Autograph book is a sign of the times for Hippodrome circus in 1900s
- Credit: Eastern Daily Press © 2014
EIGHTEEN months ago, this column featured autographs in a book on Great Yarmouth history which I bought in a local charity shop, resulting in the discovery that the signatories were scholars leaving the old Technical High in 1959.
Recently my subject was our Hippodrome Circus, its century-plus history captured on a new DVD.
Today autographs and circus combine, the link being reader Margaret Churchill, an ex-Yarmouthian now living in Chediston, near Halesworth in Suffolk.
“I read with great interest your article on the Yarmouth circus,” writes Mrs Churchill.
“Over 30 years ago I was given an old autograph book from a dear neighbour in Yarmouth.
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“In it were the signed names and drawings of the artists who appeared in the circus in 1908 and 1909, only a few years after it opened.
“The book is not in good condition but I feel sure it could be of interest.”
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Margaret Churchill tells me: “I was born 68 years ago in Yarmouth at 20 Row 8 and lived in the town for 54 years until I moved to Chediston 14 years ago when I remarried.
“My father, Victor Coleman, was a window cleaner and I feel sure he used to clean the windows of one of the Hippodrome managers at that time, maybe Billy Russell’s (the owner), because every year we had free tickets for the circus and the best seats.
“As a child at the time, it was such a thrill to go and see the circus, and it has stayed with me ever since.”
Row 8, linking Rainbow Corner and Northgate Street, was known as either Yew Tree or Ferry Boat Row (the ferry was replaced by the suspension bridge in 1829).
The Yew Tree, also known as the Fishermen’s and Shrimpers’ Arms, closed in 1904.
Mrs Churchill’s autograph book is well-worn, but many of the signatures and messages are still perfectly clear and legible. Often the artistes provided publicity photographs of themselves but personally added messages and signatures in nibbed pen and ink.
Several included the handwritten “Yarmouth” and “Hippodrome”, proving that they were not pre-printed.
Captain J Taylor, who presented an elephant act called the Lockharts, drew quick sketches of four jumbo heads (Baby, Saucy, Mustard and Salt) to accompany his signature, while two well-honed fellows (The Brothers Bright) signed “Strenuously yours...”
The elegant Maria Racko and Partner offered a photograph that gives me no clue as to the nature of their act.
The Indian Boy Wonder, his real name smudged and undecipherable, added a long verse to his picture card, mentioning health, wealth, a golden store and heaven.
A D Robbins (The Cycle Tamer) hoped the recipient would “always keep your best foot forward”.
Another act of alleged officer rank was Captain Grahame Bostock who presented performing baboons and penned a 50-word puzzler about the ability of youth to flee ghostly phantoms whereas the elderly cannot...
There were photographs of midgets Les Colibris (Troupe Royal de Liliput), The Scottish Belles (three young women who did not mention their speciality), accordionist Alexander Prince and trick-cyclists The Derringtons.
Mrs Churchill wondered if the autograph book might be an acceptable new exhibit in the growing Hippodrome Circus Museum, a suggestion greeted with enthusiasm by owner Peter Jay when I showed him some of the pages.
“These look amazing. I can’t wait to see the rest,” he said.
The prospect of acquiring the album was “fabulous”.
So I arranged for Margaret and husband Freddie to visit the Hippodrome to meet Mr Jay and hand over her autograph collection...in exchange for a donation to the East Anglian Air Ambulance, a charity she staunchly supports.
Peter was delighted to comply, and she was thrilled to receive his cheque for £150.
According to Mrs Churchill, Mr Jay said he had nothing of this importance, personally signed by the actual artistes, in his museum from that era when the circus had been open for only a few years (the first show was in 1903).
He told her he was “really pleased” at the acquisition, and was happy to support a worthy cause in exchange.
In my recent column about the Hippodrome, I said I had no idea about whether the water in the ring was warm for the swimming acts, or at cold-tap temperature.
I am assured that today’s bathing belles do not have to be Spartans, for the water is comfortably warm.
I doubt if that was so from the outset 111 years ago.
One act signing the autograph book was Ada Webb’s Water Wonders, five girl swimmers performing in the famous pool created by the ring floor sinking (as it still does today).
Hopefully they were used to chilly water, never grimacing or visibly shivering but always smiling, albeit through clenched teeth.
Margaret Churchill, who worked for several years at the Tesco supermarket on Brewery Plain, probably made bizarre history by spending her 60th birthday in Europe, not visiting romantic or scenic locations... but accompanying her husband as he drove a van ferrying a cargo of maggots to angling bait suppliers in Belgium!