Victorian strangeness: The man who was covered in bees

Man in China covered in bees Image copyright AFP

A beekeeper in China made headlines this week by creating a living coat of bees. But as author Jeremy Clay writes, he was beaten to the stunt by more than a century - by a man who wasn't even trying.

If he'd stopped to count his blessings, the anxious man moving gingerly along the streets of central London would have found plenty of reasons to be cheerful.

It was a fine summer's day, for a start. He was strolling through one of the greatest cities on earth. And in an unforgiving age, he had a good job, with a reputable firm.

As it was, he had more pressing matters on his mind. Chiefly, that he was covered in bees. Thousands of them, from his head to his waist, with hundreds more buzzing round his hat.

It happened on a Saturday morning in July 1885, when, for want of anything better to do, a swarm of bees swooped suddenly upon the unfortunate man as he walked down Regent Street.

Startled, no doubt, by this unexpected plot twist in the story of his day, he stayed true to the Victorian stereotype, and tried to continue on his way without needless fuss.

In this aim, he was thwarted. "As may be imagined," wrote the London Standard, "this strange sight in the midst of the crowded streets led to his being followed by a crowd numbering many thousands of persons."

With one swarm following another - and man and insect united in a passable impression of a stick of candy floss - the singular spectacle moved through the main thoroughfares of the West End, stopping the traffic as it passed by.

Who knows how long this arrangement might have continued, but eventually a bystander hit on a solution and advised our hero to take off his coat. "Taking the hint, he slipped off the garment," said the Standard. "The host of bees rose en masse, and the man made off as quickly as possible." Followed just as hastily by the thousands of onlookers.

And the sting in the tale? Surprisingly, there wasn't one, at least not literally. His employers at the cutlery firm Messrs Mappin and Webb wrote a letter to the Standard which concluded: "We are pleased to say that the man is none the worse for this extraordinary visitation."

Discover more about what life was like in Victorian times and 10 truly bizarre Victorian deaths.

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