I first visited Hale over twenty years ago, staying with the grandparents of a former girlfriend: two of the kindest people I have ever met. Hale is a lovely little village in the north bank of the aromatic River Mersey, sandwiched between Speke and Widnes.
Hale was, and is, the home of the John Middleton, Childe of Hale (1578 – 1623). John was a local man who acquired fame and (briefly) a modest fortune on account of his gigantic stature. Because of his size he was hired as the bodyguard of the Sheriff of Lancashire, Gilbert Ireland, and was presented to the court of James the VI and I when he won £20 beating the king’s wrestler. He was subsequently robbed and returned to Hale to die penniless. His grave (below) claims he reached a height of 9 feet and 3 inches, which if confirmed by modern study, would confirm that John was one of the tallest men to have ever lived.
Commemorating the Childe of Hale
Hale Village honours its gigantic former resident through many locales. His cottage is still there, including the windows out of which local legend has it his feet would hang whilst he slept. The pub is called the ‘Childe of Hale’ and has as its sign the portrait of John in Brasenose College, Oxford, composed when Gilbert took him there to show to fellows.
In 1996, a tree trunk opposite the church was carved to resemble many local landmarks, including Hale lighthouse and John. This was pulled down in 2011 for concerns over its safety. This year, 2013, it has been replaced. Outside Hale Manor is a new ‘life-size’ statue of John Middleton, a giant ancestor for the village, watching all who come and go along Church End.
The Biography of the Childe of Hale’s Grave
John died on 23 August 1623. Unsurprisingly, John’s was not allowed to rest in peace. According to the village website:
In 1768 John Middleton’s remains were removed from his tomb/grave by the schoolmaster and Parish clerk, Mr Bushell. They were then taken to Hale Hall for preservation and were measured. It was during this that it was discovered that his thigh bones each stretched from the hip of an average sized man to his foot. His hands were also measured and found to be 17 inches from the carpus to the end of the middle finger and 8 and a half inches across the palm. Later his remains were re-interred into St Mary`s churchyard where they are now today!
The Grave in 2013
The grave today has a grave-stone that could be seventeenth century but might might equally date to the mid-eighteenth century when the remains were reinterred beside the principal path leading to the south door of the church. If the former, his exhumation and reburial involved the translation of this grave-slab too.
At some later stage, the text was leadened to make it more visible and permanent and the grave surrounded by iron railings, a rare survival in parish churchyards, protecting the text from visitors. The lead and the railings are well-maintained.
The text reads:
Here lyeth the bodie of John Middleton the Childe Nine Feet Three.
It is striking to see someone whose identity is completely bound up with their physical appearance. Outwith the aristocracy and gentry, the most beautiful woman, the most handsome man, their appearance will hardly ever receive mention. But here, John is known through the size of his grave-slab and the text that says simply ‘Nine Feet Three’. Both are material short-hands for the same story: ‘this guy was a real giant’. He was myth made real and then made into legend.
This prominent grave of an adopted ancestor for the community is now a focus on ongoing ‘folk’ veneration; flowers tied to the railings and coins scattered on his grave-slab as devotional acts. This is not the only grave of a ‘local hero’ venerated in the English landscape. Still, what strikes me is the way that John’s stature continues to dominate the village through his grave, his cottage and now through his statue. The Childe of Hale lives on in popular memory and monuments, as well as more ephemeral acts of remembrance; a giant who continues to grow in stature through memory.
Above us only John?
On reflection, it is kind of a pity that the Childe of Hale was not adopted as the figure used to re-name nearby Speke airport. Rather than John Lennon International Airport – ‘Above us only Sky’ – it could have equally been the John Middleton International Airport: ‘Above us only John’. For me at least, and I’m sure for the residents of Hale, Middleton is Merseyside’s most famous and most imposing John, a local hero but one who found fame as a novelty but never the respect and honour he was due in his lifetime.