By Ally Hayes

NINETEENTH century author Lewis Carroll once wrote, “You’re mad, bonkers, completely off your head. But I’ll tell you a secret. All the best people are.”

One Southampton resident who may not have been 'bonkers' but clearly displayed eccentricities while achieving great things was William Burrough Hill.

He lived all his long life in Southampton and left an indelible impression on the place of his birth because of his engagement in civic projects, his controversial actions and opinions, the artwork he passed on to the Corporation and, of course, his quirks.

Born in 1845, Hill attended Southampton School of Art where he studied with Hubert Herkomer, who achieved national fame.

Hill himself had some artistic talent but chose to indulge it as a hobby and collect the works of other artists.

The self-taught Southampton artist, Frederick Lee Bridell, was a particular favourite of his and when he moved from Banister Hall, Northlands Road to his new home in Shirley, he named it Bridell Lodge.

Local historian, Elsie Sandell, told the story of how she spotted a masterpiece by Bridell, long sought by the veteran art lover, on the wall of a London hotel.

When she told him about it, he wrote the name of the hotel in pencil on his white shirt cuff ¬- his usual way of making a note of something important - and set off to London by car.

After a brief chat with the proprietor, he viewed and bought the painting there and then – all this in 1929 when he was already 84.

The painting, ‘The Coliseum at Rome by Moonlight’, frequently hangs in Southampton Art Gallery.

Hill decided that his professional future lay in carrying on the estate agency established by his uncle and he soon became one of the town’s foremost estate agents and surveyors.

He was, by nature, an entrepreneur and one of his most successful coups was obtaining a War Office contract to sell a huge amount of surplus military equipment after the first world war.

Sat on the back of a lorry, he auctioned hundreds of army motorcycles, boots, greatcoats, tents and other items – all displayed on the Common.

At the end of the 19th century he had been employed by Southampton Corporation in valuing properties in the slum clearance schemes.

The south western area of the town around Simnel Street was overcrowded, filthy and unhealthy and the Elizabethan houses were in a terrible condition.

Despite this, Hill thought it important a record was made before the buildings were removed.

It would have been possible for a photographic record to be made at this time but Hill, as usual, wanted to do it his way.

He employed an artist, William Marshall Cooper, who painted 65 watercolours and captured the unique atmosphere for posterity.

The controversy with which he is most closely identified is the demolition of Stag Gates, once the imposing entrance to the Bevois Mount Estate.

Hill acquired these and used them as an advertising board for posters about auctions – much to the annoyance of many townspeople and particularly the corporation who offered to buy the stone piers on several occasions.

Their concern was not only about the blot on the appearance of The Avenue but also for the traffic problems caused by the narrow entrance.

In 1919, out of the blue, Hill gave the gates to the town. He made no stipulations about the future and seems to have been quite sanguine about their demolition, commenting “….they are not of any material historical or antique value”.

As for the stags, it is most probable that they ended up in the Andrews park rockery along with the rest of the stone.

His eccentricities were legion and well known by people who knew him.

He never shaved in his life and never wore a tie – his collar was secured by a diamond stud – and he always wore a Victorian frock coat.

When he was 19, he kept a diary for a year which, in itself, was not unusual.

What was unusual was that the average person would have difficulty reading it without a magnifying glass because the handwriting is miniscule.

Lastly his garden was full of extravagant oddities including a scale model of Stonehenge.

Godfrey Collyer is a tour guide with