Thursday, 12 February 2015

Hey Buffalo Bill and Chaplin as well- a week in April 1904

I did not know my grandfather Bill Sherwin. He died when I was three in 1958. He had done quite a bit in his life Born in Hanley in 1891 he was many things in his life. He worked for the GPO as an engineer , he was a miner, a soldier in the North Staffordshire Regiment where he was wounded fighting with the 7th battalion in Mesopotamia ( Modern day Iraq) and an intriguing story of him being in the Merchant Navy and jumping ship in Montevideo after punching an officer. He had the reputation of being an interesting conversationalist.

 One of his stories that I was interested in finding out more about was the time in the early years of the last century when he saw Charlie Chaplain as a young boy entertaining the crowds in Market Square, Hanley.

 I was interested if this was right.

What was Charlie Chaplin's early life like?

 By the time he was ten, he had encountered a range of experiences greater than most of us know in long lifetimes. He had known abject poverty and hunger, and the loneliness and deprivation of life in workhouses and children's homes. He had witnessed at close quarters alcoholism, madness and death. For much of the time he survived only by his own initiative and wit.

It was a life, which would simply have killed many ordinary children. But Charlie Chaplin was not ordinary. He had a strength and resilience, which appears phenomenal.

And then at ten years old, his life changed. He went to work. And his work, like his parents', and thanks to his father's connections, was in the music hall. He was engaged to dance and sing with a juvenile act called 'The Eight Lancashire Lads.'

The music halls of those times provided an incomparable schooling in method, technique and discipline. A music hall act had to seize and hold its audience and to make its mark within a very limited time - between six and sixteen minutes. The audience was not indulgent, and the competition was relentless. Every performer had to learn the secrets of attack and structure, the need to give the act a crescendo - a beginning, middle and a great exit - to grab the applause. He had to learn to command every sort of audience.

By the time he was 14 Chaplin was touring with a company in the role of the Billy in a play written by Conan Doyle based on his great character Sherlock Holmes.

“Sherlock Holmes” was remarkable for its staging. There was total darkness during which the scenes changed an unprecedented use of blackouts; and a mass of electric equipment to provide such novel lighting effects as the glow of Holmes' cigar in the darkness. The part of Billy was a good part for him. Chaplin made a half a dozen appearances in the course of the play, and has quite funny dialogue, elaborately written in cockney dialogue. It toured the provincial theatres of the north and the Midlands and it arrived in Hanley at the Palace of Varieties, the Theatre Royal for a 6-day tour beginning on the 12th April 1904.

The Sentinel of that first performance notices the young man and comments approvingly

Billy the “good boy” there is something very catching about the voice, is played by Charles Chaplin, who makes him a sharp, cheery little chap who would go through fire and water for his master and is always in his place when wanted

Chaplin was in the Potteries which would have included spending his 15th birthday in the town- his birthday was on the 16th April. Did he have an inkling of his approaching world fame?

Thus the Sentinel first makes known to the public of North Staffordshire who ten years later is making films for Hollywood. Charlie Chaplin is t the first global superstar. Famous everywhere, imitated by many, loved by millions, featured in comic books, toys and other early forms of merchandising, and with a glamorous lifestyle.

And undoubtedly my grandfather was right. He did see the young Chaplin performing his act to an amused crowd in Market Square, Hanley over a century ago.

But by an odd quirk and perhaps it gives an appreciation why April 1904 was memorable in the Potteries another great entertainment figure was in town- Buffalo Bill. William Cody, to give him his real name, came to embody the spirit of the Wild West for millions, transmuting his own experience into a national myth of frontier life that still endures today.

He was known to Pottery audiences from an earlier tour that he gave in the area in 1891. Thirteen years later he was back with an even bigger show that needed 3 trains to transport the participants and their trapping to Stoke. The trains were in sidings at Etruria and the show was performed at Boothen.  The Sentinel reporter during the rehearsal found the level of activity and organisation astonishing. He opined that it was the “only organisation in the world capable of such a distinction”

 The show comprised hundreds of performers, over 200 horses and a score or so of bison. They also bought enough scaffolding and canvas to build a pavilion to seat 15,000 spectators. Local workers built the set in three days. An Indian village was also built to house the Native Americans and their families. The event included a representation of the Battle of Little Big Horn and Sioux attacking the Deadwood Stage.

But central to the event was Buffalo Bill himself

His fleet mount carried him around the arena at such a pace that his long hair streamed in the self created breeze and when he reined up and doffed his slouch hat to bow courteous acknowledgements to the cheers of the spectators he looked a perfect picture of manhood, taunt and trim, and as hard as nails, full of grit and determination, fit head of a gathering of warriors. “Permit me to introduce to you the congress of rough riders”, he said.

Buffalo Bill gave his Native American warriors status as part of his "Congress of Rough Riders," a contingent which represented the finest horsemen in the world: American cavalrymen, German Cuirassiers, Cossacks, Arabs, Cubans, and Pacific Islanders. Unusually for the time Buffalo Bill elevated them to a status of equality with contingents from other nations, and therefore recognized their skills as horsemen and warriors by stressing their patriotism in defending their hunting grounds.

Certainly as my grandfather as a boy of 13 made his way with the thousands teeming down Campbell Road clutching eagerly the precious yellow ticket with which he gained entrance to this never to be forgotten event little did he realise he stood at the beginning of a century which would have such irrevocable consequences for the people of Stoke on Trent.