by Joe Earp
The Old General perhaps Nottingham’s most famous well loved eccentrics! Most people of today don’t know who the real Old General was, but they have perhaps heard of the pub which was located in Hyson Green.
The Old General real name Benjamin Mayo was born around 1779 in Nottingham and lived most of his life with his mother. The well respected Nottingham historian, Potter Briscoe, (1877, p12-13) describes Ben’s appearance in great detail, ‘he was very round shouldered and his stature was no more than four feet high. His eyes were dark grey and his forward was very prominent. He wore his shirt unbuttoned revealing his copper coloured chest. It was said that his legs was badly deformed so that his progress, which was generally a jog-trot, was very peculiar’.
Many funny tales are told of the Old General and there are too many to list here. Perhaps some of the best known are mentioned below. Taken from J Walker: Transactions of the Thoroton Society, (1926):
“He regarded himself as second only to the Mayor in importance within the confines of Nottingham. His great day was on Mickleton Monday. The Mickleton jury were accustomed to beat the bounds of the town on the first Thursday in September and the following Monday they proceeded through the streets of the town to take note of any obstruction or irregularities and that was when Old General was at the height of his glory.
Followed by all the school children of the town whom he marshalled in some sort of military array and over whom he acted as general, he followed the jury prepared to remove any offending obstacle immediately. Did a doorstep project into the thoroughfare it was immediately turned up by Old General’s followers acting under his instructions, or did a sign not meet with the approval of the Mickleton Jury Old General and his troops made short work of it.
It was a great day for the school children, they demanded a holiday and most of them got it. Some few school masters however, held out against Old General and refused to liberate their pupils, when sieges were undertaken and mud and stones plentifully thrown. Old General however, was open to bribery and twopence would usually buy him off. The proceedings terminated by the army demanding admission to the Castle which was of course always refused but as compensation sweetmeats were thrown over the gateway for the children to scramble for.
Like most ‘half-wits’, as he was then termed, Old General had a keen sense of humour. He used to be fond of drilling boys in the Market Place and upon one occasion he was so engaged when a party of officers from the barracks on the top of the Park came up and watched his proceedings. One of Old General’s recruits was particularly slow witted and was constantly making mistakes in his drill. Laughingly an officer said to Old General ‘What will you do with him, he is too stupid for a soldier? ‘Old General said nothing to the officer but called the boy out of the ranks and standing him in an appropriate place said, ‘There lad you’ll never make a soldier you are too stupid so I’ll make an officer of you”.
Another tale tells of Ben running through the town calling out “Speech by the Prince of Wales, full account of what his Royal Highness said yesterday”. A customer purchased one of these speeches and found he was presented with a blank sheet of paper. Protesting against the imposition he received the reply “Quite correct Sir, ‘is Royal ‘ighness never said now’t”.
Ben spent the later years of his life as a great well known local character in Nottingham. He was simple minded but well loved by everyone. He lived with his mother for most of his life and when she died he was taken in by a Mr Hudson of St Peter’s Poorhouse. When Mr Hudson left Nottingham, Ben went to St. Mary’s Workhouse. The Old General did not settle here. After a time he had a fall, from the effects of which he died and he was buried in the old St Peter’s Churchyard, Broad Marsh burial ground.
A few years after he died many of the boys who could remember Ben from their childhood decided to pay for a plaque to remember him. The plaque reads:
BENJAMIN MAYO COMMONLY KNOWN BY THE NAME OF “THE OLD GENERAL” DIED IN THE NOTTINGHAM UNION WORK-HOUSE 12TH JANUARY 1843, AGED 64 YEARS. A FEW INHABITANTS OF THIS TOWN, ASSOCIATING HIS PECULIARITIES AND ECCENTRICITIES,WITH REMINISCENCES OF THEIR EARLY BOYHOOD, HAVE ERECTED THIS TABLET TO HIS MEMORY.
[From: Hone’s Everyday Book Vol. 2 Page 1570.]
Below is a video of the Old General Plaque: