July 13, 2013

G.H. Chirgwin (1854-1922), English music hall entertainer, singer and musician, famously billed as ‘The White-Eyed Kaffir’
(photo: unknown, probably UK, late 1890s; Ogden’s ‘Guinea Gold’ cigarette card, circa 1900)

‘And this was the White-eyed Musical Kaffir!
We must confess that our first impression of the famous Chirgwin were distinctly disappointing, and that they by no means came up to his pictured presentment, as made familiar in the highly-coloured bills to which he refers easily as his “printing.” We had imagined to our selves a long-drawn-out ebony figure, relieved only by a diamond-shaped patch over his right eye and topped off by an Ally Sloper hat of the most pronounced type. Such a personality we felt would be a distinct adornment to the rich decoration of the Moorish lounge at Menzies’ [i.e. at the Menzies Hotel, Melbourne]. Instead, we are introduced to a ruddy-faced gentleman well on the right side of middle age, and loosely attired in a tourist suit that smacks of the rolling ocean. The Kaffir’s manner far from being bloodthirsty is distinctly amiable and presently, when seated in his cosy sitting-room under the guardianship of his guide philosopher and friend, Mr. Harry Rickards, he proves himself an admirable conversationalist.
“’I must have been on stage for many years? I believe you. It is nearly 33 years since I first took to the boards, and I shall be just 42 years of age in December. The fact is that my first public appearance was at 5 years of age when my brothers and I appeared as the Chirgwin Family, and formed a Juvenile Christy Minstrel troupe. I used to play the bones and the violin at first, and gradually increased my mastery of other instruments till now it pretty well covers the whole range of strings, as well as the bagpipes and the musette. When I grew older we separated, and I appeared for a time with a younger brother, but for the last eighteen years I have been on my own’.”
“’And how did you come to be known as ‘the White-eyed Kaffir?”
“’Oh, that was a pure accident. I had gone up to perform at an open-air fete at Gloucester. A storm got up in the middle of the performance, and a lot of dust was blown into my right eye. The pain was so great that I naturally set to work rubbing my eye and when I faced the audience again there was a shriek of laughter. I had rubbed a patch of the black off round my eye, and the effect was so peculiar that I stuck to it ever since. Though, of course, it was some time before I adopted the diamond shaped patch as a distinctive mark.”
“’And you always appear in the same make up”
“’Always, even when I do my Scottish act, but, of course, I change the clothes and properties. You see my entertainment is unique of its kind. I am the only artist in England who goes in for this line of business, and it is a style which allows of the black face always being worn. You see have no prepared patter, and I don’t adhere to any specified programme. My idea is to come on the stage and have a good time. When I get an audience that I like I go off at score, giving them a melange of songs, dances and instrumental music, and reeling off the dialogue just is it comes into my head. I have never appeared but with a black face, except in my pantomime engagements.”
“’To show how I vary my entertainment, no one in England has ever been able to mimic me. Many of the best mimics have tried to do so. Perhaps one of them will say, ‘Look here, Chirgwin, old man, I’m going to sing that song of yours exactly as you sing it.’ Well, that man will come to the halls where I’m singing night after night, and when he thinks he has got me off pat I’ll wing it in an entirely different way, so that when he comes on afterwards to mimic me it isn’t a bit like, and he gets properly slipped up.
”’I’ll give you another illustration. On the same night I have appeared at four different halls ranging from the Tivoli and the Oxford [in central London] to Harwood’s varieties at Hoxton, which perhaps caters to the roughest class of people in London. Then I have gone straight from there to sing at a command concert in the state-room of the Lyceum Theatre before the Prince of Wales, and with an audience including such critics as Sir Henry Irving and Mr Beerbohm Tree.“
”’You have never crossed the line before, I believe.“
”’No, I’ve been all over the Continent, Spain, France, Germany and Italy, but this is my first experience out of Europe. If it’s all as pleasant as it was on board the Ophir I feel that I am going to have a real good time.“
”’And is your stay likely to be long?“
”’My engagement with my old friend Mr. Rickards is for six months though that depends on how I suit him.“
‘Mr. Rickards from the depths of a mighty arm chair, breaks in to say ’’You’ll suit me all right, old boy” and then subsides again while the “White-eyed Kaffir” takes up the thread of his discourse.
“’I’m due back in London again next August, and after filling my engagements there I go to America. The only thing I am sorry about is that I can’t open at the Opera-house [in Melbourne] on Saturday night. What with the long rest of six weeks and the sea air both my instruments and myself have got a little out of order. Working as hard as I can, things will hardly be right before Monday. An artist must be constantly playing and singing to keep up to concert pitch. Why, every fiddler in the orchestra feels the difference in his fingers on Monday after Sunday’s rest. I want to do myself justice, so I shall wait till Monday evening to make my first bow to an Australian audience.”
Mr Chirgwin is accompanied by Mrs Chirgwin, a daughter well up in her teens, and what he terms “a young Kaffir” just rising six months.’
(The Argus, Melbourne, Australia, Saturday, 28 November 1896, p. 13d)


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