GWENT'S FORGOTTEN PAST: From Houdini to Morrissey - how Gwent was entertained

CRIME SCENE: Police failed to stop showman Harry Houdini jumping from Newport Bridge. Photo: newportpast.com

HANDCUFF KING: Harry Houdini.

FAMOUS FACES: The Victoria Hall, later the Lyceum Theatre. Photo: newportpast.com

MAN ON WIRE: Charles Blondin carrying his manager on his back.

Morrissey

Paul Weller

Charles Dickens

First published in News
Last updated

WELCOME to our new summer feature series bringing you a glimpse of Gwent's Forgotten Past.

 

We'll be looking at great snippets from the past which show how people entertained themselves, crimes which shook Gwent, and how people lived and worked.

Today, BECKY CARR looks at the famous faces and events that have entertained the people of Gwent - from Dickens to Morrissey.

FROM jumping off Newport Bridge to escaping from the city’s police cells, the handcuff king Harry Houdini is known to have clashed with authorities during his three Gwent appearances.

Houdini first came to Newport in April 1905, spending a week-long residency at the city’s Lyceum Theatre.

The theatre, where the Travelodge now stands in Bridge Street, saw Houdini amaze audiences with his mind-boggling and death-defying escapes from handcuffs and leg irons.

During his European tour, Houdini would challenge police forces, including Newport Police, to try to keep him locked up.

Huge crowds assembled in Dock Street behind the police station as chief constable Sinclair challenged Houdini to break out of police cells.

Houdini, accompanied by reporters and councillors, proceeded towards the cells, leaving his clothes in one and entering another completely naked.

He asked that the observation trap in the door be left open and that no-one should be allowed to see his movements.

After his audience moved to the end of the corridor, Houdini began his escape.

The chief constable was asked what he would do with the escape artist if he could not get out and replied that they would keep him locked up for three days.

After just three-and-a-half minutes, Houdini appeared fully dressed and opened the locked gates of the corridor followed by a double-locked gate before greeting his fans outside.

On his second visit in 1913, Houdini was arrested for breaking the borough by-laws of holding entertainment on Newport Bridge and obstructing a public highway.

His feat of leaping from Newport Bridge, manacled, into the River Usk was announced at the Empire Theatre on the Monday in a bid to seek permission from the authorities.

When the police refused, a decoy was used to distract officers and the commotion and crowds gave him a chance to cross the Transporter Bridge and approach Newport Bridge from the east.

Manacled and shackled, Houdini dived into the river, surfacing free of chains and was hauled on to a boat by his assistants.

A week later, during his court appearance, the magistrate at Newport Police Court threw out the case after hearing evidence from both sides and Houdini was allowed to walk free.

Houdini’s final appearance in Newport was in March 1914 where he accepted a challenge from four workers.

The wording of the challenge said: “On your last visit you escaped from one of our packing crates, but as it was delivered ahead of time, you had an opportunity to tamper with same.

“To prove the contrary, we hereby challenge you to allow us to bring to the Empire Theatre, timbers and battens and we will construct a strong box in full view of the audience. You must enter immediately, we will nail down the lid, securely rope up the box and defy you to escape without demolishing same.”

He took just two-and-a-half minutes to free himself. Houdini thrilled audiences worldwide with his escapes until his death in 1926.

l Before the days of such stringent health and safety and animal rights, the people of Newport jumped at the chance to see their very own dolphin show at Maindee Baths in 1983.

The shows, which took place from Boxing Day in 1983 to January 1984 for three weeks, were hosted by TV wildlife presenter Terry Nutkins.

Very little is known about the shows but a letter in the Argus from April 2007 states the author, who is not named, asked the council to make their dream come true and allow them to swim with dolphins.

They found themselves being guided around their local swimming baths holding on to a dolphin fin just a few weeks later.

The doors of Maindee Baths were closed on December 23, 2005.

l The Victoria Hall, which later became the Royal Victoria Theatre, was a predecessor of Newport’s Lyceum Theatre.

