On 14 February 1930 the Portsmouth Times reported: ‘Portsmouth theatre queues lost a familiar figure by the death on Monday night in the infirmary of Mr Charles (“Darkie”) Cornell, the Christy minstrel who amused many thousands of persons with his performances on the bones. The deceased man was born in Barnum and Bailey’s Circus in America nearly 68 years ago, and came to England about 40 years ago. He was at one time corner man in the minstrel shows on Southsea beach, being a member of the Haverly* and Bohee parties. Mr Cornell had the distinction of giving a command performance before Queen Victoria and King Edward at a garden party** in Osborne House about two years before the Queens death’.
* spelling corrected from original newspaper error.
**Probably a ‘Thanksgiving’ fate held regularly in August, where Donald Marshall’s minstrel troupe performed.
Charles, an African American was born to Henry and Amanda Cornell in Danbury, Connecticut ca 1863. Although not born in a circus, the Cornell residence at the time of his birth was opposite George Bailey’s circus winter quarters, which had connections with Barnum and James Bailey by 1881.
After a move to New Haven ca 1870 American records (census, divorce and newspaper reports) show that Charles’s parents divorced in 1876. In his twenties Charles spent time in prison for assaulting an old man over a barrel of stolen beer. After his mother’s death in 1884 he joined Barnum’s circus as part of a wrestling and boxing duo known as ‘Cornell and Gorman’. Charles arrived in England in November 1889 around the time that Barnum’s circus came to London’s Olympia. He settled in Portsmouth on the south coast in 1892. He met Florence Green (aged 17) in Weston-Super-Mare, presumably whilst touring with a minstrel troupe or circus. They returned to Portsmouth, where their first child Florence Isabel was born in May 1895. Her birth certificate had her father’s occupation as acrobat. Another daughter, named Mabel Emily was born in July 1896, when her father’s occupation was street minstrel. Typical of the period she only survived a year.
Charles and Florence married in Portsea, Portsmouth in March 1897. They would have 13 children, eight reaching adulthood. The Cornell family seems to have occupied numerous addresses in the Portsea area, including in the 1901 and 1911 census (most were demolished in slum clearance schemes of 1935). A third daughter, Eva was born in 1898. She became a munitions worker during the First World War, surviving the January 1917 explosion in Silvertown, London.
The first son, Charles Jnr (grandfather of contributor Christopher Cornell) was born in November 1899. Further surviving children included Olive born 1902 and Margaret born 1907. Both would work for American actress Edith Day who settled in England in the 1910s and whose house guests included Paul Robeson. Four more children were Frederick born 1910, Sidney born 1913, Francis Winifred born in 1915 and Leonard in 1920, who died aged 7 when his father’s occupation was given as street minstrel on the death certificate. Sidney Cornell was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his brave actions as a paratrooper in Normandy (1944). He was killed in action on 7/8 April 1945 and is buried in the war cemetery at Becklingen near Hanover, Germany.
Parachute Regiment sergeant Sidney Cornell, DCM:
Letters published in the Portsmouth Evening News in the 1960s told of Charles Cornell known as ‘Old Pete the Darkie’ was fondly remembered as a member of a minstrel troupe called ‘Cousin Freddie’s’ which performed on Southsea beach near Clarence Pier. Others recalled him as a street performer in Commercial Road, Portsmouth, playing the bones, performing acrobatic feats, such as a double somersault from a standing position, sometimes partnered with a one legged guitar player called Fred Kirby.
Evidence suggests (archive records, newspaper report and interviews with family) that there was a history of domestic abuse due to alcohol.
The Hampshire Telegraph reported in 1908 ‘Fraud by Minstrels’ describing Charles Cornell a coloured man, along with Frederick Kirby, being charged with travelling on the railway without having paid their fares. It went on to say that ‘Cornell’s home was under the observation of the (child protection charity) NSPCC, as he spent what money he earned in drink’. In another instance one daughter, described as ‘coloured’ in a woman’s home admission register dated 1910 read ‘she begged to be admitted because of bad home surroundings’.
At the age of 67, Charles died of pancreatic cancer on 10 February 1930. His death certificate described him as a street musician. His wife Florence survived for many more years, living with her sons and daughters until she died in 1954, aged 77.
Contributed by Christopher Cornell.
See website page 254.