Daniel Lambert 1770-1809
Daniel Lambert was born in Leicester on March 13th 1770. His family were of country stock - gamekeepers, huntsmen and field sportsmen. His uncle was gamekeeper to the Earl of Stamford, and his great-uncle was huntsman to the earl of Stamford. Daniel's father, John Lambert, was the keeper of the County Bridewell or House of Correction in Highcross St. John Lambert had another son who died young and two daughters. Daniel never married and died childless.
When Daniel was fourteen he was sent as an apprentice to Benjamin Patrick, a diesinker in Birmingham’s jewellery quarter. He was with the firm for seven years, and was probably taught the skilled side of the business including engraving and letter-cutting. Patrick's business may have been destroyed in the famous Birmingham riots of 1791 as his name disappears from Birmingham trades directories at this time. Seven years would also mark the completion of a traditional apprenticeship. Daniel Lambert returned to Leicester where he took over from his father as Keeper of the Bridewell.
Bridewells or Houses of Correction began in 1576. They were
named after and modelled on the Bridewell prison in London and run by local
magistrates. Originally places for vagrants and people thought to be idle, by
the time of John and Daniel Lambert, Bridewells had become prisons for all sorts
of minor offenders. Keepers were expected to exact labour from their prisoners
both as punishment and to supplement their pay.
Daniel Lambert and his father were both Keepers of the County Bridewell in Leicester. There was a town Bridewell as well. The salary was £21 a year. In 1784 the County Bridewell consisted of three rooms for male prisoners and five for female prisoners. John Howard, the prison reformer, who visited the County Bridewell in that year, noted that improvements had been made since a previous visit. Prisoners were no longer held with chains whilst taking exercise and the court in which they exercised had been enlarged. The Bridewell was "whitewashed once a year and kept remarkably neat and clean. The prisoners do not lie on the floors, …very properly their mats are on cribs or bedsteads". Lists of prisoners showing Daniel Lambert's signature are presented in the Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester & Rutland.
Lives of Daniel Lambert written after his death suggest that he was a kindly gaoler who looked after his prisoners. James Neale who inspected English prisons in 1803 referred to Daniel's "constitutional propensity to ease...He is spoken of as a humane, benevolent man but I thought him a very improper person to be the Keeper of a prison". The prisoners certainly appear to have loved him. According to a life of Daniel published in 1809 he made "the greatest exertions to assist them (the prisoners) at the time of their trials. Few left the prison without testifying their gratitude, and tears often spoke the sincerity of the feelings they expressed". He also pleased the magistrates and they granted him a pension when the County Bridewell was amalgamated with the County prison in 1804 and his services were no longer required.
As a lad, Daniel Lambert was healthy and athletic. A good swimmer from the age of eight, he taught many Leicester children to swim in the River Soar. As an adult he had an excellent reputation as a field sportsman. He bred cocks and dogs including setters and pointers. When his Kennel was sold in 1806 his dogs, including "Peg", "Punch", "Bounce" and "Brush", fetched high prices. A Mr Mellish bought "Peg", a black setter bitch, for 41 guineas. His greyhounds were with him when he died.
In 1807 the Sporting Magazine published “Biographical and sporting anecdotes of the famous Mr Lambert”, the source for which may have been Lambert himself. This tells us that he was fond of riding until his weight prevented it, and “till within these five years he was extremely active in all sports of the field”. It includes the most authentic account of his encounter with a bear, which ended when he “struck [the bear] with his left hand such a violent blow on the skull, as brought her to the ground, on which she declined the contest, and yelling, fled.”
Factors influencing weight increase are genetics (family history), environment (what people eat) and disease. Daniel Lambert had an uncle and aunt who were "very heavy" but his immediate family were of more usual proportions. It is said that he did not drink alcohol and never ate more than one dish at meals, but his increase in weight seems to date from his move to the County Bridewell, work which involved little exercise. In 1793 he turned the scale at 32 stone. However he remained active in field sports until 1801 or 1802. In 1804 he already weighed over 49 stone, and at the end of 1806, when the Leicester Journal announced his departure on tour, he was on a diet but "still increases in bulk".
According to modern doctors, Daniel Lambert appears to have had primary obesity, which occurs without other disease being present. This is normally caused by too much high-calorie food combined with a sedentary lifestyle. Daniel’s condition could probably now be controlled. At the end of his life his sheer size caused him considerable discomfort, though he remained cheerful. His movements were restricted and he could no longer climb stairs, special arrangements had to be made when he travelled.
In March 1806 the Stamford Mercury reported that Daniel Lambert was having a carriage specially built "to convey himself to London where he means to exhibit himself as a natural curiosity". He arrived in London in April and took an apartment at 53 Piccadilly. He then weighed 50 stone and the Leicester Journal, announcing his departure, remarked on his "good sense and social disposition". During his stay in London he sat for the artist Ben Marshall (cover photograph). The two men became friends. Ben Marshall christened his son Lambert, and, when his first son died, the second was christened Lambert too.
