A Slice of History
(An extract from Past King Rat Fred Russell’s “History of the GOWR”, a record of the first 58 years, written especially for the Water Rats in 1947.)
Early in the year 1889, James Finney, one of the top stars of that period who, with his lady partner Marie gave a very attractive aquatic display in a large tank, was fulfilling an engagement at the Empire, South Shields, then under the control of Mr. Richard Thornton. ‘Dick’ Thornton was a plain spoken Northumbrian with stronglydeveloped sporting proclivities, and a staunch patron of the Turf and Ring in the North. He was particularly interested in racing ponies, and owned an intelligent trotter called The Magpie. Finney accompanied Mr. Thornton to the race track at Newcastle to witness the performance of The Magpie, and expressed the opinion that “there was money in it” for the animal in the Metropolis. On his return to London Finney reported the matter to his bosom pals Joe Elvin and Jack Lotto, who also were much interested in ‘The Sport of Kings’ and its offshoots. Joe suggested the pony couldbe brought to London and raced on a 50-50 basis, one half of the winnings (if any) to go to Mr. Thornton and the other half to a syndicate of which Joe and Jack Lotto were the principals. It was agreed, and in due course the pony was brought to London, and stabled at De Laune Street, Kennington, Joe being elected managerof the syndicate.
A racing buggy that had seen better days was purchased, and the gauntlet thrown down at the feet of any trotting sport that cared to pick it up. Joe described the course as a straight mile on the open Croydon Road, starting at Thornton Heath and finishing at the William the Fourth public house in Streatham.
Having had circus experience, and being amenable to instruction, a special course of training was devised forthe pony to impress upon the equine mind exactly what was required. The procedure was for the animal to be driven from the stables at Kennington to the Streatham public house, pulled up there, permitted a look around to take his bearings as it were, and then the nosebag was put on. Directly the pony had secured his first mouthful of corn, however, the nosebag was whisked off,and ‘The Magpie’ with his appetite just whetted and longing for more, was driven a mile down the road to Thornton Heath.
Here he was turned about and raced back to the pub where the nosebag was immediately clapped on again and the pony allowed to feed to his heart’s content. It did not take this bright animal long to appreciate the sequence of events, viz., a pause outside the pub; one little mouthful of corn as a ‘taster’ a trot to Thornton Heath and a rush back to the pub, where the ‘munjari’ awaited him. The method adopted proved so successful that The Magpie became virtually unbeatable over the course, and, as a result, not a little profit accrued to the syndicate.
The news that sport was to behadso near home on Sunday mornings spread amongst the pros residing in the neighbourhood of Brixton, who assembled in full force to urge the pony on to victory, and huge bets were placed at the many taverns wich lined the route. In the meantime the pony’s namewas changed from ‘The Magpie’ to the ‘Water Rat.’ Joe Elvin was driving the pony home one morning in the rain, and, its thick coat soaked, the animal presented asomewhat sodden, woebegone appearance. In Brixton Road a bus driver hailed the comedian: “Hullo, Joe, what have you got there?” “A trotter,” repliedJoe. “Trotter?" said the bus driver, “Blimey, it looks more like a bleedin’ water rat,” and Joe was struck by the thought, “What a novel name for the pony!” There was a pull-up at the nearest hostelry, supporters gathered around, and the ‘Water Rat’ was duly christened. Next day a horse clipper was entrusted with the task of cutting the letters ‘R.A.T.’ in the thick black coat on the pony's flanks, and the animal quickly became a character of the neighborhood.
After one particularly remunerative success by the Water Rat, Joe Elvin suggested an up-river outing of supporters to celebrate their good fortune. Accordingly, on a Sunday morning in the summer of 1889 a party of around twelve left the Canterbury public house in Westminster Bridge Road by coach-and-four and drove to Sunbury-on-Thames, where the merry-makers after a pleasant afternoon’s boating on the river, wound up with a sumptuous dinner at the Magpie Hotel, Sunbury. It was at that dinner that Joe Elvin, intrigued by the spirit of camaraderie prevailing suggested the consolidation of friendship by the formation of a coterie of ‘Pals of the Water Rat,’ and the suggestion was enthusiastically acclaimed by all. And so, it was at that historic gathering at the Magpie Hotel, Sunbury, in the summer of 1889 that this Order was first brought into being..
