Friday, April 19, 2019

We Should All Get To Know 'The Jester'

Beeston has a street named 'Wallett Avenue' but not many in the town know why - and that's despite a Blue Plaque that is fixed to the house on Grove Street, Beeston, where William Frederick Wallett lived, up to his death in 1892.

He had settled in Beeston in 1862 having already earned a much deserved reputation as a circus entertainer in countries around the world - and adopting the name 'The Queen's Jester' after entertaining Her Majesty at Windsor in 1844. And, even in these later years of his career, he only had to display a poster "Wallett is Here" to quickly attract an audience.

But, it is in the United States that he had his greatest successes and where his name is still revered, particularly in the circus community. It was there that strong family bonds connect him with those whose ancestors performed with the famous Barnum & Bailey Circus and amongst whom he is still recognised as the central figure in a family dynasty.

Over a decade ago, when researching The Jester, I corresponded with an American woman, Claudia Sam Balcziunas who told me about her great-grandfather's marriage to Ada Wallett (known as 'The Great Zazell' in the circus world  and the first to be shot from a cannon in the USA) whose father. the circus equestrian, Clifford Wallett, was a nephew of The Jester. Clifford had married Fanny Jefferies who, as 'Madame Jefferies', was part of the family equestrian act. Ada was married to David Loughlin - who had taken the name 'Castello' after he was adopted by Dan Castello, one of the founders of the Barnum & Bailey circus. As a family equestrian act, they had many years in the circus world in America, Europe and wherever Barnum & Bailey took them in the world.

Claudia was in no doubt about the part that The Jester had played in this family success story and  hoped, at some point she would visit England to see where he had lived. After offering what encouragement I could, I heard nothing more until early this year when she emailed to say that she was visiting London for a week and would like to see The Jester's home in Beeston.

And so it was that on a fine but cold morning early this month, I met her off the train at Beeston.  With just four hours to see the sights before her planned departure time, we set off to show her as much as I could. After a call at The Jester's home  - with its Blue Plaque - and a  quick tour of the town, we called at Wallett Avenue where she was thrilled to be photographed against the street sign - and was disappointed that I had to tell her that the adjacent Clifford Avenue was not named for Clifford Wallett!

Then it was off to the General Cemetery in Nottingham to find The Jester's grave. It had been many years since I had last seen it and I was only vaguely aware of its location but, despite her mobility problems, Claudia was determined to find it. And, despite the difficult terrain and prickly brambles in the last few yards, we did eventually find it - happily completely legible and in good condition.

For Claudia, it was clearly an emotional experience as she spent a few quite minutes with 'Billy'. Seeing where he lived and where he was buried had been a lifetime's ambition and it was pleasing to make it possible.

Then it was back to Beeston for lunch and then down to the station for her return to London. It had been a busy few hours but we had achieved everything we set out to do - and Claudia was a happy lady.

Clearly, there is a lesson here for us locally - these not so high profile celebrities from the past did remarkable things and are somebody's heroes. Recognising this, learning about them and promoting them is something we should all be doing.

Certainly, for Claudia's friends and family, there was no question - the first thing they asked when she returned home was not did you see the usual tourist sights but, 'did you find Billy' !

You can learn more about William Frederick Wallett here
And, about the wider family circus connections here and here

Sunday, March 3, 2019

C P Walker & Sons - 120 Years Plus and Still Going Strong

Over the years, Beeston has had - and still has - more than its share of long-established family businesses that have served the local community well over the years.  But, the estate agency, C P Walker & Sons, which is still going strong after over 120 years is surely a remarkably example.

The business started in 1896, the year after 23-year-old Charles Potter Walker had married Edna Wilkinson, the daughter of George, the brother of Frank Wilkinson, the owner of Anglo-Scotian Mills on Wollaton Road. George was then building housing for Frank's workforce, in the streets around the centre of Beeston and needed someone to manage them. Charles grasped the opportunity and soon gave up the greengrocery he had previously operated on the High Road to concentrate full-time on developing the property business - which soon included insurance, with Charles collecting premiums from shopkeepers up and down the High Road.

To this day, it has remained a family business and has grown  steadily at its location at 107 High Road (shown above). Today, the business includes fourth generation family members in its management team.

