On March 19th 1840 Harry ‘Brusher’ Mills (baptised Henry) was born to Thomas and Ann (née Stote) Mills at Silver Street in the village of Emery Down near Lyndhurst. Both were of Hampshire stock, Thomas having entered the world at Mottisfont, which is famous for its glorious Abbey (National Trust).
Ultimately Brusher took up residence in a charcoal burner’s hut near Sporelake Lawn in the New Forest. His humble shelter was constructed of wooden branches, in a simple conicular shape, and sealed from the elements with turf and heather. His only comfort was a bed of dry bracken and his few possessions included an old blackened home-made spoon and a tin in which he brewed tea from water boiled on an open fire. It was here that he loved to entertain and enthral guests with stories, while drinking a tin of tea laced with whiskey.
Had he completed the full term of two decades in the hut this would have given him traditional Squatters’ Rights. Unfortunately he was evicted a few months before his claim could be established, although it is felt that the eviction probably occurred because of a genuine concern by the authorities for his welfare.
It is uncertain why he was nicknamed Brusher but the main reason was likely to be through his love of watching cricket at Balmer Lawn, where he would sweep the pitch between innings. Otherwise he was often seen brushing aside leaves and other camouflage that hid snakes.
Brusher Mills caught snakes for around eighteen years boasting that he had captured around 30,000 grass snakes and 4,000 adders. Clearly, since adders had poisonous venom, he took more care in handling them. Even so, he was bitten by them many times but would cut and bleed the bite to relieve him of the poison and apply a cream he made specifically for adder bites. This was in addition to his cure for rheumatism, through an unsavoury concoction of clarified dripping from a baked adder, which was rubbed on the affected part of the body.
His eccentricity drew visitors to his bosom. As well as his stories there was his fearless handling of reptiles which set him apart from the herd and gave him strength of character. These attributes, along with his service of clearing the area of snakes, ensured popularity with the locals. Further afield, the London Zoo must have welcomed his services, as he often sent snakes to them for feeding to birds of prey. Another of his occupations was the fashioning of walking sticks from a ready supply of wood. These he sold at the many fairs he attended.
He was a regular visitor to the Railway Inn where he particularly enjoyed a noggin or two of rum. There is a tale about how, on occasions when the number of people at the bar obstructed him from being served, he would toss a snake into their midst. This guaranteed the undivided attention of the bartender as everyone raced for the door in a blind panic.
It was in this favourite watering hole that he was last seen alive on July 1st 1905. The story goes that he disappeared during a meal of bread and pickle and was found dead in an outhouse a short time later by a concerned customer. The funeral was attended by a handful of people, including his sister and nephew, William Perkins the landlord of the Railway Inn, and P C Hebridge who made all the arrangements for the funeral.
I was determined to visit the grave of the snake catcher, whose likeness had graced the wall of my family’s home for so long. To that end I set off for the churchyard of St Nicholas and found Brusher’s last resting place, marked by an attractive white marble headstone with his image in relief, paid for by local people.
The day was scorching hot and I sat on a convenient seat under the shade of a tree where I ruminated on his life and adventures and wished I could have met Harry Brusher Mills. Suddenly I felt a searing pain in my ankle. For a moment I panicked in case it was an adder, but instead – doing its worst – was a horsefly to which I reacted badly. I wondered what kind of potion Brusher might have given me.
I still have the scar to remind me of that day in Brockenhurst, but my memory isn’t so much of a swollen and inflamed foot as the satisfaction I got from finally, and accidentally, discovering the history of a snake catcher extraordinaire.
© Maggie B Dickinson