…..there will be a show tonight – on trampoline.
The Hendersons will all be there,
Late of Pablo Fanque’s fair –
What a scene!
Another lyric for the baby boomers, but perhaps a bit more difficult to recognise than the Simon and Garfunkel song in my most recent post. It’s from the track of the same title, from Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, released in 1967. If only it were twenty years ago today….
Legend has it that one day John Lennon went into an antique shop in Sevenoaks. He spotted an old Victorian circus poster, advertising Mister Kite’s benefit performance. With his creative juices flowing, the song duly followed.
The roar of the greasepaint
The song started me thinking about the great show men and women in history. What did you do to earn a living, if you had no family money, no trade, no prospects, but you did have a unique skill or strength? You went on the road, and sold the public the chance to view your talents. I suppose it would have helped if you were an adventurous sort with itchy feet. Someone who would rather experience the thrill of the open road than a lifetime in a factory or behind a shop counter.
Of course, the circus is the place to start on the journey. The modern circus as we know it was the brainchild of an enterprising businessman of the Georgian era, called Philip Astley. He was a brilliant horseman. After leaving the army, he set up a riding school, where giving daring displays of horsemanship complemented the lessons.
He soon realised that he could attract larger crowds – and make more money – with the daring riding displays, rather than the school. So he decided to branch out. He bought a field in Lambeth, South London, called Ha’penny Catch – it lay around and about where Waterloo Station is today.
An indoor circus
On that site he built an enormous amphitheatre, with multiple tiers, almost like an opera house. And there, in 1768, he organised the first showing of what we would today recognise as a circus. He and his wife Patti, a talented horsewoman in her own right, would perform dangerous feats and tricks on horseback.
In fact, I was filled with admiration for Patti, when I learned that she once performed daring tricks on horseback, whilst wearing a swarm of bees around her neck as a muff. That really is show-biz.
Astley had realised that a circular stage, where the centrifugal force would help the riders keep their balance, was better than just riding in a straight line, and would also give the audience a better view. Through trial and error, he calculated the optimum dimensions for the circus ring as 42 feet in diameter. That measurement is still used for circus rings today. To add to the excitement, Astley employed clowns, acrobats and tightrope walkers to perform in between the equestrian events. The performances would have been very recognisable to us today.
Following the success of the Astleys, the circus idea quickly mushroomed. They multiplied and thrived over the next two hundred years. Although, they do seem rather sorry events to me these days, where we are so hard to impress and have perhaps lost our sense of wonder. I fondly remember my toddler son’s amazement at a seaside circus, when the “gorilla” escaped from the ring and bounded and somersaulted through the crowds. Today’s kids would see through that trick in an instant!
Late of Pablo Fanque’s Fair
Astley had many successors, one of whom was Pablo Fanque himself, he of Sergeant Pepper fame. Pablo was born in Norwich, with the far less exotic name of William Darby. He joined the circus, performing equestrian feats, and acrobatic acts . He actually performed at Astley’s Amphitheatre in London, no less, but in 1847, many years after Astley had died. Pablo became the first black circus owner in the UK, when he set up his own circus, touring the country, mainly in the north.
But you didn’t have to join the circus, to support yourself with your talents. You could do it under your own devices, if you had the skills and the self-belief.
On holiday last year in North Devon, I was gently coerced into trying some sea swimming in the natural bathing pools at Ilfracombe – in October too. ‘Exhilarating’ doesn’t quite cover the shock I felt. (The pools fill up naturally at high tide, and they were developed as a leisure activity by the Victorians – they are well worth a visit.)
Introducing Professor Parker….
There on the wall of the tunnel to the pools, excavated through the cliff to the sea, are old Victorian posters. They advertise the exploits of a pair of “England’s Greatest Natatorial Artistes”. Professor H. Parker, and his son Harry junior, performed swimming feats from the pier at Ilfracombe. These included Harry junior diving from the pier – in police handcuffs – and then miraculously escaping from them.
Also, besides the swimming displays, there was their mind- boggling crack revolver shooting in water, smoking cigars under water and shooting the cork from a bottle without breaking the glass. I am glad that the Health and Safety police were not there to hamper their efforts. There was no fee to spectate, but they did take a collection. How could you not contribute after such a performance?
….and Professor Hotine
A fellow Victorian performer, not as aquatic as Professor Parker, was the equally impressive Professor Hotine. And I’m thrilled to say that this good professor was the ancestor of a reader of these posts, who very kindly shared with me the images you see here. (I have put these and other photos regarding the Professor in a gallery which can be viewed here, with grateful thanks to his descendent, PF).
