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Bagpipes, bears and bands

Keith Eldred looks at the variety of entertainment in Wimborne through the eyes of an 1890s schoolboy

In his unpublished memoir about his childhood in Wimborne, Henry Joyce gives a graphic description of life in Wimborne at the turn of the last century. (His account of a fire which could have destroyed the town was published in last July’s Dorset Life.) Henry Stanley Joyce was born of a well-to-do family in Rowlands Hill in Wimborne in 1883. He was a pupil at the Grammar School and went on to a career with the National Provincial Bank, but country life was in his blood; he wrote a number of books based on his experiences and was highly regarded as a writer and naturalist.

His book about growing up as a boy in Wimborne was never published, though, but fortunately the draft survived. In it he describes the various forms of entertainment which brightened up the lives of Wimborne citizens at the time. There was quite a lot of it, too: apart from the football and cricket teams, there were many casual visiting musicians, acrobats and other street entertainers.

From time to time the Town Hall would be taken by a travelling theatrical party for the week. They could generally be relied on to present melodramas of the blood and thunder variety with lurid posters to match. The Joyce children were not allowed to attend any of these performances, as their mother considered them to be trash! The audiences consisted largely of those in domestic service and shop assistants, and in the circles in which the Joyce family moved it was considered not quite the thing to be seen there.

One form of entertainment which the children were allowed to watch was the Myriorama. This only came to the town on rare occasions and was very popular. It consisted of a sort of travelling variety act supporting a series of scenic tableaux. It had a very good reputation and its programmes were all carefully censored so that nothing in the least offensive should appear in them. The scenery and lighting were the chief feature of the show and a lot of ingenuity was used to produce the best effects. Much of the scenery was used in many different capacities. A local scene was always sure to bring the house down – for example ‘Sunset on the Stour’, a charming effect of water with trees in silhouette against a flaming red sky, would always provoke a storm of applause. This was in spite of the fact that palm trees could clearly be seen above the willow. In towns without a river it was probably presented as ‘Sunset over the Amazon’.

In those days there was quite a lot of free entertainment in the town. Travelling street musicians were a common sight. There was an old harpist and his fiddler companion who generally appeared on a Friday either in the Square or in the broad part of the High Street. Their music was of quite a high standard and they were well known by the local folk. Few would pass without contributing a copper or two.

The children particularly loved the organ-grinders, not so much for the music but for the monkey which almost always accompanied them. The children were so eager to feed the monkeys that it is doubtful that the man ever had to spend much on food for them. Women organ-grinders usually had a cage of budgerigars. If you paid a penny, a bird would pick out from a drawer beneath the cage a printed card that would tell your fortune. It was always something pleasant and written in such a way that it could apply to almost anyone. These people were usually of the gypsy type, with rings in their ears, brightly coloured scarves and swarthy complexions; many were Italians. Sometimes they were accompanied by a dancing girl playing a tambourine, which she would also use as a tray to collect money from the audience.

German bands were frequently seen – we would call them oompah bands these days. They were of quite a high standard and would stay in the town for about a week. Apart from playing in the streets of the town, they would also visit private houses in the area. There were visiting tumblers, jugglers and a fire-eating coloured gentleman who came regularly but only stayed for a day or two. In contrast, the pavement artist would remain for at least a week before moving on. The length of their stay was governed very much by the weather at the time. Sometimes a visiting potter would set up his wheel and demonstrate his skill. People were fascinated to see the clay take shape under his hands as his foot worked the treadle to power the turntable.

There were street traders, or cheap-jacks as they were known then, offering all kinds of bits and pieces, knives, watches, mouth-organs and many other glittering items to attract the passer-by. They could be found by Eastbrook Bridge, particularly on a Saturday evening, when the town would be filled with workmen with their wives and families. The older men were difficult to persuade but the young men proved rather more gullible and spent their money more readily. Sometimes, if trade was somewhat slow, a special offer would be made. The salesman would suddenly say, ‘I’ll tell you what I’ll do, I’ll sell this watch, real silver, jewels in all its works (and here he would hold up the watch to catch the light, opening the case to show the sparkling interior) and I’ll put it with this golden half-sovereign. You can have the lot for five shillings! Anyone give five shillings for a silver watch and a gold half-sovereign?’ The watch and the coin were soon sold and then trade would generally start to pick up. Of course, it may have been that the person who bought the watch was in league with the cheap-jack – who knows?

Performing bears were sometimes seen on the streets of Wimborne. They were usually accompanied by two men, one who played concertina while the other looked after the bear. The bear’s performance generally consisted of a jig while standing on its hind legs. Bears were supposed to come from Russia, so the men were always described as Russians: they had dark skin, black hair and large black moustaches. They would perform at private houses in the residential part of the town but their performances in the town itself were limited because of the danger to horses. Horses have an instinctive fear of bears and the smell of one was enough to upset a nervous horse. A horse in panic could be a very real danger in a crowded street.

During the spring and autumn, a very popular entertainment was the Punch and Judy show. In the summer, most Punch and Judy shows had a pitch somewhere on the sands at a seaside resort; in Wimborne they could usually be found either in the Square or by Eastbrook Bridge.

Another source of amusement and enjoyment for both adults and children was the visit of the one-man band. His outfit consisted of a cap with bells for his head, pan-pipes or a harmonica for his mouth, a concertina to keep his hands busy, drumsticks for his elbows (the drum being carried on his back), cymbals on top of the drum played by a cord attached to one heel and a triangle also attached to a cord to the other. It wasn’t always easy to recognise the tunes which he played, but you had to admire the amount of effort and energy needed to keep the show going for even a few minutes. At the height of his performance he must have looked like a man with a ferret down his trousers and a couple of hornets in his shirt!

On other occasions a Scots piper would parade through the street playing the bagpipes. The sound of this instrument wasn’t always to everyone’s taste, but the swing of his kilt and sight of his traditional costume always attracted attention.

After the harvest every year, a small fair would be set up in Sheppard’s Field, close to Walford Bridge. There would be roundabouts and various other small shows and they would be there for one or two weeks. The fair was always well patronised and all social barriers seemed to disappear You might meet anyone there – from your neighbour’s housemaid out with her young man to the family of one of the local doctors. As the field was hardly more than half a mile from the Joyces’ house, the music of the organ could clearly be heard – a source of great pleasure to young Master Joyce as he lay in bed.

[We gratefully acknowledge the help of Barbara Willis, Curator of the Priest’s House Museum, for her photographic research.]

1. The Wimborne cricket team of around 1900. Only one cricketer does not wear a moustache.

2. The Wimborne Pierrots at the Victoria Hall in 1910

3. One of the visiting bands who delighted the residents of Wimborne
in Henry Joyce’s childhood days. In the front rank are bandsmen with a
helicon, baritone, tenor horn and euphonium. Note the old gentleman in
a bath chair who has managed to get himself into the picture!

4. Mr Burchell, an itinerant entertainer who was a familiar sight around Wimborne at the turn of the last century

5. The staff of Bond the saddler outside the Wimborne premises in
about 1902. The gentleman on the left was ‘Holy Joe’, who toured the
town singing hymns.


1-5. Priest’s House Museum Trust

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