If you were a school kid in Putney in the 1980s you will have heard of the Putney Bee Man. Playgrounds sang with tales of the local beekeeper who spoke only to bees, ate only honey, and was eventually stung to death in his hive-like home.
But there was more to the life of Joseph Henshall. And, though his story is fragmented – pieced together from TV and newspaper interviews with his former neighbours – it speaks to London as a place where seemingly immutable boundaries exist to be breached.
The name Bee Man first stuck to Joseph thanks to the beehives he kept in a scrubby clearing, not far from the haunted pathways that twist through the woodland on Putney Heath.
To schoolchildren he was a figure of awe. He never wore protective clothing; would work, unharmed, with bees crawling over his skin.
But he was also a figure of ridicule. They crept through the trees to spy on the Bee Man, daring each other ever closer, stifling their giggles as he gossiped to his bees.
Joseph lived alone in a family-sized home. Rumours of his earlier life don’t always tally. Some said he lost his wife and children, victims of a violent burglary. Or else they had died in a fire.
Others thought he had never married, nor had children. There was no surviving family, said some – or else there was an elderly mother from whom he was estranged.
The one thing agreed was that by the time of his death there had been no visitors to his house for some time.
At least, not of the human kind.
His work life was a mystery, too. There was a feeling he had once been high up in law – or was it finance? Either way, it’s clear that prior to retiring to his beehives, he flitted between casual jobs.
For a while he’d been a van driver in the meat trade. Former colleagues, parked outside Smithfield Market, told the TV news cameras that Joseph had a reputation as an ‘oddball’. A striking moment in the program comes when one driver points to the poultry market building’s hexagonal window design, saying that for Joseph it was ‘like some kind of map’.
He goes on to describe the pages of Joseph’s A to Z street atlas, overlaid – in thick blue biro – with his own hexagonal plan. Large hexagons marked out borough-sized areas, while a finer grid divided neighbourhoods. What amazed the driver was that you wouldn’t know the larger lines formed hexagons, due to the scale of the map across many pages. But if you had laid out the pages next to each other, the network would have matched up perfectly.
‘Most off us have a sort of cabbie-like knowledge for street names – or at least for streets where butchers and restaurants are found’, recalled the driver. ‘Not Joe. Until he’d converted it into his honeycomb system he wouldn’t even put his key in the ignition. Such and such butchers wasn’t off Old Kent Road – that wouldn’t help him – but tell him it’s on the intersection of Hexagons 3,7b and 9,4a or what-have-you, and he’s away’.
In retirement Joesph was a quiet, well-liked man around Putney. When he wasn’t down at his hives he could be heard in his shed, bottling honey, which he would label and share around his neighbours.
But tragedy struck. He had become an evangelist for the health benefits of not just honey, but every beehive product. Perhaps his closest friend on the street was his direct neighbour, Ivy. She died of anaphylaxis after eating raw ‘royal jelly’ – the thick substance on which bee pupae feed – given to her by Joseph.
It was the end of Joseph’s jars of honey – the end, too, of his relationship with the community.
Joseph still tended his hives. But if before he’d been a figure of ridicule, he now attracted fear and revulsion. The more reclusive he became, the wilder were the tales told about him.
The Putney Bee Man was now a murderer, with an un-human control over his bees. He didn’t just speak to them: they spoke back, humming and waggling their response. It became playground lore that he had used the bees to punish Ivy for a petty garden border dispute.
Then there was the boy – or was it a girl? A friend of my mate’s sister who goes to another school – she had crept too close to the hives. The Bee Man set his swarm on her, stinging her to death in the undergrowth.
But stories like this didn’t keep everyone away. And when, inevitably, the hives were vandalised, smashed to pieces in the night – the remains burned, the bees gone – it was nearly the last anyone saw of Joseph.
For several years, things were quiet. Neighbours recalled a period of obsessive DIY. Skips outside the house, hammering late into the night.
Those who did see him say he appeared to be going blind, his eyes covered in scales or cataracts. He would bumble along the pavement slowly, erratically, refusing any help. Apart from that, the neighbours might have forgotten he was there – if it wasn’t for one thing.
‘It started with just a few of them, buzzing around his upstairs windows’, a neighbour told the camera. ‘Then there was more. And then more. They were all over the flowers in everyone’s front gardens. Which is fine – that’s what flowers are for, but it came to how you couldn’t walk down that side of the street’.
People came from all over to get a view of the Bee House, the insects all over it, smothering the windows entirely in thick, writhing swarms.
When the council finally acted, it took seven pest-control officers 48 hours to access the building.
Some photos appeared in the press – nests in wooden corners, crawling heaps of bees. But the (now defunct) local paper recorded that most of the their photographer’s images were too disturbing too publish.
What we have is a broad outline of what they found inside the house:
Every non-supporting wall had been removed, as had all furniture. Much of the flooring had been taken out. In its place was a single wooden structure – cellar to attic, outer wall to outer wall – comprising a network of hexagonal compartments, a metre in diameter, connected by man-sized holes.
Colonies of bees – or the outcrops of one giant colony, as one biologist suggested – were in every wooden cell. Sticky substances oozed from the walls and pooled underfoot.
And in the centre of it all – tended to by woozy, dying bees; curled up, misshapen, suspended in white, gloopy matter – was the Putney Bee Man.
Not stung. Not dead. But not exactly living, either.
- Candidate: The Putney Bee Man
- Type: Bio-contravention
- Status: Historic