The man – known as Peter the Wild Boy – was found naked, walking on all fours and unable to speak, in a forest near Hanover, before being sent to England on the orders of the king.
Peter was treated as a curiosity by the king and members of his royal household, who were amused by the young man’s “strange appearance and erratic behaviour”, according to English Heritage.
Intellectuals debated whether his learning difficulties were due to “nature or learning”, he was studied by scientists, and was the inspiration for satires by Jonathan Swift and Daniel Defoe.
A wax figure of Peter was exhibited, and he was featured in a painting of the members of the court by William Kent.
But once the novelty of the “freak show” had worn off, Peter was placed in the care of a member of the royal household, before eventually finding work as a farm labourer in Hertfordshire.
He died at the age of about 72, and was buried at St Mary’s church, Northchurch, with a gravestone apparently paid for by local people.
Tony Calladine, designation team leader for English Heritage, said it was “a fascinating story of a significant figure in the country’s history of disability”.
He said: “Listing marks special historic interest, so is very appropriate for the headstone of Peter the Wild Boy, given the intrigue in his story both in Georgian England and today.”
Listing the headstone means that its status will be taken into account before any future planning decisions are taken that could affect its future.
Ed Vaizey, the Conservative heritage minister, said Peter’s story was “both extremely interesting and, at the same time, poignant and unsettling” and “reminds us how far public attitudes to disability have changed”.
Katharine Quarmby, author of Scapegoat, her ground-breaking investigation into the roots of modern-day disability hate crime, welcomed the decision to list the gravestone.
But she said that although it was clear that attitudes to disabled people had changed since the eighteenth century, she was not certain if there had been a “rupture with the past” or a gradual improvement over the centuries, or if the kind of attitudes shown by George I’s court in displaying Peter for their amusement had simply “migrated” to modern-day equivalents such as “freak show” television shows and disablist internet abuse.
She said it could be argued that notorious modern-day cases of disability hate crime were “vestiges of a very unpleasant past”, but they could also show that there was “still a public appetite for public monstering of disabled people”.
She said she saw signs of more positive public attitudes, such as the success of The Last Leg, Channel 4’s Paralympic-themed comedy chat show, presented by the disabled comedian Adam Hills.
But she added: “At the same time, we are seeing this vicious stripping of benefits from disabled people, and the demonising of disabled people on benefits.”
She said she believed that the government’s announcement about Peter’s gravestone was a “distraction” from the brutal cuts and reforms to disabled people’s benefits and services.
She said: “When we think of hundreds of thousands of disabled people losing their benefits, it pales into insignificance. They are trying to distract us. There are really more important things that are wrong with our country.”
21 February 2013