The P.T. Barnum of the
Barnum and Bailey Circus
by Joel Benton
Tom Thumb in London
AN ARISTOCRATIC VISITOR--CALLING AT BUCKINGHAM PALACE AND
HOB-NOBBING WITH ROYALTY--GETTING A PUFF IN THE "COURT CIRCULAR" --THE IRON
DUKE--A GREAT SOCIAL AND FINANCIAL SUCCESS.
The first public appearance of Tom Thumb in London occurred
soon after the arrival of the party there, at the Princess's Theatre. A short engagement
only had been made, but it was exceedingly successful. The spectators were delighted, the
manager overjoyed, and Barnum himself pleased beyond measure. This brief engagement
answered his purpose, in arousing public interest and curiosity. That was all the shrewd
showman wanted for the present. Accordingly, when the manager of the theatre urged a
renewal of the engagement, at a much higher price, Barnum positively declined it. He had
secured the desired advertising; now he would exhibit on his own account and in his own
He therefore took a splendid mansion in Grafton Street, Bond
Street, in the fashionable and aristocratic West End of London. Lord Talbot had lived in
it, and Lord Brougham lived close by. It was an audacious stroke for the Yankee showman to
invade this select and exclusive region, but it was successful. In response to his
invitations members of the nobility came eagerly flocking to the house to see the
wonderful child. Barnum showed himself as exclusive as any of them, for he gave orders to
his servants that no callers were to be received who did not present cards of invitation.
This procedure he afterward explained, was entirely proper. He had not yet announced
himself as a public showman. He was simply an American citizen visiting London, and it was
incumbent upon him to maintain the dignity of his position! His servants, of course,
exercised proper tact, and no offense was given, although many of the nobility and gentry,
who drove to his door in carriages adorned with crests and coats of arms, were thus turned
Among the early callers was the Hon. Edward Everett, the
American minister to England. He was much pleased with Mr. Barnum and his tiny ward, and
had them dine with him the next day. He also promised that they should, if possible, be
received by the Queen at Buckingham Palace.
A few evenings afterward the Baroness Rothschild sent her
carriage for them. They were received by a half a dozen servants, and were ushered up a
broad flight of marble stairs to the drawing-room, where they met the Baroness and a party
of twenty or more ladies and gentlemen. In this sumptuous mansion of the richest banker in
the world, they spent about two hours, and when they took their leave a well-filled purse
was quietly slipped into Mr. Barnum's hand. The golden shower had begun to fall.
Mr. Barnum now thought the time ripe for beginning his public
exhibitions. He engaged Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly, and announced that Tom Thumb was to be
seen there. The rush of visitors was tremendous. The aristocracy of London thronged the
hall night after night, and a phenomenal success was assured. Barnum did not look beyond
such work. True, Everett had spoken of an audience with the Queen, but Barnum had no idea
that it would ever be granted. One day, however, he met Mr. Murray, Master of the Queen's
Household, at Everett's at breakfast, and that gentleman asked him what were his plans for
the future. Barnum replied that he expected presently to go to the Continent, but he would
most gladly stay in London if he could get the favor of an audience with Her Majesty.
Mr. Murray kindly offered his good offices in the case, and
the next day one of the Life Guards, a tall, noble-looking fellow, bedecked as became his
station, brought a note, conveying the Queen's invitation to General Tom Thumb and his
guardian Mr. Barnum, to appear at Buckingham Palace on an evening specified. Special
instructions were the same day orally given by Mr. Murray, by Her Majesty's command, to
suffer the General to appear before her, as he would appear anywhere else, without any
training in the use of the titles of royalty, as the Queen desired to see him act
naturally and without restraint.
Determined to make the most of the occasion, Mr. Barnum put a
placard on the door of the Egyptian Hall: "Closed this evening, General Tom Thumb
being at Buckingham Palace by command of Her Majesty."
When they arrived at the palace, a Lord-in-Waiting met them,
and began "coaching" them on points of court etiquette. Mr. Barnum, especially,
was told that he must in no event speak directly to Her Majesty, but through the medium of
the aforesaid Lord. He must also keep his face constantly turned toward the Queen, and so,
in retiring from the royal presence, must walk backward. Having thus been instructed in
the ways of royalty, Mr. Barnum and the diminutive General were led to the presence of the
They passed through a long corridor to a broad flight of
marble steps, which led to the picture gallery, and there the Queen and Prince Albert, the
Duchess of Kent, the Duke of Wellington, and others were awaiting their arrival. They were
standing at the further end of the room when the doors were thrown open, and the General
walked in, looking like a wax doll gifted with the power of locomotion. Surprise and
pleasure were depicted on the countenances of the royal circle at beholding this
remarkable specimen of humanity so much smaller than they had evidently expected to find
The General advanced with a firm step, and, as he came within
hailing distance, made a very graceful bow, and exclaimed, "Good evening, ladies and
A burst of laughter followed this salutation. The Queen then
took him by the hand, led him about the gallery, and asked him many questions, the answers
to which kept the party in an uninterrupted strain of merriment. The General familiarly
informed the Queen that her picture gallery was "first-rate," and told her he
should like to see the Prince of Wales. The Queen replied that the Prince had retired to
rest, but that he should see him on some future occasion. The General then gave his songs,
dances, and imitations, and after a conversation with Prince Albert, and all present,
which continued for more than an hour, they were permitted to depart.
