When people were painting the town red in Melton in the 15th Century some of the locals started to compare various parts of their bodies with those of other people. Eventually, the comparisons turned to the hairiness of the legs and it was noticed that a man called George Loveless had ‘ye legs as hairy as that of a horse.’ Loveless proclaimed himself as having the hairiest legs in Leicestershire and defied anyone to be hairier. He challenged all comers to a contest on the 5th Wednesday of Michaelmas on an annual basis – this was 1456 and the rest, as they say, is history.
In the Hairy Legs competition there are a number of different sections to enter. There’s a prize for the longest Leg Hair, another for the most amount of hair, and yet another for the most artistic shaping of leg hair. There are separate sections for men and women.
The longest leg hair ever measured was 3 feet 4 inches in length and belonged to Gwendoline Jones, a visitor to Melton, who entered the contest while waiting for a stagecoach to Nottingham in 1753. Gwendoline’s legs were otherwise quite bare, but she did admit that this hair was a great source of pride to her and her family. She used to wash the hair in her monthly bath and treat it with sheep’s oil to ensure that it didn’t become brittle.
The men’s record was two feet nine inches grown by Alan Peacock in the 1870s. The hair was used to help keep his left sock up and he admitted to greasing it with pig’s fat every night, which might explain why his wife left him for a pig farmer.
The hairy legs contest has changed with the advent of cosmetic surgery. People have been disqualified in recent years when the judges have discovered that tufts of hair have been grafted on to people’s legs, although this is more difficult to find than the amateurish attempts of Richard Davis in 1982, who it was discovered had glued cat hair to his knees. Davis was given a consolation prize of a tin of cat food and asked to pay his fine into the prize kitty.
For the genuine contestants, the judges comb the hair and discover the lushness and thickness of the fur. Contestants with fleas receive extra marks from the judges as this indicates genuine hair. The colour of the hair doesn’t matter so contestants who dye their grey hairs don’t impress the judges. The area the hair covers is also taken into account as is the location of the hair; furry knees, especially around the back, win high marks.
Competitors frequently use bizarre methods to encourage hair growth; Henry Travers who won for thirteen consecutive years from 1823-1835 swore by standing in a cow pat morning and night for 30 minutes – he is quoted as saying that “Ye cowe patte contains growth – look how it makees the grasse become lushe.” Travers never married during his life and lived alone in a house without running water.
Matilda Grinstead, who won the women’s hairiest legs competition between 1901 and 1912 believed her success was down to bathing in baked beans every day – she ate the beans afterwards, which may explain why the judges inspected her legs through a telescope whenever possible.
Contestants’ imaginations run riot in the Leg Hair Sculpture competition, which started in the 1900s when sheep shearer Alex Shepley thought he would start shearing his own legs. For years Shepley’s sheep had been the talk of the Midlands, with their immaculately shaped coats in three neatly trimmed lengths. Shepley had started out as a topiarist but was always disappointed that his hedges couldn’t move. He turned to sheep shearing only after a brief flirtation with hedgehogs resulted in him being hospitalized with multiple punctures to his face.
Shepley thought of the leg hair sculpture contest when he was trimming his toe nails one day and thought that he could do the same with hair. Soon he had a hairy representation of Queen Victoria displayed on his left calf. A pork pie was shaved into his right thigh and soon Shepley was the toast of Melton. He displayed himself at the 1901 contest and was surprised to find that he was not alone in his shaving exploits. Respectable ladies had Gladstone and Disraeli shaved on their thighs; polite gentleman had coaxed representations of naked women from their lower legs – one lovelorn footman had the name of his employer represented on his hairy foot using a combination of glue and flour. The leg hair sculpture contest was born.
This is an extract from the book 40 Humourous British Traditions by Julian Worker