Malcolm Neesam History: Harrogate’s once lively street theatre scene


Last updated Apr 30, 2021
Tom Coleman and his Harrogate Pierrots

This history is written for The Stray Ferret by celebrated Harrogate historian, Malcolm Neesam. 

Do you remember the Cone Heads? The street entertainers who a few years ago appeared in the town at the invitation of Harrogate International Festivals? Their sudden appearance was part of a centuries-old tradition of such entertainment, which has included musicians, street theatre, Punch and Judy shows and the travelling waits.

Punch and Judy

To the best of my knowledge, the first known appearance of Punch and Judy in Harrogate was in June 1865, when Professor Bailey was said to have replaced an earlier but unknown Punch and Judy showman. Professor Bailey’s “pitch” appears to have been somewhere at the foot of Montpellier Hill, on the Stray outside the White Hart, and he worked with a young man named Candler, who succeeded Bailey, who was eventually decorated by King Edward VII.

Professor Candler [1869-1922] became one of Victorian Harrogate’s most well-known entertainers, and celebrated as a leading practitioner of his art, so much so that he was chosen to make the Punch and Judy show that accompanied the Prince of Wales’ tour of India. He was also called up to London to perform before George V when the king attended a private party given by Lady Stoner at her South Audsley Street mansion.

Edmund Candler’s Punch and Judy, Swan Hotel, 1910

Professor Candler may also have performed at Pier Head, which was a favourite pitch used by Otto Schwarz and his German Band. I suspect – and if any reader can contradict me, please do so – that Professor Candler was succeeded by Professor Valvo, who had begun his career in Bradford. Professor Valvo was often called to perform before royalty, and had command performances at the London Palladium, and in 1919 he gave a special performance at Crystal Palace for the royal children.

Like Professor Candler, Professor Valvo made his base in Harrogate and appeared several times in the Opera House [today, the Theatre] as part of variety shows. On one occasion, he gave a Punch and Judy show in the Winter Gardens before 600 children, including the sons of the Princess Royal and Lord Lascelles. In 1936, Professor Valvo was described by the Harrogate Herald as “an ex-serviceman, he has been a Punch and Judy man for twelve years, and for forty years previously was a theatre ventriloquist…”

I do not know whether Professor Valvo had any children who kept his act alive, but Professor Candler had two sons. Described by the press on July 13 1957 as “a wonderful showman, yet of a kindly, quiet nature, and his skill with the Punch voice, and the Pandean pipes was that of an expert”. He gained the affection of generations of children and the esteem of adults, including Princess Victoria, who, when in Harrogate, would sometimes stop to listen to the old, old story…

A Noisy Street Scene

The Punch and Judy men were only a small part of the many entertainers who swarmed through Harrogate during those long ago seasons. There were the black-faced minstrels, which were popular at the time, the earliest of which seem to have been Walter Mapping’s, who put on song and dance routines in Valley Gardens. The “Major’s Group” also provided a lively street entertainment show, the “Major” getting his name from his theme song “My friend the Major”. The chair stage prop used by the Major was said to be required because of the Major’s fondness for “the flowing bowl”.

I must not forget to mention the “Black Star Minstrels” who contained several performers who “blacked-up” in such hostelries as the Ship Inn, the Victoria Inn, or the “Borough Vaults” – now the Drum and Monkey. One of them, Joe Morrison, specialised in laughing songs, which could reduce a crowd to hysteria, and who was consequently disliked by more sober shop-keepers. There was Albert Freer, who specialised in sentimental songs about happy slaves on the “old plantations”, and a rival group called the “Mysterious Musicians”, who set up their portable stage near the Royal Pump Room, sometimes in direct competition with other performers. The resulting racket caused great annoyance to the hotels and lodging housekeepers.

Many acts were of course solos, such as The African who performed at Pier Head before the lavatories were built. The African’s ingenious act was to swallow a red hot poker. According to the Herald: “to show that there was no deception a poker was heated in front of the wondering throng, who were even more surprised at the way he used to relish a concoction that he cooked in his own fashion, and transferred to his capacious mouth with a fork whilst it was blazing.”

Contemporary criticism of many of these acts judged that some of the best shows on the Stray before the Great War were those of Adler and Sutton. Max Adler and his companions performed on the Victoria Avenue bandstand, opposite Baptist Church, during mild summer’s evenings. Their comedian was Olly Oakley, who did imitations, and whose saucy songs sometimes upset the local magistrates. Other “Stray” performers included the “Jubilee Singers”, who in the language of the time were described as “a group of real negroes”.  There was also Mr. I. C. Rich, who specialised in Jewish “deliniations”, who shared the bill with another comedian, whose name escapes me, and whose catch-phrase was “My hair’s down again”.

One of Harrogate’s rarer evening acts, who may have performed in Crescent Gardens, were the “Brothers Egerton”, who specialised in songs about drunks and drinking, which were known by the name of “Corney Grain” songs. Eventually, they left Harrogate for St Kilda’s Beach, Melbourne.

The Ongars

I do not have space to describe the many operators of the street piano, who played their raucous jangling instruments outside Hale’s Bar, and – to the intense annoyance of Alderman Fortune – along the rows of decorous hotels and lodging houses on Prospect Place and West Park, grinding out such tunes as “I’ve got a lovely bunch of coconuts”;  “He had to get out and get under”, “The man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo” and “My old Dutch”.

Town ‘mascots’

I must not leave the subject of the Stray entertainers without mentioning the “Mascots”, who first appeared in 1902, who drew enormous crowds for their acts, which were often held on the Stray near the junction of Beech Grove and Victoria Avenue. Their numbers included Karr and Kooney, who later became famous pantominists, and Tom Johnstone, a singer of chorus songs who later returned to Harrogate to play in the Empire Theatre.

The last known Stray Troupe before the Great War was the “Sparks”, whose boss, Will Driscoll, rode around Harrogate in a high-wheeled dog cart before the show. The Library Gardens, then known as the Town Hall site, was a further venue for street entertainment, where groups of “dancing minstrels” entertained the public. Harlow Hill, too, had its regular street acts, but I will try the editor’s patience if I go on any more.

Much of Harrogate’s street entertainment vanished during the Great War, although Tom Coleman and his Pierrots (featured main image) did sterling service entertaining wounded soldiers in the four military hospitals set up by that wonderful lady the Grand Duchess George of Russia.

My thanks to Geoff Felix and Janet Nijholt [nee Candler] for information about, and photographs of, Professor Candler.

Did you know? 

The Stray Ferret and the Harrogate Business Improvement District (BID) have worked with Malcolm Neesam to produce two fantastic history audio tours of Harrogate.  Both last about an hour and are easy to do. The first will take you back to the golden age of Harrogate’s Victorian Spa days, the second will take you through the heart of the shopping district, stopping to learn about historic buildings as you go.  To take a look click here. 

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