London Labour and the London Poor, volume 3

Mayhew, Henry


The Penny-Gaff Clown.


THE "professional" from whom I elicited my knowledge of penny-gaff clowning is known among his companions as "Funny Billy." He appeared not a little anxious to uphold the dignity of the penny theatre, frequently assuring me that "they brought things out there in a style that would astonish some of the big houses." His whole being seemed wrapped up in these cheap dramatic saloons, and he told me wonderful stories of -class actors at "The Effingham," or of astonishing performers at "The Bower," or "Rotunda." He was surprised, too, that the names of several of the artistes there were not familiar to me, and frequently pressed me to go and see soand-so"s "Beadle," or hear so-and-so sing his "Oh! don"t I like my Father!"

Besides being a clown, my informant was also "an author," and several of the most successful ballets, pantomimes, and dramas, that of late years have been brought out at the City gaffs, have, I was assured, proceeded from "his pen."

In build, even in his every-day clothes, he greatly resembles a clown—perhaps from the broadness of his chest and high-buttoned waistcoat, or from the shortness and crookedness of his legs; but he was the I had seen whose form gave any indication of his calling.

Since the beginning of this year () he has given up clowning, and taken to pantalooning instead, for "on last boxing-day," he informed me, "he met with an accident which dislocated his jaw, and caused a swelling in his cheek as if he had an apple inside his mouth." This he said he could conceal in his make--up as a pantaloon, but it had ruined him for clown.

His statement was as follows:—

"I"m a clown at penny gaffs and the cheap theatres, for some of the gaffs are twopence and threepence—that"s as high as they run. The Rotunda in the Blackfriars"--road is the largest in London, and that will hold comfortably seated, and they give in evening, at penny, twopence, and threepence, and a -class entertainment it is, consisting of a variety of singing and dancing, and ballets, from hour and a-half to hours. There are no penny theatres where speaking is legally allowed, though they do do it to a great extent, and at all of "em at Christmas a pantomime is played, at which Clown and Pantaloon speaks.

The difference between a penny-gaff clown and a fair, or, as we call it, a canvas clown, is this,—at the fairs the principal business is outside on the parade, and there"s very little done (seldom more than scenes) inside. Now at the penny gaffs they go through a regular pantomime, consisting of from to scenes, with jumps and all complete, as at a regular theatre; so that to do clown to of them, you must be equal to those that come out at the regular theatres; and what"s more, you must strain every nerve; and what"s more still, you may often please at a regular theatre when you won"t go down at all at a penny gaff. The circus clown is as different from a penny-gaff clown as a coster is from a tradesman.

What made me turn clown was this. I was singing comic songs at the Albion Saloon, Whitechapel, and playing in ballets, and doing the scene-painting. Business was none of the best. Mr. Paul Herring, the celebrated clown, was introduced into the company as a draw, to play ballets. The ballet which he selected was "The Barber and Beadle;" and me being the only who played the old men on the establishment, he selected me to play the Beadle to his Barber. He complimented me for what I had done, when the performance was over, for I done my uttermost to gain his applause, knowing him to be such a star, and what he said was—I think— deserved. We played together ballets for upwards of months, as well as pantomimes, in which I done the Pantaloon; and we had clear benefits between us, in which we realised each, on both occasions. Then Mr. Paul Herring was engaged by Mr. Jem Douglass, of the Standard, to perform with the great clown, Mr. Tom Matthews, for it was intended to have clowns in the piece. He having to go to the Standard for the Christmas, left about September, and we was without a clown, and it was proposed that I should play the clown. I accepted the offer, at a salary of a-week, under Hector Simpson, the great pantomimist —who was proprietor, This gentleman was well known as the great dog-and-bear man of Covent Garden, and various other theatres, where he played Valentine and Orson with a living bear. He showed me various things that I were deficient in, and with what I knew myself we went on admiringly well; and I continued at it as clown for upwards of a year, and became a great favourite.