During the ensuing months of that year more or less informal meetings of the little community continued to take place. At those meetings rules were formulated and methods of procedure discussed. This work was not completed until April 1890, when the ruleswere finally approved and the fraternity of ‘The Select Order of Water Rats,’ (subsequently to become ‘The Grand Order of Water Rats’) was launched into the public domain as a Showbiz Charitable Organisation.
The motto adopted was ‘Philanthropy, Conviviality, and Social Intercourse,’ and it was agreed that the bulk of the fortune accrued from the pony’s success would become the basis of our Charities Fund, initially dedicated to helping fellow artistes who were injured, sick, or had fallen on hard times – a practice which continues to this day
Eventually, the Sunday morning racing was closed down by the police, who objected to the conversion of the public highway into a race track. So the pony was sent back to Mr. Thornton at Newcastle, where in the fullness of time and at a ripe old age, he was gathered to his fathers.The Order forged ahead rapidly. For the first few months there were twelve members only, then the membership was extended to twenty and in January 1891 there was another extension to forty; subsequently, the membership was raised to 50, then to 100, and finally the existing limit at the time was removed altogether.
King Rat Harry Freeman
Water Rat number 001 - Our first King -1890
Harry was a prolific and highly reputable entertainer who performed countless very popular comic songs during his years on the halls. His name is not so well known as some of his contempories because he never left us a big song to be remembered by. His hits of the day included - 'Can't stop'; 'They're After Me'; 'It Never Troubles Me'; the 'Giddy Little Girl Said No'; these were the songs that made his name at the time.
Harry was born in either Stoke Works or Stoke Priors, near Bromsgrove Worcestershire on 29th July 1858. In his early teens he moved to Birmingham, his home until he died.
His first engagement was at a Free and Easy at the 'Imperial Theatre', Walsall in 1877 at the age of 19. He scored a distinct hit and, as a result, received engagements at all the principal Music Halls in the Midlands. His first London appearance was at 'Lusby's Music Hall' in 1881 and although widely accepted in the Capital and the provincial halls throughout the country, his tremendous popularity in major Birmingham venues was second to none.
Harry Freeman made his last appearance on stage in Norwich in May of 1922.
Following an abdominal operation he died in St Peter's Hospital, Henrietta Street, Covent Garden, London on 30th. July 1922. He was buried in St Mary's Churchyard, Handsworth, Birmingham on 4th August just yards from the resting place of James Watt, Mathew Boulton and William Murdock - all very eminent engineers and famous figures in life - but none of them a 'King'.
Past Scribe Rat Barry Balmayne
King Rat Dan Leno
Water Rat number 016 and King Rat in 1891, 1892 and 1897.
Dan Leno was, almost, one of our founder members. He joined in 1890, when the membership was increased from the original twelve to twenty. He was born, in London, George Galvin. His family were all show business and he was onstage at the age of four billed as Little George - the infant Wonder Contortionist. Galvin senior died and his mum married again, another pro called Leno.
His climb to the top was a hard and fascinating one. Suffice to say, before he was twenty eight, he was Britain's most popular comedian billed as The Funniest Man on Earth - follow that! Apart from his bill topping in Music Hall (in America too), he was the great pantomime star and one of it's most famous Dames. He appeared every Christmas, from 1888 to 1903, as the star of Drury Lane.
Alas, at the very height of his fame, his wild comic reasoning and invention started to malfunction and he died, some said of popularity, at just forty four. He was, we have to believe from contemporary reports, a comic genius. Max Beerbohm left us the most vivid summing up of him when he wrote: "Here was a man unlike anyone else we had ever seen. That face so tragic, with all the tragedy that is writ on the face of a baby monkey, yet ever liable to relax it's mouth into a sudden wide grin and to screw up it's eyes to vanishing point over some little triumph wrested from fate."
Oh for a time machine!
Councillor and Past King Rat Roy Hudd OBE, BM, KRA'97
"Here was a man unlike anyone else we had ever seen. That face so tragic, with all the tragedy that is writ on the face of a baby monkey, yet ever liable to relax it's mouth into a sudden wide grin and to screw up it's eyes to vanishing point over some little triumph wrested from fate."
The following is an article from 'Friends' Newsletter No. 3 by the late John Adrian our Administrator for The Grand Order of Water Rats from 1987 to 2000.
"What The Papers Said"
As a "Friend" you will know that the Order was founded in 1889. What isn't so well known is the fact that following the First World War and due to the economic and social problems of the 1920's the Order was disbanded from April 1922 until it's reformation in April 1928.
