Organ grinder was Weston's first entertainer

WHO was Weston-super-Mare's first seasonal entertainer? So far as I can trace he was an organ grinder, a Waterloo veteran who arrived each year by stagecoach in

WHO was Weston-super-Mare's first seasonal entertainer? So far as I can trace he was an organ grinder, a Waterloo veteran who arrived each year by stagecoach in the days before the railway had reached the resort.David Gill, for many years a Weston Town Commissioner, wrote his boyhood recollections of the place as it was in 1821. He stated that one of the most welcome visitors who came to Weston for some years was an old one-legged Waterloo veteran, who enlivened the village with the melodious tunes of his hand organ. There was also the good performance of his little well-dressed wife on her tambourine.Like other visitors they always came by stagecoach, and began their music outside Reeves Hotel (now the Royal). He was a fine specimen of a Lifeguardsman, well dressed in box hat, and bunch of gold seals suspended from his watch - quite the gentleman.Mr Gill recalled that when coppers were thrown to him from the windows, his wife would not dare to pick them up, since no coin of value less than sixpence was expected. His music would suddenly cease, and with a scowl he would go off in search of more worthy treatment.In its early years Weston provided but little for the entertainment of its visitors. The first guidebook of 1822, under the heading of Amusements, stated: "Health and not dissipation being the lure which Weston-super-Mare holds out, the public amusements are few. There is, however, a billiard table near the hotel, and a reading room, commanding a fine marine view, at the Knightstone baths, where the newspapers are taken daily."The guidebooks went into long descriptions of walks and rides around the town and district. Jackson's voluminous handbook to Weston proclaimed: "The supplies of easy carriages, good horses, donkey chairs, boats and other means of transit for young and old, are really satisfactory, and the regulations made by the town commissioners respecting them deserve ample commendation."Imagine today's holidaymakers being attracted to Weston by the following: "Every branch of natural history may be cultivated here .... No one will find more numerous or more curious topics of investigation than the geologist .... Another pursuit particularly favoured by the neighbourhood is the study of antiquities in very many branches. Prehistoric archaeology is thoroughly well represented at and around Weston. Almost every style of architecture may be illustrated by the churches, manor houses, courts, and other remains religious and secular, within easy distance from the place."While Weston had the reading room and library associated with Mr Whereat's stationer's establishment at the corner of Regent Street, it had no public library. But there was a small museum at the Albert Memorial School. And what had early Weston for children? Mr Jackson extolled: "two kinds of intelligent recreation well worth a trial .... The treasures of the beach here do not, at first sight, present the numerous attractions of some seaside places where mollusca, corallines, and zoophytes of various sorts are plentifully thrown up by the very tide," he said. "But there are many seaweeds on the rocky sides of the bay, many pretty bivalves on its beach, and mixed with the sand may constantly be detected a layer of very interesting microscopic shells. A basin of water and a magnifying glass are all that is necessary for displaying their beauties."Thrilling fare this for Victorian children!Mr Jackson went on: "Wild flowers, mosses and ferns may always be made a source of pleasure to the children, and now that fungi are better understood, they are more attractive than formerly to most observers. The surrounding woods yield them in numbers and variety."The moral touch was driven home with: "Numbers of animal tribes are represented round the place, and to know them, call them by their names, discriminate their shapes and habits, and admire the goodness and wisdom of their Creator, will furnish a kind of culture which never fails of elevating when it amusingly employs the minds of young people .... A child who watches the transformations and architecture of insects and birds will never cruelly destroy or even carelessly hurt them." Well, well, hardly true of Victorian times, let alone today!And what had village resort Weston to offer in the winter? Mr Jackson remains enthusiastic: "There are readings, lectures, and entertainments of various sorts, ranging from the genius of the dramatic reciter down to conjuring tricks and other harmless amusements. At a health place these things are very desirable, much more so than the excitements leading to late hours and other strains upon