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Plea to give Elephant Man a decent burial

Valerie Howkins with her elephant man exhibitsGreat granny Valerie Howkins is calling for the bones of the famous Elephant Man to be given a decent burial because of a poignant family connection.

The 83-year-old's heartfelt plea comes as she makes progress in her long-running battle to clear the name of her grandfather who managed the grossly disfigured Victorian celebrity Joseph Merrick.

Now the Great Yarmouth museum owner, whose connections with the tragic figure are showcased in one of the displays, wants the authorities to bury Merrick's bones where they belong, back in the city of Leicester where he was born.

Mrs Howkins says her grandfather Tom Norman was not the exploitative villain depicted in the 1980 movie starring Sir John Hurt as the deformed man who found fame as a sideshow freak.

Instead Mr Norman was the man who helped Joseph Merrick out of the workhouse, into a world he chose to join – as a fairground sideshow - and which saw him end his days as a celebrity visited by royalty in a specially-built apartment at the back of the London Hospital.

A new book on the poignant saga currently being penned is set to put the record straight, she explained.

Mrs Howkins said: “There will be a whole chapter exonerating my grandfather – so I feel my campaign is making progress.”

Now her sights are set on another battle – to get a proper burial of Merrick's bones. They were stripped of their flesh after his death in 1890 and the skeleton was, until recently, kept in a glass case at the London Hospital for medical research.

“The bones have been copied and all the scientific work must have been done by now – so having them lying in a storeroom box seems so undignified,” she explained at her museum where a display of Merrick memorabilia includes a bust of his huge, misshapen head.

“He never agreed for his skeleton to be put on show in a glass case. Yet he did agree to join the fairground circuit, and my grandfather was criticised for exploiting him – that's what really gets me incensed,” she added.

“Joseph needs to be given a decent Christian burial possibly near to his mother in the cemetery at Leicester where he was in the workhouse, and where he would have ended his days in misery without my grandfather's help,” said Mrs Howkins. “They got the bones of King Richard III reburied in the city so they can surely do it for Joseph.”

Her connection to the Elephant Man is just one of the many stories in her unique museum, which reflects the lives of ordinary and extraordinary people through a colourful cocktail of everyday toys and domestic objects alongside amazing collections.

They include a room full of furniture covered in postage stamps, miniature fairground rides, market stalls and shops, hundreds of dolls and teddy bears, models made from matchsticks – and tapestries and trinkets tracing her family's passionate support for the royal family.

But her own story is one of the most remarkable of all.

Valerie Howkins is the daughter of wealthy American heiress Kitty Schaefer and English clown Arthur “Van” Norman. Duke of Windsor obsessed Kitty vowed to marry the first Englishman she met, who turned out to be clown Van visiting her native New York with Barnum and Bailey's circus.

She was disinherited by her family and the couple came to the UK in 1931. Two and a half years later Valerie was born into a circus life of travelling including joining her uncle's Wild West Show as a teenage cowgirl.

But in 1951 she and her mother, along with baby sister Jeannie, put down roots in Great Yarmouth to escape the poverty and prejudice they experienced during their travelling life.

“I was not well because of the lack of food – and once I remember picking up cabbage leaves and bruised fruit from the site of a market stall. People thought we were all rogues and vagabonds,” she explained.

“But I thought Yarmouth was the loveliest little town I had ever been to and the people were welcoming.

“I came to town homeless, down at heel and penniless but Great Yarmouth has given me a home, family, career and a rich, full life.”

In the mid-1950s, after a string of jobs including in quality control at the town’s pioneering Birds Eye frozen food factory, she met former husband Peter and ended up running the family jewellery and antiques businesses until her retirement in 2011.

Customers included a Who's Who of showbiz stars visiting the resort including Ronnie Corbett, Ernie Wise, Billy Fury, Sid James, Tommy Steele, John Inman and Russ Abbott.

Her love and knowledge of jewellery comes from visiting the pawn shop to turn her mother's inherited jewels into money for food.

The museum collections began in 1972 when her mother died and left Valerie her Duke of Windsor commemorative items.

Valerie’s current museum opened in 2012 and also includes a set of needlework tapestries made in 1985 for a visit by the Queen.

The 19 pictures telling the story of the town's history took 4,000 hours of voluntary work and a million stitches by 60 people orchestrated by Valerie who also wrote a welcoming song performed to the monarch by 250 local schoolchildren. She was twice presented to the Queen in a day she regards as one of the highlights of her eventful life.

Mrs Howkins usually mans the museum every day it is open with help from volunteers, and has a story for every exhibit and enthusiastically shares her anecdotes with visitors as a personal “audio guide” to items which are interwoven with her eventful life. She is currently recovering from a fracture suffered in a fall, but still doing paperwork from home, while manager Roz Thomas mans the museum.

The museum is dedicated to her son David, who died from undiagnosed pneumonia at the age of 18 in 1979, while training at Christie's auctioneers in London ready to join the family jewellery and antiques business.

“He was such a funny young man. My dad was a professional clown but David was a natural one,” she added.

She is determined to keep his memory alive, and to keep the town centre attraction going, as profits go towards the East Anglian Children's Hospices.

Mrs Howkins is backing the ongoing Greater Yarmouth Tourism and Business Improvement Area drive to promote the town's tourism attractions to bring more visitors and trade to the resort and surrounding area.

She said: “I love the area, which is full of history and hidden surprises as well as holiday fun.”

Her story also figures as one of a series of “mini movies” the tourism campaign is using to promote the attractions of the Greater Yarmouth area, called The Showman's Daughter.

The David Howkins Museum of Memories is at 39-40 King Street, Great Yarmouth.

Open Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 10am to 4pm. Admission £3, children aged 5-12 £1. Under-fives free.

For more information call 01493 852637 or see the museum's website