In December, 1848, Robert Hales, son of a respected Somerton farmer, sailed into New York for a two-year American tour. Billed as the "Norfolk Giant," he rose to a height of seven feet six inches, weighed four hundred an sixty pounds, had shoulders thirty-six inches broad, measured sixty-two inches around his chest, and sixty-four around his waist. On his return to England, he was commanded to appear before Her Majesty Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, and six of the royal children at Buckingham Palace. He later bought and operated the Craven Head Tavern in Drury Lane.77
O'Brien (See Byrne, Charles)
O'Brien, Patrick Cotter
A fascination with giants extends to all ages and all peoples. In some earlier centuries, Europe's interest in these huge creatures really perked up, particularly among the upper classes and the nobility. In fact, so many of the curious became so willing to pay money to see them that a kind of tour was established for the giants. Some of them made a lot of money. One who cashed in really big on his great size was Patrick Cotter O'Brien, a native of Kinsale, in the kingdom of Ireland.
Because he stood exceedingly tall, was proportionally large, and had a flair for showmanship, the popular Irishman was able to establish one of the longest runs on the tour. As a result, he became one of the most famous of the modern giants and one of the richest. He also became a frequent subject of newspaper and magazine stories. Even one of his bets made the news when a reporter, in the year 1800, informed his readers: "O'Brien, the Irish giant, yesterday returned to town, performed some days ago an uncommon feat of gallantry. For a wager of 10£ he kissed, en passant, a young lady at a garret window."78 And on October 19, 1786, a newspaper informed its readers of the giant's nuptials, as follows: "O'Brien, who last winter exhibited his person in St. James's-street, was lately married at Pancras Church, to a young woman, of the name of Cave, who lived in Bolton-row, Piccadilly."79
When these touring giants came to town, they advertised their availability to the public in a format similar to the following: "Just arrived in town, and to be seen in a commodious room, at No. 11 Haymarket, nearly opposite the Opera House, the celebrated Irish giant, Mr. O'Brien, of the kingdom of Ireland, indisputably the tallest man ever shewn. He is a lineal descendant of the old puissant King Brien Boreau, and has in person and appearance all the similitude of that great and grand potentate. It is remarkable of this family, that however various the revolutions in point and fortune and alliance, the lineal descendants thereof have been favoured by Providence with the original size and stature which have been so peculiar to their family. The gentleman alluded to measures near nine feet high. Admittance, one shilling."80
PATRICK COTTER O'BRIEN, as seen by artist A. Van Assen in this engraving made in 1804 at the height of the Irish giant's popularity.
The gentleman, in the name of showmanship, of course, stretched his actual height a few inches. According to a memorial tablet placed in the vestibule of the Roman Catholic chapel on Trenchard-street in Bristol, the famous Irish giant measured only eight feet three inches.81
O'Brien's great size sometimes placed him in humorous situations. In an article published in the Mirror for 1826, his hairdresser, who lived at Northampton, noted that the giant was a man of mild disposition, but he recalled when "an impertinent visitant excited his choler one day, during his residence here [at Northampton], by illiberal allusions to the land of his birth. The Philistine was sensible of the insult, seized the prig by the collar, held him out at arm's length, and gave him three or four mild agitations."82
Another time, O'Brien was riding in his coach, which was about to be robbed. Because of his huge frame, his carriage maker had adapted the coach to his better use. By sinking the foundation some feet, the maker found a way to accommodate his long legs without changing the carriage's appearance very much. So when the highwayman rode out into the road and stopped the coach he expected nothing out of the ordinary. But as O'Brien put "his head forward to observe the cause that impeded his progress, the highwayman was struck with such a panic, that he clapped spurs to his horse and made a precipitate retreat."83
After retiring from the tour, a very rich O'Brien continued to ride about in the handsome carriage that had been fitted for his special use. (See Giants and Dwarfs; O'Brien's Scottish Rival)
O'Brien's Scottish Rival
In his lifetime, Patrick Cotter O'Brien probably met only one man he had to look up to. The story of that encounter appeared in the Mirror for 1830, as follows: "Most English persons who visit Scotland as strangers are struck with the stature and proportions of the generality of its inhabitants, male and female; and those of our readers conversant with Edinburgh pleasantry will probably acknowledge both the justice and keenness of the satire which terms a certain pera, near a certain fashionable square, the 'Giant's Causeway.' However, we did not know till lately that Scotland had produced a rival to the celebrated O'Brien, of Irish birth. When that extraordinary man was, some years since, exhibiting, amongst other places, at Yarmouth, a Scotch gentleman of good family and large fortune, who was passing through the town at the time, sent a note to him, stating his height, and requesting an interview, quite privately, with O'Brien, as he did not and could not make of himself a public exhibition. They met the same evening at the hotel where O'Brien lodged; and upon measuring, the Scotch gentleman's height was found to exceed that of his brother giant of Erin by half an inch."84 (See O'Brien, Patrick Cotter).
