The Peckham Fat Boy
Ross MacFarlane on a big star from the past
Now a recurring feature on Britain’s Got Talent and similar shows, the child prodigy is a stock figure in the world of entertainment. Whether they’re gifted singers or talented musicians, we’re used to small children wowing audiences with their advanced skills.
At the turn of the 20th century, one of the great Victorian child prodigies was south Londoner Johnny Trunley. Although he performed in theatres around the country, Johnny had – perhaps in the eyes of a BGT judge – no discernible talent or acquired skill. But what he was, though, was big – very, very big. To put it bluntly, as his advertising did, he was the ‘Peckham Fat Boy’.
Born in 1898, Johnny was a prodigious baby: by the age of seven months he weighed 13 kg (2 stone). By the age of four he weighed 76 kg (12 stone), and he continued to grow and grow.
It was his schooling that brought Johnny to prominence. At the age of five he should have started attending his local school in Peckham, but a school inspector recommended he should be made exempt (for fear that his size might be a threat to the wellbeing of his fellow pupils if he tripped and fell on them). Disputes arose with the London School Board, who deemed that every child should attend their local school, and Johnny’s case became a regular feature in a new populist newspaper, the Daily Mail.
As word spread about Johnny, his life as a performer began. In 1903, he came under the wings of an impresario and started appearing on the stage; remarkably, by Christmas of that year he was appearing in a pantomime in front of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra.
Trunley’s fame increased the following year, when he became part of the travelling Wild West Show of Buffalo Bill Cody, arguably the greatest showman of the age. Through Cody, Trunley travelled the music halls of Britain and also performed in France and Italy.
During his childhood, Johnny worked with different managers and toured successfully till the early 1910s. Many photographs were taken of him – which were then made into postcards, and when sold brought extra income into the Trunley family coffers.
However, as he grew up his career began to dwindle: Johnny was greatly affected by his father’s death in 1912 and during World War I, his nervous disposition and fear of zeppelin air-raids led Johnny to lose a good deal of his weight. Twelve stone lighter by the end of the war, Johnny found himself less popular on the entertainment circuit as a result.
Johnny had hopes of breaking into the new world of silent films but, it was said, he was warned off by fellow south Londoner Charlie Chaplin, who told him there were already so many fat Americans that it would be almost impossible to break into Hollywood.
As work in the entertainment industry dried up, Johnny changed career and worked as a clock repairman in Peckham. It was there, in 1944, that he died from tuberculosis.
The cliché of the child prodigy is that fame in youth is followed by a retreat into sadness in adulthood. While Johnny Trunley’s fame was relatively fleeting, he did seem to have a relatively happy post-celebrity life, marrying and becoming a father.
Johnny’s childhood career also shines a light into an age of the ‘freak show’ when the shape and formation of the human body could still earn a place in the entertainment industry and, at times, a relatively successful – if short-lived – career.
Johnny wasn’t alone: there were a good number of other large children treading the boards of the music halls at the start of the 20th century. Few, however, were as successful as the Peckham Fat Boy.Lead image:
© 2015 Rachael House
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