Yet, did you know, the relics of that misguided form of once hugely popular ‘entertainment’ would continue well into the 20th century and the Kent coast was one of its last outposts?
Freak shows – by their very nature – turn the stomach today. A tawdry spectacle where physical deformities and abnormalities were paraded before paying punters.
Extravagant, exaggerated posters would proclaim to show you ‘giants’, ‘the missing link between monkey and man’ or ‘the lion-faced lady’.
What the audience actually got were tall people, and women suffering hypertrichosis – a condition where hair growth can be abnormal.
Other ‘acts’ on display would include conjoined twins and those with significant abnormalities. Joseph Merrick (billed as ‘the Elephant Man’) being perhaps the most famous of them all.
Not all abnormalities were as they seemed; over zealous stage show producers often ‘creating’ characters they knew would lure in the crowds. The US showman PT Barnum – around whom the musical movie hit The Greatest Showman was based – knew the power of promotion in pulling in huge crowds, doing what was necessary to get people paying hard cash to see the shows he staged. He famously once hired an 80-year-old woman and presented her to crowds claiming she was 160.
Yet by the dawn of the 20th century, these once big money-making shows were on the decline in London. Advances in medicine meant people were becoming more aware these people were born with disabilities rather than having – as some posters would claim – “been caught in the wild”.
In addition, the Boer War and some years later, the First World War, meant disfigurement was no longer something which passed as ‘entertainment’.
Freak shows were also no longer having the broad appeal across the social divide they once commanded.
So while the big cities turned their backs on freak shows, they instead took to the road – and headed to the coastal resorts where they hoped to cash in on working classes still keen to see such ‘oddities’ (as they were frequently described).
And, remarkably, they continued – albeit in a limited, often seasonal, form – up until the Second World War.
In 1936, for example, Merrie England on Ramsgate seafront (which would eventually morph into Pleasurama) for many years played host to ‘Human Oddities’ a show described as a ‘first class freak show’ in the advertisements for its summer season.
In fact, in April of that year, a local newspaper report – under the headline ‘an unusual wedding’ – highlighted the marriage of some of those performing as part of the ‘Oddities’.
The ‘Armless Wonder’, as he was known, made up for his lack of upper limbs by “attaining such skill with the use of his feet he is able to write and play several musical instruments”.
While his real name is omitted from the report, he was due to marry a woman described as “only 18 years of age but turns the scales at 40 stone”.
The wedding would be attended, the report added, by “18 or 20 midgets”.
Quite whether the marriage was real or conjured up for some pre-show publicity – such events had been used elsewhere in the country as a means to whip up interest – remains something of a mystery.
However, the report – which was clearly designed to generate something of a crowd at the church – spoke of how, on the big day, the groom “would place the ring on his bride’s finger with his toes and afterwards sign the register with his feet”.
It is breathtaking on such a variety of levels for today’s sensibilities.
But then, also showing that summer at the attraction was the ‘Midget Mansion’.
As one newspaper report at the time described it: “Tiny people, versatile and clever, dance and play musical instruments at the Midget Mansion.”
Yes, you could go and gawp at the ‘tiny people’ – some would even use their talents to determine your personality traits.
Not to be out-done, over in Margate’s Dreamland, the previous season had seen Midget Town opened to the public. Featuring “25 little people”, they starred alongside Dinny Duffy – billed as the “Australian Giant” who was “24 years old and nearly 8ft high".
The show was put together by Fred Roper who toured ‘Midget Town’ around the UK’s tourist hotspots. Promotional images would suggest many of his ‘midgets’ were, in fact, children.
However, records show he did take his ‘midgets’ to the World Fair in New York in 1939 before interest in such ‘attractions’ dwindled.
Emma Purce wrote a thesis on the phenomenon while at the University of Kent’s School of History. She explained: “The seaside space, situated on the physical and metaphorical margins of Britain, was a place in which the public could partake in a multiplicity of activities that were not acceptable in city spaces, traditionally sites of industrialisation and work.
“The marginal seaside space permitted people to be comfortable with viewing marginal bodies; people expected sideshows as part of their summertime excursions and enjoyed them as a traditional and integral aspect of their holiday amusements.
“However, as seaside spaces attempted to reinvent themselves as respectable holidaying locations in the 1930s, there were numerous efforts to improve the types of entertainment available to holidaymakers through the removal of disreputable displays.
“Seaside sideshows were targeted by local authorities concerned that the displays encouraged people to associate seaside resorts with unacceptably immoral and degenerative behaviour. It proved difficult to transform public perceptions of seaside locations and the fascination with human anomalies continued, despite efforts to reinvent the amusements available to holidaymakers.”
The Second World War, once again, brought physical differences into focus and saw the dregs of the industry all but die out.
Yet, even in 1954, Maidstone’s Palace Theatre (which once occupied the site of the Robert Dyas shop on Gabriel’s Hill) was putting on performances on its very own Midget Town featuring “a star cast of the smallest people in the world” adding they were “Royal British Lilliputians direct from the USA”. Similiar shows took place two years earlier in Chatham.
Emma Purce adds: “Whilst the public may not have visited freak shows regularly at other times of year, they were a traditional and intrinsic aspect of working-class summer holidaying activities (similar to pantomimes at Christmas), and were enjoyed by a significant proportion of British holidaymakers.
“Rather than dating the decline of the freak show to the early years of the 20th century, it instead proliferated until 1950, in spaces dedicated to leisure, pleasure, and fun.
“The seaside was a site for health, entertainment, nostalgia, and novelty, and therefore provided a space in which the public continued to indulge their interest in those with unusual bodies.
“Freak shows remained an aspect of British culture at seaside resorts until 1950, when entertainment combined with the rising popularity of holidays abroad, the cinema, and television, to encourage the public to enjoy curious sights through alternative mediums.”
Truly, the end of an era. And not one to mourn.