THE Christmas pantomime is an essential element of family entertainment in the festive season.

Although pantomime has roots going back to ancient Rome, its current form - for example the pantomime dame, the principal boy played by a young woman, celebrity guest stars, the audience participation and its risky double entendre - is a relatively recent development of the past 125 years or so.

In modern times Bradford has had a strong pantomime tradition that can be related directly to the famous impresario Francis Laidler (1867-1955) who created the Alhambra Theatre, which opened in 1914. The so-called King of Pantomime managed over 250 productions, not just 52 in in Bradford, but many more in major cities across the country.

There was, however, an earlier tradition of theatre - marionette theatre, based on puppets controlled from above using wires or strings by puppeteers using a vertical or horizontal control bar. Although this entertainment, too, had its origins in Classical times, it became very popular in the mid-19th century in theatres and fairs. In Bradford lived one of its best-known exponents.

Walter Calver (1830-1866) was for a generation or so a very popular entertainer and showman. He travelled across the north of England with his troupe of up to 500 marionettes (from 14 ins to four ft tall). Although he was born and brought up in Hull, he married and settled in Bradford.

Travelling fairs had many other attractions such as shooting galleries, photo studios, sparring booths, the circus, freak shows and curiosities. For instance, at a Bradford summer fair in 1861 living wonders were exhibited in the shape of ‘a horse with seven feet, a calf with six legs two stomachs and the formation of a second head, a dog with a bird’s claw growing from its leg, and the usual ‘learned pig’!

Walter travelled with his wife, Elizabeth, and family (eventually eight children) to fairs from town to town entertaining crowds with his marionettes. They presented shortened versions of the latest popular entertainment, from melodramas and pantomimes to minstrel shows and music hall.

What did a marionette look like? Unfortunately, we don’t have examples or photographs of Calver’s troupe of marionettes, but the V&A has two examples.

The first is one of 35 from the Tiller-Clowes troupe, one of the last Victorian marionette troupes in England. Carved, painted, dressed and performed by members of the company, this example is a trick figure dressed in its original costume. It has three heads which fit inside the neck and would have been raised for comic effect. It is based on the boastful character Scaramouche from the Italian knockabout comedy called Commedia dell’Arte.

The second is known as Chorus Tommy, a character that Calver did use, who was a sailor who had been press ganged and had lost a leg and an eye. He had to turn to busking to make a living.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Chorus Tommy marionetteChorus Tommy marionette (Image: V&A)

Surviving advertisements show the range of Calver’s repertoire, Take 1863 for example. In January he performed a new pantomime called Blue Beard at the Market Place in Bradford before moving across to Manchester where he also produced the drama The Miller and his Men. A month later, still in Manchester he performed Babes in the Wood.

Then in May 1863 Calver performed at a fair in Sheffield where he was joint top of the bill with his marionettes, alongside Taylor’s Theatre and Mickey Bent’s sparring booth. In November he came back to the Sheffield Peoples Fair, where the main attractions were Mander’s collection of wild beasts, and Calver’s marionettes.

Finally at Christmas itself, Calver entertained children at the Bradford Union Workhouse in Little Horton that had opened in 1852 and much later, after World War One, became St Luke’s Hospital.

In 1864 his show continued at the Leeds Royal Park Whitsuntide festival, in May, and his 29th annual visit to the fairground to Leeds cattle market, indicating that he must have attended from an early age!

One year later, in April 1865, it was advertised that ‘Calver’s mammoth marionette theatre’ would be paying its annual visit to Manchester and other towns that year. Calver had built a new portable theatre capable of seating 1,000 people, with reserved seats, a pit, and ‘commodious’ gallery.

Calver announced that he intended to retire from the business at the end of the season when the whole of the valuable exhibition would be sold. Maybe he was now feeling the strain!

He died in 1866 aged just 36 and was buried at Undercliffe Cemetery, but never to be joined by his widow and children. Elizabeth soon re-married and the local press stated that Elizabeth Calver was the proprietor of the marionettes, but we do not know how just long she carried in the business.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Walter's grave at Undercliffe CemeteryWalter's grave at Undercliffe Cemetery (Image: Martin Greenwood)

By the 1881 Census, however, we do know that she was working as a weaver in a local mill after becoming a widow for a second time.

* Martin Greenwood’s book Every Day Bradford provides a story for each day of the year about people, places and events from Bradford’s history.

It is available from online stores including Amazon and bookshops such as Waterstones.