Church Monuments Society



Month: April 2020
Type: Headstone  
Era: 20th Century

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St Nicholas
St Nicholas, Church Lane, Brockenhurst, SO42 7UB

More about this monument

The headstone of a local character shows him in action

Near the War Graves, in the cemetery adjoining St Nicholas, Brockenhurst, stands the picturesque headstone of ‘Brusher’ Mills, a well-known local character who made a living from catching snakes. Some were sold to London Zoo to feed the king cobras, others boiled down to make a general cure-all known as ‘Adder’s Fat’. For some time ‘Brusher’ lived in a hut in the woods, also shown on the headstone. His nickname came from the fact that he also worked as a sweeper at the local cricket pitch ( How did this marginalised individual acquire the celebrity status celebrated in this memorial?

The New Forest in the 1890’s boasted a number of golf courses and was a popular destination for tourists arriving by rail and charabanc. As in the case of many other British holiday destinations, increased accessibility encouraged the production of guidebooks. The Hampshire publications emphasised the area’s wildness and archaic Forest Laws. Rose Champion de Crespigny in The New Forest: its traditions, inhabitants and customs claimed as her unique selling point, descriptions of the flora, fauna and migrant inhabitants such as gypsies and charcoal burners. A portrait photograph of Mills adorned the beginning of the book. Her approach was positive. In an increasingly regimented urban and suburban world, there was an increased enthusiasm for the rural, the untamed and the primitive. C.J. Cornishe’s guidebook The New Forest and the Isle of Wight says of a charcoal burner’s encampment: ‘Except for the setting of good English trees, it might pass for part of the Kraal of some race of woodland dwarfs.’

Mills acquired fame if not fortune. Postcards depicting him with his snake-catching paraphernalia were on sale in local towns and villages. His death in 1905 was widely reported in the national press and a headstone was paid for by public subscription. In Sicilian marble, it bears a relief based on a photographic postcard by F.G.O. Stuart of Southampton. It shows the snake-catcher, with snakes in one hand, his cleft stick in the other, and his can on the ground. A depiction of his hut has been added on the left.

The maker, who signed it, was David Banks of Lymington, a local stone mason with a successful business in Belmore Lane. This was continued after his death in 1924 as E.A. Banks and still trades today, after a merger, as Hoare Banks. Inventive headstones are relatively unusual and this one is perhaps reminiscent of the Georgian examples found in the Chichester area, notably at Warblington and Emsworth.

‘Brusher’ Mills was his own man – scaring tourists and telling tall tales to journalists. His fame and popularity continue to this day.

Barbara Tomlinson