A tall tale from West Somerton …
The metal sign at West Somerton, Norfolk , shows a church, a drainage mill and a Norfolk Wherry, all set above the name of the village. It stands in the middle of a green, one edge of which runs alongside a staithe at the terminus of a dyke cut from Martham Broad . The dyke forms the first navigable stretch of the River Thurne . From here it is possible to sail downstream all the way to Great Yarmouth – that is, as long as your craft is not too tall, the River Thurne passes underneath the lowest bridge on the Norfolk Broads at Potter Heigham.
There were once nine working drainage mills along the course of the river. They are all now in various states of disrepair. The tower of West Somerton Mill, constructed in 1900 by the local company England’s of Ludham, survives, but the sails have gone. Working Wherries have also long since ceased to be a common sight. The church, on the other hand, has remained largely unchanged.
The fabric of the building is reputed to contain some re-used Roman brick. Whilst the attractive thatched nave, round-tower and medieval wall paintings within should be sufficient to entice visitors to St. Mary's, the biggest draw is undoubtedly in the churchyard. A plaque on the supporting post of the sign explains:
“This sign depicts the parish church of St. Mary where lies the tomb of Robert Hales the Norfolk Giant, a Norfolk wherry of which a number of were built in this village; and a drainage mill typical of this area. Unveiled by J. G. Bell Esq. Lord of the Manor 21 October 1978.”
Robert Hales was baptised at St. Mary’s in 1813 and buried there in 1863. Between these two dates he led an extraordinary life. His parents, William and Elizabeth, had a large family in more than one respect – Robert, one of nine children, grew to be 7 feet 8 inches tall and weighed in at over 32 stones, whilst Mary, one of their daughters, attained 7 feet 2 inches tall.
Robert originally attempted a career as a sailor, signing up with the Royal Navy at Great Yarmouth. He left aged 17, however, after it became increasingly apparent that his size made living and working in the cramped conditions below deck impossible.
After first appearing at fairs in Norwich and Great Yarmouth, Hales joined up with his sister Mary and her manager (also her husband) Joe Laskey to tour fairgrounds across the country. After Mary died during a visit to the Channel Islands, Laskey married Anne Hales, one of Mary and Robert’s sisters – who was a relatively diminutive 6 feet 8 inches tall. Robert disapproved of this arrangement and he parted company with Laskey.
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert met Hales on couple of occasions, first at the Epsom Races in 1840 and then later at Court, and once presented him with a gift of a gold watch and chain. This patronage enabled him to travel to Europe and appear before other European royals including King Louis Phillippe of France. It was not long before Hales came to the attention of Henry Bennett, an agent for Phineas T. Barnum.
In 1848 Hales set sail for America, accepting an offer of £800 to become an exhibit at Barnum’s American Museum in New York. He acquired more fame en-route - he is credited with saving the life of a boy who fell overboard during the crossing. He swam to the youngster, keeping his head above water until he could be loaded onto a rescue boat.
On Wednesday 28th February 1849 the New-Orleans Commercial Bulletin announced:
“Mr. Barnum, of the New York Museum, is a genius in the way of humbugging the mighty public, and he succeeds hugely – of course. His latest is his best attempt. He has an English giant, just arrived, a man of immense size. He has negotiated the marriage of this giant to the celebrated Scotch giantess. To create an excitement, he purposes that this wedding shall take place in the New York Tabernacle, and the public admitted to witness it at 25 cents per head”. gold wedding dresses
Around 900 spectators attended the ceremony. Hales obituary, appearing in the Brooklyn NY Daily Eagle, reported: “It will be remembered that he went through a marriage ceremony with a giantess when under Barnum’s control, at the Broadway Tabernacle, but it afterwards turned out that this giantess was a giant dressed up in feminine attire.”
Hales toured the United States and Cuba for two years with ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’. In Philadelphia, over the course of 13 days, 28,000 spectators paid the entrance fee to view the Norfolk Giant and the famous midget General Tom Thumb who appeared alongside him.
Hales returned to England on 4th March 1850 on board the ship ‘Adelaide’. He occupation is listed on the ships manifest as ‘Giant’ alongside fellow passengers Henry Bennett ‘Showman’ and John Mole (Dwarf). He lived in London and Sheffield before finally returning to Norfolk.
The 1861 UK Census shows Robert living in Nether Hallam, Sheffield, with his wife Maria where he is registered as the publican at the Burgoyne Arms. Living with the couple is their 12-year-old son named General.
Robert Hales died of bronchitis on 22nd November 1863 aged 50 years old at his home at 3 Wellington Road, Great Yarmouth. His tomb in the churchyard of St. Mary’s bears the inscription:
“Beneath are deposited the mortal remains of Robert Hales, the Norfolk Giant, whose height was seven feet eight inches. He died in Great Yarmouth November the 22nd 1865 aged 40 years (sic).
Reader the dust must be your bed
Vain are opposing powers
The wise, the strong and crowned head
Must lie as low as ours
This tomb is erected by his affectionate widow".