by Frank E Earp
Many people will be familiar with the idea of the medieval ‘court jester’ or ‘fool’ in ‘cap and bells’, men like Rehere, court jester to Henry I (r. 1100 – 1135). However, it might be surprising to know that English monarchs retained the role of court jester long after the medieval period. Perhaps the most famous of these men (and sometimes, women), was William, ‘Will’, Sommers, court jester to Henry VIII (r. 1509 – 1547); Jeffrey Hudson and Muckle John, court jesters to Charles I (r. 1625 – 1649). Jesters were entertainers, skilled in the arts of music, juggling and clowning. The days of the court jester came to an end with Oliver Cromwell and the Commonwealth; – Charles II did not reinstate the role of court jester/fool. But should we add one more name to this illustrious list of famous fools and Royal Jester, that of William Wallett.
Although William Fredrick Wallet was born in Hull, – probably in June or July 1813, – it is Beeston in Nottinghamshire, which claims him as its ‘adopted son’. Wallett was an internationally famous stage and circus performer. He was the eldest son of John and Margaret Wallett who went on to have a family totalling seven children, five boys and two girls. Both lived into their eighties, long enough to witness and become immensely proud of the success of their eldest son. In fact, on the census of 1871, his mother Margaret, by then a widow, listed herself “Queen Victoria’s jester’s mother”.
William is described as being athletically built, tall and handsome. He was intelligent and extremely quick-witted. All of these natural attributes he was to use to great effect in taking him to the top of his chosen career in the ‘performing arts’. However, even the best has to start at the bottom of the ladder and William began his working life as a scenery painter, odd job man and ‘jobbing-actor’ before his talents were recognised.
In 1839 at the age of 26, William married his first wife Mary Orme, in Lincoln. According to the Nottingham Review of 26th April 1839, the marriage was in fact the result of an elopement. Mary’s father, a Hull publican, pursued his daughter to the wedding venue and the journal states; “Shortly after the completion of the ceremony, the happy pair experienced an unwelcome interview with the father of the bride, accompanied by a constable, whose object was to take home, by physical force, the lady, who had left her father’s house without his consent. The parties have since become reconciled.”
By this time William’s career had begun to take shape and he had become a circus and stage entertainer with a speciality as a clown. But he was no ordinary clown. William based his act on that of the traditional fool, a satirist who was able to transcend the norms of convention. To this end, he even adopted the costume of the jester, rather than the usual baggy trousers and makeup of the clown. William did not neglect any of his other skills both circus and theatrical. He continued to appear in stage productions and theatrical reviews and in the circus as an equestrian (bare-back rider) as well as a clown.
William’s ambition combined with his talent and flexibility as a performer meant that he became a great success. Traveling widely throughout the world and in particular the United States, his wit and humour turned him into an international star. However, success came at a great cost to his 22 year marriage.
Mary was left alone for long periods of time whilst William was ‘on tour’. When she died at the age of 40 in June 1861, William was performing his equestrian act, – probably in America. We do not know if Mary’s early death was sudden or the result of a long illness, but the census return of 1861 shows that William was alone at a lodging in Manchester in April of that year. Records show that the couple had at least two children who did not survive infancy.
William Wallett was the master of self-promotion and in July 1844 he pulled-off a stroke of genius which made him a household name. At this time, William was performing his clown routine as a part of the famous Van Amburgh Company. On the 19th July the Company put on a royal performance at Windsor Castle in-front of Queen Victoria and Albert, the Prince Consort. Also attending was the Duke of Wellington and a number of other worthies of the day.
The show was apparently well received and in the following publicity, Wallett declared himself to be; ‘The Queens Jester’. The Queen must have been ‘amused’, because although she did not officially sanction the title, William was not carried off to the Tower in royal disgrace.
Wallett, now the self-proclaimed Royal Jester, is said to have employed only two kinds of promotional posters, – a stock of which he kept in the cellar of his house. The first poster, used prior to the engagement simply read; ‘Wallett is coming’ and the second ‘Wallett is here’.
In March 1862, a year after the death of his first wife Mary, William Wallett married Sarah Tutin Farmer, the daughter of John Farmer, a Nottingham business man and entrepreneur. At the time of the wedding, Farmer is recorded as a publican with a ‘house’ on Market St. In reality together with his three sons, – one of whom kept the Clarendon Hotel, – he controlled a powerful empire which dominated the Nottingham business and social scene. In fact the Farmer family controlled most aspects of musical entertainment in the town for over 100 years.
John Farmer would have been no stranger to William, who had visited Nottingham many times in the early years of his career, appearing at the music halls and glee clubs that constituted the popular entertainment of the time. The marriage was another extraordinary boost to William’s already successful career, but whether it entirely had the approval of Mary’s father is uncertain. This is borne-out by the fact that the chosen venue was William’s home town of Hull. It was popular convention at the time for a bride to marry in her own parish.
Whatever the true circumstances of the wedding the couple chose to live in Beeston, Nottinghamshire. They moved into ‘Spring Villa’ one of a pair of houses, which stood on the corner of Queens Road and Station Road. By 1879, William and Sarah had produced two children and the family moved to a new house William had, had built on adjacent land. This property is now 220, Station Road (corner of Grove Street), where a ‘Blue Plaque’ declares it to be the home of:
William Fredrick Wallett
(The Queen’s Jester)
1813 – 1892
International circus and
Moved to Beeston in 1862
Lived here from 1879
William Wallett became the ’toast of the town’ entertaining the ‘great and the good’ at his Beeston home. Various census returns for the address demonstrates how diverse Williams career had become. In the 1871 census he lists himself as simply comedian, in 1881 as Professor of elocution and in 1891 actor and lecturer. Ever the performer William continued to entertain almost to his death in March 1892. He is buried in Nottingham’s General Cemetery.
Our thanks go to David Hallam for some of the information used in this article: