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Old Alice in the Bacon Box- the Little Eaton Hermit

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Alice Grace - otherwise known as 'Old Alice in the Bacon Box' - was born in 1867. She was one of Little Eaton's, Derbyshire, most interesting historical characters. The widely accepted version of her story is that she was once a beautiful young lady who was left by her lover and never recovered from the shock. What is for certain, however, is that her eccentric and well-documented life would ensure she was remembered for generations after her death1.

Alice lived with her parents in Gang Road until their deaths and she was subsequently evicted for non-payment of rent. This road no longer exists - it used to run parallel with the main Alfreton Road. The ground it occupied is currently an industrial estate. After being evicted, she moved into an old stable on The Town, a somewhat oddly named street near St Peter's Park, and then into the village's old tithe warehouse. While living in the tithe house she supported herself by begging around the village. She was, however, again turned out from this shelter and survived by wandering around the village wearing old clothes given to her by sympathetic villagers.

The butcher of the village had given her a large box, which had previously been packed with bacon. With the box she set up her home on the triangle of grass where Whittaker Lane and Alfreton Road meet. For the most part she lived on scraps of food donated to her by her neighbours, although some apparently allowed her in for a proper meal occasionally. One family along the lane allowed her in for a bath every Sunday morning. Some people in the village would not approach her and many children thought her to be a witch. However, those that would speak to her found she had a gentle nature and was willing to talk about herself.

Attempts were made to move her to the Union Workhouse in nearby Shardlow, but like all people of her generation she had a horror of what she saw as the ultimate degradation. On one occasion the local policeman, with help, managed to take her to Shardlow despite her violent protest. Once there she produced from her shoe a 3d2 piece that she apparently always kept as insurance against being moved into the workhouse - only the destitute could be sent there against their will. Once released, she would return to her bacon box and live in the village for around twenty years. The box was changed from time to time obviously, and she did sometimes move around the village, into the nearby quarries and Whittaker woods. The village pinfold by Whittaker Lane (where stray cattle used to be kept until their owners paid the penny fine) was always her favourite haunt.

Alice managed to extract her own penny fines. She gained a reputation as a fortune-teller and would predict the future for anyone prepared to cross her palm with a penny. The money she earned would sometimes be spent on a half-pint of beer in the local public house, the Bell and Harp, or on cheap tobacco which she smoked gypsy-style in a clay pipe. It is nice to know that the story of Old Alice had a comparatively happy ending. She eventually had to submit to life in the workhouse around 1902. In one version of her history she was too ill to resist, while according to the other, the village policeman caught her when she had spent or lost her 3d. Whatever the reason, by all accounts she settled into the Union quite well and lived there happily until her death in 1927. Surprisingly she was then only 60, so although she is always spoken of as an old lady she must have been quite young during her time as the Little Eaton hermit.

Related BBC Link

1By people in the village at least. Let's face it, had you even heard of Little Eaton before you saw this article?2Three pence, in today's money around 1.25 pence.

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