Timon of the Tees
A brief biography of the mysterious John Wells, more commonly known as Timon Of The Tees, was found in the back of a copy of Notes on the Folk-Lore of the Northern Counties of England and the Borders by W Henderson, 1879. The book was in the general collection of Seaton Carew library, and the authorship of these typed pages is unknown. We cannot speak to its accuracy, but most details seem to be corroborated by newspaper articles of the time. The lengthy quote from Reverend Canon Tristram is taken - with a few errors - from the Henderson book. A transcribed version is below, with typographical errors corrected and the text divided into paragraphs for ease of reading.
John Wills was born in 1821, in Sunderland. His father was a keelman employed in connexion with the Claxheugh paper mill. He was brought up as a sailor, and served out of Sunderland. He lived on a boat at the Sunderland customhouse, and married a respectable young woman. He had one daughter.
In 1846, at the age of 25, he fell into a ship’s hold and received a head injury which precipitated a change in character, becoming a lunatic, although a very harmless one. He did nonetheless prove to be sufficiently troublesome to his friends. He left his wife and child in 1849 but remained in the Sunderland area.
He was afraid of his mother, who lived in Hylton. He claimed he was the son of a French admiral, and once disappeared for several weeks when he took it upon himself to walk to London. In the winter of 1865 or the spring of 1866 he undertook an expedition to search for John Franklin, the arctic explorer, who had died in 1847 on his ill-fated attempt to traverse the Northwest Passage. Wills’s voyage to find Franklin was shortlived. He was picked up by a steam-tug from Middlesborough, and brought ashore. There he bought a cabin and boat, which he transported to Seaton Snook in March of 1866.
At Seaton Snook, he was seen regularly at church, conspicuous by his peculiarity of dress. The Stirling Observer noted, "His personal appearance is anything but inviting, wearing, as he does, old-fashioned and dirty apparel, and shaggy beard. He is rather fond of reading out of some old law books; and from the style of his reading one would judge he had been favoured with a good education.’ He would proclaim to anyone who would listen that he was not John Wills the hermit, but in fact John Marley, rightful heir to the Kirkleatham Estate, cheated out of his fortune by the current owners. His sorry tale and ill temper earned him the epithet “Timon of the Tees”, after the Shakespearian character.
He was married (bigamously) at Seaton Snook Mission on 8th July 1866 after a brief courtship with a local widow, and moved to West Hartlepool where he intended to work as a herbalist. The name of John Wills disappeared from all records, but stories of people visiting a magician of sorts called Black Willie begin to emerge.
Reverend Canon Tristram reported "I was sent for by a parishioner, the wife of a small farmer, who complained that she had been scandalised by her neighbours opposite, who accused her of witchcraft. These neighbours had lost two horses during the last year, and therefore consulted BLACK WILLIE at Hartlepool, who assured them that they had been bewitched. Acting on his advice, they adopted the following means for discovering the witch. Having procured a pigeon, and tied its wings, every aperture to the house, even to the keyholes, was carefully stopped, and pins were run into the pigeon whilst alive by each member of the family, so as to pierce the poor bird’s heart. The pigeon was then roasted, and a watch kept at the window during the operation, for the first person to pass the door would, of course, be the guilty party. The good woman who appealed to me had the misfortune to be the first passer-by, and the family were firmly convinced she had exercised the "evil eye" upon the dead horses, though she was a comely matron, not yet fifty years of age. This happened in a village close to the river Tees.’"
In May 1867 Wills’s houseboat - along with his considerable archive of papers and books with which he planned to one day claim his rightful place at Kirkleatham - was destroyed by arson.
On Sunday 15 March 1868, Wills was found dead near the South Docks at Sunderland in a fishing boat called The Margaret. It is unknown how long he had been in Sunderland, or if indeed he had ever left at all.