Victorian London - Entertainment - Freak-shows and Side-shows - description of

Aware of the power of external display, and deeply imbued with a knowledge of human nature, the proprietor of the PROMENADE OF WONDERS, which we are about to notice, rivets the attention of passers-by by the gratuitous exhibition which his unbounded collection enables him to set forth. We do not however mean to say that his in-door display is inferior to the al fresco one. It may be much better for aught we know - but we have never seen it : we have always been so content with gazing at those curiosities which his liberality allows us to see for nothing, that we never felt inclined to enter, for fear the charm of mystery which invests each window of his establishment, as transmitting light to the depository of the real sights so dimly shadowed forth upon the external showboards, should be rudely broken.
    The first view of this great establishment is obtained on arriving at the top of Drury Lane, where that interesting thoroughfare debouches in High-street, St. Giles's; and the first object that causes the visitor to pause and draw his breath with awe, is the representation of a might giant, fixed against the front of the house. He is of vast proportions and his foreign costume increases the interest felt in contemplating him, especially when we reflect that his prototype dwells within. From the size of his model, which is not a mere picture, but cut out of flat wood, he must evidently occupy two floors at once, and doubtless the ceiling between the first and second story has been knocked away to accommodate him. The artistic Frankenstein of the establishment has succeeded in throwing into his face an expression of contempt for the pigmies who pass and repass in the streets below. He has evidently sympathy with but one object, and that is the Brobdignagian Dust-pan opposite, over the door of the ironmonger's shop. It would be a fitting implement in the household of so mighty a creation. But that his disposition is contented, we learn from the humble look of the rooms which are probably assigned to him: that his nature is gentle, we perceive at once, from the freedom from apprehension which is exhibited in the countenance of the gentleman visitor of ordinary stature, who is kneeling upon one knee to measure the girth of his calf. But with all this, the somewhat damaged appearance of the right side of his head evinces former injuries, received doubtlessly in some of those Titanic skrimmages which we have learnt from our earliest infancy that the giants loved to indulge in.
    Below this imposing image the spectator may behold some pictorial fac-similes of other wonders. The two Fat Boys - brothers, as we are told - are here the principal objects, and worthy to associate with the great character above. Doubtless they had the same elements of grandeur in their composition; but from impending circumstances, which kept them from shooting up in a similar manner, they grew sideways instead of upright, like ivy in a cleft of masonry. They got in breadth what the giant did in height; and thus did nature balance one freak by another, and restore her universal harmonious equilibrium. They evidently form a great feature in the collection of the interior, for there are evidences of other graphic tableaux in front of the house, but they are nearly hidden by the illuminated canvass on which the two adipose brothers are limned. We have a vague recollection that on one of them was formerly depicted a young lady with pink eyes, which the showman informed us gratuitously were constantly in motion; and sowing tresses of long white horse-hair, the which she was industriously brushing, to the evident delight of the bystanders. Once she was the card of the exhibition; but now, like other successful candidates for popularity, she has had her day, and passed away as rapidly as the card of the Wizard of the North.
    On the ground-floor, in the window of this magazine of curiosities, a still further interesting collection of marvels, which will more than repay a few minutes of inspection. They may be classed under four heads: viz., the Architectural, Mechanical, Anatomical, and Unintelligible. The first is comprised in an elaborate model of "The Castle of Donne, on the banks of the Forth, Stirlingshire;" from, or in, or near which, somebody or another was beheaded but the spectator has not time to find out who, before the showman approaches him, and announces in a low voice, as if the intelligence was not meant for the vulgar world, that the exhibition is just going to commence. This interruption prevents his paying great attention to the curiosities, he will perceive, however, two wax dolls sitting on the tops of the turrets; and a monkey, nearly as high as the building, smoking his pipe in front of it.
    The Mechanical objects are rather select than numerous. There is a representation of the Spotted Boy in a glass case, as well as a group of small figures which the spectator will not be able exactly to comprehend: but the triumph of art is shown in a railway-engine and tender, shut up in a bottle, without any visible means of explaining how it got in there. In the Anatomical department, we find two skeletons of cats' heads, and a preparation of a singular pig in spirits: whilst the Unintelligible division is composed of various wonders which we cannot describe, being perfectly ignorant of their uses or intent; but which we recommend the ingenious spectator to go and inspect himself.
    By looking in at the door, you obtain a dim view of the interior, whose portals are guarded by a wax-work figure of such Protean existence, that the doctrine of metempsychosis is no longer so vague a theory, inasmuch as this representation has been by turns every leading or notorious character of the day. But this surreptitious view of the penetralia is by no means to be recommended, inasmuch as you are liable to be driven, by the constant tide of foot-passengers, first one way, then another, and, finally, into the gutter under the omnibuses.
    We have not yet heard whether the Government has it in contemplation to purchase this valuable collection; but we should not be surprised at this, since the expense of moving it from its present site to the rival establishment in Great Russell-street would be but small-the distance being comparatively insignificant.

Punch, Jan.-Jun. 1843

    THE taste for the Monstrous seems, at last to have reached its climax. The walls of the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly are placarded from top to bottom with bills announcing the exhibition of some frightful object within and the building itself will soon be known as the Hall of Ugliness. We cannot understand the cause of the now prevailing taste for deformity, which seems to grow by what it feeds upon. The first dose administered to this morbid appetite was somewhat homoeopathic, being comprised in the diminutive form of TOM THUMB; but the eagerness with which this little humbug was devoured - at least by female kisses - has caused the importation, on a much larger scale, of all sorts of lusus naturae and specimens of animated ugliness, which form a source of attraction to the public, and are exhibited with success in the very building where HAYDON in vain invited attention to the creations of his genius.
    If Beauty and the Beast should be brought into competition in London, at the present day Beauty would stand no chance against the Beast in the race for popularity. We understand that an exhibition consisting of the most frightful objects in nature is about to be formed at the Egyptian Hall, under the now taking title of the Hideorama. Poor MADAME TUSSAUD, with her Chamber of Horrors, is quit thrown into the shade by the number of real enormities and deformities that are now to be seen, as the showmen say "Alive! alive!" Her wax is snuffed out, or extinguished, by the new lights now shining in Piccadilly, where a sort of Reign of Terror just now prevails.
    There seems to be a sort of fascination in the horrible; and we can only hope, as the mania has now reached its extreme, a healthy admiration or the "true and the beautiful," as the novelists call it, will immediately begin to show itself.

Punch, Jul.-Dec. 1847

Passing Savile House in the afternoon, I went in to see a Polish giantess who is being exhibited there. She proved to be a young woman - aged 20, she said - standing just seven feet high, but her figure so well proportioned that at a distance she scarcely looked remarkable. Coming near, however, I found that the crown of my head was on a level with her shoulder. I talked to her, in French and scraps of German; craning back my head to do so. She asserted that she was, as the bills said she was, a 'Countess' - a Grafinn and a Von Lodoiska; if those two words can go together.
    She was a fine girl, not ill looking. . . & seemed wholly indifferent to her position as a 'curiosity' . . .

Arthur Munby, Diary, 2 June 1863

. . .  went to see the Siamese Twins, who are exhibiting at the Egyptian Hall, where they were forty years ago. It is strange to see a human being who is not completely rounded off from every other: but the apparent duality here is much less than I expected. You simply see two small elderly Mongolian men, grizzled & wizened, closely alike in feature & make & height, but each evidently in act and volition an individual. They lean on each other as they stand or walk, & the flesh bond that connects them (5 inches long and as thick as a strong man's wrist) is just seen through their open shirtfronts. With them was the daughter of one; a tall well-made young woman, good looking, and like an English farmer's daughter, though her father is an abnormal Siamese. But her mother is an American of English descent.

Arthur Munby, Diary, 12 February 1869

Arthur Hedley dined with me at the Arts Club; and afterwards I went with him to the Egyptian Hall, to see the Giantess; Miss Anna Swan, of Nova Scotia, aged nineteen; a maiden eight feet high, and of vast but well- proportioned hulk; with a comely pleasant face (only it was twice as big as one's own), and a soft voice, and shapely hands - nine and a half, her gloves are - and gentle manners. She sat like a Colossus among the crowd, taller by a head than the men who stood around her; and when she rose, there seemed no end of the rising. 'I have not done growing yet, Sir,' said the stupendous maiden, looking down at me as she sat, and smiling. The exhibition was vulgar enough; for she stood on a platform, at intervals, while a showman described her to the people: yet she went through it all with a natural sweetness, an air of unconscious grace and dignity, as if she were Charles Lamb's Gentle Giantess, or rather some amiable Glumdalclitch, unbending toward the Lilliputians. I looked up at her and spoke to her with great interest: even thus, it seemed, one might hereafter speak with some creature, like this, of a larger species, from another world; not human, yet belonging to a like grade of being . . . 