In 1817, the Leixlip churchyard yielded to diggers the skeleton of a man not less than ten feet high. According to local tradition, the giant Phelim O'Tool was buried in that same churchyard some thirteen hundred years earlier. (See Graveyards of the Giants)
After Walter Parsons became an apprentice to a smith, he soon grew to such a stature-he eventually stood about seven and a half feet tall-that his employer was "forced to digg a hole in the ground for him to stand in up to his knees, when he struck at the anvil... or sawed wood with another, that he might be at a level with his fellow-workman."
That unusual scene the Earl of Buckingham came upon one day when his horse pulled up lame as he rode through Staffordshire. While watching the young giant work, it struck the earl that he would make an excellent bodyguard for King James I. So he offered him the job as the king's porter on the spot.
After becoming porter to James, Parsons "behaved himself so generously," says Dr. Robert Plot, "that though he had valor equal to his strength, yet he scorned to take advantage to injure any person by it; upon which account we have but few experiments left us of his great strength, but such as were sportive: as that being affronted by a man of ordinary stature, as he walked London streets, he only took him up by the waistband of his breeches, and hung him upon one of the hooks in the shambles, to be ridicul'd by the people, and so went his way."85
By the time the Cornish giant Antony Payne reached his twenty-first birthday he already stood seven feet two inches. After his father, a tenant farmer at Stratton, "attached" him to the house of Sir Beville Granville of Stowe, his landlord, Tony grew two more inches. For all his size and bulk, the witty Payne showed no signs of clumsiness, but awed everyone with his dexterity and very quick reflexes. They also say he had the brains to match the brawn that had thrust him into the role of a mighty man.
A story frequently told about Tony illustrates his great strength. One chilly Christmas Eve, they say, someone at the house sent a boy into the woods with an ass to gather some logs for the fire. The youngster however tarried. When he failed to return by a reasonable time, Payne entered the woods to search for him. Finding the lad, the giant-to save time returning home-loaded the log-laden ass on his back and then he and the boy went merrily on their way.
When war erupted between Parliament and King Charles I in 1642, Sir Beville joined his forces on the side of the king, and Payne, also a Royalist, became his bodyguard. One day news reached his master that a Parliamentary battalion led by Lord Stamford was approaching the town. A picked company, with Payne at their head, marched out to fight them. This battle ended with the Royalists as clear victors and Stamford's forces in retreat. As the enemy's dead lay strewn over the battlefield, Payne set his men to digging trenches large enough to hold ten bodies each. When this work was finished, they began burying the dead. Nine corpses of the enemy soldiers soon lay side by side in the first trench. Some men with shovels waited as Payne approached with the tenth. As he neared the trench, the man that was supposed dead spoke. Or rather he pleaded: "Surely you wouldn't bury me, Mr. Payne, before I am dead?"
Effortlessly toting the limp body in the crook of his huge arm, Payne replied: "I tell thee, man, our trench was dug for ten, and there's nine in already; you must take your place."
"But I be not dead, I say," the man begged earnestly. "I haven't done living yet. Be massyful, Mr. Payne; don't ye hurry a poor fellow into the earth before his time."
"I won't hurry thee," Payne answered, "I mean to put thee down quietly and cover thee up, and then thee canst die at thy leisure."
Of course, the good-natured Payne was just having some fun with his frightened foe. After the burials, he carried the wounded man to his own cottage and cared for him.
After the Restoration, King Charles II appointed Sir Seville's son John as governor of Plymouth Garrison, and Payne became Sir John's halberdier. The king took a great liking for the friendly Cornish giant and commissioned Sir Godfrey Kneller to paint his portrait. This painting, which Kneller titled the "Loyal Giant," can be seen today in the Royal Institute of Cornwall Art Gallery. A reproduction of it also appears as the frontispiece to Gilbert's History of Cornwall, Vol. H.86
After he reached retirement age, Payne returned to his native Stratton to live out his days. Upon his death, the locals found that they were unable to get the oversized corpse through the doorway and down the stairs. To solve the problem, they sawed through the joists, and the floor bearing the giant's body was then lowered with ropes and pulleys to ground level. Relays of strong pallbearers then bore the enormous coffin to his grave site near Stratton Church.
