26 April 2017 | 8.1 °C

The Sad Story Of The Fat Boy Of Peckham

The Sad Story Of The Fat Boy Of Peckham

It's not the kind of marketing you could easily get away with today:

© The British Library Board

These shots, taken for The Tatler in 1903, advertise an early appearance of John Trundley — aka the Fat Boy of Peckham — at The Royal in Holborn.

© The British Library Board

Born an unusual size in Camberwell in 1898, Trundley was swiftly exploited by impecunious parents — making his debut at the Yarmouth Hippodrome in December 1903, and performing at venues such as The Royal and the Camberwell Palace of Varieties soon after.

If the appearance and age of Trundley (at five-years-old he weighed 70kg) is shocking enough, then the casual way in which the above show — and magazine — appear to 'fat shame' the young boy is doubly so.

This was to become the norm for Trundley; while as a performer, he was encouraged to perform stunts like racing diminutive comedian Little Dando, the papers would go into unsavoury details about how his local school had hired a carpenter to hurriedly tack together a 'gargantuan desk' for him.  

Trundley races Little Dando on 13 July 1904. © The British Library Board

Unsurprisingly, Trundley was not a fan of school, and the papers would regularly publish stories on the comic-like way in which the school board would try to drag him into the classroom. A joke surfaced that Trundley should have his own tramway system to get him there. A piece in The Sketch, December 1905 crowed: "Certain opponents of the methods of the reigning members of the London County Council cannot understand why that body, which has shown itself desirous of running trams from anywhere to everywhere, should hesitate to start a social service for their protege."

Though famous throughout the land, Trundley was not the country's only morbidly obese child. In 1904, a report in the Western Gazette spoke of a 'rival' for the Fat Boy, in the form of a 19-stone 12-year-old from Woodchurch in Kent. The were pitted against each other in tasteless Top Trumps format:

© The British Library Board

The same article claims that Trundley's rival's parents received "Several tempting offers... by persons wishing to exhibit him...". Given the threat of the workhouse looming over the Trundleys' heads, you can't entirely blame John Trundley Snr for selling his son in the way he did. Interestingly, there were laws in place for children being onstage at the turn of the century — the Fat Boy of Peckham's earlier shows were only permitted on the technicality that he was 'exhibiting' rather than 'performing'.

From The Sketch, 5 December 1906. © Illustrated London News Group

It wasn't entirely a bad life for Trundley, however. As he continued to grow (in 1915, he was proclaimed Britain's heaviest person, at 210kg) so did his career. In one unreal encounter, Trundley was stunned when a stage idol, Buffalo Bill, turned up on his doorstep in Peckham, offering a touring contract. Signing up with impresario Fred Karno, meanwhile, meant Trundley became pally with other greats including Charlie Chaplin (born just down the road from him), and Laurel and Hardy. It's also heartening to know that Trundley was married for 14 years, remained something of a local celebrity and seemed generally happy with his lot. Remarkable, given the tough life he had from the get-go.

It was during the first world war — and the bombing raids on London — that a terrified Trundley was first said to have started losing weight. He eventually gave up touring, becoming a watchmaker in Peckham. He died aged 45, as a result of tuberculosis (the second, far more tumultuous aerial bombardment of London is also thought to have played a part in his demise). As this snippet from the Gloucestershire Echo claims, owning to his illness, he died relatively gaunt — almost half the weight he'd once been:

© Local World Limited/Trinity Mirror. Image created courtesy of The British Library Board

Trundley's larger-than-life legacy lives on. Remembered in a ditty by The Singing Loins, he also has a coffee shop at Peckham Rye train station named after him — its logo clearly referencing Trundley and his trademark attire:

The Fat Boy of Peckham, then, continues to be an effective marketing tool, and is still a brand that's raking in money from Londoners, 70-odd years after Trundley's death. It's nice to think he's having the last laugh.  

Last Updated 02 March 2017