Sunday, 2 December 2018

Four Swallows And Two Elephants

Just over a year ago I spotted a short letter in the Brighton Argus requesting information about an 'Arthur Sellman' who wrote as 'Southdown' in The World's Fair magazine.

The name rang a bell as my mother had had a beloved 'Uncle Arthur' who took her out and about as a child and paid for her to have secretarial classes when she left school at 14 so she could better herself. He had indeed acted as a surrogate father to her, her own father having died when she was three. And he wrote for The World's Fair and was related to the Sellmans of Cannock, a family undertaking firm, whose name continues to this day.

Arthur was not my mother's uncle at all in fact, but her cousin, and he had a grown up daughter - Margaret Doreen - who was a teenager when my mother was born, whom my mother Margaret was named after. I had never known Arthur, who died a few months after I was born, but a couple of fairground models of his remained, and were of great novelty to me as a youngster when I visited Margaret Doreen, though I wasn't allowed to touch them.

I telephoned my mother and Arthurs' granddaughters, Jenny and Susan (retired teachers) and told them of the letter and then emailed the enquirer Ned Williams, a Wolverhampton-based writer who specialises in historic publications, both local and entertainment-related. He replied to say how delighted he was to be put in touch with Arthur's only living relations as had had been researching 'Southdown' and reading his old articles for at least ten years but had gleaned only 'crumbs of information' about him until Jenny had been able to fill in a lot of the gaps. The sisters then assembled lots of photos, letters and other information for him and he visited Jennifer in Crawley to meet her and pore over them.

A year later Ned's book Four Swallows and Two Elephants has just come out with a whole chapter devoted to Arthur Sellman, aka 'Southdown' who turns out to have run a marionette show in addition to his journalism under various pen names for The World's Fair from 1914-1970, latterly settling on 'Southdown' and his eventual regular job as a cinema projectionist at The Regent Cinema in Queen's Street Brighton, one of the city's plushest cinemas. In his final years Arthur penned two short books; 'Bioscope Shows and Their Engines' and 'Travelling Shows and Roundabouts' under yet another pseudonym Arthur Fay.

The family surmises that confronted with a certain future in the family undertaking business in Cannock, young Arthur Sellman ran away to the fairground and so began a lifelong love affair with the world of entertainment as he gravitated around the country, eventually ending up in Brighton.

It is so lovely that Arthur has been rescued from obscurity like this and reading the book one realises what a huge and magical world the world of old fairgrounds was. And how reliant on this form of entertainment people were before cinemas came along, which eventually also seduced Arthur, much as he mourned and memorialised the passing of more traditional forms of entertainment and never lost his passion for them. The old fairgrounds were indeed a vanishing world even when Arthur was young,  Though I for one would still pay good money to see a show called 'Mrs Collins' Lions'! It seems there were a whole genre of gutsy widows of a certain age touring extraordinary-titled shows around the country and the fairground world of the early 20th century was a lot more equal opportunities than one might imagine.

Six other significant figures from the world of people's entertainment in the 20th century are also covered in this book and what fascinating figures they are.


Unknown said...

Thanks for that wonderful commentary on my new book, "Four Swallows and Two Elephants". As you say: Arthur Sellman is just one of the seven people I have written about - having spent some time in researching their complicated life stories. All seven used pen-names or stage-names which makes their lives even more mysterious to the present-day researcher. Luckily, people like Laura come to my rescue when I put pleas for information in local papers. The book embraces the world of fairgrounds, early cinemas, portable theatres and the circus - what a world to explore. If you would like to share my interests do send for a book - you can reach me via my website:
As they say, "There's no business like show business!"

The Poet Laura-eate said...

You are welcome Ned. All the very best with the book!

Wisewebwoman said...

I absolutely love these kinds of stories where previously obscure ancestors are brought to life once again.

Uncle Arthur is one such person, I am so happy for you.

Glad to see you blogging again, I have so enjoyed you over the many years!