How acrobat clown contortionist ‘Edwin Edwards’ travelled the world and ended up running a Dalston pub in the 1800s
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A clown and contortionist made his fortune travelling the world before settling down in Dalston as a pub landlord. Emma Bartholomew speaks to his great great grandaughter and an amateur genealogist fascinated by his story.
Interest in the story of a clown and contortionist who travelled the world before settling down as a pub landlord in Dalston 150 years ago has been resurrected by an amateur genealogist.
Hackney-born Victorian clown Edwin Edwards - who achieved international repute as far-afield as Russia as a clown, contortionist, acrobat and dog-act - is the same person as Edward Barnes Crichton who retired to Dalston in the 1860s and 70s to run the Prince George pub, in Parkholme Road, which remains a lively public house to this day.
Edward's great great granddaughter, Gillian Hunter, uncovered the story through her research over the past decade, and now she is writing a book about her relative. Simultaneously, amateur genealogist Eric Kingsley has been working with the online community Genealogy Specialists over the past few months to unravel the mystery behind the man in a photo his barber showed to him, who he claimed was his own great great grandfather. The extraordinary image, bought at Christie's in 1991 by the famous New York fashion photographer Richard Avedon, shows a clown in a contortionist's pose sitting on a pillar with his legs stretched up beyond his armpits. With a Mohican hairstyle, white face paint and a leotard, it is hard to imagine the intriguing image was taken as long ago as the 1850s.
"When I saw that photo, it was so obvious he looks like family," Gillian told the Gazette. "It would have been a glass plate photo and he would have held that position for hours. I'm told you can't do that at the age of 40 unless you'd been doing it since the age of three. At that time all the clowns and performers had baggy clothes like Joseph Grimaldi, and leotards had only just been invented."
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Just as stumbling across the image sparked Gillian's interest, so it did for Eric Kingsley, who drafted in expert advice in his quest to find out more.
The photo bears the names of Crichton and "Edwin Edwards" - although the old handwriting is very hard to read.
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"It looks like the curators of the collection might have - wrongly in our view - decided that 'Edward Barnes Crichton' was the photographer rather than the real name of the subject," said Eric.
Through census, birth and baptism records, both Eric and Gillian discovered that four of Crichton's children were born in Europe. Two were born in St Petersburg, another in Paris - and Gillian's great grandmother Louise was born in Breslaum, in former Prussia.
The births occurred during a period when it is known that Edwin Edwards was working abroad and visiting the capitals of Europe, which appears to prove they are one and the same person.
Eric also discovered that when Crichton died in 1891, probate records show he was worth between £650,000 to £850,000 in modern terms - "a fortune that would be hard to explain on the income of a pub landlord", he said.
Crichton was the landlord of the Prince George from 1873 to 1885, lived in Richmond Road, and owned rows of houses in Dalston.
Edwin performed all over the UK, and was recorded impersonating a monkey in 1852 in a Dublin theatre. He also did acrobatics, balanced on balls, and trained dogs to perform complicated balancing tricks and to walk on their hind legs.
Gillian believes Edward's inspiration came from growing up around the Drury Lane theatre district.
"I think he was very brave, to have travelled the world with his whole family," said Gillian who has been told her grandfather was also an incredibly fit man who did gymnastics into his 80s at a gym in their garden in Dalston.
"Edward was rather remarkable, and even for today I think he would have been unconventional and bohemian."
"We found a review of his impersonation of the monkey which says how good he is," said Eric. "It sounds daft but you're talking about 150 years ago, and in Victorian times believe it or not there was a trend towards animal impersonation and particularly monkeys. It was thought of as very funny but it was also used as moral guidance, because a monkey was considered brave and kind and good.
"Times were obviously very hard then and from the census we can tell he came from a poor background. But he had skills like being good with animals and he was a talented performer and made people laugh.
"He went on to have a pretty good life starting from poor beginnings. It's an interesting and strange story."