Fairs and shows all over the world harbour many amazing and grotesque figures whose peculiarities can earn them a living. There are fat men, thin men, strong men, dwarfs, giants, bearded ladies and Siamese twins to mention but a few, all plying their various roles for the entertainment of the crowds that pay to gaze on them in wonder. (World's Fair, October 6th, 1934).
The modern travelling fairground owes its existence both to the network of chartered and prescriptive fairs, which were brought into place from the twelfth to fourteenth centuries, and the onset of the industrial revolution in the mid nineteenth-century and which transformed the landscape to one of modernity and motion. Throughout its long and colourful history, the exhibition of people with disabilities or marked racial characteristics has been an essential component of the travelling fairs and carnivals in the United Kingdom and Europe.
Henry Morley's Memoirs of Bartholomew Fair, published in 1857, lists the stone eaters, fat women, bearded ladies and other curiosities to be found on the fair over the centuries. The most popular attractions were oddities with extraordinary talents, who could do supposedly normal things despite their disabilities, or people of miniature stature presented as dwarfs or midget shows. Although described generically as a side show or freak show exhibition, these commonly applied terms do not take into account the range and scope of the performers and acts or the historical contexts in which many of the exhibition took place. The novelty appeared at a variety of venues depending on the time of the year and their prominence as an attraction. Fairgrounds appear to be the main venue for such exhibitions but the growth of the music hall and the development of the leisure industry throughout the Victorian era provided many additional outlets. Interestingly, the term side show only really occurred in the late Victorian fair, when the development of steam powered mechanised roundabouts led to them occupying the central space on the fairground, resulting in shows becoming pushed to the outskirts or side ground of the location.
The presentation of human oddities in the Victorian era changed dramatically with P.T. Barnum and his famous attraction, Charles Stratton otherwise known as 'Tom Thumb'. When Barnum arrived in England in 1844 the British showmen were amazed that Barnum was hoping to attract so much money for simply exhibiting a dwarf. Midgets had appeared on travelling fairs for hundreds of years, Thomas Frost in his account of Bartholomew Fair cites many examples of the craze for these Lilliputian wonders. A famous precursor of Charles Stratton, Simon Paap, was presented to the Prince Regent in 1815 and was a famous attraction at Bartholomew Fair. However, with Tom Thumb, Barnum created a novelty act that became one of the greatest attractions of the Victorian Era. Charles Stratton was only twelve years old when exhibited by Barnum in 1844, a year after his first appearance in the United States, and he became the sensation of London. Barnum elevated the showing of such exhibitions and placed them in the drawing rooms and salons of the British aristocracy. From the mid nineteenth-century onwards, what was once a sideshow on a travelling fair, became an act that featured on music hall, variety and respectable theatrical bills. Traditional sideshow performers that also had a talent or special skill that could be integrated into a production quickly became the most lucrative and durable of all sideshow performers. Within the hierarchy of this specialist and competitive world, the model of Barnum's 'Tom Thumb' was copied and utilised by showmen and performers throughout Europe and America.
Dwarf and midget acts such as Harold Pyott, the English Tom Thumb and Anita the Living Doll, followed in the example of Charles Stratton and became highly successful sideshow novelties operating in the fairs and the music halls. Midgets were presented in stylised format with the items of everyday domesticity such as tables, chairs and wardrobes acting as props to add to the contrast in size. They were the most prized of all the fairground exhibitions and Harold Pyott who exhibited until the 1920s, would challenge anyone to produce a man as small as himself.
By the 1930s midget shows or Lilliputian wonders as they were advertised were all the rage and a variety of troops appeared on the stage, variety clubs and fairgrounds in the United Kingdom. Speciality acts appeared including midget strong men, midget 'dare devil' drivers and midget conjurers as part of a specially constructed themed tour. Sam Roper and John Lester were two British showmen who continued to tour these speciality acts well until the 1950s.
Davey Jones the
By the start of the 1960s the sideshow or novelty acts on the fairgrounds were in decline with the advance of the Welfare State and the issue of economic necessity and changes in public taste being a factor in the decline of the human curiosity shows on the fairground and variety stage. Live acts themselves become a novelty on the British fairgrounds with the appearance of Davey Jones exhibited by Florence and Robert Campbell in the 1960s being seen as a nostalgic throwback to a more profitable and innocent world.
According to Robert and Florence Campbell, Davey chose to go back on the fairs for companionship and entertainment rather than economic necessity:
One particular season we came across a little midget and he was called Davey Jones, a little Irish man... When he found out we were showpeople, he wanted us to take him out with the show and tour, now we'd already got a good business going with the refreshments and we thought about it for a year but what really decided us was he was such a marvellous man, he was smaller than the average two year old child and he was so intelligent and he could talk til the cows came home, he could charm the birds out of the trees. So we decided that we'd open up with David and put him in a show at the Queens' Hall Leeds for an indoor fair. We did so well with him that we decided that we would go back into showbusiness and that was how we went back into it.
Davey Jones was born in Lisburn, County Antrim in the early 1900s, and was one of a family of seven. Against the wishes of his family he decided to travel with Bostock and Wombwell's Menagerie and from 1928 to 1933, appeared regularly on the fairs in the United Kingdom. After a year with Bertram Mills he left to work in the Barnum and Bailey Ringling Circus in the United States, where he covered over 92,000 miles with the show. Davey returned to Northern Ireland before the outbreak of the Second World War, where he ran his own firewood and coal merchant's business for many years. His exact height in publicity material associated with the show claims he was 2ft 2in and weighed less than sixty pound in weight.
For over five years he exhibited as the Living Leprechaun - The World's Smallest Man at Bridgwater Fair, Nottingham Goose Fair, Kirkcaldy Links and other British Fairs. His show featured his own purpose-built petrol motorcar, shaped like an E-type Jaguar, that he drove around Lisburn and incorporated into his performance. Davey's show was very similar to earlier nineteenth century attractions. It consisted of Davey entertaining visitors or 'punters' alongside appropriate sized furniture in a custom built house with paintings he had produced on display. After five years of travelling with Robert and Florence, his health caused him to return home to Lisburn where he died in the early 1970s. As Florence recalled, the main attractions of the show for Davey were the people he met and the places he visited:
He used to put a lot into his shows, he used to talk to the audience and make friends with the children and he'd talk literally for hours on end...
Davey was not the last sideshow exhibit on the fairs in the United Kingdom and Ireland; Johnnie Osbourne 'the Wee McGregor' and Jim the Gentle Giant were still appearing in the late 1980s. However, the type of show presented by Davey Jones and the Campbell family until his retirement had been part of the fairground tradition for many centuries. In an interview given after he returned to being a sideshow exhibit with Florence and Robert Campbell in 1969, he claimed that his disability had never made him despondent:
If it wasn't for my height, no one would bother to come and see me and I would not have been around the world as I have.