London Life

London Life | 1939

Sara Biffen, "The Limbless Wonder"

Her parents thought her a "Pixie Child," but she lived to paint Edward VII and the Ex-Kaiser's mother.

"Aye, thou can coom in now, Garge Biffen, it's a girl. And marcy on us, what a girl!" Said the matronly looking, poorly clad woman as she opened the door of the sleeping room, which was feebly lighted by two flickering rushlights, and admitted George Biffen, the father of the new-born child.

"An' how be Sarah, Mary?" he asked, in the slow but not unmusical drawl of the Somersetshire rustics.

"Finely", was the reply. "She be just a-droppin' off to sleep, so don't wake 'er, Garge."

Garge nodded. His slow brain comprehended that sleep was his wife's best medicine.

"An' the babby, Mary?" as a faint cry came from the bed where the woman was lying.

"Sarah be a cuddlin' it up to her," said the woman called Mary, who was George Biffen's sister.

"You won't blame it on her, will 'e, Garge? It baint poor Sarah's fault! When I took the baby from 'er it was a small sized un, too. I thought I'd died! Garge, it 'as no limbs. I fear the pixies 'ave lopped 'em off!"

The yokel's slow brain found difficulty in comprehending his sister's statement.

"No limbs?" he muttered. "D'yer mane no arms an' no legs?"

"Yes, Garge."

"God in 'eaven! Then 'ow can the kid work for its livin'? Mary you should have smothered it afore Sarah saw it. It be a pixie, sure enough!"

"I thought so, too," said his trembling sister, "but I was feared, mort'ly feared! The law, Garge - the law!"

"Feared?" said the man. "It'd be a marcy."

"So I thought; but it 'as sich a pretty little face and, Garge, it'd be murder!"

"Maybe so," said her brother, "but summat 'ad to be done. I'll step down to the village and ask parson wot's to do."

This wise decision of her father saved, in all probability, the limbless mite's life.

The kindly old clergyman visited Biffen's cottage, inspected the child, which was entirely limbless though otherwise perfectly healthy, and ultimately baptised her "Sarah," after her mother, with strict injunctions that she was to be treated merely as a crippled child. She grew up in the squalid surroundings of a farm labourer's cottage, and showed remarkable intelligence at an early age. Unable to walk, she learned to roll and trundle herself about. She could pick up things with her mouth, and was in all respects normal, save that she was armless and legless.

The fame of the limbless child spread far and wide, and from being a burden she became a source of revenue for her parents.

The vicar of East Quantoxhead, near Bridgewater, where Sarah was born, taught her to read; and, once she knew her letters, Sarah taught herself to write by holding a pencil in her mouth and, with infinite pains, copying their formation on paper.

By the time she was seven, Sarah Biffen could read and write well - then a rare accomplishment for a West country farm labourer's daughter - and used to be carried and wheeled in a barrow by her mother, sometimes of a night when a paper arrived from Bath or Bristol, to the taproom of the village inn, where she would read the news to the yokels of the execution of Marie Antoinette and other tragedies and events of the French Revolution.

The villagers, even her own parents, although they were outwardly kind to limbless Sarah, regarded her with badly concealed aversion. The village children, like their fathers and mothers, regarded her as a "pixie child," and had it not been for the benevolent clergyman, her childhood would indeed have been an unhappy one.

Sarah becomes an Artist.

He placed the books in the rectory library at her disposal. She read them with avidity and grew wise beyond her years. Then she commenced to copy engravings and woodcuts and, thanks to her aptitude for taking infinite pains, was soon able to draw and sketch. When she was 12, Sarah arrived at the height of 37 inches and never grew taller, although her body in proportion to her size assumed womanly proportions.

At last the turning point in her career arrived.

A Mr. Dukes came one day to Quantoxhead and watched limbless little Sarah write and draw with great interest. He next sought out George Biffen, her father, whom he accompanied to the village inn, where, over mugs of cider, followed by ale, a deep and lengthy conversation was carried on. Eventually a 5 Pound note was pressed into Biffen's hand, who promptly shambled from his seat and returned to his cottage, where, after a little explanation, Sarah agreed to bind herself to Mr. Dukes for sixteen years, in return for 5 Pounds per annum, he to pay for all necessaries and provide what she required to keep her in health and decency.

