Sportsman Who Became Larger Than Life

by Ray Setterfield


Event Date: March 13, 1770
Location: Leicester, England, United Kingdom

Nobody knows what was wrong with Daniel Lambert who was born on this day. But he went from being a slim, athletic, sports-loving youngster to a mountain of a man in his thirties, so huge that he entered record books as the heaviest person ever to have lived.

Lambert was born in Leicester, England, to a family passionate about hunting, gamekeeping and field sports. He joined eagerly in these pursuits and excelled at them. He was also an excellent swimmer and taught children to swim across the river that runs through the city.

There is a story that one day his dog slipped loose and bit a dancing bear performing in one of the city’s streets. The keeper removed the bear’s muzzle so that it could attack the dog but Lambert stepped forward and punched the bear’s head, sending it sprawling to the ground and allowing the dog to escape. Such was his strength and fitness.

It all seemed to start going wrong in 1791 when, aged 21, Lambert took over from his father as Keeper of the local Bridewell prison or House of Correction, as it was known. Ten years later, his weight had ballooned to 40 stone (250 kg) – and rising.

Lambert, a genial and much-liked person, was as mystified as doctors by his condition. He did not drink alcohol and he ate much the same as anyone else. But still he piled on the pounds.

By 1805 35-year-old Lambert weighed 50 stone (320 kg) and became unemployable when, in that year, the Bridewell prison closed, leaving him without a job.

At first he became a recluse but faced with the need to earn money he decided in 1806 that he had no choice but to make an exhibition of himself, and moved to London where he charged visitors to visit his home and gaze at his enormous bulk.

Despite his physical difficulties, Lambert remained cheerful, engaging his visitors in amiable conversation and fascinating many of them with his extensive knowledge of hunting, fishing, shooting and horse racing.

It became fashionable in London society to visit his house at Piccadilly, where Lambert soon drew about 400 paying visitors every day. By late 1806 Lambert was a wealthy man and returned to Leicester. But he continued to exhibit himself, making tours that took in a number of English towns and cities.

It was while on tour in 1808 and staying at an inn that he was suddenly taken ill and died at the age of 39. His body could be removed from the inn only by taking down a wall. A few days earlier Lambert had been weighed and tipped the scales at 52 stone 11 pounds (335 kg).

His coffin measured 6 feet 4 inches long, 4 feet 4 inches wide and 2 feet 4 inches deep (193 cm × 132 cm × 71 cm). It was built on wheels and a sloping approach was created to his specially dug grave in the local churchyard. Even so, it took 20 men about half an hour to ease him into his resting place.

There was no post-mortem examination and nobody knows what killed Lambert. But he has not been forgotten. Several public houses have been named after him and museums continue to display his clothes and other memorabilia. In the town of Stamford where he died, the local football team is nicknamed "The Daniels" after him.

In 2009, on the 200th anniversary of his death, Leicester celebrated Daniel Lambert Day, and the local newspaper described him as "one of the city's most cherished icons”.

Published: January 31, 2017

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