Arthur Munby, Diary, 15 March 1869



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    To repeat a highly respectable platitude - London is one vast Vanity Fair. You can walk about and see most of its shows and sideshows for nothing, but there are proprietorial sideshows in it that you cannot see without first paying a penny at the door or putting at least a halfpenny into the slot.
    This slot variety is a recent development, and managers of the older sideshows find it such a formidable competitor that they adopt it now as a supplement to their customary exhibits; hence the pleasure-seeker is tempted in some busy London thoroughfare by a display of automatic picture machines ranged round an open-fronted shop, at the rear of which a shooting range yawns like a gigantic baker's oven, with gas jets shining in the depths of it while for a penny paid to a vociferous showman he can go upstairs and admire a bearded lady seated in an otherwise empty drawing-room, and look into the unfurnished dining-room where, for his delight, three reputed Africans lick red-hot pokers that sizzle on their tongues, and quaff boiling lead out of rusty ladles with manifestations of keen enjoyment.
    These upstairs exhibitions do not commence, as a rule, until evening, so if you are bent on a round of visits to Sideshow London you begin with the automatic shows, the shooting galleries, and the penny waxworks, which are open all day. 
    Shops devoted wholly to automatic shows have multiplied rapidly, and are as popular in Blackwall, Kentish Town, and Lambeth, as in Oxford Street and the more select ways of the West. Some drape their doors with crimson hangings and are ornately decorated inside, others are unadorned to very bleakness but it is a rare thing to see any of them without visitors, and of an evening they are all crowded.
    The public enter gratis and, sooner or later, succumb to the fascinations of one or other of the machines, and drop in a penny or a halfpenny as the case may be, to set little leaden figures under glass playing cricket or football, or peer down a glazed opening and turn a handle to witness, in a series of biograph views, a scene from a familiar melodrama, the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, or some ludicrous episodic of domestic life.
    Suppose, however, you make Piccadilly Circus your starting point, and, pacing one of the most fashionable streets thereabouts, drop [-282-] into a typical West-End sideshow of more catholic pretensions. It is a frontless shop in which well-dressed people stroll among groves of automatic machines; at intervals a coin rattles into a slot and the whirr of the handle turning breaks the quiet of the place, or the sharp crack of a rifle sounds from the select shooting gallery at the end, where a marksman is disbursing a penny on two shots at the target.
    Near the shooting gallery is a curtained doorway, with "Pay here" on a label pinned to the curtain, and if you hand sixpence to the lecturer waiting there he will usher you into a small lobby and call your attention to the beauties of a huge painting that is less patronised by daylight critics than by young and elderly connoisseurs who swagger in and out in evening dress after the gas is lighted.
    Across London, in the north-west, is a similar sideshow, larger but less aristocratic, noisy with the jolly ripple and rumble of a piano playing popular airs by machinery, and possessing, instead of the shooting gallery, a dapper juggler who periodically appears on a cramped stage to astonish all beholders with tricks of parlour magic.

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    On your way to this sideshow, if in your north-west passage you navigated the sombre old backwaters of Bloomsbury, it is more than likely that, as you turned into Russell Square, you were greeted by reedy tootlings. and that quavering nasal chatter that is the birthright of Punch, and there you beheld his striped theatre erected against the railings and a semi-circle of audlitors, mostly juvenile, spreading out before it.
    Of course, you have known his preposterous drama by heart since childlhood, yet you were constrained to linger shamefacedly and laugh at it again, looking over the children's heads, and when the solemn showman, piping and thumping his drum, shook his little bag insinuatingly under your chin,. your hand went involuntarily to your pocket for old remembrance sake.
    Perhaps, if you are a well-to-do father or grandfather, when the performance ended and the other showman was walking off with the theatre, you stopped the man with the drum and retained Mr. Punch and his company as a sideshow for an imminent children's party; [-283-] in which event there will be work to do in the way of rehabilitating the puppets to-night when the show gets home.
sideshow3.gif (50502 bytes)    There are peripatetic waxworks that wander about London restlessly and, conscious of their own artistic deficiencies, occasionally acquire alien attractions by leaguing themselves with a cheap palmist or phrenologist and keeping him on tap, as it were, in a bower among the effigies. But our half-dozen permanent penny waxworks are superior to this, and you cannot do better than patronise the largest. The window tempting you with a waxwork nurse soothing a wounded waxwork soldier by showing him a bottle of physic, you pay at the turnstile in the doorway, the lady attendant discontinuing a fantasia on the barrel organ to take your penny. 
    The shop and the floors above are rich in waxen allegories symbolising the might of the British Empire ; also in wax models of statesmen, warriors, thinkers, with here and there distributed among them renowned ruffians who have been crowded out of the Chamber of Horrors, which galaxy of great criminals is on the third floor here, though in some of the other waxworks it is down in the basement, and gains an additional horror from its situation.
sideshow4.gif (45783 bytes)    The chief object in the principal room is a wax-work Cabinet Meeting, obviously called together at a supreme crisis, for three Ministers have risen to speak simultaneously, and a choice collection of British generals is crowded into a tight corner in the immediate background ready for any emergency. You may not recognise everybody, but that is immaterial, as each gentleman has his name written on a scrap of paper pinned to his chest.
    As for the shooting galleries, like the automatic shows they are everywhere. A few are attached to cutlers' shops a few to barbers' shops, where customers improve their marksmanship while they wait to be shaved most of them, however, are independent [-284-] of such trade connections. The primitive type with rows of bottles for targets still survives, but the better equipped, thoroughly modernised gallery is more generally favoured, and not infrequently flourishes under the special patronage of local rifle associations.
    There is one of this latter class at Islington; it is a fixture there all the year round, and at the right time of year the proprietor enlarges his enterprise by engaging travelling showmen to set up their shows in his first-floor apartments.
sideshow5.gif (39120 bytes)    The right time of year is in the winter. Throughout the summer living skeletons, midget families, and such like celebrities tour about in caravans and are to be viewed in tents at country fairs but winter drives them into London and the big provincial cities.
    Here their showmen sometimes hire untenanted shops at low rentals till they are re-let, and run shows on their own account ; oftener they are glad to get engagements for successive weeks at regular show places, such as the two at Islington, those in Whitechapel in Kilburn, in Deptford, or in Canning Town.
    Wherefore, while the Cattle Show and later the World's Fair are in progress at the Agricultural Hall, you may pay your penny and he entertained over the shooting gallery at Islington by a pair of Oriental jugglers in one room, and in the other by a gentleman and his wife who are tattooed from necks to heels with ingenious designs in half the colours of the rainbow.
sideshow6.gif (64758 bytes)    Going again next week you find the front room appropriated to an elegant electric lady, who communicates electric shocks to those who touch her while the back room is the happy hunting ground of a noble savage. Good living and little exercise incline him to obesity, but he exerts himself in a war dance when enough penny spectators are present, and performs the feat that has won for him the proud title of "The Lion-jawed Man." Having crammed four bones as large as human fingers crosswise in between his teeth, he inserts the [-285-] mouth of a tankard into his own, closes his thick lips all round it like a sucker, and thus holding it defies mankind at large to pull it out.
    During this same period the Whitechapel establishment is graced by the presence of a fat woman of stupendous girth and weight. Here the shows are held in the shop itself, the rearward half of it being temporarily curtained off just now and transformed into a living-room for the stout lady, she taking no pleasure in going up and down stairs.    

