The Sad Story Of The Hermit Of Dulwich

The Sad Story Of The Hermit Of Dulwich
It's thought his cave was in Dulwich Woods. Photo: Smith

From Stanley Green, Protein Man to the Mole Man of Hackney, London's had its fair share of eccentrics. But have you heard of Samuel Matthews, AKA the Hermit of Dulwich?

Matthews was a "jobbing gardener", living in the Dulwich and Sydenham area in the 1700s. After his wife's death, he chose to retreat from society, setting up home in a cave, which he dug himself in Dulwich Woods.

He's described as having "a few eccentricities, which were usually ascribed to mental derangement" in Ye Parish of Camberwell, by W H Blanch.

He mainly kept himself to himself, doing occasional work in the gardens of Sydenham, where the locals were apparently fond of him. Little more is know about his hermit lifestyle, except that he came to local attention in 1798, when he was brutally attacked by a group of gypsies who left him for dead.

Image: Steve Grindlay

He was rescued by some local people, and moved back into Dulwich for a time, living in people's hay lofts and barns while recuperating, but soon became overwhelmed by society and moved back to his cave in the woods. By all accounts, he was friendly to the locals and visitors who went on walks specifically with the purpose of spotting him.

But although he was well-known locally during his life, he became better-known after his death.

Matthews was found murdered in his cave on 28 December 1802 or 1803, having lived to the age of about 70. The local community was shocked by his murder — which made it into national newspapers— and an inquest was opened. Several people were tried for his murder but released, including two gypsies, Benjamin Craggs and Arthur Bowers, who both worked as chimney sweeps. Neither of them were from the area, but they were camping on Sydenham Common at the time of the murder. Later, a William Payne was also tried, but released.

Eventually, the cause of death was recorded as "wilful murder by person or persons unknown".

His grave is in the burial ground in Dulwich Village. Photo: Matt Brown

Matthews' grave is in Dulwich Old Cemetery in Dulwich Village.

It's also said that Matthews' way of life was echoed, in the same area, 200 years later. Dulwich Society claims that a Jamaican man named Solomon made his home in the woods. British History also claims that someone else, a Samuel Bentyman, was murdered in the same wood in 1738, although we haven't found any record of either of these stories elsewhere.

Last Updated 13 October 2017