Woman’s campaign to give elephant man a decent burial

Valerie Howkins, Museum of memories Great Yarmouth

Valerie Howkins, Museum of memories Great Yarmouth - Credit: Archant

He became an unlikely Victorian celebrity and remains the focus of great fascination.

Now, more than a century after the death of Joseph Merrick – known as the Elephant Man – a woman from Great Yarmouth is launching a campaign to see him given a decent burial.

For Valerie Howkins, 83, the story of the grossly disfigured Merrick has a poignant family connection. Her grandfather was, for a time, his manager, and her latest initiative is part of her long-running battle to clear his name.

She insists Tom Norman was not the exploitative villain depicted in the 1980 movie, which starred John Hurt as the deformed man who found fame as a sideshow freak.

Instead, she says Norman was the man who helped Merrick out of the workhouse, and into a world he chose to join – as a fairground sideshow – and which ultimately saw him end his days as a celebrity visited by royalty in a specially-built apartment in the London Hospital. A new book on the poignant saga currently being penned is set to put the record straight, she explained. Mrs Howkins, who runs The David Howkins Museum of Memories, said: “There will be a whole chapter exonerating my grandfather – so I feel my campaign is making progress.”

As part of this, she wants Merrick’s bones buried back in Leicester, the city where he was born.

She said: “They were stripped of their flesh after his death in 1890 and the skeleton was, until recently, kept in a glass case at the London Hospital.

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“The bones have been copied and all the scientific work must have been done by now – so having them in a storeroom box seems so undignified.

“He never agreed for his skeleton to be put on show in a glass case... He needs to be given a decent Christian burial.”

The skeleton is kept in a private room at Queen Mary University of London’s medical school where it can be viewed by students.

A spokesman from the university said: “It is understood that Joseph Merrick expected to be preserved after his death, with his remains available for medical education and research. As custodians of his remains, the university regularly consults with his descendents over their care.”