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Daniel Lambert: England’s Most Famous Fat Man

 For most of human history, mankind struggled with food scarcity. The poor and the working class were seldom well fed, and only the wealthy and the prosperous could afford to get their bellies full every time they ate. Obesity reigned only among the upper echelons of society. So when a commoner in 18th century England started to get morbidly fat, not only he became an anomaly but a curious attraction as well.


Daniel Lambert

Portrait of Daniel Lambert by Benjamin Marshall.

Daniel Lambert was born in Leicester in 1770. From his early childhood, Lambert was a keen sportsman, particularly fond of otter hunting, fishing, shooting and horse racing. By his late teens he was considered an expert in the breeding of hunting dogs. He was also a keen swimmer and for much of his life he taught local children to swim.

At the age of 14, Lambert went to Birmingham to work at an engraving and die casting works, but when the engraved buckles and buttons in which Lambert’s factory specialized became unfashionable, and the business went into decline, Lambert returned to Leicester to serve as his father's assistant at the gaol. Lambert was 18 at that time (or 21 according to some sources). Soon afterwards, Lambert’s father retired and Lambert succeeded him as gaol keeper. It was around this time that Lambert began to put on weight. Within three years of returning to Leicester he weighed 200kgs.

Despite his increasing weight, Lambert remained a fit man. In his spare time, Lambert devoted himself to exercise building his strength to the point where he was able to easily carry 250 kg of timber. Once he walked 7 miles from Woolwich to the City of London “with much less apparent fatigue than several middle-sized men who were of the party.” In spite of his large girth, Lambert was not significantly restricted and was able to stand on one leg and kick the other to a height of 7 feet. Even more remarkable, he continued to teach swimming in Leicester, and was able to stay afloat with two grown men sitting on his back.

Daniel Lambert

Portrait of Daniel Lambert, weighing almost forty stone.

One of the most famous stories of his athletic feats is his encounter with a bear. Lambert was watching a dancing bear on display in Blue Boar Lane when his dog slipped loose and jumped on the larger animal. The bear slapped the dog away, at which point the keeper removed the bear’s muzzle so that it could attack the dog and show its strength for the sake of the audience. Infuriated by the keeper’s actions, Lambert jumped into the ring and struck the bear with a pole, and then punched the animal on its head, knocking it to the ground.

By 1801, Lambert’s weight had increased to 250 kg, which was too much for his horse to bear and Lambert was forced to give up hunting. In 1805, the gaol closed and Lambert found himself out of work. By then, Lambert had grown enormously large and his girth prevented him from finding employment. Lambert did receive an annual gratuity of £50 in recognition of his excellent service as gaol keeper, but this was not adequate to cover his living costs.

Morose about his weight, Lambert became a recluse and shut himself up in his house. In the meantime, stories of his bulk had spread far and wide and curious visitors came to Leicester and used various pretexts to visit his home. Lambert kept away from public eye as much as possible. He also refused to allow himself to be weighed. His friends once tricked him into getting into a carriage on the pretext of going to a cock fight. Once he had squeezed his way into the carriage, the rest of the party drove the carriage onto a large scale and jumped out. By deducting the weight of the previously weighed empty carriage, they calculated that Lambert now weighed 320 kg, making him officially the heaviest person in history, surpassing the previous record-holder, Edward Bright.

Desperately in need of money, Lambert realized that the only way to earn a living was to put himself on display and charge his spectators. Thus in 1806, Lambert boarded a specially built carriage and travelled from Leicester to his new home in Piccadilly, where he presented himself to paying spectators for five hours each day charging each visitor a shilling.

Daniel Lambert

Portrait of Daniel Lambert, weighing over fifty stone, aged 36.

Lambert’s extensive knowledge of breeding and sports and his intelligent conversations astounded London’s upper class. Many of his visitors seemed incapable of having enough of him, and called again and again to behold what an immense magnitude the human figure is capable of attaining. Johan Didrik af Wingård, Governor of Värmland County, described the enormous man after a visit with him.

This enormously fat man sat in a sofa wide enough for three or four people, and filled it well. He had a really quite handsome, small head, at least compared with his ungainly body. ... His wide cheekbones and huge double chin did not disfigure him very much, but his belly, dressed in a striped waistcoat, resembled a huge featherbed, and his legs, dressed in similarly coloured stockings, were the size of two large butter kernels.

Most visitors treated him with courtesy, speaking with him for hours on animal breeding. Even King George III paid him a visit. But others saw him simply as a spectacle, which Lambert detested. Lambert would get irritated when asked about his appetite and the size of his clothes. Once, when a woman enquired as to the cost of his coat, Lambert replied annoyingly: “I cannot pretend to charge my memory with the price, but I can put you into a method of obtaining the information you want. If you think proper to make me a present of a new coat, you will then know exactly what it costs.”

From 1806, Lambert started to travel around England exhibiting himself and gratifying the curiosity of his countrymen. Lambert also presented himself to the medical profession, allowing the doctors in London to study and measure him. They confirmed that he weighed 320 kg and was 5 feet 11 inches tall. A thorough medical examination found nothing wrong in him. He was described as active and mentally alert, well-read, and with an excellent memory. Lambert claimed that he was able to walk about a quarter of a mile without difficulty, that he slept regularly for no more than eight hours per night, and on waking he was always fully alert within five minutes. He never napped during the day.

Daniel Lambert died in 1809 in Stamford, after complaining of breathing difficulties. No autopsy was held, but doctors speculate that Lambert probably died of a sudden pulmonary embolism. He was just 39.

Lambert was so large that a window and part of a wall at the inn where he was staying at the time of his death had to be demolished to allow his body to be removed for burial. His coffin measured 6 feet 4 inches long, 4 feet 4 inches wide and 2 feet 4 inches deep, and had to be built on wheels to allow it to be moved. A suitably sized grave had been dug, with a sloping ramp to avoid the need to lower the coffin from above. Nonetheless, it took almost half an hour for twenty men to pull Lambert's enormous coffin into the grave.

His gravestone gives details of how heavy he was:

In Remembrance of that Prodigy in Nature.
DANIEL LAMBERT.
a Native of Leicester:
who was possessed of an exalted and convivial Mind
and in personal Greatness had no Competitor
He measured three Feet one Inch round the Leg
nine Feet four Inches round the Body
and weighed
Fifty two Stone eleven Pounds!
He departed this Life on the 21st of June 1809
Aged 39 years
As a Testimony of Respect this Stone is erected by his Friends in Leicester

Lambert's fame as the heaviest person in recorded history was soon overtaken by the American Mills Darden, who weighed an astonishing 460 kg, but Lambert had by now become a cult figure, and his name became synonymous with hugeness, as in “a Daniel Lambert of learning”, a phrase used by Herbert Spencer in his The Study of Sociology, and “the Daniel Lambert among châteaux”, when describing the Château de Chambord.

Lambert continues to remain a cherished icon of Leicester more than two hundred years after his death. There are several local public houses and businesses in the city named after him. Lambert’s personal belongings, including his clothes, armchair, walking stick, riding crop and prayer book, are on permanent display at the Newarke Houses Museum in Leicester. At the Stamford Museum there is a life-size model of Lambert dressed in replica clothes and a painting of him is located inside Stamford’s famous George Hotel.

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