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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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:

STR logo

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.

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.

No one loves a Principal Boy over Forty…

For the pantomime season of December 1926 to January 1927 my Great Grandmother, Violet, was contracted to play the part of the Principal Boy in a production of Dick Whittington at the Royal County Theatre in Reading. At this stage of her career Violet was using the stage name ‘Violet Levy’ – in fact it was her legally correct married name (Larry’s birth name having been Louis Levy). She had been playing Principal Boy for some years, her figure being, the press told us, ideally suited to the part. What they meant of course, was that she looked good in tights and breeches.

Violette Stockelle Principal Boy Cardiff 1912

Violet, aged 41, was engaged by Will Parkin, a small-time theatrical producer. On 9 December 1926, Will Parkin placed an advertisement in The Stage listing the Calls for the four pantos he had in production that season:


Violet attended an interview with Parkin’s agent at Dellacey, a London theatrical costumiers. She was awarded the part of Principal Boy and then ordered some of her dresses and tights for the part for the sum of £2 10s 6d. It is interesting to see that in some cases, performers were expected to provide their own costumes. A contract was subsequently entered into on 26 October 1926 between Parkin’s agent and Violet for a six week run at the County Theatre, Reading and thereafter a regional tour, at £10 per week. Time spent in rehearsals was unpaid. Using the Bank of England inflation calculator this translates to around £550 per week today. In an age when the average weekly wage was around £2.50 per week, Violet was clearly doing well.

It is not clear from the sources if Will Parkin had a face to face meeting with Violet. From what happened next, it seems unlikely. After signing the contract and the Calls appearing in The Stage, Violet received a telegram from Parkin advising that she was no longer required as Principal Boy as she was “unsuitable” for the part. The telegram was described by Violet as “quite insulting” and one can only imagine the tone of the rejection.

Violet’s first port of call was the Variety Artiste’s Federation, her trade union, of which she was a keen supporter. They advised her to present herself in Reading as per the contract. Violet turned up on the first morning of rehearsals and was dismissed by Frank Terry, Parkin’s manager, “in front of the whole company”. Her pride was dented and she rejected the offer of an alternative role as the Second Boy in Parkin’s The Forty Thieves at the Theatre Royal, St Helen’s, Merseyside.

Violet wasted no time in issuing a claim against Parkin for breach of contract and loss of wages and expenses. The case was heard in April 1927 at Lambeth County Court and warranted a spot in The Stage’s Cases in Court column.

In his defence, Will Parkin alleged that Violet Levy had misrepresented herself and that she was in fact Violet Stockelle, “in which name she had for many years past performed at music halls and theatres”. Had he known who she was he would not have engaged her because “she was not suitable for his production as Principal Boy in a provincial touring production”. What he meant was – she was too old. He had apparently told his agent that he “wanted a girl between nineteen to twenty years of age” to take the part. An actress by the name of Eileen Fowler subsequently took the Principal Boy part, “as sparkling as champagne” and who may also be the same Eileen Fowler that went onto become Britain’s first keep-fit guru. If it was her, then Parkin got what he wanted – she would have been 19 years old at the time.

Violet had had a solid reputation as a pantomime Principal Boy and she was booked from 1922 to 1925 in this part, although she advertised herself as being “Vacant for Pantomime” in The Stage in October 1925:


It doesn’t appear that she was successful in finding a role for the December 1925 season as she was appearing in a variety bill at the Exeter Hippodrome over Christmas 1925. So the chance to return to the role in Dick Whittington must have been a blessing for Violet – the income boost and a chance to stay in one place for a six week stretch.

Fortunately for Violet, Judge Parry at Lambeth County Court found in her favour. He was satisfied that she was billed to appear in the role and was party to a legally binding contract.  Violet was awarded £60 for breach of contract and £3 8s 6d for travel and clothing expenses, around £3,595 in today’s money. Violet’s days as a Principal Boy were not over yet, she was still playing the role in 1933.

