About two miles away from the southern outskirts of Liverpool where I grew up, beside the river Mersey, sits the tiny village of Hale. As a child, I was fascinated by Hale and would look forward to the journeys my granddad and I would occasionally make to the parish churchyard. The reason for this was simple: a real life giant was buried there. This was no myth or fairy story, it was written there on a dark stone slab (right) in bold white letters:
“Here lyeth the bodie of John Middleton the Childe of Hale. Nine feet three.”
Such childhood fascinations, however, have a way of fading into the background and I’d all but forgotten John Middleton until a few months ago. Searching for something to do one evening, my girlfriend (not a native of Liverpool) and I decided to go for a short drive. For some reason Hale village came to mind, and before too long there we were in the churchyard, amongst the skull-and-cross-boned graves which in my youth I believed to be those of pirates. John Middleton’s grave still looked huge. I was still fascinated.
A guide at Speke Hall, a local half-timbered mansion, first told me the story of the Childe of Hale as we stood beneath the huge portrait of Middleton that hangs there. I cannot remember exactly how detailed an account it was but the main events (if not the dates) of the Childe’s life were all there.
According to the story, John Middleton was born in Hale in 1578, a normal and healthy baby of humble peasant stock. Middleton grew to a height of nine feet and three inches (2.8m), so tall, it is said, that he had to sleep with his feet sticking out of the window of his tiny cottage. Because of his ‘formidable appearance’ Middleton was employed as a bodyguard by a local landlord called Gilbert Ireland.
In 1617 1, on his way back from Scotland, King James I (James VI of Scotland) stopped to knight Ireland, and in doing so heard of his gigantic protector. Both master and servant were invited to visit the king’s court, and a fine outfit of purple, red and gold was specially made for Middleton. In London, John beat the king’s champion wrestler, and in doing so broke the man’s thumb. Embarrassed by the defeat and displeased with the amount of money many of his subjects had lost in betting on the match, James sent the Childe home with the substantial amount of £20 for his troubles. Unfortunately, jealous of his wealth, and taking advantage of his apparently slow wits, Middleton’s companions mugged him on the journey back to Hale. John Middleton returned to the village penniless and remained there until he died in 1623.
Retelling the story to my girlfriend, I soon realised how odd it sounded, and for the first time I found myself questioning its authenticity. I began to think of all the questions about the giant that I had pondered whilst staring at that same grave as a child. It then dawned upon me that now, as an adult, and in this, the age of the Internet, a bit of research might be able to satisfy my curiosity. Yet, as I soon found out, separating the man from the myth is not all that easy.
My first obstacle was in confirming the dates of Middleton’s birth and death. The grave in Hale churchyard bears the inscription “1578 – 1623”, but the date for Middleton’s baptism (assuming that the John Midelton listed in the church register is indeed the Childe) is 11 January 1573. 2 Furthermore, the portrait of Middleton which once hung in Hale Hall is recorded as bearing the inscription: “John Middleton, Childe of Hale, was born in the year 1572; died in 1628” 3. It seems that dates were not a strong point back then. Nevertheless, the authenticity of the major event of the Childe’s life, his trip to the court of King James, is untouched by these relatively minor discrepancies. Indeed, although there is no actual evidence of Middleton’s visit and wrestling match save the oral tradition, there is very convincing evidence to place him in that particular region at that time.
It is recorded that the Childe and his master visited Brasenose College, Oxford (Ireland was himself a graduate and senior member of the college 4), where Middleton had his portrait painted. The fact that there are only three portraits of Middleton in existence, and that two remain at the college, shows not only that he was there, but also that he was enough of a celebrity to warrant such attention. In fact, Brasenose rowing club’s first eight still wear the “Childe of Hale colours” of purple, yellow and red in honour of their visitor. 5 Further evidence can be found in the Diary of Samuel Pepys, who wrote about seeing the painted outline of the Childe’s hand (which remains to this day) at the college in 1668: “After came home from the schools I out with Landlord to Brasenose College to the butteries and in the cellar find the hand of the child of Hales” 6.
With these historical facts established, I began to feel I was getting somewhere, that I was quite justified in believing in the giant. But was I? I still hadn’t answered the real question. The original question I had first asked all those years ago: “Was he really that big?”