I remember clowning last Christmas () particularly, for it was a sad year for me, and


of the busiest times I have ever known. I met with my accident then. I was worked to death. of all, I had to do my rehearsals; then I had the scene-painting to go on with, which occupied me night and day, and what it brought me in was aday and a-night. The last scene, equal to a pair of flats, was only given to me to do on Christmas-eve, to accomplish by the boxing-day. I got them done by o"clock at Christmas morning, and then I had to go home and complete my dress, likewise my little boy"s, who was engaged to sing and play in ballets at a-night; and he was only years old, but very clever at singing, combating, and ballet performing, as also the illustrations of the Grecian statues, which he done when he was and a half years old.

The pantomime was the original Statue Blanche, as performed by Joe Grimaldi, as Mr. Hector Simpson had produced it — for it was under his superintendence—at Govent Garden Theatre. It"s title was, "The Statue Blanche, or Harlequin and the Magic Cross." I was very successful on the boxing-night, but on the occasion of my acting in it I received an accident, which laid me up for months, and I was not off my bed for weeks.

I had, previous to this, played clown very often, especially on the Saturday evenings, for the Jews, for I was a great favourite with them; so far, that I knew they would go far and near to serve me. I had performed in "Harlequin Blue Beard," and "Harlequin Merry Milliners, or The Pair of Lovers," and several others, from to of them; but that was during the summer season. But I had never had a chance of coming out at Christmas before, and to me it was quite an event, and there"s no doubt I should have prospered in it only for my accident.

This accident was occasioned by this. During the comic scene—the scene of the stripping of the child—they allowed an inexperienced person to play the part of the Beadle, and the doll for the child was stuffed with oak sawdust, and weighed . He took it up by the leg and struck me a blow in the face, which dislocated the jaw-bone, and splintered it all to pieces. I went through the pantomime with the remnants of the broken jaw still in my face, having then hours to perform, for we played houses that boxing-day, to upwards of from to people, and we began at half-past in the day, and terminated at at night. I had met with great approbation the whole of the time, and it was a sad event for me. It was quite accidental was my accident, and of course I bore the man no malice for , but more blamed the manager for letting him come on.

When I had done that night, after my blow, I felt very fatigued, and my face was very sore. I was completely jaw-locked, and I imagined I had caught a cold. It hurt me awfully every time I closed my teeth, but I drowned my feelings in a little brandy, and so forth; and the next night I resumed my clowning. After I had done that evening, I found I was so very bad I could hardly move; and going home with my wife and children, I was obliged to sit down every other yard I took, which occupied me very near hours to do the mile and a quarter. I went to bed, and never got up again for weeks, for it brought on fever again. Ah! what I have suffered, God, and God only, knows! When the doctor came, he said I were under a very severe fever, and he thought I had caught a cold, and that I had the erysiphilas, my face being so swollen that it hung on my shoulders as they propped me up with pillows. He knew nothing about it. He made "em bathe my face with poppy-heads, and wash my mouth out with honey, which drove me out of my mind, for I was a fortnight deranged. My wife told me, that whilst I was mad I had behaved very ill to her—poor thing!—for I wouldn"t let anybody come near me but her; and when she"d come I"d seize her by the hair, and fancy she was the man who had broke my jaw; and once I near strangled her. I was mad, you know. Ah! what I suffered then, nobody knows. Through that accident my wife and children has had many a time to go without victuals. Everything was sold then to keep me from the workhouse—even my poor little children"s frocks. My poor wife saved my life, if anybody did, for doctors gave me up. I don"t believe they knew what I had. The teeth was loose, but the mouth was closed, and I couldn"t open it. They thought I had an abscess there, and they cut me or times in the neck to open the gathering. At last they found out the jaw-bone was smashed. When I got better, the doctor told me he could do nothing for me, but give me a letter to Dr. Fergusson, at the King"s College Hospital. I went to him, and he examined and probed the jaw through the incision under the gland of the neck, and then he said he must take the jaw out. I said I would consult my friends and hear what they said ; and with the idea of such an operation, and being so weak, I actually fainted down in the passage as I was leaving.

