Rowdy entertainment in Victorian summers

YOU can have too much of a good thing, and the immense variety of entertainment to be seen at Weston in the streets, on the promenade, the sands, and at various halls in Victorian

YOU can have too much of a good thing, and the immense variety of entertainment to be seen at Weston in the streets, on the promenade, the sands, and at various halls in Victorian summers was a very mixed bag.Itinerant bands, some of indifferent musicianship, minstrel troupes, tumblers, performing animal acts, sellers of quack medicines, photographers, organ grinders, Punch and Judy men, and dancers, moved from pitch to pitch. At peak season there must have been pandemonium everywhere, and nowhere more so than on the beach. There was no control on the number of stalls or sideshows that could be put up. Dotted here and there were the smoking shacks or tea booths, and swings, merry-go-rounds, peepshows, gingerbread stalls, cockshies, and quack medicine stalls, supplemented by the huge numbers of entertainment troupes and solo performers.From 1841 onwards, with the coming of the railway, Weston's fortunes changed. From being a select little health resort with the gentry establishing themselves on the hillside in large houses built of local stone, the place became a trippers' paradise.Thousands of day excursionists poured from trains into the town. Thousands more came over by boat from Cardiff and other Welsh ports. If we are shocked at the occasional Bank Holiday excess of exuberance these days we would be horrified if we could see the end of Bank Holidays at Weston in Victorian times. Drunken women went singing and swaying down Regent Street on their way to the station. There were many fights including hair-tearing combats between the fair sex.It was no wonder the Weston gentry were shocked into thinking that coming to live inWeston was a big mistake, and that many began looking for quieter and more select places in which to live.It has been said that at peak season nearly every street beggar in Bristol transferred his business to Weston.The greatest concentration of entertainment of all kinds was to be found on the beach. Of the many minstrel groups one of the most popular was Arlotte's Original Weston Troupe. As a matter of fact, they were not the originals in Weston, but almost the last of their line. They did not appear on the beach until 1894, but they survived until about 1906. The Arlottes were a professional stage family.Their shows on the sands in Weston were not given under cover. Their stage was simply heaped up sand with planks on the top, there being a small tent into which the artists dived to change. The only income they got was that derived from what was popularly known as 'bottling' or 'shelling' the audience.They were a clever team. Harry Arlotte could turn forty somersaults on the space taken up by a small handkerchief, while Ernie Arlotte was described as "the wonderful boy vocalist".Some of those 'Gay Nineties' crowds on the sands were not well behaved. When popular choruses were sung by the Arlottes they would join in, and even start impromptu dancing. There were times when they were still singing these popular choruses when the show had passed on to the next number.The leader, Juan Arlotte, had a masterly way of dealing with the 'drunks' who interrupted the show, but he was beaten by the over-exuberant girls from a Bristol rag factory, who always reckoned to have 'a spot of fun' with the Arlotte minstrels on their annual outing to Weston. If Mr Arlotte knew they were in town, he closed his show for fear of what might happen.On one occasion when these girls stopped the show 'Babe' Anderson had his trousers torn off, while a Scotch comedian lost his kilt. "I wouldna have cared if it was the boys who did it," he said, when he rushed into Mrs Arlotte's house off Regent Street for safety, "But it was the gurls!"A member of the family recalled that from 1904 the Arlottes' sands show had a covered stage with a dressing room at the rear. The charges for seats in the enclosure were 3d. and 4d. A velvet bag on the end of a long cane was used to collect from bystanders around the enclosure.The collection invariably included a lot of farthings and these were given to the Arlotte children who did not despise them since a farthing or two in those days could buy lot of sherbert or pop-corn.In time the local authority exercised more control over the beach and the stalls were limited to two lines. The sands traders included such well-known names as Frank Cervi, the Porters, Baileys, Brownings, Doughty, Metcalfe, and 