Sarah Eleanor, known to the world as Lena, didn’t quite run off with the gypsies, but was steeped in the world of the travelling shows that toured and entertained the UK in the later part of the Victorian era and into the 20th century, gave birth to many, many technically-illegitimate daughters in a little horse-drawn caravan around the whole of northern England, and ran a clog-dancing family act that appeared on variety and music hall stages for years.
Lena was a soldier’s daughter, born in the later part of the 1860s in the Colchester area of Essex. The 1871 census finds her living in Edinburgh with her parents and younger brother George, but it’s not clear if they’re permanent residents or passing through. Her elder sister Mary Ann had been left with her maternal grandparents in Westmoreland.
Lena’s childhood appears to have been one of constant movement – while she was born in Essex, sister Mary Ann entered the world in Lancashire, brother George in Winchester, sister Rachel in York and brother Charles in Leeds. This indicates her father’s military role took him to many different places, and the growing family were probably housed in barracks when Lena was small. Later siblings Agnes, Alice, Elizabeth and Archibald were all born in Burnley, Lancashire – so by 1876 Lena’s father appears to have stopped soldiering and started to put down roots. However, by 1881 he is unemployed and the older children in the family – Lena included, then only 14 – were working as cotton weavers to make the family ends meet.
In 1887, when she was around 20, Lena got married. Her husband was Henry, who worked in Burnley as a warehouseman – quite possibly in the cloth trade of the area. He was a widower, with two sons of his own. Their first child, a son called George, was born at Todmorden in 1889, and then their daughter Ethel was born three years later in 1892.
At some point around this time, however, something went awry in Lena’s marriage to Henry, which was only five years old. She appears to have met another man – Barnaby – who was a little her junior and had also been working as a cotton weaver in the area, and took up with him instead. Around this time Lena’s father died, aged just 46.
While divorce was possible for people of Lena and Henry’s class, and Henry would have had a case with his wife’s adultery, legal proceedings were expensive. Many people in their position saved for years to be able to bring proceedings to court. Lena and Henry never did though – it may have been reasonably amicable, or at least a situation they could live with. Lena’s new life with Barnaby may also have been a factor – he had started running an auctioneer’s van that travelled around the area, so the social factors around a new partner for Lena may have been easier to manage if she never stayed in one place too long. The death of her father may also have been a factor in this change of direction – as he wasn’t around to question Lena’s choices. Exactly what Barnaby was auctioning in different places in the north of England is open to question – presumably these were things he bought off one community and then sold off to the next – but it appeared to be lucrative enough to support a small family.
Lena and Barnaby’s first child, a daughter called Marguerite, was born in Clitheroe, Lancashire, in 1894. She was followed by Alice in 1896, who was born in Oldham in Lancashire and baptised four months later in Halifax, but died before her second birthday in Hemsworth, Yorkshire. Around the same time next daughter Georgina entered the world in the back of the auction van in Dewsbury, again in Yorkshire.
This pattern repeated itself over the next few years – babies born in one place and then christened in another: Mary in Burnley in 1899; George in Belper (Derbyshire) in 1901, twins Ann and Louisa in Lancester (County Durham) in 1903, with Ann dying in Nottingham a short while later; Alice in Prescot (Lancashire) in 1904; Charles in Fylde (Lancashire) in 1906; and Wilhelmina in Saddleworth (Yorkshire/Lancashire border) in 1909. All were born on fairgrounds, as naphtha flares lit the sky.
This creates a picture of many people on top of each other in a small horse-drawn space, with little privacy, and a constantly mobile lifestyle. However, daughter Marguerite actually attended grammar school for a year in Derby around 1903, so at times Lena and Barnaby must have been static. On the school records their van is parked at the Market Square. It is equally possible that Marguerite may have lived with others during that year, however, while her family kept travelling. Lena and Barnaby would reportedly pull up in towns and villages and set up a big fit up theatre tent, where Barnaby would auction many different things, and then he and Lena would perform a melodramatic skit. As the children grew they would join in too. Barnaby had apparently got his start in the theatre in Blackpool productions, and had been a partner of George Formby Senior in his early years.
Lena’s older children appear to have lived with their father and/or other relatives for at least some of the time. While Ethel is living with Lena’s widowed mother on the 1901 census, and Lena and Barnaby are with their children in Alfreton in Derbyshire, by the time the 1911 census comes around both Ethel and the first George are with their father in Burnley – Ethel working as a cotton weaver and George as a shorthand typist at one of the town’s cotton mills. Henry claims to be a widower with no children on this census, which isn’t exactly true but was perhaps an easier explanation.
