Background to Article
Somebody suggested that I may choose to look at George Auger, the Cardiff Giant, on the off chance he may have been born in the Roath area. It turns out he wasn’t but by then I was so engrossed in his story that I couldn’t stop. Please forgive me therefore in posting it here on our Roath Local History Society website. I hope you find his story equally fascinating.
The research behind the article was jointly compiled by family history enthusiasts Joanna Keen, Liz Rees and Ted Richards. They came into contact via the Glamorgan Family History Society Facebook page and were able to pool various resources and research skills and learn from each other to complete this research.
Captain George Auger, the Cardiff Giant
In 1915 the billboards for the Barnum and Bailey Circus in America advertised ‘Captain George Auger, the Cardiff Giant, the tallest man on earth’. You may recall the Barnum and Bailey Circus; it was the focus of the Hugh Jackman hit film The Greatest Showman.
As with all such claims there is an element of truth in the statement. This has been an intriguing investigation, attempting to prise out the facts from the fiction. In doing so we believe we have uncovered information not previously known about Captain George Auger and his family.
George Auger was indeed born in Cardiff, but not as George, that was a name he adopted later in life for his showbiz career. He was born William Henry Auger on 27 Dec 1881. Articles about his life tend to say he was born in St Mary’s Street but when we ordered his birth certificate we found he’d been born at 48 Gough Street. The confusion probably arose because Gough Street, no longer standing, was in the parish of St Mary’s, Cardiff.
Gough Street was in Temperance Town, immediately outside what is now Cardiff Central Station. It was one of the close knit streets demolished in the 1930s. It stood where the BBC headquarters now stands in Central Square. It was named after John Gough the temperance campaigner and orator who visited Cardiff and gave a rousing speech at that location and subsequently had a street named after him.
The birth certificate of William Henry Auger also tells us he was born to Henry Auger, a policeman, and Elizabeth Lauretta Frances Connop. It appears that William Henry Auger only had a fleeting association with Cardiff, contrary to what some reports say. By Sept 1884 the Auger family are living in Brentford, and William Henry together with his recently born sister Ada Louisa are both baptised in St Paul’s, Brentford, London, perhaps in a ‘buy one baptism get one free’ deal at the time.
The Auger family stayed in London but relocated fairly regularly but with having an unusual surname and with more and more records becoming available online it has been possible to track their movements over time as they crisscross the city. In Apr 1889 William starts school at Wilmot Street School, Bethnal Green.
In the 1891 census we find the Augers, now with five children, living in Hanwell, West London.
In Feb 1894, and aged just 12, William lies about his age in order to join the Royal Marine Light Infantry. He claimed to have been born in Cardiff in 1875 as opposed to 1881. How did he get away with it? Well, his military record shows that he was already unusually tall at 5′ 8½’. He served for just less than a year and whilst at Portsmouth it appears he chose to desert. We are left to wonder if he was indeed the youngest person to ever serve in the Royal Marines.
For the next period in William’s life the online newspapers have provided an excellent resource, not only for detailing his adolescent life but also for mapping out his growth. In 1895, William, aged 13 and now 6′ 3″ appears at Marylebone Court with his friend. William Auger was accused of keeping watch whilst his friend John Theil went into shops to steal. His friend was caught with three pairs of stolen socks in his procession and was remanded. We don’t hear what happened to William.
In Sept 1896 there is another court appearance that paints both a sad and at the same time humorous picture. Now aged 14 he is 6′ 6″ tall. He appears to have been arrested for nothing other than looking suspicious in Notting Hill. He tells the arresting officer that he was just trying to find a piece of string for his conker. He tried to bribe the officer to let him go by offering him a toffee but the officer was having none of it and took him into custody. It was left to his mother to testify her son’s age and explain that he was going to be put into long-trousers soon despite him still being a child. The court exonerated him and on leaving the court he ran quickly home trundling his hoop.
The following year, aged 15, he once again lied about his age, claiming he was 19, and joins Great Western Railways in Paddington where he serves as a policeman. His employment lasts just over a year and he is dismissed in March 1899.
By May 1899 he is working as a doorman at the Alhambra Theatre in Leicester Square. Now measuring 6′ 11″ and pretending to be 17 years old he is paired with a small boy in a similar uniform to accentuate William’s height even further. His chest measures 43″ and he is described as being able to lift 180 lbs with just one hand. He opens the door for the theatre goers and they pass underneath without needing in any way to duck.
Whilst employed at the Alhambra Theatre he was arrested once again in Jun 1899. This time he was accused of not paying the arrears due to Rose Ward for the maintenance of her child. The amount owed was said to be 16s. William admitted this was correct and his mother came forward and paid the outstanding money.
It appears that by Aug 1900 he had fallen into arrears again and was once again arrested. By now he had grown to 7′ 4″ and was described as the second tallest man in the world. He was also now being described as an actor.
