Past Lives

Past Lives: The Hermit of Barnard Castle

A visit to Barnard Castle in Durham should include a visit to Frank’s Cell, once home to its most eccentric resident.

Image: illustration of Frank Shields by Susan Burghart

Part of the experience of visiting Barnard Castle in the mid 19th century was the chance of an encounter with the celebrated ‘hermit’ – a local eccentric called Frank Shields who lived in the castle keep and entertained tourists as both a guide and personality. The son of an ostler (someone who looked after the horses of people staying at an inn), Francis Shield was born in Barnard Castle in 1815.

Initially, Frank followed his father’s trade but, at some stage in the 1840s, for reasons unknown, he took up residence in the castle. By 1851, he was able to give his address as the keep of Castle Barnard and his occupation as ‘recluse, antiquary and artist in painting’. The ostler had become the hermit of Barnard Castle.

Frank’s antiquarianism was based on an interest in old buildings, their preservation and presentation, and he became a self-taught authority on the history of the castle. An artistic bent is indicated by the manner in which he decorated the walls and ceiling of his cell with self-made plaster casts. 

Short in stature with a large bushy beard, the hermit seemed, in the words of one visitor, ‘as if he had lived there since before the invention of scissors and razors and could not bring himself to patronise such novelties’. Such an appearance no doubt added to Frank’s celebrity.

Sadly, his sojourn in the castle was cut short in 1859 when, following an altercation, Frank was evicted and cast into the wider world. A period of obscurity followed, but, by 1874, he had recovered his vocation and was living amid the ruins of Egglestone Abbey, busily engaged in cleaning out the buildings and fencing them in. Later that year, however, ‘the recluse of Egliston Abbey’ was admitted to the workhouse in a state of mental distress occasioned by a belief that the abbey was haunted. It is doubtful that he ever fully recovered his equilibrium, later being classified as a lunatic. He died at Barnard Castle in 1881 at the age of 66.

Though now shorn of decoration, Frank’s cell still exists in the Round Tower of Barnard Castle a few short steps up from the vaulted basement. It is a poignant reminder of a great enthusiast.  

Words by Malcolm Hislop

Illustration by Susan Burghart

Image: Barnard Castle