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Fanny Fields, the Bristol Favourite: Dutch Girls, Suffragettes and Music Hall

My postcard collection includes this picture of Fanny Fields, a music hall star whose song The Suffragette was one of many music-hall references to the militant suffrage campaign of the 1900s. Fanny Fields found fame playing an American-Dutch girl with a lager-swilling fiancĂ© called Schultz. She entertained her audiences with songs, clog dances, and comic patter. She was one of the most popular stars of her day, and perhaps nowhere was she more loved than in Bristol. 

Happy Fanny Fields

She was born Fanny Furman in New York on 15 September 1880, and started performing in Vaudeville at the age of thirteen. According to her own account, she went on the stage to help refill the family’s coffers after her parents’ fruit importing business failed. Her brother, who had been an actor, taught her to dance, and her brother-in-law, Joseph Fields, was an actor and encouraged her talent for mimicry. After a year in variety, she spent five years touring with various companies, and then joined the cast of A Hired Girl. In this musical comedy she played a Dutch girl – and her music-hall act “Happy Fanny Fields” was born. Fanny wrote her own material, including the songs. She also surprised many people when they discovered she was a Christian Scientist.

After her mother’s death in 1901 Fanny moved to England. Her first appearances were at the Tivoli and Oxford Music Halls in London. At first her British audiences were bemused by the Dutch girl act, but gradually her repartee won them over.

Fanny Fields soon became a favourite with Bristolians. In 1902 she appeared at The People’s Palace in a show that also included a ventriloquist, two singers as the “Yorkshire mill lasses” in clogs and shawl, a gymnast who balanced a dog cart on his chin, hand dancers (a couple dancing on their hands), and a comedian, with comedienne Katy Lawrence topping the bill. According to the Western Daily Press (23 December 1902), Fanny sang with a “decidedly American twang”, and her “quaint humour, vivacity, and dancing” charmed the audience. I can’t help wondering if our ancestors were more easily amused and pleased than we are today.

In September 1905 “the girl who was always laughing” was back at The People’s Palace “in her happiest mood” according to the Western Daily Press (26 September 1905). Once again she proved popular with Bristol audiences – or as Clifton Society (28 September 1905) rather snootily put it – her songs, romps and patter were “exactly to the taste of the patrons of this place of entertainment”. Later that year she appeared in the Prince’s Theatre’s Christmas pantomime, Mother Goose. It was her first pantomime, and she was nervous, but as she told the Bristol Times and Mirror (20 January 1906), Bristolians were a “lovely audience” and “I was received like an old friend”.

Fanny played Gretchen, Mother Goose’s servant, played by the music hall star Wilkie Bard of Put me Upon an Island fame (“Put me upon an island where the girls are few, / Put me among the most ferocious lions in the zoo, / Put me upon a treadmill and I’ll never fret, / But for pity’s sake don’t put me near a suffragette”). (My blog about Wilkie Bard is available in the Spotlight On Archive on my website )  In Fanny Fields’s own suffragette song, The Suffragette, she warns the men that “the suffragettes mean to give you fellows the pill” and they think “you men are simply worms”. Even so, “The Suffragettes have pluck / They’re sure to get the vote some day / Ja, with an ounce of luck”.

During the months she spent in Bristol, Fanny got involved in various charitable concerns. She appeared in a benefit for the Bristol Ambulance Corps; visited Eastville Workhouse; and in May she and Marie Lloyd kicked off a charity football match at Bristol Rovers’ ground for the Licensed Trade Charity Carnival. When Mother Goose closed (after a benefit performance for Fanny Fields on 16 March 1906), she played for a week at the Palace in Bath. She returned to New York for the summer, and was back in England in August, performing in Liverpool.  

Even after her departure from Bristol, Fanny was not forgotten. There were numerous imitations of her act, including performances by marionettes at the Palace Theatre, and copy-cat Dutch acts by Moore May Duprez and Mignonette Kokin. Impersonations of her by children in school plays were also popular.  