Ah! fancy my distress to make such a hit, and everybody to compliment me as they did, and to see a prospect of almost coining money, and then suddenly to be thrown over, and be told it was either life or death for me!

I wouldn"t undergo the operation. So I went home, and here comes fortitude. I pulled out the teeth with a pair of cobbler"s pincers, and cut open my face with a penknife to take out the bits of bone. If I hadn"t been a prudent, sober man, I should have died through it.

There was a friend of mine who was like a brother to me, and he stuck to me every


inch. There was lots of professionals I had supported in their illness, and they never come near me; only my dear friend, and but for him I should have died, for he saved up his money to get me port wine and such things.

Many a time I"ve gone out when I was better to sing comic songs at concerts, when I could feel the bits of bone jangling in my mouth. But, sir, I had a wife and family, and they wanted food. As it was, my poor wife had to go to the workhouse to be confined. At time I started off to do away with myself. I parted with my wife and children, and went to say good-by to my good friend, and it was he who saved my life. If it hadn"t been for him it would have been a gooser with me, for I was prepared to finish all. He walked about with me and reasoned me out of it, and says he, "What on earth will become of the wife and the children?"

I"m sufficiently well now to enable me to resume my old occupation, not as Clown but as Pantaloon.

Altogether—taking it all in all—I was years as clown, and very successful and a great favourite with the Jews. My standing salary for comic singing and clown was eighteen shillings a-week; but then at Christmas it was always rose to or thirtyfive shillings. Then I did the writing and painting, such as the placards for the outside; such as, "This saloon is open this evening," and such-like; and that, on the average, would bring me in a-week.

There was men and females in my company when we played "Harlequin Blue Beard," for that"s the I shall describe to you, and that we played for a considerable time. I was manager at the time, and I always was liked by the company, for I never fined them or anything like that; for, you see, I knew that to take sixpence from a poor man was to take a loaf of bread from the children.

This pantomime was of my own writing, and I managed the chorus and the dances, and all. I painted the scenery, too, and moulded the masks—about altogether—and then afterwards played clown. All this was included in my salary of eighteen shillings aweek, and that was the top price of the company.

The scene was with a cottage on the left hand and with the surrounding country in the back; rows of waters, with the distant view of Blue Beard"s castle. Enters the lover (he"s the Harlequin) in a disguise dressed as a Turk; he explains in the pantomime that he should like to make the lady in the cottage his bride (which is Fatima, and afterwards Columbine). He goes to the cottage and knocks times, when she appears at the window. She comes out and dances with him. At the end of the dance the old man comes in, to the tune of "Roast Beef of Old England." He wears a big mask, and is the father to Fatima, and afterwards Pantaloon. He drives lover off stage, and is about to take Fatima back to cottage, when castle gates at back opens and discovers Blue Beard in gondola, which crosses the stage in the waters. Blue Beard wears a mask and a tremendous long sword, which takes men to pull out. He"s afterwards Clown, and I played the part.

Several other gondolas cross stage, and when the last goes off the chorus begins in the distance, and increases as it approaches, and is thus:

In fire or in water, in earth or in air:

Wake up, old Blue Beard, these good things to


Wake up! wake up! wake old up Blue Beard, these good things to share.

Then comes Blue Beard"s march, and enter troops, followed by Shackaback in a hurry. He"s Blue Beard"s servant. He bears on his shoulder an immense key, which he places in the middle of stage. He then comes to the front with a scroll, which he exhibits, on which is written:

Blue Beard comes this very day,

A debt of gratitude to pay:

Aye, you needn"t trouble, it is all right,

He intends to wed Fatima this very night.

At which they all become alarmed, and in an immense hurry of music enters Blue Beard majestically. He sings, to the tune of "The Low-back Car:"

When first I saw that lady,

As you may plainly see,

I thought she was the handsomest girl

As ever there could be;

Such a cheerful chubby girl was she,

With such a pair of eyes,

With such a mouth, and such a nose,

That she did me so surprise:

Which made me cry out,

Ha! Ha!

