Marie Lloyd – Queen of the Halls


On Wednesday 4th March 2020, I will be giving a talk at The V&A on Marie Lloyd, together with Christine Padwick from the British Music Hall Society.  Marie Lloyd was the first female ‘celebrity’ of popular entertainment and was a huge star in her day. Irreverent, generous, bold and mischievous she exemplified the gusto of the Music Hall, the one place in Victorian England where a woman could be in control. She spanned the peak years of this unique form of entertainment from her first appearance at the age of 15 until her death in 1922.

Marie Lloyd 06

Further details can be found here:

This talk is part of the V&A’s free weekly lunchtime talks.


Talk on ‘The Art of Music Hall and Variety’

The Art of Music Hall

On Wednesday 9th October 2019, I will be giving a talk at The Water Rats, 328 Grays Inn Road, London WC1X 8BZ on ‘The Art of Music Hall and Variety.’  No surprises to hear that Walter Sickert will pop up as well as Laura Knight, Maggi Hambling and Alfred Concanen. And ‘AB’, Alfred Bryan, my favourite caricaturist of the period is likely to feature.  I am sure I won’t be able to resist slipping in a few family references – maybe some Daisy Dormer sheet music.

This talk is part of the British Music Hall Society’s monthly ‘In the Limelight’ talks where some aspect of entertainment from the past is explored. All are welcome and you don’t have to be a member of the Society to attend.

Tickets can be purchased in advance via TicketSource, link here:

If you aren’t organised enough to pre-book, there will be tickets available on the door as I doubt it will be a sell out. Although I am hardly selling it myself in saying that!  Doors open 7pm, talk at 7.30pm.

 Image is from Yale University Art Gallery (Public Domain), Gatti’s Hungerford Palace of Varieties. Second Turn of Katie Lawrence, Walter Sickert.

A Peculiar Case of Bigamy by a Circus Clown

In August 1884 a series of advertisements were placed in theatrical newspapers announcing the imminent arrival of my great great grandmother, Ada Isaacs, from the United States for the Winter circus season.


The Mazeppa, the female jester, the twice married but not twice divorced ‘Ada Isaacs’ was back in town. She opened in the first week of November at Cooke’s Circus in Manchester. A review in The Stage tells us,

‘the popular spectacle of the Mazeppa has been revived here with Barnum’s 5,000 dollar beauty Miss Ada Isaacs… The business is extraordinarily good.’

Ada’s return from America also coincided with the opening of a new circus in Liverpool, a rival to Hengler’s well-established Grand Cirque.  Now the Cooke circus dynasty had plans to open their ‘New Circus’ on the site of the old Theatre Royal in Williamson Square. Both Hengler’s and Cooke’s ramped up their publicity and attractions in the local press towards the end of November in an attempt to attract custom.

Mazeppa image from Bernard Falk book

As Ada paraded Cooke’s Manchester circus ring, bound to the back of her fiery steed in the role of Mazeppa, what of her second husband Fabian, the contortionist clown? He was also to be found in the North West – in Liverpool – at Hengler’s – together with Charlotte, his second wife of nearly ten years standing. And as evidenced by a correspondence address listed in one of her many advertisements in The Era, Ada appears to have travelled from Manchester to Liverpool for the week of Cooke’s ‘New Circus’ opening. Fabian was in the uncomfortable position of having two wives in town during the same week! One of whom was publicity hungry AND in the employ of a new circus also looking for publicity. What better opportunity could there be for Fabian’s bigamous second marriage to be brought to the attention of the authorities? 

On Wednesday 26 November, Fabian (in the name James Patrick Bantry-Fagan) appeared at Liverpool Police Court and was charged with having committed bigamy in August 1875 on marriage to Miss Charlotte Taylor Giles. He was described as having been ‘given into custody’ by none other than his first wife, Ada Isaacs.  A week later Fabian was back at Court and committed for trial having pleaded ‘not guilty’ and claiming in his defence that he ‘recollect[ed] nothing at all’ of his first marriage to Ada in 1869. According to a report in The Times the scene in the court room was as entertaining and lively as the circus ring: ‘the clown’ was initially sat at a seat at his solicitors’ table until he was required to move to the prisoner’s dock. And then on one side of the court, known as the complainant’s side, ‘the lady who claims to be the lawful wife sat, with a few professional friends’ and on the opposite side sat ‘the other lady with her friends.’  The expression ‘throwing shade’ has been popularised by Ru Paul’s Drag Race in recent yearsI would guess that there was a lot of shade being thrown about in that Liverpool Court room that Wednesday morning.

Shade-throwing aside, there were of course very good reasons why divorce was not sought at that time – it was difficult and costly to end to a marriage. It was hardly surprising that bigamy was commonplace, illegal or not.  A cheaper deed of separation could be sought between spouses but much better to come to a tacit agreement with your spouse and move on. The itinerant nature of circus lives might have made ‘theatricals’ more vulnerable to marry more than once, thinking that the vast distances they travelled meant families and spouses would not find out.


The press have always enjoyed a bigamy story and the report of ‘Bigamy By A Circus Clown’ was repeated (often with erroneous details) in news publications throughout the country.  Fabian’s status as a ‘clown at Hengler’s’ was reported widely. Although there is no comment on this, one can only imagine the delight with which this news must have gone down with that new Liverpool circus proprietor as Hengler’s name was dragged through the press in connection with the case.  No-one picked up on the fact that Ada had herself committed bigamy at the time of her marriage to Fabian, having still been lawfully married to Herr Christoff.  Fortunately for Ada, Christoff had expired in the Lambeth Workhouse in 1881 and thus was safely out of the way.  There was also no news from America where she had certainly entered into a new relationship and was the mother of two children, father unknown. Where were those children? In America in the care of some kindly friend or with Ada as she journeyed from circus to circus?

Having turned Fabian into the authorities, Ada was safely away from the scene of the hubbub and in Great Yarmouth by December with George Pinder’s Great Continental Circus. She was billed as ‘The Queen of Female Jesters and the best exponent of the role of the Mazeppa extant.…”  January 1885 saw her performing in Middlesborough, Huddersfield, Warrington, Derby and then back to Liverpool for arguably her greatest performance of all – her appearance at Fabian’s trial. 

The trial began on 10th February 1885 at Liverpool Assizes. The ‘not guilty’ plea was withdrawn, presumably after advice from Mr M’Connell, his Counsel. The evidence – a marriage certificate provided by Ada –  was conclusive and putting up a defence was hardly worth the wasted time or expense. Other ‘reasons’ to excuse his bigamous actions were put forward by his Counsel –  that Ada had deserted him on numerous occasions and taken his clothes and belongings with her; in 1872 she had left him for good and gone to America. He had presumed that was the last he would see of her; he had heard through circus gossip that she had re-married and had two children. 

Mr M’Connell also put to the Court that the charge had been made because of professional rivalry, ‘the two circuses being in the city at the same time.’ As at the earlier committal hearing, the Court was packed with friends of all parties; it must have been a veritable gathering of circus folk. 

