John Coan – The Norfolk Dwarf

Edward Bamfield or Bamford (1732-1768), the ‘Staffordshire Giant’, pictured with John Coan (1728-1764), the ‘Norfolk Dwarf’. They both earned a living as sideshow performers; giants and dwarfs were special attractions around the Fleet Street area of London during the 18th century. Engraved by Hawksworth after a portrait by Benjamin Rackstrow and sold by James Roberts, 4th May 1771.

Edward Bamfield or Bamford (1732-1768*), the 'Staffordshire Giant', pictured with John Coan (1728-1764), the 'Norfolk Dwarf'. Staffordshire Past Track
Edward Bamfield or Bamford (1732-1768*), the ‘Staffordshire Giant’, pictured with John Coan (1728-1764), the ‘Norfolk Dwarf’. Staffordshire Past Track

Whilst researching Bartholomew Fair we came across John Coan and thought he was fascinating and worth adding to our blog – we hope you agree. Bartholomew’s Fair was primarily a trading event for cloth and other goods as well as a pleasure fair and drew crowds from all classes of English society, but it also featured sideshows, prize-fighters, musicians, wire-walkers, acrobats, puppets, curiosities and wild animals.

Bartholomew Fair, 1721. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017
Bartholomew Fair, 1721. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017

On the 5th December 1727 the marriage took place between  a John Coan and Sarah  (nee Negus) at Tivetshall St. Margaret, then on 31 May 1730, at the same church the baptism of their son John took place, who later was to be known by the epithet of  ‘John Coan, The Norfolk Dwarf’ or ‘The Jovial Pigmy’.  Having looked at the parish registers there appears no evidence that John had any siblings. 

john and sarah marriage
Click to enlarge view

Many reports about John’s life refer to him as being born in 1728, which may well be correct but for whatever reason his baptism didn’t take place until he was around two years old,  which possibly implies that at birth he was a normal healthy baby, therefore, his parents saw no reason to have him baptized immediately.  Having looked for his baptism at the place named in most reports i.e. Twitshall and found no mention of such a place existing, we revised our search to Tivetshall and that’s where we found him.

According to Edward J Woods book, ‘Giants and Dwarfs’  John, aged one, appeared to have developed at the same rate as other children of the same age, however, after this age, his growth slowed down and by 1744 he was just three feet tall and weighed 27.5 just pounds. Regarded as a freak or curiosity John was ‘exhibited’ at the Lower Half Moon, Market Place, Norwich in July of 1744 when he was a mere 16 years old.

‘The Cabinet of Curiosities: Or, Wonders of the World Displayed’ written in 1824, says that when surgeon William Arderon wrote to his colleague Mr Henry Baker F.R.S on the 12th May 1750, he gave a detailed account of John, aged 22 by this time. At this encounter, Arderon weighed John and noted that with all his clothes on he weighed no more than 34 pounds. He also measured John – 38 inches, this, however, included his wig, hat and shoes. He noted that his limbs were no larger than those of a child aged around 3 or 4; his body perfectly straight, the lineaments of face accorded with his age, he had a good complexion, his voice a little hollow, but not disagreeable; he could sing with tolerable proficiency and could read and write English well. He was also known for his amusing company by mimicking very exactly the crowing of a cock.  Arderon’s letter gave the most detailed comparison that he carried out between John and a child aged 3 years 9 months. A full report was included in The London Magazine or Gentleman’s Monthly Intelligencer of 1751 in an Extract from Philosophical Transactions. As it was some comprehensive we thought it worthy of reproduction in its entirety:

 The weight of the dwarf 34 pounds, the child 36 pounds.

 The dwarf                               The child
Inches                                      Inches

Round the waist                                     21                                            20 & 5/10’s
Round the neck                                       9                                               9 & 7/10’s
Round the calf                                          8                                               9
Round the ankle                                      6                                               6
Round the wrist                                       4                                              4 & 3/10’s
Length of arm from shoulder
to wrist                                                        15                                         13
From the elbow to the end
of the middle finger                           10 & 4/10’s                        10 & 7/10’s
From the wrist to the end
of the middle finger                               4                                            4
From the knee to the
bottom of the heel                              10 & 4/10’s                         10 & 7/10’s
Length of the foot
with shoe on                                         6                                                6 & 4/10’s
Length of face                                      6                                               6 & 4/10’s
Breadth of the face                            5                                               4 & 8/10’s
Length of the nose                             1 & 2/10’s                             1 & 2/10’s
Width of the mouth                          1 & 8/10’s                             1 & 8/10’s
Breadth of the hand                         2 & 5/10’s                             2 & 5/10’s

In the early part of the 18th century dwarfs were very popular with the upper classes and also the monarchy which could explain John’s move from rural Norfolk to London as, according to The London Magazine, Or, Gentleman’s Monthly Intelligencer, Volume 20 he was presented to the Prince of Wales on the 5th December 1751 and then exhibited to the Royal Society.

