Jeffrey Green

Jeffrey is a historian
based south of London

075: Horace Weston, 1825-1890

Horace Weston

Horace Weston was born in Connecticut in 1825 and died in New York 22 May 1890. He was closely associated with banjo makers S. S. Stewart & Co of Philadelphia to the extent that The Era (London’s major showbusiness publication) advertised their association (5 August 1882). The image (left) is from his obituary in S. S. Stewart’s Banjo and Guitar Journal June 1890, which indicates Weston played in London in 1878 and Germany until 1880. It quoted from the obituary in  the New York Morning Journal of 26 May 1890 that around 1884 he had appeared before Queen Victoria and was presented with a gold medal.
British reports noted Weston (“one strapping fellow, black as the ace of spades” who had a “phenomenal” banjo technique) was likely to go with the Uncle Tom’s Cabin show of Henry Jarrett and Harry Palmer from New York’s Booth’s Theatre to London (Era 17 March 1878), which he did, for Reynold’s Newspaper (1 September 1878) reported on the show’s opening of 31 August (“100 real freed slaves, and a host of jubilee singers”) at the Princess’ Theatre in London – they played afternoons at the Aquarium Theatre. Weston was “the greatest Banjo player in the world”.
The Morning Post (2 September) review said it was a “complete success”, due to the novelty of having a “troupe of real negroes and negresses”. The show lasted four hours, and Weston was “the Paganini [a violin virtuoso 1782-1840] of that intractable instrument [the banjo]”. The show closed in mid-November as it was scheduled to move to Berlin.
In January 1881 the show – still with Weston – was at Booth’s Theatre in New York again (Era 22 January 1881) when Weston was referred to as “famous”. The first mention of a link with Queen Victoria came in an obituary of  Henry Jarrett in the New York Herald which was reprinted in London’s Pall Mall Gazette on 30 August 1886, entitled “The wiles and dodges of a theatrical manager”.
“While they were playing in London, Weston – who is a real negro and not a burned cork specimen – seemed to arouse a great deal of interest on the part of ladies in the best society, and they used to write sweet notes to him and entertain him. One day Weston showed Mr. Jarrett a lot of the perfumed notes which he had received from English ladies. Jarrett’s quick eye spied a sheet of paper with the Royal coat of arms and the date of Windsor Castle. He quickly seized it and read it. It was a command from the Queen’s secretary to Weston to come to Windsor and play before her Majesty. ‘My God!’ exclaimed Jarrett, ‘when did this come?’ ”Bout tree (sic) weeks ago,’ said the negro. ‘Good heavens! man, why didn’t you show it to me? Don’t you know what this is?’ demanded Jarrett. ‘No, boss; I ‘sposed it was one o’ dem mash letters.’ ‘Why, you idiot, this is a command to appear before the Queen. You have thrown away the biggest chance you’ll ever get. It would have been thousands of dollars for all of us.’ And so it would. But it was too late.”
Unless a second invitation was sent, Horace Weston seems not to have played his banjo for Queen Victoria. As for the flirting high class English ladies, there is continuing evidence of such behaviour into the 1930s, notably with Paul Robeson, pianist-singer-stud Leslie “Hutch” Hutchinson, and Henry Crowder – their contacts included Lady Mountbatten and Nancy Cunard, daughter of Lady Cunard. Crowder’s memoir As Wonderful as all That? was published in 1987, the typescript having been used in Anne Chisholm’s biography Nancy Cunard (1979).  See also Charlotte Breese’s Hutch (1999).
See page 074 on Uncle Tom’s Cabin shows in Britain.
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Pages expanding this theme include
001 In Dahomey
049 Eugene McAdoo’s singers
074 Uncle Tom’s Cabin
120 Black prima donnas
137 Minstrel shows in Britain