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

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