Norman, Tom [real name Thomas Noakes]
- Vanessa Toulmin
Norman, Tom [real name Thomas Noakes] (1860–1930), showman and freak show proprietor, was born on 7 May 1860 at the Manor House, Dallington, Sussex, the eldest of the seventeen children of Thomas Noakes (1835–1903), master butcher and farmer, and his wife, Eliza Haiselden (1840–1911). According to his own manuscript autobiography he left home at fourteen and found employment as a butcher's assistant in London. He first became involved in showbusiness in 1878 when he went into partnership with a showman who had a ‘penny gaff’ or freak show shop in Islington, exhibiting Mdlle Electra. Records are unclear about when Tom Noakes started exhibiting under the name Norman, as a freak show proprietor also named Norman was a regular visitor to the World's Fair held annually at the Royal Agricultural Hall in Islington from 1873 onwards (Connell, 1973). That show, which probably became his, included Norman's Performing Fishes—which could reputedly not only talk but play the pianoforte—and Norman's French Artillery Giant Horse. In addition Norman's Panorama was a regular attraction at fairs around the country and at the Royal Agricultural Hall.
By 1882 the young aspiring showman had been involved in exhibiting Eliza Jenkins, the Skeleton Woman, and the Balloon Headed Baby in shop premises throughout London. Such was the popularity of these shows that by the mid-1880s Norman claims to have operated thirteen shop shows in Hammersmith and five shops in Nottingham and exhibited freak shows at fairs and shop venues throughout the United Kingdom. His motto was 'It was not the show, it was the tale that you told', and such was his oratorical skill and 'silver tongue', that in 1882 P. T. Barnum is said to have named him the Silver King after attending his show at the Royal Agricultural Hall.
By 1883 Norman had penny gaff shops throughout London in such locations as Whitechapel, Hammersmith, Croydon, and in the Edgware Road. In November 1884 he exhibited Joseph Merrick—the Elephant Man—at his shop at 123 Whitechapel Road, London, on behalf of a consortium of London showmen. This episode in Norman's life is shrouded in controversy; in his autobiography published in 1923 Sir Frederick Treeves blackened the showman's character by portraying him as a ruthless drunkard; this was rebutted by Norman in a letter published in the World's Fair newspaper in the same year.
Over the next decade Norman managed a troupe of midgets, as well as exhibiting the famous Man in a Trance show at Nottingham goose fair in 1892; Mary Anne Bevan, the World's Ugliest Woman; John Chambers, the Armless Carpenter; and also Leonine, the Lion Faced Lady. In January 1893 he advertised his travelling concerns and living carriage for sale in The Era as he was leaving for Chicago (although he did not in the event go). Items for sale included a flea circus, novelty booth, and oilcloth banners advertising the Skeleton Girl and fat women (The Era, 28 Jan 1893). By 1893 he had become actively involved in both the temperance movement and the newly formed United Kingdom Van Dwellings Association, the trade association of travelling showpeople; he served as the latter's vice president. In 1894 he appeared at Nottingham goose fair with a Midget Show and in 1895 with Norman's Varieties. Other ventures included the Bear Lady at Nottingham in 1899 and the famous Electrograph Show.
In 1896 Norman married Amy Rayner (d. 1943), a theatrical performer at the Royal Agricultural Hall. They had six sons and four daughters, and their marriage lasted until his death in 1930. By 1900 Norman had also become an auctioneer, and the first show he sold belonged to Fred and George Ginnett. He advertised in both The Era and The Showman newspapers as the recognized showman's auctioneer and valuer. Early clients included in 1902 W. T. Kirkland who had concessions at Southport, Morecambe, and New Brighton. Norman subsequently instituted the annual showman and travellers' auction sales in London, Manchester, and Liverpool from 1903 onwards. One of his most famous auctions was the disposal of Lord George Sanger's zoo at Margate in 1905. 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.
By 1915 the Norman family was firmly based in Beddington Lane, Croydon, but the business was inevitably affected by the onset of the First World War. Norman began to dispose of some of his business concerns when his eldest son enlisted. The shops for sale included ‘Tom Normans New Exhibition’ with waxworks and novelty museum, and also the Croydon Central Auction Rooms. He gradually retired from the travelling business to concentrate on supplying horses for circuses and pantomimes. However, in 1919 he returned to showbusiness and appeared at the Olympia circus with Phoebe the Strange Girl, and also exhibited at Birmingham and Margate in 1921. Throughout the 1920s he still put on shows at the Christmas fair held at the Royal Agricultural Hall. He died in Croydon Hospital, on 24 August 1930, while making plans to travel with a large auction show around the country. His funeral at Mitcham Road cemetery three days later was attended by many leading showmen. A fitting tribute—'All his life he has been a showman and as such he died' (World's Fair, Aug 30, 1930)—appeared in the trade press.
- Tom Norman MSS, University of Sheffield, National Fairground Archive, Norman family collection
- The penny showman: memoirs of Tom Norman ‘Silver King’ (privately printed, 1985)
- Goose Fair, programme of amusements with a map of the city, 1899, Nottingham Central Library, L38.93
- Goose Fair handbills, Nottingham Central Library, L38.93
- S. Race, diary, Notts. Arch., M24.480/A/8
- M. Howell and P. Ford, The true history of the Elephant Man, rev. edn (1983)
- J. Connell, The Royal Agricultural Hall (1973)
- The Showman (11 Jan 1901) [advert for Tom Norman, auctioneer]
- The Era (28 Jan 1893) [for sale advertisements]
- The Era (23 Oct 1915) [for sale advertisements]
- ‘Silver King: the passing of Mr Tom Norman’, World's Fair (30 Aug 1930)
- K. Scrivens and S. Smith, The travelling cinematograph show (1999)
- F. Treeves, The Elephant Man and other reminiscences (1923)
- TNA: PRO, Ref. RG11, piece 1035, fol. 31, p. 11
- T. Horne, ed., The United Kingdom and Van Dwellers Protection Association Yearbook, 1900 (1900)
- University of Sheffield, National Fairground Archive, MSS
- Nottingham Central Library, Goose Fair handbills, L38.93
- photographs, University of Sheffield