The following is just a quick blog post I threw together this morning, needing something for the week – and having recently tied of a bunch of standby posts to planned podcast episodes for the 2023 season.
In 1617 Gilbert Ireland, Sheriff of Lancashire, was presented before King James I of England. He’d made the journey south for a rather auspicious occasion. A loyal servant of the crown, Ireland – a wealthy landowner – was due to be knighted. One imagines him being ushered in to meet his majesty. At the main doors, a giant porter waved him and the other knights through – one imagines to a hushed sense of awe from the guests. The ceremony proceeded as one might expect – one after another those honoured took a knee, were tapped on the shoulder by the sword-wielding monarch, and were invited to ‘arise sir’.
At some time that day it is thought Ireland sidled up the King and said something to the effect of “Jim, you think your porter’s a big man – you should check out my bodyguard back home. He’s head and shoulders above your boy. Strong as an ox too!” King James, clearly was intrigued.
Growing up in New Zealand as I did, but to parents from this region (myself born in a village called Eastham Village, across the Wirral from Liverpool – my father also from Eastham Village, my mother from Birkenhead) as a youngster I heard the tale of this big man, whose portrait hung in Speke Hall – home of the Ireland family. His name was John Middleton – though he came to be known as the Childe of Hale.
Born in 1578, one legend has it the young John Middleton was an average kid. Of average size, intelligence and talents, he longed to be something more. The story I was told is one night he lay down beside the Humber Estuary between two lines he’d etched in the dirt. ‘God willing, in the morning I will be as tall as these lines are long’ he stated, before drifting off to sleep. I couldn’t find an origin for this tale, but did find a similar story from the diary of an 18th century traveller, stopping one night at Hale. Locals there claimed John did go to bed one night, wishing to be ‘the greatest man in England’. The next morning he woke up a giant. While clearly more than a little hagiographic – it does suggest at some stage he had an abnormally rapid growth spurt.
Almost certainly true, the legend he was so tall, he slept with his feet hanging out the window of the cottage he rented off Gilbert Ireland. There was just one spot in his home where the Childe could stand upright – something tourists can confirm to this day. Not only is the thatched cottage still in existence, you can rent it out for a long weekend for £650 at time of writing.
Not a lot can be said of John Middleton’s life. I know a ‘modern descendant’ of his was still living in his cottage in the 19th century, who himself was ‘well over six feet tall’. I know no specifics of his immediate family. The collection of parish records of all births, deaths and marriages was mandated in England in 1538, so that information should be available to anyone who cares to dig – had it survived long enough to be digitised. At some point in his life, his landlord took him on as a bodyguard. Given Ireland was employed as sheriff, which required him to collect rents, taxes, fines, to execute writs, guard prisoners and, on occasion, to gather juries and run a county court – he probably had his fair share of adventures. The one we do know of was the time King James I called Middleton and Ireland down to London in 1620.
I cannot say if he did in fact tower over James’ giant porter, though one imagines he did – The Childe definitely left an impact on the king. He wrestled the King’s champion wrestler, easily beating the man – breaking the wrestler’s thumb in the exchange. King James was so impressed, he awarded The Childe of Hale a £20 cash prize – which according to one online calculator was equivalent to an average 400 days wages for a skilled tradesman, and could have bought the Childe either two horses, ten cattle, 368 kilograms of wool or eleven quarters of wheat (I presume the calculator means the old definition of quarter i.e. a quarter of an imperial ton).
On the way home, his companions either swindled him out of the entire sum, or outright robbed it off of him. Returning home destitute, John Middleton died three years later.
The infamous diarist Samuel Pepys recalls a trip through Hale in his diaries. He was shown a life sized sketch of Middleton’s hand. He claimed “…from the corpus to the end of his middle finger was seventeen inches long. His palm 8 inches and 1/2 broad”. His grave was unearthed in 1768 by a schoolmaster and parish clerk noted as a ‘Mr Bushell’. He measured Middleton’s bones, estimating his height at 9.3”(2.82 metres). Bushell claimed his thigh bones alone were as long as an average man’s leg from hip to foot. If he were, in fact this tall, he would have been ten centimetres taller than the officially recognised tallest man in history, Alton Illinois’ Robert Wadlow – who stood at slightly over 8.11” at the time of his untimely death.
Sketches of both his hands, four portraits and a walking stick 5 feet 2 1/2 inches high remain as testament to the big man. A gravestone marks his resting place stating “Here Lyeth the Bodie of John Middleton, The Childe Nine Feet Three”. Modern day experts estimate his height at closer to 7.9”, still a gargantuan figure by anyone’s measurement.