Race, Prejudice and the Circus in Victorian Britain

Thomas Horne, the Chaplain of the Showman's Guild, recalling Pablo Fanque in 1905, ascertains that:

"In the great brotherhood of the equestrian world there is no colour-line ... The camaraderie of the Ring has but one test, ability."

But was this true? The circus in the 19th century had many foreign performers, indeed British artistes more than often took on foreign sounding names to add to their mystic in the ring. There are few prejudicial references to black and ethnic performers in newspapers from the time, but this does not mean there was no prejudice. Indeed, when one looks at evidence, circus performers were not well regarded, and black performers suffered more that most – not necessarily because they were black, but because they were 'foreigners'.

Horne's assertion can be tested by a court case held in December 1859. William Wallett, famous clown and Pablo's friend, ran his own circus for a period. He was taken to court by Assam Ben Mahommed, a tumbler, for non-payment of his wages. This newspaper report enables us to examine attitudes prevalent in Victorian society.

Foreign Acrobats vaulting over a horse, 1849MR. W. F. WALLETT AND HIS ARABIAN ACROBAT. An action was tried at the Sheriffs' Court, Warwick, on Saturday last, in which Assam Ben Mahommed was the plaintiff, and Mr. W. F. Wallett, now of Birmingham, the defendant. The plaintiff's case was conducted by Mr. Powell, Mr. Smith, of Palmer's trial celebrity, appeared for the defendant, whose pleas will be found below. It appears from the facts, and the opening remarks of the plaintiff's legal adviser, that both parties bore some celebrity in their respective lines of business. Mahommed was engaged in various difficult and laborious performances at circuses, under Mr. Wallett and other proprietors, in various parts of the country. The defendant was at present conducting an extensive establishment at the Alhambra Palace, Birmingham; but six months ago was in the north, and, on various occasions, in all parts of England. Mahommed entered into the circus of Mr. Wallett in April, to receive for his services a salary at the rate of £6 per week. He was to be employed up to September, and things went on very pleasantly for five months, during which he performed the services agreed upon. Matters went on with satisfaction for the first five months, at the end of which time some misunderstanding occurred between the parties. Assam Ben Mahommed now sued for the wages of two weeks (£12), the term unexpired. Mr. Wallett pleaded that he was never indebted, and that before the action was brought he satisfied [the] plaintiff's claim by payment. There was a set-off, in which defendant charged [the] plaintiff with eight weeks' keep of his horse, from July to September.
Agreement, between William Frederick Wallett, on the one part, and Assam Ben Mahommed, on the other part. W. F. W. agrees to pay £6 per week for services for the space of six months, from the 24th of April to the end of September, 1859. Assam agrees to play whensoever and wheresoever Mr Wallect directs, in England, Ireland. Scotland, or Wales, on consideration of his passage and transit money being paid by Mr Wallett. He further agrees not to give the use of his name, lithographs, or woodcuts for any other establishment, without consent, or forfeit £50.
(Signed) W. F. WALLETT.
(Witness) JOHN ORNE.
The Koran having been produced, Assam Ben Mahommed was sworn to speak the truth. I follow the profession (he said) of vaulting, tumbling, and I perform the gun exercise. I have been eleven years in the profession. I first engaged with Mr. Wallett in Leicester, where I stop with him three months. He gave me £6 per week. I was at Ashton-under-Lyne, Lancashire, in April. The agreement was signed by Mr. W. F. Wallett and myself there. Performed with him there for £6 per week up to September last. [The] Witness was proceeding to state the nature of his services when Mr. Smith said: I object to his giving any answer in reference to his services, unless such answers bear upon the agreement between plaintiff and defendant, which I contend cannot be put in; but as it is not yet in court the plaintiff cannot be examined thereupon. I take this agreement to be the same as a covenant, or swearing upon a bond. Where there is a written contract that contract must be declared upon.
Mr. Powell: We must declare upon the instrument itself in a covenant or bond. In this case it is not so.
Mr. Heath: I am against Mr. Smith in this matter.
Examination continued: I work all the week. The last week in September I go down to the performance on Saturday, when Mons. Wallett he tell the men to take away my box. He push it out. He refuse to pay me. He said I could go and get what I could. He turn me out. I went to Birmingham, and was four weeks out of my money.
Mr. Smith: If I am instructed right we have such an overwhelming case that I shall not press against the agreement.
The Under-Sheriff: Do you admit that he was not paid?
Mr. Smith: Quite so. I admit there is a prima facia case for two weeks' services, at £6 per week, subject to an answer.
Plaintiff (cross-examined): I do my work as bes' I can. I throw two, three, fifteen somersaults, just as bes' I can, sare.
Mr. Smith: Were you not often taken "very bad" when there was a "bad house ?"
Assam Ben Mahommed: No, sare. That has nothing to do with it. I perform my performance jus' the same- good house, bad house.
Mr. Smith: How many times did you neglect to perform in six months?
Mahommed: Sare, I perform three times the day, three times the night.
Mr. Smith: How many times did you neglect to go into the ring and perform the tumbling act?
