by Frank E Earp
In 1790 John Thorsby republished ‘The Antiquities of Nottinghamshire’ a work by fellow antiquarian Robert Thoroton, first published in 1677. Already an extensive, Thorsby not only expanded the work into several volumes but updated it and brought it firmly into the 18th century. Thorsby’s work can by no means be considered a dry history of the County. He relates many anecdotal tales and with these paints a vivid picture of life on the streets of Nottingham.
They say that history has a habit of repeating itself and I found this to be the case when I came across the story of ‘Whistling Charley’, – one of Nottingham’s 18th century ‘eccentrics’, – in Thorsby’s writings. As I read the story I could not help comparing it to the life of Frank Robinson, – Xylophone Man. I will leave the reader to decide if this is indeed a fair comparison
Under a section in the book discussing ‘Old Market Square’, Thorsby populates his scene of the Square and the streets around with descriptions of familiar individuals. It is under the heading of ‘The Street Musician’ that we find our latter-day Frank Robinson. The account is a first-hand one and therefore relates to one of Thorsby’s contemporary.
Thorsby does not deem it right to give his ‘street musician’s’ full name; “It is not material to our purpose to know of whom he was born, or how trained up into his present way of existence.”.He goes on later to state that he was generally known Charley, – the prefix ‘Whistling’, is added in a later account and is noted from the fact that he often chose to play a small pipe or whistle. How many people knew Frank’s real name, but simply referred to him by the name of the instrument he played? The second part of the sentence is an enquiry into Charley’s way of life, – had he always been a trained professional beggar?
Charley we are told was born in the hamlet of Clapham in the parish of Clifton. He is described as being, in Thorsby’s own words;“….meagre figure, decrepit form….” – “….deformed and a cripple…”, – “….now nearly 70 years of age…”. Thorsby seems to admirer the fact that Charley is still able to earn a living by entertaining the Nottingham public; “Every day, although now enfeebled by years, you find him perambulating the streets of Nottingham to catch game”. And; “….paddling along the streets in all seasons of the year, often supply him with pecuniary wants”.
Having gained from Thorsby a good description of Charley, what form of entertainment did he offer that gave him such a lucrative living enabling to survive to then goodly age of 70? Charley was of course a musician, – whether a particularly talented one or not Thorsby does not say. He seems to have varied his instruments from day to day and could be found playing the lute, a horn, but more often a whistle. Charley appears to have been something of a ‘Chameleon’ and it is in the manner of his dress that singled him out from others of his kind. He had a variety of costumes in which he would dress; that of ‘a beggar’, ‘the trappings of the great’, and ‘the array of a soldier’. All of these he varied at his pleasure, as Thorsby puts it.
Like his better known contemporary, Benjamin Mayo, ‘the Old General’, Charley seem to have attracted the particular attention of small boys who we are told seem to have been almost his constant companions. He also seems to have been the butt of the jokes of what Thorsby calls ‘booby men’, – people of low intelligence. Charley however was not ‘put-off’ by this attention but used it as part of his act: “….the playful indiscretions of the boys make him an object of the Granger’s (Farmer’s) bounty”. As to his reward for his efforts, Thorsby states that; “The brown jug, the tankard or cash, are alike to him….”.
Frank Robinson, no plaque records his presence on the streets of Nottingham. Thorsby’s writings came too early to record what became of Whistling Charlie and without his real name we are unable to discover his final resting place. It his only through Thorsby recording that he takes his rightful place as a footnote in the pages of history. The next time you find yourself in the market square, listen out for the sound of a tin whistle; it may well be the ghost of Whistling Charlie.