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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.

The Australian Tom Thumb (John David Armstrong), c.1880

Sarony & Co.

carte de visite photograph (support: 10.5 cm x 6.3 cm, image: 9.1 cm x 5.8 cm)

John David Armstrong (1857–1943) was a sideshow and vaudeville performer known as ‘The Australian Tom Thumb’. Born in inner-suburban Melbourne, he made his stage debut at the ‘Prahran Popular Entertainments’, aged fourteen, in August 1870, the same month in which the ‘Original General Tom Thumb’ – the American Charles Sherwood Stratton (1838–1883), who achieved international fame as a member of PT Barnum’s touring sideshow troupe – was also appearing in Melbourne. With his ‘Lilliputian dimensions’ of 34 inches high and billed as ‘one of the greatest wonders of the age’, Armstrong immediately became the subject of carte de visite photographs, which were sold to patrons attending his performances. In 1871, he was exhibited alongside Chang the Chinese Giant and Chang’s wife, Kin Foo, in Melbourne, Bendigo, Geelong and other towns; and in 1879, having made numerous other appearances, he embarked on an overseas tour that encompassed the UK, South Africa and the USA. Following his return to Australia, Armstrong went back to the local circuit, appearing on the program at George Selth Coppin’s theatre in Melbourne and on those of various other venues and events. Typically florid contemporary reviews of Armstrong’s performances describe his being ‘received with yells of delight’ and his causing ‘a diversion of wonderment on all sides’ with his comic songs. He retired from the stage around 1910. He claimed he was the world’s shortest Freemason, and later in life often related the story of the encounter with Queen Victoria that occurred when, driving through Windsor, his tiny goat-drawn carriage frightened the horses harnessed to Her Majesty’s coach. Rather than being affronted, the Queen ‘greeted Armstrong with a smile and sent her coachman across with a message for him to pass on’. Armstrong never married. He died in Melbourne at the age of 86 in August 1943.

Collection: National Portrait Gallery
Purchased 2014

Accession number: 2014.35

Currently not on display

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Artist and subject

Sarony & Co.

John David Armstrong (age 23 in 1880)

Subject professions

Performing arts

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On one level The Companion talks about the most famous and frontline Australians, but on another it tells us about ourselves: who we read, who we watch, who we listen to, who we cheer for, who we aspire to be, and who we'll never forget. The Companion is available to buy online and in the Portrait Gallery Store.

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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.