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Frederick John Buxton

‘I can remember when they had a bandstand and Pierrots here’.1.

One of Manxland’s most successful promoters of public entertainments.

Born: 1868 or 69, Derbyshire.

Died: 14th September, 1920, Douglas.

Wife: Mary née Roberts, born Manchester c. 1871.

Father: Henry (Harry).2

Mother: Harriet née Hunt.

Sons: Frederick Douglas; Harry.

Daughter: Mildred.

Frederick John Buxton - henceforth referred to as Fred Buxton - was the second generation of a theatrical dynasty. His father Harry, a lace maker of Heanor, Derbyshire,3 was also something of an entertainment entrepreneur and toured with his family troupe of singers and instrumentalists in the North West of England in the late 19th century. Around 1895, Fred joined a resident minstrel troupe at Rhyl - then an elegant holiday resort - for the summer season, and a panto group during the winter.

In 1896 he married Mary Roberts, and the following year they were living in Golborne, Lancashire (now part of Wigan district), where a daughter Mildred born. Two years later the family moved to the Isle of Man, and that year Fred was initiated into the craft of freemasonry as a member of the Athole Lodge.

 ‘The People’s Favourite Resort’

By 1900 Fred Buxton had established the Operatic Pierrots by leasing  the Harris Promenade Bandstand,4 close to where the old Iron Pier was situated, but by 1902 the family were living at ‘Glen Lyon’, ‘a large house at the heart of the Pierrot Village’, which was situated on Central Promenade.5 The site was ultimately developed into the Crescent Picture House three years after Fred Buxton’s death.

The new site boasted a tiny open-air platform (barely large enough to be called a stage), with the cramped dressing room accommodation directly behind the curtain, which, in windy conditions, was held down by one of the Pierrots to enable the troupe to change in some privacy. The Rev. R. B. Barron of St. George’s Church, Douglas, loaned the Pierrots benches from his schoolroom until Fred Buxton acquired his own. The original Pierrot troupe were nine in number, and each member earned a weekly salary of £19. Takings - anything from 1d to 6d - were collected by ‘bottling’ in small bags shaken encouragingly under the noses of the audience. Doubtless Fred Buxton’s son Douglas was engaged in this task, in the selling of programmes and other back-stage odd-jobs. Douglas Buxton made his first stage appearance at the age of nine dressed in a tiny Pierrot costume.6

One surviving photograph of the Pierrot Village, after it had been firmly established, shows several hundred people accommodated on terraced seating before a partially covered stage, with what may be a marquee next to it, presumably for the artistes to change in. The following advertisement can be seen on the wall of the adjacent Empress Hotel:

Buxton’s Pierrot Village

DOUGLAS

Isle - of - Man

Concerts 3 Times Daily

11.00.  3.00.  7.30.

 

‘Bright, Clean and Clever’

The Pierrot Village boasted twelve hours of continuous amusement; kiosks; an open-air theatre and music hall combined; an excellent orchestra; a clever Pierrot team; a delicious cup of tea with strawberries and cream and ices, and free admission to the grounds. The entertainment was promoted as ‘Pure, Refined and Wholesome’, and included in the troupe were Fred Buxton himself, a stylish tenor, his wife Mary under her professional name Miss Mabel Roberts, and sometimes known as Polly, and pianist Jack Knowles. At various times other performers included Jack Waller7; Jay Laurier;8 pianist Charles Pearson, and Tommy Isherwood, whose family kept a sweetshop in Strand Street. Over 4,000 visitors crowded into the Village daily during the summer. Fred Buxton later added a pavilion to the site which could hold two thousand people, ‘and it was crowded nightly’.9 A further addition to the Pierrot Village was the Buxton Picturedrome, the forerunner of the later Crescent Cinema. The ‘Village’ remained a popular summer resort until the commencement of World War I.

