Marie here, there and everywhere. Marie Lloyd in the 1921 census

As befits the itinerant life of a music hall performer, Marie Lloyd was not at home on Sunday 19th June 1921, the date the census was recorded. She was to be found in Birmingham; a visitor at the splendid Grand Hotel. She had a booking at the Birmingham Empire for the week commencing Monday 20th June, with twice nightly performances at 6.30pm and 8.30pm. 

The previous months had seen her working consistently at a different venue every Monday with the exception of a two-week stint she managed to secure at the London Palladium at the end of April. She had travelled from the Bedford Music Hall in Camden to the Palace, Plymouth; from the Palladium to the Empire in Nottingham and thereon to Sheffield, Blackpool, the Empire Islington, the Hippodromes of Willesden, Putney and Poplar. It was undoubtedly a punishing schedule but one that Marie would have been inured to by her many years on the music hall scene. It was also particularly demanding for a woman mired in unhappiness and with a variety of ailments which kept her in almost continual discomfort; she had a complicated relationship with food and drink; and she was also recuperating mentally and physically from a traumatic 12 months in her personal life. 

The past year had been a watershed; her third husband, ex-jockey Bernard Dillon had assaulted Marie’s father at Oakdene, her Finchley Road home; there had been a series of malicious and calculated domestic violence incidents by Dillon against Marie over that year which had resulted in her being granted a separation order. Her barrister during these proceedings described her life as ‘hell on earth.’ Marie’s doctor gave evidence that he had treated her on numerous occasions for nervous collapse, bruises and black eyes. Marie’s friends and family breathed a sigh of relief that Dillon was now (supposedly) out of her life. One is left reflecting on Marie’s extraordinary stamina during this period.

Marie was not alone at the Grand Hotel in Birmingham. The census tells us she had the supportive company of two significant people in her later years: John Wood, her younger brother, and Maud Wilson, her long-serving maid. John had recently become Marie’s business manager and he describes himself as such on the census form. Maud had been a witness during the separation proceedings testifying to the violence and injuries inflicted on Marie by Dillon. John and Maud were later to benefit as two of the three named beneficiaries in Marie’s will (the third being her daughter Marie junior). Marie’s census details were completed by a ‘Mr Mitchell’ who very likely was the manager of the Grand Hotel. Unusually for Marie, her birth year – 1870 – is correct as she was 51 at the time of the census. (She has been known to have ‘age-blindness’ on previous official occasions, notably her entry in the 1911 census has her as a youthful 22, and at the time of her marriage to Bernard Dillon in 1914, she knocked twelve years off her age.)

As Marie was not at home, who was at Oakdene? This ‘very desirable, double-fronted, detached house, just 3 minutes walk from Golders Green tube, close to Hampstead Heath’ (as it would be described in an advertisement by a house agent just over a year later), was occupied by her daughter, Marie junior, who took the surname of her father, Courtenay. Marie, like her mother, had married a jockey and subsequently divorced him. The 1921 census was the first to offer ‘divorced’ as an option for marital status. Interestingly, Marie junior chose not to use that option. She described herself as a ‘theatrical’ in her census ‘occupation’, she often accompanied her mother on music hall bills in London. In response to the ‘Place of Work’ query (another new category on the census form), Marie junior wrote, ‘Everywhere.’ The census enumerator spared that entry and didn’t strike it out as was often seen where flashes of humour were shown. Her mother’s constant touring and a new town every week provided the truth to that statement. It is interesting to see from the census form that along with Marie junior, Ernest Mosley, a station sergeant at Golders Green police station, was also living at Oakdene with his wife and two adult daughters. Ernest was described as the caretaker. It was Ernest’s wife, Clara, who completed the census form. Marie was taking no chances, employing a policeman as her caretaker – the disgraced Dillon frequently turned up at Oakdene late at night, after drinking all day, with violent consequences.