Meanwhile, on the same document, Lena and Barnaby and eight children (ranging in age from 1 to 16) are living in their show caravan at a fairground at Blackrod near Wigan. By this time Barnaby had given up the auctioning business at some point after 1906 and had moved on to something far more early 20th century – cinema projection. He would have carried his equipment with him in the van, including projectors and film reels, and broadcast the black and white silent films of the day to audiences. This would have been part of the whole travelling side show experience, with a growing audience appetite for the moving pictures that would have been projected on to the canvas of tents as part of a range of attractions – possibly including music, dancing, circus skills, and curiosities like strong men or bearded ladies. More information about travelling shows can be found at the National Fairground and Circus archive: https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/nfca
Two years later, Lena’s legal husband Henry died, so she and Barnaby were finally able to marry. They did so in the summer of 1913 in Burnley. Barnaby had taken some work as a painter and carpenter in the run up to the first world war, so it is likely that they were static for a while. With the babies of the family starting to be able to assert themselves properly, the family reinvented themselves as music hall theatre artists, as the skills they had gained and developed among the travelling shows came to the fore. By all accounts they could sing, dance, act and play instruments. They formed a family act, with Barnaby in charge and Lena playing all the mature female parts, which appeared on the sands of Morecombe Bay three times daily in the summer of 1913 – and were promptly fined for not having applied for performance licenses for Louisa and Alice, then aged 10 and 8 respectively. They had also performed in the same place the previous year. Eldest daughter Ethel, Lena’s daughter with first husband Henry, appears to have joined the family troupe around now, but her eldest son did not.
Lena’s talents appear to also have been in performing, although she seems to have known what would entertain audiences too. Her first mention as a performer and dramatist in her own right came in the early months of 1914, when she is billed as Madam Parsons and the originator of a pantomime version of The Babes In The Wood featuring her seven daughters – now called the Seven Lucky Lancashire Lasses – as part of a “first class cast of 30 artistes” which ran at a theatre in Derbyshire. The choice of name for the family act appears to derive from the Eight Lancashire Lads, a troupe of clog dancers founded in the 1890s who were also touring and treading the local boards and at one point included Charlie Chaplin, but Lena’s daughters’ unique selling point was that they were all related. The girls all could clog dance too – a style developed in the cloth mills of Lancashire which was performed in wooden soled shoes that were worn in the factories, and is a pre-cursor to tap dancing.
The beginning of the First World War, and its associated patriotic fervour, appears to have sent Lena’s star into its ascendancy. Barnaby went off to war early – in the autumn of 1914, when married men weren’t required to until 1916 – and the family act became Madam Parsons and the Seven Lucky Lancashire Lasses and continued to tour northern stages. Newspapers would give the impression that Barnaby was the driving force behind the act, but Lena spectacularly taking the reins during the war years shows that she was also prodigiously talented and very much at the head of the family entertainment business.
Lena took the part of Britannia in one part of their performances, with her children, including the two younger boys, were England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, soldiers, sailors and boy scouts. A great fuss was made of their “Soldier Daddy” who was away with the army, initially in France and then in the Army Ordinance Corps when his health prevented front line duty. Lena and the children sold postcards of themselves, and sheet music, and performed to raise money for war funds, with Lena directly appealing to packed houses for money to support the armed forces and medical services. Other acts joined them, including acrobatic roller skaters, gymnasts, singers and comedians, but Lena appears to have been completely at the hilt of the shows. There would have been various administrative and production duties involved in producing the shows – licenses for underage performers (you had to be 12 before you could perform legally and therefore special paperwork was needed for the younger members of the family), wages for other performers, and stagecraft, and many other considerations – which Lena would have taken on.
Lena as Britannia in her family’s patriotic performance
Lena and daughters around 1920
Barnaby was discharged from the army in 1917, and returned to the fold with the family, who were at that point living in a van in Morecombe. The performances continued, with a move into music hall rather than travelling shows, and he appears to have taken charge at a theatre – at least briefly – where he’s described as a pantomime proprietor. They put on performances of The Babes In The Wood and Cinderella in various theatres during the winter months. Their claim that they were the only related family act performing anywhere is given in every advert, with £500 offered if this claim was not true, and it sounds like Lena was still a big part of the performances and the administration. They continued performing, with engagements every week, for many more years – in various theatres, and each summer in Morecombe Gardens for three performances daily – until at least the mid-1920s.
The gradual marrying off of Lena’s daughters put an end to the long-running family act, although most married into the theatrical business. Eldest daughter Ethel married John, a clerk at the lino works in Burnley, in 1914. Her performances with the family continued through the war years, but it’s uncertain how much of a role she played afterwards. They had no children, and lived in Lancaster. The others stayed closer to the family business, still taking part in performances. Daughter Marguerite, known as Maggie, married in Scarborough in 1920 to a music hall director and had a son and described herself as a variety artiste, while Georgina married Samuel Sharples in 1925. After her widowhood in 1939 she lived with her parents and her son, and still performed in the family act. Doris, known as Dolly, married a music hall director. The boys married too: Charlie to Mona, a professional dancer.
Mary, known professionally as Eva, married a pianist in 1924 and had a son. Daughter Alice married Speedy Yelding, a clown and comedy wire walker, in 1927, while youngest daughter Wilhelmina, known as Mona and a stunning banjo player, did not marry until 1962.
Lena and Barnaby retired to Southport. In later years Barnaby, known as Papa Parsons, gives his profession as an advertising agent, so he and Lena are probably managing the careers of many performers, including their offspring. Charlie and George had their own variety act, that played on the Blackpool coast for many years, and towards the end of his career Charlie made a couple of appearances in Coronation Street.
Papa Parsons died in 1945, in Southport, to a major outpouring of grief from his offspring and wife in the newspapers. Lena’s death, the following year, went unremarked upon – though she was a considerable part of the family business in her own right.