Thursday, 31 May 2018

Jazz monkey see, jazz monkey do; Thomas Murphy (1892-1932), Charlton Cemetery

Before the funeral of Mr. T. Murphy, owner of Charlton Stadium, yesterday the cortege circled the racing track, followed by two of Mr. Murphy's favourite dogs.
Coventry Evening Telegraph - Tuesday 15 March 1932

Thomas Murphy’s  two favourite greyhounds, accustomed as they were to careening around the dog track at full pelt in pursuit of an electrically powered simulation of a hare, must have been disconcerted by the stately pace of the funeral circuit around Charlton Stadium. Murphy’s totem animals, relaxed with eyes closed and head resting on forepaws as though curled up and asleep in front of the fire, also ended up on his flamboyant memorial in Charlton Cemetery, a mile or so away from the dog track. 
Thomas Murphy was born on 5th June 1892 in Paisley. His father, also called Thomas, was born in 1866 in Glamorgan and his mother, Emily (née North) was born in 1871 in Leicester.  Thomas senior was a travelling showman and Thomas junior the third born of his ten children. The nomadic lifestyle led by the family is reflected in the birthplaces of their children; in the 1901 census the family is listed as living in a caravan in Maesteg Market Place, Glamorgan. 14 year old Charles, the eldest, had been born in Chepstow, 11 year old Hannah in Dumfries, 9 year old Thomas, as we know, in Paisley, Victoria, who was 4, in Perth, Sarah, 3, in Bridgend and 5 month old William in Aberdare. A decade later the 45 year old Thomas senior had finally giving up travelling and settled down to a more sedentary career as a fishmonger in Prince Street, Newport. He had acquired four more sons John, born in Abergavenny, Timothy born in Merthyr Tydfil and Alfred and Edward both born in Newport. It’s not perhaps surprising that Thomas senior gave up the roving showman’s life, dragging his brood around with him in the days before motorised transport would have been difficult enough but there were other dangers as a report in the Portobello Advertiser in September 1896 makes clear. In the Portobello Police Court, three men, “John McIntosh, mason, 12 Buchanan Street, Leith ; George Sutherland, tailor, Albert Street, Edinburgh; and Michael Murphy, mason, Gordon Street, Leith, were charged with having, the previous day and in Livingston Place Park, attacked and assaulted Thomas Murphy, a showman, temporary resident in Livingstone Place.” It transpired that this was not the first brush in Thomas senior had had with McIntosh and Sutherland who had been in the habit of ‘annoying’ him in Leith as he went about his business and demanding money. The two were intimidating enough for the showman to have to hire two policeman to protect the shows.  When he moved on to Portobello (admittedly only 3 miles away) they followed and assaulted him. The magistrate fined McIntosh, whom he considered to be the ring leader, 20 shillings with the option of ten days imprisonment if he couldn’t find the money, and the two other men 15 shillings with the option of seven days incarceration. It was perhaps this type of incident that finally drove Thomas senior out of Scotland, where three of his children had been born, and back to the land of his fathers, Wales.

