Don't you forget about me..........
"In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it."
On the evening of 26 June 2018 I met up with two great guys, Neil R.A Bell the author of 'Capturing Jack the Ripper' and co-author of 'The A - Z of Victorian Crime' and Sean Hedges-Quinn an amazing sculptor, animator and film model and prop maker, both who share the same passion as me. We all want to see a statue of Joseph Carey Merrick erected in his home town of Leicester.
Neil Bell an author, writer and a Police Historian has long been interested in the life of Joseph Merrick and it was Neil who ignited my interest in Victorian History
(after spending many years researching Medieval Leicester) and encouraged me to write my book.
Sean Hedges-Quinn an amazingly talented sculptor has worked on films such as Lost in space, V for Vendetta, 12 Monkeys and as a senior prosthetic technician on Clash of the Titans. Sean is also one of the leading sculptors in the UK. His remarkable work includes
(amongst many others) Captain Mainwaring (Arthur Lowe) of ‘Dads Army’ in Thetford, Norfolk, James Herriot in Thirsk, North Yorkshire and more recently in Leicester, the statue of suffragette Alice Hawkins.
Quoting from Sean's webpage, 'His artistic approach to sculpture is varied and is noted for the attention to detail. Beautifully and meticulously sculpted they create a powerful and imposing presence. Apart from having an accurate sensitivity to the human form, Sean has a natural consummate flair and thrives to bring a pleasing and authentic personality to whoever the subject may be.' - http://www.seanhedgesquinn.co.uk/artist/
Anyway, going back, the purpose of this blog is to raise awareness to the campaign to have a statue of Joseph Carey Merrick in Leicester.
In Leicester itself we have over twenty statues around the city, including - Thomas Cooke, John Manners, The Leicester Seamstress, John Biggs, The Statue of Liberty and of course our very own King in the Car Park - Richard III. But how many of those do you stand and look at, contemplate on, think about their lives, what they did? who they were? Probably not many.
As the stand-up American comedian Demetri Martin once said 'I think statues are great; they show what great people would look like if a bird sh*t all over them.'.
Maybe some may agree and maybe some may not. Certainly not in the case of Alice Hawkins. You can see many people passing through the new Market Square gazing up at this amazing woman as they do their shopping.
Leicester is secretly proud of its great, good and famous. We don't shout it out from the ramparts, we just go about our business. This could be our downfall. Until Richard III was discovered I don't think many UK citizens knew were Leicester was. According to Sir Terry Wogan we were a "lost city." The former Radio 2 breakfast presenter made the comment in the 1980s when he said Leicester was often mentioned in traffic reports "but otherwise, unknown to mankind". Since the discovery of the 'King in the Car Park', tourism in Leicester is booming. In 2016 there was more than 33 million visiting the city and county. Sir Terry would be so proud!
So, what makes Joseph Merrick - aka The Elephant Man worthy of a statue in Leicester. Who was he and what did he achieve? To answer these questions, we must start from the beginning.
Joseph Merrick was the first-born son of Joseph Rockley and Mary Jane Merrick in Lee Street which was in the Wharf Street area of the town. (Leicester was a town in 1862 not a city). It is not known when Joseph's afflictions started showing themselves, but he quotes in his own autobiography they started showing themselves at age five. A recently discovered newspaper article written in 1889 suggests the disfigurement didn't start showing itself until he was a teenager. Joseph went to school until he was 13 and then went to work in a cigar factory. This indicates Joseph, at that tender age wanted to be self-reliant and earn money. Some may say his father and step mother sent him out to earn a crust, but I believe that the strong willed independent young man wanted to be self-sufficient even back then. Joseph's father could have easily sent Joseph to the workhouse or an institution for children with physical or mental disabilities.
His career in the cigar factory didn't work out and after two years his right hand got so heavy he left, and his father got him a hawker’s licence to sell haberdashery items from the family business. Joseph left home aged 15 and went to live with his Uncle Charles, a hairdresser in Churchgate. He lived there for two years until 1879 when at the young age of 17 he checked himself into the Leicester Union Workhouse. Known locally as 'The House on the Hill', Joseph lived there for four years. Joseph was fully aware that his unique physical appearance drew interest, as crowds would gather around him when he walked through the streets of Leicester. An intelligent young man, Joseph was also business minded knowing that crowds would pay good money to see the unusual and grotesque. Joseph was now at a stage in a young man’s life where his future is either made or broken, there and then, by the choices he makes. So, Joseph made a brave and positive decision to contact the world of show business. And in Leicester that came in the form of music hall owner Sam Torr.