Mahaommed: I go into the ring every night. Sometimes I do fifteen somersaults and come down on my hands. Sometimes me go over three horses, and sometimes six and seven, as bes' I can. I said to Mons. Wallett I would go when my engagement finish.
Mr. Smith: You had a particular tumbling act?
Plaintiff: I had good many act. That was business extra. He did not engage me to do the horsework. He engage me to do the bes' I can in my business. I had the woodcuts showing performance with basins, but I did not engage to do that.
By Mr. Powell: We had large and small woodcuts of all our performances. When I leave I write letter to Monsieur Wallett for my woodcuts, which he use all the summer. I never get them till I finish, four week after.
Mr. Omer deposed that the plaintiff, when there was a bad house, complained of a bad back, but when there was a good one, he could tumble as often as he liked.
Mr. Powell: I ask you, from experience, whether performers and actors can exert themselves with the same spirit in a thin house as when it is crowded to the ceiling?
Witness: Yes, sir.
Mr. Powell: No effect upon the animal spirits?
Witness: Not if the company is up to the mark.
Mr. Powell: Does not affect your company, I suppose?
Witness: Our company is always up to the mark. Some companies perform worse.
Mr. Smith commenced by observing, that acrobats generally obtained a livelihood by "turning the world upside down," and it was part of their duty to perform with the same animation, skill, and esprit before a comparatively empty house as when it was "full to the brim." The question to be tried was, whether Assam Ben Mahommed (whose name was difficult to pronounce) could recover from Mr. Wallett for continuing to perform services which he agreed to give for the sum of £6 per week. That sum was not given a man to look at, or to sit down on the sawdust with, or even to play the fool, although many got more for that than for acting the wise man. (A laugh.) That was not his duty. He did not profess to be a fool, or clown, but a tumbler. If a man had £6 a week, it was expected he would do something more than other men, and if one man had a peculiar talent for twisting his body into a series of contortions, or performing rapid evolutions, his employer, as well as the public, had a right to the benefit of his services at such times as he had agreed to give them, wet or dry, poor house or good house. For instance, supposing - which was not very probable - that a man had the power of turning himself inside out, and he (Mr. Smith) gave him £100 a week to perform that operation, for the purpose of amusing the public and obtaining a livelihood, and the man then turned round and said "Well, no, I have turned myself inside out once; I shall not do it again." Mr. Smith proceeded: This basin trick was one no one but himself could perform, and when he was announced to do it the public looked forward to the performance for which he was so celebrated. Suppose, gentlemen of the jury, you pay for entrance into a theatre for the express purpose of hearing "Jenny Lind" and suppose she was to sing in the chorus, would that be the particular performance you would expect?
Mr. Heath: For Jenny Lind to sing in the chorus might be "the best" Jenny Lind could do or perform. The plaintiff in this case says he "performed on all occasions to the best of his ability when called upon so to do."
Mr. Smith: That is the very point. If Jenny Lind was brought down to Warwick performing "to the best of her ability, and when called upon,"she most sing the songs she is expected, and is engaged for, and not in a chorus. Suppose Kean is advertised to play Hamlet, and when he arrives here he says, "I will not perform in Hamlet at all; I will play the walking gentleman, to look at you," you would not let that pass, and perhaps you would demand your money at the doors. Yet this son of the "Arabian Nights" handed down from times long past, who probably believes he is a descendant of Mahommed himself, says, "I have tumbled over the horses, but I will not perform the act the public desire to see." I don't wish to say a word against the man. He is a foreigner. I was sorry to hear my friend use that word. He hoped that "as a foreigner" he would have justice done. I hope so. I hope, as an Englishman, my client will have justice done. Is he to pay £6 per week for tumbling about in the ring, when he has engaged a man for a particular trick? £6 per week is not got together easily. £300 per annum is only given to a performer of extraordinary abilities, one who can do something which no one else can, or in a different way. And this Moor, paid £6 a week, would come into the ring, tumble about, and then pack his back into his pocket. He was a Moor, and yet "he could not do anything more." He knew the basin trick would draw down the applause of the house, and would keep it only for houses overflowing to the ceiling. He was requested to do it. He refused. He was requested to do other acts, and he refused to do them. Let him have justice done, but let him do justice. I shall show to you that the plaintiff has, throughout his engagement, neglected his employment, and I think the learned Under-Sheriff will say it was right for Mr. Wallett to act upon the non-performance of the agreement. One defence is as good as a thousand. My defence is that he neglected his employment, and actually gave notice to leave himself. It was not possible that he could eat his cake, and have another in his pocket, but because he could not get the cake, and eat it, he turns round and says, "You neglected to pay me for a fortnight. I want that money."
