"It was not the show it was the tale that you told" : The Life and Legend of Tom Norman, the Silver King.
Perhaps one of the most fascinating and interesting showmen in the nineteenth century was Tom Norman, otherwise known as the Silver King. He has became unjustly infamous through his association with the Elephant Man, Joseph Merrick. This was in fact only a small part of his diverse career.
Part of Tom Norman’s life story was published by his descendants in 1985 and tells the story of how he became a travelling showman. However, in the case of Tom Norman, the truth is actually more amazing than the myth and in this brief article we pay tribute to the life and legend of the Silver King.
Tom Norman was born on 7 May 1860 in Dallington, Sussex and was the eldest of 17 children. His real name was Noakes and his father Thomas was a butcher who resided at the Manor House in Dallington. According to his autobiography he left home at the age of fourteen to seek fame and fortune on the road and before long he had found employment as a butcher’s assistant in London. Tom first became involved in showbusiness a year later when he went into partnership with a showman who had a penny gaff shop in Islington, exhibiting Mdlle Electra. However, as is often the case with Tom Norman the facts are difficult to piece together from the legend and the first record we have for a showman called Norman from this time can be traced to the Agricultural Hall in Islington, the venue for The World’s Fair. Some of the showmen on view that day included the famous Tommy Dodd and his wife, "The smallest people in the world;" and a giant boy aged seventeen. Other showmen presenting attractions were Williams's Ghost Show; Chittock and Testo's dog and monkey circus and Mander’s Huge Collection of Wild Beasts. However, both The Era newspaper report and the handbill for the event note the presence of Norman's performing fishes, which reputedly could not only talk but also play the pianoforte; and Norman’s French Artillery Giant Horse. In his autobiography which was uncompleted before his death in 1930, The Silver King states that he was fifteen when he first appeared at the World’s Fair. Therefore, the Norman mentioned could either have been a showman whose name Tom Noakes went on to use, or he was actually 13 years old when he first left home.
By the 1870s the young aspiring showman had been involved in a number of careers including exhibiting Eliza Jenkins, the Skeleton Woman, a popular novelty show at the time, the Balloon Headed Baby and a whole range of freak show attractions as he stated in his autobiography:
'But you could indeed exhibit anything in those days. Yes anything from a needle to an anchor, a flea to an elephant, a bloater you could exhibit as a whale. It was not the show, it was the tale that you told.'
Perhaps one of the more gruesome shows he was involved with, was 'the woman who bit live rat heads off. '
In his autobiography Tom Norman describes the act a the most gruesome he had ever seen:
'Dick Bakers wife, who used to be with me and gave I think now, the most repulsive performance, that I have ever had or seen, during the whole of my long career. it consisted of Mrs Baker, putting her naked hand into a cage, fetch out a live rat and proceed to bite its head off.'
The effect on the audience was such wrote Tom that:
'More than once, have I seen a member of either sex of the audience, fall forward in a faint during this extraordinary performance.'
Tom Norman’s ability to tell the tale was the scene of one of his greatest compliments when in 1882 he was performing at the Royal Agricultural Hall. Unaware that the great showman P. T. Barnum was in the audience, Tom informed the crowd that none other than the greatest showman on earth had booked the show for its entire run. Upon meeting Tom Norman, Barnum pointed to the large silver Albert chain which he wore and said 'Silver King eh'. Despite being found out, Tom Norman took this as a compliment and from then on he became known as The Silver King.
Throughout the 1880s his fame as a showman grew and by 1883 he had thirteen penny gaff shops throughout London including locations such as Whitechapel, Hammersmith, Croydon and Edgeware Road. He still continued to travel with his shows and Norman’s Grand Panorama was a highlight of the Christmas Fair for the 1883/84 season in Islington. It was at this time that Norman came into contact with Joseph Merrick through a showman called George Hitchcock who proposed that Norman took over the London management of the Elephant Man. This episode in Norman’s life is shrouded in controversy as Sir Frederick Treeves the surgeon who reputedly rescued Joseph Merrick or John as he calls him, blackened the character of Norman in his autobiography published in the 1923. The Elephant Man was managed by Tom for only a few months and after the London shop was closed by the police, Joseph Merrick was taken back by the consortium of Leicester businessmen and placed in the hands of Sam Roper a travelling showman.
Tom Norman’s career continued after the Elephant Man and over the next ten year he became involved with managing a troupe of midgets, exhibiting the famous Man in a Trance show at Nottingham Goose Fair, Mary Anne Bevan the World’s Ugliest Woman, John Chambers the Armless Carpenter and Leonine the Lion Faced Lady. In January 1893, the following advertisement appeared in The Era newspaper and seems to imply that Tom was thinking of leaving England for the Worlds’ Fair which was being held in Chicago. The advertisement appeared for the following weeks and although no details are available as to their final outcome they do give us a glimpse into the type of shows Tom Norman was exhibiting at the time.