In the summer of 1900 he marries Elizabeth Hearne from Edinburgh, Scotland in Lambeth, London.
December 1900 does indeed see his embarkation on a career as an actor. It is also the first time we hear of him being referred to as George as opposed to William. He appears at the Ealing Theatre at Christmas 1900 as George Auger the 7′ 6″ Giant in a production of Puss in Boots.
In the 1901 census we find William Henry Auger, aged 22, theatre doorman, born in Cardiff living with Elizabeth Auger, his wife, also 22, born in Scotland. The address is 61 Brook Street, Southwark.
Barnum and Bailey Circus
In March 1904 George and Elizabeth Auger sail from Le Havre, France to New York aboard the S.S. La Bretagne. His arrival in America is recorded in the New York Times. It describes the very uncomfortable journey he’d experienced aboard La Bretagne, having to draw his knees up under his chin to sleep in his six foot berth. It also states that he was to be placed in exhibition at the Barnum and Bailey Circus which opened in Madison Square Garden that month.
How did he end up in America? Well, articles that are written about him say that he attended a Barnum and Bailey Circus performance when they were on tour in London and when the show was over he approached the giant actor of the time only to discover he was taller. It didn’t go unnoticed by the show’s management and he was encouraged to travel to America to join the company. It must be said however that there doesn’t appear to be anything in the newspapers around this time to necessarily substantiate this story.
In November 1904 we find an interesting article in the Evening Express headlined ‘Missing Cardiff Giant – How Mother received Good News’. The article reports how 8 foot, 19 stone, George Auger, had lost contact with his mother when he moved abroad. She had changed address and failed to notify the Post Office of a forwarding address so his letters home were not received. It was only when a neighbour of his mother read a story in the paper of George having an overcoat stolen was the connection made.
Although the article, seemingly based on an interview with William’s mother, contains a lot of interesting information much of it doesn’t quite tie in date-wise so perhaps we need to be cautious. The article says that he had had an offer from the Barnum and Bailey Circus to tour ‘almost five years ago’. It also states that he had been a uniformed commissionaire at the Lyric Theatre, and also a barman at the Windsor Castle, Notting Hill where his services commanded a guinea a night. In the same article it says that he met his wife in Scotland when on tour with Puss in Boots where a ballet-girl captivated the giant’s heart. The next time he visited his mother he was accompanied by a little Scotch bride. That would only make sense if he was in Puss in Boots in December 1899 as he married Elizabeth in the summer of 1900. It may of course be that he was in Puss in Boots for two years running.
In Feb 1905 the New York Times reports of George Auger having to fold himself up and kneel on the elevator floor when visiting the Equitable Life building in order to arrange $10,000 life insurance. He is 8′ 1″ and 320 lbs according to the article. He stated his mother was 5′ 2″ and his father 5′ 11″ and both still living. There is also evidence here that he hadn’t yet adopted the name the Cardiff Giant as in the article it states ‘they call me the British Goliath’. Interestingly it also quotes him as saying he met his wife, 5′ 4″, whilst in Paris a few years ago.
A photo in the UK Sketch newspaper in May 1905 had a picture of 7’10” Giant George Auger with dwarf Paul Oval in his coat pocket. It is not clear where or when the picture was taken but it is in an article about the Union Jack Club in London.
Jack the Giant Killer
The next time we pick up George Auger is in 1907, not as part of the Barnum and Bailey Circus but as an independent artist. He has written a play called Jack the Giant Killer which he takes on tour. He is naturally playing the giant, and now described as ‘the tallest man on earth’, and much of the rest of the cast are described as of diminutive stature including Ernest Rommel the ‘smallest comedian in the world’. The cast also included his wife Elizabeth.
In May 1908 Jack the Giant Killer plays Boston before heading over to Europe. They arrive in Liverpool in June aboard the Lusitania describing themselves as vaudeville artists. They probably play a number of venues but we know for sure that he visited his place of birth and played the Empire Theatre in Queen Street, Cardiff in November.
George Auger is still in South Wales in Apr 1909 as we discover with this intriguing story from the Glamorgan Gazette: Maesteg: Cyclist Injured.—Mr. George Auger, the Welsh giant, who is now performing at Maesteg Town-hall, was driving in his motorcar on Wednesday towards Bridgend, when his attention was called to a cyclist lying by the side of the road unconscious and bleeding. Mr Auger put the injured man in his car and drove to Drs. Kirkby and Thomas’s surgery, Maesteg. Dr. Bell Thomas found that he had received serious injuries to the head. He is Herbert Deacon, 26 Garn-Road, Maesteg. Mr. Auger later took the man home in his car.
