In a recent programme on the BBC about class and culture Melvyn Bragg explores the relationship between class and culture between 1911 and 2011 and how it has shaped modern society. His introduction to the series warns that it is ‘inevitably selective.’ He tends to concentrate on the elements of culture that have most resonance today such as ballroom dancing and cinema. One of his omissions is one of the most important forms of mass entertainment of the period – the music halls.
Mass consumption didn’t just start with the ballrooms and cinemas. Before these, there were the music halls – hot beds of mass entertainment, comedy and sedition right up until after WWI. The halls were turned into cinemas as popularity of cinema increased and that of traditional variety declined. But don’t forget that the comedy acts of the music halls have a direct influence on those of today – take Monty Python‘s silliness or the one line gags of comedians like Frank Carson (RIP) and Tim Vine.
Pantomime, variety and music hall were the bedrock of popular entertainment in Britain from the middle of the 19th Century up to the end of the First World War. This was also the bedrock of popular TV right up until the 1980s. Many of the clowns and comedians, novelty acts, tumblers and acrobats, singers and dancers who toured the inns and taverns, then the music halls that evolved from them started in the circus.
Tracing ancestors who performed in the circus, the halls and theatres can be challenging. Performers were itinerant, often changed their names, married and re-married. Many, however, kept photos and memorabilia. Growing up I was surrounded with boxes of old photos, albums, letters, datebooks playbills and programmes. The photos were of grand parents, cousins, uncles and aunts and of the acts they were in, the shows they did and stills from their films. Using this material as a basis, then searching family records and census data put the history of my family and popular culture in those years into context.
The Poluski Brothers
My great-grandfather was William Nelson Govett (1854 –1923). His brother was Samuel Thomas Govett (1866 – 1922). Together they were The Poluski Brothers, a popular music hall comedy double act from the 1880s up until the First World War.
They started as tumblers and musical clowns with Duffy’s Circus, touring Britain in the 1870s. Belfast shoemaker Patrick James Duffy started the circus in England in the 1840s. In his memoir, Patrick Duffy’s grandson John Duffy – known as the Irish Barnum – wrote:
I was born in a caravan in Over, Cambridge on October 1 1875. When I was born, my parents, who were circus artistes were out of work and had no money. When I came to town one of the artistes, Sam Poluski, managed to scrape up sixpence and he walked five miles to Cambridge to buy a feeding bottle for me. Sam Poluski and his brother Will (who were apprentices to my Grandfather) in later years turned out to be two of London’s greatest comedians, and commanded a big salary.
By 1884 The Poluskis were at the Trocadero and Eden Theatre, Great Windmill Street, Haymarket in a ‘Monstre Entertainment.’ Also on the bill were The Sisters Waite. Harriet Waite was later to marry Will Poluski.
In 1885 they were performing at Gatti’s Palace of Varieties, Lambeth, in its Whitsun entertainments, billed as ‘Will and Sam, eccentric comedians and acrobatic marvels’. And in 1892 they were touring the halls, appearing on the same bill as Vesta Victoria at the Empire Palace Theatre in Edinburgh. Vesta Victoria sang Daddy Wouldn’t Buy me Bow Wow and Waiting at the Church. Other variety acts on the bill included The Craggs; ‘the most wonderful acrobats the world has ever produced;’ Vento, ‘ventriloquist, humourist and mimic’ and the Forget-me-nots – ‘the smallest song and dance artistes on the variety stage.’
The Poluskis staged a sketch entitled Late on Parade’ using a row of dummy soldiers. Sam was Captain Blazer. Will was Corporal Spottletoe, made up in the ordinary dress of an officer, while Sam’s make-up was an ‘extraordinary conception, as grotesque as it was original.’ Two of the doll-like dummies were on springs which, on being struck by either of the Poluskis, rebounded to give a knock-down blow in return.
The Poluskis toured this act for years even taking it to the Tivoli in Sydney, Australia in 1898, where they appeared in Harry Rickard’s variety show. Back in the UK they appeared in Howard and Wyndham Ltd’s pantos including Aladdin at the Royal Court Theatre in Liverpool.
They’d come a long way from the their humble circus origins by 1914 performing in a royal matinée for King George V and Queen Mary at The Palladium in aid of the Chelsea Hospital for Women sharing the bill with George Robey.
Popular variety acts like The Poluskis took advantage of the new phonograph and cinema to reach wider audiences. Will and Sam recorded on the Columbia label including sketches entitled Misunderstood and The Village Blacksmith, recorded in 1912.
Sam Poluski also made some silent films between around 1911 and 1915. An example was Nobby the New Waiter (1913), made by the Ec-Ko Film Company and directed by WP Kellino. Sam played waiter Nobby who gets a new job but quickly gets the sack. He smokes on duty, flirts with the cook and roller skates. Two customers evade paying by engaging Nobby in a game of ‘Blind man’s Bluff’. The film drew on routines Sam performed with Will in their double act.
Will Poluski had four children: Charlotte, Winifred, Sam and William junior, who married Rosetta Wood (aka Rosie Lloyd) singer and sister of Marie Lloyd, famous for tunes like My Old Man Said Follow the Van and I Sits Among the Cabbages and Peas. Sam Poluski was best man to Alec Hurley at Marie Lloyd’s wedding in 1906.
Winnifred’s daughter Polly Ward (also known as Bino Poluski) starred alongside George Formby and Max Miller in a number of films and was a singer and dancer in many pantos including Babes in the Wood, Aladdin, Dick Wittington and Puss in Boots.