In 1910 an up-and-coming young Manx entertainer called Harry Korris10 joined the company. From 1911-13 he was the manager of Fred Buxton’s latest venture, the acquisition of the Albert Hotel, on Ramsey’s South Promenade, which later became the Cosy Corner for many years, and the only one of his enterprises which still bore his name for a few seasons after his death. A rare undated photograph of the Pierrots clearly shows Fred Buxton, attired in a double-breasted naval style blazer and nautical cap, plus thirteen other performers, one of whom is his daughter Mildred. Some of the entertainers are holding musical instruments of which three violins, a flute, a cornet and a double bass can be identified.

‘I prithee, let’s be provided to show them entertainment’.

A single programme of a Buxton Pierrot Show c. 1902 survives in the Manx Museum:

One Night Only

 ‘Return of the Pierrots’ at Port St. Mary Town Hall, 7th September

Arranged by T. R. Wood

Mr Fred Buxton’s Operatic Pierrots.

1s 6d.  1s and 6d.

The show was in two parts with an opening and closing chorus of the troupe for each part. There were ‘patter’ songs and ballads; a ‘Coon’ Song, Lily of Laguna, sung by Fred Buxton himself; a ‘plantation’ chorus De rainbow in de sky; a humorous quartet and a closing chorus Johnny Schmoker. Among the artistes were J. W. Knowles, who sang I Took it Off and The Penny Whistle, and Jim (Jay) Laurier, who sang What Will Mother Say. At the foot of the programme the following request was printed: ‘now friend, untie thy purse strings’.

By 1911 the family had moved to Falcon Cliff Cottage, Victoria Road, Douglas.11 That year he was engaged in providing summer orchestral concerts in the newly opened Villa Marina Gardens, whilst during the winter he was overseeing his various enterprises in the North West: Featherstone, Heanor and Kirkham. In 1913, the year that the Villa Marina Kursaal opened, and ever the entrepreneur, he even elected to go to gaol rather than pay a fine for ‘touting’ for customers.

The War Years and a brave enterprise.

The family may have moved back to England for a time after war was declared, but Fred Buxton was back in 1916 engaged in yet another plucky venture, that of being the ‘responsible manager’ of the Villa Marina Kursaal, although the name ‘Kursaal’ was soon dropped. There were concerts, dances, variety entertainments and cinema pictures, and Fred was able to engage the musical director of the Palace & Derby Castle Company, Harry Wood, to form the Villa Marina Bijou Orchestra and engage local musicians.12 There were concerts in the Villa Marina Gardens most afternoons during the summer, dancing at the bandstand evenings, and twice-daily Sunday concerts featuring local choirs such as the Douglas Festival Choir and the Ladies Festival Choir directed by Noah Moore. During the grimmest year of the war, ‘truly, the Villa Marina has made life more tolerable’ declared the local newspapers.

At the end of the season Fred Buxton was awarded a ‘Complimentary Performance’, or benefit concert, to help offset his modest financial losses. He was appointed ‘responsible manager’ again in 1917, and engaged local musical director Charles F. Poulter to conduct the Bijou Orchestra, which still retained some of Harry Wood’s skilled players from the previous season. Fred Buxton himself often appeared as a singer in his sketch ‘John Bull in Story and Song’, and ensured that the cafe continued to do brisk business. Thus, for two years the Villa Marina was the rendezvous for soldiers returning home on leave and looking for some relief from the horrors of the trenches.

On Armistice day 1918 Fred Buxton purchased the Grand Theatre, Victoria Street, and began to refurbish and modernise the building and to revive its fortunes by putting on variety shows. At the same time he took over the management of the open-air baths in Port Erin. The Grand Theatre was to be his last, and sadly short-lived, venture as by 1920 his health had begun to deteriorate markedly. With some regret he sold the theatre to the Palace & Derby Castle Company just before his death on 14th September that year at his home, 17, Hilary Park, Douglas, at the age of fifty-two.13

Fred Buxton was a true theatrical entrepreneur, seemingly undeterred by personal financial risks, a fine entertainer and composer and with an instinct for what the holiday makers wanted. His popular ballads were often sung by his wife and ‘charming daughter’ Mildred ‘who inherited much of her father’s talent’. Here is the chorus from perhaps his most enduring ballad, Come Back to Mona:

Come Back to Mona, from over the sea,

Come back, I’m longing and waiting for thee.

