Harrogate historian Malcolm Neesam looks back at times of old - Entertainers a world away from today’s

Tom Coleman and his Pierrots.
Tom Coleman and his Pierrots.

Do you remember the Cone Heads? They were street entertainers who a few years ago appeared in the town at the invitation of the Harrogate International Festival.

Their sudden appearance was part of a centuries old tradition of such entertainment, that has included musicians, street theatre, Punch and Judy, and the travelling waits.

To the best of my knowledge, the first known appearance of Punch and Judy in Harrogate was in June 1865, when Professor Bailey was said to have replaced an earlier but unknown Punch and Judy showman. Professor Bailey’s “pitch” appears to have been somewhere at the foot of Montpellier Hill, on the Stray outside the White Hart, and he worked with a young man named Candler, who succeeded Bailey, who was eventually decorated by King Edward VII. Professor Candler (1869-1922) became one of Victorian Harrogate’s most well-known entertainers, and celebrated as a leading practitioner of his art, so much so that he was chosen to make the Punch and Judy that accompanied the Prince of Wales’ tour of India.

He was also called up to London to perform before King George V when the King attended a private party given by Lady Stoner at her South Audsley Street mansion.

I suspect – and if any reader can contradict me, please do so – that Professor Candler was succeeded by Professor Valvo, who had begun his career in Bradford. Professor Valvo was often called to perform before Royalty, and had command performances at the London Palladium, and in 1919 he gave a special performance at Crystal Palace for the Royal children.

Like Professor Candler, Professor Valvo made his base in Harrogate, and appeared several times in the Opera House (today, the theatre) as part of variety shows. On one occasion, he gave a Punch and Judy show in the Winter Gardens before 600 children, including the sons of the Princess Royal and Lord Lascelles. In 1936, Professor Valvo was described by the Harrogate Herald as “an ex-serviceman, he has been a Punch and Judy man for 12 years, and for 40 years previously was a theatre ventriloquist...”

Described by the Harrogate Advertiser of July 13 1957 as “a wonderful showman, yet of a kindly, quiet nature, and his skill with the Punch voice and the Pandean pipes was that of an expert. He gained the affection of generations of children and the esteem of adults, including Princess Victoria, who, when in Harrogate, would sometimes stop to listen to the old, old story...Two of Professor Candler’s sons worked together in an act called Knock and King and another son partnered his father as Candler and Nash. A fourth son, Victor, played as a flautist with the orchestra at Leeds Grand Theatre, and occasionally at Blackpool Tower”.

The Punch and Judy men were only a small part of the many entertainers. There were the black-faced minstrels, the earliest of which seem to have been Walter Mapping’s, who put on song and dance routines in Valley Gardens.

I must not forget to mention the Black Star Minstrels who contained performers, who “blacked-up” in such hostelries as the Ship Inn, the Victoria Inn, or the Borough Vaults. One of them, Joe Morrison, specialised in laughing songs, which could reduce a crowd to hysteria.

There was Albert Freer, who specialised in sentimental songs about happy slaves on the “old plantations”, and a rival group called the Mysterious Musicians who set up their portable stage near the Royal Pump Room. Many acts were of course solos, such as the African who performed at Pier Head. His act was to swallow a red hot poker.

Contemporary criticism of many of these acts judged that some of the best shows on the Stray before the First World War were those of Adler and Sutton. Max Adler and his companions performed on the Victoria Avenue bandstand, opposite Baptist Church, during mild summer’s evenings, drawing residents from the surrounding Victoria Park estate. Their comedian was Olly Oakley, who did imitations, and whose saucy songs sometimes upset the local magistrates. Other Stray performers included the Jubilee Singers, who were described as “a group of real negroes”. According to the Herald, one of their number “had a mouth of enormous proportions and could easily make a large plate disappear”.

There was also Mr IC Rich, who specialised in Jewish “deliniations”.

One of Harrogate’s rarer evening acts, who may have performed in Crescent Gardens, were the Brothers Egerton, who specialised in songs about drunks and drinking, which were known by the name of Corney Grain songs. I do not have space to describe the many operators of the street piano, who played their racous jangling instruments outside Hale’s Bar, and, to the intense annoyance of Alderman Fortune, along the rows of decorous hotels and lodging houses on Prospect Place and West Park, grinding out such tunes as I’ve got a lovely bunch of coconuts; He had to get out and get under, The man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo and My old Dutch.

I must not leave the subject of the Stray entertainers without mentioning the Mascots, who first appeared in 1902, who drew enormous crowds for their acts, which were often held on the Stray near the junction of Beech Grove and Victoria Avenue. Their numbers included Karr and Kooney, who later became famous pantominists, and Tom Johnstone, a singer of chorus songs who later returned to Harrogate to play in the Empire Theatre. The Mascots were followed by Tom Carrick’s Troupe from Scarborough, The McQueens, and the Ongars, this last a very popular family group who performed in Bogs Field. The last known Stray Troupe before the First World War were the Sparks, whose boss, Will Driscoll, rode around Harrogate in a high-wheeled dog cart before the show.

Much of Harrogate’s street entertainment vanished during theFirst World War, although Tom Coleman and his Pierrots entertained wounded soldiers in the four military hospitals set up by the Grand Duchess George of Russia.

My thanks to Geoff Felix and Janet Nijholt (nee Candler) for information about, and photographs of, Professor Candler.