32. FLORENCE ON THE GLOBE
In June 1903, the American globe walker Mlle Florence announced that she would attempt to walk on a wooden rolling globe from London to Brighton, for a wager. There was immediate interest from the sporting world of the Metropolis, and the Daily News secured an interview with the heroine of the day. Florence was just 18 years old and born in New Jersey, she told the journalist; she had begun walking the globe at the age of just four, and was now very proficient. She had brought two globes with her to London, both made of hollow wood and covered with sheepskin: the lighter one, weighing just 20lb (9kg), would be used for uphill work, and the much heavier one, weighing 75lb (34kg), would be used for descending inclines or walking on level ground. Florence was quietly optimistic about her chances, although she would have to be on the globe for 10 hours per day, making an early start to avoid the crowds. She added that her 74-year-old father had come to London to accompany her on foot during the long trudge to Brighton.
On Tuesday 16 June 1903, Florence set off from St Thomas’s Hospital at 5.30am, passing through Brixton at 8.30am, and reaching the Greyhound Hotel at Croydon at 8.18pm, much fatigued after her lengthy struggle. Still, she was up and about at 5am the following day, and walked off on the globe. An eager crowd awaited her at Redhill in Surrey, but at Merstham she had to take a rest on account of fatigue, and two miles further, she gave up her journey for the day. While travelling on the globe, she took only beef extract and raw eggs, but in the evening, she enjoyed a hearty meal together with her entourage. Three ‘minders’ accompanied Florence on her walk, to keep her path clear of people and prevent mischievous individuals from giving her a push. She made slow but steady progress, being hampered by steady rain that made the globe slippery. As she was approaching Brighton, a large van hit the globe, sending Florence flying. In spite of a sprained ankle, she struggled on throughout the night, being met on the London Road between Patcham and Brighton by enormous crowds, composed of
all classes of society. A workingclass family had been sitting at their doorstep all night, with rugs thrown over them, awaiting her arrival. So dense was the throng at the Brighton Aquarium that Florence stepped off the globe, being harassed by kindly people who offered her brandy, champagne and beer. In the end, a police inspector took her in his arms to protect her from the crowd, and carried her to a hansom nearby.
Having successfully walked on her globe from London to Brighton, winning her wager with nearly a full day to spare, Florence was the heroine of the day. Several picture postcards were issued, depicting her on the globe on her way to Brighton, and there was even a silent film recording her great achievement. An Illustrated Police News journalist managed to secure an interview with Florence, whom he described as a pretty, slightly-built girl of medium height, with her dark hair hanging in a knot behind her back. She wore a brown velvet yachting cap, with a badge showing the stars and stripes of her native land. Florence spoke in a strong ‘Amurrican’ accent, expressing delight that she had made it all the way to Brighton. The Police News draughtsman depicted her standing on the globe, waving the British and American flags, and giving a speech to the crowd before being driven to her hotel in a cab, followed by a cheering mob.
Florence received a lucrative engagement at the Empire Music Hall in London, where she performed for several months to come, before touring Leeds, Hull, Aberdeen, Middlesbrough and Oxford in September and October, being billed as the champion globe-walker of the world. In 1904, Florence visited Derby, Dundee, Northampton and Shields. In Dundee, she ascended the Hilltown on her globe, in front of an admiring crowd. In 1905 and 1906, she toured the provinces extensively, sharing the stage with a pantomime about Dick Whittington and his cat. In 1910 and 1911, she signed a contract with Bostock’s circus, accompanying it on another extensive tour. When the circus came to town, she took part in an elaborate parade: “Mdlle Florence, the Marvellous Globe Walker, who recently walked on her globe from London to Brighton, will walk on her globe (weather permitting) through the principal streets to the circus field on the opening night, commencing at 6.30pm, preceded by the Motor Car, which Abex, the Midget Hercules, will lift with his teeth at every performance.”
The last mentions of Mlle Florence in the newspapers is that in December 1915, she was at the Royal Coliseum, Bury, and that in April 1916, she was with Bostock’s circus in Derby. According to John Turner’s privately published book Victorian Arena, Florence was the daughter of the clown Funny Fred Felix (1824-1920), whose real name was Mileson, and she married the circus strong man Abex. There is no record of a Florence Mileson (or Felix) being born in the mid-1880s, however, and her Transatlantic background was generally accepted at the time. The strong man Abex was also known as the ‘Midget Hercules’, indicating that he was a dwarf or at least very short-statured; again, it seems unlikely that Florence would have married him. I believe that the truth is that Florence really was born and bred in America, as was stated by many contemporary newspapers, although for some reason she wanted to keep her family name a secret throughout her show business career. Nevertheless, there is good reason to believe that she married and had children, after returning to the United States in 1916, and there are people on the Internet claiming to be her great-grandchildren.