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Bartholomew Fair bill, 1790.

​Bartholomew Fair bill, 1790

London Gothic: Freak Shows and Fairies

Defining the ‘freak’

Charlotte Hopkins explores one aspect of London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) previous exhibition on the Gothic imagination, that of ‘Wonders and Curiosities’, by looking at freak shows and characters such as General Tom Thumb and the Windsor Fairy who were very much celebrities of their day.

We must think of the term freak in the original context it was used. Londoners of the nineteenth century were particularly fascinated with different and unusual bodies. Characters such as General Tom Thumb (Charles Sherwood Stratton) and Lady Morgan (also known as the Windsor Fairy) were very much celebrities of the time. Many of these people had conditions such as Down’s syndrome or deformities from birth and would today be considered disabled. However, their display was not necessarily one of exploitation as we would now perceive it.

Dwarfs as fairies

The figure of the freak can be seen as a projection of the anxieties of the individual and society during this period’. What has been interesting to discover in the collections held at the LMA are the references to ‘dwarfs’ as ‘fairies’ in some of the playbills. This indeed might be indicative of a society that felt dwarfed by industrialisation and wanted to hold on to an idea of a magical and ever disappearing past, a past that represented a more stable period.

The belief that people of small stature could have once been fairies was perpetuated by the nineteenth century folklorist David MacRitchie who sought to make a connection with a folk memory of fairies as a pre-Celtic race. This became known as the pygmy theory. An article in the Illustrated London News, 1894, “Pygmies and Fairies” by Andrew Lang, was concerned with this very subject. Darwinism helped to influence the association with the theories of evolution.

“Now there is a theory in our day held by Mr. MacRitchie that the little folk of fancy and fairy-tale were once a real pygmy race, dwelling in subterranean grass-grown houses, but still vaguely remembered in the tradition of taller nations, their supplanters.”

Bartholomew Fair

LMA holds a scrapbook of ephemera containing some examples of the curiosities exhibited at Bartholomew Fair between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries (SC/GL/BFS/001). An example of a bill from 1790 can be seen above.

After the heyday of the early fairs, Henry Morley wrote ‘Memoirs of Bartholomew Fair’ published in 1859. Morley writes here about the subject of the above bill, the Windsor Fairy and Thomas Allen:

“MR. THOMAS ALLEN, the most surprising SMALL MAN ever before the Public. He had at the Lyceum in the Strand excited in the breasts of the Dukes of York and Clarence, sensations of wonder and delight. Also Miss MORGAN, the Celebrated WINDSOR FAIRY, known in London and Windsor by the Addition of LADY MORGAN, a Title which His Majesty was pleased to confer on her. This unparalleled Woman is in the 35th year of her age, and only 18 pounds weight. Her form affords a pleasing surprise, and her admirable symmetry engages attention…But we shall say no more of these great Wonders of Nature: let those who honour them with their visits, judge for themselves.”

Cooke’s Circus playbill, 1830.

​Cooke’s Circus playbill, 1830.

​Very small people categorised as fairies in this way have been found in playbills relating to the Windsor, Devonshire, Norfolk, Corsican and the Sicilian fairy. Even ponies were given their ‘fairy costume’ shown here at Cooke’s Circus in 1830, from our miscellaneous entertainments collection of playbills: “Two of the remarkable diminutive Horses, denominated the Fairy Stud! Will be put through their Freaks and Evolutions, by Mr Smith, with the incident of seating themselves at the Supper Table with the clown.”

The passing of the traditional freak show

After the Great Exhibition of 1851, the early fairs such as the long-running Bartholomew Fair (which closed in 1854, now the Smithfield Market site) began to disappear. The demand was for even grander spectacles in theatres; the circus too became an arena for the display of ‘freaks and monsters’.

The London County Council rang the death knell for the eventual decline of the freak show and the traditional showman in London. The licensing of venues following its formation in 1889 led to tighter regulation. This coupled with the rise of other organised entertainments such as the music halls, the circus and the zoo saw freak shows disappear to the margins. A change in attitude and a strong sense of morality amongst the middle-classes towards this type of entertainment meant that freak shows were beginning to be seen as an offensive past time. The First World War brought about the most significant shift in attitude when the reality of deformity in the war wounded enabled a wider social acknowledgement of “the disabled”.

London Gothic

London Gothic was a free exhibition at LMA, uncovering rare and fascinating documents from the dark shadows of the capital. The exhibition ran from November 2014 until April 2015. Exhibits included posters and advertisements of 18th and 19th century ‘sideshows’ including ‘The Beautiful Tiger Lady’, ‘The Tattooed Man’ and ‘The Giant Yorkshire Youth’, and the exhibition also featured a newly created version of the grisly ‘mermaid’ displayed at the Turf Coffee House, St James’s Street in 1822.

Details of all our past exhibitions can be found here.

05 February 2015
Last Modified:
27 September 2018