Frost’s Circus Life and Circus Celebrities
Thomas Frost, Circus Life and Circus Celebrities, London: Chatto and Windus, 1881.
Continuation of the Gymnast's Reminiscences - A Circus on the move - Three Months at Carlisle - Performance for the Benefit of local Charities - Removal to Middlesborough - A Stockton Man's Adventure - Journey to York - Circus Ballets - The Paynes in the Arena - Accidents in the Ring - A Circus Benefit - Removal to Scarborough - A Gymnastic Adventure - Twelve Nights at the Pantheon - On the Tramp - Return to London.
‘THE circus was near the end of its stay at Greenock when we engaged for "general utility," and we were not sorry to leave the banks of the Clyde for a more genial climate. It rained more or less, generally more, all the time we were there, and I can quite believe the boy who assured an English tourist that it didn't always rain in Scotland, adding, "whiles it snaws." There was a frigate lying in the Clyde at the time, and whenever the crew practised gunnery down came the rain in torrents. I don't know how that phenomenon is to be accounted for; but it is a fact that there was a change from a drizzle to a down-pour whenever the big guns were fired. And then the Sundays - not a drop of beer! But what do you think the thirsty folks do? There are a great many people thirsty on Sundays in Scotland, and especially in Greenock and Glasgow; for they try to drink enough on Saturday night to last them till Monday, and that plan doesn't work satisfactorily. They go to a place called Gourock, where they can get as much ale or whiskey as they can pay for. That is how something like the Permissive Bill works in Scotland.
'On the last night of our stay in Greenock, as soon as we had doffed the circus uniform, and the audience had departed, we took down our trapeze, and proceeded to the railway station. A special train had been engaged for the removal to Carlisle of all the company, the band, the stud, and the properties, Newsome paying for all. Having to make the journey by night, we did not see much of the scenery we passed through; but we had a good time, as the Yankees say, talking joking, laughing, and singing all the way. We found at Carlisle as good a building as we had left at Greenock, and, having fixed up our trapeze, and taken a lodging, we walked round the city to see the lions, which are rather tame ones.
While we were at Carlisle, Hubert Mears was starring with us for a short time, doing the flying trapeze, and doing it, too, as well as ever I have seen it done. After him, we had Sadi Jalma, "the serpent of the desert," for a time, and very serpent-like his contortions are; he can wriggle in and out the rounds of a ladder or a chair like an eel. He is like the acrobats that I once heard a couple of small boys holding a discussion about, one maintaining that they had no bones, and the other that their bones were made of gutta percha. He calls himself a Persian prince, but I don't believe he is any relation to the Shah. He may be a Persian, for there are Arab, Hindoo, Chinese, and Japanese acrobats and jugglers knocking about over England, as well as Frenchmen, Germans, and Italians; but nationalities are as often assumed as names, and he may be no more a Persian than I am a Spaniard.
'It is a praiseworthy custom of Newsome, to devote one night's receipts to the charities of every town which he visits. It would require more time than he has to spare to make the inquiries and calculations that would be necessary before a stranger could distribute the money among the several institutions, so as to effect the greatest amount of good; and it is placed for that purpose at the disposal of the Mayor. The amount of money which he has thus given for the relief of the sick, the infirm, and the indigent during the time his circus has been travelling would have been a fortune in itself, if he had put it into his own pocket. He divides the year between four towns, and in one year he gave two hundred pounds to the charities of Preston, and forty pounds to the Seamen's Orphans' Asylum at Liverpool, besides what he gave to the similar institutions of the other towns which he visited that year.
