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A Slice of History

So, how did it all begin? Let’s go back to 1880 when Britain’s Music Hall circuit was in full flow. Hundreds of theatres were being built throughout the four nations and the resulting range of venues led to an even greater range of playbills. Audiences were offered diverse line-ups that included some strange and unusual acts. One such act was Professor James Finney and his sister Marie, performing their exhibition of so-called ‘scientific swimming’. With a full tank of water on stage, James would present such feats as holding his breath for four and a half minutes while diving down and picking up sixty-one coins with his mouth. If there was sufficient stage height, Marie would dive sixty feet into four feet of water.

During an engagement in early 1889 at the Empire, South Shields, Finney met the theatre manager, Mr Richard Thornton. ‘Dick’ Thornton was a plain-spoken Northumbrian with a stronger liking for sporting activities than for music hall. He was one of the biggest patrons of the ‘Turf and Ring’, a late nineteenth-century sporting association. One afternoon, Finney and Thornton went to the race track at Newcastle where Finney saw one of Thornton’s trotting ponies, The Magpie, in action. Thornton suggested Finney take him to race in London, an idea which Finney shared with two fellow entertainers, Joe Elvin and Jack Lotto.

Elvin suggested the pony could be transported to London and raced on a 50:50 basis - any winnings would be divvied out between Thornton and a syndicate managed by Elvin and Lotto. The scheme was agreed and The Magpie brought to London to be stabled at DeLaune Street, Kennington. South-east London had become THE area for pony trotting races - one in Blackheath, another in Streatham – after Frederick, the Prince of Wales, had begun to regularly race horses and traps from Kennington Cross to the top of Brixton Hill, a century earlier. This route had become a Sunday morning event and many public houses sprang up along the way to service spectators.

These drinking establishments were often given names associated with the equestrian event: two White Horse pubs, an Old Horse, a Black Horse and The Prince Frederick are still open for business today. When the young Prince bored of racing he drifted towards cricket, eventually playing for the Surrey XI on Kennington Common (later to become The Oval). The installation of tram tracks along the original Kennington race route led to horse and trap accidents, so a new route, The Sussex Road Race, from Streatham to Thornton Heath Ponds was adopted.

Joe Elvin had worked with animals in a circus and knew how to coerce them. He lived in Effra Road in Brixton, not far from the stables in Kennington and had by now become the racing venture’s executive. Elvin purchased a racing buggy and began to devise a strict regime of training. First, the pony’s transportation from Delaune Street to the finish line outside a Streatham public house, at which point the animal was given a nosebag of corn. As soon as it began to eat, the nosebag was removed and the pony taken to the start line at Thornton Heath Ponds after which it was raced back to the pub again. Here, the nosebag was immediately clapped on and the pony allowed to feed to his heart’s content. This conditioning by reward technique proved so successful that The Magpie became virtually unbeatable over the course, reaping substantial profits for the syndicate.

Those participating in this little gambling gang had grown and included local acts. At the time, many performers lived in the stretch between Kennington and Streatham, taking advantage of the only late night public transport – the 730 tram - to run from the centre of London all the way to Streatham Hill. “The Friends of The Magpie” were a varied bunch and included comedy sketch writer, Wal Pink, and acrobats Fred and Joe Griffiths. The group met on Sundays at Brixton’s White Horse pub, where the landlord, George Harris provided a private table where they could eat and drink when the bar was crammed with race goers.

The pony soon picked up a nickname. While driving it home one day in the rain, Joe Elvin was hailed by a bus driver in Brixton Road. “Hullo, Joe, what have you got there?” “A trotter” replied Joe. “Trotter?" said the bus driver, “Blimey, it looks more like a bleedin’ water rat!” Elvin began referring to the animal as The Water Rat and in a short time it was picked up by the others. Eventually, 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, adding to its recognition in the neighbourhood.

After yet another win, Joe Elvin suggested an up-river outing of Magpie/Water Rat supporters to celebrate their good fortune. So, on a Sunday morning in the summer of 1889 a party of twelve left the Canterbury Music Hall in Westminster Bridge Road by coach-and-four and were driven to Sunbury-on-Thames for dinner at…The Magpie Hotel! It was there that Elvin, driven by the spirit of camaraderie, suggested the formation of a fellowship, ‘Pals of the Water Rat’. The proposal was enthusiastically endorsed and The Order – as we know it now - came into being.

This 12-strong group continued to meet regularly at The White Horse in Brixton Road. Methods of procedure were discussed and rules were formulated, all committed to paper by Wal Pink, and on 11th April 1890, the first official meeting of the fraternity of ‘The Select Order of Water Rats,’ (later ‘The Grand Order of Water Rats’) was convened. ‘Philanthropy, Conviviality and Social Intercourse’ was its motto. It was agreed that the bulk of their racing profits would fund a new charity dedicated to helping fellow artistes who were injured, sick or had fallen on hard times.

The first twelve members were Joe Elvin, Wal Pink (as Scribe), ‘The Original Eccentrics’ Fred and Joe Griffiths, publican George Harris, comic singer and impersonator George Fairburn, theatre manager Barney Armstrong, one-man band Tom Brantford, entrepreneur Fred Harvey, trick cyclist Jack Lotto, comedian Arthur Forrest and Music Hall star Harry Freeman. Freeman became the first Chair or ‘King Rat’. Within a month the order grew to twenty members and then by January 1891 to forty: this number included James Finney, the group’s unwitting ‘founding father’ who returned from a US tour and became Water Rat no.33.

Following residents’ objections to the conversion of a public highway to a race track, police closed down the Sunday morning Sussex Road Race. ‘The Magpie’ was returned to Mr Thornton in Newcastle, where it was retired and lived to a ripe old age. The Order proved its own longevity, having continued to grow both its membership and charitable donations over the 133 years of its existence to date.

Curator André Vincent

King Rat Harry Freeman

Water Rat 1 - 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 16 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

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.

Past Administrator John Adrian

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