Working class culture was not all strictly ballroom, chapels and brass bands – what about the Halls?


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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

Sam and Will Poluski Music Hall

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.

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Castor church to host Peterborough’s first Rock Mass


Castor Church Rock Mass
An exciting rock music-based spiritual event is coming to St Kyneburgha’s Church, Castor on Friday 9 March. The church is the venue for Peterborough’s first Rock Mass.

An exciting rock music-based spiritual event is coming to Peterborough in March. St Kyneburgha’s Church, Castor is hosting Peterborough’s first Rock Mass on Friday 9 March.

Starting at 7:30 pm, the combined concert and service at the popular village church is designed to appeal to teenagers but there is no minimum age – all are welcome. The mass will feature rock, pop and blues music along with a traditional Eucharist – with a twist.

Central to the mass is the theme of love. The service will focus on the theme through music from bands like Kings of Leon, Florence and the Machine, Led Zeppelin and Free as well as live music from local rock outfit The Odyssey.

The music sets will be punctuated with short spoken passages and the necessary religious and spiritual aspects of a mass and singing accompanied by the live band.

Commenting on the event Rector of St Kyneburgha’s, Rev. Canon William Burke said: “It has long been an ambition of mine to hold a rock mass in the church. The spiritual well-being of our young people is vital in an age where there are so many distractions.

“What better way to encourage youth of all ages to get in touch with their spiritual side than through the music that speaks most to them? It promises to be a very exciting evening.”

Beer and a curry will be available after the mass. The service is free to attend but there will be a £3 cover charge for drinks and food and a collection for the Teenage Cancer Trust .

St Kyneburgha’s is one of England’s finest parish churches. It has great acoustics and has been used for several live blues gigs promoted by the nationally recognised Shakedown Blues club. The Shakedown Blues team is fully supporting this event with professional PA and sound mixing, staging and lighting. The mass will also be filmed by an independent film production company.

Tickets for the Rock Mass are priced at £3:00 each or two for £5:00, available through the Parish Office. Phone the Parish Office on 01733 380900 or email admin.castor@btconnect.com. It’s likely to be a popular event so early booking is advised.

70 years today since Churchill’s ‘worst disaster’ – Lest we forget


English: The Battle of Imphal-Kohima March - J...
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On 15 February 1942 the Japanese Imperial Army over ran Singapore – the British Empire’s jewel in its South East Asian crown – and took prisoner over 100,000 British and Commonwealth military personnel in the process. My dad was one of those. What followed was over three years of privation, maltreatment, torture, disease etc.  Almost unimaginable by today’s standards.

My dad served as an officer with the 2nd Battalion The Loyal Regiment and was captured by the Japanese at the fall of Singapore in February 1942. He spent the following three years being moved around from Changi to Keijo in Korea then to Omori and Tokyo in Japan. He survived appalling treatment (although he was relatively lucky compared to those in forced labour camps on the Thailand/Burma railway for example). There were many others throughout SE Asia. He was also lucky enough to be in the first wave of POWs to be liberated.

He embarked on HMS Speaker to Manila. From there he was flown to San Francisco then shipped home. He remained in the Loyals at a holding depot in Preston until late 1946 when he was de-mobbed.

I recently watched a programme on BBC 2 Scotland about the fall of Singapore. If you’re interested you can watch it here. Ever had the feeling that you shouldn’t watch something because you know it’s going to irritate you but you watch it anyway only to discover that you were right.  It isn’t surprising that, as a Scottish/Australian co-production, this programme was going to be biased in favour of the Jocks. And on the whole its big picture was accurate – but the devil is in the detail. Heroic Scots and plucky ‘Diggers’ betrayed by ineffectual British ‘brass’ and traitorous native and Indian army deserters with not an English unit in sight. Not entirely true.

At one point the narrator gleefully points out that the 2nd Battalion Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders were the ‘only jungle trained unit’ to fight in the Malaya campaign. Nonsense. While it is true that their CO Lt Col Ian Stewart insisted they were well-trained in jungle warfare techniques and well acclimatised to the tropics and fought valiant rearguard actions as the British retreated down the Malay peninsula and back to the Island, they were not the ‘only’ unit trained to do so. Lt Col Elrington’s 2nd Battalion The Loyals were also well-trained jungle troops but were frustrated by poor senior staff decisions and retained in ‘Fortress Reserve’. When they were eventually sent into action the retreat had already begun. They were forced back by poor leadership at brigade level and eventually ended up back on Singapore defending their own barracks. They too were let down by allied troops, in this case Australian forces that abandoned positions leaving their lines fatally exposed.

While the Argylls may have been the last across the causeway from Johore to Singapore before it was blown up, the Loyals fired the last shots at the enemy before Percival surrendered. They were all brave men – heroes all – and should never be forgotten. While this episode of WWII might not be as ‘fashionable’ as some they fought and died just as hard.