In his Short History of Human Prodigies, Dwarfs, etc., James Paris du Plessis mentions that while in London in 1696 he saw a handsome, well-proportioned "giantess who was seven feet high without her shoes, who was born in the Isle of Portrush, not far from the wonderful Causeway in the most northern part of Ireland."
In 1701, he saw her again at Montpellier in Languedoc, France, exhibiting herself at a fair. "I not knowing she was the same I had seen five years before in London, and though I was something disguised by wearing a periwig, she remembered me very well and told me where she had seen me."87
Pritchard on Irish Giants
In his History of Mankind, Dr. Pritchard writes: "In Ireland men of uncommon stature are often seen, and even a gigantic form and stature occur there much more frequently than in this island: yet all the British isles derived their stock of inhabitants from the same sources. We can hardly avoid the conclusion that there must be some peculiarity in Ireland which gives rise to these phenomena."88 (See Origin of the Giants-Other Theories)
In 1687, while digging into some hillocks at Repton in Derby-shire, Thomas Walker came across an old stone wall enclosure that contained a stone coffin with a skeleton nine feet long. A century later, because of renewed interest in Walker's find, the "ancient sepulchre was again opened... when bones of a very gigantic size, appertaining to numerous skeletons, were discovered, together with some remains of warlike instruments." (See Graveyards of the Giants)
St. Bees' Giant
A giant warrior, found buried in his armor in a corn field at St. Bees, in Cumberland, once rose to a height of thirteen and a half feet. (See Graveyards of the Giants)
Sir Guy of Warwick (See Colbrand)
A Mrs. Cooke, of Merriott in Somersetshire, billed as "the tallest, largest, and strongest woman in the world," proved a crowd-pleaser in the early 1800s. A remarkably stout woman, she looked down on her many admirers from a height of almost seven feet. On April 15, 1818, she exhibited at the Earl of Yarmouth's in Seymour-place, May-fair, where the Prince Regent, the Duke and Duchess of York, the Duke and Duchess of Cumberland, and several other members of the royal family, plus about one hundred of the nobility, came to see her.89
In his Every-Doy Book, Hone records that on September 5, 1825, he visited Bartholomew Fair where he saw a young woman who styled herself as "The Somerset Girl, taller than any man in England." When her audience entered, writes Hone, the lass "arose from a chair, wherein she was seated, to the height of six feet nine inches and three quarters, with 'Ladies and gentlemen, your most obedient.' She was good-looking and affable, and obliged the 'ladies and gentlemen' by taking off her tight-fitting slipper and handing it round. It was of such dimension, that the largest man present could have put his booted foot into it. She said that her name was Elizabeth Stock, and that she was only sixteen years old."90
James Toller, of St. Neot's, Huntingdonshire, England, finally stopped growing at the height of eight feet six inches. He first exhibited in London in 1815, and appeared before the Emperor of Russia and the King of Prussia. In the following year he was shown at number 34 Piccadilly, and in 1817, he posed for his portrait, which later appeared in Kirby's Wonderful Museum.
Toller, however, died young. A poet of that time eulogized the popular giant in these few rhymes:
To see him hundreds day by day did throng,
As he from place to place did pass along;
His 'bode uncertain, for to think 'tis vain,
One place so tall a wonder to contain. His whole proportion was upright and straight,
'Twas eight foot fully and a half in height,
Not much in debt to age, his body clean,
Up to his stature, and not fat, nor lean.91 (See Freeman)
While working in a new tin mine at Tregoney-on-Fal, in Cornwall, reports the Annual Register for 1761, a miner discovered a stone coffin on which some unrecognizable characters were inscribed. Inside the ancient eleven-foot-three-inch casket he saw the gigantic skeleton of a man, which, when exposed to the air, crumbled to dust-except for one tooth, which measured two and one-half inches in length.
While digging in some ground to enlarge the vault of the Evelyn family in the churchyard of Wotton, near Dorking in Surrey, during the reign of Charles U, workers found a human skeleton which measured nine feet three inches long.92
The Gentleman's Magazine for December, 1765, and the Annual Register for the same year informed their readers that in York, England, lived a set of giant twins, a boy and girl, who though not yet seventeen years in age still stood to heights of seven feet three inches and seven feet two inches respectively. (See Knipe Twins)