Friday, 29 November 2013

Alexander Joseph Dourof, 'last of the sword swallowers', Camberwell Old Cemetery

It must have been hard times and a fickle public’s dwindling interest in sword swallowing that drove this former performer in the Russian Royal Circus to the unglamorous business of selling shag piles and Axminsters to south east Londoners.  This proud man who as well as performing for the Tsar had been a Cavalry Officer in the British army would surely be disheartened to know that in anywhere with an SE postcode his name is now almost synonymous with carpet selling and that his principal legacy is Dourof’s Carpet Warehouse on Rushey Green in Catford.

Alexander Joseph Dourof was born into a well known family of circus performers in Russia in 1881. The Dourofs were animal trainers and Alexander was reputedly one of the first people to succeed in training a bear without breaking its back. Alexander and his extended family were performers in the Russian Royal Circus but fled the country in the wake of the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. When they arrived in the UK Alexander and his wife Sophia Elsa entertained the troops fighting out the last months of the First World War. Alexander was forced to go one step further and join the military himself where he became a horse trainer in the Light Cavalry. After the war the family worked first at a circus in Wales and then travelled the rest of the country before putting down roots in Peckham where he seems to have largely given up performing and settled down as a carpet salesman. In 1943, at the age of 62, he came out of retirement to take part in a carnival scene in the James Mason film “The Man in Grey” where he could be seen swallowing a sword in the background. Unfortunately for reasons unknown the scene, the only film record ever made of Alexander in performance, was excised from the video and DVD versions and now seems to be lost forever. Apparently there is a plaque at Guy’s Hospital commemorating Alexander’s help during the development of the stomach pump, presumably swallowing rubber tubes rather than swords. He died in 1949 and was buried at Camberwell Old Cemetery.       

Alexander was married to Sophia Elsa, who was born in Russia in 1888 and was buried with her husband when she died in 1967. She too was a circus performer, a tight rope walker, and when the family came to England she worked with Alexander and their two eldest children (who were acrobats). Later she must have dedicated her life to her large family – the couple had ten children.   


Almost all the details about Alexander Dourof's life come from


  1. Thank you for this great article ! This was my late great great grandparents.

    1. Those are interesting ancestors that you have!

    2. My great grandparents too Sophia so we are obviously related! I wonder how? Wonderful you have Mama’s name x

  2. Wonderful story of your great great grandparents, amazing looking people,I walk by everyday a look at their Grave