Three female witnesses took the stand – Charlotte, Ada and Charlotte’s mother, Mrs Giles.  Charlotte’s evidence was that she was unaware that Fabian had been married to Ada, he had told her they only co-habited (he would, wouldn’t he?). 

Mrs Giles stated that she had seen Ada in Leamington and told her that her daughter was to marry Fabian. Ada’s response was, ‘God help her; before she is his wife 5 months she will wish herself dead,’ which gives a brief insight to Ada’s thoughts on her marriage to Fabian. Mrs Giles said Ada told her she had no claim on Fabian. 

Ada claimed that any meeting with Mrs Giles took place after the bigamy had been committed and she contradicted Fabian’s tale of desertion by claiming she had gone to America as he had deserted her. And when in America ‘she heard of his death having been advertised, and then, as she was destitute, she accepted the protection of a gentleman, considering it was better to do that than starve.’ Another interesting insight into Ada’s motivations. Who was the ‘gentleman’ who so kindly offered her protection? What was the current status of that relationship with him? Was he the father of  her two children? These are the questions I would love to ask my great great grandmother.  Ada also denied any professional rivalry either between Hengler’s and Cooke’s and between Charlotte and herself – ‘because she was a bona fide artiste, and Miss Giles was only an “utility” woman,’ at which point the Liverpool Mercury tells us there was ‘[Laughter].’  More shade-throwing. And Ada’s plea to the court ended on a rather odd note – ‘All that she desired was to vindicate her character.’ The Leeds Times described the case as ‘very peculiar all round’ and it is difficult not to agree. What was Ada’s motivation? Was she provoked into it by petty jealousies and in the interests of self-promotion? What had gone so wrong in her relationship with Fabian that she wanted to inflict incarceration on him? And one can’t help but feel compassion for Charlotte – very probably lied to by the man she had been married to for ten years and now finding her life upended.

Fabian was sentenced to 12 months imprisonment in HMP Liverpool, with hard labour.  Mr Justice Day said he looked upon the crime of bigamy as a ‘most serious offence’ and he failed to see a redeeming feature in this case.  However, he went onto mention that the second marriage had taken place as long as ten years ago and that Fabian was  prosecuted ‘not in the interests of justice, but for some different motive, by his first wife…’ which suggest that Justice Day did see some mitigating circumstances.

Fabian’s relationship with Charlotte survived the prosecution and imprisonment and on his release they continued touring together as Monsieur Fabian and Mademoiselle Carlotta Fabian. Fabian died in Tuam, Eire in 1914 aged 68. Charlotte ended her days in Canada where she moved to live with her sister after his death. In The World’s Fair in 1916, Charlotte placed an ‘In memoriam’,

In loving memory of James Fabian…Never forgotten by his loving wife, Charlotte Fabian.

And what of Ada? She was on her way back to the USA by the end of the year and the next few years were spent touring with theatrical companies with her two children in tow. In 1886 she was in Kentucky, touring with The Croix Dramatic Company. Now she had another project – the theatrical careers of her two children.


Cooke’s New Circus opened on Monday 24 November 1884 in Williamson Square, Liverpool on the site of the old Theatre Royal, which in the words of the Liverpool Mercury had become ‘with the aid of the architect, builder, upholster, gas fitter, decorator, artist and sculptor, a circus with every convenience to render it a very successful place of amusement.’  The building was demolished in the 1960s after a very long period of time as a cold store.

Hengler’s Circus had first set up in Liverpool in 1857 and was at three sites – Dale Street, Cropper Street and finally West Derby Road.  It closed as a circus in 1901 to make way for Thomas Barrasford’s The Royal Hippodrome (designed by architect Bertie Crewe) which converted to a cinema in 1931. This was closed in 1970 and the building was empty for many years before being demolished in 1980/81.

In her publicity advertisements during this period Ada refers to being ‘Barnum’s 5,000 dollar beauty’. This sounds like a publicity puff worthy of the Greatest Showman himself. She possibly toured with Barnum’s circus as an equestrienne but that is a piece of research for another time. She also mentions her ‘new and sensational’ equestrian drama – Buffalo Belle which had been written expressly for her. I cannot see that Ada got the opportunity to unleash this on the British public in 1884/85 but it would undoubtedly have been influenced by the ‘Buffalo Bill’- style Wild West Shows that were enormously popular in the USA at that time.

With thanks to British Newspaper Archive, Gale Historical Newspapers/The Times, Sheffield University National Fairground and Circus Archive and

Miss Mazeppa

Circus entertainment in the Victorian period often featured ‘hippodramas,’ spectacular horse-based dramas full of action, colour and several hundred performers. The ‘Mazeppa; or the Wild Horse of Tartary’ was one such drama, popularised by a narrative poem by Byron in 1819. The story is that the young Ukrainian, Ivan Mazeppa, whilst serving as a page at the Court of King John Casimar has an affair with a married Countess. As punishment her husband orders Mazeppa to be stripped naked and bound to a wild horse. He then sets the horse free to roam through an inhospitable landscape, testing the endurance of the hero. In a circus setting, this was a cue for the performer to parade the ring wearing a flesh-coloured body-stocking known as ‘fleshings’; to climb raked wooden platforms chased by packs of puppet wolves and vultures; and to exhibit some equestrian gymnastics along the way. A production had been staged at Astley’s Amphitheatre on Westminster Bridge Road in the 1830s, with the lead role played by a male equestrian, but it was in New York in 1861 that a canny showman by the name of Captain John B Smith had the bright idea to have a woman play the Mazeppa. And that role went to Adah Isaacs Menken, a small-time actress who in her pink fleshings and Grecian-style tunic created a frenzy.


Illustration by Oliver Paque featured in Fairs, Circuses and Music Halls by M. Willson Disher (Collins, 1942)

‘Menken’ charmed and scandalised audiences in New York, San Francisco, Paris and Vienna and was famous enough to warrant a one-word name, a Cher or Madonna of her day.  In 1864, the Mazeppa was revived at Astley’s with Menken in the title role, with her costume causing a frisson across all strata of London society.  However, Menken’s reign was short-lived. She died in Paris in August 1868 at the youthful age of 33, possibly from cancer. Within four months of her demise, there was another Mazeppa on the scene – my great-great grandmother, Mary Ann.  During her lifetime Menken had many imitators, but once she had passed away there was no shortage of performers and theatre and circus managers waiting to capitalise on the popularity of this role. Mary Ann didn’t waste much time, billing herself as ‘Miss Ada Isaacs’. Mary Ann’s bold choice of name displays a remarkable flair for expediency and what would be called ‘passing off’ these days. Why at this point in my research did the Stephen Sondheim lyrics to ‘You Gotta Get a Gimmick’ from the musical Gypsy pop into my head? – ‘Once I was a schlepper, now I’m Miss Mazeppa’?

The first reference I have found to Mary Ann as the Mazeppa is at Ginnett’s Great French Circus in Dublin in December 1868. This was only a couple of months after her marriage to rope walker Herr Christoff and six months before her second marriage to Monsieur Fabian.  For 6d. in the Gallery, ‘The Beautiful Ada Isaacs as Mazeppa’ could be seen, ‘every evening at 7pm’. She was still in Dublin in January 1869 when a rival attraction was none other than Charles Dickens, who was at the Rotunda for three nights on his farewell reading tour.  Dickens had been a one-time friend of Menken during her first London appearance at Astley’s.