As we move further along in the career of William ‘George’ Auger we need to be more and more cautious in necessary believing what is written about him. There is no doubt an element of exaggerating things for show-biz effect. Even interviews with George the Giant himself need to be treated carefully. For instance, when in Cardiff in 1908 he is interviewed by the papers. By now according to the paper he is ‘the tallest man in the world’ at 8′ 3″. He is quoted as saying he was born in St Mary’s Street and taken to America by his parents when he was ten months old. He states his mother’s name was Connop (true) and she came from Kidwelly (near Abergavenny actually, but his uncle lived in Kidwelly). Let’s for now concentrate on what we can pick up from the primary source documents and return to the rest later.
Back in America Jack the Giant Killer continued to tour. It was playing Boston again in 1910 and again in 1913.
In the 1910 US Census we find George Auger lodging in Ardmore Street, Washington DC with his fellow performer Ernest Rommell, both describing themselves as actors.
There’s a bit of a gap now in information about George though there seems no reason to doubt that he continued to work as an actor in shows in America.
He became a naturalized American citizen in Jan 1917 whilst still living in Bridgeport, Connecticut.
Isn’t it funny how when you have to fill in an official forms such as passport applications and army draft registration forms, that the truth is more likely to appear. Having said that, he was still going by the name of George Auger when he completed his passport application form in Oct 1917 rather than his birth name of William Henry Auger. He applied for his passport in New Orleans, Louisiana, with a view on going to work as an actor in Cuba for under six months. We also learn from the form that he hasn’t left USA since Jun 1909.
By May 1918 he had returned from Cuba and was appearing in the Fred Bradna Circus in Washington DC for three days, a show attended by the President’s wife, Mrs Woodrow Wilson. The show netted a whopping $3,300 on the first day and George Auger, ‘the Cardiff Colossus’ was extremely popular.
He gets drafted into the US WWI army in Sept 1918. On his draft form his date of birth is correct. His employer is Barnum and Bailey and he is living in Bridgeport, Fairfield County, Connecticut. His height is officially given at 7′ 6″ in the section reserved for information about whether the individual is physically disqualified to serve. This, together with the fact that the war was all but over, meant that he probably saw no active military service.
He died suddenly on 30 Nov 1922 aged 40. His early death is made even sadder by the fact that he was about to break out of the circus role and embark on a career in the ‘moving pictures’. He had signed a contact said to be worth $350/week to star alongside actor Harold Lloyd as the giant Colosso in the film ‘Why Worry?’.
His cause of death was said to be indigestion having passed away after eating a thanksgiving day meal at the friends he was staying with.
His body had to be lowered in a specially made coffin from the second floor window of the Manhattan apartment where he died using block and tackle, with 1000 people looking on. His faithful bulldog named Ringling whined throughout the operation.
His funeral was attended by many of his showbiz colleagues including many of diminutive stature who were part of his act. Also present was Ringling the bulldog who was to have gone with George to California the next week to start filming the movie.
By the time his obituary appears in the papers he is 8′ 4″. He was described as a good natured, likeable person who lounged through life trying to make the best of what nature had served him.
He is buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in Manhattan, New York, sadly in an unmarked grave (plot: range 34, grave 293).
Queen Victoria’s connection
There’s a one interesting aspect of his life not covered above, mainly because it is difficult to substantiate and may or may not be true. In America he went by the name of Captain George Auger. The Captain title is said to have derived from his days as a policeman in London and was given to him by Queen Victoria when he was assigned as part of the police escort when she moved about the city. She is said to have dubbed him Captain and the title stuck with him. Whether he did ever serve Queen Victoria is unknown but it is believable that their paths did cross when he was working at Paddington or on the trains and she was heading to Wales or the West Country.
The two Cardiff Giants
The other angle we haven’t covered is why he was called the Cardiff Giant. It is not as obvious as it first appears. If you Google the Cardiff Giant then it’s a sort of 50:50 chance if you come across the story of Captain George Auger or the Cardiff Giant hoax story. Not long before George arrived in America a rock purported to be of a ‘petrified man’ was discovered at Cardiff in upstate New York in the 1860s. It was over 10 foot long. So impressed were Barnum’s Circus by the idea of having this on display that they attempted to purchase it without success. Instead they had a copy of the original Cardiff Giant and put it on display. It turns out that not only was the Barnum circus copy not real but the original Cardiff Giant was also a hoax. Arrive then a man from London, born in Cardiff and what better to call him than the Cardiff Giant.
It would be tempting to leave the story there, at its natural conclusion. There are however more revelations to come in the Auger story.
Elizabeth Connop – mother
Let’s start by looking at William’s mother, Elizabeth Lauretta Frances Connop. She was born in 1860 in the small village of Llanwenarth in the Usk valley to the west of Abergavenny. Her father was William Connop, a blacksmith, and her mother Christina Moyse. We don’t know how she met William’s father Henry and they both appear to be missing from the 1881 census, the year William was born, so the first time we pick her up in the records after leaving home is on William’s birth certificate, living in Cardiff in Dec 1881.