From that moment limbless Sarah became the man's slave. He conveyed her all over the country from fair to fair, where she was exhibited as "The Limbless wonder" in a booth where, according to locality, from 3d. to 1/- was charged for admission.

Perched upon a pedestal, with a kind of easel beside her, Sarah used to write her autograph for a penny, and write letters at dictation from 3d. each, according to their length, draw crayon portraits, and paint little landscapes.

Dukes made large sums by exhibiting the "Limbless wonder", whom he overworked shamefully and even compelled her to paint landscapes and portraits of celebrities on Sundays, which he sold for considerable amounts. This went on until, at the age of 28, Sarah's sixteen years of servitude expired.

Strange to say, at the very last place she was exhibited as the "The Limbless Wonder", Fortune for the first time smiled upon poor Sarah Biffen.

It was at Swaffam Race Week in 1812. Lord Morton and some friends paid their shillings and entered the booth to see "The Limbless Wonder" paint miniature portraits from two to three guineas, and perform other extraordinary exploits with brush and pen held in her mouth.

He was amazed at the little creature's artistic ability, entered into conversation with her and heard her life story, with the result that, as her contract with Dukes was on the point of expiring, he took her away and arranged for her further art training by a famous portrait painter and illustrator of the period, named Craig. Under this tuition, Sarah progressed rapidly. Several exhibitions of her works in art galleries followed, and her water colours fetched high prices.

Both George IV and William IV visited the exhibitions and purchased her pictures.

Eventually in l821 she was awarded the Gold Medal of the Society of Arts, and commissions commenced to pour upon her. Having miniatures painted on ivory was almost as popular at that period as having one's photograph taken is now, and for some years Sarah Biffen made a good income.

Later she attracted the attention of queen Victoria, who always took a great interest in out-of-the-ordinary people. Her Majesty's patronage of Van Ambergh, the lion tamer, and of "Tom Thumb," is well known and as soon as she heard that "Miss Biffen," the fashionable miniature painter, was a limbless freak, expressed desire to see her.

Of course the Queen's desire was satisfied, and Sarah was commissioned to paint miniature portraits of the late King Edward and his sister, who afterwards became the ex-Kaiser's mother.

Soon after this, Sarah left London and resided in Liverpool, where for some years she made a profitable living by her art.

Then, as old age commenced to creep on her, she began to lose control over the muscles of neck and mouth, which were, of course, highly developed. Valiantly, she struggled, but overwork exacted its toll and she gradually lost control and became almost unable to paint. She struggled bravely on for some years. Debts accumulated, and finally the poor little artist succumbed.

Destitution stared her in the face. Creditors pressed, and finally she was sold up.

The strain on her neck and labial muscles distorted her once pretty face and she looked old and haggard. She had arrived at that stage when she was still talked about by the older generation but forgotten by the younger.

It will be remembered by readers of Dickens that Mrs. Nickleby mentions Miss Biffen in - if the writer's memory serves him right - the chapter where Mrs. Nickleby describes how her eccentric neighbour courted her by throwing melons and other fruits of the earth over his garden wall into Mrs. Nickleby's garden as tokens of his regard!

The probabilities are that poor little Sarah Biffen would have ended her days either as a freak at country fairs, as she had commenced her career, or else had become an inmate of the workhouse, which in her day and generation, as all readers of Dickens know, was an abode of dread.

Fortunately she was spared from these fates.

Mr. Richard Rathbone, a member of the firm of artists' colourmen who used to supply her in her palmy days with the paints and pigments she used in her work, raised a fund and was successful in obtaining sufficient money for this brave little limbless woman to end her days in peace.

Sarah Biffen, whom her ignorant, superstitious parents more or less shunned as a "pixie child," and who spent her girlhood and early womanhood in worse than slavery, to be gaped up and guffawed in wonderment on account of her pre-natal deformities, passed away on October 3, 1850, aged 66.


London Life August 5, 1939 p. 18 -19
London Life | 1939