Written by Jeannie Swales
A hundred years ago, pierrot troupes were common sights at the seaside, including Scarborough – and Will Catlin’s were among the best.
Pierrots are believed to have been introduced to this country around 1890 by banjo-playing entertainer Clifford Essex, who had been entranced by them in France. There were various troupes in Scarborough by the turn of the century, including Sidney James’s Strolling Players and Tom Carrick’s Popular Pierrots.
But Will Catlin was the daddy of them all. Born William Fox in Leicester in 1871, he changed his name to Catlin when he teamed up with a performer called Charlie Carson as a music hall act, and preferred the alliterative qualities of Catlin and Carson to Fox and Carson.
Catlin came to Scarborough in 1894, and formed a troupe to entertain on the beach. Within a couple of years, his troupe had become pierrots, clad in the familiar black skull caps and white conical hats, white suits bedecked with ruffles and red or black pom-poms, and white face make-up, which derived from the original pierrots in the Italian Commedia dell’Arte.
Catlin was a sharp operator, and developed some practices picked up by rock ‘n’ roll impresarios years later: he insisted, for instance, that his performers were all male, and gave them an allure for female audiences by presenting them as available bachelors – they were forbidden to be seen walking arm in arm with a lady, even if they were married to her!
But he also offered the relatively unusual security of all-year-round employment, touring inland towns and cities during the winter months, which meant his ‘boys’ were not only the finest performers in the business, but fiercely loyal to him to boot.
Catlin continued working in showbusiness for the rest of his life, and when he died in 1953 his coffin was topped by a pierrot hat made from white flowers, and the inscription “King of the Pierrots final curtain”.
Our picture of Catlin’s pierrots is one of many in the Scarborough Collections, and can be seen as part of the next store tour, starting at Scarborough Art Gallery at 2pm on Tuesday 27 September, and looking at historic photographs of Scarborough, particularly the seafront.
Places on the tour cost £2 each, and are limited, so booking is recommended. To book, or for further information, please call the Art Gallery on (01723) 374753.
And for a much more detailed and absolutely fascinating account of the history of pierrots in Scarborough and beyond, track down a copy of The Pierrots of the Yorkshire Coast by Mave and Ben Chapman (Hutton Press Ltd).