The 19th century was not - in many ways - a great time to be disadvantaged. Without modern institutions and the attendant superstructure of charities, quangos and government agencies, life could be short, brutish and unhealthy. But despite that, Joseph Merrick overcame incredible disadvantages to become one of the era's most celebrated figures. The name "Elephant Man" scarcely does justice to this astonishing person.
Merrick was born in 1852 and until he was 2 looked like any normal baby boy. But at 2, he started to develop tumours on his face. Like many children during that long-ago era, his early life was marked by death and trauma. His mother died before he was 11 and some of his early years were spent in the Leicester Workhouse, where he was forced to publicly work, despite his disabilities.
Family disputes about what to do with the boy given his condition eventually forced him to work as a hawker on the mean back streets of Leicester, selling bootblacking and enduring the abuse of the other children who worked the streets.
For much of his life he was unemployable. His impaired speech and mobility meaning there was little work that he could actually take. In the harsh climate of the times, that condemned him to a largely destitute lifestyle, taking odd jobs here and there of any kind available - and ultimately finding himself as a sideshow freak.
While history condemns the freakshows, Merrick was actually treated well and amassed a considerable sum, thanks to the protection of sideshow owner Tom Norman who took him under his wing. His character was largely traduced in David Lynch's famous film of Merrick's life, but Merrick himself bore no ill will towards Norman and criticism of his time in the sideshow is conspicuous by its absence from the autobiography he eventually penned.