Larry Lewis – the turn

Cartoon - Larry Lewis - colour

Cartoon of Larry Lewis, June 1911

I have written before about the mystery of the early life of Larry Lewis, my great-grandfather.  I have been exploring his performing life as a music hall comic who plied his trade “on the Halls” for twenty years before exhaustion and excessive alcohol consumption caught up with him.  Like many a music hall performer, he died in his early forties.

Music hall performers worked extremely long and unsociable hours, under weekly contracts.  What were known as “Calls” were published in the theatrical press, listing both the artistes expected to perform for the following week and the time the artistes were expected to appear for the first rehearsal and band call.

Performers were required to work two performances a night (“twice nightly”) plus matinees.  The last performance of the week’s booking would be on Saturday night, then it would be back to theatrical digs and Sunday would be spent travelling to the next town or city.  Performers would have to present themselves at the new venue for Monday band rehearsal.  In those days every theatre had their own resident orchestra; each turn would run through their act, watched over by the theatre manager who would finalise the billing order and resolve squabbles between the artists vying for top billing.  Then, more often than not, they would all adjourn to a local hostelry to prepare for the first performance of the day – usually at 6.10pm to an audience full of local theatre landladies.

Many performers appeared at several theatres on the same night.  In the week of 10 December 1904, Larry appeared in London at the Cambridge Theatre of Varieties (Commercial Street, Bishopgate) at 6.30pm and then at the Middlesex, Drury Lane (now the site of the New London Theatre) for the 7.15pm performance.  You did your turn and left the stage. It was then back to the Cambridge for the 9pm show.  That was an extremely tight schedule but not unusual for music hall performers.  No wonder they were exhausted and physically drained by middle age.

‘Stand up’ comedy as we know it did not exist in the music halls.  Comics presented a mixture of songs, patter and gags and the reviews of Larry’s “turn” refer to his use of all three.  This format was still influential during my 1970s childhood – the Morecambe & Wise Show, The Two Ronnies, The Mike Yarwood Show, The Ken Dodd Show all played with this version of comedy.

Larry’s songs included “Meet Me Charlie at the Corner of the Street”, “You’re the One” (by music hall song writing legend Fred Godfrey), “What a Remark to make” and the catchily titled, “I Shall Strike you with a Banana” by Harry Castling and C W Murphy.  Castling & Murphy were the song writing duo behind the famous “Let’s All Go Down the Strand” which anyone familiar with a good old fashioned sing-a-long will know is usually interspersed with the cry of “’ave a banana!”  They liked their banana themed tunes. Although I have the words to the song I do not have the accompanying music so can only ponder how this chorus would have been sung:

Earlier in his career, at the newly refurbished New Islington Empire in March 1902, The Era commented:

“Larry Lewis, a capital comedian sings “What a Remark to Make” in an exceedingly clever style and quite fetches the audience.”

The words that are used time and again to describe Larry’s turn/act are “droll” and “eccentric” and one gets a flavour of that from these photographs:


The Nottingham Evening Post on Tuesday 25 June 1907 reviewed Larry at the Empire that week:

“Unstinted approval was showered upon Larry Lewis, a comedian of the imperturbable type, and lucky enough to hold of some undeniably funny songs.”

His “quietly comic” style is also referenced. It leads me to imagine him as an understated performer,  subtle and ironic in delivery: a counter to the popular image of music hall as simply raucous singing.

The Era, Saturday 20th March 1909 writes of his performance at The Granville, Walham Green (Fulham Broadway):

“Mr Larry Lewis is a comedian with an exceedingly dry style peculiarly his own, which appeals to any class of audience”.

In the years leading up to the First World War, Larry appeared at all of the major palaces of variety in England, Wales, Scotland and Eire and also in Australia and South Africa. The arrival of war made life a little harder for theatricals and I will investigate that in a future post.

In search of Ray Maskell – Little Lord Fauntleroy

In my last post I spoke of my difficulty in tracking down the origins of my great-grandfather, Louis Levy, and in particular how and why he ended up in England having spent a good proportion of his youth in the USA.   I have found some clues in tracing the path of his sister, Rachel Levy, who was known professionally as Ray Maskell.  I have the following photograph of Ray Maskell; until recently I was convinced she was dressed as a child matador, and her stage turn must have been some sort of mock bullfight, the sort of act that one can well imagine at that time.