But before this Mr. Barnum had broken the instructions in
etiquette which had been so carefully impressed upon him by the Lord-in-Waiting. When the
Queen began asking him questions, he answered her, as she addressed him, through the
lordly medium, as he had been told. That was inconvenient and irksome, however, and
presently Barnum addressed his reply directly to her. The Lord-in-Waiting was
horror-struck, but the Queen did not appear to be displeased, for she instantly followed
her guest's example, and spoke thereafter directly to him. In a few minutes Her Majesty
and the Yankee showman were talking together with the greatest ease and freedom.
"I felt," said Mr. Barnum afterward, "entirely
at ease in her presence, and could not avoid contrasting her sensible and amiable manners
with the stiffness and formality of upstart gentility at home or abroad.
"The Queen was modestly attired in plain black, and wore
no ornaments. Indeed, surrounded as she was by ladies arrayed in the highest style of
magnificence, their dresses sparkling with diamonds, she was the last person whom a
stranger would have pointed out in that circle as the Queen of England.
"The Lord-in-Waiting was perhaps mollified toward me
when he saw me following his illustrious example in retiring from the royal presence. He
was accustomed to the process, and therefore was able to keep somewhat ahead (or rather
aback) of me, but even I stepped rather fast for the other member of the retiring party.
We had a considerable distance to travel in that long gallery before reaching the door,
and whenever the General found he was losing ground, he turned around and ran a few steps,
then resumed his position of backing out, then turned around and ran, and so continued to
alternate his methods of getting to the door, until the gallery fairly rang with the
merriment of the royal spectators. It was really one of the richest scenes I ever saw;
running, under the circumstances, was an offense sufficiently heinous to excite the
indignation of the Queen's favorite poodle dog, and he vented his displeasure by barking
so sharply as to startle the General from his propriety. He, however, recovered
immediately, and with his little cane, commenced an attack on the poodle, and a funny
fight ensued, which renewed and increased the merriment of the royal party.
"This was near the door of exit. We had scarcely passed
into the ante-room, when one of the Queen's attendants came to us with the expressed hope
of her Majesty that the General had sustained no damage, to which the Lord-in-Waiting
playfully added, that in case of injury to so renowned a personage, he should fear a
declaration of war by the United States!"
The visitors were then escorted about the Palace, and treated
to refreshments. Before leaving Mr. Barnum bethought him of the "Court
Circular," in which the doings of the Royal Family were chronicled to the world.
Would his reception by the Queen be mentioned in it? Certainly. Well, then, would it not
be possible to secure something more than mere mention; some words of special
commendation; a "free advertisement" in fact? He would try it! So he inquired
where he could find the gentleman who prepared the circular, and was informed that that
functionary was in the Palace at that very moment.
"He was sent for," related Mr. Barnum, "by my
solicitation, and promptly acceded to my request for such a notice as would attract
attention. He even generously desired me to give him an outline of what I sought, and I
was pleased to see afterward, that he had inserted my notice verbatim.
"This notice of my visit to the Queen wonderfully
increased the attraction of 'Gen. Tom Thumb,' and compelled me to obtain a more commodious
hall for my exhibition. I accordingly moved to a larger room in the same building."
On their second visit to the Queen, they were received in
what is called the Yellow Drawing Room, a magnificent apartment. It is on the north side
of the gallery, and is entered from that apartment. It was hung with drapery of rich
yellow satin damask, the couches, sofas, and chairs being covered with the same material.
The vases, urns, and ornaments were all of the most exquisite workmanship. The room was
panelled in gold, and the heavy cornices beautifully carved and gilt. The tables, pianos,
etc., were mounted with gold, inlaid with pearl of various hues, and of the most elegant
They were ushered into this gorgeous drawing-room before the
Queen and royal circle had left the dining-room, and, as they approached, the General
bowed respectfully, and remarked to Her Majesty, "that he had seen her before,"
adding, "I think this is a prettier room than the picture gallery; that chandelier is
The Queen smilingly took him by the hand, and said she hoped
he was very well.
"Yes, ma'am," he replied, "I am
"General," continued the Queen, "this is the
Prince of Wales."
"How are you, Prince?" said the General, shaking
him by the hand, and then standing beside the Prince, he remarked, "the prince is
taller than I am, but I feel as big as anybody," upon which he strutted up and down
the room as proud as a peacock, amid shouts of laughter from all present.
The Queen then introduced the Princess Royal, and the General
immediately led her to his elegant little sofa, which he took with him, and with much
politeness sat down beside her. Then, rising from his seat, he went through his various
performances, and the Queen handed him an elegant and costly souvenir, which had been
expressly made for him by her order, for which, he told her, "he was very much
obliged, and would keep it as long as he lived." The Queen of the Belgians (daughter
of Louis Philippe) was present on this occasion. She asked the General where he was going
when he left London.