"The lover from the side says:

You"re no credit to your dada.

Then Blue Beard looks round fiercely, and his mask is made with eyes to work with strings:

But I shall him surprise

When I opens my eyes,

(and he opens a tremendous pair of saucer eyes),

That talks of my dear dada.

Then the music goes "Ha! ha!" As he draws his sword into the army of men, Shackaback gets it on the nose.

"Then Blue Beard goes direct to the old man and embraces him, and shows him a big purse of money. He then goes to the young lady, but she refuses him, and says she would sooner wed the young trooper. The old man gets in a rage, when enters Demon unseen by all; he waves over their heads; they then catch hold of hands and dance round the key again, to the tune of "The Roast Beef of Old Eng-


land." Then begins a chorus which is thus, to the tune of "Stoney Batter:"

Round this magic key

Gaily let us trudge it;

Hoping something new

Will be brought to our Christmas budget.

But a song about a key,

Is but a doleful matter,

So we"ll sing one of our own,

And we"ll call it Stoney Batter.

Ri too loo ral loo.

(Fairies from the side:)

Ri too loo ral rido.


Ri too loo ral roo, loo ral lido.

"After dancing round key, Blue Beard orders of the troops to seize the girl and carry her to the castle. Then they catch hands and begin singing, to the tune of "Fine Young Bachelors:"

Here"s a jolly lot of us,

Fine Turkish gentlemen;

With plenty of money in our purse,

Fine Turkish gentlemen," &c. &c.

And the scene closes on this. Then the lover just crosses, so as to give time to arrange the back scene. He vows vengeance on Blue Beard. Then scene opens, and discovers a chamber with Fatima on couch, and Demon behind with a large heart, on the scene over which is in illuminated letters:

Whosoe"er this dagger takes,

The magic spells of Blue Beard breaks.

The large key is placed at the foot of the couch on which she is laying. We don"t introduce the haunted chamber scenes, as it would have been too lengthened; but it was supposed that she had been there and examined it, and terror had overcome her and she had swooned. That"s when the audience sees her. We couldn"t do all the story at a penny gaff, it was too long. To return to the plot.

Enter Fairy, who dances round the stage, and sees the heart. She goes and snatches the dagger; then a loud crash, and the key falls to pieces on the stage.

I had five shillings given me as a present for that scene, for I had painted the scene all arches, and round every pillar was a serpent with fire coming from the mouth. I produced that pantomime, so that altogether it did not cost thirty shillings, because each man found his own dress, don"t you see.

After the crash enters Blue Beard. He says the lady has broken the key, and he is about to kill her; when enter lover, and he has a terrific combat, in which they never hit a blow (like a phantom-fight); but the lover is about to be struck to the ground, when enters Fairy, who speaks these words: Hold! turn and turn is the Yorkshire way. You think ours. Now your dog shall have its day. Behold!

Then the scene falls, and discovers a fairy palace at back, with fairies, who sing: Come, listen, gentle lover, Come, listen unto me; Be guided by our fairy queen, Who gained your liberty.

They all look dismayed at one another, and go to the sides ready for changing their dresses for the comic work.

The Fairy Queen then says: You, the true lover, I think knows no sin, Therefore grace our pantomime as Harlequin.

And turning to the lady she adds: Nay, young lady, do not pine, But attend him as his faithful Columbine.

Turning to Blue Beard: You, Blue Beard, a man of great renown, Shall grace our pantomime as Christmas Clown.

Then Clown comes forward, and cries: "Halla! ha, ha, ha! here we are! Shobbus is out;" (that"s the Jewish Sunday); and, oh dear! how they used to laugh at that!

Then she turns to the old man: You, old man, you"ve been a silly loon, Attend him as slippery fidgetty Pantaloon!

Then as she"s going off she says: Ah! I"d almost forgotten; Never mind, it is all right; Demon of the magic key, Attend as Sprite.

Then the fairies sing: We fairies dance, we fairies sing, Whilst the silver moon is beaming; We fairies dance, we fairies sing, To please our Fairy Queen.

