Monday, 11 February 2013

Minstrels




One entertainment that Hanley audience responded to warmly over a spring fortnight in 1879 was the Hague Minstrel Show which played to packed audiences at the Imperial Circus in Glass Street. In the words of the Sentinel they were undoubtedly “the largest and best troupe of minstrels in the world. “ It was not often that companies of merit appeal to a Hanley audience… If the embodiment of true talent in its highest sense then appreciation will not be lacking in this district”.

Minstrel’s shows had been part of the local entertainment scene since the 1840s. But it was Sam Hague, a British born clog dancer credited with inventing tap dancing, who created the extravaganza that was so well received by the Potteries audience. He put together his troupe in the aftermath of the American Civil war in New York: the company were made up of former slaves. They began their regular UK tours in 1866 with Liverpool being the first city visited. Although the all black cast were not welcomed and gradually Hague replaced the black performers with blacked up white minstrels. By the late 1870s they made up the majority of the cast.

The Sentinel went on “The audience were splitting their sides with laughter at the grotesque figures and extraordinary jokes”. Minstrel shows cruelly lampooned black people as lazy, child like buffoons who had a happy go lucky personality. It was an image that continued in popular culture to after the Second World War. Some of the performers were black and that night of the review special mention was made of Aaron Banks who sang “Emancipation Day” so tenderly that the audience in Hanley was moved to tears. It is to be remembered that President Lincoln’s Proclamation freeing the slaves had occurred only 16 years before. Another former slave Abe Cox performed the “Hen Convention” introducing vocal imitation of the farm yard.

What was interesting was the revenue bathed in electric light and perhaps the first use of electricity in an entertainment in the area. The light illuminated Glass Street and the neighbourhood, the Sentinel recorded. It was “first rate fun and frolic… and the audience had been exhilarated by the melody and mirth of the Minstrels”.

The minstrel tradition continued into the 20th century and my Grandmother Cawley, a regular at the Stoke Hippodrome, saw the black faced artists Eugene Stratton and GH Eliott in the 1920s