This week Peter Christie looks at another visit to North Devon by a famous personage - at a long ago time when fairground ‘freak shows’ were considered perfectly normal
It seems cruel and inhuman to us today but our ancestors would flock to fairs to see ‘human freaks’ – the fat women, living skeletons, dwarves and giants who sat in sideshows to be gawped at.
Back then there was little in the way of medical help and it has to be said that such people could actually make a good living out of exhibiting themselves.
Among the most famous of these is ‘General Tom Thumb’ whose real name was Charles Stratton. Born in America in 1838 he weighed nine-and-a-half pounds at birth but stopped growing aged six months.
By the age of 10 he was just 26 inches or 64 centimetres tall – and was then hired by the famous PT Barnum who toured the world with his tiny performer – and in December 1865 he appeared at Barnstaple’s Music Hall (on the site of today’s Queen’s Hall).
The advertisement shown here also notes how he appeared at Torrington, Bideford, Ilfracombe and South Molton as well, whilst the entry price of one shilling (5p) represented about 10 per cent of a labourer’s weekly wage.
As the advertisement notes he was accompanied by three other similarly small performers – his wife Lavinia whom he had married in 1863, her sister Minnie and ‘Commodore’ Nutt all of whom were contracted to Barnum.
At these shows small photographic souvenirs were sold showing the Stratton’s wedding and some years ago I was lucky enough to find one of these – which is reproduced here.
This visit was in fact the ‘General’s’ second visit to North Devon as had come in September 1846, staying two days at Barnstaple (possibly at the Fair) and one day each at Bideford and Torrington.
There is, of course, still a link between the area and this celebrity as his diminutive carriage and a suit of his clothes is on display at Arlington Court and well worth a visit – whenever we are allowed out and the National Trust reopens the house.