Thereafter Mary Ann played the Mazeppa at all of the well-known circus spots – Cooke’s, Henry & Adams’, Newsome’s, Harry Clifton’s, Sinclaire & Croueste’s, Batty’s, Pinder’s and Pablo’s (Fanque), traversing the United Kingdom in the process.  Her performances were well-received with theatrical newspaper The Era commenting;

‘Miss Ada Isaacs looks well in the character of the Mazeppa which is effectively acted’;

‘In the spectacle of Mazeppa, Miss Ada Isaacs personates that character, and displays considerable daring on horseback.’

Throughout the early 1870s Mary Ann would appear on the circus bill as the Mazeppa one week and alternate the role with that of ‘the female jester.’ In the same way that Mary Ann had launched herself as ‘Miss Ada Isaacs the Mazeppa’ a short time later at Powell and Clarke’s circus in Birmingham she launched herself as ‘Ada Isaacs – the celebrated American female clown and jester.’ She had been developing this role since her appearances alongside Herr Christoff as his Court page and jester. By the end of 1869 she was adding ‘Shakespearian jester’ to her billing. Mary Ann certainly knew how to play the publicity game. The bill matter that accompanied her clown role frequently referred to ‘women’s rights’:

“Women’s Rights ought to find an able exponent in a debutant at a Birmingham Circus, who claims to be Miss Ada Isaacs, the celebrated American female clown and jester.” Gravesend Reporter, 13 March 1869.

“Miss Ada Isaacs, who could certainly demonstrate to perfection the right of women to a voice in the affairs of the nation…”  The Leeds Times, 12 March 1870.

It would be so wonderful to time travel to see that performance. Did ‘women’s rights’ as explored by Mary Ann bear any relation to the movement we now associate with that term? Was it a philosophical turn? A plea for women’s suffrage? A slapstick routine? Was she the Bridget Christie of her day? The London & Provincial Entr’acte reviewed her in April 1871;

“Miss Ada Isaacs the female jester and vocalist, pleases the audience immensely; her jokes and indeed, all her sayings are amusing without descending to vulgarity, and is deservedly appreciated…” 

At the Phoenix Music Hall in Dover in 1874, she “causes hearty laughter by her witty sayings.’’

Mary Ann was usually accompanied on the bill by Monsieur Fabian, the ‘elastic contortionist’ she had married bigamously in Leicester in June 1869. Here is a studio photograph from my family collection of the two of them, taken in Stockton on Tees:

Mary Ann and Fabian, Stockton on Tees

She looks younger in this image than that I featured in my previous blog. Her heavy velvet dress with deep peplum, large cuffs and small hat trimmed with feathers reflect the fashions of the late 1860s or early 1870s, suggesting this was taken early in their acquaintance. Fabian is wearing an oversized overcoat, small bow-tie and clutching a gleaming top hat – these were probably their best non-performing clothes. 

Until 1874, Mary Ann and Fabian regularly appear on the bill together. After that date, the references to them together in the same circus troupe drop off. Mary Ann spends time going it alone and in this period joins a troupe of clown cricketers. The marriage to Fabian was undeniably over by 1875 – he married circus equilibrist Charlotte Gilleno in that year. The administrative matter of a divorce did not trouble Fabian, in the same way Mary Ann had bigamously jumped from one husband to another.  And in the later part of 1876 she is most definitely missing from British newspapers where her appearances were advertised. In October of that year, she pops up in New York City where she publicises her arrival and ‘respectfully announces to managers that she has already illustrated the hero of Byron’s great poem 679 consecutive times in England, France and Germany, and may be addressed through her business manager, Mr Charles Thornton, 243 Duffield Street, Brooklyn.’  She is erroneously labelled a sister of the late Menken by the American press and on one occasion has to deny she is Menken herself. All great publicity and one can’t help but wonder whether the source of the misinformation was Mary Ann herself. 

Thereafter, Mary Ann is mostly in America, with occasional sorties back to the United Kingdom. Fabian may well have thought he had seen the last of Mary Ann. It is unlikely he could have predicted the detrimental role she was to play in his future when she arrived back in England in October 1884, publicity-hungry for her new ‘Buffalo Belle’ equestrian drama.


Fabian’s second wife was Charlotte Gilleno (1848-1928) born into a circus family. In her youth she performed as Mademoiselle Carlotta, the ‘Female Blondin’, a rope walker. Subsequently formed a partnership with Miss Ellen Born as ‘Carlotta and Boorn’, equilibrists.

Illustrator Oliver Paque was the pseudonym of WH Pike (1846-1908), a regular contributor to The Sketch and the Daily Graphic journals.

2018 is the UK-wide anniversary of the birth of modern circus in England by Philip Astley. There are a number of UK-wide events under the banner of #Circus250 – see here for details: and

Thank you to the British Newspaper Archive and the Sheffield University Fair and Circus Archive.


Fascinating Ada

There once was a girl named Mary Ann born in a small fishing village by the quaint name of Brighthelmstone. Mary Ann dreamed of clowns, horses, acrobats, romance, circus wagons and an exotic independence away from the humdrum of life as a wood-cutter’s – no, glass-cutter’s daughter.  She dreamed big  – she wanted to travel, to see what the world could offer. She stood spell-bound as the circus rolled into town and dreamed she might run away to join it….well reader, she damn well did.

This is my broad-brush take on my great-great grandmother. The finer details as to how the plainly named Mary Ann Maskell morphed into ‘Madame Christoff’ and then ‘Miss Ada Isaacs’, female jester and equestrienne, have eluded me.  Like a character from an Angela Carter novel, her mysterious rise from humble origins  to the dizzy heights of circus and music hall performer remain a mystery – her multiplicity of stage names and identities creating a tangled research web.

Mary Ann was in her 70 years a clown; a star of equestrian dramas, The Mazeppa and Lady Godiva; a clown cricketer; a dancing teacher; a member of Fred Karno’s early troupes (a training ground for Charlie Chaplin).  She was also married at least twice, possibly three times, and was almost certainly a bigamist. At some point in her transatlantic career she produced two children – Rachel and Louis – father unknown. I wrote a little about Mary Ann in this blog post  before I had begun to unearth more about fascinating Ada.

