Harry Gardner

The parachutist

The parachute tomb

In the article on St Pancras & Islington Cemetery in the early editions of Hugh Meller's excellent gazetteer London Cemeteries a photograph similar to that shown here is captioned ' . . . tomb of the famous Lyceum clown (1851)', and Meller's text refers to 'Harry Gardner's parachute descending'. But in fact the parachute is not Gardner's: it belongs to 'Captain' Alfred Smith, a pilot and parachutist for the balloon company of C. G. Spencer & Sons, whose wife, a parachutist known professionally as 'Countess S', is buried in the same tomb. (By the time she died, in 1936, the tombstone was full, but the parachutist may be anticipating her presence – he/she has a rather principal-boy figure it seems to me.)

So what is Harry Gardner doing on the tombstone, and when and why did he become famous?

The Lyceum, in Wellington Street, Covent Garden, started life as a room for concerts and exhibitions in 1771. It was converted to a theatre in 1794, but was let to a circus as a playhouse licence was refused. So was Harry Gardner a clown in that circus? Not with a sibling buried in the early twentieth century – the gravestone refers to him as 'our dear brother' – for by 1799 the Lyceum had broadened its repertoire.

In 1802 it housed Madame Tussaud's first London waxworks exhibition, and from 1809 to 1812 the company from the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, acted there while its own theatre was being rebuilt after a fire. After a spell as the Theatre Royal Opera House and rebuilding in 1816, the Lyceum too was destroyed by fire, in 1830.

In 1910 Walter and Frederic Melville took over the (rebuilt) theatre and began to establish a tradition for Christmas pantos of 'good, wholesome fun and splendour'. And this is where Harry Gardner comes in.

The volumes of J. P. Wearing's The London Stage for 1890 to 1919 record him first as appearing as a clown in the Adelphi Theatre's 1898–9 pantomime Dick Whittington. Then he disappears until he appears in the harlequinades performed (matinees only) as part of the Lyceum Theatre's pantos Robinson Crusoe and His Man Friday (1907–8), Little Red Riding Hood (1908–9) and Aladdin (1909–10). He also 'appeared with diverting effect as the Bear in the South Pole scene' in Aladdin, said The Stage, and the show-business paper The Era noted that 'Mr Harry Gardner's realistic Polar Bear should be selected for warm praise'. (The Era also recorded that 'the xylophone playing of the Lewin–Martel Duo, who rendered the overture to Auber's Masianello on a couple of well-toned instruments . . . won from the appreciative audience a hearty encore'.) The giants in Aladdin's harlequinade were played by the 'Harry Gardner Troupe'.

Harry Gardner

Harry Gardner photographed by Alfred Ellis
in the programme for the Lyceum's 1913–14 Babes in the Wood.

He appeared as 'Clown' in Cinderella (1910–11) and Dick Whittington and His Cat (1911–12). Then, in addition to a billing as 'Lyceum Clown' in the harlequinades, he appeared in the main story too: as Hakki in The Forty Thieves (1912–13), Mrs Century ('a graphic portrayal of . . . the oldest inhabitant of Appledale') in Babes in the Wood (1913–14), and Mr Hops in Jack and the Beanstalk (1914–15). He was only 'Lyceum Clown' in Robinson Crusoe (1915–16), but also played Skim, 'a milkman', in Mother Goose (1916–17). (In this last, The Era noted that 'that accomplished and graceful young premiere danseuse Miss Ninette de Valois . . . is seen here again'; her stage debut had been in the 1914 Lyceum panto.)

According to Wearing, he died in 1917.

Now the burial records show that the Smiths' grave contains an Edward Gardner, of 5 Broadway House, Crouch End, who died aged forty-eight and was buried on 24 January 1917, and it turns out that 'Harry' was Edward's stage name. This means that he must have died during the run of Mother Goose. There is no mention of his death in the issues of The Era for January and February 1917, nor in what would have been his local paper, the Hornsey Journal; however, a single sentence in The Stage of 1 February 1917 noted that he had died 'after a short illness'.

So it seems that he made it to the West End stage at the age of twenty-nine, in panto, disappeared for nine years, then appeared in panto for ten seasons. Still, it beats the fifteen minutes of fame predicted for everyone by Andy Warhol.


The Era, 30 December 1909, 31 December 1913, 27 December 1916

The Stage, 1 January 1910

J. P. Wearing, The London Stage: 1890–1899, 1900–1909, 1910–1919 (Metuchen, Scarecrow Press, 1976, 1981, 1982)

Personal communication from Annie Holmes (Harry Gardner's great-granddaughter)

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