Ray Maskell as Little Lord Fauntleroy

Then I came across an online reference to a Ray Maskell having appeared in the New York production of Francis Hodgson Burnett’s Little Lord Fauntleroy at the Windsor Theatre in 1891.  The blouse with a lace collar, the blonde curls, the velvet breeches made sense; this was Ray as Cedric Errol , Little Lord Fauntleroy.  Further research led me to this image from the Macauley Theatre (Chicago) Collection – different collars but the same girl:


(Macauley’s Theatre Collection, 1980.20, Photographic Archives, University of Louisville, Louisville, Kentucky

When Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel Little Lord Fauntleroy was first published in 1885 it caused a sensation – she was the JK Rowling of her day, and the lead character Cedric Errol, her Harry Potter.  The Fauntleroy suit as worn by Cedric, and illustrated in the novel by Reginald Birch, created a craze for children’s clothing particularly in America.  The rags to riches tale of Cedric – from child living in gentile poverty with his single mother in New York to a fully paid up member of the English aristocracy – went down a storm in America. By the 1890s there were a large number of touring productions of a play based on the novel.

Ray Maskell was one of a number of girls to play the role of Cedric.  In London Vera Berringer took the role, and in the first run in New York the part was taken by the seven or eight year old Elsie Leslie (America’s first child star).  The allure of the story has continued ever since with countless film and TV productions .  Actors and actresses who have played the title role include Mary Pickford (1921 film), Freddy Bartholomew (1936 film) and Ricky Schroder (1980 film).  Only this year London Children’s Ballet premiered their ballet version of the classic tale.

Ray Maskell alternated the part on tour with Tommy Russell, the first boy to play the part.  Some American publications refer to Ray as a boy actor and the ambiguity of the name can be no coincidence.  The tour took Ray all over the USA – Chicago, Kentucky, New York, New Jersey, Ohio – and in publicity material for the production she was reported to have played the part for over three years.  Although I cannot trace her exact date of birth she was only around eight or nine years when she first started in the role.  In the production at the Windsor Theatre, New York  in 1891 there is also reference to her mother, Mrs Maskell playing the role of Mary, the faithful family maid. What better way is there for a theatrical parent to accompany their child on tour than by being in the same production?  I have a vivid picture of Ray, her mother and presumably older brother Larry treading the boards of many a provincial theatre, living a life that I only know thanks to great American musicals depicting a similar life – Funny Girl and Gypsy – of rail roads, trains, theatrical hampers, dominant mothers and irate stage mangers.  Is it possible that brother Larry took a minor role in one of these productions?

In November 1892 it was announced in the theatrical rag, The Era,

“Miss  Ray Maskell, the well-known child actress from America, commenced a short tour on the 11th November in her impersonation of little Lord Fauntleroy”

The short tour took her to the Theatre Royal and Opera House, Bournemouth and the Theatre Royal, Ryde, Isle of Wight amongst other places. Her reviews were positive;

“The principal character being sustained by Miss Ray Maskell who has just returned from America, having delighted the theatre-going public there by her splendid impersonation of the title role”  Portsmouth Evening News, Dec 1 1892

“Miss Ray Maskell showed much ability as Cedric Errol” The Era Dec 3, 1892.

Straight after her Fauntleroy tour, Ray was engaged to play Little Red Riding Hood in the 1892 Christmas pantomime at the Theatre Royal, Manchester.  It is my theory that thereafter none of the family returned to the USA and remained in the UK to try their luck on the British stage. And that is how I believe my great-grandfather Larry ended up here.  As for Ray, like many a child star she never quite maintained the momentum into adulthood, and her short but colourful career was over by the time she reached her thirties.  She died in Battersea in 1925 in her mid-forties, with not even a mention in The Era. I will return to her adventures on and off the stage in later blog posts as there is plenty more to say.