Then there is blue fire, and the scene closes, and the comic business begins.

Clown dances first with Harlequin, and at the end of trip hollars out: "Ha, here we are!" Then he sings out, each time Harlequin beats him, "A, E, I," (Pantaloon drops in and gets a blow, O!); and Clown says, "Tuppence! all right, you owe me nothing; I shan"t give you no change."

Then there"s a photography scene, and Clown comes on and says, "Here, I say, what shall we do for a living?" Then Pantaloon says, "We"ll become dancing-masters." The Clown says, "They"ll take likenesses."

"Ah, here"s somebody coming!"

Enter a swell with white ducks, and a blacking-boy follows, says, "Clean your boots, sir?" Clown asks him to clean his. As the boy is beginning, Harlequin bangs him, and he knocks the boy over. Next bang he gets he hits Pantaloon, and says he did it. Panta- loon says, "I never touched you;" and Clown replies, "Then don"t do it again." Then I"d give "em a rub up on the smoking mania. I"d say to boy, "Here, boy, take this farden to get yourself a pipe of tobacco, little boys is fond of smoking;" and Pantaloon would add, "Yes, men"s left off." Boy goes off to buy the tobacco, and leaves his blacking-box, which Clown promises to take care of and clean the boots. He hollows out, "Clean your boots?" and Pantaloon puts his foot down, and gets his toes rapped. Enter a lady, who asks where she can have her portrait taken,—Yes, marm; over there,—Clown steals parcel. When lady is gone, Clown discovers parcel to contain blank cards. This is what he takes the portraits on, and it was at a time when they was all the rage at a shilling. Clown then says, he"s taking portraits, and makes a camera out of the blacking-box. He cuts a hole in the box, and sticks the blacking-bottle for a lens. Then he places the box on Pantaloon"s back for a stand. Then, of course, Clown knocks him over, and he asks what that"s for. "Why, if you"re a stand, what do you fall for? I never see such a stand." Then ladies and gentlemen come in to have their portraits taken, and Clown smears the cards with blacking and gives it, and asks a shilling; when they grumble and won"t pay, he rubs the blacking in their faces. General row, and the scene changes to a street-scene. There"s another trip by Harlequin and Columbine, and enters Clown in a hurry with six fish, and he meets Pantaloon. "Look"ee here, what I"ve found!" "Oh, fair halves!" "All right! sit down, and you shall have them." Pantaloon declines, and Clown knocks him down, and they begin sharing fish. "There"s one for you and one for me, another for you and another for me, another for you and another for me." "How many have you got?" asks Clown, and Pantaloon says, "One— two—three." Clown says, "No! you"ve got more than three." Then, taking one up, he asks, "How many is that?"—"One." Taking another up, "How many"s that?" Pantaloon exclaims, "Two!" Clown says, "Then two and one is three," and takes up another, and asks how many that is. Pantaloon exclaims, "Three!" Clown says, "Then three and three makes six." Clown then counts his own, and says, "I"ve only got three; you must give me these three to make me six. That"s fair halves. Ain"t you satisfied?" "No!" "Then take that," and he knocks him over with a fish.

The next scene is a public-house—"The Freemasons" Arms, a select club held here." After trip by Harlequin and Columbine, enters Clown and Pantaloon. "Look"ee here! it"s a public-house! let"s have half a pint of halfand- half." Clown hollows, "Now ramrod!" meaning landlord, and he comes on. "Why don"t you attend to gentlemen?" "What"s your pleasure, sir?" "Half a pint of half-and-half for me and my friend." He brings a tumbler, which Harlequin breaks, and it comes in half. "Hallo!" cries Clown; "this is rum half-and-half! Here"s half for you and half for me."

Then they say, "I say, here"s somebody coming." Enter two Freemasons, who give each other the sign by shaking both hands, bumping up against each other, whispering in each other"s ear, and going into the publichouse. Clown then calls the landlord, and says he belongs to the club. Landlord asks him for the sign. Clown says he"s got it over the door. He then takes Pantaloon and shakes his hands, and bumps him, and asks if that is the sign. The landlord says "No." "Is that it?" "No, this is," and he gives Clown a spank; and he passes it to Pantaloon, and knocks him down. "That"s the sign; now we"ve got it between us." "Yes, and I"ve got the best half."

