All towns have characters that are larger than life, and of no-one could that be said to be more true of James Stuart, known locally as “Jimmy Strength”. He was only 5 feet 2 inches tall but he was remarkably strong and could allegedly lift weights of a half ton or more. The legend was created when Jimmy came to Berwick Bridge riding a pony and was advised the toll was a halfpenny for pedestrians and one penny for mounted riders. What would you do? He paid the ha’penny and carried the pony over the bridge! He had a reputation as a teller of tall tales and therefore many “facts” have to be taken with a bag of salt!
Jimmy Strength by Thomas Hogarth. The painting is in Berwick Museum and Art Gallery (BERMG 1382)
As far as is known, he was born in Charlestown, South Carolina on Christmas Day 1728. During his life, he had six wives and twenty seven children. He is said (probably by himself!) to have been present at the battles of Prestonpans (1745) and Culloden (1746), then fighting with Wolfe at Quebec (1759) and at the battle of Bunker Hill (1775). He later enlisted in the Navy and served under Admiral Rodney in the West Indies where he was wounded three times.
When he arrived in Berwick is something of a mystery. Robert Weddell, a local solicitor, claimed to have known him since 1816, but in 1840 he informed WilIiam Howitt that he believed the old man had first settled in the town “upwards of fifty years ago”. It would appear that he came to Berwick, after a spell in the merchant navy, in about 1790s.
He amazed everyone by picking up tables with his teeth, lifting two men with one hand and carrying a loaded hay-cart (this may be a variation of the “pony across the bridge story”!) And to top it all he claimed royal ancestry being descended from Charles Edward Stuart. However, these “details” of Jimmy’s life only surfaced later in local newspaper reports at the time of his death in April 1844 at the age of 115, the result of a fall in Tweedmouth.
Only in his later years was Jimmy at all infirm and when he lived as a registered pauper in Tweedmouth. Before this he travelled throughout Southern Scotland and the Northern Counties of England “entertaining” people with tunes on his fiddle which he played very badly; he was a member of the Berwick town waits – civic musicians – until they were disbanded. He was said to be a “model” beggar, who would never get drunk and could recite long passages rom the Bible.
In 1849, the actor and writer Frederick Sheldon wrote in his History of Berwick:
Jemmy’s countenance once seen was never forgotten It had a cast of elongation, by which the uncropt chin protruded be down the broad square chest, while the large furrowed haffets of hoary eld, gigantic cheek bones, prominently attenuated, and the fitful glimmerings of eyes, hazy with age, were overshadowed with shaggy eyebrows. The head contained the notion of a giant fallen into decrepitude, and it was so closely poised between a pair of Atalantean shoulders, that it was obvious some stroke of bodily deformity had modified the frame of its owner; the downward continuation of his figure consisted of two immense bony arms; a short, squat trunk, and two short legs, with an ungainly bend, which in vulgar parlance is termed “bow houghed”.
Jimmy Strength has been immortalised in art. He was painted by Thomas Hogarth (above) and by Thomas Sword Good.
Black and white reproduction of Portrait of James Stewart by Thomas Sword Good c.1820. Not the onlooker in the window!
Edwin Bowes in his book about Thomas Sword Good, In A Strong Light, dates this painting to 1820s based on the painting style but muses that Sword Good may have met him earlier, when still a child in the 1790s and been somewhat afraid of the man, and that this might explain the rather sinister appearance of the beggar. Is the eye at the window that of young TSG?
In about 1841, the lighthouse keeper, James Wilson who had been a pupil of Thomas Sword Good, carved a life sized statue of Stuart. From the Berwick Advertiser, February 19th 1897:
JEMMY STRENGTH – The stone figure of Jas. Stewart, the old dragoon known as Jemmy Strength, which formerly stood in the garden at Bay View, and was afterwards removed to the grounds at the Tweed Brewery, has now been placed on the Green at the Subscription Reading Rooms in the Palace. The figure is the work of the late Mr. Wilson, Berwick.
The statue was vandalised in the 1950s. The remains are stored at Berwick Barracks.
The first Community Theatre production at The Maltings Theatre was a strange affair entitled The Curious History of Jimmy Strength. He was celebrated also in a piece commissioned by the Berwick Film and Media Arts Festival in 2011 in an animation entitled Penumbra.
Jimmy Strength is buried in Tweedmouth Parish Churchyard. Thousands filed past his open coffin and attended his funeral.