Tag Archives: Music Hall

Edwardian Sports Relief: When the Music Hall stars came out to play at Tottenham Hotspurs


Before the First World War changed society for ever two of the most popular forms of mass entertainment in Britain were Association Football and the Music Hall. In a historical forerunner of Sport Relief, the stars of London’s music halls and Football League Div One side Tottenham Hotspurs met on a muddy pitch in North London on a wet March afternoon in 1914 to brighten the day, raise a smile and some money for charity. One of the Music Hall Artistes that turned out that afternoon was my Grandfather Gus.

Gus McNaughton always kept himself fit. He was a footballer, boxer and athlete – quite apart from being one half of a popular Music Hall Act before First World War. In fact, when war was declared he joined the Royal Naval Air Service, which amalgamated with the Royal Flying Corps to form the Royal Airforce. While he served with the RAF Gus was the services Middleweight Boxing Champion. Not surprising then that he was to find himself in the lineup of a football team that would play a charity friendly against Tottenham Hotspurs in March 1914.

Tottenham Hotspur v Music Hall Artists official programme

Just have a read of the front page of the programme above. Imagine it being read in the RP voice of a Pathe newsreader or Harry Enfield commentating on Arsenal’s Charles ‘Charlie’ Charles.

The ‘Artistes’ team included a number famous names of the era including Gus and one Bombardier Billy Wells – the man who banged the gong on the opening titles of many Rank Organisation films.

The teams: Tottenham Hotspur V Music Hall Artistes

The match was played on a miserable Thursday afternoon but the attendance for a friendly at White Hart Lane wasn’t bad. The match report in the local paper the following morning read as follows:

But for the unfortunate breakdown in the weather the attendance at Tottenham Hotspurs ground yesterday, on the occasion of the second annual match with the Music Hall artistes, held in aid of the Variety artistes Benevolent Fund and the Prince of Wales Hospital, would have been considerably augmented, but despite the inclement weather the match drew a tremendous crowd, it being estimated that no less than 15,000 persons were present. Additional interest was doubles created by the presence of the Heavy-weight boxing Champion, who played in the forward line for the Artistes. Punctually at 2:45 Miss Victoria Monks kicked off. Banks at once got away and sending in a fast shot easily defeated the Artistes custodian. Directly afterwards, after some brisk passing, McNaughton broke away, but was intercepted by Walden, who passed cleverly to Steel and the latter had no difficulty in adding a second goal. A penalty for hands was given against Banks but McNaughton sent the ball over the bar. Ten minutes later Cantrell added a third goal for the Spurs from a melee in front of goal, and just before the interval, following some smart work on the part of McNaughton, Carl Lynn reduced the lead with an easy shot. The second half was productive of some interesting play, but no further scoring, although just before time Middlesmiss found the net only to be ruled off side, and the game ended: Tottenham Hotspurs three; Music Hall Artistes one. Teams: TOTTENHAM HOTPSURS: G. Raymond; Clay and Webster; Bowler; Steel and Grimsdell; Walden, Banks, Cantrell, Bliss and Middlemiss; ARTISTES: Tiny Joyce; Albert Raymond and Carl Lynn; Ted Cowan; Gus McNaughton and Bob Wingfield; Sam Mayo, L Houssein, Mark Leslie, Bombardier Wells and Percy Caldwell.

Referee: Mr Peter McWilliams.

The players each received a commemorative medal after the game. This was Gus’.

Boxed football medal by Fattorini and Son. Tottenham Hotspur vs Music Hall Artistes
Gus McNaughton's medal from Tottenham Hotspurs v Music Hall Artistes friendly March 1914.

This match was just one example of how the worlds of entertainment and sport provided some of the glue that held British society and its Empire together in a more ‘innocent’ time. For more on this have a look at Jeremy Paxman’s excellent BBC TV series Empire.

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


English: The Royal Court Theatre Sloane Square...
Image via Wikipedia

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.