Comedian, mimic and vocal humourist, James Pilling was born in 1879 in the Spotland area of Rochdale. The textile industry had been enjoying a boom period at the time and before embarking on his stage career young James followed his father into work in the local silk manufacturing works and cotton mills. Shortly before the turn of the century he made his first stage appearances.
In 1899 and as James P. Ling he was noted demonstrating his skill at mimicking musical instruments at a concert held at Preston Public Hall in aid of The Preston Corps of the St. John’s Ambulance Brigade. He also appeared at the local working men’s clubs and various charity events billed as James P. Ling. In October 1900 he entered a humorous singing contest held at Holmfirth Drill Hall. There were twenty seven entrants, although only ten turned up on the night, and James P. Ling came fourth with his humorous offering entitled ‘A Charity Concert’ and he won ten shillings (50p).
Two months later James entered an Albert Rees’ humorous singing contest at Middlesbrough Town Hall and he came fourth again, this time winning £2. He continued to gain experience by entertaining at venues like Barrow Town Hall where he performed at a concert in aid of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants’ Orphan Fund in 1902. By 1902 he was also performing regularly with Charles Parker’s Æolian Opera Choir & Singers’ Company at Southport Pier, and at Ilfracombe and Scarborough.
With his stage name finally settled at J. P. Ling he started to appear at more notable provincial halls and in 1906 he was first noted in London, at the Palace Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue. James was generally billed as a ‘Versatile Society Entertainer’ or a ‘Versatile Comedian in Vocal Caricatures’ in a career that would span almost forty years. He continued to appear on stage through the Great War and was always happy to make himself available to entertain troops as he did in May 1916 when he was appearing at the Brighton Hippodrome and he entertained alongside Little Tich at the nearby Kitchener Military Hospital.
In the 1920s and 1930s he was also a popular entertainer at masonic festive boards and ladies’ evenings. In 1902 he had married Emma née Woodhouse, the daughter of a boarding house keeper. They had two sons, John and Frank.
James was initiated into Freemasonry at Chelsea Lodge No. 3098 on 15th July 1910. He was also passed at Chelsea in March 1911, but as occasionally happens when one Lodge can assist another, he was raised at Proscenium Lodge No. 3435 in July 1911.
Within four months of being raised, he also became a joining member of Lodge of King Solomon’s Temple No. 3464 in Chester. The raison d’être of that Lodge and the subsequent events that touched Jerusalem in 1924 and came full circle back to England in 1948 make interesting reading. In 1928 he was installed as Worshipful Master of Chelsea Lodge. James was also a member of Chelsea Chapter and was exalted in March 1930. James had settled with his family in Finchley, North London, where died on 26th March 1938.