Matt Brown rediscovers a forgotten local hero, with some unusual talents.
On 2 July 1818, a gentleman by the name of Usher the Clown took to the Thames in a most unlikely vessel -- a boat pulled along by geese.
Usher was a noted entertainer at Astley’s Circus -- Waterloo’s pioneering big top, featured in a previous article. He was used to performing with animals, but nobody had seen a trick quite like this.
The clown entered the water at Blackfriars Bridge. There he stepped into "a machine like a washing tub, drawn by four geese". His honking chariot was then pulled upriver, where it passed beneath the recently completed Waterloo Bridge. Huge crowds cheered his progress.
Geese are notoriously truculent birds, but Usher seems to have managed them well. "For some time they were quite tractable,” reports one newspaper, “...he went on swimmingly, but at times they were quite restless and not easily managed". The fowl-hauled float made it as far as Vauxhall. If truth be told, the craft was probably swept along by the rising tide independently of the geese, but it must still have been a sight to behold.
Usher was a busy clown. Advertisements from the time show him turning his talents to tight-rope, ballet, pantomime, ring magic and posing as the “Anti-Combustable Man Salamander”, who "dances a pas seul on red hot iron, and a hornpipe in a cauldron of boiling lead". In his heyday, Usher drew such an audience that the newspapers noted the number of pickpockets working the crowd. His goosey antics were later repeated with a cat-drawn cart, which trundled 600 yards south from Waterloo Bridge in 1819. Both cat and goose acts were adapted for stage, and widely imitated by other performers.
The great clown, real name Richard Usher, seems to have spent most of his life in the Waterloo area. Much of his career was spent performing in the neighbourhood’s two great venues: Astley’s Theatre and the Coburg (now the Old Vic). He died on 23 September 1843 at his home in Hercules Buildings, Lambeth -- by coincidence the sometime residence of another mercurial Londoner, William Blake. The two may well have known one another.
Although famous in his day, Usher the Clown is now almost entirely forgotten. Perhaps we could recall this genius loci to life in some way for the 2021 Waterloo Festival. His local stunts might be recreated -- though perhaps with humans dressed as geese and tom-cats, and without the cauldron of boiling lead!
Matt Brown is editor-at-large of Londonist.com, a website about London and everything in it. He’s also the author of Everything You Know About London is Wrong (among other books), and has hosted several ‘pub quiz’ events for Waterloo Festival in previous years.