By 1911 Thomas senior living in Prince Street Newport and employed as a fishmonger. 19 year old Thomas junior was no longer living at home; he had married Louisa Katherine Nail from Wolverhampton the previous year at Bristol Registry Office and the 1911 census shows him as a visitor at the home of Albert Wiltshire and family, a wagon painter of 3 Damas Lane, Swindon. He lists his occupation as travelling showman and declares that Louisa is ‘assisting in the business’. We catch sight of Thomas again in July 1916 when the Western Mail, calling him a ‘youthful Newport entertainer’, describes an action for damages he brought against Messrs Brothers for breach of warranty of a tent. Thomas is described as having ‘been in business since he was eight years of age’. He had hired a large marquee in which to entertain soldiers in Swindon but the king pole had broken leading to the show being suspended and the loss, he claimed of £109 in profit over a period of nine days. Messrs Brothers claimed the tent had not been properly taken care of and defended the claim. The case was adjourned and no follow up was reported so we don’t know if Thomas won his damages. In 1920 his first wife Louisa died. Three years later Thomas took up with Jennie Josling Shilson from Southwark, a fortune teller who worked in fairs and at the seaside. In 1924 when she gave birth to Thomas’ only child, a son they named Thomas Edward Walter Murphy, the couple were living together as man and wife, although they never in fact married.
In the summer of 1924 Thomas was running competition stalls at Dreamland in Margate when he met a young man desperate to find work called Edward Johnson. The 23 year Johnson was from a middle class family who had fallen on hard times; his father was a commercial shipping agent whose thriving business had been all but destroyed by the First World War. The family, who were originally from Dulwich, found themselves slipping down the social scale, moving to Southend before eventually settling in East Ham. Johnson’s father remained ambitious for his son and found him work as a solicitor’s clerk in the city but the impulsive youngster fell in love with a chorus girl on a family holiday in Brighton and married her against his father's wishes.  He left his job in the city and followed his wife to a summer season in Margate where the only work he could find was selling electric heaters on commission. Thomas rescued him from the hopeless prospect of flogging electric fires to holiday makers and installed him on one of his competition stalls. Other stall holders didn’t immediately take to the well spoken, well groomed young man and subjected him to endless goading and ridicule. When one seasoned veteran of the fairs didn’t like one of Johnson’s quick witted response to one of his taunts he walked over to his stall and hit him in the mouth, completely unaware that he was dealing with an East End amateur boxing champion. The thrashing Johnson meted out won him grudging respect from his colleagues. When Thomas found out that his employee had been a solicitors clerk as well as being a handy man to have around during a spot of bother, he promoted him to the job of being his personal assistant, though without reducing his hours on the competition stall or possibly even giving him any extra money.