"To Paris," he replied.
"Whom do you expect to see there?" she continued.
Of course all expected he would answer, "the King of the
French," but the little fellow replied.
The two queens looked inquiringly, and when Mr. Barnum
informed them that M. Guillaudeu was his French naturalist, they laughed most heartily.
On their third visit to Buckingham Palace, Leopold, King of
the Belgians, was also present. He was highly pleased, and asked a multitude of questions.
Queen Victoria desired the General to sing a song, and asked him what song he preferred to
"Yankee Doodle," was the prompt reply.
This answer was as unexpected to Mr. Barnum as it was to the
royal party. When the merriment it occasioned had somewhat subsided, the Queen
good-humoredly remarked, "that is a very pretty song, General, sing it, if you
please." The General complied, and soon afterward retired.
The Queen sent to Barnum a handsome fee for each of his
visits, but that was only a small part of the benefits which his acquaintance with her
brought to him. Such was the force of Court example that it was now deemed unfashionable,
almost disloyal, not to have seen Tom Thumb. Carriages of the nobility, fifty or sixty at
a time, were to be seen at Barnum's door in Piccadilly. Egyptian Hall was crowded at every
exhibition, and the net profits there were on the average more than $500 per day from
March 20th to July 20th. Portraits of the tiny General were for sale everywhere, and were
eagerly purchased by thousands. Musical compositions were dedicated to him, and songs were
sung in his honor. Week after week he was the subject of Punch's wittiest cartoons; and of
course all this was just so much free advertising. Besides his three public performances
per day, the little General attended three or four private parties per week, for which
they were paid eight to ten guineas each. Frequently he would visit two parties in the
same evening, and the demand in that line was much greater than the supply. The Queen
Dowager Adelaide requested the General's attendance at Marlborough House one afternoon. He
went in his court dress, consisting of a richly embroidered brown silk-velvet coat and
short breeches, white satin vest with fancy colored embroidery, white silk stockings and
pumps, wig, bagwig, cocked hat, and dress sword.
"Why, General," said the Queen Dowager, "I
think you look very smart to-day."
"I guess I do," said the General, complacently.
A large party of the nobility were present. The old Duke of
Cambridge offered the little General a pinch of snuff, which he declined. The General sang
his songs, performed his dances, and cracked his jokes, to the great amusement and delight
of the distinguished circle of visitors.
"Dear little General," said the kind-hearted Queen,
taking him upon her lap, "I see you have no watch. Will you permit me to present you
with a watch and chain?"
"I would like them very much," replied the General,
his eyes glistening with joy as he spoke.
"I will have them made expressly for you,"
responded the Queen Dowager; and at the same moment she called a friend and desired him to
see that the proper order was executed. A few weeks thereafter they were called again to
Marlborough House. A number of the children of the nobility were present, as well as some
of their parents. After passing a few compliments with the General, Queen Adelaide
presented him with a beautiful little gold watch, placing the chain around his neck with
her own hands.
This watch, also, served the purpose of an advertisement, and
a good one, too. It was not only duly heralded, but was placed upon a pedestal in the hall
of exhibition, together with the presents from Queen Victoria, and covered with a glass
vase. These presents, to which were soon added an elegant gold snuff-box mounted with
turquois, presented by his grace the Duke of Devonshire, and many other costly gifts of
the nobility and gentry, added to the attraction of the exhibition.
The Duke of Wellington called frequently to see the little
General at his public levees. The first time he called, the General was personating
Napoleon Bonaparte, marching up and down the platform, and apparently taking snuff in deep
meditation. He was dressed in the well-known uniform of the Emperor. Barnum introduced him
to the "Iron Duke," who inquired the subject of his meditations. "I was
thinking of the loss of the battle of Waterloo," was the little General's immediate
reply. This display of wit was chronicled throughout the country, and was of itself worth
thousands of pounds to the exhibition.
General Tom Thumb had visited the King of Saxony and also
Ibrahim Pacha, who was then in London. At the different parties he attended, he met, in
the course of the season, nearly all of the nobility. Scarcely a nobleman in England
failed to see General Tom Thumb at his own house, at the house of a friend, or at the
public levees at Egyptian Hall. The General was a decided pet with some of the first
personages in the land, among whom were Sir Robert and Lady Peel, the Duke and Duchess of
Buckingham, Duke of Bedford, Duke of Devonshire, Count d'Orsay, Lady Blessington, Daniel
O'Connell, Lord Adolphus Fitzclarence, Lord Chesterfield, and many other persons of
distinction They had the free entree to all the theatres, public gardens, and places of
entertainment, and frequently met the principal artists, editors, poets, and authors of
the country. Albert Smith wrote a play for the General, entitled "Hop o' my
Thumb," which was presented with great success at the Lyceum Theatre, London, and in
several of the provincial theatres.
Thus the London visit and the tour of England were successful
beyond all anticipation, and it was with an overflowing purse that Barnum set out with his
charge for the French capital.
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