Oakdene was a substantial property requiring considerable upkeep and containing many dependants – family and staff. Similarly, the Grand Hotel in Birmingham was not the standard theatrical digs and Marie had at least two others travelling with her. What of her driver and car? Were they also in Birmingham? When in Sheffield, the local Daily Telegraph commented on Marie’s ‘wonderful set of Parisian gowns.’ She had always been known for her stylish stage costumes and the bill for these would not have been cheap. The bigger the star, the bigger the costs. There was an obvious reason for her constant work, Marie needed the money to continue to support this retinue and attendant expenses. Her finances had been depleted by court actions, her unfailing generosity and dealing with her unpredictable husband.

As well as the financial drain of her ‘star’ lifestyle, there was the burden of topping the bill at every venue she appeared and the consequent demands on her limited free time. When at the Nottingham Empire, she was even advertised to ‘kick off’ a ladies’ football match between the Bulwell Belles and the Basford Ringers. She sent a telegram at the last minute pulling out on the grounds that she was suffering from neuritis and the weather was ‘too bad.’. Neuritus was a catch-all for a variety of ailments. All of the pressure to work and to give did not leave any time for rest and recuperation. 

Of her performances in this period, she was well-received wherever she went. Reviews spoke of the ‘heartiness of receptions’, and of her being, ‘as great a favourite as ever.’ She was performing three or four numbers per night, a mix of her older popular numbers and a more recent ‘hit’ song, ‘It’s a Bit of a Ruin’ where she was playing an elderly, muddled female and she could hide herself within the character.  

The song suited her as she didn’t have to glamorise herself or wear those Parisian gowns. Marie was described as excelling in this ‘low comedy number’ with her ‘wonderful personality’ as ‘vivid and telling as ever.’  When in Birmingham that week of the census,  the critic at the Daily Gazette wrote:

‘Miss Marie Lloyd’s art is still such that the mere raising of an eyebrow or a sweep of the hand is sufficient to convey the most subtle meanings. Her forte is piquancy, but her character studies are always correct, and she was warmly received last night.’

Virigina Woolf was an unlikely member of the audience at the Bedford Music Hall in April where she saw Marie, just a few weeks before the Birmingham stay enumerated in the census. She recorded the visit in her diary. She recalled ‘a born artist – scarcely able to walk, waddling, aged, unblushing.’ Was this exemplary character acting on Marie’s part or reality? More than likely, it was a bit of both.

Marie’s ailments continued to worsen, although she pressed on with her performances, here, there and everywhere.  She sadly died within 16 months of the 1921 census, aged 52.


In August 1922, Marie made the decision to put Oakdene and many of its possessions up for sale by auction to help pay off her debts. She moved just a short distance away to a smaller house, owned by one of her sister’s at 37 Woodstock Road.

To explore the final years of Marie’s life (and the causes of her death) in further detail, I recommend Midge Gillies excellent biography of Marie, referred to below.

2022 marks the centenary of Marie’s death. There are a number of events taking place to mark this. Wilton’s Music Hall is holding an event in conjunction with Dead Poets Live 11-12 April 2022, Marie, Marie, Hold On Tight ! – Marie Lloyd, music hall and the making of TS Eliot with the always excellent Jenna Russell cast as Marie.

On 20 October 2022, together with Christine Padwick, I will be delivering a talk about Marie’s life and legacy, on behalf of the British Music Hall Society, at The Water Rats, 328 Grays Inn Road, London WC1. Tickets will be available via Ticketsource.

Finally, the Grand Hotel, Birmingham is still going strong and if you fancy a night following in Marie’s footsteps, see their website


1921 Census of England and Wales, National Archives via Find My Past

British Newspaper Archive: Daily News (London), 16 July 1920; Nottingham Journal, 7 May 1921; The Stage 7 April 1921, 21 April 29121, 9 June 1921; Birmingham Daily Gazette, 21 June 1921; The Era, 1 June 1921; Nottingham Journal, 7 May 1921; The Hendon & Finchley Times, 25 August 1922; The London Gazette, 24 November 1922.

Jacob, Naomi (1936) Our Marie, London, Hutchinson

Bell, Anne Oliver (1980) The Diary of Virginia Woolf Volume II 1920-1924, London and New York, Harcourt

Baker, Richard Anthony (1990) Marie Lloyd, Queen of the Music Halls, London, Robert Hale

Gillies, Midge (1999) Marie Lloyd: The One and Only, London, Victor Gollancz

Images courtesy of the British Music Hall Society Archive

Leave Your Little Wooden Hut? For Me?

