Obituary: George Norman

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The Independent Online
George Norman, showman, clown, antiques dealer: born 1907; married (one son, one daughter); died Streatham, London 5 May 1993.

GEORGE NORMAN was one of the six sons and three daughters born to Tom Norman, one of the great fairground showmen of Victorian times. Tom Norman, himself one of a family of 14 children, left home at 14 to travel the fairgrounds, eventually having his own 'penny gaff' which travelled to every big fair in the country.

He became a close friend of the greatest of all showmen, the American Phineas T. Barnum, who nicknamed him 'The Silver King' on account of the huge silver watch he always wore on his waistcoat. Tom Norman prospered and became a leading fairground figure with his side-shows and the freak-shows which in Victorian times were an integral part of every funfair and menagerie. Among the unfortunates he displayed were John Chambers, the Armless Carpenter, who could do more with his feet than most men could do with their hands, the Dahomey Warriors, the Ugliest Woman on Earth and the Lion-Faced Lady. Most celebrated of his freaks, however, was Joseph Merrick, who drew the crowds as 'The Elephant Man', horrendous to look upon and with a head supposedly as large as a man's waist. Tom Norman was later vilified in books, a play and even a film, The Elephant Man, as a drunkard who exploited his hapless freaks. In fact many of the unfortunates had been disowned by their families and considered themselves lucky to be part of his show, achieving some degree of independence and earning a living.

It was into the fascinating world of the travelling showman that George Norman was born in 1907. Tom Norman's life-story was dictated to George by his father in 1921, but it was not until 1986 that George was able to have the book published privately. The Penny Showman sets the record straight, clearing the name of Tom Norman as an exploiter of the helpless and disproving the story that he was a drunkard. In fact, at the time he had exhibited Merrick, he was a member of the Travellers' National Temperance Abstinence Union, and had two years earlier signed the pledge with the Church of England Temperance Society.

George, nicknamed 'Barnum' by the American showman, chose to leave the fairground for the world of circus when in his thirties, teaming up with his brother Arthur Van Norman and a friend, Bert Sayers, in a musical clown act which was popular in Britain and elsewhere in the 1930s. The Van Normans played all the leading circuses here, including Blackpool Tower, Kelvin Hall, Glasgow, Belle Vue, Manchester, and with Billy Smart in 1947. In 1935, they topped the bill in the Cirque d'Hiver in Paris, a singular honour for a British clown act at a time when all the top continental clown troupes starred in the major Parisian circuses. George Norman played his last circus season in 1951, when he retired from the ring to run an antiques business in London, with his wife Brenda, who he met in a London music shop run by her family when he took a musical instrument for repair in 1937. In 56 years of marriage, they were separated only during the six war years when George joined the Royal Air Force.

George Norman's father died in 1930, following a long career not only as a showman but also as an auctioneer who had for some 30 years conducted all the principal showmen's auctions, including the sales of the leading circuses of FC Bostock, Fred and George Ginnett, and Lord George Sanger. He lived the life of a colourful showman and his funeral was a flamboyant one, with a funeral carriage drawn by black horses with black ostrich plumes. The funeral procession of his son George 63 years later was a replica, Brenda Norman declaring, 'I wanted a horse-drawn carriage for George, just like his dad had. He was a showman and that is what he wanted'.