The Freak Show Empire Across Victorian London

Harry Rosehill
By Harry Rosehill Last edited 18 months ago
The Freak Show Empire Across Victorian London
Joseph Merrick. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Victorian Londoners had a slightly different taste in entertainment than the city's residents today. There was no Netflix back then; instead people got their kicks in other ways. One particularly popular form of entertainment was to be found in establishments known as penny gaffs.

What's a penny gaff? The name gives it away: one penny was usually the entry fee and gaffs are the metal spurs used in some cock fighting pits. Cock fighting was one way you could pass an evening at a penny gaff, along with plays, musical performances and clown shows.

One specific type of penny gaff dominated Victorian London, though — those that exhibited freak shows. And if you were heading to see these curiosities, you'd almost certainly be going to one of Tom Norman's institutions.

One of Tom Norman's touring stages. Photo: CharmaineZoe's Marvelous Melange

Tom Norman — or the Silver King as he was often known — began life as a butcher's son in Sussex, before leaving home at the tender age of 14 and continuing on in his father's footsteps in London. However, this only lasted a few years as he decided he wasn't cut out for a life of meat slicing. Instead, he fancied his hand at show business.

Soon, he amassed a small empire of penny gaffs, with 13 in London and a show that toured the country. Locations included Whitechapel, Hammersmith, Croydon and on Edgware Road. The Whitechapel branch is where Norman displayed his most famous attraction; Joseph Merrick, better known as The Elephant Man.

Merrick's relationship with Norman is mired in doubt. The doctor who took care of Merrick and wrote his autobiography, Frederick Treves, portrayed Norman as a ruthless drunkard who mistreated Merrick. This version of Norman was the basis for the antagonist Mr Bytes in the David Lynch film. Norman strongly disagreed with Treves' depiction of him, possibly backed up by his involvement in the temperance movement decades before these allegations came to life.

A portrait of Norman. © British Newspaper Archive

Obviously with so many different gaffs, Norman needed as many curiosities as possible to fill them. Some of the best known London regulars included The Skeleton Woman and a Balloon Headed Baby. There were many others, some midget troupes and a 60 year old woman who Norman described as being of "brobdingnagian" — meaning giant, with its root from Gulliver's Travels — who was apparently a big (pun intended) draw.

Over time, ogling 'freaks' as a form of entertainment fell out of fashion, especially in the face of the Social Reform movement. Norman couldn't totally move on; he was still a serious showman in his next career as an auctioneer. Later in life he settled down in Beddington Lane, Croydon. In 1930 he passed away and his funeral at Mitcham Road Cemetery was attended by many leading showmen.

Last Updated 17 May 2017