On the splendid occasion of ‘Music Hall and Variety Day,’ a day inaugurated by the British Music Hall Society last year to celebrate and commemorate the Music Hall and Variety genre, I thought I would take a sideways look at the Music Hall song “I Would’t Leave My Little Wooden Hut For You.”

Author’s own collection

This song was closely associated with Daisy Dormer and written by songwriters Charles Collins and Tom Mellor. It was first advertised in the theatrical press in June 1905 as one of Francis Day & Hunter’s ‘Summer Specialities’; by October it had become one of their ‘Winter Novelties.’ It was clearly a song to suit all seasons. This song represented Daisy’s ‘breakthrough’ to a new level of success, having been working on the Halls diligently and consistently since the mid 1890s without a hit. By November 1905, Daisy had taken up ‘Wooden Hut’ and on her appearance at the Ipswich Hippodrome, the East Anglian Times reported that the song had, ‘quite taken the fancy of the public’. It was naturally seized upon by producers for the upcoming pantomime season (then as now, they were alway keen to incorporate popular hits into the fabric of the story). The Daily Mirror recorded it as one of the pantomime songs of the year, the sheet music for which was ‘selling in thousands.’ Daisy was booked to play Jill the principal girl in Mother Goose at the Tyne Theatre, Newcastle that year and Wooden Hut’ was ‘the success of the evening.’ She accompanied it with a ‘neat dance, characterised by much sprightliness and grace.’

The verse lyrics to Wooden Hut describe a maiden living ‘on a can-ni-bal isle’ who is propositioned by a stranger; he wants to whisk her away to his ‘home across the sea.’ The ‘pretty Southern maid’ is not taken in by his charms and defiantly tells him:

‘I wouldn’t leave my little wooden hut for you-oo!

I’ve got one lover and I don’t want two-oo

What might happen there is no knowing

If he comes around so you’d better be going

Cos I wouldn’t leave my little wooden-hut for you!

The stranger runs away as soon as her beau turns up – ‘he was soon clean out of sight, he won’t return again’.

The verses are a product of attitudes towards race and gender that prevailed at that time; plainly the song would not be performed today.  The chorus is more palatable and universal in its theme of competitive male lovers and a strong woman telling an unwanted suitor where to go.

The reference to a ‘wooden hut’ was ripe for humour and one which appears to have been a cause for postcard cartoon japes in the Edwardian era. I have a large collection of postcards which play with the title of the song – with a coffin featuring in many of them. As is the case with a collection of postcards, the sentiments expressed from the sender to the recipient are just as fascinating as the image on the front of the card. Here is a selection of a few of those in my collection:

 This card depicting a grieving widow in mourning dress, with more than a passing resemblance to Queen Victoria, was sent in August 1906 to a Miss Copper in Halstead, Essex. The red-nosed corpse is safe in his wooden hut and smirks with glee from his underground chamber.

The following year a correspondent who signed off as “Pick Me Up” sent this card to Miss Bullock at Swadlincote near Burton on Trent.

In a large looping hand Pick Me Up wrote the chorus to the song as the message to Miss Bullock, with special emphasis on the words I would not leave. Miss Bullock might have felt somewhat upset to receive this card – one assumes Pick Me Up was not planning on leaving one lover for another anytime soon.

This card is a change in tone, a more romantic sentiment, possibly a Valentine’s card and features some Edwardian “beauties.”

In the four framed images are Gertie Millar, Phyllis Dare, her sister Zena Dare and Marie Studholme. They were familiar subjects for Edwardian postcards, known as  the ‘Gaiety Girls’ thanks to their association with the Gaiety Theatre.  They were the subject of many an Edwardian fantasy. Postcard manufacturers were always keen to reproduce their image to increase sales although the message here is ambiguous. Who wouldn’t leave their hut for who?

