Sunday, 1 July 2012

Miss Ada Webb

            Miss Ada Webb was both a natationist and acrobat who had the foresight to turn to theatrical management as she got older and less able to perform. Her performances in water were limited to that of ornamental swimming as part of a variety show either on stage in music halls or in a circus ring. During the August Bank Holiday period in 1887 Ada appeared at the Alexandra Palace entertaining some 18,000 visitors with her underwater feats that day.[1] The spectators for such entertainments were often hard to please but Ada appears to have found favour with her audiences. A commentary on events at the Washington Theatre for May, 1888 provides an insight into the type of acts that were popular with their patrons and also just how hard it was to please them. The musical introduction by Mr English, a comic singer and actor, was said to be over long and he had to ‘work hard’ in order to gain the audiences plaudits. A less inviting spectacle was a boy climbing a pole balanced on the shoulder of a Japanese man. The crowd were ‘better pleased’ by the feats of Miss Ada Webb who was described as a ‘young nageuse [swimmer]’ who ‘displayed her graceful form in some tank evolutions.’ Her deeds involved eating and drinking underwater followed by ‘various other feats requiring endurance and aptitude, and gained an encouraging reception.’[2]
            In a summary of the major acts performing within London Music Halls in 1888, Miss Webb warranted mention immediately after a description of the internationally renowned singer, Miss Marie Lloyd. Ada was described thus:
Miss Ada Webb shares with Britannia the title of “Empress of the Sea”. She has dived into the sea from a height of fifty-six feet, and therefore claims the distinction of being the champion lady diver of the world. Her underwater feats in the tank are those to which music hall audiences have become accustomed, and her symmetrical form lends grace and attractiveness to her various posings in the crystal tank.[3]
Ornamental swimmers were very popular with music hall audiences throughout the 1870-1910 periods and, as a consequence, females had the potential to make a very good living on the music hall circuit.
            In September 1890 it was revealed that Ada had saved the lives of three ladies who had got into trouble in the Bromley Swimming Baths. The Royal Humane Society was to award a ‘testimonial’ at the Tivoli Theatre where she was currently appearing. The account of the event was short on detail and possibly designed to promote the career of Ada perhaps? It would appear that Ada had dived into the pool fully clothed and saved three ‘exhausted’ ladies from possibly drowning. One of the ladies, we are informed has only just recovered from ‘the effects of immersion’ and had recently sent a cheque to Ada for the purchase of a new dress.[4] Such feats of bravery appear to have been rather commonplace with professional natationists who were not only described as being mystical creatures but also heroines.
            As an illustration of just how important it was for swimming clubs to provide other forms of entertainment at their swimming galas other than the races, the St. George’s Swimming Club, Sunderland had obtained the services of Ada Webb in October, 1891. She was appearing at the local People’s Palace and with the permission of the music hall’s proprietors, was allowed to give an exhibition at the club’s annual gala to be held at the Corporation Baths. In return for providing the gala with such a major coup as the services of Miss Webb, the members and officials of all the town’s swimming clubs provided the music hall proprietors with a ‘complimentary benefit’ evening.[5]
            For the 1892 season Ada had enlisted the assistance of another ornamental swimmer in her act. Miss Elsie Le-Bert was a younger swimmer who would help maintain an interest in the feats undertaken within the ‘crystal tank’.[6] In January, 1895 Miss Webb, ‘Queen of the Crystal Tank’ was appearing at Oldham, Lancashire in Ohmy’s Circus with her ‘Troupe of Charming Lady Swimmers’.[7] The names of ‘Florence, Louis and Elba’ appear as ‘the smartest aerial act in the world’.[8] Ada appears to have created a troupe of performers under her name that could perform both in the water and in the air. Her popularity was such that in April, 1895 Ada and her troupe were heading the bill with the Transfield’s Circus in Limerick, Ireland.[9]

[1] Lloyd’s Weekly News, Bank Holiday Amusements, Sunday, August 7, 1887
[2] The Era, The London Music Halls, The Washington Theatre, Saturday, May 19, 1888.
[3] The Era, The London Music Halls, Saturday, November 10, 1888.
[4] The Era, Music Hall Gossip, Miss Ada Webb, Saturday, September 20, 1890.
[5] The Era, Amusements in Sunderland, People’s Palace, Saturday, October 31, 1891.
[6] The Era, Amusements in Leeds, Princess’s Palace, Saturday, May 21, 1892
[7] The name ‘Ohmy’ came from the owners tight rope act at Raikes Hall Pleasure Gardens, Blackpool when the crowd would exclaim, oh my! This exclamation gave him (name not known) the name for his circus.
[8] The Era, Advertisements and Notices, Saturday, January 5, 1895.
[9] The Era, Provincial Theatricals, Limerick, Saturday, April 13, 1895.

No comments:

Post a Comment