Jeffrey Green

Jeffrey is a historian
based south of London

201 : Street entertainers in Victorian times

There were reports of a fire eater named Archibald Roberts in the Hampshire Advertiser of 23 January 1869. He was sent to prison for a week for being drunk and disorderly in Southampton. Days later he was back in court, charged with intending to commit a felony – he was found in the backyard of a house. Roberts stated the police had prevented him earning a living as a fire eater and so he had become dishonest in order to eat. He was put back in prison for two weeks with hard labour.

A street performer named Charles Madonna was arrested when juggling sticks or canes in Villiers Street by London’s Charing Cross railway station in 1874. The ‘negro’ had been told to move on by a police constable, but – according to a witness – Madonna had taken so long the policeman pushed him across the road. He became more violent towards Madonna, so passers-by called out ‘shame’. Then the officer instructed a bystander to take one remonstrating gentleman into custody. The Bow Street magistrate thought the officer had been too zealous, expressed his opinion that constables should use their powers carefully and with great moderation, and dismissed the case against Madonna, duly reported in The Times on 20 October 1874, p 9. This may have been the same man who, more than three years later, was mentioned in Lloyd’s Weekly Register of 13 January 1878.

William Johnson was earning his living as a street acrobat, performing in Hammersmith Broadway, west London, in late March 1877, carrying weights in his mouth to exhibit his strength when a bricklayer pushed him over, struck him in the face and threw water from a horse trough over him. The bricklayer was sent to prison for one month with hard labour (The Times, 27 March 1877, p 11).

Another fire eater, active in London, was fined five shillings in January 1882. William Thompson was charged with being drunk, disorderly and using foul language. A police officer had asked him to stop causing an obstruction in the Walworth Road. He had been in court before (Morning Post [London], 11 January 1882, p 6; Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper [London], 15 January 1882).

When showman George Johnson died in Birmingham in 1884 it was said that he was a caller-in, attracting the attention of passersby to shows. ‘Sometimes he exhibited himself in costume, as a Zulu. (Laughter.)’ (Birmingham Daily Post, 9 April 1884). The showbusiness weekly The Era carried an advertisement on 15 August 1880. A man in Swansea wanted a doorsman, ‘one used to the performing seals. A man of colour preferred’. An African link to black people was clear, but seals? The Christmas 1881 show at London’s Middlesex theatre included a coloured wire walker named Malcolm who stood on a ladder balanced on the wire (Era, [London], 7 January 1882). Thousands attended such shows which might be seen as a step up from street performances.

A London showman attracted attention to his newly-opened menagerie by having a brass band and also a black man playing a trumpet and banging a gong, reported in London’s Morning Post of 4 May 1887, p 8. Joseph Reed was a street entertainer, who performed with weights. In Upper Canal Walk, Southampton he slipped and was taken to the hospital with a broken leg in January 1887 according to the Hampshire Advertiser of 19 January 1887.

William Anderson attracted people in Norton Folgate in the City of London in 1891, and the crowds blocked the street – but the summons was reissued in the name of his employer who took the money and had done so for about one month. Having paid his fine he asked the magistrate about the rights of shopmen, and was told that blocking the pavement was not acceptable (Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper [London], 29 March 1891).

Taking over a shop for a few weeks, and charging small sums to the curious who wanted to look at the fat lady, the two-headed pig, or similar curious object (often part of touring fairs in warmer weather), could bring as much as £16 a day but the law permitted a maximum fine of two pounds. It was recommended that the police brought charges every day. And that a report of a penny show at 107 Whitechapel Road mentioned that a ‘black man with bells on him, and said to be a Zulu, was dancing at the door at intervals’ to attract the crowds. The Daily News of 19 February 1891 also noted that female boxers attracted crowds. The ‘Zulu’ street entertainer was also reported in the Standard [London], 19 February 1891, p 2.

People of Asian descent were also to be seen on the streets: Alfred Rumjun was a travelling juggler whose clothes and an umbrella were damaged when he was working in a small circus in the mill town of Milnsbridge near Huddersfield in August 1891. He accused a milk dealer of assault and theft, and won  according to the Huddersfield Daily Chronicle of 26 August 1891, p 3. See also page 089 of this website  – the Great Hindu Snake Charmer, 1879-1885.

Street performers were mobile for their audiences would surely ignore them after two or three experiences? They could make appearances at race meetings, in the booths of fairs and tented shows, but always on the margins.

Other highly visible street people included George Daniels who earned his living in St Helens by transporting people in an old carriage drawn by donkeys, but was named in the Liverpool Mercury (30 January 1877) because he had been accused of stabbing a medical student. Playing a street organ was how John Peters earned a living for several years. He married a woman who had a child; their own children came later and they lived in Nottingham. In 1875 he was with his barrel organ in Ipswich where he was playing it in the street, one foot in the gutter, when a wagon driven by an intoxicated man damaged it. From earning about one pound a week Peters was reduced to labouring (probably stoking coal into the furnaces) in the gas works and selling tracts, and his income dropped. He wanted compensation for repairs. Peters was South African and had lived in Britain for over twenty years, and had volunteered to serve on ships in the Crimean War. He had purchased the organ for twelve pounds. He was awarded over five pounds plus costs, and the driver was told that it would have been better if he had talked with Peters to reach a fair arrangement according to the Ipswich Journal of 24 August 1875. In 1877 Peters took his barrel organ to Manchester and on returning home found his wife Kate had taken a lodger, a ‘negro’ or ‘African’ named Harry Johnson. Back in Manchester his child appeared, saying that Johnson and Kate had gone to Edinburgh. Peters returned to Nottingham and discovered they had sold his home. He tracked the pair to Stephenson Street, West Hartlepool and the police arrested them for stealing and sent them to Nottingham. Peters had to pawn his organ to raise the money for all this travelling; he was helped by another black male in Darlington (Weekly Gazette [Middlesbrough] 10 March 1877, p 5. Johnson was released as the woman was to blame. This ‘singular elopement case’ was mentioned in the newspapers in March 1877 (Royal Cornwall Gazette [Truro], 16 March 1877, p 7; see also Nottingham Guardian, 27 December 1878, p 3. However in 1895 a London newspaper commented that it was rare to see a black man with a barrel organ (Huddersfield Daily Chronicle, 27 March 1895 and 30 March 1895).