By Gordon Irving
Christmas, around the turn of the century, was never Christmas without a certain little man from the village of Cudham, in Kent. His name was Harry Relph, and he was an international music-hall star. Kent knew him as one of fifteen children of an Englishman who ran the Blacksmiths Arms in Cudham. The world, and that included the glittery world of New York, loved him as Little Tich. He had a most interesting and off beat personality of whom Kent, as a county, ought to be justifiably proud.
Little Tich, and by his old name hangs another story, topped the bills at music halls all over the south of England. Later he was to go on to triumphs in London, Paris and New York. I reckon few variety-world comedians can have taken a more unusual method of selecting a name, Harry took his from an infamous English court trial.
This was the Titchborne Claimant Trial that lasted from April, 1873, to February, 1874, when Harry was only five years old. In this celebrated impersonation case, a Wapping butchers son, Arthur Orton, turned up at Wagga Wagga, Australia, to pretend he was Roger Charles Titchborne, lost at sea in April 1854, and heir to an ancient Hampshire baronetcy.
Orton, who weighed 25 stones, did 14 years penal servitude. He was released on ticket-of-leave in 1884, and later appeared on the music halls, telling of his adventures and prison experience. Harry Relph, from Cudham, took the name “Little Tich” as a comedy name in contrast to the bigness in girth of Orton. Wherever he went, he had showmanship, this little man of Kent who started out as a “black face” comedian, stood only four feet high, with dwarfish legs, and had the misfortune to be born with five fingers and a thumb on each hand, and six toes on both feet.
Like so many little men he made up for his physical deficiency in acute power of observation. He developed the odd idea of a dance with big boots, 28 inches long, which he later discarded and gave to his lifelong friend, Sacha Guitry, in Paris and can now be seen at the Blacksmiths arms in Cudham.
After working in England, he was enticed by an American producer to the U.S.A. at 3 times his British salary. He often traveled to Paris to appear at the Alhambra, the Olympia and the Folies Bergere. One high honor was, being made, at 42, an officer of the French Academy, the first music hall performer to gain this honor. The good folk of Kent flocked to London to laugh at him. For 17 years he was the toast of the old Tivoli Theatre in the Strand, and in a memorable show in 1907 he was one of the 5 Harrys Harry Lauder, Harry Tate, Harry Fragson and Harry Randell. The show was billed as “sensational success of the FIVE Harrys”, and ran for ten Fantastic weeks.
Then there was Drury Lane, his second home. The pantomime audiences loved Little Tich, especially in the “Humpty Dumpty” of 1891 with Dan Leno and Marie Lloyd. He went back the following year for “Hop o My Thumb”. To see Harry walk on stage made people laugh instantly. He won audiences over right away with his lack of inches, his burlesque evening dress, his top hat, his cigar and his cherubic silly man smile.
He was to many, the eternal little man. How they loved him in the sketch where he stood gazing into a window, looking hungrily at hot steaming food cooked behind the glass! They say Little Tich even turned down an offer once upon a time from the great Phineas T. Barnum, ace-king of showmen.
His music hall earnings made him rich. He loved to ride around London, and into Kent, in a limousine. But, star though he became, he never forgot his Cudham upbringing, his early struggles as a whistler playing for half-pennies outside the music halls of London, or on the nights he had to make do with sleeping in doss-houses.
Gravesend also claims a link. He made his very first stage appearance at the Rosherville Gardens, a favorite riverside resort, at the age of 12. Little Tich revived his “big boot” dance at the London Coliseum in 1926 and was again a hit.
His last date was at the London Alhambra in1927 with Jack Hyltons Band, and he died at Hendon after a long illness in 1928. But today, when music hall types those that are left of them – do their impressions, the “Little Tich” act with the big boots is still a knock-out. Kent can be proud of this Cudham village lad who rose to the heights, and decorated Christmas pantomime just over half a century ago.
Further information from Frank Van Straten email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Here’s some stuff from my research on the Australian Tivoli Circuit:
1905’s biggest star was Little Tich. This diminutive, fey, droll little gentleman commanded a salary of no less then £250 a week, by far the largest sum Rickards had yet paid. The previous top had been £125, paid to both Ugo Biondi and Hackenschmidt; Charles Godfrey, Carl Hertz and Marie Lloyd had been on £100; Madame Marzella on £70, and Peggy Pryde on sixty. Local artistes like Priscilla Verne or Will Whitburn would earn from three to ten or twelve pounds. Little Tich had been born Harry Relph in the days of the notorious Tichborne trial. Anybody stout earned the nickname ‘Tich’, so Harry, tiny from the start, became Little Tich. He was barely four feet in height. His specialty was an eccentric dance performed in his famous ‘big boots’ – flopping, wooden-soled monsters 30 inches in length. When he took his curtain he would bow quickly over his boots, pretending to knock himself out as his bald head collided with the stage. The big boot dance was always the last item in his act. Before it came a series of hilarious sketches of suburban characters: the love-sick tram conductor, the incompetent blacksmith, the sea-sick sailor, and a succession of delightfully eccentric elderly ladies.
;Our Theatre magazine hailed him as ‘a wonder! He has only to stand still, look at the audience in an unsophisticated manner, and the latter will smile, then laugh until it loses self-control, and lands on the verge of convulsions.
Harry Taft, an American comedian who shared the bill with Little Tich, recalled one boisterous matinee when the star, with one boot on and one off, walked to the footlights and said ‘I am used to playing to ladies and gentlemen, not to a mob of hooligans’. Then he walked off. After the afternoon papers’ headlines screamed, ‘Little Tich Insults Australian Audiences’, Tich had misgivings about what sort of reception he would get at the evening performance. He needn’t have worried. Taft said, ‘They took an immediate liking to him, and he made one of the most successful appearances of his career. I know how big it was because I was on the Circuit with him for twelve weeks.’ Taft remembered an awkward few moments in Melbourne at the end of Little Tich’s season: ‘The people clamored for a speech. Rickards begged him to go on and say a few words, but the little chap refused, so Harry pushed me on to start my act. What an uproar! Some yelled for Tich, a few gave me a little encouragement, and everybody let their lung-power go its hardest. The roar put the wind up the conductor and, as he stopped everything, I had no other option but to walk off, leaving my toy prop horse behind. Harry begged me to wait a few moments “till they cool down”, but I had another peep out at that sea of enthusiastic humanity, and advised him to wait himself and then go on and sing one of his coster songs, which he did.’ Little Tich returned to the Tivoli in 1926. Now he was sixty and his big boots and silly songs were no longer wanted. In Sydney he was tolerated, but his reception in Melbourne was uncharacteristically hostile. Master photographer Jack Cato was in the audience that fateful night. ‘There was a rough hooligan element in the house,’ he recalled, ‘and his type of humor was new to them and his characters unknown. They were disappointed, and they threw pennies to him. As he continued, more and more pennies came at him, until he stood in a ring of them. It was a tragedy; they broke his heart. He had come on the stage cocky, perky and full of beans; he left it a shrunken old man, bewildered and heartbroken. Poor, tiny, sensitive little man; he never recovered his self esteem.’ Tich returned to London but his spirit was broken. He gave his last performance in November 1927, and died three months later.
A book available is: Little Tich, Giant of the Music Hall by Mary Tich and Richard Findlater. It was published in 1979 by Elm Tree Books, London.
There are two Little Tich tracks on a CD called ‘Glory of the Music Hall, Volume 3’ – Flapper PACSCD-9476. There is another on ‘Gems of the Music Hall’, Flapper PASTCD-7005, and still another on ‘Golden Years of Music Hall’ on Saydisc SDL-380.