The tale of the Norfolk giant
THE extraordinary story of the Norfolk Giant, the 7ft 8in Victorian showman Robert Hales, is in many ways stranger than fiction.It is a tale that holds particular fascination for Gail Benton, who has a family link to Hales, who lies buried in West Somerton churchyard.
THE extraordinary story of the Norfolk Giant, the 7ft 8in Victorian showman Robert Hales, is in many ways stranger than fiction.
It is a tale that holds particular fascination for Gail Benton, who has a family link to Hales, who lies buried in West Somerton churchyard.
Gail has spent several years researching the Hales family history along with the life of Robert, her husband Richard's great-great uncle. Many of the facts surrounding Robert's life remain uncertain and may have been embellished in accounts written by and about him.
Baptised on October 31, 1813, at West Somerton church, Robert was one of nine children born to William Hales and Elizabeth Dyble.
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Accompanied by his sister Mary, who may also have been over 7ft tall, he appeared at fairs and shows throughout the country and in 1848 travelled to the United States. He starred at the New York circus of the legendary impresario PT Barnum who then sold tickets for a 'wedding' involving Robert and possibly another man posing as a giant woman.
However, Gail believes it is possible that Robert married an Irish woman called Elizabeth Simpson who may have given birth to his son while in America.
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What is beyond doubt is that Robert married
Maria Charlotte Webb on his return to England, living firstly in Greenwich before moving to Sheffield where he ran a pub called The Burgoyne Arms.
Gail said: “Robert wrote a pamphlet in 1849 called The Quaker Giants which has a woodcut illustration of his wedding to Elizabeth.
“In the 1861 census he declares a boy called 'General', whose given age meant he would have
been born three years
before Robert's marriage to Maria.
“In another book mentioning The Norfolk Giant the author claims he saw Robert in a London gin shop with a fat man, who is introduced as the 'wife' he married in America. Again Robert may have put him up to write this as he did not want it known he was a bigamist.”
Robert died in 1863 at 3 Wellington Road, Great Yarmouth of bronchitis, leaving just under �600 in his will to Maria. His imposing sarcophagus has recently been restored by Arthur Jary stonemasons, Glen Thain and Simon Betts, after standing forlorn for many years.
Gail started researching the Hales family history in 2000 after visiting West Somerton churchyard. Husband Richard is the great-great grandson of Robert's brother Thomas.
A retired IT worker, Gail met Richard, who is originally from Caister, at university in the 1960s. The couple lived in Gorleston and Belton before moving to Devon where Richard was a teacher at Plymouth College.
A door knocker that
had belonged to the
Norfolk Giant's father William disappeared from the home of Richard's grandmother following her death.
walking stick is kept at the Tolhouse museum in Yarmouth.