'Our next move was to Middlesborough, where a very laughable incident occurred. A party of us ferried over to Stockton one day, and went into a public-house there for refreshment. Circus men are always courted and sought after, as soldiers are in a place where they are only occasionally seen; and, as soon as we were recognised by the Stockton men in the room as belonging to the circus, there was a great disposition shown to treat us, and to get into conversation with us. Well, a short time afterwards, one of those men came over to Middlesborough, to see the circus again, and, after the performance, he went into a public-house where he recognized Sam Sault, a gymnast from Manchester, who had lately joined us, and insisted upon treating him. Sam had no objection to be treated, and the Stockton man was elated with the opportunity of showing that he was acquainted with a circus man. So one glass followed another until the Stockton man became, all at once, helplessly drunk. Sam, who retained the use of his limbs, and some glimmering of reason, good-naturedly took his drunken friend to his lodging to save him from being turned out of the public-house, and then locked up by the police. He had no sooner reached his lodgings, and helped the drunken man up the stairs, however, than he felt a doubt as to the safety of his purse; and, on immediately thrusting his hand into his pocket, he found that it was gone. He reflected as well as he was able, and came to the conclusion that he must have left it on the parlour table at the public-house. Depositing his helpless companion upon the sofa, he ran down-stairs, and rushed off to the tavern, where, by great good fortune, he found his purse on the chair on which he had been sitting, where he had placed it, it seems, when he thought he had returned it to his pocket.
‘While he was at the public-house Joe Ridley and I, and my partner, who lodged in the same house with Sam Sault, returned to our lodging, and found the drunken man asleep on the sofa, smelling horribly of gin and tobacco smoke, and snoring like a fat hog. We looked at the fellow in surprise, wondering who he was, and how he came to be there. Neither of us recognized him as any one we had seen before. Then the question was raised, - What should we do with him. "Throw him out of the window," says Joe Ridley. "Take him down into the yard and pump on him," says Fred. "No, let us paint his face," says I. So I got some carmine, and Fred got some burnt cork, and we each painted him to our own fancy till he looked like an Ojibbeway in his war-paint. By that time Sam Sault got back from the public-house, and found us laughing heartily at the queer figure cut by the recumbent Stocktonian.
' "Oh, if he is a friend of yours, we'll wipe it off," says I, when Sam had explained how the man came to be there.
' "Oh, let it be," says Sam, "and let him be where he is; we'll turn him out in the morning, without his knowing what a beauty you have made him, and that will serve him right for giving me so much trouble."
'So the fellow was left snoring on the sofa till morning, when, it appears, he woke before we were about, and, finding himself in a strange place, walked down-stairs, and quitted the house. We never saw him again, but we often laughed as we thought of the figure the man must have cut as he stalked into Stockton, and how he must have been laughed at by his mates and the people he met on his way.
‘From Middlesborough we went to York, where the circus stood on St George's Field, an open space between the castle and the Ouse. About that time, Webster Vernon left the company, and was succeeded as ring-master by a gentleman named Vivian, who was quite new to the profession, and whose adoption of it added another to the changes which he had already known, though he was still quite a young man. He had been a lawyer's clerk, then a photographic colourist, and afterwards an actor; and was a quiet, gentlemanly fellow, unlike the majority of circus men, who are generally a fast, slangy set. He had married early, and his wife, who was an actress, had an engagement in London - a frequent cause of temporary separation among those whose business it is to amuse the public, whether their lines lie in circuses, theatres, or music-halls. Joe Ridley's wife was in London, and Sam Sault had left his better half in Manchester. Franks, and Adams, and old Zamezou, and Jem Ridley, and the head groom had their wives with them; but two of the five were connected with the circus, Adams's wife taking money at the gallery entrance, and the groom's riding in entrees.
'How did we do ballets? Well, they were ballets d' action, such as used to be done at the music-halls by the Lauri family, and more lately by Fred Evans and troupe. The Paynes starred in them at one time, but generally they were done by the regular members of the company, usually by Alf Burgess, and Funny Franks, and Joe Hogini, with Adele Newsome in the leading lady's part, the subordinate characters being taken by Marie Newsome and Jane Adams, and my partner and I, and Charley Ducrow.
