The expression ‘as bald as a coot’ is well-known in this part of the world. In the USA however the unfortunate bird, related to the moorhen, is familiar as the basis of an entirely different simile. In America you can be ‘as crazy as a coot’. The assumption has always been that the ‘coot’ in question is the common ‘mud hen’, often mistaken for a duck.
But what if the insane ‘coot’ to which the phrase refers is not the inoffensive animal but an eccentric Irish military type with a final ‘e’ to distinguish him from the water-loving bird? And the word ‘eccentric’ is not used idly. Because Sir Eyre Coote, born in Ireland in 1762, was adjudged to be merely ‘eccentric’ rather than completely ga-ga by a military board in 1816. More about that later.
He had the misfortune to be the nephew of, and share a name with, one of the greatest generals in the British Army, who, in the 18th century, ensured that England, rather than France, became a tea drinking nation when he pushed the French out of India. His nephew, also called Eyre Coote, joined the Army at the age of fourteen and quickly rose through the ranks, helped no doubt, to some extent by his name. Eyre Coote Junior first distinguished himself in the American War of Independence which began with a dispute over tea and ended with the United States of America abandoning that beverage for coffee. More significantly perhaps it also ended in the defeat of the British Army and the capture of Coote at the pivotal Battle of Yorktown when he was still only nineteen years of age.
Moving rapidly from opposition to the American colonists to the more traditional antagonism with the French, Coote became involved in a military operation designed to flood that part of the Netherlands occupied in 1798 by France. Flooding northern Holland proved to be relatively simple, getting away afterwards was a bit more difficult. A contrary wind meant that the ships intended to evacuate his force could not land and after losing more than a hundred of his men Coote was forced to surrender.
Shortly after that he inherited Uncle Eyre’s property and took a seat in the Irish House of Commons. That was pulled from under him by the Act of Union in 1800 and he went on to become Governor of Jamaica. Although he left that post in 1808 claiming the climate didn’t agree with him and affected his brain he must have had some fun while he was resident in the West Indies because the former US Secretary of State, General Colin Powell claims direct descent from him.
But it is for his unorthodox activities in the year of the Battle of Waterloo that Coote is most commonly remembered. He’d already given evidence of what might diplomatically be called ‘erratic decision making’ but he topped everything when, in November 1815 he wandered into the Mathematical School of Christ’s Hospital for Boys in London and offered some of the young inmates money – if they allowed him to flog them. A few volunteered. They were far more receptive when he suggested they might want to flog him. Three of the boys duly obliged and were paid three shillings. Discovered by a school nurse Coote was charged with indecent behaviour. He escaped jail by donating £1000 to the hospital, a somewhat disproportionate version of the use of the poor box for traffic offences in modern times. But despite avoiding a criminal charge he later found himself facing a Military Tribunal composed of three Generals.
There he was ruled not to be insane but to be merely ‘eccentric’. However, his conduct was adjudged to have been unworthy of an officer and he was dismissed from the Army. He had also been made a member of the Order of the Bath and he was stripped of that status as well. Clearly the membership of that august order had no time for flagellation.
Eyre Coote, soldier, politician, ancestor of General Colin Powell and keen flagellant was born two hundred and fifty four years ago, on this day.
Christ’s Hospital for Boys