Arthur Nelson - the Clown King


Arthur Nelson, the clown king, died aged 44 on the 27 Jul 1860 in Burnley, and was buried in the cemetery there a few days later in plot 7418, with a local address given as Brunshaw Road. His name at burial was recorded as Arthur May Nelson.

The son of Henry Nelson, a musician and with a brother also called Henry, he was born in Bristol about the year 1816, and his newspaper obituary notice records that “on his first introduction to the stage he played the leading parts in the legitimate drama in provincial and minor theatres. He subsequently adopted the "Talking clown" as his vocation, and his repartees in the ring were often remarkable for their readiness and humour. He was a good musician, and his clever performances on the pine-sticks exhibited the skill with which he had cultivated the eccentric branch of the art he had adopted. At Vauxhall Gardens and at several of the minor metropolitan and provincial theatres he was a great favourite. His last appearance in London was at the Alhambra Place a few weeks before his death, when he introduced the female horse-tamer to the public.”

Nelson originally worked with Parrish’s Theatrical Booth, but on 2 May 1845 he was appearing with Cooke’s Circus at Great Yarmouth, where, in an imitation of the famous clown Dicky Usher, he drove four geese pulling him in a wooden bathtub down the River Bure.

3cffe31d-b3ad-4d1c-add9-5e4a969d463d-1It was a publicity stunt for the circus event, but in the crush, the Great Yarmouth suspension bridge collapsed and 79 people, mainly children, died. The disaster was of national interest and an illustrated article appeared in The Illustrated London News of 10 May 1845 (pp 297-298). It was also widely reported locally, in the Norfolk Chronicle and Norwich Gazette. 

The East London Theatre Archive has a playbill for the Pavilion Theatre, Whitechapel, 2 April 1851 that has an illustration of Arthur Nelson sitting in a tub being pulled by four geese. Nelson had completed similar stunts all over Scotland and on the river Thames in London the year before the Yarmouth collapse on 14 Oct 1844. He was clearly not deterred from repeating the process despite the Yarmouth disaster. Although his middle name is sometimes recorded as May, other times as Marsh, we do know that Nelson married Ann Moon from Bloomsbury in London on 2 Aug 1835 and had at least three children, Emma born in 1837, Arthur born in 1838 and Alben born in 1841. He also seems to have had a liaison with another entertainer called Madame Wharton, whom at one time seems to have been called his wife. Her real name was Eliza Crowe and she died on 27 Jan 1854.

Regarding Nelson’s relationship with Madame Warton, the following notice appeared in the Bradford observer 9 Feb 1854, Huddersfield Chronicle 11 Feb 1854 and Preston Guardian 18 Feb 1854:  “The well-known Madame Warton (wife of Mr Arthur Nelson the Clown King) died at Macclesfield after a few days illness of fever on Friday last. She was interred the following day a St Paul’s Church in that town.” What fever is not specified but sitting around in an unheated tent in Macclesfield in February wearing little or nothing, pneumonia would have to be a serious contender.

His real wife Ann Nelson died of chronic bronchitis on 17 Dec 1891 in Camberwell where she worked as a needlewoman and dressmaker after Arthur's relatively early death.

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