Johnson had been at his post for over a month before he realised that his employer was illiterate which is why he desperately needed someone he could trust to deal with his business correspondence. In August 1926 another of Thomas’ employees, 28 year old clerk Harry Richardson was sentenced to 6 months hard labour in the West London Police Court for stealing two cheques with a total value of £10 10 shillings, from his employer. Taking advantage of his illiteracy Richardson made the cheques out to himself and got Thomas to sign them knowing he wouldn’t be able to read the name. Richardson turned out to have a string of previous convictions and lately “had been drinking to excess and had been going about with a young woman”, said the West London Observer of 06 August 1926. Thomas and Johnson had becoame inseparable; ironically just a week later  the pair were up in the same police court themselves, charged with gaming at Southend where they had been operating a disc game. This was a gambling game where players “threw pennies to a table on each of the eight sections of which were 1136 brass discs. If the coin touched a batten in the middle of the disc an electric light was illuminated, showing the rate of odds payable, which varied from two to twelve to one.” Counsel for the defence urged the court to acquit on the grounds that this was a game of skill, not of chance (West London Observer - 13 August 1926). In an article in the Sunday Mirror in March 1939 Johnson described his working life with Thomas, joining him on his trips to Prague where he bought prizes for the Margate competition stalls, working on the winter tours, being given ten minutes instruction and then being told to drive a truck when the regular driver failed to turn up to work, and being involved in a fatal accident in Reading when he and his wife had been trapped in a trailer when a truck overturned on an icy road, killing the drivers mate. He tells the newspaper how Thomas “became a fruit machine king in London….It will interest the penny punters in this kind of game to know that at Gracechurch Street, our principal saloon, the lowest takings on any day were £135, the highest just under £200. And there were plenty more saloons.” Watching Murphy raking in the cash without been given an opportunity to share proved to much for the usually loyal Johnson and he left Murphy’s employment shortly afterwards to set up on his own.     
As well as fair ground competition stalls and slot machines we know that Thomas ran at least one animal business, the Monkey Jazz band from his business premises at 158 Latimer Road, just behind the station. We know this because there was a media frenzy when burglars inadvertently let the 13 strong monkey Jazz band escape and run riot around west London for a couple of days in November 1926. This didn’t put Thomas off from trying to turn a profit from animals. His most ambitious project opened in July 1930, the Charlton Stadium. Initially at least the stadium was not licensed and there was local opposition, particularly to Sunday race meetings. In September the Lancashire Evening Post reported that “protests against Sunday dog-racing were made a meeting held at Greenwich, last night, which had been organised by the Council of Christian Churches.” Thomas had offered half the proceeds from the Sunday meeting to the Miller General Hospital in Greenwich but they refused to accept the controversially raised money. The protests presumably did nothing to damage the profits from the track. Although he couldn’t read or write Thomas must have felt that he was making a striking success of his life but any complacency he felt was soon shattered when he fell seriously ill with the cancer that killed him at the age of only 39 in 1932.
Probate records show that Thomas was worth over £26,000 at the time of his death, not bad for someone who was still living in a caravan on the dog track. Inevitably perhaps, given that Thomas never married his long term partner, there were arguments about the inheritance. In March 1933 the Sheffield Independent reported an action taken by one of Thomas’s younger brothers, William, who accused Jennie Shilson of cheating him out of £1000 his brother had gifted him. William, described by his own counsel as a ‘man of little education’ told the Court of the King’s Bench Division how he had worked for his older brother since he was 12 but received no wages until 1930 when he was married and his brother agreed to pay him £3 10s 6d a week. According to William on 21st December 1931, at a meeting of the Charlton Stadium Board, held in the caravan parked in the grounds that Thomas and Jennie lived in, Thomas, who by this point was aware that he was dying of cancer, told his brother that he would take care of him and would give him £1000 out of the seasons profits from the dog track. He also said that he would give Timothy, another of the Murphy brothers who worked at the stadium, £1000 and £2000 to Jennie. A few days later Jennie appeared with a cheque made out to William which she got him to endorse on the reverse, saying that she would pay it into the bank for him. After getting Timothy to endorse his cheque, Jennie went off and nothing further was ever heard of the money. Called to the witness box Jennie Shilson, who had inherited the business from Thomas as well as a third of his residual estate, told the court that the gifted cheques were an income tax scam and never meant to be gifts for the two brothers. She said that William was well aware of this and was taking advantage of Thomas’ death to try and get his hands on some of his brother’s money. She was able to show that the money from the cheques had been repaid to the company but this didn’t result in the verdict going in her favour. Counsel for the plaintiff made sure William was asked a lot of questions about his brother’s relationship with Jennie, making it clear to the jury that she lived with Thomas without having recourse to the sacrament of matrimony. The jury found in William’s favour and Jennie was forced to pay him the £1000.     

Thomas Murphy in the probate register


The Latimer Road escapade of Thomas Murphy's Jazz band monkeys

The only reason why God created man is because he was disappointed with the monkey.     
Mark Twain
There is a genre of art dedicated to depicting monkeys behaving like humans; its name, from the French for ‘monkey trick’, is singerie. Thomas Murphy’s monkey Jazz band could be seen as a sort of performance art, living singerie. Or as a way to make a quick buck by cashing on the perennial human fascination with watching simians aping humankind. One chilly late November night the 13 monkeys of Murphy’s primate Jazz band were gifted the opportunity of temporary freedom and indulged in one of London’s most legendary escapades. The full story is retold here in the words of contemporary newspaper accounts as this really did turn out to be a true media circus.    

