An Industrialist and an Elephant: Lord George Sanger in Stoke

From the introduction to It’s All About The Road, where this first appeared in print: ‘An Industrialist and An Elephant’ is presumed to be written by Lord George Sanger; it is taken from a copy of a manuscript in the archives of the Dreamland Trust. Thanks to Jan Leandro from the Dreamland Trust for access, Sarah Vickery from the Shell Grotto for the introduction, and Kate Kneale from HKD for the loan of Sanger’s ‘Seventy Years A Showman’.

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After our winter in Liverpool, we again headed south-east, stopping our grand procession in Stoke-Upon-Trent, the first of six stout Staffordshire towns known as The Potteries. I have good reason to remember that first stop on that season’s travels, by an exciting incident that occurred.

The rectangular green where we pitched our wagons was just outside the town, on a road leading to the countryside. At night, on one side of our encampment was darkness and the hoot of the night owl, but on the other side the town was alight through the night with the glow of the fires in the hearts of the pottery kilns. These bottle-shaped brick structures were amongst the most impressive of any buildings I have seen in the northern industrial cities, and there were many hundreds across Stoke-Upon-Trent and the neighbouring towns of Tunstall, Hanley, Burslem, Fenton and Longton.

I endeavoured to visit this industry, which to my mind blended the arts and the sciences in a most interesting fashion. By the best of chances, I was able to visit a new manufactory which was just opening. Mr William Kirkham had bought an older works on the very road on which we were pitched and was using it to make earthenware and terracotta. His purpose was the manufacture of hospital and laboratory ware, school and artists’ requisites, chemists’ receptacles and a wide range of components for industry. Mr Kirkham was only too pleased to provide a tour of his magnificent works, to show me some of the hundreds of items produced and exported around the globe, and to explain the various chemical processes involved in the making and the subsequent decoration of pottery wares.

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I visited Mr Kirkham’s factory again in subsequent years, and we became firm friends, confirmed in the propinquity of our interests in the arts and the sciences together. Mr Kirkham became an active figure in local politicking, and was thrice Lord Mayor of Stoke-Upon-Trent. He also acted with great responsibility as the chairman of the committee appointed to implement the Technical Education Acts in the borough. He was a member of the town’s school board, was elected to Staffordshire county council and was county justice of the peace. I am certain Mr Kirkham was a great aid to the development of one of the finest towns in the Empire, but in that first year he was also of great aid to me.

The unique circumstances of our pitch in that first year, with wilderness on the one side and industry on the other, was to unsettle some of our company. As I walked our encampment at night, walking-stick in one hand and oil-lamp in the other, I was aware of a slight susurration which was not always present. The glowing of the kilns and the noise of the continuation of industry through the dark was unsettling man and beast, and there was a chatter throughout that first night. If I had acted promptly that night, I do wonder if the events of the next morning might have been avoided.

As we always did when in a new town, that very fine spring morning we staged a procession to advertise our arrival. We formed up the parade on the green where we had stayed that last night, with Mrs Sanger costumed as Britannia sitting atop a gold carriage at the fore, with a Lion and a Lamb at her Feet. Behind her were some of our finest horses in full regalia, a herd of elephants dressed in Indian garb, and assorted jugglers in tights and spangles, rope-walkers in fleshings, the clowns, pantaloons, harlequins and at the very rear a demon. All the attendants would be as Roman Gladiators, Crusaders and other such characters. We would parade up the road towards the town, passing Mr Kirkham’s manufactory, stage a brief demonstration of juggling, clowning etc. outside the local market, I would proclaim our hours dressed in my customary Hamlet clothing, and the band would then perform before leading the procession and the towns-people back to our circus-site.

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A short way along the road, it became quite clear that the beasts were restless after their somewhat disturbed night. Now our elephants were calm and placid beasts, in the usual run of circumstances. As I have commented elsewhere in this book, though, if you want to keep the animals in your care safely and in good health, there must be no relaxation in the attention they are given either by night or day. This meant that their handlers had been awake much of the night, and were as tired this day as the elephants.

One of the elephants, an old beast called Charlie, was of an independent mind. Shortly after we passed Mr Kirkham’s, where my friend and some of his managers had stepped outside to watch our parade, Charlie decided he would rather return to the green field which was his temporary home and catch some more winks of sleep! His handler, a young man called Reeve who with the aid of some darkening made an excellent native called ‘Indian Joe’, was pulled quite off his feet and dropped the elephant’s harness.

Luckily, the folk in procession behind the elephants were quick to respond to the changing circumstances and pulled to the side of the road, allowing Charlie to pass. He was chased by poor Reeve, who was very tired, quite in a flap and was unable to catch a hold of his harness.

As Charlie came alongside the factory I had visited the previous day, my newly-made friend Mr Kirkham and three of his managers stepped forward to the aid of Reeve. With some stout rope from the factory yard, they were able to catch a hold of Charlie. The five of them together were able to bring my elephant quite to a halt.

That afternoon I was able to profoundly and publicly thank Mr Kirkham when he visited our matinee performance. It was the start of a friendship of which I am most proud, and in subsequent years we visited Stoke-Upon-Trent again, and the other towns in The Potteries.

We could always rely on Mr Kirkham. Unfortunately, as you shall see in a subsequent chapter, we could not always rely upon Charlie and it is with some regret that I imagine how different things could have been if I took firmer action that day in Stoke.

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