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The Dilettante Society on William Wallett

10 July 15 words: Lady M and F Dashwood
illustrations: Christine Dilks

"As precursors to stand-up comics, the court jester was employed by the monarch to entertain with jokes, riddles, music and dance"

In the face of looming mundanity and when times of hardship reign, we recommend remaining resourceful and resilient while retaining a sense of revelry at all times. If we look to the past, at those who endured more difficulties than we do today, characters emerge who inspire and lift the spirits through their uncompromising commitment to a life lived fully on their own terms. One particular Nottingham entertainer was a fool of the very best kind - William Wallett. The Dilettante Society tell us all…

Becoming one of England’s most popular music hall stars of nineteenth century Britain, Wallett travelled the world as a clown, comedian, and jester with bouts also as an equestrian, entrepreneur, writer, tutor and man of the world.

Although it was in Nottingham where he finally laid his hat, he was born in Hull in 1813, the eldest of a remarkably large family. Perhaps his quick wit and penchant for performance was born out of necessity when faced with entertaining a horde of siblings, but it seems the family were drawn to the theatrical world, with all four sons who survived infancy going on to appear on stage or in the circus.

William’s glittering career spanned over sixty years and saw him attain acclaim and stardom worldwide. However, as is so often the case, his early years were underlined by a decidedly less glamorous labour, beginning rather modestly at Hull Theatre Royal where he was employed as a young stagehand. He made quite a splash, literally speaking, when during a sea scene and in full view of the amused audience he fell into the water, rather ruining the spectacle.

He was subsequently dismissed from his position, but rather than deterring his drive to work in the theatre, his brief moment in the spotlight made a firm impression on his future. His determination to succeed in the precarious world of entertainment saw him seek out a living in any capacity connected to the theatre he could find, from selling refreshments to painting scenery, until eventually his talents were recognised and he began to secure small parts on the stage.

In true fairytale fashion, seeking fame and fortune, he ran away and joined the circus. It was here that, alongside the less glamorous duties of scenery painting, he first ‘donned the motley’ as it was then known, and performed as a clown. Despite his humour, Wallet did not suffer fools lightly, and soon found himself out of work following a disagreement with his manager, Charles Yeoman. 

In a vengeful prank, Wallett painted a tombstone in the foreground of the country church scene with the eulogy, ‘To the memory of Charlie Yeoman, trombone player and showman, who died respected by no man.’ In line with his characteristic wit, Wallet later said about the incident, “Poor fellow, the joke was too grave. Two months after he died a victim of cholera.” Indeed, Wallett was not the kind to reserve his humorous antics merely for the stage, and this wouldn’t be the last time he landed himself in trouble with employers over his defiant spirit and inventive pranks.

While working in Pontefract, he took it upon himself to brighten up his employer’s omnibus. He decorated the side with large lettering reading ‘Smedley’s Bread Cart’, and quickly received a note of dismissal which read, ‘I’ll keep my cart, and you’ll seek your bread elsewhere.’

Despite this underlying problem with authority manifesting in Wallett’s early mischievous, artistic temperament, he was rarely short of employment. Easily adapting his talents from serious theatre to comedy and the circus, he became a diverse and successful performer, enabling him to often work on his own terms.

Along with impressively reciting Shakespeare, his signature performance became that of the court jester. As precursors to stand-up comics, the court jester was employed by the monarch to entertain with jokes, riddles, music and dance. The jester was certainly no fool, though. Often seen as a provocateur to the monarch’s humanity, they were admired by the masses for their capacity to sway unreasonable judgments using their droll veracity and satire. Utilising an art which had died out centuries before, Wallett made the jester a novel performance in the entertainment industry.

As a seemingly seamless addition to his talents, Wallett displayed an astute finesse for publicity. In 1844, after a well-received performance at Windsor Castle for Her Most Gracious Majesty The Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, and other royal types, he boldly and cleverly adopted the self-proclaimed title of The Queen’s Jester. A marketing masterstroke, his promotional posters exclaiming this exalted royal title succeeded in drawing in the crowds until he was so well-known that his later advertisements simply read ‘Wallett is coming’ and ‘Wallett is here.’

During a respite from performance, he once tried his hand at entrepreneurship, peddling an invention of his own design, producing and selling aerated water. It turned out to be quite profitable, but his sociable spirit succumbed to bouts of decadence and he found himself “drawn into considerable temptation” during his travels.

As he recollects in his autobiography, “I considered myself obliged to take the chair housewarming dinners, opening suppers, and to become a member of raffles for watches that wouldn’t go, musical boxes that wouldn’t play, and to respond to a multitude of other such calls, which, altogether, kept me from home till all hours of the night, injured my health, and drew me into loose ways.”

Accordingly, his entrepreneurial days were short-lived and the bright lights soon beckoned him back. He sold off the business to begin a travelling circus of his own and after purchasing horses and harnesses, he reinvented himself once again, this time as a first class equestrian.

After the early death of his first wife, Mary, Wallett married Sarah Tutin Farmer, the daughter of established musician and music lecturer John Farmer, whose family boasted a rich musical heritage and owned a great deal of the entertainment venues in Nottingham. This secured Wallett’s connection to Nottingham and boosted his career in the city’s music hall circuit, despite slowing his travelling days when the two settled on Station Road in Beeston.

It was here he remained, working in his later years as a lecturer and professor of elocution, until his death in 1892, by which time he had established a reputation as a most splendid host and the best raconteur in Nottingham, regaling his many friends with tales of his escapades on the stage and charming them with his kindness of spirit.

If William Wallett were only around today, we would certainly appreciate an invitation to get jolly with such a distinguished and spirited gentleman. A dilettante through and through. Aside from his humorous abilities, it was diversity which added flourishes of distinction to Wallett’s most intriguing story.

The anecdotes of his unconventional parade through life present a man who understood that life is best enjoyed when not taken too seriously, yet without his fierce ambition it seems unlikely he would have attained the remarkable success he enjoyed. This forgotten star of Nottingham’s past is buried in the General Cemetery, and we would all do well to remember how far a sharp wit, dogged determination and gregarious character can take you, even in uncertain times.

The Dilettante Society, Monday 13 July, Sir John Borlase Warren, 7.30pm, free. All welcome – the more the merrier.

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