Simian Jazz Band Let Loose! When thieves broke into a yard at the premises of Mr T. Murphy, amusement caterer, Latimer Road, Notting Hill, London, they made for a large hut which looked like a hen roost, stealthily forced the door open, and let out the occupants. And these turned out to be not chickens, but 13 fully-grown monkeys—members of a jazz band. Franco, the conductor, was last seen clambering about the roof of Paddington Railway Station. When the monkeys escaped they made for the platform of Latimer Road Station. There they frightened several old ladies and were chased by the railway staff. Franco jumped through the open door of a waiting train, and was carried to Paddington. Before the ticket collector could make any attempt to capture him Franco was scampering about the station. Meanwhile Notting Hill Gate has been startled and amused by the antics of three monkey saxophone players. Although the greater part of the troupe was captured, the three remained at liberty over the weekend. They made their base under the platform of the station, from which they made excursions on errands of mischief. One of the porters usually keeps his food in a fire bucket in a waiting room, and when he went to fetch it he found the food gone and a monkey sitting sleeping contentedly. In a second the monkey awoke, left the bucket and re-joined his companions, who were pelting children in the yard below with pieces of wood. Another monkey has been rehearsing the part of Santa Claus, and insists on going down chimneys. When he left his home he was brown, but when he came back of his own accord yesterday morning, he was jet black. A woman in a house in the district was taking tea when she saw monkey sitting on the dresser. She dropped the tray and fainted, and the monkey disappeared up the chimney. Another woman who has lived with her window open for ten years has now nailed it up. "If we do not catch Franco" said Mr Murphy, yesterday, “the troupe simply will not play any tunes on their weird band.” Those who have come back are little the worse for their adventures except that they are a bit wild. But their escape has brought in bills from all over he neighbourhood. “I had to pay 8s for broken crockery and 4s for a pound of chocolates, and several other items."

Dundee Courier - Tuesday 23 November 1926

THE MONKEYS! HALF LONDON LAUGHING AT CIRCUS DESERTERS' PRANKS. FOUR DEFY CAPTURE. LONDON, Monday.—All Notting Hill is chuckling at the pranks of a troupe of 13 monkeys which escaped from circus proprietor's yard the other day. Nine of them have since lost their liberty. To-day, four remained at large. Three of the four have dug themselves in firmly beneath the platform at Latimer-road (Metropolitan) Station and are failing all attempts to capture them. The whereabouts of the fourth and biggest monkey is a complete mystery. He has completely disappeared. On Saturday afternoon, he boarded passing train and was whisked off. He was last seen at Paddington. Before they gained their undesired liberty, the monkeys were members of a jazz band, and Franco the missing monkey, was the leader of the troupe. The monkeys which have installed themselves under the station platform have plenty of food at their command. They have made frequent raids on a stable and greengrocer's yard beneath their lair, and have consumed bananas and horse fodder to their heart's content. One, this morning, was observed sitting on a horse's back, and a volley of banana skins and nutshells was loosed upon a party of would-be captors. Another monkey, with a livelier sense of the appropriate, clutched at a hammer and brandished it with threatening intent. Of the captured monkeys, one lost his liberty in a confectioner's shop, where he had lived a paradisiacal half-hour gorging mintballs and chocolates. Another confronted a dutiful housewife she was earning tea to her husband. She dropped the tray great fright and the monkey devoured the meal. Yet another of the animals appeared to have spent its liberty exploring the possibilities of a chimney. Evidently it liked not such freedom, for it was crestfallen and blackened with soot when it submissively gave itself up.

Hull Daily Mail - Monday 22 November 1926

JAZZ BAND MONKEYS. ADVENTURES OF FRANCO, BIMBO, SNOOKUMS, & SANDY. SHOCK FOR MOTORIST. Notting Hill was still monkey hunting this morning. The quarry by name are  Franco, Bimbo, Snookums, and Sandy, four of the 13 jazz band monkeys who escaped last week, and who have resisted every strategic move devised for their recapture.  Quite a mystery attaches to the whereabouts of Franco, the big leader of the troupe, who has covered up his tracks with the success of a master criminal. The last report received indicated that he was "somewhere in Paddington," though later there was a false rumour that he had wandered so far afield as Brixton. The three monkeys who have consolidated a little stronghold of their own under Latimer-road Station are continuing enjoy the time of their lives. When rations run short they sally forth on thieving expeditions. This morning one successful marauder was observed strolling back to his companions with a stolen loaf of bread tucked under his arm. Early this morning two of the animals almost frightened the life out of a man who came for his car in the yard garage. As he opened the door two black shapes flashed past him, and then when he got inside the garage he found the car occupied by one of the monkeys. He tried to catch the animal, but it defeated his efforts.

