Deriving his moniker from the heavy silver watch-and-chain he used to wear, Norman was a freak-showman who began his working life as a butcher but took to the entertainment business in his late teens, sometime around the mid-1870s. (He also acted variously as an auctioneer: hence the image above).
As a showman, Norman had the dubious honour of exhibiting the Elephant Man in London, along with sundry ‘savages’, midgets, mummified babies, fat ladies, and the Man in a Trance, who would submit to needles being inserted into his eyelids as proof of his cataleptic condition.
A heavily edited version of Norman’s memoir was published in the 1980s as The Penny Showman, book-ended by a preface and reminiscences by one of his sons. Nonetheless, I prefer the original typewritten manuscript with its uncertain punctuation and whimsical spelling, because it gives much more of a sense of Tom Norman as the raconteur he was. In its written imperfections, it also gives us a sense of the flamboyantly oral culture to which he belonged. Listen, indeed, to the cadences of the introductory passages to his memoir:
‘I must caution my readers to prepare themselves for some somewhat desperate, exciting, sensational, funny, yet true statements, It would not be possible for me to recall scores of incidents that have occurred during my long and busy life of ups and downs, and whatever the opinion of my readers may be, they shall have the satisfaction, gratification, and consolation, of knowing, that they are as true as my memory serves me at seventy years of age’.
Can’t you just imagine the young Norman as you read this, standing before an assembled crowd in one of his freak-shops, talking up the attractions of his Electric Lady and the edification, stimulation or titillation she might bring to those in the room?
Another thing that struck me reading Norman’s manuscript is that it describes a period later than the one with which English penny gaffs or illicit freak-shops are usually associated. The scenes he outlines in his memoir – of people blocking roadways as they crowded outside one of his shopfronts, straining to get a glimpse of a bearded lady or cannibal within – are more often linked to the early-to-mid nineteenth century. Penny theatricals and exhibits are generally used, that is, to evoke the London of Dahl’s Chickens (as Roald Dahl was fond of calling him), not to the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Nonetheless, Norman talks of three shops in Chrisp St, Poplar, in which he showed moving pictures along with his more usual attractions, presumably in the late 1890s. He also talks of a shop which he was running at the time of Edward VII’s coronation.
Certainly the heyday of such shops had long passed by the time Edward succeeded Victoria in 1902. But even so, Norman’s memoir suggests that some gaffs survived into the beginning of the Edwardian era. And it also suggests, of course, that the oral traditions of the showman in which Norman specialised also survived. Indeed, two of his sons, Tom and George Barnum Norman, would carry on the ‘novelty’ show tradition at English fairgrounds into the second half of the twentieth century.
Above Image of Tom Norman c/o the National Fairground Archive, University of Sheffield.
Tom Norman, Somewhat Different – Unusual as Usual (undated unpublished manuscript held at National Fairground Archive, University of Sheffield).
Tom Norman, The Penny Showman: Memoirs of Tom Norman ‘Silver King’ , ed. George Barnum Norman(London 1985).
For Vanessa Toulmin’s write-up of Tom Norman’s career, see this article at Sideshow World.