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Martha Hayes, the Royton, (or Ashton) Giantess.

The Oldham Standard of February 1870 claimed Royton possessed “the oldest hall, the smallest man, and the largest woman to be found perhaps in any of the northern counties” adding that “they are certain to be ranked among the curiosities of nature and art to say nothing of ‘the Seven’ , which are dispersed in various parts of the township.”

In the article entitled: ‘A Giantess for a wife and what became of it’ which details a domestic affray ending at Royton Magistrate’s court, we glimpse a hitherto unknown local sideshow lady named Martha Hayes (or Heyes). According to the census records she was born in Ashton Under Lyne parish in about 1820 and married her husband David in the early 1840s before coming to live in Royton after the birth of their first daughter. He is listed as a ‘pedlar’ born in Blackburn, and one presumes they came to Royton to seek work.

Whatever their former employment they soon set up business as ‘black pea sellers’, becoming sufficiently established to invest in a travelling tent and to set up stall at neighbouring fairs and local Wakes celebrations.

Today’s papers would probably be more circumspect in saying that Mrs Heyes (as the Oldham Standard spells her name) ate a lot of her own and others’ wares at these events and eventually grew wide in girth. The Standard reporter declared baldly that Martha ‘continued to prosper and fatten’ as the family business grew.

Being a creature of fairs and side shows she rubbed shoulders with all sorts of showmen and after years of sampling her own and other food-offerings served at these events her waist began to expand. She eventually realised there was a more lucrative income to be gained by using this attribute rather than selling peas and was persuaded by a persistent showman to join his ‘circus’ as the ‘Ashton Giantess’ . She would probably already be known in Royton by that name anyway as she was not one of the Seven, but was an ‘off-comer’ or ‘in-comed-un’. The Standard reporter unkindly says she succumbed to the ‘Madam Rachel System’, having her weight, breadth etc. specified and ‘thirty years knocked off her natural life’. (She was 41 on the 1861 census and would have been 50 at the time of the newspaper article)

All was well for a few years as she became a popular attraction at Tommy Field in Oldham and in all the nearby towns at Wakes time. That is until: ‘A short while ago, when the season was over, she returned to her husband at Royton and was re-acquainted with her old pea customers’ On Sunday 23rd January 1870, a number of youths were passing her house “and saw the good lady sat near the door, when one of them said, “Hallo, we can see her for nowt neaw ”, all of them being favourable to a free gaze, they availed of themselves to pass remarks, which had the effect of rousing the ire of the loving husband who soon entered combat with them, which resulted in him losing several teeth and being severely kicked.”

The affair ended in Royton Magistrates court with Mr Heyes charging the three youths, George Dewhurst, Alfred Halliwell and Albert Gartside, all of Royton, with assault. There were many witnesses for the defendants however and only George Dewhurst was found guilty and ordered to provide sureties to keep the peace. The chairman of the bench, Mr Mayson, ended the proceedings by saying: “Just because a man happened to have a wife who was extra stout, he was not to submit to insults.”

So ends the tale of Martha Hayes. The census spells her surname with a strange looking ‘a’ which could have been corrected from an ‘e’ so I have used this spelling in the title. In 1861 she was living in Seville’s Yard, just off Rochdale Lane or Bottom Sandy Lane, with her husband David, aged 39, and daughters Maria 17, Mary 15 and Ellen aged 12. All three girls worked in the local mills as cotton piecers. The two youngest were born in Royton so the family had been living here since at least 1846.

Sources: Census Records. Oldham Standard, 5 February 1870.

Michael Higgins