The Snake Catcher (Brusher Mills)

Brusher Mills the Snake Catcher


Remedies for handling debts and other finance needs like searching out help with bad credit auto loans are some of the biggest issues that people face today aside from taking care of their own health, but many years ago staying healthy and avoiding diseases was the primary concern among people. New ways of dealing with disease and ailments be gan to emerge with some being more strange than others. Hampshire like most counties had some strange remedies or cures for disease and ailments and a lot of these remedies have been just as odd as the disease itself, for example legend has it that if you touch the body of hanged man you would get rid of St Vitus Dance and to stop yourself having fits eat the dried livers of 40 green frogs!

But there is one Hampshire man who claimed he had the perfect way of curing Rheumatism, this was Harry 'Brusher' Mills who was the legendry snake catcher of the New Forest. And his cure was to catch an adder and bake it, then clarify the dripping and rub this on to the affected part of the body..

Brusher Mills 1840 - 1905

Harry was born 19th March 1840 and was the son of Thomas and Ann Mills. Thomas came from the village of Mottisfont near Romsey and Harry was one of eight or nine children (there is also believed to be another five children from a previous marriage).

Brusher  lived in a charcoal burners hut near Sporelake Lawn just north of Hollands Wood campsite and this was a conical shape with a bed inside made of dry bracken, chair and a biscuit tin that held firewood, a home made spoon and a tobacco tin. Many people enquired why he lived this way and his answer was always the same.....

"I was born a gardener" .Many people believed that he was an asthma sufferer and preferred to live in the open air.


Silver Street, Emery Down

He was born lived in Silver Street in the village of Emery Down near Lyndhurst, and was there until 1861. Records from 1871  show he that he lived at Foxlease Lodge, Clayhill and in 1881 he lodged in the house of Fanny Whithorn, who lived next door to the Crown and Stirrup public house. At this time he described as a labourer. Fanny it is thought may have been a widowed sister of Henry, as it appears that he had relatives living at Clayhill.


Harry love tea parties and he would quite often ask visitors into his hut for a cup of tea. This he brewed over a wood fire, milk was unknown to him but he always had sugar handy. He stirred the tea with his home made spoon which was about nine inches long and at the end it had a crook for hanging. The spoon was absolutely jet black through many years of polishing and the guests would have to drink the tea from the tin as he had no cups. Sometimes if you were lucky he would magically produce a bottle of whiskey in which he said was "what the doctor had ordered", meaning it was for his chest and any other ailments he might have suffered from at the time.

Harry was a very 'upright figure of a man, old with a grey forked beard and bright keen eyes' and he always wore his gaiters on his legs, two coats on top of two waistcoats and his hat, hanging from his clothes were tins for catching his snakes. He had a cleft palate and when he spoke people had a job to understand what he was saying but it is said this was a curse put on him by the snakes and he had a hatred for Gypsies but not other humans which he tolerated.

The forest folk loved Harry as he got rid of the snakes on their property and was renown for his 'cures' for sick animals. The Gypsies had the same skills but they were also renown for thieving and were never welcome and they called Brusher Sapengro which meant the Snake Catcher.

The only time he used his hut was at night but he would be out in the forest at first light and walked for miles to catch the adders and cutting walking sticks. Fairs were one of his loves and he often journeyed to them to sell his walking sticks and would often pick up the odd penny or two from the tourists. He never seemed to get lost and was always home in his hut in time for dinner and bed. His dinner would normally just be bread and cheese but his favourite meal of the day was breakfast and he described the way he cooked it as " I lights the fire, cuts a rasher of bacon, sticks a bit of crooked wire through it, and cooks it!!"


One of his tins had holes in, this was to carry the live snakes and he would carry a sack over one shoulder that also held Adders and a second sack which he said might be useful for things such as scissors which he cut the snakes open with and for scraping out their fat which he would melt down to make an embrocation that he sold as a cure for bruises, sprains and even adder bites. He also carried a knife a selection of different lengths of string.

He would also be armed with a flat pair of scissor like instruments or tweezers in his button hole which he used to hang the snakes on and a forked stick he called his  'staff of office' which would never be far away from him.

Despite the forest floor being quite think with undergrowth Harry could easily find a snake, often before he had actually seen it and he would grab the creature in his bare hands and drop them into his sack. Adders though he would take more care over as these are the only poisonous snakes in Britain, and he would use his forked stick to hold it down and his tweezers to pick it up  and drop it in the perforated tin and close the lid tight.

Though he was born Henry he would often be called Harry and he was not afraid of hard work or hardships but one really bad winter he had problems lighting the damp wood for his fire and got a job breaking stones but he only endured this for one morning. But when haymaking time came he would help out and at dinner would play many a joke on somebody, which sometimes meant chasing someone with a snake in his hand even though it was a harmless grass snake the person being chased and other workers did not appreciate this and they refused to work with him and so he was asked to leave.

