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Cornish Characters by S. Baring-Gould

Hicks was made Governor of Bodmin Asylum in 1848


William Robert Hicks was born at Bodmin on 1st April, 1808--not to be an April fool himself, but to be a right merry jester, and not infrequently to make fools of others. He was the son of a schoolmaster, and he, Sir William Molesworth, of Pencarrow, and Colonel Hamley were educated together for a while in the school of his father.

William Robert became Clerk of the Board of Guardians, Clerk of the Highway Board, and Governor of the County Lunatic Asylum. He was a man of many parts, a good mathematician, a clear-headed and cool man of business, a musician, who could play on the violin and play it well. But he was noted above everything else as a humorist.

He was a short man and inordinately stout, weighing sixteen stone. He had a broad, flexible, somewhat flabby face, with a pair of twinkling grey eyes, a short nose, somewhat protruding thick under lip, and double chin that was very pronounced, and whiskers. What was noticeable in Hicks's face was its flexibility. He possessed the art and the power to tell his story with his countenance as with his voice. Indeed, the alterations of mood in his face were like a musical accompaniment to a song. He was thought the best story-teller of his day; was known as such in Cornwall and Devon, but was not so well appreciated in London, where the peculiar dry humour of the West, as well as the dialect, did not appeal to ordinary hearers as they do in the two Western Counties. One of his many Cornish friends once took Hicks up to town and dined him at his club, thinking that he would keep the table in a roar. But it was not so. His stories fell somewhat flat, and that damped his spirits and he subsided.

One of Hicks's earliest and best friends was George Wightwick, the architect, born at Mold in Flintshire in 1802, who set up as architect in Plymouth in 1829, and was employed to build additions to Bodmin Gaol in 1842 and 1847. He was author of _The Palace of Architecture_, published in 1840. And though he was an excellent _raconteur_, second only to Hicks, he was a most egregiously bad architect. Yet, strangely enough, Mr. Wightwick supposed himself to be enlightened in the matter of Gothic architecture, and in 1835 published in _Loudon's Architectural Magazine_ "A few observations on reviving taste for pointed Architecture, with an illustrated description of a chapel just erected at Bude Haven under the direction of the author."

Wightwick it was who had the merit of discovering Hicks and of introducing him to notables in Devon and Cornwall, for, miserable architect though he was, he had got the ear of the public in the West as a man of charming manners and teeming with anecdote. Through him Hicks obtained access into many a country house, where they would sing, accompanying themselves on the violin, and tell stories.

Hicks was made Governor of Bodmin Asylum in 1848, and found the old barbarous system of treatment of the insane in full swing. He at once adopted gentle methods and in a short while radically changed the entire mode of treatment, with markedly good results.

[Illustration: WILLIAM R. HICKS]

One poor fellow, whom he found chained in a dark cell on a bed of straw as a dangerous lunatic, he nearly cured by kindly treatment. As the fellow showed indications of great shrewdness and wit, Hicks released him and made much of him. A gentleman on a visit to the asylum once said to the lunatic, "I hear, man, that you are Hicks's fool."

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