28 Nov

Have you seen Bostock in Kilts?

Archive, Norman Mowatt

Mr N.C. BOSTOCK in LONDON, The success of modern Times.
The cry is “Have you seen Bostock in Kilts?”
The people rise en masse, and cheer Bostock on each appearance …
from The Era 3 Oct 1891 (1)

Blog Ideas
After the archive group meeting last week I had been having a look at 1913, the year the Picture House opened in Campbeltown, and was wondering if there were some more things to look at and perhaps write about. I should have a look at more of the films that were shown soon, but this week I looked at a few Campbeltown Courier adverts from pre cinema days that we had copies of. I thought that the name NC Bostock was unusual enough to enable me to find out some details, so I went online and put together some research notes which I have since written up into a biography. When I came across the above snippet from The Era in a search through some newspaper articles I knew this was another character to worth finding out a bit more about.

NC Bostock was born in Edinburgh in 1850, and was the son of a Tobacco Spinner (someone who prepares tobacco for sale or makes cigars). Before he was 20 he was working in Music Hall as a Comic Singer and Comedian having gained his early experience in a penny gaff in the Lothian Road in Edinburgh(2).

A penny gaff would typically be a small venue or the back room of a public house where the entertainment could be staged with unsophisticated props and scenery which rarely consisted of more than a stage and a piano. Clowning, dancing, singing and plays were common. Easy to perform, well-known to the audience, and with simple exciting stories, the deeds of famous highwaymen, robbers and murderers were popular subjects for the plays.

As the gaffs became more popular, larger venues opened to accommodate them. The Rotunda in Blackfriars Road, the largest venue in London, could seat 1,000 people and at its peak exhibited shows lasting between an hour and two and a half hours. The name penny gaff derived from the entrance fee, which was normally one penny. The shows were popular from about 1830 to around 1870, by which time the Music Hall was in its ascendency.

By the 1870s NC Bostock was well established as a comedian and singer and was even writing his own songs. I found one example in the Bodlean Library’s online collection of ballads (3) which bears the title 1873 and the self confident heading “written and sung by the great NC Bostock” (also by Geordie Gordon the Glasgow Favourite).

First Verse:
My friends another year has pass’d, a year of grief and woe
There’s many now are left to mourn, for friends that are laid low
Yes, many a one so full of life, who went last New Year’s day
To wish their friends a happy year, now lies beneath the clay
There’s many gone across the main, to plough the raging deep
There’s many sleep beneath the wave, and many are left to weep
But, the days of Eighteen hundred and Seventy two, we never more may shall see
So, I wish you all a happy year, in Eighteen hundred and Seventy Three …

On the 23rd April 1876 there is a small advert in The Era newspaper (4) where NC Bostock and his agent are promoting him as an artist. They quote The Era itself by inserting “A star of the first magnitude” – Vide Era, at the top of the advert:
“Mr NC Bostock, the Comic King, Victoria and Oxford, Newcastle. The greatest hit ever known (bar none). No Comic Singer breathing ever caused such roars of laughter and thunderous applause. Complimented on my grand success, viz, originality, comicality, and without vulgarity.”

In the 1870s and 1880s Music Hall was opportunistic in featuring songs about the great sporting events of the day. Major events such as the University Boat race, and the Epsom Derby had songs penned and WG Grace’s 100th first class century also inspired. Then with the rise of Association Football into its status as the national game Music Halls jumped on the bandwagon and songs appeared in great numbers. Many of the first ones came from Scotland with “The Football Match” (1890) for singer George Ripon and “At the Football Match last Saturday” (1891) for NC Bostock coming from the pen of songwriter and performer James Curran. So successful were they that other artists were threatened with legal action if they used the songs without permission(5).

In the 1890s NC Bostock was well established as a veteran “Scotch comic” and his fame by this time is reflected in an endorsement in verse kept in one of the bars in Glasgow where Music Hall artists were valued customers, Hugh Cowan’s Favourite Bar, Main Street, Anderston (6)

By the veteran Scotch Comic NC Bostock:
When tae the ‘Tivoli’ ye gang, dinnae forget tae ca’
On Hughie Cowan, wha sells a dram tae suit baith great and sma’
His whisky’s guid, his yill’s guid, his brandy’s a’ three staur
There’s nae house in Glesga can bare the favourite baur.

In 1891 we have the quote “Have you seen Bostock in Kilts” underlining the height of his fame.

He appeared in the Britannia Music Hall in Glasgow in 1897 in a Variety show (7), but by 1899 his star may have been waning as there is a mention of him appearing in The West Blackhall Street Music Hall in Greenock where the text appears to show him as ‘a spent force’ (8). In 1900 he can be found in the Company for the week at the Haymarket Theatre, Liverpool where he is said to have “arrived on Monday with his stock of favourite ditties”, his name being the first listed in the advert (9). By 1908 he is appearing in the Pantomime Aladdin in the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh (10).

In the Stage newspaper 20th October 1910 (11) he appears to be having to seek engagements by advertising in the Professional Cards section indicating he is available from October 31st:
“NC Bostock and Nellie Elliene, the greatest success and draw ever known in Aberdeen. The Bon Accord Oct 13th says – “The Empire – Mr NC Bostock, one of the greatest comics who have visited Aberdeen, is a host in himself, and while he occupies the Empire boards the fun is both fast and furious.” Vacant Oct. 31st. Wire, Empire, Aberdeen”

We do know he continued performing until at least 1913 when he appeared at the Argyll Hall Campbeltown still billed as the Comic King and appears to have been in great demand with his services being retained for a second week.

I think it not unreasonable to think that Nellie Elliene, later billed as Miss Ellaline in his appearances in Campbeltown (see below) was NC Bostock’s second wife Ellen (Nelly) Hedges.

NC Bostock died in England in 1916, leaving a widow and three children.

(1) The Era newspaper 3rd October 1891
(2) Scotland and the Music Hall 1850 to 1914, Paul Maloney p32
(3) Broadside Ballads Online, by Bodlean Libraries, University of Oxford.
This resource is maintained by the Bodlean Libraries and features the Bodlean’s digital collections of ballads, with links to the English Broadside Ballad Archive’s digital presentations of pre-1800 ballads from other libraries, and to the folk song scholarship of the Roud Broadside Index, hosted by the English Folk Dance and Song Society.
(4) The Era newspaper 23rd April 1876
(5) Sport Music Identities, edited by Anthony Bateman
(6) Scotland and the Music Hall 1850 to 1914 Paul Maloney, p154
(7) Scottish Theatre Archive http://special.lib.gla.ac.uk/sta/search/detaile.cfm?EID=4543
(8) http://www.arthurlloyd.co.uk/GreenockTheatres.htm
(9) The Era newspaper 17th February 1900.
(10) Scottish Theatre Archive http://special.lib.gla.ac.uk/sta/search/detaile.cfm?EID=5387
(11) The Stage newspaper 20th October 1910

Image credits
1.) 1873 by NC Bostock, Broadside Ballads Online, by Bodlean Libraries, University of Oxford.
2.) ‘NC Bostock Advert’, (1st February 1913, © Campbeltown Courier)
3.) ‘NC Bostock Advert’, (8th February 1913, © Campbeltown Courier)

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