Clown says, "Never mind, we will get in;" and he goes to the door and knocks, when the club descends and strikes them on the head. Clown then tells Pantaloon to go and knock, and he"ll watch and see where it comes from. The club comes down again, and knocks Pantaloon on the head; but Clown sees from whence it comes and pulls a man in fleshings out of the window. Clown and Pantaloon pursues him round stage, and he knocks them both over, and jumps through a trap in the window with a bottle on it, marked "Old Tom," and a scroll falls down, written "Gone to blazes." Pantaloon follows, and flap falls, on which is written, "To be left till called for." Clown is about to follow, when gun fires and scroll falls with "Dead letter" on it. Pantaloon is bundled out by landlord and others; general row; policemen springing rattles, fireworks, &c.

There are from four to five comic scenes like this. But it would take too long to describe them. Besides, we don"t do the same scenes every evening, but vary them each night.

Then comes the catch, or the dark scene, in which Clown, Pantaloon, Harlequin, and Columbine are in the dark, and seize one another. Hold! you"ve done your best with all your might, And we"ll give our friends a charge another night.

You see the poetry is always beautifully adapted to ourselves. They"ve very clever fairies.

We in generally finale with that there: We fairies dance; we fairies sing, Whilst the silver moon is beaming; We fairies dance, we fairies sing, And we have pleased our Fairy Queen.

Then the bell rings, and the man who keeps order cries out, "Pass out! pass out!"

The performance generally takes from one hour and a half to an hour and three-quarters, and we do three of "em a night. It makes the perspiration run off you, and every house I have a wet shirt. The only rest I have is with my boy singing "Hot codlins." When they call for the song I say, "Yes, yes; all right; you shall have them; only there"s a chip of mine will sing it for me," and I introduce my little boy—of four then—to sing.

The general pay for Clowns at penny exhibitions is averaging from twenty to twentyfive shillings a-week. You can say without exaggeration, that there are twenty of these penny exhibitions in London. They always produce a new pantomime at Christmas; and all the year round, in summer as well as winter, they bring "em out, when business is shy, for a draw, which they always find them answer.

A Clown that can please at a penny gaff, is capable of giving satisfaction at any theatre, for the audience is a very difficult one to entertain. They have no delicacy in "em, and will hiss in a moment if anything displeases them.

A pantomime at a penny exhibition will run at Christmas three weeks or a month, if very successful; and during that time it"s played to upwards of twelve hundred persons a-night, according to the size of the house, for few penny ones hold more than four hundred, and that"s three times a-night. The Rotunda in the Blackfriars"--road, and the Olympic Circus in the Lower Marsh, Lambeth, do an immense business, for they hold near a thousand each, and that"s three thousand spectators the night.

When the pantomime is on we only do a little comic singing before it begins playing.

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 Title Page
Chapter I: The Destroyers of Vermin
Our Street Folk - Street Exhibitors
Chapter III: - Street Musicians
Chapter IV: - Street Vocalists
Chapter V: - Street Artists
Chapter VI: - Exhibitors of Trained Animals
Chapter VII: Skilled and Unskilled Labour - Garret-Masters
Chapter VIII: - The Coal-Heavers
Chapter IX: - Ballast-Men
Chapter X: - Lumpers
Chapter XI: Account of the Casual Labourers
 Chapter XII: Cheap Lodging-Houses
Chapter XIII: On the Transit of Great Britain and the Metropolis
Chapter XIV: London Watermen, Lightermen, and Steamboat-Men
Chapter XV: London Omnibus Drivers and Conductors
Chapter XVI: Character of Cabdrivers
Chapter XVII: Carmen and Porters
Chapter XVIII: London Vagrants
 Chapter XIX: Meeting of Ticket-of-Leave Men