Okay, let’s talk giants. To find a modern, honest to goodness giant where would one look? Basketball seemed like a good place to start. The tallest ever player in the history of the NBA was Manute Bol, now retired, who measures seven feet and seven inches (2.31m) 7 – over two feet (0.61m) shorter than the Childe’s alleged height. What about the tallest man alive on earth today? The Ukrainian Leonid Stadnik probably has that honour, measuring 8 ft 4in (2.54m) and still growing (see p28-29) – still almost a foot (30cm) smaller than Middleton’s grave would have us believe. So, what about the tallest man ever? The tallest man in medical history for whom there is irrefutable evidence was Robert Pershing Wadlow, 1918-1940, who measured eight feet and 11.1 inches (2.72m) 8. Indeed, if Middleton’s epitaph is to be believed, even Goliath himself would have been only slightly taller, at nine feet nine inches (2.9m). 9
The fantastic stories of how the Childe came to grow so large are various. My favourite is that one day the young Middleton drew an enormous figure in the sand at the edge of the Mersey and fell asleep inside the sketch. When he awoke, John found that he had grown to fill the outline and was now a giant.
Real evidence of the Childe’s stature, however, is much more difficult to come by – not least because there is no way of knowing what relation the “feet and inches” of the 1500s bear to those of today. An attempt was made to verify Middleton’s height in 1768 by the then parish clerk and school master, Mr Bushell. Bushell exhumed the bones of the Childe and measured them (although not very exactly), giving the length of Middleton’s thighbone as: From the hip of an average sized man to his foot. 10 Unfortunately, this measurement proves somewhat problematic to even approximate, for two reasons. Firstly, it’s difficult to establish what Bushell took to be “average height” in 1768. Secondly, having already been interred for nearly 150 years prior to exhumation, ossification would have altered the bone’s size and structure considerably.
The most respected scientific evidence of Middleton’s actual size comes from his famously large hands. By measuring the outline at Brasenose, and comparing the dimensions with those of the late Mr R P Wadlow, the Guinness Book of Records has concluded that John Middleton’s approximate height would in fact have been less than eight feet (2.44m). 11 Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable further confirms this view in its “Giants of other note” section: “John Middleton was 9ft 3in (2.8m); according to Dr Plot’s Natural History of Staffordshire (1686)… recent research suggests, however, that his actual stature may have been nearer 7ft 9in (2.4m).” 12 And so the giant is cut down to size.
Even so, I for one am not entirely convinced. Determining the height of a man by the size of his hand is at best a vague procedure, but when the measurements are taken from a 300-year-old retouched outline of that hand then surely the calculations, no matter how mathematically sound, are little better than an educated guess. Perhaps I am too hasty. Yes, there are of course many reasons why the Childe’s size could have been exaggerated. Nonetheless, what is apparent from his epitaph is that Middleton’s reputed size is not the result of embellishments, as his tale has been retold through the centuries. Rightly or not, those around the Childe during his life – the people who walked, talked, ate and drank with him – believed him to be nine feet three inches tall. John Middleton himself, in all probability, gave a similar figure to those who asked him about his height. Not because he was boasting or lying, but because that was how big he had been told he was. In my mind’s eye, I see a villager bidding the giant to stand against a wall or a barn: “Now I know that window sill is nine and a half feet from the ground, ’cause that’s how long my ladder is. Your head’s a little way below that yet, John, so I reckon you’re about nine foot three or thereabouts.”
If the measurement were an exaggeration or a fiction, would it not be more probable that the Childe would have ended up as nine feet or ten feet tall? Some more rounded figure would surely have been equally believable (especially in the 1600s).
So, is my curiosity satisfied? No. I am now more curious about the life and times of John Middleton than I have ever been. Finding the Childe’s place in history, I realised that I had never actually doubted his existence in the first place. Why would I? The history and mythology surrounding the Childe of Hale is kept alive at the village pub of the same name, where small crowds gather in the snug. There, in front of a huge mosaic of Middleton, self-taught experts on such matters regularly retell the history of Hale and the story of the Childe. In the future, I plan to be there more often to listen to their stories over a pint or two of Guinness. Was he really that big? Yes. I think that to everyone who ever met him, and also to himself, John Middleton really was nine foot three – if not bigger.