To celebrate this remarkable milestone of 120 years in business in Beeston, the company decided to commission  a history of Beeston during those years, exploring and celebrating its rich history. I was pleased and honoured to be asked to write the. "The Story of Beeston"  It's 73 pages are richly illustrated - including the image above right - and chart the history of the town, decade by decade, from 1896 up to the present day - during which the once dominant lace trade vanished completely, large employers - such as Humbers, Beeston Boiler and Ericssons - came, succeeded but eventually closed, new housing filled the open fields that surrounded the old village centre, two world wars brought tragedy and austerity and supermarkets and national names replaced smaller local shopkeepers. But it also is a story of Beeston's resilience and positive response to inevitable change which continues today and will always be with us.  

The book was published towards the end of 2018 and has been received with acclaim and interest. It is available free to anyone interested - just call at the C P Walker & Son office and ask for a copy.

Now the thought is "How will the town develop in the 2020s?"  - and, who better to write the next chapter than local people like us who love their town?  And. to try to answer that question, C P Walker & Son has launched a competition to write that next chapter. 

The competition is open to anyone, within three age categories - Primary School, Secondary school and 16 plus. There is no word limit but entrants are asked to keep to a 1000 words maximum if possible and to look to the future with a positive outlook, to stir the imagination and to get people thinking about what comes next and how it can happen. 

The closing date for entries is April 23rd 2019. If you are interested, there are more details on the company's website, to be found here .

Sunday, October 12, 2014

34 Reminders of People & Place

When the South Broxtowe Blue Plaques Committee was formed, it was unsure how many of these commemorations of people and place it would erect - perhaps about a dozen it was thought. Now, after five years, it has completed its work with 34 plaques now in place - a remarkable and commendable achievement which has provided welcome historical awareness throughout the district.

Formed as a joint initiative between the Beeston & District Civic Society, Beeston & District Local History Society, the Stapleford and District Local History Society, and the Bramcote Conservation Society, under the able and energetic chairmanship of Peter Robinson, the committee has done an excellent job by any measure. And, remarkably, the whole project has been self-financing with the cost of the plaques borne by the property owners or other interested parties.

The final plaque was unveiled a few days ago, to mark the 175th anniversary of Beeston Station.  Alan Dance reminded those who assembled to mark the occasion that the station was opened on 4th June 1839 by Midland Counties Railway as a stop on its newly opened line from Nottingham to Derby. In 1844, that company became part of the Midland Railway and the station at Beeston was rebuilt, essentially in its present form, in 1847.  It is probably the oldest station building, still in use in Nottinghamshire.

The station became an important part of the Beeston community, opening it up to the world beyond - and increasing the awareness of Beeston by the outside world. Throughout its life in the 19th Century and well into the 20th, it played a major part in the development of Beeston's industry, the increasing popularity of commuting attracted new residents from Nottingham and leisure travel became attractive for many.

By the 1980s, however, things were changing, parcels and mail went by other means and passenger traffic was falling with only a few trains stopping at Beeston, British Rail proposed to demolish the buildings, leaving Beeson as an unmanned stop.  Happily however, there were local people who had other ideas and, after an energetic campaign, British Rail was persuaded to undertake a comprehensive renovation of the station. Now it is once more providing a rejuvenated service for local passengers, providing speedy access to many parts - including now, ready access to the Continent.

The plaque was unveiled by Sir Neil Cossons, past Chairman of English Heritage who was born and raised in Beeston and by David Horne, Managing Director of East Midlands Trains at the invitation of the Mayor of Broxtowe, Councillor Stan Heptinstall.  During the introductions, the Mayor thanked the committee for its excellent work which had hightened awareness of the the contributions made locally by people in the past and of places of importance.  Both David Horne and Sir Neil spoke of the momentous day on 4th June 1839 when the first train passed through Beeston to the amazement of local people, most of whom had never seen anything like it.  It was to change everything - many travellers, assisted by a growing number of travellers' guides, would see Beeston for the first time and Beeston would have access to the rest of the country.

Click here for more photographs taken on the day

Now travellers leaving or arriving at the station have a permanent reminder of that day in 1839 and the 175 years that have passed since. A worthy plaque recipient indeed !

