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The giant Hales amused Her Majesty

PUBLISHED: 16:36 12 March 2010 | UPDATED: 17:03 30 June 2010

The Barnum and Bailey circus parades along Great Yarmouth's South Quay in 1898 before its opening performance in the town

The Barnum and Bailey circus parades along Great Yarmouth's South Quay in 1898 before its opening performance in the town

NEARLY two centuries after the birth at West Somerton of the celebrated Norfolk giant, Robert Hales, he has been making headlines again - as befitting a legend widely known on both sides of the Atlantic in his lifetime.

NEARLY two centuries after the birth at West Somerton of the celebrated Norfolk giant, Robert Hales, he has been making headlines again - as befitting a legend widely known on both sides of the Atlantic in his lifetime.

Recently the Mercury has published three stories about him: first, that two stonemasons from local company Arthur Jary and Sons planned to give his tombstone in the parish churchyard its first renovation since 1926; secondly, that they had completed it, free of charge; and thirdly, that for a decade, Gail Benton, once resident in Gorleston and Belton but now living in Devon, has been researching her family link to Hales because her husband Richard, a former Caister man, is the great-great- grandson of the giant's brother, Thomas.

Robert Hales was born in 1813, one of nine children of William Hales and Elizabeth Dyble, all exceedingly tall and crammed into a cottage demolished in 1963 - the centenary of his death, aged 50. His height of 7ft 8in with a proportionate weight of 33 stones and chest and waist measurements of 64 inches led to being snapped up by fairground and circus owners as a marketable curiosity.

He died of bronchitis in 1863 at Wellington Road, Yarmouth, and was interred at West Somerton; his wife Maria survived him.

In Victorian times, only the rich had the opportunity or wherewithal to travel, but his towering height enabled Hales to tour not only Britain and Europe but also America, albeit as a freak to be gawped at by the paying pubic.

His size made finding a job difficult. As a young man, he found employment on Broadland wherries before enlisting in the Royal Navy - uncomfortable because he was too big for his bunk or hammock. So he decided to capitalise on his height by making a public spectacle of himself.

First venue was the Britannia Pier at Yarmouth, then the Tombland fairs in Norwich before his travels around the nation, accompanied at one time by his 7ft 2in sister Mary who died at 20 while they were appearing on the Channel Islands.

Their extraordinary height reputedly stemmed from their mother's side, one of her ancestors supposedly having been an 8ft 4in warder at the Tower of London during the reign of King Henry VIII. But there have been claims that Robert Hales stood only 7ft 6in, not two inches taller.

Despite his placid nature and gentle disposition, stories began circulating about his strength, one sparked at a fair in Wakefield, Yorkshire, when the Norfolk giant and a travelling menagerie owner named Wombwell vied for occupancy of the same pitch. According to a contemporary poem, ten men defended the site for Wombwell, but allegedly fled when Hales came along wielding a large stick...perhaps the outsize walking stick now exhibited in the Tolhouse Museum in Yarmouth.

At Epsom races, Hales was presented to Queen Victoria and her Prince Consort, Albert. She is reported to have looked the Norfolk colossus up and down before turning to her husband and remarking: “Doesn't he remind you of the late George IV when he was Prince of Wales?”

The royal couple were so amused that she honoured Hales with the gift of a gold watch and chain. The beneficial ensuing publicity brought him an appearance before King Louis Phillippe of France and other European royalty during a tour of that continent - and in turn, that came to the attention of Henry Bennett, agent for the renowned American circus owner Phineas T Barnum, who persuaded the 28-year-old Norfolk man to join the Barnum and Bailey circus, billed as “the greatest show on earth.”

On the transatlantic voyage in the steamer Canada, Hales was amusing passengers by dancing a sailor's hornpipe on deck when suddenly there were cries of alarm because a young lad had slipped overboard. Immediately Hales dived into the ocean, swam to the struggling victim, and managed to keep him afloat until rescuers had lowered a boat and rowed to save them.

This heroic act was seized upon by Barnum for its considerable publicity value before Hales joined his entourage. Although many tales from his time in the States were perhaps far-fetched - like “marriage” to another freak circus artiste and fathering a son - it is unlikely that the lad's rescue was stage-managed hype.

It did succeed in persuading a huge paying crowd to greet Hales on his debut in the New York. A whirlwind tour of the States and Cuba followed. In Philadelphia in 13 days 28,000 fans paid to see Hales and the equally famous 25in midget, General Tom Thumb, who appeared with him.

Eventually homesickness resulted in Hales abandoning the razzmatazz of circus life to sail home to England where he married Maria and ran pubs in London and Sheffield, doing brisk business because of his international fame. Then he gravitated back to the peace of his native county, the couple cramped in a caravan in Cucumber Lane, Beighton.

Illness took its toll, and because he was said to be penniless, he resorted to selling penny leaflets of his life story on Yarmouth market place and in Norwich, travelling in his horse-drawn yellow caravan.

That aspect of his story conflicts with the claim that on his death in Yarmouth, Maria inherited his estate of £600 - a fortune in the 19th century.

In 1963 on the centenary of Hales' death Joe Harrison, chief reporter at Yarmouth for our sister newspaper, the Eastern Daily Press, visited West Somerton but found no direct descendants of the Hales family - it was suggested that a preponderance of daughters had helped the name to disappear. However, he tracked down two people with kinship to the family, spinster sisters Laura and Ellen Amis, whose maternal grandfather was a nephew of the Norfolk giant.

Ellen Amis told Joe Harrison: “We don't know much about Robert Hales. I remember my grandmother telling of him coming to a house on Martham Green when she was there. When she opened the door she couldn't see him - he was so tall that he couldn't get into the porch! All she saw at first was a bit of his legs.”

There is an intriguing corollary to the story, for Joe wrote in 1963: “From time to time the giant's grave is tidied up, and there are flowers on it.” I wonder for how long that mystery gesture continued...

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