The Tragic Hermit of Cannock Chase
Updated: Jan 14, 2021
As promised in my previous post about Cannock Chase, here is the tale of Dick Slee, the hermit of the Chase. While Slee most definitely lived in his cave on the heath, all that we have written about his life appears in the wonderful “The Friendship of Cannock Chase” book by one “Pitman” and I have adapted it here.
Dick Slee was a labourer in the employ of the Anson family of Shugborough Hall. When he retired he asked if he could live quietly in a corner of the Chase near to the hall as a hermit, and his old master Anson approved. Dick set to work scraping a pit in the soil then gradually building up a hovel of rough slabs and old bricks, topping it with a turf roof. He staked out a little garden and grew his own herbs and even planted some trees. A spring trickled at the end of this plot and the old man began to settle into life in his hermitage.
Slee loved nature and would sit for hours in his huge old coat in the entrance of his makeshift cave, listening to the birdsong on the heath and watching the wildlife. A hare became a frequent visitor to the hermitage, eventually becoming quite tame. Dick named her Bess and she became not just his pet but his only friend. Folk in the nearby villages sometimes associated Mr Slee with the uncanny and it was considered a prudent idea to bring him gifts of food, and in reality he did have a great knowledge of herbalism. Possibly because of this, or simply out of fondness for his old employee, Anson took great care to leave him unmolested and gave strict orders for his gamekeepers and his greyhound exercisers to keep away.
“Be sure to keep my hounds away from Dick's Cave, for I would not want to harm that hare for all the world”, he proclaimed.
One day though, Anson's men made a grave mistake and the terrified Bess had to scamper for her life as the greyhounds approached. She had outrun the racing dogs and old Dick opened the wicket gate to his plot ready to receive her as she ran, but out of exhaustion and terror Bess the hare fell and died right there. The old man was distraught, inconsolable, and the news spread quickly to the village where the locals rallied to try to comfort him. Anson himself was aghast, saying -“I would not have had this happen for a thousand pounds!”
The poor old hermit put his feelings into a poem which a local wrote down for him.
“Poor Bess, alas, is dead! Nought but bad luck for me; She had no soul to save, Yet Bess I lov’d to see. Each day she did around My humble cot attend, She was my sole companion, And my silent friend.”
He buried her in a little tomb he had made for himself but very quickly fell into a deep depression from which he never recovered. His hermitage fell into disrepair and the authorities thought it best to remove him to Rugeley workhouse, but he died soon afterwards.
Pitman concludes - “Relic hunters made havoc of Dick’s hut and garden, and little more than a few bricks in a small hollow remained within a few years to show the spot where the Hermit of Cannock Chase lived in the last quarter of the eighteenth century.”
Today Dick Smee's cave is not much more than a depression in the ground, barely noticeable, but I hope in telling this story his sad legend will be remembered a little.
What is left of Dick Slee's Cave, courtesy of the Friends of Cannock Chase
Shugborough Hall, home of the Anson earls for three centuries