The elephant man: a fundraising success story from 1886.

Exhibited by
Ken Burnett
September 09, 2010
Medium of Communication
Press publicity.
Target Audience
Type of Charity
Country of Origin
Date of first appearance

SOFII’s view

‘Terrible though his appearance is, so terrible indeed that women and nervous persons fly in terror from the sight of him... yet he is superior in intelligence, can read and write, is quiet, gentle, not to say even refined in his mind. ‘

The story of Joseph Merrick, the elephant man, was powerfully told in the internationally successful box office hit film of that name in 1980. But Merrick’s story had been told just as powerfully and with perhaps greater effect almost a century earlier by the chairman of trustees of the London Hospital, F C Carr Gomm, a noted Victorian philanthropist. Carr Gomm’s graphic accounts were published in The Times newspaper in 1886.

This was an era of great philanthropic activity in London including, among other notable events, the founding two years previously of the NSPCC. Carr-Gomm’s articles in the ‘Thunderer’ led to a massive outpouring of sympathy and support for Merrick who, thanks to the generosity of the newspaper’s readers, was able to spend his remaining days in safety and comparative comfort. The story is a triumph of effective fundraising. It shows that a powerful tale, told well, in a medium that people trust can be relied upon to produce a response from the public that will meet almost any need.

This exhibit is based on Carr Gomm’s accounts from the time, which were recorded in The Times archives.

Summary / objectives

At a time when social services for those without funds were almost non-existent, F C Carr Gomm seems to have set out quite deliberately to appeal to the generosity of Times readers to come to the aid of this singularly disfigured and disadvantaged individual. He would have had few other options so the appeal was urgent, if Merrick was to be able to continue living in safety. He says,

‘There is now in a little room off one our attic wards a man named Joseph Merrick, aged about 27, so dreadful a sight that he is unable even to come out by daylight to the garden.’

Carr Gomm describes how Merrick, who became horrifically disfigured during the early years of his life by a rare and extreme case of neurofibromatosis, was discovered in a ‘penny gaff’ travelling show in Whitechapel by Frederick Treves, a surgeon at the London Hospital. Merrick was being exhibited as a freak for the entertainment of the East End public. When this dubious form of entertainment was banned in England Merrick was forced into even more hardship on the continent, in Belgium, where he was robbed and left destitute. He escaped from there and with difficulty made his way back to London to seek out Treves, one of the few people who had treated him with kindness. In his newspaper article Carr Gomm explains this, then directly appeals to his readers for their financial help.

‘He ought not to be detained in our hospital (where he is occupying a private ward, and being treated with the greatest kindness – he says he has never before known in his life what quiet and rest were), since his case is incurable, and not suited, therefore, to our overcrowded general hospital; the incurable hospitals refuse to take him in even if we paid for him in full, and the difficult question therefore remains what is to be done for him...

‘He can but hope for quiet and privacy during a life which Mr Treves assures me is not likely to be long. Can any of your readers suggest to me some fitting place where he can be received? And then I feel sure that, when that is found, charitable people will come forward and enable me to provide him with such accommodation.’

Carr Gomm made it clear that Merrick’s plight was particularly unusual and deserving.

‘Some 76,000 patients a year pass through the doors of our hospital, but I have never before been authorized to invite public attention to any particular case, so it may well be believed that this case is exceptional. Any communication about this should be addressed either to myself or to the secretary at the London Hospital.’

It could scarcely have been a more direct fundraising appeal. Several days later the following statement appeared among the paper’s classified announcements.

‘London Hospital, Whitechapel Road, E.
The House Committee desire gratefully to acknowledge, among many other anonymous donations, the receipt of £5 from G.R., for Joseph Merrick, the elephant man. ‘


Those in authority at The Times appear to have given considerable support to the appeal, for Carr Gomm was again writing in their columns in January of the following year, to keep the story and the appeal going. In this article he gives some masterful feedback.

‘His generous supporters will be glad to hear of our decision, and Merrick has desired me to convey to them his most grateful thanks, and to say that he is deeply sensible of their kindness and that he has never had so happy and peaceful a Christmas time as he has had now. He is newly clothed and well supplied with books and papers, while the kind care of the sister and nurses, with visits from the chaplain and others, relieves the monotony of his existence. One lady has most thoughtfully engaged to provide for his being taught basket-making, to give him some definite occupation, and I hope at once to start this work.’

The extreme nature of Joseph Merrick’s condition had however long been recognised as life threatening, even with the best of care. In 1890 Carr Gomm wrote to the editor of The Times one last letter of appreciation, which informed the newspaper’s readers that Joseph Merrick had died.

‘I wrote to you and from that moment all difficulty vanished ... It was the courtesy of The Times in inserting my letter in 1886 that procured for this afflicted man a comfortable protection during the last years of a previously wretched existence, and I desire to take this opportunity of thankfully acknowledging.’

Influence / impact

The story of the elephant man has on several occasions captured the public imagination and sympathy. But the role of Carr Gomm’s moving articles in the columns of The Times is less well known and appreciated. This is why we feel the story deserves to be told in the archives of SOFII as an example for all who would profit from an understanding of the history of fundraising.

Other relevant information

In the film it is suggested that Queen Victoria herself made a significant donation to relieve Joseph Merrick’s plight but, according to The Times, Mr Carr Gomm made no mention of this important major donor. If any SOFII reader can shed light on this or other aspects of the story, please let us know.

The Times of London has an impressive record of helping urgent social causes. See more here,

With thanks to Rose Wild, archivist at The Times, for bringing this story to SOFII’s attention.

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Joseph Merrick, the real elephant man.
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The film that made the story famous, starring John Hurt as Joseph Merrick and Sir Anthony Hopkins as Frederick Treves.
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Merrick had to wear disguise wherever he went, but still he was feared and reviled.