Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Stumbling across gems in local histories

Minack Theatre 

Wherever I go in Britain I always try and look in the local history museums, heritage centres and churches.

In July Ann and I were in Penzance for a short holiday and to see Surrey Opera’s performance of the Benjamin Britten’s ‘Midsummer’s Night Dream’ at the open air Minack Thetare overlooking the sea.

At Penzance’s Penlee House there is an exhibition of local history. Four things took my interest.

·        Sambo’s Row

Mention was made in the exhibition of a road called ‘Sambo’s Row’. Katie Herbert, the curator, tells me: ‘Local rumour has it that these houses, and then the Crysede factory, were built on a field previously inhabited by a black donkey whose nickname was Sambo.’

·        Roller skating

During the Edwardian boom investment was made through the Penzance Palace and Skating Rink Ltd. One of the Directors was E. W. Phillips, who was also Manager of the Rink Department at Keith Prowse & Co Ltd, and a Director of the Rink Owners Association. Katie Herbert, the curator, tells me that as far as she knows no one has written about roller skating in the town. Its collection includes glass from Penzance Palace and Skating Rinks. ‘The glass has a moulded pattern around the top and the royal coat of arms with "Penzance Palace and Skating Rinks, Ltd" acid-etched below. The Palace and Skating Rink was situated in New Street, with the picture palace above the skating rink. It opened in December 1909 but burnt down on the night of 17th April 1914, as reported in "The Cornishman" of April 18th 1914. The palace was described in "The Official Guide to Penzance 1911 -1914" as having "a maple floor, a splendid electric orchestra and electric light".’

A little more research on the internet provides details about the opening of the rink in Rosalind Claire Leveridge’s DPhil thesis ‘Limelights and shadows’: popular and visual culture in South West England, 1880-1914’ (Exeter University. 2011), and the compnay was struck off the companies register in 1917 (London Gazette. December 1917). 

My Cousin Tom playbill 1839

This playbill advertises ‘For one night only at the assembly rooms Union Hotel Penzance. Master B Grossmith in My Cousin Tom. 29 October 1839.’

Born in 1825 Benjamin Grossmith was famous as a child and juvenile actor. Research on the internet tells us that he continued to perform this play e.g. at Dublin’s Adelphi Theatre on 8 January 1841. (Dublin Morning Register) as part of this ‘great Juvenile Monodramatic Actor’s appearance in his unparalleled Comic Entertainmenis, MY COUSIN TOM. POETS. PROCTORS, AND DOCTORS, AND EYES RIGHT! In which he makes above Sixty Changes, Transitiona, and Metamorphoses, in his Character’. The British Museum has a broadside ‘advertising the performance of Master B. Grossmith, the six year old actor prodigy, in 23 stage characters at the New Assembly Room, Peacock Inn, Northampton on "Wednesday evening next, May 15th, 1833"; with woodcut decorations of his various roles.

His older  brother William Robert Grosssmith (b. 1818) also  performed as a child e.g. at the New Theatre, Bridgnorth, on 6 August, 1825. (Black Country Bugle website). A book about William’s life was quickly written going into a second edition in 1827: ‘The life and theatrical excursions of William Robert Grossmith, the juvenile actor’; republished in 1839. The Victoria & Albert Museum has a painting, and the British Museum an etching of William playing Richard III.

Samuel Hodge, West Indian VC

Penlee House has the painting by Louis William Desanges ‘The Capture of Tubabecelong, Gambia, 1866’ which depicts Samuel Hodge (1840 – 14 January 1868) who was awarded the Victoria Cross in June 1867 for his role in the fighting. From Tortola in the British Virgin Islands, he was a member of the 4th West India Regiment. He died in 1868 serving in Belize. Penlee curator Katie tells me: ‘This is actually one of the most popular paintings in our collection and a great number of historians and VC enthusiasts (mostly in the British Virgin Islands) have written articles on it.’  Jeff Green has written about Hodge at

Hodge has also been written about (February 2016) as part of a Warwick University/British Library project.