There are signs that Daniel did not relish his peep-show existence. After five months in London he returned to Leicester in September 1806 and lived there privately. At this time a caller asking about some cocks, received the message "tell the gentleman I am a shy-cock". However in December he went on tour again, leaving for Birmingham, Hinckley, Coventry and other places. In the Spring of 1807 and 1808 he paid further visits to London. In Leicester he received company in October 1807 "during the fair, at Mr Scott's, grocer, in the Market Place". At Stamford where he died, he had sent for a printer so that he could give instructions for handbills to be printed as, according to the Stamford Mercury he was "intending to receive the visits of the curious who might attend the ensuing races".
Daniel Lambert's standard admission fee was one shilling (5 pence), which was a considerable sum, perhaps intended to keep the vulgar away. There are suggestions that souvenirs were sold on these occasions. Captain AF Wingard who visited London to purchase rifles for the Swedish government in 1808 records a visit with a fellow countryman who purchased a picture "of this hideous mass of flesh...when we saw the man together". He may have showed himself in order to earn a living. The profits of selling his kennel would not have lasted indefinitely and the nature of his pension is uncertain.
The special financial needs of someone of his size must have included extra servant costs at home and on tour as well as specially-made carriages and clothes. There is a hint of this in his reply to a woman who asked him the cost of his coat. He replied "if you think if proper to make me a present of a new coat, you will then know exactly what it costs."
Daniel repelled personal questions that he thought impertinent. He also disliked people who tried to see him without paying or during times when he chose to live privately. When a visitor obtained a personal interview with him on the pretext of asking advice about a horse, received the deserved reply "She (the horse) was got by impertinence out of curiosity". He also disliked being weighed. One story describes how "Going however one day to Loughborough in a carriage into which he was obliged to get sideways, by a preconceived plan of some of his friends he was taken over a weighing machine, to his no small mortification".
In June 1809 Daniel after a tour that included Cambridge and Huntingdon Daniel Lambert arrived in Stamford for the races. He lodged at the Waggon and Horses Inn in St.Martins, and died suddenly at 9 o'clock on Wednesday 21st June. There was no autopsy and he was buried two days later, though "his remains had been kept quite as long as was prudent". His body was taken out of the ground floor room in which he had been accommodated, by demolishing the wall. His coffin was built on wheels and contained 112 feet of elm wood. "Upwards of twenty men" lowered it down a ramp into his grave in St. Martin's Churchyard.
In his day, cartoonists depicted Daniel Lambert with pride as a British Champion. Already a folk legend before he died, his popularity has not diminished with the years. A wax model of Lambert found its way to America and was shown in the Mix Museum in New Haven in 1813 and later in P. T. Barnum's famous American Museum. He took his place in 19th century accounts of the curious and wonderful and appears as a symbol of hugeness in the novels of Thackeray. Pubs and restaurants are still named after him. Clothes and personal items genuinely or dubiously associated with him have always found a ready market. He is still enormously popular as response to museum exhibits about him and media coverage show.
Daniel Lambert’s wider fame was due to his size. However in Leicester, then a town with a population of only 17,000, he was well-known as the Bridewell Keeper and as a country sportsman and respected for his personality. He was “replete with anecdote, and of a lively turn of mind...with a choice selection of words, and a variety of subjects”. Daniel Lambert’s life and personal relics offer an insight into the social history of his time, and allow us to commemorate as a sympathetic figure. It is fitting to conclude with this sketch of Lambert in life, which was collected in the 19th century from Dick Christian the famous Leicestershire horse-breaker:
"I knew Dan, and he knew me, he was dressed like a groom, and lived quite private; he'd hardly be at this full growth then, there'd not be much more than 40 stone of him... Many's the time I've talked to him in Stamford cockpit, he could set a cock uncommonly well for all he could hardly get near the table for his bulk, he was a cheery man in company but shyish of being looked at."
The words on his tombstone erected by his Leicester friends in Stamford read:
In Remembrance of that PRODIGY in NATURE DANIEL LAMBERT a native of LEICESTER who was possessed of an exalted and convivial Mind and, in personal Greatness had no COMPETITOR: He measured three Feet one Inch round the LEG and weighed FIFTY TWO STONE ELEVEN POUNDS He departed this life on the 21st of June 1809 AGED 39 YEARS As a testimony of Respect this Stone is erected by his Friends in Leicester
There are records of a few people in Britain and America
whose size has surpassed Daniel Lambert's, but he still has his place in the
Guinness book of records.
Thanks are due to the following people for assistance with this revised account of Daniel Lambert: staff of Stamford Museum (Lincolnshire County Council), Dr Jan Bondeson, Roger T. C. Street
Text by Yolanda Courtney
Leicester City Council
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|Leicestershire Museums are always keen to hear about new sources of information on Daniel Lambert. Please contact Newarke Houses Museum, The Newarke, Leicester LE2 7BY|
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