Here is a foxed and faded image of Mary Ann in circus costume with the reverse showing my great grandmother’s scribbled handwritten notes (obscuring the name  and location of the photographer). Those notes along with documents in the family archive including her will and other photographs provided some clues to Mary Ann.  Just look at that outfit – the heaviness of the fabrics,  the necklaces, the fringing on the edge of the stiff skirt, the poodle – like soft hair curls and ringlets; a complete contrast to the gaze, the stare, or more accurately the glare into the camera lens. I see a defiance and a determination:

I traced further clues about her life in a letter to The Era theatrical newspaper in September 1913 from Edward C Pablo (son of circus proprietor Pablo Fanque) after Mary Ann’s death:

Mrs Ada Maskell’s death recalls to me that it is over fifty years since I first met her, viz, about 1862.  She was then playing Female Jester to George “Herr” Christoff’s tight-rope act. I afterwards met her in 1869, when she and her husband (Fabian, posturer and clown, who had been an apprentice with Old “Uncle” Emidy) joined my late father’s (Pablo Fanque’s) circus on the Tommy Field, Oldham: again in the beginning of 1870 with my father’s circus, Leeds (Jimmy Newsome’s building, Cookridge Street); in the winter 1870-1, in our circus on the Castle Yard, Southport and later at the circus, Peter Street, Manchester (afterwards the Gaiety), burnt down in the middle eighties, the Comedy Theatre being built on the site. On each of these occasions Mrs Maskell (then Mrs Fabian) as Ada Isaacs, played Female Jester and also Mazeppa. With Mrs Maskell (Ada Isaacs) passes away another link with the past, not only with circus business, but with the variety theatre.

Serendipitously as I explored the references in Pablo’s letter I received an email from a woman in Perth, Western Australia who was researching her husband’s circus ancestors – the Christoff family.  Her trail had led her to Mary Ann Maskell and my blog.  She had discovered a marriage between Mary Ann and George “Herr” Christoff.  And there indeed was the evidence – a marriage record from St Botolph’s, Aldgate, London dated 8 November 1868. A church I worked almost next door to for the best part of 18 years. This was husband no.1. Herr Christoff in typcial theatrical hyperbole, was “the greatest tight rope dancer and vaulter in Europe,” “the African Blondin.” In keeping with many speciality performers of the time, he graced both the circus arena and music halls. In August 1866 he was at the Metropolitan Music Hall on Edgware Road:

On Monday last Christoff, a performer on the low rope, made his first appearance, and was well received.His feats are bold and very cleverly executed.Few men of his great bulk and weight would like to risk their necks in the positions in which he places himself.Christoff is attended by a lady attired in elegant costume, like a Court page, who acts as his jester with a good deal of wit and grace. The Era, 12 August 1866.

Was the lady attendant Mary Ann?  Was she wearing the costume featured in the photograph I have? A few weeks later Herr Christoff  AND Madame Christoff were featured together at the Sun Music Hall in Knightsbridge, Madame Christoff having established her own persona as a clown in the act:

Herr Christoff with Madame Christoff, female clown, are the latest novelties here. The former on the tight-rope is a daring performer, and the latter a good talking and amusing clown. The Era, 7 July 1867.

Madame Christoff also managed to get bookings in this period on her own account, without the “Herr” on the bill.  Something however went awry in the relationship and by early 1869, only a few months after their St Botolph’s marriage, Herr and Madame Christoff had gone their separate ways. In June 1869 with no divorce in sight Mary Ann was walking up the aisle again – this time, in Leicester, having traded tight rope-walker for contortionist. Husband no. 2 was Monsieur (Mons.) Fabian aka James Fegan, a native of Tuam, Ireland.  At the time of the marriage, Mary Ann and Mons. Fabian were touring with Henry & Adams’s Circus and appearing in Queen’s Street, Leicester. They both describe themselves as gymnasts on their marriage certificate, residing at Causeway Lane in Leicester where I imagine the circus wagons had set up home. This sequence of events accords with Edward  C Pablo’s recollections.  It was around the time of her second marriage that Madame Ada Isaacs came to life, her next incarnation.  Without Herr Christoff around she had to forge a new identity and thus begun the next stage of Mary Ann’s adventures. Where would her performing life take her next? How would marriage no. 2 develop? Would her bigamy be discovered? All will be revealed in my next post.


Mary Ann Maskell b. 26 April 1843, Brighthelmstone (modern day Brighton), Sussex.

George Christopher (Herr Christoff) b. 1826, Swansea, d. June 1881, Lambeth Workhouse Infirmary, London.

Pablo Fanque (real name William Darby) was the first black circus proprietor and immortalised in The Beatles’ Being For the Benefit of Mr Kite on the Sergeant Pepper album.  Like Fanque, Herr Christoff was also African British.

With thanks to Perth’s very own Madame Christoff for her helpful information about Herr Christoff, the British Newspaper Archive and the Sheffield University National Fairground and Circus Archive where I spent a merry couple of days trying to track down some of these characters.

2018 is the UK-wide anniversary of the birth of modern circus in England by Philip Astley. There are a number of UK-wide events under the banner of #Circus250 – see here for details: and

Written with the support of a research award from the Society for Theatre Researchers, details here

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The Music Hall Monster

The tag line of my blog is “All things Music Hall,” and I am going to stray a little outside the family connections for this post. Last Thursday I attended the Press Night at Wilton’s Music Hall of “Music Hall Monster: The Insatiable Mr Fred Barnes,” the latest offering from performer Christopher Green. Fred Barnes was a household name in his day and probably of the status of say, Harry Styles or Sam Smith (to those of us who find a 2018 comparator quite handy in gauging the lives and success of these music hall stars of old. I do that a lot in my blog if only to alert readers – some of whom are not knowledgable about this period of British entertainment history – to what it really was all about).

Too often, mention the words “Music Hall” and people recoil. Many have hazy memories from childhood of The Good Old Days, the BBC’s long-running ‘tribute’ show and others have been scarred by the experience of being dragged along to a church hall somewhere in Britain to watch Grandma and friends swathed in feather boas singing along jauntily to “Don’t Dilly Dally on the Way”. Grandad, meanwhile, took on the role of Chairman, Leonard Sachs style, again a role that was not representative of what went on in the music halls of the 1890s and early Edwardian period that I spend a lot of time thinking about. Obviously a board at the side of the stage with series a numbers which represented each act (much like a list of church hymns), with no compere or ‘Chairman’ to introduce each turn, was not going to work well for a prime time television show – and indeed doesn’t work well in many theatrical settings, hence the continued use of a Chairman to bridge the gap. In the good old days, it was get on, get off, go home (or more likely go to the pub). No whole cast bow at the end to conclude matters neatly.  What is clear from my many conversations, with a variety of people over the years on this subject, is that music hall is steeped in cliché and it is very difficult to present a show around this without going where so many (both amateur and professional) have gone before.  Life was great, union jacks were waved, jollity was the order of the day, female performers were of loose morality, men were costermongers who loved nothing better than breaking into a chirpy song about food, beer or ‘er indoors.  So far, so cliché.

Enter Fred Barnes. 