Having earned popularity in Bristol, she returned to the city in 1907 when she was again a guest at the Licensed Trade Charity Carnival. She travelled from Newport to take part in the procession and attend the sports day. Billed as “Bristol’s greatest favourite”, she performed at the Palace Theatre in November 1907 where, still recovering from a recent illness, she was well received. Audiences flocked to see her, especially eager since they were told she could not be back in Bristol until 1910. From Bristol, she again spent a week at the Palace in Bath. She returned to London to appear in Aladdin at the Adelphi, in spite of the Tivoli’s unsuccessful attempt to obtain an injunction to stop her appearing in the production, claiming she had a prior agreement with them. 

Prince's Theatre, Bristol

In the event, Bristolians did not have to wait until 1910. In November 1908 she performed in The Girls of Gottenburg at the Prince’s Theatre. The musical comedy had played at the Adelphi in London before going on tour. The Western Daily Press (1 December 1908) praised Fanny’s “pert performance”, and Clifton Society (3 December 1908) remarked that she played her “character with much humour and her acting was the essence of vivacity”. The demand for tickets was so great that the theatre installed extra seating.

The Bristol Times and Mirror published an article by her – ‘The Adventures of a Comedienne’ – on 24 December 1909, in which she reminisced about her early days on the stage. She confided that when she was not on stage as “Happy Fanny Fields” she was “a sedate little person called Fanny Fields”. She returned to Bristol in April 1910, with appearances at The Palace Theatre, as The People’s Palace was now known. As ever, she drew the crowds. In February 1913 she appeared in a variety show at the Bristol Hippodrome.

Fanny Fields performed at many other British theatres, and made two silent films before making her last stage appearance at the London Coliseum in October 1913. She retired from the stage to return to New York and marry Dr Abraham J Rongy. In April 1926 one of the Dutch clogs she had worn for her last performance as Happy Fanny Fields was auctioned for charity by the London Coliseum.

In its 1933 pantomime, the Prince’s Theatre in Bristol revived memories of Happy Fanny Fields with a production of Mother Goose which included a scene set in Holland. In 1949, the theatrical landlady Mrs Fry reminisced in the Bristol Evening Post (14 April 1949) about her fond memories of Fanny Fields, who had lodged at her house at 85 St Michael’s Hill. Describing her as “the most delightful” of all her guests, Mrs Fry recalled crowds waiting outside the house for Fanny to get back from the theatre. She also remembered Fanny’s generosity and the food and clothes she gave to the poor.

“Bristol’s favourite” died in New York in 1961.


PS: I wondered if the Dutch were as happy with Fanny Fields’s act as her British audiences, or did they perhaps find it a bit annoying? However a quick search in the Dutch Newspaper Archive (Koninklijke Bibliotheek) didn’t turn up any contemporary articles or mentions of Fanny or her act. There was, however, an interesting 1928 article by Sir John Foster Fraser (1868-1936) in an English newspaper published in Holland. Fraser was a Scottish journalist, Parliamentary correspondent and travel writer, whose most well-known book is an account of his journey around the world on a bicycle (Round the World on a Wheel).

In an article about his time in Holland, Fraser commented:-

But I’ll tell you what I did not see. I neither saw nor heard any gay-garbed young women warbling and dancing after the manner of Happy Fanny Fields who was one of my delights in days when I was fond of music-halls and pantomimes. You recall how in many light musical comedies there are groups of girls in “Dutch costume”; they swoop upon the stage and do noisy things in wooden clogs and sing in broken English, and every stage Dutchman has a blue patch on one knee and a maroon patch behind.

"It is not unlikely there are thousands of knowledge-seeking English folk who have the idea a Dutchman would not be a real Dutchman unless he had these patches and cluttered about in sabots. In the towns, however, you can sit in the window of your favourite restaurant and see a thousand folk go by, and all the men are dressed exactly as the men in Birmingham are dressed, and all the women have their neat hats and trim coats and short skirts and high-heeled shoes and silken hose, just like the charmers of Liverpool.”

Source: ‘Holland in the Foreign Press’, La gazette de Hollande, La Haye, 18-05-1928, p. 4 (Accessed on Delpher on 26-08-2022, https://resolver.kb.nl/resolve?urn=MMKB19:000928020:mpeg21:p00004)


(Footnote added 29 August 2022)

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