Strolling Players, Minstrels and Living People: Entertainers in Galloway and Dumfries

Meeting date

Mr Innes MacLeod

James Williams Lecture
Meeting report

The James Williams Memorial Lecture was chosen to serve as the final meeting of Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society in 2010. The speaker on that occasion was Innes Macleod, who as a contributor of several papers to the Society's Transactions, knew James, the late senior editor, well; in addition during Innes' period as Extra-Mural Activities organiser in the Region he invited James to take some of the classes.

Innes' subject 'Strolling Players, Minstrels and Living Entertainers in Dumfries and Galloway' was suited to the approach to the festive season. The topic and the importance of the occasion drew a huge audience.

The earliest event mentioned was the fact that the Strauss Orchestra, on its way to play in Edinburgh and Glasgow, stopped off in Dumfries in 1838. However, the main periods covered by the talk were the 1860s and 1870s. The establishment of the railway network permitted top flight, talented, professional London performers to dominate the Scottish scene (although there were also plenty of amateur companies performing locally in towns and villages).

There was a whole street theatre in everyday life as a galaxy of itinerants passed through Dumfries, Castle Douglas, Gatehouse of Fleet, Newton Stewart and Stranraer. There were acrobatic turns, Punch and Judy shows, musicians of all kinds and human curiosities, for example.

The idea of white men blacking up as Negro minstrels emerged out of the New York theatres in the 1830s. The vogue for Black and White Minstrels attracted big audiences. Thomas Carlyle was fond of such entertainment.

Innes was an early collector of music sheet covers of the period. He is the proud owner of about 700 of these items. Retailing at 3 shillings each, they were expensive in their heyday, the 1860s — and are even more so today. He treated his audience to a succession of these exquisite and brilliantly-coloured lithographs. John Brandard and Alfred Concanen were celebrated creators of these covers, which were bought for their beauty, not for the music. The themes were varied and ranged from the Crimean War, the Abyssinian Expedition, the American Civil War to royal weddings and to trains and railway stations, which were very popular.

Dumfries did not have a music hall, but many of the stars from the British circuits played in the Mechanics' Hall and the Theatre Royal. Arthur Lloyd , star of Music Hall, came to perform in Dumfries, Castle Douglas and Stranraer in 1861 and 1862 and he was still coming in 1898 and 1899. He composed some 200 songs and became wealthy, partly because there was a good income from the sale of covers. Other celebrated artistes were Harry Gordon, who went to great lengths to include local colour in his performances. The Great Vance, cockney singer and dancer, received top billing and visited the area in the 1860s and 1870s. Chang, the Chinese giant, said to be over 7 feet tall, was a popular singing sensation and a great scholar. His wife accompanied him. They appeared in marvellous costumes. The Concanen music sheet cover of him is exquisite. These stars of the period were household names.

Music covers by the 1880s began to display satirical themes. Albert Concanen, the illustrator, in dealing with Oscar Wilde, betrayed his contempt for the man.

The Theatre Royal in Dumfries was doing well in the 1860s and 1870s. Individuals could lease it and make it profitable by running it in tandem with performances in Edinburgh, Glasgow or Whitehaven. They would provide the actors, the costumes and the sets. An abbreviated Shakespearian play would be delivered in the first half and in the second a frolicking farce, verging on vulgarity, might take place.

The London Star Company, choosing Kirkcudbright as a base, performed throughout Galloway in the early 1870s. They often gave their plays a local touch: hence Boucicault's The Streets of New York became The Streets of Kircudbright or there was The Fair Maid of Castle Douglas!

Sadly a report of this nature is unable to do justice to the quality and appeal of the assemblage of illustrations presented by Innes in this well-researched and much-appreciated talk.