The stories behind the stage names
often takes us back to vivid memories of the first decade of the 20th century. For example, he recalls visiting the fair in Wolverhampton about 1910 and describes his first encounter with Pat Collins’s Wonderland show – an elaborate travelling cinematograph show: “I first saw this show when it was on a visit to Wolverhampton, in St Peter’s Square. On the front, standing in the centre of the stage was a large carved and gilded clock with wooden figures. Mounted on top of which was a large card printed with the words “Collins’s next Electrical Fireworks Display” with the hand set for a time when the big arc lamps hanging from the front rail of the show would be switched off and thousands of coloured lamps set round the massive carved work adorning the front would be brought into play.”
When Joe Bate was writing his weekly column for The World’s Fair in the 1930s, he was living in his van in Harvill’s Hawthorn – near Hill Top, West Bromwich. From there he would set off on his bicycle to travel the Black Country to find information for his readers. Whatever he found would lead to further reminiscences about the Black Country of earlier decades. I doubt whether he could have imagined that the story of his own adventures would be told in another century.
Research into two other characters proved challenging. The chaps concerned are Ben Kennedy and Irving Bosco. Ben is best known as the man who built the Dudley Hippodrome, but was involved with many other Black Country theatrical ventures in Tipton, Wednesbury, West Bromwich and Smethwick. Irving Bosco opened the first cinema in the Black Country – in West Bromwich in 1909 – a year ahead of the Kinematograph Act which was instrumental in creating cinemas as we have known them. With a name like Irving Bosco life was bound to be interesting but research was difficult until I found out his real name: William Bainton. Benjamin Kennedy kept his first name but the surname was invented when he appeared in a knock-about variety act in the 1890s.
Two women feature in Four Swallows and Two Elephants. Eliza Bennett became “Mrs. Patch” simply by marrying William Patch. Born in 1824, and married in 1844, Eliza toured the Black Country with a “portable theatre”. In other words the wooden theatre was pulled down and endlessly rebuilt as she travelled round the Black Country. Eventually the theatre became permanent on a site in the centre of Stourbridge and Eliza eventually sold it in 1900, shortly before her death.
At her funeral, in Wollaston, a crowd heard Rev Gillbanks declare that she would never be forgotten. This is particularly poignant as I guess all the characters in this book tend to be forgotten in the long run!
The final chapter of the book describes the life and work of Brenda Jones. Brenda was born in Wolverhampton in 1934 but went on to become a star of the American circus world. She never fully adopted a stage name like the other characters described here but as a circus performer she invariably took the name of the act. She was a brilliant aerialist but fell to the ring floor and died in 1976. She is buried in the cemetery on the eastern flank of Sedgley Beacon and her headstone carries her married name: Brenda Cuttin.
Overall the book is about the business of creating biographies of people who to some extent are “hidden” by the use of assumed names. It is also keen to explore their connection with the Black Country. The question raised by the book is: “To what extent can the legacy of these people be preserved?” Will they have a proper place in the Black Country “Hall of Fame”?
Four Swallows and Two Elephants is a 180 page paperback, well-illustrated, book. It retails at £13.50 but if obtained directly from the author the book can be posted or delivered locally at no extra charge. Contact Ned Williams on 01902 773376 or email@example.com
Brenda Jones in an American circus costume – a long way from home in Wolverhampton
Irving Bosco – cinema pioneer in West Bromwich
with Salt and Saucy the Wolverhampton Elephants