youthful strength and endurance. Ordinary social pleasures individuals can find for themselves, but it takes some public effort to provide enjoyments of a more general intellectual description."Many of the entertainments that lent gaiety to growing Weston's summer season were apparently too lowbrow to be mentioned in Mr Jackson's handbook. He had nothing to say of the street corner entertainers, and the motley crowd of amusement makers who moved among the crowds on the beach.Weston, like so many other places roundabout had its annual Revel. This has been described by Henry Harding, as he knew it in the 1840s.It was held on the first Thursday after June 24. There were stands of one kind and another, and gingerbread and sweet stalls all down High Street and up to the railing of the Royal Hotel.Then attractions included donkey racing and climbing and greasy pole for a leg of mutton or a new coat and hat. Like most of Weston's outdoor events in those days it was held in Roger's Field, the site of the Winter Gardens. After the coming of the railway, says Harding, the Weston Revel went into a decline. It was removed to a site in Church Road and later was held on the sands.If you could be back in Weston in Victorian days you would not find the place half so devoid of entertainment as you may think. Take the beach in the summer season. There was then no control of the number of stalls that could be erected or of the sideshows that could be set up. Dotted here and there were the smoking stacks of tea booths, and there were also swings, merry-go-rounds, peepshows, gingerbread stalls, cockshies, quack medicine stands, performing animals, banjoists, singers, and troupes of minstrels.At peak season the noise and confusion were indescribable. Nearly every street beggar in Bristol transferred his business to Weston in the summer season.The profusion of entertainers of one sort and another was not only to be found on the beach. It spread through the town. The Plantation, where the Floral Clock now stands, was a favourite pitch for all kinds of itinerant musicians.F C Taylor, a former contributor to the Mercury, has left a picture of the Plantation scene: "It was there," he said, "that a middle-aged man played tunes and ditties with small wooden hammers upon a row of pudding basins screwed to a board and suspended upon two wooden uprights."Often in the gutter opposite was a one-man band, Old Johnnie Patchback we called him. This old mendicant would appear in all the glory and panoply of a brass helmet with bells attached. A big drum was strapped to his back surmounted with a pair of cymbals and a triangle, and he played an old accordion, with a drumstick attached to his left elbow, and a cord linking the heel of his boots to the cymbals. He would bang the drum, jerk his foot, shake his head, and make a tremendous clangour with all his instruments at once; while his performing monkey, in a funny red cap, would turn somersaults and gambol on the kerbstone."Another street show was provided by Scotch Alec and his wife Maggie. They had a pitch outside the Swan Hotel which stood in Regent Street on a site now part of the High Street extension. They were in kilts and Maggie would perform the Highland fling, Scottish Reels, and sword dances, while Alec paraded up and down playing his bagpipes.This Regent Street-High Street corner was also the favourite pitch of Baby's Minstrels, an old troupe of song and dance artistes, who always opened their show with a rousing chorus of "The river is up, the channel is deep,The winds blow steady and strong,The splash of the oar is the measure we keepAs we row the old boat along.Down the river, down the river, down the Ohio."Of course in the Victorian era "minstrel shows" were extremely popular. These entertainments, with the black-faced artistes wearing gaudy coloured tailcoats and waistcoats, striped trousers, and monster bow ties, and with banjos, bones, and squeeze boxes, never failed to draw the crowds.In the 1870s and 1880s several of these troupes operated in Weston. Best known were the Alabama Minstrels, who were usually to be found on the promenade at Glentworth or Madeira Cove. They claimed to be freed slaves. The troupe included Charley Norman, Ned Clifford and his wife, and Ted Stokes, a great six-footer, who could switch from basso profundo to falsetto. There were also the Weston Wandering Minstrels, largely made up of members of Weston Town Band of those days.And there was Johnny Newton, Weston's own great bone soloist and side drummer, "shaking, swaying, gyrating, and imitating a sailor hauling in the slack ropes, a mason chiselling, or his great speciality of catching a butterfly. It was a rare right."This article, edited by Jill Bailey, was originally published on May 17, 1968


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