Vocalist, humourist, pianist and monologist Charles Blondin Gammon was born in 1867, in Lambeth, South London. His father William was a railway traffic agent who hailed from Canterbury and Charles initially followed in his father’s footsteps and into work as a clerk with the London & South Western Railway Co. He then moved on to similar positions with the South Eastern Railway Co. and the London and Blackwall Railway Co.
As an amateur he started out as a church organist at Wimbledon. He was then a choirmaster and he joined the chorus of a light opera company for a while. However, it was at the piano that he found his forte. He started entertaining at charitable events, private parties, smoking concerts, penny readings, bohemian concerts and the like and in sports pavilions, assembly rooms, orphanages, institutes and ballrooms.Naturally quick-witted, he introduced topical patter and monologues into his act and began to appear at lesser provincial music halls and some of the more prestigious concert halls in London; Steinway Hall, Victoria Hall, and St. George’s Hall.
On 19th June 1899, still listed as a railway official, Charles became a Freemason. He was initiated into Benevolentia Lodge No. 2549. In October 1901, and still listed as a railway official, he was accepted as a joining member of Era Lodge No. 1423 which met at Twickenham, although fees were never paid and the process was never completed. He did however join Benevolentia Chapter No. 2549 and was exalted in November 1909.
His first notable professional engagement as a pianist was with the magician John Nevil Maskelyne and the cabinet maker cum illusionist George Cooke during the time they worked together as ‘Maskelyne & Cooke’ at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly. Magician David Devant was another member of the company and when John and David moved to St. George’s Hall in 1905 and teamed up as ‘Maskelyne & Devant’ Barclay stayed with the new partnership. In 1908 he was engaged for their ‘Maskelyne & Devant Mysteries’ tour of Australia and New Zealand. Barclay was credited with making a great success of the tour which might otherwise have failed as neither Maskelyne nor Devant appeared with the Company in person during the tour.
Billed simply as ‘Barclay Gammon and a Piano’ he enjoyed great success and his eventual appearance at Alfred Butt’s Palace Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue really established his reputation. He soon became a great favourite there with his musical sketches and patter. A contemporary report reads “Alfred Butt the showman sandwiched the novelties at the Palace with regular favourites. One of the greatest of these, in every sense of the word, was Barclay Gammon. A very big man in evening dress, he sat at a piano and sang to us, and the Palace could never have enough of him. He was there, with very slight absences, for years”.
When plans to hold the first ever Royal Command Performance at Edward Moss’s Empire Theatre in Edinburgh had to be abandoned in 1911 because of a fire a month before the show, Alfred Butt’s Palace Theatre was chosen as the alternative venue for the event which eventually took place on July 1st 1912. As an almost resident entertainer there it was no surprise that Barclay was chosen to be one of the ‘named’ artistes to appear before the King and Queen. He was already billed as a ‘Society Entertainer’ and thereafter billed himself as ‘The Royal Entertainer’.
The following year, although it seems a bizarre notion in today’s world, he appeared at the Queen’s Hall in a smoking concert that was organised by Middlesex Hospital students in aid of the Cancer Charity. In 1914 Barclay Gammon’s name was coupled with the impresario and theatre manager Frank Allen’s ambitious plans to provide a vaudeville circuit on board ocean liners. Frank influenced a change in the original design of the Cunard ship RMS Aquitania during its fitting out to include a 1500 seat theatre in the same style as his London Hippodrome.
On 29th May, the eve of the liner’s maiden voyage, ‘Barclay and his Grand Piano’ was among a stellar line-up that entertained on this inaugural launch of what was to come. Frank planned to present full scale variety and vaudeville, and even opera, instead of the more usual but more moderate concert parties.
The Great War interrupted plans a few months later and RMS Aquitania was pressed into service, but that event in May 1914 proved a successful initiative and was the precursor of the more professional entertainment arrangements that are now widely accepted and expected as part of the ocean cruise ship experience. Charles Blondin Gammon died on 2nd June 1915 aged 48.