‘Octogenarian with 18 ft beard’ read the Courier headline when Richard Latter died in 1915. The article that followed described him as a ‘noted character’ in Tunbridge Wells and the surrounding district.
Richard Latter was born in Pembury in 1830. When he was 23 he married Sarah Collins and the couple went on to have 12 children. His employment history can be tracked in the censuses. In 1851 and in 1861 he was a farm labourer. It was in around 1861, when he was 30 years old, that Richard started to grow a beard. Two small curls formed beneath his chin and, as they became longer, he took to tucking them into his waistcoat.
When the census enumerator called in 1871 Richard was a traction engine stoker and by 1881 he had been promoted to driver. His employer at that time was Jesse Ellis, a Maidstone-based contractor whose company did haulage and road-building across Kent.
Meanwhile Richard’s beard had continued to grow. He started keeping it in a bag, which he replaced each birthday. Since it was hidden away no-one apart from friends and family was aware of its length.
In 1886 Richard appeared in the Malling magistrates’ court and was found guilty of infringing a county by-law which said there must be two men walking on the road in front of a traction engine. He was fined the significant sum of 50 shillings, as a warning to other drivers.
The beard became too large to store in a bag and so Richard took to plaiting it and winding it round his waist. He claimed it made an excellent chest protector, keeping him warm in winter. By 1894, when he was in his 60s, the beard had become public knowledge. An advertisement in the Leeds Times stated that, with a ten foot beard, Richard Latter was one of at least of two people in the world who did not require Mrs Allen’s Hair Restorer.
In 1896 Richard was driving for a different employer, George Brotherwood of Tonbridge, when he was involved in an accident. One his fellow workers fell under a steam roller which he was driving and died. Thankfully Richard was cleared of all blame at the inquest.
Richard changed job at some point around 1900 and in the 1901 census he was listed as a corn thrasher (miller). A newspaper article in 1906 claimed that Richard’s beard, now said to be more than 16 foot, was the longest in Europe. He was quoted as saying he would not part with it for a cartload of money. It seems that by this time Richard was enjoying the celebrity that went with the beard – he would exhibit it with great pride to friends and to anyone who was curious. On one occasion he even exhibited it to the general public on the Common.
By the time Richard died, at the age of 84, the beard had supposedly reached 18 feet, but sadly he did not win a place in the records books. The 1973 edition of the Guinness Book of Records referred to him, saying that there was no contemporary independent corroboration of the beard’s length and that photographic evidence (presumably the postcard shown above) indicated that 18 feet was an exaggeration. But he did have more than his fifteen minutes of fame.