Elizabeth and Henry have six children together between 1881 and 1892, one dying in infancy. All apart from William are born in London. Somewhat unconventionally they don’t get married until 1891 in Putney, Surrey ,after the birth of their fifth child.
In the 1901 census she is living in the Kensington area of London seemingly separated from husband Henry and employed in a laundry. In 1911, still working in a laundry, she is living in Notting Hill with son James and her now married daughter Ada. She dies aged 72 in Hammersmith, London in 1932.
Interestingly, one Connop family tree in Ancestry mentions the fact that Elizabeth’s brother, James Moyse Connop (born 1843) was a ‘giant of a man’.
Henry Auger – father
Let’s now move onto looking at William’s father Henry Auger. He was born in 1857 in Isleworth, Middlesex, the eldest son of James Auger, a garden labourer, and Rachel Ray.
He joins the army in 1877 and becomes a Corporal in the 1st Battalion of the Coldstream Guards. He marries Phyllis Rapley in Isleworth in Jan 1879. They had a daughter Rachel Phillis Auger whose birth is registered in Brentford in Q2 1880. The marriage was to be short lived however as we know that by 1881 Henry has met Elizabeth Connop. He buys himself out of the army in Jun 1881. On leaving the Coldstream Guards, Henry Auger joins the police force. Phyllis Auger (nee Rapley) later remarries in Sep 1882 in Croydon to another member of the Coldstream Guards, Joseph Brier. She appears to incorrectly and conveniently state she is a widow on her marriage certificate.
We have already covered the fact that Henry goes on to father six more children with Elizabeth including our William ‘George’ Auger so let’s pick up Henry Auger again in the 1890s. It appears he leaves Elizabeth not long after the birth of James Auger in 1892 and sets up home with Ada Offord. By 1895 the first of their 12 children are born, Ellen Offord Auger. Henry also appears to have left the police force by now and is working as a painter. It is convenient for us that the Auger family have a nice unusual surname and are born in London where the baptism records are available making the family history much easier to confirm.
I trust you are counting these children; that’s one by Phyllis Rapley, six by Elizabeth Connop and twelve by Ada Offord making a total of nineteen. It appears that there may have been one more too making it a round twenty. Some family trees on Ancestry appear to indicate he may have fathered Charles Henry Hall in 1903.
In the 1911 census Ada and the children are living in Chiswick, now with ‘John’ Auger. It appears that Henry at this stage is not keen to use his real name for some reason.
Henry also appeared in no rush to marry Ada Offord either. Even though they have their first child in 1895 they don’t get married until 22 years later in Oct 1917 after all twelve of Ada’s children have been born.
In Sep 1915 with WWI raging Henry Auger bravely joins the army again. He is now aged 58, although on his army record he claims to be only 48. In the army record he lists his children born by Ada Offord but under the section requiring him to detail his marriage he provides details of his wedding with Elizabeth Connop. He lasted barely six weeks in the army before being discharged, the reason given in his records given as ‘not being likely to become an efficient soldier’.
Henry dies in 1921 in Reading , Berkshire aged 67, at the home of his niece Ada Tuffin (nee Rolf). There are a lot of Ada’s in the Auger family!
It is not clear how much Henry knew about his first born son William ‘George’ Auger, the Cardiff Giant, and his life in America. He and Elizabeth appear to have separated when William was around 12.
To finish off let’s have a quick look at some of William ‘George’ Auger’s siblings; only a couple I assure you, not all 19.
His younger sister Lucy joined him in Connecticut and was probably involved in the circus too. She married James Pendergast and they had two children, John and Margaret.
Brian Auger, rock star
The other sibling of William ‘George’ Auger to note is James Auger, born in 1892. James married twice and by his second wife Ivy Jones had seven children, one of which is Brian Auger, born 1939 in Hammersmith. Brian is a notable jazz rock pianist.
Brian Auger has a long accomplished musical career. In the 1960s he formed the band Steampacket which included Rod Stewart and Julie Driscoll. He later recorded a number of albums with Julie Driscoll which included the song, ‘Wheels On Fire’, another version of which became the theme tune for the ‘Absolutely Fabulous’ TV series. In the London club scene in the 60s he also became friendly with and would jam with people like Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix.
Brian Auger moved to California where he still fronts up a band which includes two of his children. It is not apparent whether Brian is even aware that his uncle was the Cardiff Giant.
Central Square, Cardiff
So that completes the story of William Henry ‘George’ Auger, the Cardiff Giant, with all its twists and turns. Next time you exit the station in Cardiff into Central Square imagine yourself back in 1881 in the closely packed streets of Temperance Town where his life began.
BBC Wales were kind enough to pick up on this research and as a result published this online article The Greatest Showman: the story of Cardiff’s Giant.