Of the artists of these cards, only Agnes Richardson is known to me. She was an illustrator known for her cherubic young girls, often sporting oversized bows or other headgear, such as the oversize army cap seen in this image:

This card was sent from Blackpool in August 1918, as the First World War drew to a close, to a Miss Barraclough in Morecambe and started with that familiar sentence from many a holiday postcard –  “Hope you are having a nice time, we are.” 1918 was considerable years after the Wooden Hut song was released but the visual and sentimental gag to be gained from such an image is of long-lasting appeal.

So there we have an interesting bit of music hall history, a little bit of postcard art and a little more insight into the humour and social mores of the day.


Charles Collins: 1874 – 1923. Went onto successful partnerships with many other leading Music Hall songwriters and co-wrote some very significant songs including, ‘Are We To Part Like This, Bill?’ (sung by Kate Carney, 1912) and Don’t Dilly Dally on the Way (sung by Marie Lloyd, 1919) both with Harry Castling.

Tom Mellor: 1880 – 1926. Like Collins, Mellor teamed up with many other Music Hall songwriters including Fred Godfrey, Harry Gifford and Alf J Lawrence. Songs he had a hand in include, ‘We’re Irish and Proud of It, Too’ (1914) and ‘I Like Your Old French Bonnet.’

Collins and Mellor appear to have had a falling out over the authorship in the months following the success of Wooden Hut and don’t appear to have worked together again.

Agnes Richardson 1885 – 1951. Educated at Lambeth School of Art. Illustrated books for children, annuals and designed greetings cards and at least three posters for London Transport.

Wish You Were Here: 151 Years of the British Postcard opens at The Postal Museum in London on 20th May 2021. The exhibition celebrates and explores the iconic role the postcard has played in connecting people for more than a century and a half. Details here.

With thanks to:

The British Newspaper Archive. The Era 10 June 1905; East Anglian Times 11 November 1905; The Daily Mirror, 28 December 1905; The Era 30 December 1905.

Margaret Monod for helpful discussion about the identity of the Gaiety Girls.

Gertie’s Fan Mail from the Front

Gertie Gitana was a hugely popular star of Music Hall, frequently referred to as ‘the star who never fails to shine.’ As is the case with many performers from that era, she is very little known today. She was born Gertrude Mary Astley in Stoke on Trent (her father worked in the potteries) and like many a music hall pro she was treading the boards from an early age. In those formative years, she toured the country as part of Tomkinson’s troupe of ‘Royal Gypsy Children.’ It is clear from early reviews that she possessed an extremely strong and charming voice and was also a good dancer and musician – she often incorporated playing the saxophone into her ‘turn’. She first appeared as ‘Little Gitana’ (gitana being the Spanish word for gypsy), developing into ‘Little Gertie Gitana’ and then as age advanced, she was simply ‘Gertie Gitana’. She became popular for her sentimental ballads often featuring a girls name in the title – usually a Molly or a Nellie.

Her delicate and slight appearance (she was 1.55 metres (5ft 1in) as an adult), enabled her to carry the ‘child vocalist’ moniker for some years beyond childhood. One can see from this image that she had an innocent and winsome look. I estimate that she was well into her twenties when these images were taken:

In December 1915, Gertie was the recipient of a postcard of herself sent from ‘the firing line’ in France by Gunner CP Witten of the British Expeditionary Force, addressed in beautifully neat and precise handwriting to:

Miss Gertie Gitana

England’s Premier Singer of favourite songs

Some Music Hall in England


The reverse and front of the card are reproduced here – you will note the pink-red triangular stamp of the censor, having ‘passed’ the content:

The card may have found Miss Gitana at any one of the Southport Palladium, Newport or Chiswick Empires where she was billed to appear for December 1915. Witten tells Gertie that the card was sent to him by his brother in Sunderland, “which town I assume you have recently visited much to my sorrow as I think you should have waited until I got my leave.” Gertie had indeed visited Sunderland in October 1915 with a week’s booking at the Empire, South Shields. She had been at the Empire, Newcastle in the previous week where she had tried out her new Mills-Scott penned number, “Molly McGlory,” and The Era tells us it was a great success, “henceforth Miss Gitana will sing it at all her engagements.”    

