Jeffrey Green

Jeffrey is a historian
based south of London

074: Uncle Tom’s Cabin shows

Josh Hyatt's troupe in western England, 1904

The 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin sold thousands of copies and was translated into some 40 languages including Armenian, Welsh, Thai and Yiddish. As a play in London it ran for over 100 performances, and aspects were added to popular theatrical presentations including minstrel shows and the music hall. The elderly slave Tom and the girl Topsy, along with the white Eva, were widely known, and playing black characters was standard work for African descent performers in Britain although many whites used burnt cork to play those roles.

The first British show that used black performers seems to have been Henry C. Jarrett and Harry Palmer’s troupe from the USA: three separate groups, one played the Princess Theatre in Oxford Street, London in September-October 1878 then moved to Germany. Tom was played by W. H. Morton. The show included black banjo player Horace Weston, plantation scenes of dancing and singing, and jubilee or spiritual singers (they were absent from the novel). Four comedians (Bentley, Clifton, Tompson and Gaines as well as Morton) were mentioned in a review in Prague (now: Czech Republic) in April 1879.

In March 1882 Primrose Kelly and Moss Wilson were noted as being from the Jarrett and Palmer group when they were in a Cabin show in Bristol (Bristol Mercury 14 March 1882). William Calder a white playing Uncle Tom claimed in April 1883 that he had Jarrett and Palmer members in his Cabin show. Another group of ‘Real Negroes, Real Octoroons, Real Quadroons and Real Mulattos’ and a brass band were brought from the US by Colonel J. Holmes Grover in 1882, opening in Barrow in Furness on 27 February. There were 12 men and 12 women in the ‘company of freed slaves’. The Darlington Northern Echo (4 April 1882) noted the artistes ‘consist almost almost wholly of coloured people’. Actually Sam Devere the banjo-humourist was white.

Widely reported but giving no forename, the ‘powerful negro named Edwards’ playing Uncle Tom in Bury was attacked on stage by unmuzzled bloodhounds (Belfast Newsletter 4 May 1883). A presentation in Sheffield in March 1891 included the Pennsylvania Jubilee Singers; in April 1891 Charles Hermann’s troupe playing Stockton’s Theatre Royal had a ‘troupe of free slaves’ numbering 25, and a review said that Tom was played by ‘an old darkie’ aged 71. When it played Darlington the show included donkeys, bloodhounds, singers, a spiritual quartet and the ‘Darktown Brigade’ band.

Charles Harrington’s company which presented The Octoroon as well as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, advertised in The Era (18 July 1891) seeking ‘coloured vocalists and specialities to augment’ the company. Tom was played by George Walmer, and Topsy by ‘Miss Nellie Shannon, a coloured girl’ when in Edinburgh in August 1891. In Birmingham in June 1892 Walmer was ‘himself a negro and an admirable actor … The company contains many negroes’ (Birmingham Daily Post 7 June 1892) and one month later Harrington claimed his was ‘the largest troupe of real negroes that has ever travelled in this country’ and the show was planned to tour into 1894. A Glasgow manager wanted ‘Negro Comedians, Vocalists, and Specialty Acts’ for his Cabin show in Bristol (The Era 9 January 1892).

A Cabin show in central London had a lengthy review in The Era of 5 November 1892, naming Tom as Mr M. Drew and having six women and eight men (plus Drew?) who seem to have been black. There was a vocal sextet, a banjo player, and a choral group. The reviewer thought the show would attract an audience to the lower prices seats but it was not up to date enough to meet West End standards. Other papers regarded it as stale: and some that it could not fail.

Black performers were sought – ‘coloured people and specialities for plantation scene. Sobriety indispensible’ (The Era 31 December 1892). Actress Amy Height ‘a plantation songstress’ worked in pantomime in London in the winter of 1897, and was in a Cabin show in Hammersmith, west London in 1903 when Uncle Tom was played by a man from North Carolina who said he had lived in Britain for 20 years. Josh Hybert advertised ‘real minstrels from the cotton fields’ in the Hampshire Telegraph in November 1898, advertised for a ‘few good coloured singers and dancers’ in The Era in September 1899, and had a commercial postcard taken in Falmouth in 1904 (see above) which shows four black males, one black female, two females with dark complexions, and nine whites.

In 1913 Carlton Bryan, a Jamaican who had toured Britain 1906 to 1908 with the Jamaica Native Choir (Kingston Choral Union) worked in a Cabin show in Holloway, north London (see page 027). Tom was played by John H. Boehm, a Ghanaian. It featured a ‘grand plantation festival by real negroes’. It moved to Southampton in March 1913. The Gate Theatre in London mounted a semi-satirical version in December 1933 but it seems that black actors and dancers were now often involved in US-style jazz-dance shows of the Blackbirds variety, a fresh element from the 1920s and one which, like Cabin shows, gave employment and also presented stereotypical images of American black life to the British.

Bookshelves across the nation still contained copies of the novel and Topsy (who ‘just growed’) and the saintly Uncle Tom remained strong images of black people. We have to ask ourselves how many of the African-descent performers had ever seen a plantation, how many were American, how many whites blacked up to play Tom, and how a serious novel could be turned into stage entertainment with donkies, dogs, banjo-playing comedians, spirituals and dancing. That Cabin shows have been traced in Germany and the Netherlands suggests this was a common phenomenon around Europe – in the era of white imperialism, too.

Pages expanding this theme include
001 In Dahomey
049 Eugene McAdoo’s singers
075 Horace Weston, banjo maestro
120 Black prima donnas
137 Minstrel shows in Britain

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