This is the curious case of a gentleman who had seemingly chosen to live a life of squalor, despite having the wherewithal to do otherwise. The occasion of his death in 1891 was sufficient to draw the attention of the Rugby Advertiser and elicit correspondence through the letters pages.
His early life
Underhill was born in Lutterworth, and his early life saw him follow a relatively conventional path, albeit the inquest into his death reported he was bullied by local children. He was apprenticed to a tailor in Leicester, although on the tailor’s move to America, Underhill found himself working for a shoemaker. These working conditions saw him run away, and seemingly vanish for years until he reappeared in Pailton (the census of 1861 has him living at 26 Coventry Road, with an occupation of Agricultural Labourer). His early life also saw him dress smartly, and the Advertiser edition of January 24th 1891 refers to him as “a rustic dandy”. The paper speculates that rejection by a number of women assisted his decline. By the time of his death, he was living in a pigsty owned by a Mrs. Robins, at the back of a house opposite the Plough Inn.
Great wealth for the time
The conditions in which he lived were all the more surprising when it transpired he had a great amount of money on his person. In 1890 he was robbed by two boys, who stole £26. On further inspection it was reported that he had £170 more in his possession, which a relative persuaded him to put into a bank in Lutterworth. Despite this money, it seemed he insisted on returning to the pigsty. The National Probate Calendar states that the estate he left on his death totalled £125 6s. 2d.
Although the coroner chastised Mrs. Robins for letting him stay in the pigsty, the following edition of the Advertiser, on January 31st, carried a letter defending Mrs. Robins, saying that ‘Old Joe’ as he was otherwise known had become homeless and a target for the local boys. Therefore, the writer argued, the pigsty was his last resort and despite efforts to persuade him otherwise on occasion, Underhill always wished to return there.
Can you help?
The Advertiser mentions that Underhill’s life was dramatised in a play at Rugby Theatre in 1890. Is a copy of this still in existence?