The Bohee brothers (James born 1844; George born 1857) were born in St John, New Brunswick, on the Atlantic coast of Canada, and moved to Boston, Massachusetts where they became adept at playing the banjo. In the 1880s they crossed the Atlantic and were based in Britain for the rest of James’s life, famously tutoring Queen Victoria’s son the future King Edward VII. Sometimes they worked as a duo; sometimes they ran an entirely-black song-and-dance troupe. A number of their showgirls, as well as male performers, became active in the British theatrical world, especially following the death (in Wales) of James in 1897. The brothers experienced problems – and whilst not unique to black entertainers, these remind us that other than an absence of American segregation and violence, life for black performers in Victorian Britain was basically similar to that of performers of other ethnicities.
In February 1888 the London showbusiness weekly the Era reported on the financial troubles of George Bohee. He was employed at £16 a week (a weekly wage of £3 was then seen as respectable). A previous hearing had recorded that Bohee promised to pay £10 a month in settlement of a debt, but nothing had been paid. In late April the Era (28 April 1888) reported his bankruptcy. On 9 June 1888 the newspaper reported George Bohee’s situation. He had opened a shop in Brompton Road, London, selling music and banjos. The instruments were sold at a loss, and his liabilities were £510 (and assets £80). Bohee said his gambling had caused his problems. His betting on horses took up (more than) his share of the £17 a week he and his three colleagues earned at the London Pavilion (and the £15 paid for their work at the Aquarium). This was reported in the Birmingham Daily Post of 3 August 1888 and in the Era the next day. Bohee stated he had thirty court actions, but ‘did not always wait to be sued before he paid his debts’. He earned about £250, ‘and kept a brougham’ (a two seat horse-drawn carriage).
Brother James was in court in Southport, Lancashire in July 1889, being sued by two members of their troupe: for a week’s wages and another week for lieu of notice by Nelly Shannon and Maria Ewing (‘two coloured young women’). James had sacked them for drinking with male members of the public. George Bohee said ‘they had rules posted in the dressing-room cautioning them’. Their wages were £1.25 weekly and £1.50 for Ewing. The magistrate supported the brothers. This was reported in the Era on 20 July 1889 and the Cheshire Observer and Leicester Chronicle both of 20 July 1889.
James Bohee appeared in the Birmingham Daily Post of 1 February 1890 because of his rough treatment of a printer in Derby, who claimed £3. Bohee was fined. In late 1891 when James Bohee sued Pickfords the carriers over the loss of stage properties entrusted to that firm in London, required to be delivered to Norwich. Bohee was awarded the costs of replacing the contents (‘stage trimmings, dress suits, &c’). The Era reported the case on 19 December 1891.
How typical of showmen was George Bohee’s cavalier approach to debts?
This page was stimulated by Raymond Astbury’s Black Entertainers in Victorian Dublin of 2014.
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