BBC News

Frederick Kempster - the 'English Giant'?

By Emma Stanley
BBC News

image captionOne newspaper said Kempster's normal breakfast was four loaves and six eggs
He was known as the English Giant, but could also have been called the Friendly Giant.
He was Frederick John Kempster, and he joined Astley and Company's American Circus at Chigwell in Essex as a professional giant in June 1911 - not as a "freak" but because he loved people.
"It is said he was a happy, well-adjusted chap who liked to talk to the public," said his great-nephew Jim Kempster.
"He does not appear to have been victimized or outcast because of his unusual size."
image captionFrederick John Kempster was one of the tallest men in England
Earlier, a pair of 5ft (1.5m) long johns which belonged to the 27-stone "giant" were sold at auction in Leyburn, North Yorkshire, for £550.
The oversize shorts and a nightshirt were found at a house near Clitheroe, Lancashire, in the 1970s.
Their owner was said to be able to light a cigar from a street lamp and shake hands with whoever happened to be in the upstairs window of the nearest house - from the pavement outside.
He was born in 1889, died in Blackburn's Queen's Park Hospital in 1918 and was buried in the town's cemetery in a 9ft (2.7m) coffin.
His 10ft (3m) grave is often visited by the young and curious who have heard tales of the English Giant - who was also known as the Blackburn Giant - and want to see proof for themselves.
Kempster was in the Guinness Book of Records from 1967 to 1993 as one of the tallest men in England, where he was reported to have measured 8ft 4.5in at the time of his death.
Photographic evidence, however, suggests that his height was 7ft 8.5in (2.35m).

'Jolly, laughing boy'

"How tall he was is still being debated today," said Jim Kempster, himself a lanky 6ft 4in.
"In the spring of 1911, Kempster was the tallest man in a parade of giants - planned as part of the celebrations for the coronation of King George V.
image captionFrederick and George were placed in the care of Barnardo's
"He was said to stand just less than 7ft 4in at age 22 and the attention he received from the press and public must have been his first indication that his unusual height might be a means to make a living.
"By the autumn of 1913 he stood slightly over 7ft 9in, and his picture, taken while visiting family in Bath, appeared in newspapers all over the world."
Indeed, the newspapers loved to exaggerate his size, with one clipping saying he measured 11 inches from wrist to tip of fingers, had a 50-inch chest, and could span 16 notes with one hand on a piano keyboard. It claimed that a man 6ft 2in tall could walk under his outstretched arms.
Another claimed a normal breakfast for Kempster was four loaves and six eggs.
Through researching his family, Jim Kempster has found many of the facts about him, are, like his 5ft long johns, greatly exaggerated.
He was born to Joseph and Jane Kempster on 13 April 1889 in London, the second youngest of four sons and three daughters.
His mother described him as "a jolly, laughing boy, of a very liberal and generous disposition".
After his father died at the age of 50, on Christmas day 1897, his mother struggled to make ends meet, and Kempster, then aged eight, and his two-year-old brother George were placed in the care of Barnardo's.
The pair joined thousands of other English children who Barnardo's found homes for in Canada, under the theory that life on a farm learning agricultural skills was much better than the life the children faced on the streets of London.
By 1904, aged 15, he had returned to England because he was unfit for farm work due to a congenital knee problem that caused problems with his ligaments and growth at the upper end of the tibia.
This was the onset of this uncontrolled growth that would shape the rest of his life.
In 1911 he joined a travelling circus.

Brother wounded

"This was still the time before motion pictures and television, and people went out to see the travelling attractions that visited the fairs and pubs around the country," his great-nephew, who lives in Ontario, Canada, said.
"He began a tour of Europe in March 1914, just before the war began and suddenly newspapers were reporting that he stood anywhere from 8ft 4in to 8ft 11in.
image captionThe undergarments are up for auction
"I believe his professional manager was the source of this. All men exhibiting themselves for a living exaggerated their height to gain attention.
"He continued to claim to be 8ft 2in for the rest of his life, but doctor's case notes say he stands 7ft 9in tall. I personally believe that the lower number is the truth."
In 1916 Kempster learned that his younger brother George had been wounded in the fighting in Europe and was in hospital in London.
Jim Kempster said his grandfather told "of being visited by his brother, who was so tall that he searched for him by looking in through the transom windows above the doors to the wards".
"This must have frightened some of the wounded soldiers," he said.
Kempster continued to tour the UK and it was while appearing as a sideshow attraction as part a travelling fair in Blackburn that he contracted influenza.
When the press heard he was in hospital in 1917, they took a picture of him in his hospital bed, made up of two beds pushed together.

Lost contact

His doctor noted: "It is impossible to give any adequate conception of the patient's size. He is a striking looking individual 7ft 9in in height with other measurements in proportion."
Kempster's health remained poor and influenza turned into pneumonia. He died on 15 April, aged 29.
image captionKempster is buried in Blackburn in a 10ft grave
The auction of his long johns follows their discovery by John Jardine, of Hurst Green, Clitheroe, whose uncle Tom Cook had become friends with Kempster during his time in Blackburn.
Mr Cook's mother owned the Nags Head pub in Blackburn and he and Kempster became drinking companions.
For Jim Kempster, his great-uncle's fame has made it easier for long-lost family members to find each other.
"Grandpa lost almost all contact with and knowledge of his family," he said.
"I have been able to reconnect with descendants of almost all of their siblings.
"I'd say that Frederick's role in helping me reconnect with family has been his greatest gift to me.
"It's nice to think that he is still remembered after all these years."

More on this story

  • English Giant's long johns up for auction