If there is a popular memory of blackface minstrelsy in Britain, it’s shaped entirely by The Black and White Minstrel Show, a light entertainment programme that ran on the BBC for twenty years from 1958. Which is regrettable, because that didn’t really reflect the British minstrelsy tradition with any degree of accuracy: it was very much a modern reinvention of a style that had effectively died out in the early years of the twentieth century, and some of the surviving British veterans disapproved of the result, particularly the exaggerated white make-up around the mouth and eyes.
Nor was George Mitchell, who created and managed the troupe, a particularly interesting impresario. At least, not compared with Sam Hague…
Samuel Hague was born in 1828 in Sheffield and first appeared on stage as a clog-dancer at the age of six, while he was apprenticed to a cutler. By nine, he was working regularly, appearing between acts in Sheffield theatres, while sets were being changed, and – in his own account – becoming ‘the first combined song-and-dance artiste in the business’.
By the time he was a young man, he was seeking a wider stage. Teaming up with his younger brothers Thomas and William, he formed the Brothers Hague Concert Party, and in 1850 they left for America on a tour that ‘introduced English clog-dancing to the American stage’. What happened next is not exactly clear. The team seems to have been relatively successful as a novelty act, but at some point it split up. Possibly Tom and William returned home; certainly Sam performed as a solo act as well as forming brief partnerships with other British clog-dancers.
But this was still a hand-to-mouth existence and Sam became increasingly drawn to the idea of moving off the stage to make some real money as an entrepreneur. His chosen field was the then-thriving tradition of blackface minstrelsy. He teamed up with an American, ‘Happy’ Cal Wagner, a minstrel comedian ‘who was famed as a realistic representative of negro life and character’, to launch Wagner & Hague’s Pontoon Minstrels, who toured widely in the western states.
When he broke with Wagner, Hague settled in Utica in New York State, and – back in partnership with his brother, Thomas – opened a bar called the Champion Shades. It was here that he encountered the Georgia Slave Troupe Minstrels in 1866.
Comprised of fifteen slaves from Macon, the Georgia Minstrels – singers, comedians and musicians – had given concerts in their home state ‘for the benefit of sick and wounded Southern soldiers’ during the civil war and had been ‘attached to a Georgia regiment, as a field band’. They weren’t the first all-black troupe but, in the immediate aftermath of the conflict, they were the first to break out on the national stage, and their visit to Utica was part of a successful tour of the North. Their manager was one Captain W.H. Lee, a white promoter, but Hague saw the potential of taking the performers to Britain and negotiated a share of their management.
Additional performers were recruited, most notably ‘the wonderful Japanese Tommy, the most remarkable specimen of negro humanity ever known, being 33 years of age and only 32 inches in height!’ as the British press was to enthuse. ‘A greater curiosity than Tom Thumb, as in addition to his more diminutive stature, he is universally acknowledged to be the cleverest and most versatile artiste on the American minstrel stage!’ With the troupe now numbering twenty-six performers, they – together with Hague and Lee – set sail from New York on the steamship Etna in June 1866.
The first British appearance came at the Theatre Royal, Liverpool the following month, under the name the American Slave Serenaders (later changed to the Great American Slave Troupe) and was publicized as being the first authentic depiction of black culture ever presented in Britain:
The bright side of slavery life, as it existed in the sunny South previous to the rebellion… The verdict of the American press is: ‘Natural negro minstrel talent, as exhibited by the Slave Serenaders, has not been and cannot be equalled’ … The performances are of a chaste nature. Their object is to present the natural irresistible humour of the blacks; and their wonderful success in the States is the best guarantee of the deserving nature of their performances.
By this stage, blackface minstrels were an established part of the entertainment industry in Britain. Thomas ‘Daddy’ Rice had made his London debut some thirty years earlier, and had been followed in 1843 by Dan Emmett and his Virginia Minstrels, the first troupe to be seen here.
Although the stylized caricature of plantation life had no cultural context for British audiences, the format proved hugely popular: the humour was unsophisticated but avoided crudity, and was therefore considered suitable even for respectable women, in contrast to the earthiness of the male-dominated music halls that began to appear in the 1850s.
So popular was minstrelsy in Britain that a home-grown version of the tradition emerged: future music hall stars who blacked up early in their careers included Alfred ‘the Great’ Vance, Harry Champion, Gus Elen, Dan Leno, Little Tich, Lottie Collins and Ella Shields.
Hague’s troupe, though, was something different. No one in Britain had seen a genuinely black minstrel before – many had never seen a black person at all – and the 1866 tour attracted a fair bit of attention, helped by a certain amount of hype:
The gable-ends, hoardings and billboards of the good old town of Liverpool … were adorned with a series of grotesque placards, the like of which had never been seen before in England. They depicted in gaudy colours, and in the broadest of broad humour, certain scenes which were usually associated with the cotton plantations of the Sunny South, and the generally accepted conditions of life in ‘Old Virginny’. These extraordinary placards were intended to announce the coming advent of the ‘Slave Troupe’.