Friday, May 30, 2014

Commemorating 100 Years of Excellence

There will be many in Beeston who remember Swiss Mills only for the spectacular fire that destroyed it in 1984.  It is those kind of events that stick in the collective memory - but that's a pity because its often the real story that is then forgotten.

On Tuesday afternoon this week, the Southern Broxtowe Blue Plaques Group set out to put that right when their latest commemorative plaque was unveiled on the site. And, it is hoped, that it will remind us all of the true story of the site of Swiss Mills, on Wollaton Road, Beeston, Cross Street and Villa Street, where for upwards of 100 years, four generations of the Pollard family and their employees made fine lace.  The firm was a large part of what was a major industry in Beeston. While now we look in vain for signs of that industry, we should remember that, in its heyday,  a quarter of the working population of Beeston made its living in the lace trade.

The unveiling of the plaque, which can now be seen on 46 Wollaton Road, one of the modern office units which replaced the mill, was conducted by The Mayor of Broxtowe, Councillor Stan Heptinstall and Ernest Pollard representing three present-day generations of the Pollard family, many of whom were present.

The first of the four generations of lace makers was Thomas Pollard (1803-1880), who made a start in the trade, working wooden hand-operated machines in stables in Villa Street. He had established the basis of the business, but it was his son, John Pollard (1839-1903), who took the business to a new level, acquiring existing mill buildings and building more to form the complex that became Swiss Mills. The most prominent of the buildings was built in 1886, with John's initials carved high on the Wollaton Road frontage. After John's death the business continued to prosper under his son Arthur Pollard (1864-1952), widely recognised as one of the most gifted lace men of his time. In 1909, he purchased the nearby Anglo Scotian Mills which, like Swiss Mills, he used to house a mixture of his own machines and 'standings' rented to others. Arthur's son, John Pollard (1899-1997), also an expert and dedicated lace maker, joined his father in the business in a difficult era that saw two world wars and a declining demand for lace as fashions changed. It fell to him to oversee the final closure of the factory and the disposal of the machines and the site. He is remembered by many in Beeston for his friendly good humour and his in-depth knowledge of the lace trade.

This was a family enterprise that provided employment for many in Beeston's past and produced fine lace that was valued for its excellence. Surely an achievement worthy of recognition !

The Mayor and Ernest Pollard (centre), with members of the Pollard family at the unveiling. Click here for more pictures taken on the day.
You can read more about the family's century of lace making in 'Pollards of Beeston' by Ernest Pollard, reproduced here.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Remembering The Jester

The Blue Plaque Scheme for the Beeston area took another step forward when, despite the cold weather, there was a good attendance to see the unveiling of the 18th plaque - this time it was to commemorate the life of William Frederick Wallett, the Victorian entertainer.

The event was introduced by Alan Clayton on behalf of the Plaques Group, was hosted by Philip and Jane Darby. the present occupants of  Wallett's home in Beeston and was attended by Broxtowe Mayor, Margaret Handley and by several of Wallett's descendants who unveiled the plaque and who can be seen in the photograph on the right.

Speaking, on the right is Geoffrey Wallis, a great-grandson of William Frederick Wallett. To his right is another great-grandson, John Astle-Fletcher, his wife Jane and their daughter, Sally Ryall-Fletcher.

A number of Wallett artifacts, including a portrait of William Frederick Wallett and a picture showing his appearance before Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, were on display.

I gave a resume of Wallett's life -

William Frederick Wallett was born in Hull in 1813. During a career that spanned over 60 years, he established himself as a master of the theatrical stage and, in particular, the circus ring. He travelled widely throughout the world – across two hemispheres - but most often to the United States where his reputation became particularly well established - and delighted crowded audiences by the originality of his wit and humour.

His performances were more in the tradition of a ‘jester’ than a modern-day ‘clown’. He was a man of striking ability and versatility, of fine physical proportions and graceful deportment and he sported a fine black mustache  He usually dressed in Court Jester's costume with bauble in hand and would declaim witty selections from the poets and quote Shakespeare with telling effect.  He also gave representations of classical statuary and sang witty songs. While perhaps not something that would appeal to audiences today, this was a winning formula in his day.