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Her showman shouts at the door, while one of his subordinates manipulates the barrel organ with masterly skill and as soon as a satisfactory percentage of the crowd outside has come in and paid its pennies, the organist stops to breathe, and the showman, posing by the drapery that conceals his treasure, cries impressively, Ladies and gentlemen, the young lady will now appear!
    She is always a "young lady," whatever her age may be, and she dawns on our expectant eyes from between the curtains, gliding with a solid and queenly dignity that is only slightly marred by the fact that she carries an oyster shell in which she will presently take a collection for her private exchequer, the taking of private collections being a weakness inherent in all freaks and living sideshows from time immemorial.
    Next week she is bewitching Islington the tattooed people have transferred themselves to Canning Town; and the noble savage is earning fresh laurels with his tankard in the wilds of Kilburn.
    One of the regular show shops has a weird predilection for dead skeletons. Two or three of them have a touching belief in the attractiveness of freaks preserved in spirits and these are plentiful, whereas the living article is by way of becoming scarce in London, for good live freaks gravitate to Barnum's nowadays unless a minor showman is lucky enough to hear of them in time and intercept them. It is true you may even yet be startled by seeing in a shop window a presentment of an elephant-headled man larger than life, with one leg elephantine and the other human, and a writhing trunk of the first water ; but inside you discover that he dwindles to a leathery-looking object pickled in a glass jar, and having the appearance of a fossilised small boy playing a flageolet.
    Nevertheless there was once a real elephant-headed man about town; likewise an elastic-skinned man, and other personages equally gifted, and you may go and see them immortalised in wax to this day in one of the permanent penny waxworks but in the flesh, Sideshow London knows them no more.

George R. Sims (ed.), Living London, 1902

    Bill Holland had all his life been a showman - amusing and full of exaggerated anecdote, he had catered for the public from time immemorial; every monstrosity had at some period passed through his hands; every woman over seven feet, and every man under four, had appeared under his auspices: the tattoed nobleman, the dog-faced man, the whiskered lady - all recognised him as master at one period or another. He had "directed" the Alhambra, the Surrey, the Blackpool Gardens, and, in later years, the Battersea Palace, and signally failed with each; but, sphinx-like, he invariably reappeared irreproachably groomed and waxed with some confiding creature ready to finance him. His constant companion was Joe Pope, an abnormally fat little man, and a brother of the Q.C. who not long ago died. It was the brains of this obese little man, in conjunction with Bill Holland's assurance, that kept the wheels going for over thirty years.

'One of the Old Brigade' (Donald Shaw), London in the Sixties, 1908