Four Swallows and two elephants –
ARE you one of those people who like to watch Who Do Think You Are? on television, or do you scour each issue of the Black Country Bugle for names – in case another detail can be added to your research into your family history? The television show often illustrates how local history and family history overlap, and the style of presentation combines mystery and drama with the flavour of a suspenseful detective story. My latest project has involved just such a mix.
Some time ago I became fascinated with people, usually on the fringes of the entertainment world, who used an assumed name – perhaps a pen name or stage name. I wondered how one might begin to research someone’s life story if your starting point – their name – was not likely to yield results. They weren’t quite who they said they were. If these characters led a life that criss-crossed the Black Country that would make the project even more interesting.
At one stage I was anxious to find a circus-based story that had firm Black Country connections. I did not have to look far. Living in Wolverhampton, I was surprised by the number of local people who would start to tell a story of Wolverhampton’s elephants whose winter quarters were in a yard in Gorsebrook Road – almost under the viaduct that carries the railway from Wolverhampton to Shrewsbury. The elephant’s names were Salt and Sauce, the latter sometimes given as “Saucy”, and they lived in Wolverhampton for about 20 years when not on their travels with the circus. When travelling they would make their way from one venue to the next on foot and thus if the season took them southwards their first journey would be through the Black Country down to Dudley then on to Halesowen or Stourbridge so it is possible that they met many Black Country folk. Occasionally they left Wolverhampton by train and became firm favourites with the local railwaymen they encountered.
I then found out that Salt and Sauce belonged to Broncho Bill. His circus, as his name suggests, for many years had a strong “Wild West” element. Thus began my research into the lives of Salt and Sauce and of Broncho Bill. In the end my research into the lives of the two elephants became too difficult and I was happy to pass the task on to people better qualified to do it. (Jamie and Jim Clubb subsequently published their very detailed account of the elephants’ lives in 2008.)
But what about Broncho Bill? That was obviously not his real name. It turned out that his actual name was John Swallow and he was the grandfather of the John Swallow many readers will remember as an ATV “Midlands Today” television reporter. Why had John Swallow Snr. Decided to make his home, and Salt’s and Sauce’s home in Wolverhampton? It turned out that he wanted his sons to be educated at Wolverhampton Grammar School. His sons grew up to take quite important places in the life and times of Wolverhampton – one became a well-known estate agent and businessman, and the other worked for the Express and Star. Some readers may remember them.
As for Broncho Bill himself, a great deal of new information has now become accessible to researches with the digitalization of many newspapers held in the National Collection. It has proved possible to tell that story now that such information is available. Meanwhile I was finding other people who had a biography waiting to be written but who were hiding behind an assumed name.
Two of them were journalists who wrote for The World’s Fair, the weekly newspaper of the travelling entertainment world. One of them wrote under the mysterious initials JBT which I eventually discovered stood for Joe Bate of Tipton; the other called himself Southdown, which seemed to suggest south coast connections, but he turned out to come from Cannock. His real name was Arthur Sellman.
Both JBT and Southdown wrote in a similar style. They would report on contemporary events but then lapse into reminiscence and distant memories. In this way it is possible for us – as 21st century readers – to enjoy a text written in the 1930s vividly describing scenes from even further back in time. JBT’S memories seem to stretch back to the Tipton Wakes of the 1880s when, as a teenager, he worked on a sweet stall. Southdown
John Swallow, also known as Broncho Bill, proprietor of a Wolverhampton-based circus
Ben Kennedy – a portrait used in the brochure issued at the opening of the Dudley Hippodrome in December 1938
Joe Bate of Tipton, clutching a copy of The World’s Fair the newspaper to which he regularly contributed a column called “Black Country Bits”