Nottingham Evening Post - Tuesday 23 November 1926
ANOTHER JAZZ BAND MONKEY CAPTURED. SAID TO HAVE DONE MUCH DAMAGE AT RUGBY. ‘Monkey captured here this morning after doing considerable damage for which I shall expect you to pay. Am sending him passenger to Euston.' It was a much harassed and rueful Mr. Murphy, the owner of the escaped troupe of jazz band monkeys, who received this telegram from Rugby this morning. He is at this moment probably speculating upon the identity of the monkey bandsman and the extent of its depredations. Mr. Murphy doubtless cherishes the hope that is the mischievous Franco, who has at last been run to earth. Franco was the treasured conductor of his troupe of minor bandsmen and quite considerable cash value was placed upon him. Franco it was who availed himself of a passing underground train to mask his escape, and when last seen he was exploring the possibilities of Paddington. It is possible that his wanderings took him from there to Euston and that a further train introduced him to Rugby. On the other hand, it is possible that Bimbo will prove to be the Rugby miscreant for after his co-conspirator Snookums was caught last night at Latimer road it was discovered that Bimbo had beat a retreat and that Sandy remained in lone retreat under the platform boarding. On arrival at the London station the Rugby monkey, which is at any rate not the leader of the band, was placed in the parcels office to be called for.

Lancashire Evening Post - Wednesday 24 November 1926

MONKEY JAZZ BAND. More Pranks of Sandy in a Wood Yard. Indignant at the premature assumption of his death, Sandy, one of the monkey jazz band players which escaped from a yard at Latimer-road, London recently, on Saturday demonstrated that the report was “exaggerated” by sitting on a pile of logs in a wood yard near his temporary home and hurling lumps of wood at the custodian of the yard, Mr F. Bullen. Mr. Murphy, the animal's owner, it will he remembered, stated a few days ago that he feared that Sandy had succumbed to the cold. When Mr. Bullen went into the yard with an assistant, he was met with a fusillade of small wood from a corner where Sandy was sitting. One of his shots hit Mr. Bullen, and an attempt to capture him was made. Sandy, however, executed a masterly retreat, covering his retirement with a few well-directed shots and made good his escape. Franko, the leader of the band, is still “reported missing."

Gloucester Citizen - Saturday 27 November 1926

THE TWO MISSING MONKEYS. It is feared that the two monkeys of the 13 who escaped at Notting Hill last week-end still remaining at large have died of exposure. Franko, the leader of the monkey jazz band, for whom a reward was offered, was last seen on Sunday at the railway station where he had taken refuge boarding a train bound for Paddington (presumably with an eye to the Cornish Express and the softer climate of the English Riviera). His companion, Sandy, remained in hiding under the platform at the station. Yesterday Sandy was not seen.

Lancashire Evening Post - Friday 26 November 1926

A BORN LEADER. At the Agricultural Hall I saw Rugby Bimbo, one of the monkeys who escaped on the Underground, and had such a high old time at Rugby before he was caught. He was formerly in a cage on his own, but being somewhat down-hearted, he was provided with a very young monkey as companion, and is greatly cheered by his little playmate, whom he alternately admonishes and pets. Franko, the leader of the Monkey Jazz Band, is still at large, though a reward of £5O is offered for him. The monkeys are all out of hand in his absence, l am told. "Whatever he does they will do, and without him they are sulky and obstinate. Monkeys are like men—some lead some follow, Franko was born to lead."

Birmingham Daily Gazette - Friday 21 January 1927

Winner of the 2014 Serco Prize for Illustration; Monkey Band At Large In Notting Hill 1927 by Gill Bradley

No comments:

Post a Comment