A catastrophic fire ripped through the venue in 1896 described as the “greatest fire ever witnessed in Newport” by the Argus.

The hall hosted theatre, comedy, drama, music and talks as well as some famous faces in Victorian Britain such as author Charles Dickens and tightrope walker Charles Blondin.

“A hearty and enthusiastic greeting” welcomed Charles Dickens to Newport at his first and only appearance in the town in 1869.

A newspaper report in the Monmouthshire Merlin from January 23 of that year said the audience experienced a “grateful thrill” to listen to the author speak at Newport’s Victoria Hall.

It said: “The audience comprised all grades of society, the affluent and those in humbler walks, the cultivated and those who boast of but little learning and was thus illustrative of the universality of the power wielded by the great novelist, for it is the rare characteristic of his productions that in their influence they overlap all class distinctions, appealing to humanity, as such, whether luxuriating in ducal splendour, or tenanting the peasant’s cot.

“The selections which comprised his programme on Thursday were The Christmas Carol and The Trial from Pickwick.

“Probably there were few, if any, present who were unfamiliar with the Carol, yet throughout, the reading was listened to with almost breathless silence, and the feeling of suspense which was occasionally excited as the narrative proceeded, waxed well-nigh painful.

“At the close, as indeed frequently throughout the evening, Mr Dickens was hailed with loud acclamation.”

Charles Blondin, the famous French tightrope walker who crossed Niagara Falls on a high wire, blindfolded, pushing a wheelbarrow and carrying his manager on his back, gave his first open-air performance in Newport in September 1871 to 15,000 spectators.

A platform was erected on the Newport Marshes and a rope was set up between two poles 300 ft apart and 50 ft high.

He completed the walk before repeating it with a sack on his head and on a bicycle.

Then he did it carrying a portable cooker across fixing it in the middle of the rope before pouring himself a glass of champagne.

During his week in Newport, he appeared at the Victoria Hall and carried a number of local men, including the mayor, across the high wire on his back.

l Newport’s thriving music scene has treated gig-goers to performances by some of the country’s most high-profile bands.

But not all gigs in the city went to plan with Morrissey being carted off to hospital at a now infamous Smiths gig and Paul Weller playing to a venue he likened to a morgue.

Writer Craig Austin in his article ‘Oh, Newport, My Lionheart: 30 Years of Music and Nightlife in the City of Cider and Steel’ in the Wales Art Review recalled the Newport gig that saw Morrissey dragged off stage.

He said: “This writer’s first experience of a live show in the city ended in Morrissey, then of The Smiths, a band in the throes of its The Queen Is Dead imperial phase, being dragged from the stage of the Newport Centre by a throng of Ringland ruffians.

“He was not to return, and whilst the delicate Stretford flower recuperated in the A&E department of the Royal Gwent Hospital the remainder of an increasingly frustrated audience responded to this perceived indignity by commencing the wholesale dismantling of the venue with undisguised rage.

“The band’s live sound engineer Grant Showbiz took to the stage to apologise on behalf of the band and promptly received a bottle in the face for his troubles.

“He was also taken to hospital, the police called, and six people eventually arrested. The Smiths were never to play either Newport �– or Wales �– again.

“Tony Fletcher, in his much-lauded biography of the band, There is a Light that Never Goes, seeks to encapsulate the incident in terms of the intrinsic parallel pride of both the band and the city: ‘Newport was a tough Welsh city rapidly losing its dock and ironworks jobs, and Smiths fans were always excitable by nature. But this (over)reaction (arguably on both sides) seemed to represent a breach in the long-standing trust between group and audience’.”

Mr Austin also tells a tale of Paul Weller’s experience in Newport, documented by his long-serving drummer Steve White, who said: “Oh God, yeah. He sort of walked on stage and he said, ‘It’s like a ******** morgue in ‘ere.’ And they all started chanting: ‘It’s like a ******** morgue in yer! It’s like a ******** morgue in yer!’”

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