EVERYONE loves a tall story… and they don’t come any taller than that of Frederick John Kempster, The Avebury Giant.
Exactly 100 years ago Fred – who according to various accounts was anything from 7ft 9ins to an almost snowy-capped 8ft 4ins – was in the wrong place at the wrong time… Kaiser Bill’s Germany on the eve of World War One.
But what was our own Frederick the Great – an amiable, gentle soul, according to those who knew him – doing in Berlin upon the outbreak of the Great War?
And what did the Germans do with such a colossal member of the despised enemy? It is a larger than life story that has grown, with several variations, over the decades.
Born at Bayswater on April 13, 1889, Fred – one of seven children – was “a jolly, laughing boy, of a very liberal and generous disposition”, according to his mother Jane.
But when his father died the family was so impoverished that little Fred was taken into care and eventually shipped to Canada for a new life in the colonies.
Upon his return to Britain at 15 he settled in Wiltshire with his sister Ruth and brother-in-law Jim Rayner in the village among stones from which he would later acquire his Avebury Giant moniker.
By this time, however, something very unusual was happening to him. A congenital knee condition led to ligament problems that bizarrely triggered uncontrolled growth and a rapid increase in height.
By the age of 22 he was a lofty 7ft 4ins… and just kept growing. Fred could span 16 notes on a piano keyboard with one hand.
When he first arrived in Avebury the village carpenter was summoned to enlarge by some considerable size the bed in the spare room.
Predictably, local children were terrified of this towering presence in their rural community and presumably hid from him behind those convenient Avebury megaliths… until they got to know him, that is.
Almost half-a-century ago our sister newspaper the Wilts Gazette quoted a Mr AK Bathe’s initial reaction upon coming face to knee with Fred in Avebury.
“The first meeting of a man of his stature was frightening to a child of five. But as time went by and you got used to him – he was kind and gentle.”
Forty years ago Ivy Hockey, whose father Henry Lawes ran The Red Lion at Avebury, told the Adver: “He used to let me sit on his knee and pass a half crown through the ring he wore on his little finger.”
Fred became great pals with her dad, who didn’t only own a Ford motorcar – a rare sight in those days – but also one with a folding hood.
With the hood down Fred was able to relax in the back of the car during leisurely cruises around the villages. One can only imagine the stir that such a sight caused.
The aforementioned Mr Bathe recalled: “I remember the car rides with Mr Lawes putting the hood up so that Fred could sit up straight.”
Around this time the big fella, a humble basket-maker by occupation, realised he could make a lot of more money just by being, well, a big fella.
His first taste of a fame of sorts occurred when he took his place in a Parade of Giants that formed part of George V’s 1911 coronation celebrations in London. He was, by all accounts, the star turn, garnering press reports stating that he could “light his cigars from a street lamp.”
It was an easy choice: Fred – who also lived and worked for a while at Worton and Seend near Devizes – became a ‘professional giant.’ Distasteful as it may seem to our modern sensibilities, circuses that counted “freaks” among their acts were not uncommon in the pre-television days of the early 20th Century. In June 1911 – and by then allegedly filling a frame of more than 8ft – Fred signed up with Astley & Co’s American Circus, adopting the stage name Teddy Bobs “Britain’s tallest man”.
He was a big hit, so to speak… which is how he came to be in Germany during the fateful summer of 1914.
Among Fred’s circus colleagues when war broke out on August 3 was an unlikely 8ft plus German giantess called Brunhilde.
Fred and several English members of the entourage were placed under house arrest in Berlin.
Reports over the decades suggest that Fred was incarcerated for two years before emerging a sick and broken man, a condition that eventually led to his premature death.
In 1917, during the height of the Great War, the Detroit Free Press claimed that negotiations were underway for two German dwarfs “both under 2ft” to be returned to the Fatherland from Britain in exchange for Fred.
The New York Times in September, 1914, wrote: “Teddy Bobs was last heard of in Essen. He has an enormous appetite and is expected to aid his country by reducing Germany’s food bank.”
It appears that Fred was freed after four weeks because, upon his arrival back home, he was interviewed by the Daily Mail (see panel.) The Germans had considered him and his colleagues – including a legless dwarf – unable to bear arms against them.
The British agreed. For a start, he would have been too easy a target and also they didn’t have a uniform that would fit – not to mention size 22-and-a-half boots… so said the newspapers.
Back on the circus scene Fred was touring Britain in 1917 when, in Blackburn, he contracted flu which developed into pneumonia. It took eight men to lift him from his hotel bed and convey him to an ambulance in a fire brigade jump sheet.
In the ambulance the luckless Fred had to lie with his knees drawn up so they could shut the door.
The hospital corridor wasn’t wide enough so he was hefted up the fire escape by an army of porters before being tipped onto two connecting beds.
Tragically, he died on April 15, 1918, aged just 29.
Even in death, Fred was news. A solid oak coffin, 9ft long and 20 inches deep, had to be made. It took ten people to lower it down. Today his unusually large grave – 10ft by 3ft, which involved the excavation of ten tons of soil – is frequently visited by local youngsters or intrigued visitors keen to hear the tragic yet compelling story of the Avebury Giant…or the Blackburn Giant as he is now known in that neck of the woods.
His gravestone, possibly by way of compromise, calls Fred – who was a likeable, kind hearted chap who coped well with his affliction – The British Giant.
Perhaps it should have said The Gentle Giant!
- THE world’s tallest recorded person, according to the Guinness Book of Records, is an American Robert Wadlow (1918-1940) who stood at 8ft 11.1ins.
Fred Kempster and Angus MacAskill (1825-1863) are the UK’s loftiest lads – both officially measuring 7ft 9ins – although it is pointed out that Fred’s height is disputed as between 7ft 8.5ins and 8ft 4ins.
They have been placed as joint 30th in a list of the world’s all-time tallest men.
Former basketball player turned actor Neil Fingleton, 33, is currently the UK’s largest fella at 7ft 7.56ins.
The world’s tallest living man is Turkey’s Sultan Kosen, 31, who is 8ft 3ins.
- INTERVIEWED by the Daily Mail in September, 1914, Fred – whose height was reported by the paper as 8ft 2-and-a-half inches – said he was in Germany as a member of a touring theatrical company.
“With us were a giantess, midgets and a legless dwarf,” he said.
Under house arrest in Berlin with five others, they were instructed to keep the blinds down and not to speak loudly in case they should be heard and attacked by passing citizens.
“We played cards and dominoes, and occasionally the police lieutenant brought his wife and children to see us,” said Fred.
After a month they were released and made their way home via Holland. The reason they were allowed to go “was our inability to bear arms,” he figured.