Times past: There is self-isolating and then there is taking it to extremes! This week, Bideford historian Peter Christie looks at the man who lived in a chimney...

Most of our ancestors led stable, normal, uneventful lives. Occasionally one comes across one who does not follow this pattern. Such a man was Joseph Becalick or Becklake of Woolsery.

Born around 1838 he began his working life as a farm labourer but attended evening classes run by the Vicar of Woolsery and with this hard won education secured a job as rate collector for his district. Using the earnings from this he purchased a small farm at Cranford in his home parish.

Here he prospered, employing two workers to help him run the farm and look after his domestic needs (he never married).

All was well until around 1885 when during a visit to Bideford market on farm business his farmhouse caught fire and was almost completely burnt to the ground.

Such disasters weren’t that unusual at a time when thatch was the usual roofing material but Joseph’s reaction was anything but usual.

Arriving back home he found only one part of his house still standing – a wall supported by an old-fashioned chimney with its huge fireplace. This fireplace was about four feet by six and into this ‘amid the ruin of his home, the poor man crept, and lay down to sleep.’

One can only sympathise with him in his predicament, but his next step strikes one as bizarre.

He apparently found this fireplace so congenial that he proceeded to live there for the next 20 years or so ‘through storm and sunshine, in spite of wind, rain, hail or snow!’ He cooked his meals over a log fire and slept in what is described as a ‘deal box’.

In April 1908 his neighbour Mrs Andrews noticed that Joseph was looking ill and she offered him a cup of coffee ‘which he eagerly accepted and asked for more’. She visited him the next day and found him ‘in a state of collapse’. She called the vicar and between them they managed to wrap poor Joseph in a blanket and drive him by cart to Bideford Hospital. Sadly he was so weak that he died two days later.

His obituary noted his age as ‘about 70’ adding that he had lived in ‘indescribably squalid conditions’. It also recorded the fact that he had started building a new house several years previously but hadn’t completed it.

So perished the ‘chimney dweller’ of Woolsery – a true, if somewhat sad, eccentric.