His undoubted talents as a performer were accompanied by a well-tuned talent for self-publicity. No opportunity was missed  - so when, on the 19th July 1844, he found himself appearing at Windsor Castle in front of Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort with the great Duke of Wellington in attendance, he was received kindly by them and afterwards styled himself  "The Queen's Jester" - of course, with no official royal authority. This was the masterstroke that made him a household name throughout the Midlands and the North in particular, fascinated audiences throughout the world and ensured his place in the history of popular entertainment.

When, in March 1862, Wallett married Sarah Tutin Farmer - the daughter of  John Farmer, then the head of a Nottingham family with diverse business interests in the town - the couple chose to set up their home in Beeston, at first at Spring Villa one of a pair of houses, which stood on the corner of Queens Road and Station Road – where the  Co-op convenience store is now. In 1879, the family - which by then included their two children - moved to a new house that he had built on adjacent land. It was here that Wallett, known as the best raconteur in Nottingham, lived out his life and where many local people sought his company in his old age to enjoy his wit and charm. He died in March 1892. and is buried in Nottingham General Cemetery, where his memorial survives.

The house is now 220 Station Road, on the corner of Grove Street from where the plaque may now be seen.  It is hoped that this plaque will go a long way to re-awakening a local awareness of a remarkable man who chose to live, for much of his life, in Beeston.

More information about William Frederick Wallett and other members of the Wallett family who were active in theatre and circus is available here. It is expected that this will be updated over the next few days.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

After Over 100 Years, Still Serving Beeston

The Blue Plaque Scheme has now been running in Beeston and other parts of the southern Browtowe District for over two years. Since the scheme got under way in August 2010 - when the first plaque to Thomas Barton, the bus pioneer, was unveiled - the group has already delivered sixteen plaques, with two more expected to be in place before this year is up.

This scheme - which marks places in the District which are associated with prominent people or events from the past with a blue plaque - is very worthwhile, as it reminds us all of these individuals and events and how they have helped shape the community.

Last Wednesday, 7th November, we gathered to inaugurate a plaque that has been fixed to the 'wavy-wall' that surrounds the Tesco car park on Station Road, Beeston. It is erected there to mark the position of Beeston Lads' Club which stood there from 1913 until it was displaced by redevelopment in 2007.  It also marks the outstanding contribution made by Stephen Hetley Pearson who re-founded the Boy's Brigade in Beeston in 1909 and, through his untiring efforts, made the building available for the training and development of generations of Beeston boys - and, later, Beeston girls.

After an introduction by Peter Robinson, Chairman of the Blue Plaques Scheme, the story of The Lad's Club and its founder was ably described in turn by John Green, for the Old Boys' Association and by Neville Bostock, a former Boys' Brigade officer and now a Beeston & District Local History Society Committee member.

Although a Boys' Brigade had been formed in Beeston before 1900, by 1909 it had largely faded out - such that Arthur Stephen Rogers, a hosiery manufacturer and its first Captain, encouraged his nephew, Stephen Hetley Pearson to take on the task of reforming the Brigade. This he did with his characteristic enthusiasm and efficiency and, after securing the use of a room in the Anglo Scotian Mills, it was an immediate success when over 120 boys enrolled on the first night - a number that had more than doubled by 1913, when it was realised that larger, more suitable premises were needed. An appeal was made to the people of Beeston to each contribute one shilling and, when a factory on Station Road became available. it was acquired, with substantial financial help from the Pearson family. This major achievement was celebrated by the company marching, led by its band, through all the streets of Beeston, from its old to its new headquarters (shown above, right).

Only a year after this move, in August 1914, Britain went to war with Germany.  By then, membership of the Beeston Company had reached 300 and there was a very high level of comradeship and patriotism amongst the membership and its Old Boys' Association. These Old Boys responded to the Country's call immediately - encouraged very actively by Stephen Hetley Pearson. In late August 1914, he led an initial contingent of 27 which marched from the club to a Recruitment Centre in Nottingham. More were to follow over the following four years of war. Sadly, 42 of these fine young men were among those who were never to return. By the end of 1917, this had included Stephen Hetley Pearson himself, killed while leading his men, as a Second Lieutenant with the Grenadier Guards, at the Battle of Cambrai.