Fred Barnes. AY

This handsome youth, the ‘wavy-haired, blue-eyed adonis’ as he was billed, was born in 1885 in Birmingham, the son of a butcher. He got his first taste of the theatre when he saw Vesta Tilly in “Dick Whittington” at the Prince of Wales Theatre, Birmingham and he was smitten.  From an early age he became a very good friend of Dorothy – Dorothy Ward, the pantomime star also from the Midlands, and she encouraged him to audition for the Alexandra Theatre panto. He was successful and in the 1906-07 panto season played the Duke of Solihull, where The Era reported that he “dresses immaculately and sings and walks the stage in the most perfect manner.”  London beckoned and on his debut at the Empress, Brixton in 1907, my great great aunt Daisy Dormer was also on the bill. Around this time he wrote “The Black Sheep of the Family,” which became something of a signature tune, with the verse:

It’s a queer, queer world we live in

And Dame Nature plays a funny game – 

Some get all the sunshine,

Others get the shame

As the not very subtle hints above might suggest, Fred was different sort of cliché – the gay entertainer.  And with this came the sunshine (celebrity, sex, cash and plenty of shopping) and the shame (his father reportedly tried to murder him with one of his meat cleavers but turned it on himself instead). And in common with many a music hall star, alcohol was a constant companion on this path to the extent that Fred’s star was up and down almost as often as his theatrical backdrops.  Unreliable one week, back on form the other. Culminating in a washed up existence in Southend playing in pubs for pennies where he died aged 53 in October 1938 making front page news in the Daily Mirror – “End of a Fallen Star.”

Enter Christopher Green.  I have long admired Chris Green’s Music Hall inspired character, Ida Barr – a real life performer who shared the stage with both Fred Barnes and Daisy Dormer, now living in Dalston and struggling with the modern world.  The inventiveness and brio behind this character are so refreshing and the mercurial mixes of music hall standards with the tunes of today have brought music hall to a whole new audience. Ida’s version of “The Boy I Love (is up in the Gallery)” mixed with Eminem’s “When I’m Gone” (or ‘gorn’ as Ida would have it) is a joyous thing. So it has been interesting seeing the development of Chris’s latest music hall-related creation. I attended a talk he gave at the British Library last Summer about Fred Barnes when the Wilton’s show was under development. Since then there has been How Success Ruined Me, a BBC Radio 4 drama with ‘Mr Music Hall,’ Roy Hudd, where the two of them explored Fred and his demons.  This production at Wilton’s is as far away from those clichés I referred to earlier as one could possibly imagine. Audience feedback cites the following words:  ‘uncomfortable’, ‘brave’, ‘unsettling’, ‘thought-provoking’, ‘slightly reeling’. I felt all of those things. Challenge and playing with audience assumptions is clearly high up the list of outcomes. There is an interesting challenge twenty minutes into the production. And there are more, many more. The house lights were on more than they were off – at times it really riled me as some of the Fred Barnes scenes were beautifully lit and the decayed backdrop of Wilton’s was a perfect match for Fred in full flight and I wanted more. I don’t want to give away any plot-spoilers (and there were a few) so will leave it at that. Whereas Ida Barr bridges the gap between traditional notions of music hall performers and their songs with spiky observational comedy, the Music Hall Monster is as befits the desperate trajectory of Fred Barnes, a darker and more unsettling piece of theatre. 


‘Music Hall Monster: The Insatiable Mr Fred Barnes’ is at Wilton’s Music Hall ( 2nd – 12th May 2018.

Paul Bailey’s  2001 book, “Three Queer Lives” which features Fred Barnes as one of those lives is a good starting point to learn more about Fred.

Goody Two Shoes – Part 2


In my last post I wrote about Daisy Dormer and the pantomime, Goody Two Shoes, which had a 10-week season at the Prince’s Theatre, Park Row, Bristol in 1915-16. I mentioned the increasing influence of ‘moving pictures’ on the world of music hall as reflected in the pantomime dialogue and songs. Greater than the onset of picture houses and silent film stars was the ever-present fact of life – the war. It seems incredible that a visit to a pantomime was within contemplation during what we now know was a conflict of mass slaughter and misery, but theatrical life did go on. The Western Daily Press in their review of Goody Two Shoes commented:

‘…at this time, when the public is looking for clean, healthy fun to keep the balance with a very natural depression, this production provides a very proper antidote in the way of dramatic fare.’

Music hall artistes were keen to ‘do their bit’ towards the war effort and the theatrical press of the period is scattered with fundraising benefits for war funds; entertainments for the troops on the frontline and at home; and assisting with recruitment drives. The cast of Goody entertained wounded soldiers at the Bristol Constitutional Club in January 1916 and put on a special Red Cross matinee at the Prince’s in February:

‘The occasion was but another opportunity for the demonstrations of that generosity which characterises artists and public alike to do all that is possible for a cause which now particularly is so deserving.’
Western Daily Press, Wednesday 16 February 1916.

They also performed at the Beaufort War Hospital for veterans of France and Gallipoli. The former Bristol Lunatic Asylum had been hastily converted into a military hospital in April 1915 when other Bristol hospitals could not cope with the unprecedented number of war casualties. The local press reported on the event:

‘It was, indeed, good to see the whole-hearted enjoyment of the Colonial and home soldiers, and they deserved all the good there they had. In the front row there was a man who had been three times wounded. Perhaps there were others, because, alas! there has been all too much patching up…Of course, Miss Dormer and Miss Arundale found it far easier to get on the stage than to get off. “Shall we have another,” said the chairman, and the reply nearly took the roof off. Each of these delightful artistes sang three songs off the reel, and every bit of trouble of the audience was for the time, at any rate, safely packed up in the old kit bag.’
Western Daily Press, Friday 22 January 1916.

That review refers to the popular ‘hit’ of the day, ‘Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag,’ which in August 1915 had won a competition by music publishers, Francis, Day & Hunter to compose a marching song. The song was rapidly gaining in popularity and by the end of the year many pantomimes featured it in their list of songs ‘secured by the management’ and advertised in the theatrical press for the panto season. It was sung in this production by the Principal Boy, Alan (Sybil Arundale), ‘a certain winner.’

Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag

Song sheet courtesy of British Music Hall Society (

At this point in the panto plot, things were not going well for Goody and Alan; they quarrel under ‘The Trysting Tree’ and as an expression of their ‘troubles’, this is how the song was gently shoe-horned into the plot. A technique still used today to ease popular songs into a panto storyline however seemingly unconnected.

In the second scene of the panto, the Village of Blossomville, Daisy Dormer belted out ‘All the boys in khaki get the nice girls,’ a 1915 song by music hall songwriting stalwarts, Tom Mellor and Harry Gifford. It is a not very subtle recruitment song playing on the age-old sentiment that a woman cannot resist a man in uniform. The song is about ‘dandy’ Johnny Brown, whose refusal to join up leads to a lull in his romantic fortunes or in modern parlance, his ‘pulling power’. He is implored by a female recruiting sergeant:

John, John John put a bit of khaki on
And you’ll get the nice girls too!”
Maidens by the score,
Flappers galore!

The jaunty plea in the final verse:

When once they see you boy, shouldering up your gun
Twill be such fun, to use a gun
And your mother will be ever so proud of her great big son

feels very uncomfortable to a twenty-first century reader and the blithe spirit in which the words were sung.

When all the plot ends are tied up the whole company performed the rousing, ‘When We’ve Wound Up the Watch on the Rhine’, a song which had been successful in a 1915 revue at the London Hippodrome, ‘Business As Usual’, with the morale-raising chorus:

How we’ll sing, how we’ll sing Auld Lang Syne
You and I, ‘hurrah’ we’ll cry!
Everything will be fine
When we’ve wound up the watch on the Rhine.
We will toast new born Europe in wine
And the champagne of Rheims will be flowing in streams
When we’ve wound up the watch on the Rhine.

