A SUSSEX historian is launching a series of walking tours around Brighton this month to raise money for a Blue Plaque to honour conjoined twins who became international stars in the 1920s and 1930s.
Alf Le Flohic is leading the campaign for a plaque to be installed outside No 18 Riley Road, Brighton, where Violet and Daisy Hilton were born in 1908.
Alf, senior website officer at the University of Brighton, says, “The twins were huge stars in their day – at the peak of their fame around 1927, they were earning $4,000 a week, about three times the average annual American salary, but they have largely been forgotten in the UK.”
As a teenager, Alf had watched the 1932 Hollywood horror movie Freaks, which featured people who had real disabilities and worked as carnival sideshow performers, including the Hilton sisters. He began researching their story after reading an article about the movie more recently and discovering that they were born in Brighton.
“When I asked people about them, nobody had heard of them,” he says. “When I discovered they came from Brighton, I thought it was only fitting to have a plaque outside their birthplace.”
Violet and Daisy Hilton were born in Riley Road, Brighton, to unmarried barmaid Kate Skinner, who rejected them because they were joined at the base of the spine.
The twins were adopted by Mary Hilton, the midwife who delivered them and also the landlady of the Queen’s Arms pub in Kemptown, where Kate worked. Mrs Hilton saw their financial potential in their disability and exploited it almost immediately – just weeks after being born, they were put on show for money in the pub. People paid to raise the girls’ gown to see where they were conjoined.
Touring at the age of three, they were known as Brighton’s United Twins, a reference to The United Brothers Chang and Eng Bunker, the original Siamese Twins.
Mary and her husband, as well as their daughter Edith, kept the sisters under tight control and took them to America, where their singing, dancing and musicianship were very popular.
Alf says, “They were definitely talented. They could play numerous instruments and had lovely singing voices. They appeared on the cover of sheet music for songs they made popular. They danced with a young Bob Hope and were befriended by escapologist Harry Houdini.”
When the sisters were 11, Mary died. “They tried to run away at the funeral,” says Alf. “But Mary’s son-in-law Meyer Meyers explained to them that Mary had left them to him.
“He was determined to make as much money out of them as possible. He bought a massive state in the US and occasionally he made the girls clean it. He was sadistic.”
He adds, “As adults, the twins took the Hiltons to court and gained their freedom, but settled for only a portion of the money they had earned over the years. They fell out of favour with the American public after Violet’s big celebrity wedding in 1936 was quickly revealed to be a publicity stunt.
“To add a further twist to the story, there were rumours that Violet preferred the ladies, and her husband Jim Moore was well known to be gay.”
The twins had rejected opportunities to be separated because, as Alf explained, they were terrified of doctors after spending their childhoods “being prodded and poked by doctors, who were queueing up to experiment on them”.
Daisy and Violet returned to Brighton only once, on a UK tour in 1933, headlining at the Hippodrome for four sellout shows. They tried to find their mother on that trip, only to discover she had died when they were four years old.
The twins’ last show was in North Carolina in 1961, and down on their luck, they found new jobs behind the checkout of the Park-N-Shop in Charlotte, USA. Eight years later, they died within a few days of each other, reportedly from Hong Kong flu.
“To me, they had an incredibly hard life,” says Alf. “I felt for them. They survived until they were 60 and did the best they could with what they had. I’ve researched them for the past six months but getting a sense of who they actually were is hard.
“Many accounts of their lives, including their own accounts, were fictionalised and they were used to presenting public personas almost from birth.
“They were used to putting on an act. You never quite knew them.”
Alf runs his walking tours, which take in The Queen’s Arms pub and Brighton Hippodrome, on Saturday June 30, Sunday July 1, Saturday July 7 and Sunday July 8 at 11am and 1pm on each day. All fees will be put towards the cost of the plaque.
“I’m delighted my nomination for the plaque has been accepted by Brighton and Hove City Council,” says Alf. “And I’m very grateful the current owners of No 18 have agreed.
“It’s a fitting tribute to Daisy and Violet – they had hard lives but became stars against the odds. As a city that embraces people who don’t necessarily fit the norm, they are definitely ‘one of us’ and deserve to be more widely known in Brighton.”
For details about the walks, visit thebrightontwins.co.uk. Any additional funds raised go to http://facingtheworld.net/, a UK charity offering life-changing surgery for severely disfigured children, including conjoined twins.
Above: Daisy and Violet Hilton c1927/picture: Wellcome Collection
Above: historian Alf Le Flohic/picture: Nick Ford
Below: a postcard showing the younger Daisy and Violet Hilton c1914/picture: Wellcome Collection
Above: Daisy and Violet Hilton with the Meyers c1927/picture: Wellcome Collection
All pictures below: the Hilton sisters posing in a variety of publicity shots/pictures: Wellcome Collection