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