These songs portray a light-hearted view of the war far removed from the reality, suggesting that the horrors had not yet penetrated the consciousness of those at home. They were songs written in an earlier optimistic period which included Vesta Tilley’s ‘Your King and Country Want You’ with the refrain, ‘Oh! we don’t want to lose you but we think you ought to go’, brilliantly depicted in the Richard Attenborough/Joan Littlewood film, ‘Oh! What a Lovely War!’ . The sudden expansion of war hospitals such as that created at the Beaufort in Bristol and the increasing sight of wounded service personnel in towns and cities would soon alter that reality.

Romantic ballads of longing also featured aplenty in the panto including ‘You Were the First to Teach Me How to Love’ and ‘Underneath the Japanese Moon,’ mostly performed by the two female principals. Horace Mills as the Dame gave a hearty rendition of the Marie Lloyd favourite, ‘A Little Bit of What You Fancy Does You Good’ and ‘Sprinkle Me with Kisses’, a duet sang with Lupino Lane, was described as ‘lovely burlesque.’ Music hall and panto provided an escape from the grim realities of the day.

As for Daisy Dormer and the rest of the Goody Two Shoes cast, the end of the panto run on 4th March 1916 meant the end of a period of employment stability and the luxury of being in one place for a prolonged period of time. Then it was back on the road (or more properly, the railtracks). Daisy awarded herself a week off after completing in Bristol but for the week beginning 13th March, she was topping the bill at Moss Empire’s Grand, Birmingham. War or not, the show must go on.

Written with the support of a research award from the Society for Theatre Researchers – see here for details:

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The site of the Beaufort War Hospital is now occupied by the University of the West of England Faculty of Health and Social Care. The Glenside Hospital Museum is within the grounds where you can discover more about the Beaufort War Hospital

‘Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag’ was written by Welsh brothers George Henry Powell known as George Asaf (lyrics)and Felix Powell (music). It continues to be performed and was most recently popularised by Eliza Doolittle in her 2010 hit ‘Pack Up’.

You can listen to ‘All the boys in khaki get the nice girls’ here sung by FW Ramsey in 1915.

Thank you to the British Newspaper Archive and the University of Bristol Theatre Collection.

Goody Two Shoes – Part 1

When I started this blog, I thought I would write far more about my paternal great great aunt, Daisy Dormer. She was the biggest ‘star’ in the family history and information about her is easy to come by. Instead, I got carried away with uncovering the mystery of some of the less famous turns, and found their lives more satisfying to research. However, a research award from The Society for Theatre Research sent me back down the path of Daisy; to that end I found myself at the Bristol University Theatre Collection in the beautiful old Vandyck Building on Park Row. Almost opposite that building (now an unprepossessing petrol station with a Costa coffee outlet) there once was a theatre – the Prince’s, a beautiful Victorian treasure designed by well-known theatre architect, CJ Phipps in 1867. And there in December 1915, Daisy Dormer played the Principal Girl, Goody, in a production of the pantomime, Goody Two Shoes.

For those of my generation, mention Goody Two Shoes and the lyrics ‘Don’t drink, don’t smoke, what do you do?…’ spring to mind, along with an image of Adam Ant posing and gyrating in his New Romantic splendour. For another, older generation, Goody Two Shoes was a familiar pantomime. It is little performed these days but in the late Victorian and early Edwardian period it was a staple of the pantomime scene, based on the nursery tale published in 1765 by John Newbery. Goody Two Shoes is a variation of the Cinderella story. Virtuous Goody works hard to better herself and comes into money – either through marriage or a surprise inheritance – proof that her virtuousness has been rewarded.

The original tale was given a pantomime twist and all the usual panto characters incorporated into the ever-evolving plot-line – Dame, Fairy, Demon, wicked Duke, wealthy would-be lover, love-lorn yokels and comedy double-act. Goody in this Bristol re-telling (written by RC Oldham, a scenic artist trying his hand at writing) is the winsome daughter of the widowed and poverty-stricken Mrs Tutt – cue the Dame. Goody is in love with the orphaned, penniless village carpenter, Alan – ‘the cleverest man with his hands the village has got’. However, Clarence, the hapless son of the wicked Duke of Improvidentia has her in his sights. Mrs Tutt comes into money by magic and lo! and behold it turns out that Alan is the rightful heir to the Duke, having been stolen by fairies and another infant (Clarence) put in his place. All is well that ends well!

The production opened at the Prince’s on 23rd December 1915 and ran for 10 weeks, with the final performances on Saturday 4th March 1916. The Stage review declared it ‘one of the best productions that it has of late years been our pleasure to notice’.

At this point in her career, Daisy Dormer was well-established and had been playing Principal Girl in pantomime since the turn of the century. By the time she came to Bristol, she had played the role of Goody five times. In fact, she had been playing Goody for the past two pantomime seasons in this very production. Those previous productions had been a great success at the Grand Theatre, Leeds and the Theatre Royal, Manchester. The Manchester Courier had gone as far as describing the production ‘as near to the ideal pantomime as most of us are ever likely to see’ . The leading characters had all been played by the same troupe of performers, with the exception of the Principal Boy (played by a woman as per convention), who had been portrayed by both Daisy Wood (sister of Marie Lloyd) and Ella Retford in Leeds and Manchester respectively. In this production, ‘legitimate’ actress Sybil Arundale (veteran of Shakespeare and Ibsen) took the breeches and thigh-slapping honours:

Sybil Arundale
Sybil Arundale, courtesy of Margaret Monod (

Horace Mills, a panto Dame veteran played the widowed Mrs Tutt. Sam Walsh and Doris Lind reprised their Duke and Duchess of Improvidentia roles. And Clarence, the hapless Duke’s son was portrayed for the third year running by 23 year old Lupino Lane. Lane was born into a long-standing family of theatricals and had been honing his dancing and ‘indiarubber’ acrobatic skills onstage since the age of four:

Lupino Lane

Lupino Lane, courtesy of the British Music Hall Society archive (

Goody Two Shoes had not been seen at the Prince’s before so the time was ripe for John Hart’s production to move lock, stock and barrel to Bristol with a few topical and local references and updated songs thrown in for good measure.

In an interesting juxtaposition, at the same time Daisy was appearing on stage in panto, a silent film she had made earlier that year for Vaudefilms, Potted Pantomimes (directed by WP Kellino), was on general release and being shown at Picture Houses throughout the country. Daisy wasn’t alone amongst the cast in trying their skills in this new world of moving pictures. Lupino Lane had made his first foray into film earlier that year and the script of Goody Two Shoes made frequent reference to this coming craze. When Daisy’s and Lupino’s characters first meet (in The Village of Blossomville, where else?):

Clarence: I say, this is a rotten hole! Why, you haven’t even a picture-house! How ever do you manage to exist?
Goody: A picture-house! What’s that?
Clarence: Never seen a picture-house? It’s where they have the moving pictures. Oh, I love them! – all cowboys and Red Indians, and burning houses, and dogs rescuing little girls from express trains. And there’s always a motor car, and then a lot of people chase it, and a detective finds out the man who looks like an actor has been lured to a big castle, with hundreds of rooms in it, by the Black Spot gang.
Goody: It must be very exciting.
Clarence: “Rather! I say”

In that exchange the future was set: the excitement and fascination with the moving image would eventually kill off their kind of live performance.

