Sunday 29 October 2023

Joseph "Long Joe" Lawrence: Guelph's tallest man

As noted in the post about Guelph's Old Home Week 1908, special attention was drawn to Joseph "Long Joe" Lawrence. As part of the burlesque parade, the townsfolk had prevailed on Johnson to dress up in a fine white dress and parasol and stroll the streets of Guelph to the amusement of all.
(Real photo postcard of "Long Joe" Lawrence in a white dress with parasol, parading through St. George's Square. Courtesy of Guelph Civic Musuems 2009.3.1. The message on the back states, "This is the only one I have got left of Guelph Old Home week procession[.] it is a man standing seven feet in a lady dress representing a firm from Toronto" )

Being 6 feet, 11 inches tall, Joe Lawrence stood out. Thanks to his height, we have some more records about him than we might have otherwise.

(Real photo postcard view from the Post office/Customs house of a parade marching through St. George's Square. Note Joe Lawrence in a dress in the foreground and a marching band following him. A hand-written message on the front states, "scenes during Old Home week on main street, Guelph".)

For example, his obituary adds a bit of colour to its account of his statistics (Mercury, 20 January 1958):

In Guelph he worked at Taylor-Forbes. He was a keen member of the Canadian Legion and made a host of friends with whom he kept up a regular correspondence. When he last made a visit to Guelph, in 1955, he complained that the dry air of the West had caused him to shrink half-an-inch—to a mere six feet 10 ½ inches. Blessed with a lively sense of humor he was a highlight in Guelph’s Old Home Week when he put on a disguise as a woman and he always claimed to be unbestable at cribbage.
Lawrence was born on 9 December 1882 in Partick, a suburb of Glasgow, Scotland. He immigrated to Canada in 1904 and settled in Guelph. He does not appear in the city directories of Guelph at that time. However, his Canadian Expeditionary Force attestation papers note that he was a "mechanic," perhaps with the Taylor-Forbes company.

His papers also note that he had three years in the Wellington Rifles.

("Four Members of the Wellington Rifles," ca. 1907. Courtesy of the Guelph Museums, 1952X.00.127. Guess which one is Joe Lawrence!)

It was in this connection that he first came to the notice of the press, to wit (Hamilton Evening Times, 23 Jun 1906):

Giant with appendicitis.

London, Ont., June 22.—Pte “Long Joe” Lawrence, of Guelph, very thin, and seven feet nine inches tall, who is in the militia camp here, was taken to the hospital to-night with appendicitis. It is said there was not a cot long enough to accommodate the patient.
Life in the militia seems to have agreed with Lawrence, as he grew 10 inches in the service!

Happily, the doctors found a suitably long operating table and his condition was treated successfully.

("Joseph J Lawrence (c.1913)." Courtesy of Swift Current Museum, 2008.31.1.)

In 1908, so not long after his seminal appearance in a dress during Old Home Week, Lawrence moved to Swift Current, Saskatchewan, and joined the police. Once again, his unusual height brought him a press notice (Berlin News Record, 13 June 1912):

Canada’s biggest policeman

Mr. Joe Lawrence, formerly of Guelph, but now of Calgary, stands 7 feet 2 inches and is the biggest policeman in Canada. He is in the employ of the C.P.R. and according to a letter addressed to his friend, Mr. Geo. Hubert of Galt, he is well pleased with his position. The tall figure of Mr. Lawrence used to be a familiar sight on Berlin streets before his emigration westward.
The move out west seems to have reduced Lawrence towards his previous height. Was the dry air at work?

On 10 December 1915, Lawrence joined the 89th Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force at its Calgary office. His occupation is listed as mechanic, which, it seems, was his job with the Swift Current police.

Lawrence's obituary mentions that he was a drill instructor, for which he qualified due to his previous service with Wellington Rifles. He may have had this job while in Alberta; it is not mentioned in his military record.

Lawrence sailed to England on 2 June 1916. His height did not fail to make an impression in the Old Country. An article in the Daily Mirror (15 August 1916), "Giant Canadian in the army," notes his stature and shows a photograph of Lawrence towering over two other soldiers, with his arms stretched out to his sides and over their heads.

[If anyone has a copy of this picture, do let me know!]

A subsequent item in the Berlin News Record (14 September 1916) raises the matter that must have occurred to many on hearing of his departure: "Local friends are wondering how Joe will manage to keep his head down when he gets to the trenches."

How indeed? Lawrence's obituary notes an irony: Despite his height, the only place the Germans got him was in the foot. His military medical record mentions a "wire cut" followed by trench foot late in 1916. There is no mention of enemy action, so it may be that it was the CEF that "got" him.

After a few operations and stays in hospital, Lawrence was struck off strength and demobilized back to Alberta, where he arrived in 1919.

Lawrence seems to have stayed in Calgary rather than returning to Swift Current. His mother Mary lived there, where she had immigrated in 1913, probably on the death of her husband. Agnes Lawrence (née Dawson) also appears in the Calgary census of 1921. I have not yet found a marriage record but Lawrence's military record mentions "Agnes Lawrence (wife)" as Joe's beneficiary on his final pay document in 1919, so that appears to be the year of their nuptuals.

Bucking the trend of men who had "gone west" in their youth, Joe Lawrence returned east to the Royal City with his new family in 1924, where he is listed as a mechanic with the Taylor-Forbes company. As was the case for many, his situation changed during the Great Depression, when his job became caretaker with the company of F.W. Jones & Son.

The family seems to have prospered, however. The Lawrences moved from rented apartments on Woolwich street to a house at 16 Havelock street, which remains in place today.

In 1938, Joe's daughter Christina is listed as a hairdresser at the Ideal Beauty Parlour (or Shop or Salon), and his son James is listed as a driver for the Home Creamery Company in 1944. His wife Agnes died in 1943.

In 1945, Joe Lawrence is listed a machine operator with the Page-Hersey Company, a return to his former type of occupation. His address also changed to 156 Ontario street, a residence not unlike his former one though located near to his new employer in the Ward.

In 1949, Lawrence went west once more, settling on Okotoks, Alberta, where his daughter Christina appears to have moved after her marriage to a Mr. J.R. Aikins.

("Joe Lawrence, Guelph's Tallest Man." Courtesy of Guelph Civic Museums, 2014.84.78. The photo appears to be dated August 1955 and shows Lawrence in uniform next to a much shorter man, also in uniform, standing in front of an Eaton's store in an unnamed city.)

Lawrence's last visit to Guelph came in 1955. It was celebrated in the Mercury with a photo of him between two "Mercury girls" standing on chairs so as to look him in the eye.

(Detail of "Scrapbook, Guelph History, Marion and Eleanor Ryan, 1950-1979," page 48. Courtesy of Guelph Civic Museums, 2022.12.2.)

The photographic record of Joe Lawrence certainly speaks to the enduring fascination with height in our culture.

Joseph "Long Joe" Lawrence was buried in what we may assume was a lengthy coffin in the Union Cemetery in Calgary.