SHE was cruelly billed as “The Ugliest Woman on Earth” and the people of Hampshire flocked to see her in the travelling show.

In these far more enlightened times, “freak” displays, where someone with a deformity is put on display to the paying public, would not be tolerated – although some still existed in fairgrounds right up to the 1960s.

However, back in the early years of the last century, they were big moneyspinners, not only for the owners of the sideshow but also for the so-called “attractions” themselves.

Before the days of theme parks, 3D films, computer games, and television, travelling fairs with their boxing booths, coconut shies, games of chance, swings and roundabouts criss-crossed Great Britain, including Hampshire, stopping off at towns, big and small.

The “freak” shows were big attractions, with names such as the Irish Giant, the Lion Face Lady, the Fat Boy of Peckham, the Human Trunk – a Russian born without arms and legs – and the Skeleton Dude, “the thinnest man on record”, bringing in the crowds.

More than a century ago, two London newspapers carried the following advert: “Wanted: Ugliest woman. Nothing repulsive, maimed or disfigured.

Good pay guaranteed, and long engagement for successful applicant.

Send recent photograph.”

The advert was placed by Claude Bartram, who was the European agent for the American circus, Barnum and Bailey.

Bartram had just arrived back in the UK after a journey across the Continent in search of “new season freaks”, and had returned empty-handed, so he decided to place the newspaper advert.

Within a few days, the response to the advert was “extraordinary” and Bartram was flooded with applicants.

Bartram told a newspaper: “Some of the photographs were truly ugly, too ugly to present the owners of the faces to the public. One among them suggested what may sound like a paradox, the face of an ugly woman that was not unpleasant.”

That photograph was of Mary Ann Bevan, from Deptford, taken especially so she could answer the advert.

Little did she know at the time that that photograph, the first she ever had taken in her life, would dramatically change her fortune and make her well known, not only along the South Coast, but across the rest of the country and on the other side of the Atlantic.

Mary, a widow, and her three children lived in a two room basement from where she earned “a scanty living by charing”.

Her sole aim was to give her children a good education but her work as a cleaner did not bring in enough money so she decided to answer the advert.

Bartram said of her: “She was not repulsive at all. She had the kind of face one usually finds in a giant, a powerful, masculine jaw, prominent cheek-bones, nose and forehead, but she was unblemished, healthy and strong.”

Mary suffered from a disease called acromegaly, which meant she displayed abnormal growth and facial distortion, which in turn led to severe headaches and fading eyesight.

“She told me she did not like the idea of placing herself on exhibition, she was shy and did not want to be separated from her children. I told her she would earn £10 per week for a year, travelling expenses and all the money from the sale of picture postcards of herself, so she could provide for the education of her children.

She wavered but finally agreed.”

After appearing for a short time in Britain, Mary was offered employment by Barnum and Bailey and so left by ship from Southampton for America in 1920.

On her arrival, Mary caused a sensation and every newspaper in New York carried a front page story about “The Ugliest Woman on Earth”.

She stayed in America with the circus for the next two years, returning to the UK with about £20,000, an enormous amount of money in those days – equivalent to more than £500,000 today.

Mary went on holiday for six months and during that time kept in constant touch with her children, who by now were away at boarding school. Despite her wealth, Mary went back on the road again with a travelling fair appearing all over the South of England, before returning to the USA for another 12 months.

With more cash stashed away in her bank account, Mary decided to retire but quickly became bored and began to drink excessively. She made poor choices when it came to investments but continued to entertain lavishly to make up for not being at the centre of fairground attention.

She missed the publicity that had previously surrounded her, the travel and show business atmosphere and on December 26, 1933, Mary died, some said of a broken heart.

In a bizarre legacy, Mary’s photograph appeared on a birthday card in 2000, which made reference to the television dating show, Blind Date.

A complaint was made by a Dutch doctor that it was disrespectful of a woman who had become deformed as the result of acromegaly and the card manufacturer was forced to stop distributing her image.