For regular readers you may recall that we have written several articles about ‘dwarfs and giants’, John Coan, ‘The Norfolk Dwarf’ and at the other end of the height scale, Frances Flower, the ‘Nottinghamshire/Yorkshire Giantess’ (1800-?) and in our latest book, ‘All Things Georgian’ Caroline Crachami, ‘The Sicilian Fairy’.
A lovely reader, Ged Burnell, alerted me to another story about a small person, who was also exploited by one of the Georgian/Victorian unscrupulous showmen, who travelled the country showing off their ‘freaks’. Shows like this were immensely popular with the paying public, not to mention extremely lucrative for the showmen and obviously completely abhorrent in today’s society. This young gentleman was Joseph Lee, so let’s find out a little more about his life.
Joseph was born in November 1809 to parents Joshua Lee and his wife Ruth, nee Saynor who were married in 1794 at Cawood, not far from Selby,Yorkshire and had already had 7 children, Fanny, Joshua, Mary, Barbara, Thomas, Ruth and George by the time Joseph arrived into the world. He was followed by one further boy, Matthew in 1812, thus completing their large family.
They were working people, who lived in the small village near Monks Fryston, Yorkshire where most of the children were baptised at the parish church. Joshua worked as a labourer and Ruth managed their large brood of children and kept house. Most of the children survived into adulthood and there are no indications that any of them with the exception of Joseph, were anything other than average stature, but keep reading!
It would have been clear that the family survived on a very meagre income with lots of mouths to feed and when they were approached about their small son, Joseph and made an offer to take him on tour as part of the Natural Curiosity Tour, under the patronage of the royal family, they must have agreed with little hesitation. They were to be paid £60 per annum for this, which given that the average skilled worker, of which Joshua wasn’t, would only earn about £20, this must have been an amazing offer.
This offer came late 1819, which if you do the maths, would have made Joseph a mere 10 years of age. He was described as a native of Fairburn, near Ferrybridge and his first performance appears to have been at Chester where he starred with none other than the ‘Celebrated Giantess, Mrs Cook’ (no, I hadn’t heard of her either, but the newspapers tell us she was very popular), who stood at around seven feet tall, but of course these showmen knew how to promote their ‘freak shows’!
So, Joseph had completed his sixteenth year – not true, but great publicity though to describe a sixteen-year old boy as being a mere ‘thirty inches high, the smallest, the shortest and the most well proportioned man in the world’. It would definitely get the punters coming to see him for a fee of one shilling or just six pence, if you were a servant or child.
These ‘freak shows’ were great money spinners for the host, people knew nothing medically of conditions that could cause dwarfism at that time, and so many men and women were exploited in this way, along with other ‘curiosities, they and their families were offered, what appeared to be large sums of money to take their children and make them famous.
Around January 1820, the show travelled across the sea to Dublin when a curious entry appeared in the Freeman’s Journal – Thursday 27 January 1820:
So, it appears that our Joseph had acquired an unknown brother, Robert who was the polar opposite of Joseph, standing at a mighty seven feet two inches. It begs the question, who was this young man, because he certainly wasn’t any of the siblings that I have found! From a showman’s perspective it would look great, showing two brothers, the short and the tall, wouldn’t it? It was clearly a publicity stunt to drum up trade.
The Belfast Commercial Chronicle, 27 December 1820, not only mentions Joseph and the giantess, Mrs Cook, still touring together, but also the name of the man who was running the show – none other than a Mr Cook – presumably, the giantesses’ husband. They were performing at The Crown Tavern, High Street, from eleven in the morning until nine at night, every day except Sundays accompanied this time by a full military band and this time with the Irish celebrity, Mr Hamilton, the ‘Irish Giant’.
Mr Cook having spared neither pains not expense, in fitting up the above room in an elegant style, he trusts he will receive due encouragement from a liberal public.
The touring show moved on in September 1821 to Aberdeen, having acquired another performer en route, the world-famous American giant, James Henry Lambier, standing at eight feet tall, who left a brief account of his life in which he confirmed his tour of the UK.
Joseph had by this time, acquired the title of the ‘Yorkshire Little Man’ and was described as being thirty inches in height, but worryingly, his weight was described as a mere twenty-two pounds, which could surely not have been even close to the truth. He was now aged eighteen – in reality however, he was 12!
From Aberdeen they travelled on to Inverness, by which time was nineteen, or really just a mere thirteen. You can only begin to imagine what sort of life he led, away from his family, working long hours and probably received very little recompense for the hours worked.
In 1822 the troop travelled to Ayr, accompanied by Lambier, who bound himself to Mr Cook to the sum of £100, but he disappeared late one evening, ate, got very drunk and spent the rest of the night cavorted with local women until he fell asleep. In the morning, he was caught by Cook, who asked the local sheriff to arrest him for breach of contract. A struggle broke out, which bearing in mind his size was not easy, Lambier hit Cook with a poker, but was eventually overcome by several people and was dragged off to gaol. When released he left Ayr. Although the report didn’t specifically mention Joseph, it seems highly likely that he was amongst the entourage. By June of that year they had moved on to Inverness.
Quite what happened after this tour remains unknown at present. Joseph appears to have returned to his family, where he and his parents appeared on the 1841 census, living on Silver Street, Fairburn.
His parents must have died sometime between 1841 and 1851, as Joseph moved in with his sister and her family.
Joseph’s short life came to an on Friday 25th April 1851, aged 42, at his sister’s house on Fishergate, Ferrybridge. In an obituary about him, Joseph was described as:
A little Tom Thumb, about 3 feet high, in military dress, with top boots, and an enormous watch chain and gold seals, etc. He strutted his tiny legs, and held his head aloft, with not less importance than the proudest general officer could assume, upon his promotion to the rank of field marshal. His brother and sister, who lived in Ferrybridge, were both of typical height. After a few years, in which Joseph earned a large sum for his employer, he was returned to his parents on Silver Street Fairburn in a destitute state.
*** I AM NOW TAKING A SUMMER BREAK, BUT I’LL BE BACK ON WEDNESDAY 2ND SEPTEMBER. ENJOY YOUR SUMMER & STAY SAFE.***
Chester Courant 14 December 1819
Aberdeen Press and Journal – Wednesday 19 September 1821
British Press – Wednesday 03 April 1822
Inverness Courier – Thursday 20 June 1822
Hull Advertiser and Exchange Gazette – Friday 02 May 1851
The Show. Yale Center for British Art