Curious: Miss Matilda Sanville – the smallest lady in the world

Emil Riisfeldt, 1875, Miss Matilda Sanville – the smallest lady in the world, Sydney, hand-coloured albumen silver carte-de-visite photograph, Te Papa O.042712.

This portrait of Matilda Sanville – the smallest lady in the world (also known as ‘the Fairy Queen’) – was taken in Sydney in 1875 in connection with her appearances in the city and before her tour to New Zealand. The portrait uses known studio portrait conventions of the time to convey Sanville’s size (a full grown adult standing in the same position beside the table, a standard studio prop, would be approximately twice as high). To emphasise her uniqueness, her age of 19 years and height (31 inches) were printed as part of the caption on the back.

Sanville toured New Zealand as part of Hoberg’s Amercian Exhibition and was one of four exhibits of ‘living wonders’ including: the Spotted Boy (from the wilds of Africa), Professor Radcliffe (the musical genius) and “Chip” (the wonderful educated dog). The Hoberg show also included a ‘moving panorama’ of 216 stereoscopic (or 3D) photographic views of America. Admission to the event was generally one shilling.

The entertainment on offer was described as ‘varied and peculiar’. As an indication of the numbers attending the shows, a newspaper report about one of the Dunedin performances raised the issue of the need for more fire exits on the Temperance Hall in case of a fire while 800-900 people were inside attending the show.

Sanville’s performances featured singing and she was praised by the press in Thames for being as ‘affable as ever’ talking to members of the audience. Meanwhile at the same performance, the ‘Spotted or Leopard Boy’ danced and sold numerous ‘photos’ of himself while fending off bites, or ‘nips’, from boys in the audience. The Thames Star reported that the show ‘affords a capital opportunity of passing a leisure hour in these dull times.’

Known appearances of Matilda Sanville in New Zealand:

-Tent near Thistle Hotel, Auckland, March 1875

-Academy of Music, Thames, March 1875

-Temperance Hall, Dunedin, December 1875

-Exchange Hall, Invercargill, December 1875

-Timaru, January 1876

-Christchurch, January 1876

-Stallard’s Paddock, Nelson, Feburary 1876

Other stories in this series:

Curious: Anne Eliza Leak – the armless wonder

Curious: Martinho Lowande – ‘the Great Brazilian Bareback Hurricane rider’

Lissa Mitchell – Curator Historical Photography

Follow Lissa on Twitter @rainyslip

One Response

  1. Adele Pentony-Graham

    its odd that back in those days, they managed to get people on display that they had something different about them, she was pretty wasnt she… wonder what size her parents were?


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