What has the American Declaration of Independence got to do with Derry? Sounds like a quirky quiz question but there is a connection and it’s with a Derry man – none other than Jimmy Allender famously known as the Derry giant. It’s claimed Jimmy lived in a tavern in Philadelphia which was originally the house where Thomas Jefferson penned the historic document that shaped America’s future. Mind you, many argue that the Jefferson House was elsewhere in the same neighbourhood.
Without making too much of a pun out of it, the story of the Derry giant has grown and grown since it appeared in the Derry Journal and was later followed up in my last book. In fact, Jimmy Allender is now achieving the fame he longed for back in the 1800s when he first came to prominence.
Recent research throws new light on his family, his adventures and his very sad demise. It’s all down to the work of Jim Moore, former Clondermott School teacher, and Dr Stephen Milligen of the University of Ulster.
Jim has been delving into the archives to see if Jimmy Allender and the dwarf General Tom Thumb appeared on stage together here in Derry. He’s also been tracing the Derry Giant’s American journey. It’s been a painstaking, step-by-step, effort.
Stephen too has been into every minute detail. He is writing a book on Irish giants – ‘Of All God’s Works’ - and has been following the trail near and far. The work of these men is excellent and fascinating and now enables Allender’s astonishing tale to be properly told.
Jimmy Allender was born in 1848 to poor parents living in William Street, Derry. He was still very young when his father died and with little means of support his mother placed him in Gwynn’s Institution for destitute children. This was a large Georgian building located in what is now Brooke Park. It opened in 1840 and could cater for about 100 boys.
Jimmy was becoming very tall even before he reached his teens and already showed signs of the weak constitution that was to blight his life. On this account he was apprenticed to gardening in the hope that working in fresh air would benefit him. By his 20s he had reached a height of about seven and a half feet – some reports give nearer eight feet.
Jimmy was a familiar figure around the city and is described as gentle and affable. Sadly he was often the butt of abuse from youngsters who would follow him through the streets and it was believed that he deliberately developed a stoop so as avoid being spotted. However, some researchers think that the stoop was occasioned by the medical condition that brought about his abnormal height.
Jimmy lived in Derry until he was 28 years of age. He was mainly employed in menial outdoor tasks but one story says he was invited to appear on stage in the town hall with General Tom Thumb, the threefeet high dwarf. Tom Thumb came to Derry in 1858 and Jim Moore correctly points out that Jimmy Allender was only aged 10 at this time and being in Gwyn’s Institution was hardly likely to get anywhere near a stage. However, Dr Milligen believes Tom Thumb may have met Jimmy on a later visit to Derry.
And while the mystery of Jimmy’s appearance on stage with Tom Thumb remains to be solved, something did whet his appetite for performing. Advertisements reveal that he was exhibiting as a giant in 1873 at the age of twenty-five. Then in the spring of 1876 he set sail for America in the hope of appearing as a sideshow giant. One suggestion is that the theatre impresario JF Warden, who built the Derry and Belfast opera houses, persuaded Jimmy that his future lay in this direction. Accordingly the 28-year-old Allender left Derry quay on the famous McCorkell clipper Minehaha bound for Philadelphia, where the centennial fair marking the Declaration of Independence was taking place. Incidentally, it was at this event that the Bell telephone, the typewriter and tomato ketchup all first saw the light of day. Another extraordinary aspect is that cheap excursions were run from Derry to Philadelphia for those wishing to see the fair.
Jimmy Allender sailed as part of the Minehaha’s crew en route to Baltimore – Philadelphia is nearby. This was the clipper’s first non-passenger voyage on what came to be known as the ‘Baltimore Grain Run’. He got work onboard as a deck hand and it’s believed the trip severely affected his health. The trail runs somewhat cold after this but tradition holds Jimmy met the remarkable showman Phineas T Barnum, who persuaded him to dress as an Abyssinian chief and appear at the Philadelphia centennial fair. Whatever the truth of this, we know positively that Jimmy got employment in a tavern in Philadelphia. Dr Milligen has unearthed a book privately printed by Thomas Donaldson who had been searching for the Jefferson House in 1876 and relates the following incident while visiting the tavern -
A man, certainly one of the tallest I have ever seen, came to the window and called in, “How are yez, lads?” He was Irish, from Derry, and good looking. This huge man, James Allender, was a boyin manners and habits, and about eight feet high. His hat almost touched the ceiling of the room.”
Jimmy Allender was engaged in the tavern to attract customers. In another business ploy, the landlord claimed Thomas Jefferson had written the Declaration of Independence in this very same building 100 years before – many disputed this. The book also reveals that the giant was meek and amiable and much loved by the local people. But it was not enough to make Jimmy stay in America. Next he is traced to the Paris World Fair of 1878, which had on show the head of the Statue of Liberty and the first design of what would eventually become the aeroplane. If these were popular exhibits Jimmy was not. Le Geant Irlandais, as he styled himself, was relegated to the periphery of the Paris Fair with little more than passing interest for the visitors.
A disappointed Allender left France for England and toured the county’s sideshows with a lady from Derry described as ‘The Fattest Woman’, while he went under the new title of ‘The Irish Giant’. It was not to Jimmy’s liking and by the early 1880s he was back in the family home in William Street. His mother had set up a dairy and upon her death what little money she had passed to him.
Then in 1883 at the age of 35 Jimmy Allender caused a sensation when he married a servant girl called Mary Elkins. The wedding took place in Christchurch, which was quite close to his home. One newspaper reported it as –
‘... an occasion of great rejoicing in the Lower Road and William Street...’
In time they had two girls Mary and Jessie, and Jimmy was working in Lecky’s pork store in Foyle Street. Apparently his height was ideal for hooking the cured hams to the ceiling. Yet , pay was poor and once more he opted to go back on the sideshow circuit.
In the Era magazine of September 1883 he advertises himself as the tallest man in Europe, but by this time the travelling sideshows where being overtaken by the ‘big top’ circus and Jimmy more or less ran out of business. One of his last appearances was as a doorman at the fabulous, almost palatial Compton House store in Liverpool, thought to be the world’s first departmental store, later a hotel and now Marks and Spencer. Jimmy Allender was dressed in a resplendent uniform with enormous high-heel boots and a great hat. He looked well over 8 feet tall and was described as an awesome sight. Here the genial giant from Derry shook hands daily with hundreds of shoppers and passers-by. But unfortunately time was running out.
In the winter of 1886 his health took a turn for the worse – he always had breathing difficulties but his medical condition was about to take its full toll. By now he had crossed to South Shields and, declining badl,y was eventually taken to the workhouse hospital there - no doubt an indication of hard times. Sadly Jimmy passed away in early summer that year and was buried in the local public graveyard in South Shields.
Jimmy Allender left behind his wife Mary and their two daughters. His family line had come to an end but the legend of this remarkable Derry man continues to grow.
How did Jimmy compare with other giants? Robert Wadlow was the tallest man in history, according to medical records, at a height of 8’ 11”. Today the world’s tallest man is a Sultan Kosen at 8’ 1”. Closer to home the 18th century Irish giants Charles Byrne and Patrick O’ Brien (known also as Cotter) were just over 8’ in height. So Derry’s Jimmy Allender could stand tall with the best of them.
My grateful thanks to Jim Moore and Dr Stephen Milligan for their help in tracing the Derry giant.