In keeping with many music hall artistes, Gertie was keen to be seen to be doing her bit for the war effort (I wrote of some of those efforts in this blog post) and during her engagements was selling autographed postcards to contribute to local military funds.  It is more than likely that it was one of these cards purchased by Witten’s brother at the South Shields Empire that found its way to France and then on a return trip back to Gertie in England. The letters page of The Newcastle Journal reports that during her Newcastle week Miss Gitana’s “proceeds of sale” were £32 and in accordance with her wishes, the money was to be dispensed on “cigarettes for the wounded soldiers at Armstrong College and Northumberland War Hospitals”. £32 translates today to around £1800 – that’s a considerable number of cigarettes and one hopes they provided some pleasure for the wounded.

In a touching sentence, Witten writes, “when I saw your sweet face it brought back to me pleasant memories of the past” and how he had “always” [been] ensured of a pleasant evenings entertainment when you were at the Empire and the old ‘Palace’.” The Empire in South Shields had been declared open on 1 July 1907 by male impersonator Vesta Tilley.  The old “Palace” Witten refers to is most likely the Palace Theatre of Varieties which had closed down by 1909 – it was almost opposite the new Empire and couldn’t compete. Gertie was a regular performer at both palaces of entertainment. Reviews of Gertie during this period confirm the impression she had made on Witten – they speak of her “remarkable voice,” and “a marked ability to capture the soft spot which audiences invariably show for an attractive melody.”  

One wonders what experiences Witten had been through by this stage of the conflict.  Charlton Potts Witten had signed up within a month of the outbreak of war in 1914 to join “Kitchener’s Army”, responding to persistent pleas in the Sunderland press for general service recruits. He described himself as an ‘architect’ and this would explain his beautifully neat, draughtsman-like handwriting. At the age of 36, he was in the upper age category for signing up. His first few months of training were all on home soil and yet in February 1915, he was discharged from Deepcut Barracks due to a knee injury.  By April 1915, he was back at the recruiting office in Sunderland – this time signing on as Charles Potts Witten and no-one seemingly checking his paperwork. Maybe his knee had recovered? Witten was clearly a man determined to sign up – he was not alone, by the end of 1915 some 2 million men had volunteered.

Witten jokes about the state of the war in racing terms and suggests Gertie should ‘back the Allies to win’ and ‘take it from a man on the course, we cannot Loos’. This was a reference to the Battle of Loos which had taken place from September to October 1915, notable as the first use of poison gas by the British.  Witten survived the course and returned to life in Sunderland. He died in 1929 due to heart disease and “excessive indulgence in alcoholic beverages” with his wife reporting that he had been in poor health, which she attributed to those gas attacks during the war.

With increasingly grim circumstances on the front line one can see why Witten and his fellow conscripts were seeking comfort in memories and melodies from happier days. He tells Gertie, “All the boys hum your songs over daily.” He mentions You Were Coming Through the Corn, Molly Dear, a hit for Gertie in 1910.  

Author’s own collection

This song was a sentimental tale of young love during harvest time when ‘the waving corn ting’d the fields with all its golden hue,’ and the acquaintance of the young lovers ‘ripens like the corn,’


You were coming through the corn Molly dear, When I fell in love with you; 

There were poppies in your golden hair, And love in your eyes of blue.

Witten tells Gertie they are “songs that will live for ever.”  Although her songs provided great solace and raised the spirits of Witten and the other men on the Front, he might be a little disappointed to learn that Gertie’s songs have not remained in popular consciousness, unlike others from that period. But even though they have not shown longevity, Gertie certainly managed to capture the “soft spot” for this Sunderland man transported some way from home.