His legacy was to live on in Beeston, where generations of lads - and eventually girls - were to regard the building on Station Road as a key element of their lives. There was something happening there seven evenings a week and, as well as the excellent programme of training, there are many who have happy memories of the Saturday social evening and the annual pantomime in particular.

The original premises, known as The Lads' Club,  were later enlarged and were to remain the headquarters of the Company until they were cleared as part of the Tesco development in 2007. This made possible,  a move to excellent, purpose-built premises on Nuart Road, where the Centre's excellent work with the young people of Beeston continues.

The Deputy Mayor, Councillor Iris White paid tribute to the contribution made by the Lads' Club, the Boys' Brigade and the Girls' Brigade to the development of  many generations of young people locally, a sentiment which was echoed by Linda Lally, on behalf of Tesco, who then invited the gathering to a small reception where memories and experiences of the Lads' Club were exchanged.

Shown left to right in the photograph are, Neville Bostock, John Green, Linda Lally, Deputy Mayor, Councillor Iris White and Peter Robinson.

Monday, September 24, 2012

40 Years Old and Counting ...

Last Wednesday evening we celebrated the 40th Anniversary of the formation of Beeston & District Local History Society and it was a very happy and enjoyable occasion.

Yes, it really was 40 years since a small group of us met at the Manor House in Beeston to form a committee and discuss how we could get things off the ground. As it turned out, we had little need to worry as, within a year, membership had come close to a hundred and carried on climbing. Today, it remains a thriving and active society, one of the largest in the County, with regular meetings every month and a programme of outings to interesting places. Under the leadership of the present Chairman, Alan Clayton - who, has carried out that role for some 14 years - the Society has co-operated with other local history societies in the area and with the Beeston Civic Society, to erect blue plaques to mark local locations connected with prominent people from the past, as well in other joint ventures. The society has a growing collection of photographs and local artifacts which it uses for research and displays at local heritage and community events.

The guest speaker for the evening was Sir Neil Cossons who was born and raised in Beeston - and went to school at Church Street, where his father, Arthur Cossons, was Headteacher. His outstanding career included 13 years at Ironbridge Gorge Trust as its first Director, 14 years as Director of The Science Museum and for the six years up to his retirement in 2007, as Chairman of English Heritage. In retirement, the many calls on his experience and expertise keeps him busy but he maintains a keen interest in local initiatives around the country, has always kept in touch with his roots in Beeston and, three years ago, he agreed to become the Society's President.

The subject of his talk - memories of his early life in Beeston - was perfect for the occasion and it was delivered with an insight and in a witty style that perhaps surprised some but captivated and entertained everyone who heard it.   So much has changed in the last 60 years - and the rate of change has recently accelerated at, for some, an alarming rate and looking for the landmarks from the past can be a challenge. The site of the family home on Union Street is now part of Tesco's carpark, his father's school is now the site of a modern apartment development and the fields where he worked in first first summer job, as a 'tier-in' - following the 'budder' up the seemingly never-ending rows of rose plants on Lowes nursery, all for £3 18s a week - are now given up to residential use.  But the railway station survives - although it way it now operates is but a shadow of what it was in the 1950's when the young Neil worked there in holidays while in the 6th Form and to supplement his university grant. Nowadays it is just a passenger stop with a booking office, then at the station - and the surrounding rail workings - there was a payroll of 50 and - this was the big difference - a large traffic in parcels, in and out of the town.  Parcels, large and small, arrived from all the local businesses on their way to their customers and others arrived daily for distribution throughout the Beeston area and the railways own distinctive delivery trucks. For Neil, with an inside view of all this, it was an insight in what made business in Beeston tick. But, working at the station had its more bizarre side - with the rituals of painting the platform edge, lighting the gas-lighting, sweeping the platforms and keeping the fires stoked in the porters' room. It was a world away from the way his career was to develop - but there was much to learn about life at Beeston Station in that era! A most enjoyable talk!

The evening ended with the cutting of a cake, which members and guests sampled with a cup of tea or coffee, mingling, greeting old friends and recalling their memories of the forty years. It was an excellent evening, a worthy celebration by a society which has served the Beeston area well and will, no doubt, continue to do so.

If you wish to learn more about the Society and possibly become a member, you can find out more on its website here.