Long before its windmill was built, or the first bubble of Foxton Fizz, the small Horowhenua township of Foxton was world famous for two young children from the Westwood family. Horowhenua Chronicle reporter Paul Williams delves into the files of the Foxton Historical Society and uncovers the story of the siblings who wowed the world.

Right from the beginning, there was something different about Ruby and Wilfred.

They were two of seven children born to Thomas and Sarah Westwood.

The first to arrive was Jack William in 1887. Then, at fairly regular intervals, came George Edward Bertram (1889), Elizabeth Eva (1891), Thomas Henry (1892), Ruby May (1893), Wilfred Edgar (1897) and Loyis Lisette (1900).

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Why did two of these siblings stand out? Ruby Westwood and her younger brother Wilfred were incredibly large. So much so, they were to tour the world as what was then termed a freak show.

Huge children - it was an oddity that people paid money to see - in an era where a peculiarity had the potential to earn money.

When Wilfred was three he weighed nearly 50kg. Ruby was seven, and nearly 100kg. In the coming years they continued to pile on the beef and were twice the size of children their own age.

There was nothing out of the ordinary about Thomas and Sarah Westwood. He wasn't tall at 1.70m and was not robust at 82kg, while Sarah, at age 33, was said to weigh just 39.9kg.

Ruby, at age seven, was heavier than her father. At three, Wilfred, described as a "bright little fellow" was heavier than his mother. The other siblings were of standard size.

Wilfred was affectionately known about Foxton as "Dick Seddon", who was then the Prime Minister of New Zealand. Ruby was touted by news agencies as "The Biggest Girl in the World".

A Westwood family photo, showing Wilfred at age 11 to weigh 135kg, while his sister Ruby weighed 110kg at age 14. The rest of the Westwood family were of average weight.
A Westwood family photo, showing Wilfred at age 11 to weigh 135kg, while his sister Ruby weighed 110kg at age 14. The rest of the Westwood family were of average weight.

Reports at the time, sourced from various websites, said "the children display extraordinary intelligence for their age, are perfect in every degree, the picture of good health never having had a day's illness".

Thomas Westwood was well-known in Foxton. He owned a local grocery store called The Red House and aspired to be mayor. But he spied an opportunity, no doubt after receiving advice.

In 1900 he set up a furnished marquee at the Wanganui Racecourse for the annual AP&I Show, where he introduced his children as an attraction. They were an immediate hit.

The whole Westwood family followed as part of the attraction, as comparisons. The contrast with their siblings was part of the amazement. It was truly a family show. They were "as familiar as household words".

News travelled, catching the attention of the Fitzerald Brothers Circus who offered the family an extremely generous 1000 pounds, plus expenses, to exhibit themselves in the Paris Exposition later that year.

They declined. The idea of exhibiting his progeny weighed heavy on Thomas Westwood. But when the offer was doubled, and 3000 people paid to see them at Palmerston North show, he was powerless to stop it.

After spending 25 years in Foxton the family made a decision to sell up and hit the road and show off their "gift" and display "The Giant Children of Foxton".

They sold the family chattels and began touring, first New Zealand, then parts of Australia.

"Good business was done with the children everywhere they were exhibited...the children were examined by several doctors and pronounced perfectly healthy...Mr Westwood intends leaving for Australia with the children at an early date," reports said.

Ruby Westwood. At age 13, she weighed 110kg.
Ruby Westwood. At age 13, she weighed 110kg.

Sometime around March 1901, the Westwoods reached Australia. The Daily Telegraph in Sydney said they were met by a number of medical, gentlemen and press representatives.

"The youngsters are claimed to be the largest children for their age in the world, and they certainly look it. Both children are physically very healthy, and have capital appetites, for fruit especially."

At that stage Wilfrid was 4 years old and weighed 45kg, and his chest measurement was almost 1m. Ruby, at age 8, weighed 100kg with a chest measurement of 1.2m.

They were declared perfectly healthy by medical professionals wherever they went. One doctor said they are not ordinary fat children, but perfect young giants, being fairly active for their great size, and of remarkable intelligence for their age.

For a while, the family settled down and returned to Foxton, with Thomas Westwood becoming Mayor of the borough in October 1903, succeeding PJ Hennessy who had resigned due to business pressure.

But two years later, they were back on the road again. The family embarked on a world-wide tour, starting with a lucrative tour of the South Island.

Ruby was saved from drowning by her father in Nelson in 1905. She was bathing in the Maitai River in shallow water when she overbalanced and couldn't regain her feet.

Children began screaming as her body began to float downstream. The Marlborough Express reported "the timely arrival of her father who pulled her out saved her from her perilous position."

Ruby was taken back to the hotel where they were staying "and beyond shock she was in good spirits".

In 1907, the Westwoods travelled to England, and became a sensation there, with people marvelling that Wilfred's weight was more than that of both parents combined.

It was again noted that "in spite of their extraordinary size the children are in excellent health, and their mother says that neither has been ill even for a day.

"They play with children of their own age, and, while not marvels of agility, they seem to get along well enough". They could ride bicycles.

The family travelled around England and visited Dublin. They used a caravan and exhibited the children as part of a circus. In March 1910, the family headed for Canada, then America.

Thomas Westwood was said to have bought a section in San Francisco, near Hollywood, and made a children's film. It flopped, and soon after he was bankrupt. Things had taken a turn for the worse.

Tragedy struck in 1912 with the death of Ruby in San Francisco. The cause of death was blood-poisoning, contracted by a thorn in the finger while picking flowers.

The initial scratch was not serious, but infection spread and her finger was amputated, but to no avail. Ruby died within an hour of being admitted into the San Francisco Hospital. She was 19 years old and weighed 130kg.

What happened to the family after that, between 1912 until 1917, wasn't clear. It was thought the surviving children returned to New Zealand and left their parents to work off bad debts. Thomas and Sarah Westwood eventually returned home, said to be penniless.

Wilfred was to re-invent himself as the "Wonder Boy" glass blower. He learnt to blow glass over many years during his time with the circus and was expert at the craft.

At this stage he was 17 years old and was said to weigh nearly 190kg. He was described as "the largest boy on Earth" and "an expert fancy glass blower" and it made sense to take his one-man double act on the road.

His glass blowing became more sought after than his size. He was employed by doctors to make medical glass instruments and could make all manner of goods from glass.

From 1924, Wilfred joined forces with his oldest brother Jack to form Westwood Brothers Enterprises, touring Australia again making souvenirs of anything, from kangaroos to sailing ships from glass said to be spun thinner than hair.

In 1925 they added Australian Mae Kingsley to the tour, said to be the only female exhibition glass blower in the world. She had spent time in Belgium and France learning her craft.

No longer a freak show, it was truly a travelling art show that received rave reviews wherever it went.

The glass was spun as fine as a silken thread from glass rods that were heated and drawn out on a revolving wheel. The colouring was done by using different metallic oxides.

Wilfred Westwood died in a car crash on September 28, 1939, in Auckland, aged 42. He died intestate and was buried at Waikaraka Cemetery.

His father was buried at the same cemetery having died in 1928, aged 64, while Sarah Westwood died in 1941, aged 73, and was buried next to her husband.