In the years after the First World War, Gertie continued to be a star that shone, and moved seamlessly to ‘revue’ which had grown in popularity during the war. During one such production, she met dancer Don Ross and they married in 1928. Although she performed throughout the 1930s, she gradually retreated towards the end of the decade.  However, in 1948 she was encouraged out of retirement by Don and his inventive ‘Thanks for the Memory’ touring show. Several retired music hall stars were lured back to the footlights – Ella Shields, Nellie Wallace (who passed away during the tour and was replaced by Lily Morris), GH Elliott, Talbot O’Farrell and Randolph Sutton. The show opened at the Brixton Empress in February 1948 and a whirlwind  21 months ensued, including a triumphant appearance for the old-timers at the 1948 Royal Variety Performance. Gertie gave her final performance back at the Brixton Empress on 2 December 1950. She had been performing for over 50 years at this point and her performances during this final hurrah were reviewed as positively as they had been in the early days of her career – she was as captivating and bewitching as Gunner Witten recalled. And although her output is little sung or recalled today, her name lives on in Gitana Street in Hanley, Stoke on Trent which was re-named after her in the 1950s.


Gertrude Mary Astley b. 1887, Stoke on Trent; d. January 1957; m. Don Ross. No issue.

Charlton Potts Witten b. 1879, Easington, Durham; d. December 1929 Sunderland; m. Isabella Watson. No issue.

Of the theatres referred to in this article, only the South Shields/Sunderland Empire remains standing.

With many thanks:  Rick Blackman for sharing Gunner Witten’s postcard from his collection with me; the British Music Hall Society Archive for permission to use the Gertie Gitana images from their archive.

Ancestry/Find My Past

British Newspaper Archive:

Sunderland Daily Echo, 4 September 1914, 12 November 1929

The Newcastle Journal,  28 September 1915, 9 October 1915

Edinburgh Evening News, 12 October 1915

The Stage, 16 December 1915 

The Stage, 26 February 1948

The Stage, 7 December 1950

An excellent book covering various aspects of theatre during World War 1 is ‘Till the Boys Come Home: How British Theatre Fought the Great War’ by Roger Foss (The History Press, 2018).

A Comedian’s Tragedy

Seeing as I haven’t managed throughout the periods of ‘lockdown’ in the past year to produce a blog post (‘creativity in crisis’ scream the headlines, it is with me anyway), I have returned to a piece I wrote in 2018 about the Music Hall Performer, Mark Sheridan. He was the original singer of the irrepressibly jaunty ‘I Do Like to Be Beside the Seaside’, the chorus to which everybody seems to know:

Oh I do like to be beside the seaside

I do like to be beside the sea

Oh I do like to stroll upon the Prom Prom Prom

Where the brass bands play


Sheridan, one of the best-known entertainers of his time, is largely forgotten today. He was a distinctive ‘turn’ on the Halls; instantly recognisable by his trademark costume – tall-crowned bowler hat, shabby rain coat and bell bottommed trousers. He always flourished an umbrella or stick as he strode across the stage.

Mark Sheridan. Image courtesy British Music Hall Society Archive

On the afternoon of Tuesday 15th January 1918, Sheridan was found lying on the snow-covered ground of Kelvingrove Park, Glasgow.  He had a gun-shot wound to the head and a Browning revolver beside him. He was buried a few days later in Cathcart Cemetery, Glasgow.

The previous day Sheridan had started a week’s engagement at The Coliseum on Eglinton Street, Glasgow with his revue, Gay Paree! This was a humorous spoof of a popular play, A Royal Divorce, depicting the romance between Napoleon and his wife Josephine.  In the run up to the arrival of Sheridan’s troupe in Glasgow, the revue had been advertised in the local press:  ‘The New and Enormously Successful “Gay Paree!” with a ‘powerful London Company’ and ‘Six Sensational Scenes’.  With Sheridan in the lead role of Napoleon, there was a  cast of forty featuring mimic Syd May, Betty Davenport (Sheridan’s daughter), Jack Davenport (his son) Gladys Mavius, O’Wray and O’Dare (American comedians) and soprano Dolsey Cariello. 

Mark Sheridan as Napoleon. Cope Bros & Co Ltd cigarette card. Author’s own.