Mr. Heath: The plaintiff's case is that he was turned out of service on the 10th of September, and that Mr. Wallett refused to pay him his salary.
Mr. William Frederick Wallett. sworn: I am proprietor of the Alhambra Palace Circus, Moor-street, Birmingham, and I engaged the plaintiff. I many times requested Assam to perform a particular act, almost every day. He never obeyed. He almost always made some excuse; the particular performance consisted in a series of side somersaults which are very particular. It was his principal performance. He was also engaged to leap over a number of horses, do his gun and basin trick.
Mr. Smith: Describe the basin trick. - Mr. Wallett: The basin trick was a performance in itself, and consisted in holding two large basins - one under each arm; four in each hand, and one in his mouth, and then throwing very difficult somersaults. That was his principal performance and always commanded a large amount of applause; but I don't think he did it more than three times in five months. His brother performers and I had rows with him every day about "skulking" out of it. If the piece of ground did not suit him; the ring was damp, or the house bad, he would not appear. We required him to perform it twice a day. The Arab somersault he did it twelve or fourteen times during the summer, but I don't recollect the basin trick more than three times during the whole five months. I requested him nearly every day to do it. He was advertised with large coloured bills, that cost me a great deal of money, to do this particular trick, and stood up and did not do it, especially if the house was indifferent. If there was a good-house, he would perform as well as ever he did in his life. I asked him several times, and wished him to go. He said, fourteen days before he left, he should leave. He came limping in, after jumping over one horse, and sat on his dress-box. I accused him before the whole company of being "a skulking fellow." I said he had better leave. He said he would go. I said he might go then if he liked. He said no, he would go at the end of the fortnight. He got so bad I could nor tolerate him at all. On the Friday he was skulking about in the same way. He gave me some impudence, and I pitched his guns and things out into the road. This was on the 9th of September. He went there and then and took away his horse. He caused me much annoyance, because I am very particular in keeping faith with the public wherever I go.
Mr. Smith: No doubt; that is the secret of every one's success - faith.
Defendant: I believe he did not perform his tricks because James Cooke excelled him in everything he did. Cooke out-leaped him, and he was heart-broken - that's the fact. Young Cooke's name was not in the bills, and yet we announced Assam as the principal feature in the entertainment. As to the horse, we had lots of them, of no use for leading. Sometimes his horse was led, and sometimes drawn. It had to be led or drawn, it would not go by itself. (A, laugh.) It must have some means of transit. I had five or six horses doing nothing during that time. £1 per week was a fair sum for its keep. Our horses cost 27s. per week for keep, toll-bars and grooming. I paid these expenses for the horse five months, but was not of the least service during that time. I have forty performers when fully at work.
By Mr. Powell: I don't recollect ever giving Assam more than £6 per week. I think I once gave him less. I don't know that he ever met with an injury to his back. He had injuries all over in the course of a week. You would have thought he had swallowed the box with which Pandora inflicted evils on all the world.
Mons. W. Auriol: I am in the employ of Mr. Wallett. I have seen the basin trick. Complaints were made that he did not perform it. I know Mr. James Cooke. He had to do the work when Assam failed. He was a vaulter.
Mr. Thomas Swan: I am equestrian clown. I am a "fool." (Laughter.)
Mr. Smith: I would rather you called yourself clown. Witness cross-examined: I can corroborate all that has been stated in court.
Mr. Samuel Wilkins: I am clown and acrobat. I was a fortnight with Mr. Wallett before I saw the basin trick. That trick was considered the ne plus ultra of the entertainment. I always do my part the same whether wet or dry, and the same to an empty house as if there were 20,000 persons in the circus. I can stand on my head. If I had some basins, I could throw you sommersaults on that table. (Laughter.) I can stand on one leg.
Mr. Powell: Like any other goose!
Mr. Smith said, that if the man's back was bad, he ought to have seen to it, as his living depended upon the elasticity of the muscles. They must recollect no medical testimony had been given to show them that it was seriously injured. Where was the doctor? He would not further delay the Court, merely contenting himself by observing, that the only real excuse the plaintiff could have for neglecting his work was his bad temper, united with cupidity and jealousy - qualities for which his countrymen were distinguished.
After a short consultation, the foreman of the jury said he wished to know whether a verdict could be returned for the plaintiff in the amount of one week's salary.
Mr. Heath said, that if the jury were of opinion the plaintiff had performed his duties (such as were required of him) to the best of his ability, he would be entitled to the full amount claimed; if they were of opinion that he had not so performed his duties, then the defendant would be entitled to the verdict.
The jury deliberated for twenty minutes more, and after some difference of opinion, found for the defendant, Mr. Wallett.
The Era – 18 December 1859 p.10.