Friday, 1 November 2013

Friday Funny – My great grandfather was a Black Minstrel!

I’ve just watched the Who Do You Think You Are episode about John Bishop yesterday and something rang a bell when they were talking about his ancestor who was a Minstrel.

Apparently (at least) in the 1880s and 1890s they all performed with blackened faces.

It reminded me of this week’s Trove Tuesday blog about my great grandfather, William Collier FRANCIS, singing in a Minstrel group in Morwell. 
I had to go back and look at the ad – sure enough it actually said, “Morwell Brown Coal Minstrels”.
I had sort of noticed this and at the time thought it a reference to the open cut coal mines that so many in the area worked in.
I wondered if the same thing applied with Minstrels in Australia as in the UK.

I searched further and found the following:

19 October 1889 a short article referring to the “dusky savages” performing again.

16 November 1889 an article refers to the recent show and the “two negros”.

5 October 1889 a very large article about “The Black Boom or Morwell Brown Coal Minstrels”. 
This article is about their debut performance and mentions “…the rich ebony color on the faces of the dress-coated circle with amplitude of shirt-front adorning the stage had been produced by the coal found at ‘Dead Man’s Gulch’…”

It goes on to comment about one of the singers “…the gentleman has a beautiful voice, and needs only the confidence a blackened face will necessarily give to establish him a firm favorite…”

Then, my great grandfather gets a mention: “…Mr Francis was most happy in his rendering of ‘Rock-a-bye Baby’, the charming lullaby of childhood’s days being entered into with zest by the whole company…”

The critique: “A slight trepidation was discernible throughout, otherwise the whole of the circle would be passes as veterans at the business… one of the most amusing entertainments the people of Morwell have yet enjoyed in the Mechanics’ [hall] to a close. The minstrels are to be congratulated on their unquestioned success, and it is pleasing to record, that a bumper house would contribute so largely to the funds to sustain the club.

The Morwell Brown Coal Minstrels continued on performing with funds going to many groups in the area such as the A&P Society (Agricultural and Pastoral), and the Cricket Club.
Now I have to contact the Morwell Historical Society to see if any photos exist although a friend did point out to me – how would I recognise my great grandfather?!

When I told Dad what his grandfather had got up to, he was surprised, but then came back with his typical dry sense of humour and said “you wouldn’t need much to blacken the faces in that area – everything was always brown or black with all the coal dust.” 
He added that his mother always insisted on dressing “her babies” in whiter than white and wondered how she ever kept them so clean and white.

William Collier FRANCIS

Baby Dad in his whites
slightly older Dad, still
in his whites - how do you
keep a toddler this clean!?

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