WEIRD NORFOLK: The Giant who joined legendary showman PT Barnum’s circus
- Credit: Wellcome Collection
The tall tale of a Norfolk village that bred Giants, one of whom joined Greatest Showman PT Barnum in his cabinet of human curiosities and who married a Giantess, was exhibited as a marvel of nature and who ended his days buried close to a witch.
For a big man, the tomb is disappointingly small - but it bears a legend etched in stone: "Beneath are deposited the mortal remains of Robert Hales, the Norfolk Giant".
Born in West Somerton close to Great Yarmouth in 1820 and baptised on Halloween at the village church, Robert was the sixth of nine children born to William Hales and Elizabeth Dyble, both said to be over six feet in height at a time when the average height in Britain was just 5ft 5. He had five sisters with an average height of 6ft3 and two of whom, Mary and Anne, were either just under or just over seven feet tall. His three brothers were around 6ft 5 tall, but Robert would be the largest member of the large family. As a child, Robert fell in love with the Norfolk Broads and boats, spending happy hours operating Norfolk wherries and eagerly signing up to join the Royal Navy as a 13-year-old. His life on the sea was, excuse the pun, short-lived. When he reached the grand old age of 17 and the grand old height of 7ft 6 he had to be paid off: he was too tall to fit below the deck, there was no room for a giant. But with his towering stature and imposing vital statistics - his weight was 33 stone, his chest was 64 inches, his waist 62 inches and his thighs 34 inches - a brand new career was just around the corner, under a stripy tent.
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Hailed as The Norfolk Giant at fairgrounds, Robert began his new life at local fairs including the fairs at Tombland in Norwich and on the Britannia Pier in Yarmouth. Along with sister Mary, who was just four inches shorter than her brother, and her husband Joseph Laskey, who was also her husband, the pair toured round the county in a big yellow van which boasted eight foot beds. By 1840, news of Robert had reached the Royal court, and at Epsom Races in 1840, the Norfolk man met an enchanted Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. The Queen mentioned a striking resemblance between Robert and the late George IV and he said he had been told the same thing before. The following year, Mary died aged just 30. Joseph took just two years to make her sister Ann his second wife - Robert was not happy about the marriage and the group parted. After meeting a carnival impresario's agent at a dinner in London, Robert was enticed to make the long journey to America and a new life across the pond.
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It was in America that the Norfolk Giant agreed to work with the Greatest Showman, PT Barnum, who signed him for £800 for his American Museum and quickly began to exhibit him in New York, where his nickname was born. He even lived with Barnum for a time at his Bridport country villa. Located at Broadway and Ann in Lower Manhattan, it was a museum which not only housed artifacts from the American Revolution, scientific exhibits and oddities - the trunk of a tree under which Jesus' disciples sat, waxworks and the FeeJee Mermaid (a mummified monkey's torso with a fish's tail) to name but a handful. There were also living creatures: a flea circus, a loom run by a dog, Ned the learned seal, Grizzly Adams' trained bears and it is said that when a fire destroyed the museum in 1865, two whales were reportedly boiled alive. But the greatest attractions of all, however, were the "human curiosities". There was General Tom Thumb (whose daughter Minnie Stratton is buried at Earlham Cemetery in Norwich), conjoined twins Chang and Eng, Annie Jones The Bearded Lady, Prince Randian the Human Caterpillar, Isaac Sprague The Living Skeleton and then, amongst others, the Norfolk Giant. Robert was with Barnum for two years, during which he married Irish Giant Eliza Simpson, who was advertised to be eight feet tall and with whom he possibly had a child called General, although most people believe the marriage was a publicity stunt masterminded by Barnum.
In 1851, he came back to Britain without Eliza and instead married a woman called Maria Charlotte Webb under a possibly bigamous shadow. He was invited to Buckingham Palace to meet Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, the Prince of Wales, five of the Royal children, the Duke of Wellington and several distinguished nobles. A report at the time said: "The Royal party - particularly the children - were struck with wonder and astonishment. Colonel Buckley, standing 6ft 3 and generally considered the tallest officer in the army, her Majesty observed, 'I thought the Colonel very tall, but really he looks quite small by the side of Mr Hales.'"
Tired of touring, Robert became the landlord of the Craven Head Tavern in Drury Lane in London and then, as his health worsened, he and Maria returned to live in a caravan at Cumber Corner in Beighton where he survived on an income from selling leaflets that told the story of his life, still wearing the gold watch and chain given to him by Queen Victoria. He eventually moved to Yarmouth, living at 3 Wellington Road where, on November 22 1863, aged only 43, he died of bronchitis, leaving just under £600 in his will to Maria. His body was returned to the village he had loved, West Somerton, and was buried at St Mary's Church in a tomb far less than 7ft 6 long - and there lies another mystery, just how did he fit within it?
His childhood home that housed giants and which used to be close to the post office in the village, was demolished 100 years after Robert's death in 1963, but his lantern and walking stick can still be seen on display at Yarmouth museums, a big reminder of a Norfolk Giant buried a stone's throw from a witch, another legend just a minute or two's walk away.
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