The old home is lonely; I want thee, thee only;

Come back to Mona – sweet Ben-my-Chree.

A second popular ballad was entitled Mona I am coming back, a sure-fire winner in those far off Pierrot days.

Maurice Powell, December, 2018.

Notes.

1.       An elderly member of a party from Lancashire overheard on a bus nearing Broadway in the 1930s, cited in the Isle of Man Examiner, 2nd August, 1957.

2.       Frederick Buxton had two brothers: Herbert H. and Walter; and two sisters: Flora(e)nce and Maud according to the 1911 census.

3.       According to the 1871 census the family lived at 85, Terrace or Terrence Street, in the Civil Parish of Radford, Nottinghamshire; the 1881 census gives the family address as 210, Fisher Street, Langley, Heanor, Derbyshire, Civil Parish of Radford, Nottinghamshire. Heanor (together with Langley is in the present-day Heanor and Loscoe parish.) was famed for the manufacture of silk and cotton goods, hosiery and lace.

4.       The Palace & Derby Castle Company did not tolerate competition in Douglas and the Operatic Pierrots were soon ousted from Harris Promenade Bandstand on the grounds that they caused congestion. On 30th May, 1903, the P & DC Company’s new Palace Pierrots, under the management of George Barton, enjoyed a Grand Opening Day on the same site with the promise of programmes of ‘Refined Wit, Humour and Song’.

5.       The new site was offered to Fred Buxton by Henry Bloom Noble himself, because he apparently missed the jolly sounds of the Pierrots that he could hear from his house (where the Villa Marina stands today), and either leased or purchased it from the Noble Trustees. See Centenary of the Borough of Douglas 1896-1996, The Manx Experience, 1996.

6.       See the profile of Frederick Douglas Buxton (1902-95) in New Manx Worthies, Manx Heritage Foundation, 2006. Known as Douglas or ‘Duggie’, Fred Buxton’s son became an eminent singer, vocal teacher and choir conductor associated with the Lon Dhoo and Lon Vane choirs.

7.       Later part of Clayton and Waller, theatrical producers of West End musical comedies such as The Girlfriend and No! No! Nanette.

8.       A ‘slapstick’ music hall comedian with trademark red wig and baggy trousers fashioned from a sugar sack. He later successfully appeared on the legitimate stage in a number of comic Shakespearean roles, in musicals and in pantomimes.

9.       During World War I the Pavilion was let to the Manx Industries Association as a knitting factory. See Arthur Q. Moore’s ‘Summertime Notebook’, Isle of Man Examiner, 2nd August, 1957.

10.   Harry Korris was Manxland’s most successful comedian and entertainer. During the early 1920s he once again became the manager of Ramsey’s Cosy Corner, before launching his own career again in Blackpool, on radio and in films. See A Supplement to New Manx Worthies, Harry Korris, by Maurice Powell, manxmusic.com/biographies.

11.   On the 1911 census Fred Buxton is described as an ‘Entertainer; Theatrical’.

12.   See Maurice Powell, Manxland’s King of Music, the Life and Times of Harry Wood, Lily Publications, 2018.

13.   National Probate Calendar for 1934: Frederick Douglas Buxton, teacher of music, and Harry Buxton, insurance agent, effects £92 10s in England.

Other sources:

The Mona’s Herald, 2.3.32, Fifty Years of Douglas Amusements by Arthur Q. Moore.

The Manx Quarterly # 24, Volume VI, January 1921.

The Isle of Man Illustrated, published by W. Mate & Sons, 1902.

 

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