Monday, 4 November 2019

North Woolwich Pleasure Gardens. The Great Baby Show


part 3  History of the North Woolwich Pleasure Gardens
by Howard Bloch


One of the last events which was organised by Charles Morton at North Woolwich was a mammoth two day fete for his own benefit. For this he invited a large number of artistes and decorated the garden with flags.  On the first day the programme included The Great Vance, Miss FitzHenry as Captain MacHeath in The Beggars Opera, Farini & Son performing on the high wire and The Storming of the Magdala and a balloon ascent by Henry Youens. Most of these performances were repeated on the second day, although Vance’s place was taken by George Leybourne who says ‘Up in a balloon’ and ‘Sparkling wine and music’.

Morton considered taking the gardens for another season but decided that too much financial risk was involved in a venture ‘so utterley at the mercy of the elements’.

He was succeeded in 1869 by William Holland. Holland styled himself ‘the People Caterer’ and was one of the most versatile and flamboyant of music hall managers. Broad shouldered, rotund, frock-coated and with a long waxed moustache which stuck out several inches and gave him the appearance of Emperor Napoleon III.

In order to meet the competition from other pleasure gardens, Holland engaged many leading music hall artists and variety acts and organised an ever growing range of entertainments. Among the stars were George Leybourne, and his rival the Great Vance, Herbert Campbell, Arthur Lloyd, Nelly Power, James Fawn, J.H.Milburn, G.H.Macdermott and the spiral ascensionist,  Leonati.

Not content just to provide ‘one thousand and one amusements’ for 6d., he constantly sought ‘novel, curious and attractive events’ with which he hoped to attract an even larger number of visitors.

The first of many shows was ‘the baby show’ in July 1869, which drew very large crowds - about 20,000 on the first day and was widely reported in the newspapers. On the day about 500 mothers with their babies travelled from all over the country to North Woolwich. ‘Babies, babies everywhere’

The platform at North Woolwich Station was crowded with them, the entrance to the gardens was all but choked up with local babies in the arms of their local mothers who had come to witness the arrival of the competitors from town.  The long avenues and winding alleys of the spacious gardens were dotted with them long before the show commenced. 

The man in charge of the weighing machine outside the entrance tent, made a little fortune by putting them on the scale and for a full hour he did nothing but shout out ‘One Stone .. something’ and pocket pennies - as baby after baby was plumped down on the Union Jack which formed the roughly extemporised cushion on the chair.

The feeling of the hour was contagious. Everybody praised everybody else’s baby, and even the few fathers who had simply brought their wives and children out for a holiday, without a thought for the competition, could not resist the ‘good zings that fell to their share of the compliments showered so thickly around’. 

After being weighed the mothers and babies went into a large theatre and marquee where they sat in long rows on benches separated from the visitors by a single rail.  There were, we are told, plenty of fine children; one of eight months and another of eighteen months bidding hard for the chief prizes. The youngest mother was fifteen and a few months and the youngest child was six weeks - except in the notable case of a triplet of babies who were but eighteen days old and whose mother nursed one at a time while a friend held the other two. They were in wretched contrast to a baby giant - who looked like a living copy of the Infant Samuel Johnson as Hercules strangling the snakes in Sir Joshua’s famous canvas.  The puny three called forth pity more than curious interest.  They were very old looking - one in particular resembling a piece of antique ugliness in a picture of Holbein’s. They were also very small, their poor little arms and legs being no bigger than a man’s finger.

The baby show was followed up in September 1870 with the first of the annual barmaid shows at which ‘there was not the slightest impropriety of any kind’ and in subsequent years by a cat show, postmen’s races, market basket races, and a happy couple contest.

In August 1875 Holland exhibited Admiral Tom Trump (Jean Hannema) who he claimed was the smallest man in the world having a height of 26 inches, a weight of 26 pounds and able to speak fluently in five languages.

This article appeared in the May 2000 GIHS Newsletter

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