He’s behind you — insurance men in pantomime
This blog is about two pantomimes linked to staff from the same company, but over 50 years apart.
The first story concerns this poster.
It appears to be promoting a pantomime to mark the opening of an extension to the head office of North British and Mercantile Insurance in Princes Street Edinburgh. The date of the opening was to be April Fool’s Day and although the year isn’t given, the names of the staff mentioned suggest it was written in 1863. The performance, called The Genius of Life and the Fire Fiend, was to feature the staff and officials of the company ‘aided by a host of talent from the various Insurance Offices’.
When I first catalogued the poster, about 10 years ago, I was so excited about the idea of the assembled talent of Scottish insurance offices that I wrote a blog about it and I marvelled that they had even managed to include staff from the London branch. I am much wiser now about the 19th century tendency to produce spoof posters for plays and other performances — we have at least one other example in the archive. It is a good lesson to learn that even if something is printed and well produced it can still contain ‘fake news’.
Although it isn’t evidence of the theatrical talent and camaraderie of insurance men in the 1860s, the poster is a very interesting document. It is full of ‘in jokes’ and some of these we can still decipher today although many would only have been understood by the staff by and for whom it was produced. As an example of a joke I can still ‘get’, the orchestra includes Mr McCandlish playing the ‘Scottish National’ bagpipes which refers to the fact that John McCandlish was secretary of the Scottish National Insurance Company (now also part of Aviva). Similarly, North British and Mercantile’s Medical Officer, Dr John Burt, is down to perform a comic song called ‘The Perfect Cure!’ while the company’s auditor, George Murray, is listed as performing a Minuet de la Cour introducing a ‘variety of complicated and utterly incomprehensible Figures’.
Other jokes were easy to understand once I had done a bit of investigation. For example, William Fred Birkmyre the London Manager is on the cast list to play Phoebe Mayflower, a pensive village beauty, which is probably a reference to the fact that he was an American. Snodgrass, who was to play Long George a branch engineer, is George Webster Snodgrass the company’s Glasgow branch manager. I also discovered that James Logan, and G F Smith were respectively the manager and local secretary of the Newcastle branch which probably explains why they are down to dance a reel called ‘The Colliers’ Rant’ and leads me to suspect that the third dancer in that reel, Wilson, was also a member of the Newcastle branch staff.
Percy Dove, who was the manager at the Royal Insurance, played the pantomime villain — the fire fiend. The attendant fiends, Johnston, MacLaren and Milligan, were presumably John B Johnston who was secretary at Royal Insurance, John McLaren who was sub manager there and James Milligan the company’s Edinburgh manager. Mr Dove is also listed as a performer of an aria ‘Honour avaunt! Utopian Dream’ accompanied by Mr MacLaren on the lyre (or — presumably — liar). This made me wonder if there had been some specific issue between the two companies in which the Royal Insurance was considered to have acted badly. I wasn’t able to find any major fallings out but there are several cryptic references in the board minutes to the ‘conduct of the Royal’ and advice from North British and Mercantile’s lawyers in Canada to drop proposed legal action over an article written by the Royal which appeared in the Quebec Mercury.
Other references in the poster allow us to infer things about various members of staff — although they can’t be verified. For example, the company’s agency superintendent Alfred Good is on the cast list as Baron Munchausen which leads me to believe he was known in the office for exaggerating and telling tall tales. I am also fairly sure there is a story behind Mr McIntyre being down on the poster to sing the ballad ‘softly soothe me in my slumbers’. The poster has him accompanied by Mr Brash in a breakdown jig and Mr Paterson on the tambourine, so I fondly imagine the unfortunate McIntyre had fallen asleep at his desk and was rudely awoken by his fellow clerks.
I also suspect there is also a story behind George Moncrieff Ogilvie being given the part of Captain Swellington Stalker of the Horse Marines. I picture George as a bit of a dandy who perhaps acted as though he was a cut above the rest of the office (where his father was company secretary). I may be slightly influenced by my knowledge of what happened to George later in his life. In 1882 he resigned as the company’s cashier and in 1883 was found to have stolen £7700 7 shillings and 10 pence from the life and fire funds. I can’t find any reference to him being prosecuted but the company did take over his shares in the business and he appears to have started a new life in Canada.
We’ll move swiftly on from the disgrace of Mr Ogilvie to the story of our second pantomime. In 1915 another member of North British and Mercantile’s staff wrote the script for a pantomime which was also full of ‘in jokes’. In this case the pantomime was a real performance put on for Christmas night 1915 and the ‘in jokes’ came from the shared experiences of men serving in the First World War.
Frank Kenchington from North British and Mercantile’s London life department wrote the pantomime, Dick Whittington, while serving as a private in the 85th Field Ambulance in Salonika. He scribbled down the script in breaks during marches and in the communal tent at night. Dick Whittington was the first divisional pantomime and General Briggs, the Commanding Officer of the 28th Division, was ‘so amused and charmed’ by the performance that he ordered the company to tour around all the units of the Division ‘so that all the men might have the same pleasure and enjoyment’.
The pantomime, which had originally been intended for just one performance, toured Salonika for the rest of December and January 1916 and was eventually shown to 24 battalions. According to contemporary newspapers, it brought an audience of about 500 men to watch each night. They were seated in a theatre constructed from three huge tents and were entertained by an orchestra of piano, piccolo, and violin. The scenery was constructed from army blankets and planks and the lighting was provided by three acetylene operating lamps, four headlights of ambulances and twenty-five large candles reflected in cut out jam tins.
Frank himself was in the cast and played one of the pantomime villains, Count Maconochie. He was named after the firm of Maconochie Brothers Ltd. which provided tinned rations for the troops. Maconochie’s finest beef stew was described by one soldier as ‘a tinned ration consisting of sliced vegetables chiefly turnips and carrots in a deal of thin soup or gravy’. Frank’s fellow villain, Sir Joseph Paxton, was named after the Sir Joseph Paxton brand of jam which was supplied to the troops by the manufacturers Stephens Son and Co Ltd.
As the count, Frank’s costume was a testament to the incredible ingenuity of the men of the 85th Field Ambulance. He wore a kilt made from an army blanket with a brooch crafted from the time fuse of a shell. The wing of a Christmas turkey was used as a sporran and the look was completed with rolled bandages around his boots to look like spats. The finished effect was captured in a sketch by Charles Jaques who was one of the chief costume designers as well as writing some of the musical numbers and providing the piano accompaniment.
One of Jaques other costume triumphs was that of Dick’s cat, Caesar. It was made from army blankets with metal eyes cut out of jam tin lids and green rushes stiffened with wire for the whiskers. The role of the cat was taken by Private E James, and Frank roped in one of his pre-war colleagues, Eddie Dillon, to play the role of Alice (daughter of Alderman Fitzwarren). Eddie had joined North British and Mercantile in April 1913 and worked with Frank in the life department on an annual salary of £60.
When Frank wrote a second pantomime, Aladdin in Macedonia, for Christmas 1916, Eddie was cast as Miss Kitty Fraser (A girl from Blighty).
Aladdin in Macedonia ran for 50 performances for audiences from the 28th division stationed on the Struma front. Each performance attracted between 700 and 800 men who were accommodated in a new divisional theatre which had replaced the ad hoc tented theatre of 1915.
Sadly, Eddie Dillon did not survive the war. He joined the RAF in 1917 and was killed while flying at Feltwell, aged just 23. Frank Kenchington did return to his desk at North British and Mercantile — after a two-year stay in hospital due to wounds received at Cambrai. He eventually retired in 1952 after 46 years’ service.