The craze was just beginning. In Bristol in December 1915, Picture Houses were on the rise providing stiff competition for live theatre. Advertising in the local press for December were the Zetland Picture House, Triangle Picture Hall, Coliseum Picture Theatre and the Cheltenham Road cinema. Clarence’s summary of moving pictures is nicely drawn: the fare on show in Bristol reflected that list: The Ticket of Leave Man, ‘the well-known drama of prison life’; The Swell Marksmen, ‘a drama of crime mystery and narrow escapes’; Human Hound’s Triumph, The Husband Who Showed Up and Lizzie Breaks into the Harem need no further tagline. Charlie Chaplin comedies were showing at the Coliseum Picture Theatre – Chaplin had signed a cinema contract in 1913, left his music hall days behind and was well on the way to becoming the greatest star on earth. Goody Two Shoes featured a popular hit song, ‘That Charlie Chaplin Walk,’ a foxtrot performed by Lupino Lane, with the chorus:

It doesn’t matter everywhere you go
Watch ’em coming out of any cinema show
Shuffling along, they’re acting like a rabbit
When you’ve seen Charlie Chaplin, you can’t help but get the habit
First they stumble over both their feet
Swing their sticks and look up and down the street
Fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers
All your wife’s relations and half a dozen others
In London, Paris and New York
Everybody does that Charlie Chaplin walk.

Lupino Lane’s imitation of Chaplin was described as ‘certainly by far the best that has been done in Bristol’.  It is more than likely that the young Lupino Lane had been on the same stages as Chaplin in his earlier music hall days.

Moving pictures could be seen for as little as 3d (around £1.35 in today’s money) and often included a cup of tea, whereas panto tickets at the Prince’s started at 4d, with the best seats at 3s (around £16.50). From their introduction in the late 1890s, films had been regularly appearing on music hall bills as an end of evening novelty.  Gradually they were moving into their own domain and providing a cheaper and what seemed a more innovative form of entertainment for the masses. The days of the music hall artiste were numbered.

Written with the support of a research award from the Society for Theatre Researchers – see here for details:

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The Prince’s Theatre, Park Row, Bristol was originally called the Theatre Royal. Frank Matcham made alterations to the CJ Phipps design in 1884 and 1902, and a name change was made. It was destroyed during a bombing raid in 1940.

The John Hart/RC Oldham production lived another season – the following year it was back to the Grand Theatre Leeds, for the ‘revival’ show, with Daisy playing Goody once again with Lupino Lane and Horace Mills.

Lupino Lane continued life in pantomime, revue and film. He became a household name in the 1930s when he took the part of Bill Snibson first in Twenty to One (a musical farce) and then in the Noel Gay musical, Me and My Girl, which featured the catchy dance tune, ‘The Lambeth Walk’.


Harry, Larry and Violet: Safe Bind, Safe Find

My great grandfather, Larry Lewis, carried a leather bound autograph book on his travels. I have this battered and well-loved book containing over 100 autographs of performers of the period – from Marie Lloyd and Harry Lauder to the lesser known bottom of the bill artiste.

It was common for music hall performers to carry autograph books, passing them around dressing rooms and boarding houses during their week’s residency. Some of the entries are beautifully illustrated and would have taken some time — a means to while away the hours before the evening performances. Often a photograph was included, bringing those signatures to life.

As a child, I gingerly turned the aged pages and at one particular entry, I was always awestruck — it was the autograph of Harry Houdini.


The autograph, with a muscle man style photograph, is dated 11 March 1909 and signed Harry Handcuff Houdini. There is a very careful pen and ink handcuff and chain illustration. During the week of 8 March, Violet, Larry and Houdini were performing at The Empire in Old Market Street, Bristol. Harry Day (sometime British agent to Houdini) was also Larry and Violet’s agent and this may explain the booking.

The programme at the Bristol Empire that week was described as ‘an attractive one’ and along with the top-billing star Houdini, Larry and Violet were also on the bill with the Dacey & Lewis Duo, a somersault and song combo; The Milliards, a parallel bar act; The Showells, duettists; Leo Merode, looping-the-loop on a bicycle; and Lottie Leighton, a dancer. Violet was reviewed favourably,

‘more pleasing than ever and her song, “She Sailed Away,” will be responded to with no little fervour before it is a night older, judging by the way the refrain was “caught up” by the gallery’.

The audience certainly was in good spirits! Houdini’s presence may well have had something to do with that.

Houdini, ‘The World’s Greatest Mysteriarch,’ was back in Europe to promote his new act, the Milk Can Escape. He was keen to move away from the handcuff act with which he had made his name, as he could not keep up with the ever-growing number of imitators and rivals. He needed something new to maintain his sensational reputation. Houdini had last been in Bristol in 1904. Advertisements had been running in the local press in the run up to this engagement encouraging punters to book seats ‘to avoid disappointment’. The capacity of the Empire was around 2,500; it was described as having ‘big house[s]’ every night as audiences flocked to see him.

Houdini’s dramatic and visually arresting posters for the Milk Can Escape proclaiming “Failure Means a Drowning Death” would have been showcased outside the Empire. Houdini’s tour of the United Kingdom had been accompanied by an endless series of publicity-seeking bridge jumps, jail breaks and escape challenges. These challenges were actively invited from members of the public. During his week in Bristol Houdini accepted two such challenges. The first on Wednesday evening (and reported in the Western Daily Press on Thursday 11 March) was presented by three local harness makers. Their challenge was that Houdini should free himself from a restraint, more frequently found in padded cells, in full view of the audience. The restraint itself was described as a sailcloth bag with collar and closed sleeves, fitted with straps and buckles. The escape challenge was met and Houdini freed himself in just over ten minutes, to the loud cheers of the audience. As per the motto Houdini set out in Larry’s autograph book – “Safe Bind, Safe Find Does Not Apply to the Undersigned”.

The second challenge was publicised in the Friday edition of the Western Daily Press (to take place at the second house that night) as follows:

Western Daily Press Bristol Houdin Challenge ad

Proposed by three asylum attendants (William Malcolm, Frederick Pohlman and Walter Green), their challenge was to strap Houdini to a ‘crazy crib’ (an asylum hospital bed) with a leather neck collar and straps to secure every part of his body. After they had strapped him down, they stipulated that none of the Empire staff or Houdini’s assistants were to interfere with the apparatus in any way. And as with the first challenge, the escape was to take place in full view of the audience.

“Will He Get Out?” screamed the challenge advert. Would Houdini be “Defied”? Houdini wriggled, gyrated and strained his way out, although it took him an agonising 17 minutes and 35 seconds. All of this and then the Milk Can Escape yet to come. The audience must have been at a fever pitch of excitement and anticipation.