His notoriety rapidly spread and his name appeared with great regularity in the newspapers around this time. On Friday the 10th of January 1752 he was introduced to his Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, Prince Edward and all the other Princes and Princesses, where he stayed upwards of two hours. It was reported that ‘by the pertinency of his answers, actions and behaviour, their Royal Highnesses were most agreeably entertained the whole time and made him a very handsome present’.

The Family of Frederick, Prince of Wales,signed and dated 1751. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017
The Family of Frederick, Prince of Wales, signed and dated 1751. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017

Much of John’s appeal was the combination of very small limbs, his jovial personality, wit and intelligence. The General Advertiser of Tuesday 7th January 1752 described him as being a ‘perfect man in miniature, to be seen at the Watchmakers, opposite Cannon Tavern, Charing Cross … that it is impossible for anyone to form a true judgment of him without ocular demonstration.’

Daily Advertiser (London, England), Monday, February 24, 1752

According to the newspapers, he made regular appearance at London taverns and aged 23 appeared at The Swan during the Bartholomew Fair. Advertisements such as the one below were frequently seen with spectators paying a shilling to see this ‘curiosity’ of nature.

Public Advertiser, Wednesday, December 25, 1754

The Public is hereby informed that Mr. John Coan the famous Norfolk Dwarf, is to be seen, for One Shilling each person, at Mr Syme’s, the Black Peruke, facing the Mew, Charing Cross. This Man in Miniature is twenty seven years of age, barely thirty seven inches high, and thirty four pounds weight, is (contrary to the generality of small productions) straight as an arrow, of just symmetry of parts throughout the hole and perfect in his faculties, delightful in conversation, to the astonishment of all who have seen him.

t Bartholomew's Fair, Smithfield, London; British School; 18th century; Museum of London
St Bartholomew’s Fair, Smithfield, London; Museum of London

In the late 1750s Christopher Pinchbeck* established the ‘Dwarf Garden’ at Chelsea where John soon became a fixture entertaining visitors with other persons of his stature. However, by 1762 John began to show the infirmities normally associated with someone much older. His health was showing clear signs of failing; his skin was wrinkled and sallow. Despite this he was fond of wearing bright clothing; sometimes blue and gold, other times purple and silver. Due to his small stature the cost of having clothes made for him was easily within his reach.

For a brief time John lived and performed at  The Dwarf’s Tavern in Chelsea Fields which ran along with the proprietor of  the neighbouring Star & Garter became extremely popular due to John being regarded as such an oddity, not to mention to excellent food that was served such as ham, collared eels, potted beef washed down with bright wine and punch like nectar.

John died at The Dwarf’s Tavern on the 16th March 1764 according to The Daily Advertiser, dated 17th March 1764, yet despite his premature death his ‘manager’ decided he could make still some money from John unique physique and exhibited his body for as long as possible.  John was finally laid to rest on the 14th April 1764 at St Luke’s, Chelsea.

Notes:

* Edward Bamfield or Bamford (1732-1768), the ‘Staffordshire Giant’.

The corpse of Mr Bamford, usually called the giant, was interred in a vault in St Dunstan’s, Fleetstreet, London, Nov. 10. He died in the 36th year of his age, of a fever, and has left a widow, and three young children, one of which was baptised on the morning of the day he died. He was seven feet four inches high. It is said that 200l. would have been given for his body, could the surgeons have had it for dissection.

The Scots Magazine, 7th November 1768

Sources used:

Giants & Dwarfs 1868

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4 thoughts on “John Coan – The Norfolk Dwarf

    1. All Things Georgian

      You’re most welcome. If you find out anything else about John please feel free to let us know we would be more than happy to provide an update on here. 🙂

      Like

    2. Karen Reid

      Hi Clair, Im Sarah’s Sister, im currently researching John Coan and would welcome any further information you may have about the family.

      Like

  1. Pingback: The Nottinghamshire Giantess | All Things Georgian

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