(The Green Man Public House - owned by Sam Torr still stands today)
After touring the East Midlands circuits, Joseph travelled to London to meet the young, charismatic, handsome showman Tom 'Silver King' Norman. Unfortunately, this hardworking showman who looked after his clients with great care and compassion has been much maligned since he was portrayed as the drunk bully in David Lynches’ 1980 film 'The Elephant Man'. There is no evidence that Tom Norman beat or struck Joseph and he certainly didn't squander the shows earnings on drink. As far back as 1882, two years before meeting Joseph, Tom had signed a pledge with the Church of England Temperance Society. The portrayal of Tom Norman re-named 'Bytes' in the film and plays is nothing more than artistic licence to sell a sympathetic story to the public rather than an attempt to stick to the facts. It wasn't just the public who were interested in these 'Freak Shows'. It was whilst living with Tom Norman and being exhibited on the Whitechapel Road, Joseph was introduced to Dr. Frederick Treves, the emanant surgeon who later in Josephs life gave him shelter and the home he lived in until his death. Dr. Treves, like many other surgeons of that time made a habit of scouting street exhibitions for pathological cases. After visiting Joseph, he asked him to visit the hospital for examination, this he did willingly until after the second or third visit he refused. Refusing a powerful and influential man like Treves shows how strong-minded Joseph was. This enraged Dr. Treves and Tom Normans show was closed down. When he left Normans show, Joseph had over £50 worth of savings. Joseph ended up again touring the showgrounds of the East Midlands with Sam Roper and was given the privacy of his own caravan. By late spring of 1885, Joseph crossed the waters of the English Channel to try the novelty market on the Continent. After a year, things hadn't worked out and it is rumoured that the manager he went with robbed him of his savings. If this is true, then Joseph again proved how exceptional he was. If he was robbed, then Joseph once again had two options - make or break. Joseph chose to make. Somehow, without any money he managed to find his way back to England, across the English Channel and to the capital. Whether he was looking for Tom Norman or trying to get back to Leicester, we will never know. But, one thing is for sure, Joseph ended up on the door step of the London Hospital on Whitechapel Road. According to Francis Carr-Gomm the Chairman of the London Hospital 'he had only the clothes in which he stood'. Joseph lived out his years at the London Hospital in a little one bedded apartment known as 'Bedstead Square'. Joseph was an incredibly talented young man. Considering his condition and disability, Joseph read books, wrote letters, enjoyed basket weaving and built models of churches. One famous model being St Martins Cathedral, Mainz in Germany. Joseph's actual model is on display at The Royal London Hospital Museum.
There is nothing much left of Joseph Merricks amazing life. The Royal London Hospital has a replica of his skeleton on display, his model church, hat and hood and the last reaming letter Joseph wrote is at the Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland Records Office.
In his home town of Leicester there is nothing much at all to say that this incredible young man spent the first twenty-two years of his life walking our streets and trying to live his life the best way he could. There is a plaque at Moat College on Sparkenhoe Street which is the site of the old workhouse. This plaque is in the college itself and not visible to the public.
The only other evidence I found of Josephs existence is a blue board on Lee Street. But it tells you more about Sid James opening the new Tesco then of Joseph.
Joseph Carey Merrick 1862 - 1890, was more than a freak show, a piece of meat on display to laugh at and bully. Joseph Merrick was an incredible young man. Whatever illness Joseph did suffer from, it should not define him as a human being. He suffered greatly with his ailments, and yes, life hardships where never far away. But with his family's love, especially that of his mother and Uncle Charles, coupled with a low middle-class childhood saw him in good stead when compared to other Victorian Leicester families in dire need. An education brought forth an inquisitive mind and an inspired man in the arts and crafts, and a business acumen which saw him turn his disadvantage to a great advantage. Those who met Joseph Carey Merrick face to face saw beyond his deformities, and instantly took to him and that is a high testament to no other but the man himself. Joseph Merrick deserves a statue in his home town of Leicester, we need to remember this brave young man, who, with all the odds stacked up against him was………………………………………………………….
'One who is probably the most remarkable human being to ever draw the breath of life' - Tom Norman