Thursday, March 24, 2011

A short visit - General Tom Thumb calls on the Queen

General Tom Thumb (Picture courtesy of Paul Frecker, London)

On the 20th of February 1844, an advertisement appeared in The Times announcing the appearance of General Tom Thumb at the Princess’s Theatre in Oxford Street. He, his family and his mentor and manager, Phineas T. Barnum had left New York a month earlier aboard the "Yorkshire" bound for Liverpool, and after a short season there had proceeded to London where Thumb appeared for several days at the Princess's theatre. Barnum saw the short engagement as a way of "advertising" his youthful protégé.

Barnum and Tom Thumb
The day following his first London appearance, The Times waxed lyrical, describing him as “the most minute specimen of walking and talking humanity it is possible to conceive”.  Although Thumb was only five years old at the time, the review notes that “he stated his age to be 12 years.” At the time he was 25 inches tall and weighed 15 pounds; a height and weight he maintained from the time he was seven months old until early adulthood.  Barnum made it a point always to exaggerate the little man’s age in order to make his appearance seem more dramatic.

On the stage, Thumb sang, danced, mimicked, and answered questions put to him (mostly by Barnum). Barnum rented a furnished mansion in the West End and invited members of the nobility to see his ward. Barnum, of course, was a consummate showman and made sure that young Charles Sherwood Stratton, whom he had “re-badged” as General Tom Thumb was kept in the eye of the British public.

Barnum training Tom Thumb
Shortly after their arrival, the Baroness Rothschild sent a carriage for Barnum and "the General."  Barnum described the reception they received.

We were received by a half a dozen servants, and were ushered up a broad flight of marble stairs to the drawing-room, where we met the Baroness and a part of twenty or more ladies and gentlemen.  In this sumptous [sic] mansion of the richest banker in the world, we spent about two hours, and when we took our leave a well-filled purse was quietly slipped into my hand.  The golden shower had begun to fall.

The "Egyptian Hall" in Piccadilly was engaged for appearances by "the General," and the show was a great success.

The reviews were generally favourable and it was not long before General Tom Thumb was invited to attend the Queen at Buckingham Palace. Here, on Saturday evening, the 23rd of March 1844, according to the Court Circular, he, accompanied by Barnum, “exhibited his clever imitations of Napoleon, &c., which elicited the approbation of her Majesty and the Royal circle.” The "meeting" took place in the Queen's picture gallery where "the General" appeared before the Queen, Prince Albert, the Duchess of Kent and "twenty or thirty of the nobility." According to Barnum, "The Queen ... took him [Thumb] by the hand, [and] led him about the gallery."

When the evening came to an end, Barnum and his protégé began the process of backing out of the Queen's presence.  Thumb, because of his size and the shortness of his legs,

found he was losing ground, [so] he turned around a ran a few steps, then resumed the position of 'backing out,' then turned around and ran, and continued to alternate his methods of getting to the door, until the gallery fairly rang with the merriment of the royal spectators.

One of the spectators was not impressed.  The Queen's favority poodle started barking and the General was forced to defend himself with his cane.  Much hilariaty ensued and

Tom Thumb and the Queen's Poodle
one of the Queen's attendants came ... [out] with the expressed home of Her Majesty, that the General had sustained no damage -- to which the Lord in Waiting playfully added, that in case of injury to so renowned a personage, he should fear a declaration of war by the United States!

A few days later, again accompanied by Barnum, the young performer,  appeared at Marlborough House before the Queen Dowager who “was graciously pleased to express her approbation.”  On the 1st of April, Thumb was again at Buckingham Palace and again on the 19th of April. 

Just two months later, William Cavendish the 6th Duke of Devonshire, attended General Tom Thumb at the Egyptian Hall where he “presented him with a magnificent gold snuff box, engraved with beautiful devices, brilliantly mounted with turquoise, and bearing the General’s initials on the top.”

What was the appeal of General Tom Thumb? There would appear to be two facets to the fascination he seemed to exercise. First, there was the ongoing flirtation of the British with what were commonly known as “freaks.” Travelling shows with all sorts of human and animal oddities were common from well before the Victorian Era. Bearded women, giants, midgets, Siamese Twins and mermaids were all a part of the make-up of these perambulating exhibitions. In addition to the desire to see strange creatures, there was the appeal of the foreign. In fact, in the United States, General Tom Thumb who was clearly American, was paraded as English whereas in England he quickly became a “Yankee” wonder.

But the most significant factor in the success of the tour was Barnum’s entrepreneurial ability Barnum was a showman and he knew how to capture the peoples’ interest. On the occasion of his visit to Buckingham Palace, Barnum posted a sign on the door of the Egyptian Hall which read, “Closed this evening, General Tom Thumb being at Buckingham Palace by command of Her Majesty.” 

On December 24th, a letter appeared in The Times in which the writer complained that traffic had been disrupted because Tom Thumb was “being slowly drawn along in a little carriage.”  The carriage, which Barnum had built for him, was “drawn by miniature horses and attended by children dressed in livery.”

That he remained popular with the British public is attested to by an article in The Morning Chronicle which, when he returned to England in the mid-1850s, welcomed him as a “lively, debonnaire little gentleman.”

To gain some sense of the General's height, click here.