It was not an entire success. What Hague saw as the chief attraction – the authenticity of the performers – turned out to baffle British audiences, who had got used to a much more stylized version of minstrelsy that was far removed from its origins. ‘The public compared this crude representation of real negro life with the educated, refined minstrel companies that were then so popular in England,’ wrote an early historian of British minstrelsy, ‘and naturally the troupe suffered by comparison.’
Nonetheless, as the company toured around the country over the next two years – visiting cities as far afield as Bradford, Birmingham and Belfast – the adverts became ever more boastful:
Competition and imitators outdone by the famous and gigantic American slave troupe and brass band, forming the largest travelling company in the world, under the management of the veteran minstrel, Mr Sam Hague, late of New York. The original and only combination of genuine black performers in existence! Sixteen real negroes, who, prior to June 1865, were slaves on the plantations of America. The three great comedians – Johnson, Pemberton and Japanese Tommy – nightly received with shouts of laughter and applause.
And, it was claimed: ‘This troupe has been welcomed in England with overwhelming success, as the criticisms and comments of the entire press daily attest.’
The act they put on – a full evening’s entertainment – followed the traditional pattern, opening with the minstrels sat in a semi-circle, with the main comic performers at each end (hence they were known as end-men or corner-men) and Mr Interlocutor in the middle, who played the straight feed in cross-talk routines with the corner-men. ‘They gave illustrations of slave life on the old plantation,’ recalled an audience-member. ‘Their instruments consisting of tambourines, bones, banjos, drums &c.’
Among the black performers, Japanese Tommy attracted the most attention, but there was also Abe Cox, who did farmyard impressions in ‘The Hen Convention’, and Aaron Banks, whose big number was ‘Emancipation Day’. The latter, it was said: ‘rarely escaped a double encore. No white man could have put the same amount of enthusiasm and realism into this song of jubilation as did Aaron Banks, the freed slave.’ Banks was the last of the originals in the troupe, remaining part of the act into the 1880s.
Not all the performers, however, were entirely satisfied. There’s no evidence that Hague was a notably exploitative employer by the standards of mid-nineteenth-century showbusiness; indeed, after his death he was remembered for ‘his kindly nature and generosity’, his willingness to ‘help a lame dog over the stile’. When a later member of the troupe, Lucius Lamar, had a stroke, he was kept on the payroll with a full pension for the remainder of his life. But perhaps Hague’s paternalist style didn’t quite smack of the liberation that freed slaves might have anticipated. And anyway a life of touring the British Isles was an alien experience. So it became a struggle for Hague to keep hold of his artists and maintain a full troupe.
He found a new partner in the American showman Charles B. Hicks, then on tour in Europe. Commonly known as Barney Hicks, he came from Indiana, and was the first black promoter to run a minstrel troupe (also known as the Georgia Minstrels, though they didn’t actually come from Georgia). Between them Hague and Hicks continued the Great American Slave Troupe with another lengthy tour that stated in Ireland in 1870. But this partnership was also destined not to last, and just over a year later Hicks returned to the USA, taking with him several of Hague’s artists including, most damagingly, Japanese Tommy himself. (Hicks was subsequently to sell his interest in the Georgia Minstrels to Charles Callender.)
This continual battle to maintain a supply of black performers, and the need to satisfy audience expectations, persuaded Hague to change the nature of his troupe. He began replacing those who left with white British artists, who blacked up with burnt cork in the conventional fashion. Of these, the biggest star turned out to be the comedian Billy Richardson.
There were other changes too. W.H. Lee died on 15 December 1874, ‘a valuable manager,’ according to The Era, who had ‘been identified with the “boys” in all their wanderings’.* And the following year, there was further upheaval.
Hague had, in 1869, found a permanent home for the company at the 1,600-capacity St James’s Hall in Liverpool, from where excursions and residencies by a separate touring company could be organized. He was to remain here for the rest of his career, despite a catastrophic fire in 1875 that completely destroyed the venue at a cost of some £30,000 (he had insurance cover of just £9,000). ‘Poor Hague,’ it was reported, ‘when he saw the destruction of his hall, cried like a child.’
During the year that it took to rebuild St James’s, the company – now known simply as Sam Hague’s Minstrels – went again on tour, making what seem to have been their first London appearances, first at the Old Philharmonic Theatre, Islington in February 1876, and then at Crystal Palace on Good Friday and Alexandra Palace on Easter Monday.
The scale of the performance was becoming epic. For the Christmas of 1879, the now 60-strong touring company took up residence at the Bingley Hall, Birmingham, putting on a five-hour show twice a day for an audience of 10,000. In addition to Hague’s minstrels, the bill was augmented by:
Lu Lu, the celebrated flying gymnast**; Donald Dinnie, the great Scottish athlete, and his Highland dancers; the famous Lentons, acrobats; Hall, the Australian Samson; the renowned Miltons; the A’La Baby Elephants; Peterson’s Dogs; Musical Clowns; the Black Paganini; Stirk and Allo, trick cyclists; Arthur’s Juvenile Volunteers; Heard’s Military Band; and other attractions.