One of our greatest regrets is the fact that "all the Minute Books and other documents relating to the Old Order were destroyed at the time of disbandment." Happily we do still possess an excise book containing Scribe Rat Wal Pink's handwritten Minutes from the official first meeting on 11th April 1890 and subsequent meeting until 15th May 1892. We still have a photocopies of "The History of the Water Rats" written in 1947 by Past King Rat Fred Russell (known affectionately by the members as 'Uncle Fred').
It is, therefore, only in the 'trade' newspapers of the day that it is possible to find detailed reports of the Water Rats activities during those early years. The most valuable of these papers is "The Performer" -"The Official Organ of the Variety Artistes Federation...The Music Hall Artistes Railway Association...The London Meeting of the International Artistes Lodge & Various Music Hall Societies." The Performer was founded by Uncle Fred who, before he became a renowned ventriloquist, was a journalist. It was a 'weekly' and ran from 1906 until 1957 and is a mine of information.
The Rat's home from 1901 was The Vaudeville Club at 98 Charing Cross Road. (The Club later moved round the corner to 6 New Compton Street). It was from this building that the members were the driving force behind the formation of The Variety Artistes Federation (V.A.F.) and most of the organisations mentioned above. The V.A.F, was to be the main association for members of the Music Hall and Variety profession until it amalgamated with British Actors Equity in 1957. It campaigned for better working conditions for its members and lead the fight against the all-powerful Theatre Managers in the famous "Music Hall Strike" of 1907. Naturally the V.A.F. needed 'a voice' and that is why "The Performer" was founded.
Sometimes the Order was the unwitting catalyst behind the formation of other theatrical charities. "The membership of the Order was at first limited, to a dozen members and shortly thereafter increased to twenty. The list had been filled when Joe Lawrence, the father of Vesta Victoria, and one or two other artistes expressed a desire to join. It was with regret that Joe Elvin [our founder] explained that the limit had been reached and it was therefore impossible to accept further applications for membership. Disappointed and somewhat chagrined, Joe Lawrence and his friends decided to found a rival organisation, which they named "The Terriers Association". This was in May 1890. Some years later they changed their name to the "Beneficent Order of Terriers". Their meeting place was the "White Bear Hotel, in Lisle Street, near the London Hippodrome. It is strange how many societies of the time held their meeting in public houses! At its inception the Water Rats home was in "The White Horse" in Brixton Road. The White Bear and the White Horse are still pubs, but both renamed.
Right from the earliest days the Rats organised outings, especially on Good Fridays. One of their early favourites was to the Polehill Arms in Sevenoaks, Kent. They also had an annual Boat Trip - usually on the Thames. This tradition continues today, usually on the Sunday nearest to the August Bank Holiday. In "The Era", another theatrical newspaper, there is a report of the first "outing" on Good Friday 1890. The Water Rats "were driven to "the Magpie" Hotel, Sunbury on Thames, on the 'Tantivy' coach, the ribbons [reins] being admirably handled by W. Clarke Esq. A Steam launch next took the 'Rats' up river [to] the Pack House, Staines. They returned to The Magpie, where justice was done to a substantial dinner. The coach brought them back to The Canterbury [Music Hall] after a glorious day." The Boat Trips weren't always as sedate as that report suggests. There was an occasion when the Rats Boat passed another pleasure boat on which the "Queen of the Music Halls" Marie Lloyd was causing quite a rumpus much to the annoyance or merriment, according to the attitude, of neighbouring boats.
As you know the originator of the Order was the pony Magpie. The only report of one of his races that I have come across was in The Era. "The trotting match between the ponies Water-Rat and Boneyard, respectively belong to the 'Rats' and 'Terriers', which was to have taken place on the Mitcham Road on Sunday, was stopped by the police, and has been declared off by mutual consent" That day Magpie didn't earn us any coins for our coffers - or for his keep! His stable was in De Laune Street, Kennington.
The Rats even held football matches - " the Rats play in costume, the Blondin Donkey and Clown, being the Brother Griffiths; Dan Leno, policeman, in goal. Fred Harvey, as King Richard the third will fight Joe Elvin as a Highlander." This sort of fun can still be seen, occasionally, with Jess Conrad's celebrity XI.
If the Editor of this Newsletter, PKR Keith, hears from even one Friend, I'll be back with more "What the Papers Said" about the Water Rats.