Professor Buzz Kershaw commentated in 1999 (The Radical in Performance) that in the early 20th century the Lancashire seaside resort of Morecambe was ‘very exceptional, if not unique’ in having its beach entertainments include black men. The troupe was led by Alex Day, and certainly included black men. A yet-to-located memoir by James Herns also known as Jimmy Cooney seems to be Kershaw’s source — like many show-business memoirs it is inaccurate but we can find Cooney in the marriage and death registrations.
He did marry a woman named Emily from Penrith (as Kershaw says – but not in 1896). The marriage of Emily Nicholson took place in August 1898 and her husband was James Cooney, aged 29, a widower. She had been born in Penrith in mid-1872. No trace has yet been found of their children, but she died in Lancaster aged 52 (sic) in 1926 and he died in Lancaster in March 1932, aged 67. Kershaw states the gravestone says he died on 5 March 1932 and that it has both his name and his professional name.
The photographic evidence of Day — his address on the back of the amended (“A Day” in ink) other copy of the above 1910 card was 1 Brunswick Road, Morecambe – shows an elderly man with a moustache (front right, above). A well-built black man appears in several of the poses, and we can agree with Kershaw that this is Herns/Cooney (rear left, above).
In the postcard below, to the left we have Day to the rear, and on our right. In front of him Herns/Cooney wears a white top hat.
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The postcard dated 1911 had Herns/Cooney front right and Day two places away.
Where these different black men were recruited is a mystery. Beach entertainers would have been seen by thousands every summer day (perhaps Sundays were forbidden to them?) and coins placed in the hat or box passed around during the show would have been the sole source of income. Like Punch and Judy shows, or instrumentalists, also found on British beaches, there was no show-business publication that gave space to them. Tracking them down is very difficult but we know that Ellison’s entertainers worked in Ramsgate, Kent, in the far south-east of England, in 1910. They look like beach entertainers but may have been a theatrical troupe. Their image is in Jeffrey Green, Black Edwardians (London: 1998), p 102. The Jamaican Robert Rody is known to us because of violence in Yarmouth in 1912. Rody was a street singer, made bangles, and took photographs in that resort. A troupe with one black male appears on an Edwardian postcard, posed in Tynemouth so we can dismiss Kershaw’s statement about rarity.
By 1916 the group had Day, Cooney, a third male and four females: ‘Naval Cadets, West End, Morecambe, Season 1916’.
Cooney’s obituary in the 9 March 1932 edition of the Morecambe and Heysham Visitor page 6 was headed ‘Jimmy Cooney’s Adventurous Life’ and said he had been a valet, a circus clown, sailor, boxer and entertainer. He had settled in Morecambe around 1902, and after the war was a commissionaire outside the town’s Royalty Theatre. He had a son and daughter. (My thanks to John Rogan of Morecambe Library.)
A descendant in Yorkshire advised in late 2018 that two of Cooney’s colleagues were William Poe Smith, a Jamaican, and Charles Binney Foster who was from the Gold Coast (now: Ghana). Both men had children in England but of the several individuals seen on the above postcards with Cooney and Day we have yet to put a name to a face.
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