The act that Hague was now staging was to prompt fond reminiscences in later years. ‘This troupe were always in the then recognized style of black evening dress,’ remembered an admirer. ‘The corner-men having exaggerated shirt-fronts and cuffs, plus comic wigs.’ Another who saw them when he was a child never forgot the impression they made:
Here was a real treat. A fine group of men, all blacked up, good voices, good jokes, good songs with soft flowing choruses, and endless laughter. Tom Beet with his banjo and side-splitting songs; Billy Richardson with his crackers and funny stories; and Mr Johnson, the centre man, with his rich store of conundrums, which allowed the corner-men endless play at answers.
There were memories too of ‘a sketch entitled “Black Justice” which they occasionally incorporated into their show; a police court scene in which a negro magistrate severely belaboured with a bladder-stick all the parties who in turn came before him.’***
Even while the old comedy business continued, however, the emphasis was increasingly on the musicianship. The newly recruited white performers included many trained singers and players, and a reputation was acquired for offering refined entertainment.
‘A sacred concert was given by Sam Hague’s Minstrels in the Free Trade Hall last evening, when there was a large audience,’ the Manchester papers reported. ‘Although the “minstrels” are more accustomed to a different class of work, the members of the company who appeared as soloists last night showed themselves quite capable of shining in the higher sphere.’ The programme included ‘popular selections from the oratorios of Haydn, Handel, Mendelssohn and Gounod’.
This was a sideline, though, strictly secondary to the main business of minstrelsy, in which it was said that they enjoyed ‘a tremendous vogue in the country’ and that they ‘reigned unchallenged’. And at the centre of it all was Hague himself:
A conspicuous figure about the front of house, a picturesque personality once seen, not easily forgotten, with his sturdy figure, Uncle Jonathan whiskers, fur-lined coat, silk hat, massive diamond pin etc. A bright, cheery and jovial man whose very presence seemed to exude an atmosphere of confidence amongst the patrons, and a feeling that everything would be all right on the night.
But the greatest challenge that could face such a troupe was to play in America, and in September 1881 Sam Hague’s British Operatic Minstrels – as they were billed – landed in the United States at the start of a seven-month tour.
It was the first time that British minstrels had attempted to win over American audiences, and it was a triumphant success. Hague’s ‘enterprise in bringing a minstrel troupe to America, the home of its origination, is characteristic of the man,’ observed the local press, ‘and it was daring in him to depart from the old style of minstrelsy, and make talent and musical culture features of the entertainment’. In particular, there was praise for ‘music of a quality that had never previously been associated with American minstrelsy, an orchestra of first-class musicians and singers of charm and culture’. A second tour was undertaken in the autumn of 1882.
There was something intriguingly circular about this, the idea of taking what had originally been a white American parody of black culture, reinventing it in Britain and then re-exporting it to white America. Eighty years later, the Beatles would do much the same thing.
Sam Hague’s Minstrels continued to perform through to the end of the century, surviving long enough to share bills with the Jubileeograph, an early form of movies named in honour of Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897. ‘The programme presented at the Free Trade Hall by Sam Hague’s Minstrels,’ wrote the press in 1900, ‘comes back as fresh as if we had not heard this minstrel troupe for the last thirty-five years.’
That was, however, pretty much the end of the story. Less than a fortnight after that notice, on 7 January 1901, Hague died in Liverpool. Despite all his success, he seems not to have profited greatly from his career, for eight years later a benefit performance was staged for his widow, who had fallen on hard times.
Sam Hague’s Minstrels continued under his name for a little while, but the days of the big troupes were passing. Within a couple of years of his death, several of his big rivals – the Livermore Brothers’ Court Minstrels, the Mohawk Minstrels and the Moore & Burgess Minstrels – also went out of business, the large troupes unable to compete with the higher wages being offered by the music halls. Hague’s name was briefly evoked by a new troupe in the early 1920s, during a fad for ‘old-time variety’, but their act were now seen as a relic of a vanished world, self-consciously revivalist, and the return didn’t last.
‘Sam Hague loved his troupe and was proud of its reputation,’ said Charley Harrold, one of his corner-men, reflecting in the 1930s. ‘When he died we tried to carry on; but we did so only for a time. We were no longer Sam Hague’s Minstrels. The familiar face was no longer at the helm. So ended that famous black-faced show – there never was a better.’
* My thanks to Rowan Gibbs (see comment below) for drawing my attention to the note of Lee’s death in The Era.
** Lulu, the Beautiful Girl Acrobat – as the act was billed – was actually the cross-dressing Sam Westgate, though this was not yet public knowledge.
*** This may be a confused memory. ‘Black Justice’ was the best known sketch of the British blackface trio of Brown, Newland and Le Clerq, though Hague’s Minstrels may well have done their own version.