Brusher was not afraid of any of the forests animals and did not believe in the supernatural, but he caught influenza which spread right across the country and a lot of people died from it, but Harry battle through it all on his own, and would have died but for a passer-by seeing him and taken him to the Workhouse. He gradually regained his health but he did not care for this act of charity and found it hard to get used to the hard routine and the regular hours he had imposed on him, Harry was a simple person who liked a simple life.

The grass snakes he caught were perfectly harmless and some were over six feet in length and he could earn enough money from them to keep his head above water, Lord Londesborough lived at Bolderwood and would pay him a shilling for every snake he caught but most of his money would come from the tourists who would buy a 'souvenir' from him.

He spent about eighteen years catching snakes and in that time he suffered many bites, and once while holding an adder it turned and bit his finger, people watching shouted a warning but Brusher kept calm and said 'Cure in two minutes' and would take his knife and cut a deep incision in his finger which allowed the 'Poison go out with the blood' and he would take out one of his cures made from the fat of an adder and pour it over the cut and rub it in 'Worth five guineas if the bottle was full' he would say walking off.

It has been said that in his lifetime he would have caught an estimated 29,233 snakes and around 200 smaller things he called 'Levers' which was probably a local name, and also 3,854 adders.

When he had problems with the gypsies children who used to poke fun of him ,Brusher had a good way of getting rid of them, this was by tossing an adder among them.

Today though the trade of snake catching has practically died out mainly because of the drop in the number of the creatures.

Various stories relate to how he became to be called 'Brusher', it may have been that he brushed the leaves from the ice on the lake at Foxlease and also through him brushing the bracken aside to find the snakes.

In the New Forest there was an old tradition called Squatters Rights which means that if you lived in your home whether it is a house, mansion or a shack for twenty years then the land beneath it became yours. According to a nephew of Brusher he had lived there for 19 years and 4 months, and the council found out and ordered him to leave as he was not eligible for the granting of land, So they evicted him and he went to live at Clayhill, His hut was burnt down by the council, but here lies a mystery, as some say that this did not happen until Brusher had been ordered to leave and a lot of people think this was to prevent him getting squatters rights and a local newspaper reported that this was done "as much in his own interest as for hygienic was feared that some day his decomposed body would be found in the Forest".

A little while after this he was granted permission to build another hut, but this time it was on the estate of Mr Price of New park and this may be why there is a another story that he lived near Queen's Bower.

The Railway Inn in Brockenhurst is now called The Snake Catcher and this was one of Henry's favourite places as he would often be seen with a glass of ''two or three three pennyworths of rum'

But on the afternoon of July 1st 1905 he was sititing as normal having a drink, though according to his nephew he had been offered a beer by Brusher the day before which was quite unusual.

The Railway Inn at Brockenhurst  (now called the Snake Catcher) was one of Brusher's favourite haunts and he would often be seen here with a glass of "two or three three pennyworths of rum" which was his favourite tipple! Sadly though this was also the place where he died. On the afternoon of 1st July 1905 he was sitting drinking and after finishing he had some bread and pickles and left.

When he did not return home a search was made and his body was found in a nearby outhouse, the local doctor was called and he diagnosed that Brusher had died from valvular heart disease and that as he had been in poor health the previous year did not think a post mortem was necessary. He also said it was common for people with heart disease to die soon after eating an indigestible meal.

All his belongings including a watch with his name engraved on it were still in his pocket. The funeral was a simple one, one of the mourners was a sister, Mrs Finch who the police found, his nephew George Abbot, the landlord of the railway Inn William Perkins, and PC Hebdidge the village constable who made all the funeral arrangements. He was buried in St Nicholas' grave yard at Brockenhurst and a headstone can be seen near to the NZ memorial.

(Photos kindly submitted by Zed and Ilma Malunat, Tasmania)

Copy of Brusher Mills Birth Certificate
Kindly contributed by his great nephew Frank Mills
(note the X which is the mark of is mother Ann Mills nee Stote)


The inscription and picture on the memorial are:

This stone marks the grave of
Harry Mills
Better known as "BRUSHER MILLS"
who for a long number of years
Followed the occupation of
Snake Catcher, in the New Forest.
His pursuit and the primitive way
in which he lived, caused him to be
an object of interest to many
He died suddenly July 1st 1905,
aged 65 years

This is a project being run by The Herpetological Conservation Trust (The HCT) aiming to collect information about the adder across Britain. We are looking at both new and old records, observations and anecdotes that help us understand where adders are and where they have been in the past. 

FOOTNOTE: On the subject of the New Forest's snakes, its Gypsies believed that a good tonic could be made up from snake flesh and that a snake skin hung at the door of caravan could ward off the effects of the evil eye. But the Romany cure for rheumatism differed from "Brusher's", being more magical than practical. According to Wendy Boase's Folklore of Hampshire and the Isle of Wight , a Gypsy wanting to avoid such aches would carry the skin of a frog or an eel.