Sarah Biffen (25th October 1784 to 2nd October 1850)


Behind Liverpool Cathedral sits St James Garden Cemetery where nearly 58,000 were buried. It closed in 1936 and time has swallowed up lots of the graves. It's in a deep bowl behind the cathedral and you have to descend some steps to reach it. I wanted to see the approximate location of Sarah's bones (her grave is no longer visible.)  She was a freak show exhibit in the Victorian era, had no arms or feet and was just over 1 foot tall. Here I am in the cemetery.


I had a walk around holding a photo taken a century ago. It showed a flurry of headstones though nearly two hundred years of time has defeated them and little have survived. I hope I walked within ten feet of Sarah. This seriously handicapped but gutsy scrap of humanity had her paintings hung at the Royal Academy, was awarded the Society of Art's medal and enjoyed the patronage of four reigning monarchs.


Tough start: she was born Somerset to parents who had phocomelia (where hands and feet are attached the trunk of body - think thalidomide.) No free welfare in 1784 meant she was probably doomed to death in infancy but a kind vicar protected her. Some people feared her - they'd not seen such deformity and thought the Devil possessed her.


Being independent she used her mouth as a tool. Even as a kid she designed, cut and made all her own clothes. Aged 12 her family apprenticed her to Emmanuel Dukes who toured the country with fairs and freak shows. For sixteen years people paid to enter a tent to witness "The Limbless Wonder" - a severely-handicapped dwarf drawing, writing and sewing with her teeth (she could tie a knot on a single hair with her tongue.) Her boss - who Sarah said was always kind to her - was her indirect saviour. Surely punters would pay more to see the tiny woman painting using a brush in her mouth? It worked. Sarah was taught to paint landscapes and portrait miniatures. More money gushed in but Sarah never received more than £5 a year. One day the Earl of Morton was wandering around one of the fairs and was impressed by the paintings. He commissioned Sarah to paint his portrait and was so pleased with it he showed it to King George III. He then sponsored Sarah to receive lessons from a Royal Academy of Arts painter (who was teaching one of the princesses.)


Finally Sarah escaped the freak shows and swapped touring the country as an oddity with touring it with painting exhibitions. She had a studio in London’s Bond Street and received commissions from The Royal Family. Her living was made from her mouth: she used her tongue to pick up a long-handled brush, placed the end of it under a loop on her right shoulder and manipulated it with her mouth to push paint around the canvas.


Aged 40 she married but the partnership failed. As strength faded from her mouth muscles painting sales faded too and when the Earl of Morton died her life soured. He'd been a portal to the aristocracy and patrons but they soon fell away. Aged 58 Sarah came to Liverpool and occupied various lodgings across the city. Her eyesight and the strength in her shoulders failed more and she could no long produce high quality paintings. At 63 she would probably have died from starvation but William IV had granted her a Civil List pension of £1 per month. She died at Duke Street aged 66 and was laid to rest somewhere near where I'm stood.





Sarah’s grave is buried down here somewhere…




An old photo of the graveyard...