The first reviews appeared in the Glasgow press on the morning of Sheridan’s death:

Mark Sheridan and a fine London Company…an elaborate production, gorgeously staged and dressed, and is given twice nightly.  Among the more effective scenes are Josephine’s Boudoir and Napoleon’s Ballroom.  Mark Sheridan himself plays Napoleon in this clever and delightful skit, and revels in the grotesque scenes and situations which he makes so irresistibly humorous.  The revue goes with a swing from start to finish, and there is not a dull moment throughout. The Daily Record;

and in The Glasgow Herald:

The highly amusing musical play “Gay Paree” is presented this week by a London company, of which Mark Sheridan, the well-known comedian, is the chief.  The play is a burlesque of the long-familiar drama “A Royal Divorce,” and corresponds to it in its representation of Napoleonic pomp and splendour, while twisting the incidents of the drama in order to make comedy.  The burlesque admirably fulfils its purpose of mirth making, and is in every way an attractive entertainment.

Music hall folklore has it though that first-night reviews were poor and in response Sheridan took his own life. These reviews are effusive and certainly on the positive side. Gay Paree! had opened on Boxing Day 1917 at the Tivoli, New Brighton, Liverpool and the critic at the Liverpool Echo had this to say, ‘when it has had its rough edges taken from it, it will prove a pleasing mixture of fun, frolic and beauty.’  In my scouring of archives for that bad review, this was the most negative I could find. The cast had undoubtedly been working on smoothing out those rough edges since the Liverpool date.

Piecing together the sequence of events on that fateful Tuesday morning it seems this is what happened: Sheridan left his hotel and was expected at noon at The Coliseum for a rehearsal. The rest of the cast assembled and went ahead with the rehearsal in his absence. A body was found  by two young boys walking in Kelvingrove Park at around 2.20pm, ‘in an unfrequented part of the park on the west side of the Kelvin’. They reported their grisly discovery to a park ranger and the body was taken to the Western Police Mortuary, where the deceased’s identity card identified him as Fred Shaw (his birth name).  A letter addressed to ‘Mr Sheridan’ was also found on the body thus alerting the police to the full identity. Mr Baxter, the manager of The Coliseum, was telephoned by the police.  Mr Baxter conveyed the message to Ethel, Sheridan’s wife (who was travelling with the company) and to the cast who were anxiously waiting for their leading man to arrive for that evening’s performance.  Shortly before curtain up the audience were informed that there would be no performance that night. ‘The announcement caused a painful sensation in the audience, who when Mr Baxter concluded his statement quietly dispersed’, reported the Glasgow Herald.

We discover more about events thanks to a legal case in November of that year, brought by the executors of Sheridan’s will – including his wife Ethel, against the Equitable Life Assurance Company. Sheridan had taken out life insurance policies with Equitable Life in October 1917 and the executors were seeking to recover these funds. The funds amounted to £5,000 (around £318,000 in today’s money) so a considerable sum. Under the policies there was a term which stated that if the policy holder committed suicide ‘sane or insane’ within one year of the date of the policy, the insurance company would be limited to returning the amount of the premium paid for the policy only (a lesser sum). In other words, no pay out for Mrs Sheridan and Mark’s dependants if suicide. 

The Pall Mall Gazette billed the case as a ‘Sequel to Death of Mark Sheridan’ and the proceedings, although tragic, had some moments of levity.  The executor’s case – as it had to be, to secure an insurance pay out – was that his death was an accident and not suicide. They contended that he had gone to Kelvingrove Park merely to rehearse his part ‘in which as Napoleon he shot a convict. It was while doing this that the unfortunate accident happened’. They explained that he was in the habit of carrying a revolver since his early engagements in South Africa in the 1890s.

The executors also contended that contrary to being unhappy at a bad review, Sheridan was happy with life; he was booked up until 1920 and then he planned to retire to Sunderland, his birth place. George Robey, an old friend of Sheridan’s was called as a witness. He claimed Sheridan was ‘not the man to commit suicide because his play was not a success the first night’. Counsel for the executors quipped ‘if every comedian who had a bad show shot himself there would be a lot of dead bodies in The Strand’. There was much discussion as to potential reasons for a suicide and then Mr Baxter, the Coliseum manager gave his evidence. He was of the view that the first night had ‘not been a success’ and Mr Sheridan ‘was not up to his form as Napoleon’. This did not help the executors’ arguments. They lost the case.