The Western Daily Press described the Milk Can Escape:

‘The new mystery consists of an air-tight and water-tight galvanised can, with cover provided with clasps for six padlocks. After the can is filled with water and Houdini is locked inside, and the whole placed in a cabinet, and in a few minutes the apparently impossible feat of escape is accomplished. The performance was accorded in Bristol, as elsewhere, a great reception.’

You can imagine the throbbing mass of the audience, all captivated by Houdini’s apparent daring and bravery – would he do it ? How did he do it? The tantalising possibility of failure and death. But what of Larry and Violet and the other support acts backstage? What was it like for them? Unlike plays and other dramatic forms there was no sense of a final bow for the acts on a music hall stage. You did your turn and usually left the theatre. As the closing act Houdini would have been the only one to receive the final deafening applause of the audience. I wonder if Larry and Violet hung around to witness the spectacle, lurked in the wings to get a glimpse of Houdini at work? Or sat in their dressing room and felt the impact of the tension and then thunderous applause when the escape was done. Or had they headed back to their theatrical digs? There is always the possibility that Houdini was staying at the same digs. Was Houdini viewed as anything above the ordinary in terms of fellow artistes? After all, the music halls were teeming with conjurors, escape artists and muscle men and Houdini to them might not have been the semi-mythical figure he is viewed as today.

At the end of that week, Houdini was off to the Alhambra in Brussels to showcase the Milk Can Escape there, then heading onto Paris. However, he was soon back in the British Isles and for the week of 5 July 1909 he was at the Hippodrome, Brighton. And he was reunited once again with Larry and Violet who too shared the bill. Almost friends by now, I like to think!

The Bristol Empire was demolished in the early 1960s to make way for a new ring road. Cary Grant had his first job there as a lime-lighter.

Houdini continues to capture our imaginations – whether via children’s books or TV series. He was most recently televised in ITV’s Houdini & Doyle. For all things Houdini, I recommend John Cox’s website Wild About Harry.

Thanks as always to The British Newspaper Archive.

Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs Worthington!

Whilst my great grandmother Violet was visiting Liverpool in 1912 and was subject to a “deplorable error” by the Liverpool City police (see my last blog post), she was the mother of a four year old daughter – my grandmother, Norah.

Norah was born on 22 January 1908 in Kennington Park Road, Lambeth. Where was Norah when all of the Liverpool commotion was going on? How did theatricals constantly on the move and with no fixed abode manage their children?

As to where Norah was – she was more than likely with her maternal grandmother in Ash Vale, a village in Surrey. Her grandmother brought her up, so time spent with her parents between theatrical engagements was rare and precious. Violet and Larry’s traversing of the British Isles (and Empire) to perform showed no signs of slowing down after Norah’s birth. Violet’s photo album contains this dog-eared photograph of Norah, with the words, “ My darling baby” written across the front:

Young Norah Lewis

One gets the feeling that this photo was frequently handled and wistfully gazed upon by Violet, as she travelled from one venue to the next.
Norah attended the local school in Ash Vale and at the age of 8, in 1916, was sent away to Godwin Girls’ College in Cliftonville (at that time an exclusive area to the east of Margate, Kent). An unusual choice, given at that time the Kent coast was under bombardment by Zeppelins.

The theatrical press were full of advertisements for educational establishments, mainly small private boarding schools, promoting their services for “Daughters of Artistes and Members of the Profession”. These home schools were more often than not run by a Clergyman’s Daughter (married) and offering a “Mother’s Loving Care and thorough education”. Or run by an unmarried Miss. Such schools were often located on the South Coast – Margate, Herne Bay, Brighton – fresh air and a sea breeze being deemed essential to a healthy and good education.

The Stage Apr 1925 Educational ads

The Stage, 25 April 1912

An advert from the Sheffield Daily Telegraph of 6 March 1913 advertises Godwin Girls’ College thus:

Advert Godwin Girls' College 1913

Although Larry and Violet prospered financially in their early years ‘on the Halls’, it has always been understood that it was extremely successful Aunt Daisy Dormer who paid the school fees. Aunt Daisy supposedly supported both Norah and her cousin, Michael Gardner (son of Norah Stockelle, the third of the performing Stockwell sisters) who attended Cliftonville College for Boys, a similar set up to that of Godwin Girls College.

So what did the “good modern education” promised to Norah comprise of? In traditional boarding school cliche, there seemed to be a lot of “Games” – hockey and cricket played on the school sports field. There was also lawn tennis, with tournaments at the nearby Westgate-on-Sea tennis club. With Palm Bay right opposite the school, presumably much was made of the coastal setting. Below is a photograph of Norah (centre) on the beach with some friends, Doris and Marjorie, school regulation gym slips on:

Doris, Norah and Marjorie

I like to think that Norah and friends might have run into the path of TS Elliot, staying at the next door Albermarle Hotel in the autumn of 1921 to convalesce and scribbling away at The Waste Land. Maybe Norah, Doris and Marjorie skipped off to ride the scenic railway at Dreamland, to a concert at the Winter Gardens or a play at the Theatre Royal. Margate was certainly not short of diversions and distractions for young gals at boarding school.

There was also much school drama and music at Godwin Girls’ College and in a later advert from the 1930s, music was described as ‘a speciality’. Norah became an accomplished pianist whilst there. During the school holidays, she would act as accompanist to a rehearsing Aunt Daisy. T. S. Elliot influenced or not, Norah loved literature and was awarded the school 1924-25 English Prize, a collection of Tennyson’s Poems.

Here is a photo of Norah and friends (possibly Doris and Marjorie again) engaging in some school girl dramatics:

School girl dramatics

In being sent away to school, Norah fared better than many theatrical offspring and had an atypical experience. Many were toured around the country with parents, changing schools as often as their parents changed venues, spending most of their waking hours backstage at the theatre and often being incorporated into the family act as juvenile performers. Prior to an element of compulsion being introduced to school attendance (it was not until 1918 that full-time education to the age of 14 became the general rule in England and Wales), many never made it to school. Hetty King, a male impersonator, best remembered for the song, All the Nice Girls Love a Sailor, tells in her Desert Island Discs of concealing herself under her mother’s crinoline skirts to hide from the school board man, known to tour theatres looking for pupils in order to enforce attendance rules. Mary Pickford, the American silent movie star, who was from a Vaudeville family, recounted learning to read from the hoardings on the side of rail road trucks.

Larry and Violet were keen to educate Norah and to ensure a life away from the insecurity of the theatre, they knew “the profession is overcrowded and the struggle’s pretty tough” as outlined by Noel Coward in his song, Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage Mrs Worthington. Like many a theatrical parent then and since, they had hopes that Norah would prosper in a different world. However, the allure of the stage was too much and ‘showbiz’ was already in the bloodstream as by 1928 Norah was already treading the boards having successfully auditioned for the Palladium pantomime as a chorus girl. Had her good, modern education been wasted or had it given her the confidence to take on the challenge and the relentless demands of a theatrical life?