Twickenham has been home to many eccentric people over the years but none so strange as Dr William Battie who lived there from 1740 to 1759.
Dr Battie was born and baptised on the 1st September 1704 in Modbury is South Devon, the son of Reverend Edward Battie. His father had been a master at Eton and that is where young William went to school, moving on to Kings College in Cambridge where he studied law. Failing his bar exams and with insufficient funds to continue his legal training he “diverted his attention to physic” and took up medicine. After practising for many years in the field of psychiatry he bought two private “madhouses” near St Lukes in Cripplegate from which he gained a handsome income.
Battie took an enlightened view on mental health. In 1758 he published "Treatise on Madness’ in which he advocated a humane treatment of the insane. His method was built around reassurance, cleanliness, good food, support from friends and family and caring management. This was in direct contrast to the ineffective and brutal purges, vomiting and blood-letting then regularly practiced at Bethlem, London’s largest asylum.
“Madness is frequently taken for one species of disorder, nevertheless, when thoroughly examined, it discovers as much variety with respect to its causes and circumstances as any distemper whatever: Madness, therefore, like most other morbid cases, rejects all general methods, e.g. bleeding, blisters, caustics, rough cathartics, the gumms and foetid anti-hysterics, opium, mineral waters, cold bathing and vomits.”
Dr William Battie – “Treatise on Madness”
One of Dr. Battie’s passions was house building even though he had no experience of architecture. On one occasion he designed and built a 3-storey house on the Thames at Marlow, and forgot to add a staircase. He also forgot the flood plain upon which the house was sitting so for long periods of time the ground floor was under water. During the construction of the house the building materials were brought up river in barges pulled by bargemen – or ‘hauliers’ as they were known. Dr Battie suggested that it would save time and money if the barges were pulled by horses instead. The bargemen, seeing their jobs about to disappear, took exception to this and tried to throw Dr Battie off Marlow Bridge. He saved himself by turning his wig around backwards and launching into his favourite party piece – an impersonation of Mr Punch, the brutish star of the popular “Punch and Judy” puppet shows. The bargemen were so amused by his antics that they let him go. Dr Battie may have been silly but he wasn’t stupid and from that point on whenever he went to Marlow he always had a pair of pistols tucked into his pocket.
Dr Battie used the same Mr Punch routine to save the life of one of his patients as a Mr Nichols was to record in 1782…
“By successfully mimicking this character Dr. Battie is said to have once saved a young patient’s life. He was sent for to a gentleman now alive, but then only fourteen or fifteen, who was in extreme misery from a swelling in his throat. When the doctor understood what the complaint was, he opened the curtains, turned his wig, and acted Punch with so much humour and success, that the lad, thrown almost into convulsions from laughing, was so agitated as to occasion the tumour to break, and a complete cure was the instantaneous consequence.”
Another of the eccentricities in which Dr Battie indulged was a love for dressing up and behaving like a common labourer. On one occasion he arrived at a friend’s house dressed as a workman. The servant, who did not recognise him, threw him out.
On the 13th June 1776, Dr. Battie, had a paralytic stroke. As he lay dying his unconventional behaviour did not fail him. Turning to the young man who was looking after him he said..
“Young man, you have heard, no doubt, how great are the terrors of death. This night will probably afford you some experience ; but may you learn, and may you profit by the example, that a conscientious endeavour to perform his duty through life will ever close a Christian’s eyes with comfort and tranquillity!”
And with that he died.
Dr William Battie was buried at Kingston in Surrey, on his own instruction “as near as possible to his wife, without any monument or memorial to mark his resting-place.”
After his death William Munk, the Librarian at the Royal College of Physicians wrote…
“He was eccentric in habits, singular in his dress, sometimes appearing like a labourer, and doing strange things. Notwithstanding his peculiarities, he is to be looked upon as a man of learning, of benevolent spirit, humour, inclination to satire, and considerable skill in his profession.”
There is a continuing debate about the origin of the term “batty” meaning ‘eccentric’ or ‘mad’. Some say the phrase comes from “bats in the belfry”, others argue the case of George Bateson who in 1852 invented the safety coffin – ‘a sure and certain guard against premature burial’. As for me I am sticking with our own local eccentric, Dr William… Battie by name and batty by nature.
— from Martyn Day