One gets the sense that the executors were clutching at straws in their attempt to obtain the proceeds of the life insurance. But who can blame them? Sheridan had a costly revue touring the provinces with a large cast and future bookings to fulfil; the responsibility for this now fell on his widow.  Within hours of Sheridan’s death, Ethel was updating advertisements in the local press declaring, ‘Our Motto – Carry On!’.  An advert for the show even appears alongside an obituary for Sheridan in the 23rd January edition of The Era. The Glasgow Herald reported that for the rest of the week, if it were not possible to present the revue, then a variety programme would be provided by the individual company members instead. Within two weeks, the company were in Belfast at the Royal Hippodrome fulfilling their weeks’ engagement with Syd May taking Sheridan’s Napoleon role.

The Era, 23 Jan 1918 Advertisement re “Gay Paree” British Newspaper Archive

The real reason for Mark Sheridan’s death more likely lies in the hints at unhappiness and undoubtedly depression throughout his career. Ethel told the police in the days immediately following his death that, ‘her husband had been ailing for two years off and on’ and that he had been consumed with anxiety over the fate of his two sons, in the Navy and Army respectively, as well as unhappy with the marriage of his daughter to a man of which he had not approved. Mrs Sheridan advised: ‘…at times, her husband was a little melancholy.’  This is of course completely at odds with the jollity of the songs for which he was famous.  The breeziness of Oh I Do Like to be Beside the Seaside with the tiddely om-pom-pom of the brass band; the upbeat war time marching song, Here We Are, Here We Are Again and the cheeky optimism of Who Were You With Last Night? masked a depressive character.

At the beginning of January he had been ‘indisposed’ and unable to appear at the Hippodrome, Brighton. The comedian Malcolm Scott deputised for him. And just a month before his death he had been on the bill at the Bradford Alhambra and was poorly reviewed in the Yorkshire Evening Post:

Mark Sheridan did not carry his audience with him to the extent he generally does when he appeared at the Bradford Alhambra Theatre last night.  The favour of Bradford audiences is not to be taken for granted, and Sheridan has been often enough to the city to understand this much…

All of this points to a man struggling with life. Sheridan is in good company – the history of music hall (and indeed comedy) is filled with characters who simultaneously made people laugh and struggled with personal demons and mental health issues. The tragedy of this ‘breezy and spirited’ performer’s death on a bleak Glasgow day is still shocking some hundred years on.  His memory remains alive through a few recordings of his greatest hits where he ‘became a man who really did like to be beside the seaside… a man full of fresh air and vigour and health, striding along the promenade.’  Listening to Sheridan sing immediately evokes a time and place anchored in British seaside holidays of the past – of donkey rides, deck chairs, ice creams, paddle steamers and pierrots. After the best part of a year in lockdown, to a City dweller like me, Sheridan’s song brings on a yearning for such simple pleasures and a longing to ‘just let me be beside the seaside, I’ll be beside myself with glee.’

A version of this article appeared in ‘The Call Boy’ Winter 2017 vol. 54, no.4, the journal of the British Music Hall Society.

You can hear Mark Sheridan singing here.


The Frank Matcham designed Coliseum was damaged by fire in May 2009 and subsequently demolished.

“Gay Paree” continued in the months after Sheridan’s death accompanied by a fervent advertising campaign in the theatrical press. Mrs Sheridan sold the production to Fred Collins in June 1918 and he continued to tour ‘Gay Paree!’.

With thanks: Bob Bain (RIP) of the Scottish Music Hall & Variety Theatre Society, Andrew White of the Northern Echo and the British Music Hall Society.

British Library

British Newspaper Archive Online

Find My Past

Baker, Richard A. “British Music Hall: An Illustrated History” (Stroud, 2005)

House, Jack. “Music Hall Memories” (Glasgow, 1986)

Major, John. “My Old Man” (London, 2012)

McQueen Pope, Walter. “The Melodies Linger On. The Story of Music Hall” (London, 1950)

Rose, Clarkson. “Beside the Seaside” (London, 1960)

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.