Wednesday 15 September 2010

The Talking and Performing Fish

The display of wonders and freaks was a constant throughout the Victorian period. From the Times of April 1859:

"THE TALKING AND PERFORMING FISH will arrive at 191 Piccadilly, early in May. Complimentary cards to naturalists and gentlemen of the press will be issued for private performances three days before public exhibition."

Later, in July of that year:

"THE TALKING AND PERFORMING FISH is still exhibiting at 191, Piccadilly, admission 1s. daily. Children half price."

Unfortunately, not every act lived up to its advertisements:

"The first glance at the living wonder dispelled all our hopes of something new. No scaly, leaden-eyed, cold-blooded fish lay basking in the huge tub which we found placed in the centre of the exhibition-room; but, instead, a beautiful seal, in the finest possible health, raised its intelligent head to meet our disappointed gaze. ...  Seals are very readily domesticated; and, as our present subject has been a sort of pet since 1854, she has been taught to go through a series of rude tricks, dignified by the title of "performance." Jenny - for this is the name given her by her keeper - at the word of command, closing her hand-like fins to her side, began to roll round and round in the water like a leg of mutton on a roasting jack ... Another series of revolutions in the tub, she raised herself on to its edge, and, stretching out her long wet body a considerable distance forward, placed her cold wet nose against her master's face, by way of showing "how to give a kiss." So much for the performing; now for the talking. Understanding the orders given, she uttered what I believe to be her natural cry, and which, when the spectator is told means "mamma" or "papa" is certainly very like those infantile words. The papers stated she could "call John" but she did not get further than "mamma" or "papa," nor, indeed, is she ever likely to made to improve upon her own natural language, which, luckily for the proprietor, may be said to resemble our own, as regards these two simple words. A good parrot, magpie or starling would beat the "fish" hollow at talking."

I would if Jenny read her reviews? Occasionally, however, the boot was on the other fin. Here's a description of the 'Beckwith Frogs', the family who 'lived underwater' for the amusement of the public (Penny Illustrated Paper, 1869):

"To watch the wondrous evolutions of the human seals who presently glide into the water is as refreshing as Sainsbury's cooling drinks. With the ease and celerity of the sea-bear at the Zoological Gardens, Master Willie Beckwith goes through a series of acrobatic gyrations under water. Like a perch among minnows, he darts past the startled goldfish, and dives from one end of the tank to the other, until it is a relief to see him rise to the surface to regain breath. He plunges to the bottom again, and walks on his hands; and, still immersed, gracefully performs a number of somersaults. The expert tricks of this young "Beckwith Frog" are excelled by Professor Beckwith's assistant teacher of swimming, a skilful young exponent of the art named Thomas Attwood. Easy and graceful in his sub-aqueous movements - quite finished in style, in point of fact - this lithe young swimmer is also as agile as an otter, and his power of remaining under water should entitle him to be included among amphibious animals. Grateful though the idea of taking one's meals in the water, after the manner of Mr. and Mrs. Craddock, may be during sultry weather, the thought of indulging the appetite under water is not so tempting, and it is to be feared that in only too many cases the trial would end in providing a dinner for those to the manner born. To eat, drink, and smoke even under water appears, however, to come quite naturally to Attwood. As he sinks he is seen to place a portion of a roll in his mouth and to eat the whole of the bread before emerging. Down into his seemingly native element he glides once more, this time with a lemonade bottle full of milk, which be drains to the last drop before rising. Like Old King Cole, he now calls for his pipe. Taking a whiff or so above water first, Merman Attwood rejoins the gold fish, and enjoys a smoke in the attitude depicted by our Artist for an unconscionably long time, the blue vapour rolling up from his mouth in small volumes, which can be plainly seen, while the bowl of the "churchwarden" of course remains above the surface. Capping this clever feat by remaining recumbent at the bottom of the aquarium for seventy seconds (too long a time for even you to be submerged without risk, Mr. Attwood), the elder "Beckwith Frog" brought his performance to a close amid a well-merited burst of applause, which was shared by Master Willie Beckwith. Clad in fleshings and drawers, after the fashion of acrobats, these adroit young divers flash about the aquarium with a fishlike facility that is extraordinary enough to draw all London Cremorne-wards to see them.
    It may be added, for the benefit of those who many wish to witness the performances of the "Beckwith Frogs" at an earlier hour than eleven that on Saturday afternoons there is a children festival at Cremorne, when all the amusements of the gardens may be enjoyed at a reduced rate. Another opportunity of seeing these marine acrobats at a convenient time will be offered on Monday evening, the 28th inst., when they are to appear at an aquatic entertainment to be given by Professor Beckwith at the Lambeth Swimming-Bath. Champion swimmer of England for several years, the Professor is, necessarily, sadly, also a famous Performer in the water; and the natatory skill of himself and family, together with the keen racing which his prizes always call forth, causes his swimming fetes to be deservedly popular."

1 comment:

    Caught in the TAY, in company with the WHALE!
    The Public are cautioned not to imagine this is a Catchpenny or swindle, as is the case in many instances.
    Admission, Twopence.