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Seven places in London connected with the Elephant Man

Written by
Robert Lordan

In 1980 the late, great Sir John Hurt  – who sadly passed away last week – teamed up with David Lynch to take on one of his most challenging and moving roles: that of Joseph Merrick, aka ‘The Elephant Man’, who became synonymous with Victorian London. Lynch described Hurt's portrayal of the tragic figure as 'glorious' – but if you're yet to watch the much-loved classic, here's the story of Merrick and the places connected with him

Whitechapel Road, E1

Joseph Carey Merrick (named John in Lynch’s film) was born in Leicester in 1862. Although a healthy baby, signs of the disease which would come to define his life began to appear in early childhood. By his mid-teens a further series of bitter twists saw him packed off to the workhouse. Sussing his deformities could offer a way out via the dubious route of the Victorian freak show, Joseph signed up with Tom Norman, a flash showman who peddled seedy ‘penny gaffs’ across the capital. Joseph arrived in London in November 1884 and, under his new showbiz name, 'The Elephant Man' was put on show at 123 Whitechapel Road (now renumbered 259). Joseph also lived on the premises. 

Berners Street, W1

The building in which the public paid to gawp at Joseph stood opposite the Royal London hospital. When 31-year-old Doctor Frederick Treves spotted the gaudy poster boasting about 'the greatest phenomenon' his medical curiosity was piqued. A private viewing was arranged and when Dr Treves saw Joseph he suggested an immediate examination be conducted at the Royal London Hospital. After his check up, Joseph agreed to be presented as a ‘living specimen’ to the Pathological Society of London, then located on Berners Street. He attended this Bloomsbury address several times, always wrapped in his cloak and travelling by Hansom cab.  

Liverpool Street station, EC2

After his stint in Whitechapel, Joseph tried his luck with the freak shows in Belgium. Here, he acquired a shady new manager who not only abandoned Joseph but stole his entire savings – about £4,000 in today's money. Alone and penniless, Joseph trekked to Antwerp where he secured passage on a steamer to Harwich, then a train back to London where he arrived at Liverpool Street during the morning rush hour of June 24 1886. As Joseph tried to exit, his cloak and hood gained unwanted attention and he was soon mobbed. Rescued by two policemen, Joseph was barricaded in a third-class waiting room where he collapsed, breathless and terrified.  

 The Royal London Hospital, E1

During his travels across Belgium, Joseph had managed to hold on to two precious items – a portrait of his beloved mother and Dr Treves’ business card. The doctor was sent for immediately and struggled to barge his way through the crowd at Liverpool Street. Joseph was whisked back to the Royal London where Dr Treves came to the sad conclusion that his friend was facing a short lifespan. Following an appeal, enough money was raised to provide Joseph with two private rooms overlooking a corner of the hospital called Bedstead Square. Here Joseph received many well-wishers including the future King Edward VII.  

6 Wimpole Street, W1

After a life spent in workhouses, freak shows and hospitals, Joseph was keen to see what a 'normal home' looked like, so Dr Treves invited him to his own house; number 6 Wimpole Street. It's believed that Joseph was so excited that he examined every feature – from cups to cushions – with a child-like curiosity. However, he was disappointed to discover there were no liveried footmen or servants in attendance – his hopes having been falsely raised by the works of his favourite writer, Jane Austen. 

Theatre Royal Drury Lane, WC2

Joseph was also fascinated by the idea of theatre, so, during the Christmas of 1887, a special visit was arranged for him to see ‘Puss-in-Boots’ at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. For the outing, Joseph was granted a private box and use of the royal staircase and as he sat in the dark alongside Dr Treves and several nurses from the Royal London he was able to lose himself for a few hours. Joseph was enthralled by the spectacle and the evening spent in Covent Garden was said to be one of the happiest of his life. 

The Royal London Hospital Museum, E1

Joseph Merrick died at the Royal London Hospital on April 11 1890. He was 27 years old. Today, a small museum exists on the hospital grounds in the former crypt of St Philip’s Church which holds a number of items related to Joseph – including his iconic cloak and hood and a model of St Phillips crafted by Joseph himself. Entry is free. 

Check out our interview with David Lynch on the making of 'The Elephant Man'.

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