'Wanted, to Sell, 10ft Living Carriage, Light, One-horse Load, already Fitted for Road, £25, worth £35; also Novelty Booth, good as new, Size, 9ft by18ft, with Novelty and Four New Brass Lamps, with Filler and Oil Drum, by Mellor and Sons, £4; also Piano Organ, nearly New, scarcely soiled, TenTunes, by Capra, suit Waxworks or any Shop Exhibition, £7, worth £18; also Two Fat Paintings, Best on the Road, by Leach, Size 9ft by 10ft, ditto One, same size of Skeleton Girl, all good as new; also Two others of Fats, size 6ft by Thornhill, with large Case to carry the lot, £5, cost £20; also 9ft Square Booth for Performing Fleas, with Two Grand Oil Paintings for same, price £1; also Aerial Suspension for Child 15s; also the Largest Silver Albert in England, made expressly for me, £3, cost £6. The whole of the above to be sold together or separate. Can be seen any time. Reason, I am leaving for Chicago. Apply any Morning before 12.0 to TOM NORMAN, Silver King, Pearce's Temperance Hotel, Elephant and Castle, SE'.
In 1896 Tom met and married Amy Rayner at the Royal Agricultural Hall and their marriage lasted until his death in 1930. At that time Tom was travelling his famous Midget show and the Ghost show he had bought from John Parker. Their first son Tom was born in 1899 and was soon followed by Hilda, Ralph, Jimmy, Nelly, Arthur, Amy, Jack, Daisy and George.
Soon after the birth of his first son, Tom became an auctioneer and the first show he sold belonged to Fred and George Ginnett. His career as an auctioneer prospered and some of the most famous shows he sold included Lord George Sanger and Frank Bostock's.
He advertised in both The Era and The Showman newspapers as the recognised Showman’s Auctioneer and Valuer throughout 1901 and early clients in 1902 included W. T. Kirkland who had concessions at Southport, Morecambe and New Brighton. He instituted the annual Showman and Travellers’ Auction Sales in London, Manchester and Liverpool from 1903 onwards and negotiated sales for showman such as Walter Payne, Edwin Lawrence and many others. His most famous sale to date place in 1905 when he organised the disposal of Lord George Sanger’s Zoo at Margate. This was followed by what Tom Norman described as the crowning point in my life as regards the auctioneering business, when he was called upon by Sanger to offer in auction the whole of his travelling circus effects. The following tribute published in 1901 demonstrates the esteem in which he was held by the fairground fraternity:
'Mr Norman believes in catering for modern tastes - brilliancy; brightness, cleanliness and order are Tom’s strong points'
Tom Norman continued to travel with his shows and maintained his penny gaff shops in London while basing the auctioneering side of the business at his family home the Manor House Dallington. Although Tom did not reveal in his autobiography the reasons for changing his name, he obviously maintained links with his place of birth in order to base this part of his business activities there.
In the period leading up the First World War, Tom was now the father of ten children, nine surviving and his sons Tom, Ralph, Jimmy, Arthur and George had inherited their father’s showmanship. Ralph Van became known as Hal Denver and travelled throughout Europe and America as a wild west performer, George and Arthur found fame as clowns in many of the world’s greatest circuses and Tom and Jim Norman remained on the fairground.
By 1915 the family were firmly based in Croydon and Tom was starting to dispose of some of his business concerns when his eldest son Tom Jnr enlisted. The shops for sale included Tom Norman's New Exhibition with waxworks and novelty museum and the Croydon Central Auction Rooms. Tom slowly retired from the fairground business and although he maintained his auctioneering concerns, he mainly concentrated on buying and selling caravans and dealing in horses for circuses and pantomimes. After the end of the first World War, Tom became restless again and appeared at the Olympia Circus in 1919 with Phoebe the Strange Girl and exhibited at Birmingham and Dreamland, Margate in 1921. Tom also returned to the venue where he had first started, The Royal Agricultural Hall and worked there throughout the 1920s although he was living in semi-retirement at the family base in Beddington Lane, Croydon.
Tom Norman left behind a comfortable professional birthright to became one of the leading travelling showmen of his day. The benevolence he showed to his fellow showmen, his association with the newly formed Van Dwelling’s Association and his role in the United Kingdom Temperance Association demonstrate the injustice done to his reputation by inaccurate accounts of The Elephant Man. He died in Croydon on 24 August 1930, while according to his son George Van Norman, making plans to travel a large auction show around the country.
The following tribute was published in the World’s Fair.
'There are very few showmen who have not met the famous showman’s auctioneer, “The Silver King”, He has been a conspicuous and charismatic figure in our business for the past half a century and has conducted more showman’ sales than any other auctioneer in the country... During his fifty years with us, he has endeared himself to all section from the humblest to the highest. He was a charming personality with a commanding appearance that left a lifetime impression upon anyone that he met. Al his life he has been a showman and as such he died.'