'Who starred with us at this time, besides the Paynes? Well, there was Hassan, the Arab, who did vaulting and balancing feats, and his wife, who danced on the tight rope. He vaulted one night over a line of mounted dragoons from Fulwood barracks, turning a somersault over their heads and drawn sabres. Didn't we have accidents in the ring sometimes? Well, none of a very serious character, and nearly all that happened in twelve months might be counted on the fingers of one hand. Coleman slipped off the bare back of a horse one night, and cut his hand with a sword. Burgess had a finger cut one night in catching the knives for his juggling act, which used to be thrown to him from the ring-doors while he was on the globe, and keeping it in motion with his feet. Adele Newsome was thrown one night, and pitched amongst the spectators, but received no injuries beyond a bruise or two. Lizzie Keys slipped off the pad one night, but came down comfortably on the sawdust, and wasn't hurt at all. Fred fell from the trapeze once, and that was very near being the most serious accident of all. He fell head foremost, and was taken up insensible by the fellows at the ring-doors, and carried into the dressing-room. We thought his neck was broken, but Sam Sault, who had seen such accidents before, pulled his head right, and, when his senses came back to him, it did not appear that he was much the worse for the fall after all. Then my turn came. One night, when the performances were to commence with a vaulting act, I went to the circus so much more than half tight that I was advised on all sides to stand out of it, and Henry, the manager, very kindly said that I should be excused; but, with the obstinacy of men in that condition, and their usual belief that they are sober enough for anything, I persisted in going into the ring with the rest. What happened was just what might have been expected, and everybody but myself feared. Instead of clearing the horses I touched one of them, and, in consequence, instead of dropping on my feet, I was thrown upon my back; and that accident, with a violent attack of inflammation of the lungs, laid me up for two or three weeks, during which I was treated with great liberality by Newsome, and received many kindnesses from more than one of the good people of York.
‘My partner and I had a benefit while we were in York, but we didn't make more than L3 by it. The way benefits are given in circuses is by admitting the tickets sold by the party whose benefit it is, and of course the number of tickets a circus man can sell among the inhabitants of a town where he was a stranger till the circus appeared, and where he has lived only two or three months, can't be very great. We were thankful for what we got, however, and had new trunks made on the strength of it - black velvet, spangled. Soon after this we removed to Scarborough, where I had a rather perilous adventure. I attempted to ascend the cliff, and found myself, when half way up, in an awkward position. I had reached a narrow ledge, above which the cliff rose almost perpendicularly, without any projection within reach that I could grasp with one hand, or plant so much as one toe upon. Descent was almost as impracticable as the completion of the ascent, for, besides the difficulty of having to feel for a footing with my feet while descending backward, a portion of the cliff, which I had been standing upon a few minutes before, had given way and plunged down to the beach. It seemed probable that the ledge I was standing upon might give way if I stood still much longer, and in that case I should go down after it. So I shouted "help!" as loud as I could, and in a few minutes I saw the shako-covered head of a volunteer projected over the edge of the precipice, and heard him call out, "A man over the cliff!" His corps was encamped on the cliff, and in a few minutes I was an object of interest to a large number of spectators, whom his alarm had attracted to the edge of the cliff. Presently a rope was lowered to me, and held fast by men above, while I went up it, hand over hand, as I did every night in the circus, when we ascended to the trapeze.
'When we had been in Scarborough about a month, my partner and I had a disagreement, and I left the circus, and procured an engagement for twelve nights at the Pantheon music-hall. That completed, "the world was all before me, where to choose!" I thought there might be a chance of obtaining an engagement at one or other of the music-halls at Leeds and Bradford, and I visited both towns; but without meeting with success. By the time I arrived at the conclusion that I must return to London I was pretty nigh hard up. I counted my coin the morning I left Leeds, and found that I had little more than enough to enable me to reach Hull, where I expected to receive a remittance from "the old house at home!” I had a long and weary walk to Selby, where I sat down beside the river, to await the arrival of the steamer that runs between Hull and York. Once more I counted my money, and had the satisfaction of ascertaining that I had just one penny above the fare from Selby to Hull. I shoved my fingers into each corner of every pocket, but the search did not result in the discovery of a single copper more. It was something to have that penny, though, for besides being thirsty, I was so fatigued that I needed some sort of stimulant.
‘ “I must have half a pint," I thought, and I went into the nearest public-house, and had it. Then I sat down again, and looked up the brown Ouse, where at last I saw the black hull and smoking funnel of the steamer. As soon as she came alongside the landing-place, I went aboard, and descended into the fore-cabin, where I lay down, and smoked my last bit of tobacco, after which I dozed till the steamer bumped against the pier at Hull. There I was all right, as far as my immediate wants were concerned. I dined, replenished my tobacco pouch, and strolled up to Springthorp's, to see if there was any chance there. There was no immediate opening, however, and on the following day I took a passage for London in one of the steamers running between the Humber and the Thames.'
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