Joseph Carey Merrick was born on 5th August 1862 at 50 Lee Street in Leicester.
Lee Street which is on the corner of Bedford Street off Belgrave Gate was demolished in the pre-war slum clearance of the 1920/30’s and replaced by an army camp and is now Lee Street NCP car park.
Joseph’s parents, Joseph Rockley Merrick and Mary Jane Potterton were married seven months earlier at St Michael and All Angels parish church in Thurmaston, a small village east of Leicester were Mary Jane grew up.
Three months before Joseph was born at the annual May Fair of 1862, Mary Jane was scared or fell in front of a parading elephant which caused her sons condition. This is a tale told in books, plays and films. In fact, there is no evidence of any menagerie attending the May fair of 1862. The Leicester Chronicle reported a lack of shows, bazaars and exhibitions.
Humberstone Gate Fair (1904)
When Joseph was 3 years old his mother was expecting another child and family moved to Upper Brunswick Street.
It’s always been said that the Wharf Street area of Leicester where the Merrick’s lived was the slum district of the city and that his parents were very poor and had to scrape a living, but there were far worst places in the town.
Garden Street, which was not far from the Merrick’s house, but far enough to be another neighbourhood was a lot more deprived. Garden Street is the only surviving example of slum housing in the city.
Garden Street March 2020
Once again in 1868, when Joseph was 6 years old the Merrick’s moved to Birstall Street. The house had a parlour, living room, kitchen, cellar, 3 bedrooms, hard & soft water and gas fittings.
Joseph’s father, Joseph Rockley was a haberdashery proprietor and owned a separate lamp and oil dealership all in what we now know as the St. Matthews area of Leicester.
Russell Square Leicester. A photograph of the actual shop can be seen in my book.
During this time, Mary Jane Merrick had given birth to two more children - William Arthur born 1866 and Marian Eliza born in 1867.
In the Winter 1870, Scarlet Fever spread through Leicester. The epidemic was at its highest in the oldest overcrowded parts of the town. As the initial symptoms passed, parents sent their children to school and out to play, unfortunately this was the most infectious stage. In November 1870 there were 700 – 1,000 cases of Scarlet Fever in Leicester. In the December of 1870, Joseph’s brother, William Arthur fell gravely ill. William passed away on 21 December 1870 and was buried on Christmas Day.
Joseph’s mother died three years later on 29 May 1873 of Bronchial Pneumonia and she is buried with her son William in Welford Road Cemetery.
Twenty months later in the December of 1874, Joseph’s father, Joseph Rockley Merrick married Emma Wood Antill a widow of 6 months with two young children.
Joseph didn’t get on with his step mother and when he was 15 years old he left home and went to live with his Uncle Charles on Churchgate in Leicester.
Joseph lived with his uncle for two years, until December 1879 when he was 17 years old, he checked into the Leicester Union Workhouse; there he lived and worked for four years.
Grounds of the Workhouse
Joseph was fully aware that his unique physical appearance drew interest, so he wrote to music all proprietor Sam Torr to offer his services as a novelty.
Sam owned two establishments in Leicester, The Green Man Public House and The Gladstone Vaults on Wharf Street, the same neighbourhood Joseph grew up in and at the end of the street where he was born.
The site where The Gladstone Vaults once stood. The Green Man Public House.
In November 1884 when Joseph had exhausted the Midlands circuit he was sent to London to meet the young showman - Tom Norman. Tom was only two years older than Joseph and born into wealthy butchering family in East Sussex.
In the Mid-19th century, freak shows were major institutions, there was no legislation preventing human exhibits and medical professionals visited freak shows to examine deformed bodies.
Joseph was exhibited at 123 Whitechapel Road in London’s East End, opposite the London Hospital and his show attracted the attention of medical students. One of the students, a Dr. Reginald Tuckett asked if a Dr Frederick Treves could see Joseph and after that initial meeting asked him if he would appear in front of a group of medical students. After the second or third visit, Joseph did not want to go back. He felt like he was in a cattle market. One-week later Joseph’s show shut down and Tom Norman and Joseph Merrick parted company.
Tom Norman Dr Frederick Treves
123 Whitechapel Road
In December 1886, after travelling with various showman and spending time in Europe, Joseph found permanent residence in the basement of the East Wing of the London Hospital called ‘Bedstead Square’ under the care of Dr. Frederick Treeves.
In the Winter of 1889, Russian flu was sweeping through the country and killing thousands.
In December of 1889, Joseph’s health was failing, and he was spending more time in bed, resting and reading. His attacks of bronchitis were more frequent, and his heart was getting weaker.
On April 11th 1890 at 3.30p.m, Joseph was found lying across his bed and had passed away.
Joseph died of asphyxiation caused by the weight of his head pressing on his wind pipe.
Josephs father, Joseph Rockley Merrick was alive and living in Leicester at time of his son’s death, but it was his Uncle Charles Barnabus Merrick who formally identified the body.
Joseph Carey Merrick died on 11th April 1890 aged 27.
This is the briefest of brief descriptions of Joseph's life. There is so much more to Joseph then deformity, workhouse, novelty and death. If you would like to read more about Joseph's life then click on the 'Books' tab where there is a link to by the book.
These images show the gates of the original Leicester Union Workhouse
Lee Street 2020
Joseph Carey Merrick
The Royal London Hospital 2017