Professor Hotine was versatile in the extreme. He performed multiple feats of strength and endurance. Within the space of a 50 minute performance, he walked two miles, ran two miles, jumped 50 steeplechase hurdles, and then threw a hundred 56 pound weights from behind his head. He lifted weights from behind, bending himself backwards in a bow .
Added to these feats, he was also an expert swordsman. His skills included slicing a lemon in half with a sword – whilst a naked outstretched hand clasped the lemon. I wonder how many volunteers he found for that supporting role?
And to cap it all, he had a troupe of performing dogs and monkeys, who did acrobatic tricks and somersaults. You have to admire the entrepreneurial skills of such a performer – using all the skills and resources at his disposal to create a viable business.
Other performers were not so versatile as the two professors, and might only have a single skill by which to earn a living. But nevertheless, a living they made. Joseph Darby, from the Black Country, became famous in late Victorian times for the exploit of spring jumping. He would jump from a stationary position, sometimes using weights to help propel himself forward, covering enormous distances. There were many local championships held for this sport, and so Joseph became a professional, living on his prize money. He used to practice at night, jumping over local canals, wearing a miner’s lamp.
His nocturnal activities helped perpetuate hysteria around the fabled existence of Spring-heeled Jack. Jack was reputedly a terrifying bogey-man of Victorian folk-lore, first documented in the 1830s. He appeared only at night, and folk would swear they saw him leaping from roof to roof, and over houses and walls.
According to his victims, he had the appearance of a devil, with clawed hands and red glowing eyes. He sometimes attacked lone pedestrians, who described his terrifying an demonic visage. Joseph Darby’s night time exercises helped re-stoke the legends of many years earlier, which could only have added to his professional mystique.
A cast of characters
These wonderful characters are just a taster of the many talented individuals who turned their talents into commercial enterprises. There were so many strong-men, in the style of Professor Hotine: men such as Egon Sandow. He set up the world’s first body-building competition, which took place in the Royal Albert Hall in 1901, and had Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as one of the judges.
Vulcana the brave
There were also strong-women, such as Vulcana – a Welsh lady born with the name Kate Williams. She toured the world with her partner, “Atlas”, and famously performed a bent (bent, not a bench) press, with an incredible weight of 145 pounds. But she was also famous for her bravery: she saved two children who were drowning in the river Usk. And she stopped a runaway horse single-handedly, in Bristol, at the age of thirteen.
Since I cannot resist interesting pieces of historical trivia – and why would I? – she also was the first person to alert the authorities to the strange disappearance of her best friend Cora…. whose surname was Crippen. Thus, Vulcana set in motion the arrest of Doctor Crippen, who had infamously murdered his wife. He fled to New York on an ocean liner, but was apprehended when he landed, through the very first use of the “wireless telegraph” as a device to catch a criminal.
Incidentally, my grandmother once told me that she remembered as a young girl being on a train, and seeing the newspaper on the seat opposite, with the headline: “Crippen caught in New York”. That would have been in 1910.
Fighters and flatulists
Besides those with the talent of phenomenal strength, we have bare knuckle fighters and catch wrestlers and acrobats and tightrope walkers. We even have flatulists (not flautists), such as Le Pêtomane, who would perform “O Sole Mio”, through a rubber tube inserted into his bottom.
But I finish with a sad tale. How do you earn your living if you are defrocked as a minister and have no other means at your disposal? You join the circus, of course. This is what happened to Harold Davidson, who was rector of Stiffkey (pronounced “sticky”), in Norfolk. He took an astute interest in the welfare of fallen women, and often travelled to London to administer to them. But alas, his flock did not view his altruism favourably, and they suspected his allegedly innocent motives.
Sadly, the Anglican church cast him out. Harold then desperately tried several means to earn a living. Eventually in 1937, he secured a job at a circus in Skegness. For his act, he first performed a religious homily outside the lion cage, and then entered into the cage as a “modern Daniel”. All went well, until one night Freddie the lion took exception to the Rector’s presence, and attacked him. Harold consequently died of his wounds. I guess the moral of this story, and our other stories, is: “stick to what you know”.
Hiding in plain sight
Ho ho, I can hear you say, how is she going to link all of these historical show people to what we hear and see now, in our own times? Actually, I think the continuity really is there in plain sight. The heirs and successors to these smart men and women who survived solely on their own talents are surely the bloggers!
The YouTubers who post on their cookery skills, or their fashion tips, or their dance techniques. The Instagrammers who devise and sell self-help courses, or meditation hours, or exercise regimes. The internet makes it easy to reach an audience, and the income increases as your audience size grows, through advertising. It’s infinitely easier now, with no need to physically travel the length of the country – your audience comes to you. But the underlying idea is the same as that of our Victorian friends. If your only asset is your unique talent, practice it, commercialise it and sell it.