Every year, the Eccentric Club (UK) bestows upon one of the nation's many oddballs the Greatest British Eccentric of the Year Award. This award, conferred at a formal ceremony held on the first of April, has previously gone to luminaries such as Victorian "chap-hop" rapper Professor Elemental and Captain Beany, whose signature eccentricity is dressing like a baked bean. Although this incarnation of the Eccentric Club was only founded in 2007, the organisation has a long pedigree, as does the role of eccentricity in British life. Some British eccentrics have made great contributions in science, politics and the arts, while others simply enliven the national scene with their behaviour.
Most people know Charles Babbage as the mathematician and engineer whose designs inspired the development of the computer. In addition, he was also a confirmed eccentric who vociferously campaigned against street musicians, proposed that letters could be delivered by ziplines strung between church steeples, and wrote to poets correcting the use of statistics in their poetry. On his death, he left his brain to science; it can be seen today in the Science Museum in London.
"Mad Jack" Churchill
The Second World War was a time of rapid technological progress, with ever newer and deadlier weapons being brought into action. For John Malcolm Thorpe Fleming Churchill, better known as "Mad Jack," however, the old ways were the best. Churchill, who served as a commando undertaking dangerous missions behind enemy lines, went into combat armed with a longbow and a Scottish broadsword, carrying a set of bagpipes. Miraculously, he survived the war and died in 1996.
Not every great British eccentric makes a dramatic national impact; some are content to be local celebrities. Walter "Snowy" Farr was a familiar sight to Cambridge residents. Wearing a bright red military costume and a tall black hat, Farr was usually accompanied by a host of animals, including a group of white mice that rode on the brim of his hat. A council road sweeper, Farr raised money for charity in his spare time. By 2002, he had raised over £60,000 for charities for the blind. He died in 2007.
UK Roundabout Appreciation Society
When printer Kevin Beresford put out a calendar featuring twelve months of the roundabouts of Redditch, Worcestershire, he thought he was simply making a joke about the blandness of holiday calendars. But when the calendar sold over 100,000 copies, he realised he had tapped into a national obsession. The UK Roundabout Appreciation Society studies and catalogues roundabouts of all types, even organising day trips to particularly famous examples.
Dr William Buckland
Naturalist, geologist and theologian, William Buckland was an important figure in the scientific controversies of the early 19th century. He was among the earliest writers on the subject of dinosaur fossils. Today, however, he is best remembered for his unusual diet. Buckland claimed to have "eaten his way through the animal kingdom", serving guests dishes such as mice on toast and allegedly once gobbling up a preserved human heart.
Medieval historians have long wondered about the precise construction and effectiveness of the trebuchet, the largest and most powerful type of medieval catapult. Scale models have been built, but it's hard to find the space to build a full-scale replica -- unless, of course, you're Hew Kennedy, who has built a full-scale thirty-ton trebuchet on his estate north of London. The monster siege engine is capable of flinging a grand piano over 100 yards.
Sir George Reresby Sitwell
When Edith Sitwell published a book on English eccentrics in 1933, it was hardly surprising. The Sitwell family themselves were legendarily eccentric. Edith's father, Sir George Sitwell, invented a tiny pistol for shooting wasps. The walls of the family home bore signs informing guests that no one was permitted to disagree with Sir George on the grounds that it would harm his digestion.
Winner of the 2009 Eccentric of the Year award, Captain Beany is a charity fundraiser and former computer technician from Port Talbot in Wales. Painted orange, dressed in a bright gold outfit and claiming to be from the planet Beanus, Beany raises money for various charities and operates a Baked Bean Museum in his home.
Seventeenth-century Scottish nobleman Sir Thomas Urquhart had a chequered political career, but is probably best known for his writing. He translated the works of Rabelais into English, but it is in his original work that his eccentricity really shines. Urquhart was fond of making up words -- his history of the Urquhart family contains many names which are simple gibberish, for instance, and he once called the bankers who pursued him for money he owed "quodomodocunquizing clusterfists and rapacious varlets". Upon hearing of the restoration of the English monarchy, legend has it that Urquhart laughed until he died.
Opera lovers know John Christie as one of the founders of the Glyndebourne Opera Festival. Now a beloved part of the nation's cultural landscape, it's hard to deny that the festival isn't a little eccentric -- Christie's decision to build a 300-seat opera house in Sussex was quixotic. Christie's other odd habits included removing his glass eye and polishing it at inappropriate moments, as well as deciding for a time that he would only wear lederhosen.