'Photo' Williams, the 'tin plate photographer'. A member of the family recalled that the Arlotte troupe included Louis Sidney, pedestal dancer (he danced on a small pedestal). Edwin Arlotte, the leader of the troupe, had appeared at the principal provincial theatres, and was contemporary with Little Tich and Dan Leno, and great friend of George Formby senior.Mrs Arlotte was a ballad singer known as Miss Bertha Ward. She was well-known for her Tyrolean songs and yodelling, and made her last stage appearance at the old Assembly Rooms.Edwin (Juan) Arlotte was the head of the Arlotte family. He is said to have run away from home as a boy to join a circus in which he became a trapeze artist. He met his wife when they were both appearing in pantomime at Bradford.Those were the days when the Harlequinade, with all its acrobatic thrills and trapdoor tricks, was as indispensable to pantomime as a principal boy is today. Juan Arlotte as 'Pantaloon' was responsible for much of the clowning, the acrobatics, and trapdoor stuff. He had experience with a troupe of Spanish acrobats. The future Mrs Arlotte was the Fairy Queen in this particular pantomime and at other times was a ballad singer.At the dawn of the naughty Nineties they were playing together at the Empire, Cardiff, and when the theatre closed for the summer season they decided to go over to Weston where they had heard that the sands were golden in more than one sense. They got employment with a party of minstrels, and in the following summer appeared at Barry Island. The next year the Arlottes came to Weston with their own troupe.During the winter the Arlottes performed in theatres all over the British Isles. The 'Five Arlottis' (as they were billed) were often top-line attractions. One old bill advertises "Their Screaming Sketch, the 'Merry Menials', introducing singing, dancing, mandoline and guitar playing, and acrobating". Another bill refers to them as "Pantomime Specialities - Clown, Pantaloon, Harlequin, Traps, Knockabout and other parts."Another well remembered troupe of sands entertainers is Charley Goodman's 'Merry Men'. Charley, a Bristol comedian, made his local debut with the Arlotte Minstrels about 1906, and later took over the troupe.The 'Merry Men' performed in the portable theatre, which the local council provided on the sands near the Grand Pier. It had a small stage, with a tiny dressing area at the rear, built up on stilts to let the tide pass under. There was a canvas roof, and a waist-high fence extending each side of the auditorium so that people who did not wish to pay to go in to sit on the deckchairs or iron tip-up seats might look in for nothing but, it was hoped, contribute something when the bag was passed round.I well remember Charley Goodman and his Merry Men at the old Sands Pavilion. Many an hour I spent as a boy hanging over the side of the fence having a free glimpse. The performers wore red blazers with brass buttons, and white flannels.Accompaniment was by a tinny upright piano. Sometimes performances had to finish in a hurry because of the incoming tide. Many a time have I watched with fascination the tide creeping under the stage and beginning to sweep up to the feet of the front deckchair patrons.Music has always charmed me, and I can hear the tinkle of the Merry Men's old upright piano now!Charley Goodman's show carried on during the years of the 1914-18 War, and there came the time when, because of the shortage of male performers, the Merry Men had to include Merry Women.George Lock, the former local band leader, remembered that Fred Terry built the first proper stage, which had a marionette show design for a backcloth. He also recalled The Human Spider, a contortionist. He could remember only one troupe composed of girls - 'The Blue Girls'. The Merry Men no longer bring music and laughter to Weston's beach. The twang of the banjo has given way to the beat of the transistor. Sober black and white stalls, much fewer in number, have replaced the gorgeously painted ice-cream barrows topped with their gay umbrellas.Of the sands music-makers down the years only one 'troupe' has survived and keeps to its familiar pitch near the Grand Pier. Its music is the same today as it was in the long ago and will be in the years ahead. It has survived because its 'show' is not the ephemeral entertainment of a summer's evening, but is concerned with the eternal. I refer, of course, to the Salvation Army.* This article, edited by Jill Bailey, was originally published on July 19, 1968

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