Blind performer Martin William Henderson was born in Cullercoats, Northumberland in 1881. His parents had their own challenges with hearing and speech but by overcoming all the difficulties that arose, Martin was able to pursue a successful music hall career billed as the ‘Blind Musical Marvel’ or ‘The Concertina King’. As well as the concertina he played the oboe, piano and organ.
He could also play chess, all skills that he learnt as part of his education at the Royal Normal College for the Blind at Upper Norwood, on the outskirts of South London. He started to appear locally around North Shields and Whitley Bay and among his last appearances before his career drew him further afield were smoking concerts at the Grand Hotel Tynemouth in aid of the Tynemouth Rowing Club and he appeared at the North Shields Central Palace of Varieties on the night of January 3rd 1900, the night it was destroyed by fire.
Soon afterwards he was taken up by the Moss Stoll circuit and toured with them for over six years from the turn of the 20th century and in 1907/08 he had a very successful seven month tour of Australia for Harry Rickard.
The Sydney Echo reported thus “…..he played a brief solo upon the piano, after which he gave a duet of exceeding beauty upon the piano and the concertina………he swept the keys of the former with his left hand and manipulated the concertina with his right………in response to augmented applause he illustrated medley methods in the use of the concertina, choosing ‘The Blue Bells of Scotland’ for his theme………his melodious rendering was so heartily appreciated that he was compelled to submit to an encore, for which he gave an imitation of a church organ, his illustration of the ringing of church bells was decidedly realistic and his imitation of a school bell was droll in the extreme. The audience could ‘Hear the Pipers Calling’ when he produced Scottish bagpipe music upon the concertina, for which he obtained another recall“.
He had travelled to Sydney via Freemantle on board RMS Omrah from Tilbury and on December 9th 1907 he opened at the Tivoli Theatre for Harry Rickards who was reported as saying “Apart from his talents as a musician he is particularly bright and pleasing looking, ‘his eyes are open’ ” remarked Mr Rickards “and when he named his salary, I assure you he opened my eyes as well, but he was so good I had to close the bargain“. On the trip out he entertained at two concerts and the passengers were so delighted that they subscribed to strike a special medal as a commemoration of the voyage, as one commentator remarked “Every one of his pianoforte selections is performed as a result of repeated readings from the score by Mrs Henderson and memorised until he can play thus perfectly from the score he has never had a chance of seeing”.
He further endeared himself, to Sydney audiences at least, when he disrupted the schedule to arrange a special concert for the folk of the Blind Institute in that City. Martin’s education at the Royal Normal College had also included training in physical and sensory skills such that when he returned home from Australia he was able to take part in a boxing match with the gymnast and clown Jim Obo as part of the entertainment on an outing of the Terriers Association…….and won!
Afterwards Jim said he had not taken the fight seriously, he intended to play the fool for a few rounds before finishing Martin off and they could all go home. Martin however did take it seriously; there were 50 guineas at stake which he wanted for charity. After the fight he said that after he had landed one decent punch square on Jim’s nose he knew he was rattled and getting more and more frustrated. Martin could sense every footfall as Jim pranced around him, he could feel and hear, and even smell Jim’s arms flailing around through the air. He could in fact ‘see’ every punch coming. His wife would probably have been equally aware of his physical and sensory skills as she bore him eight children.
Martin always took a great interest in the Variety Artistes’ Benevolent Fund & Institution at Brinsworth House and had contributed £2/10/00 in 1911 to help pay off the mortgage and thus become one of the ‘Noble Six Hundred’. He remained an active participant and contributor to that and many other charitable causes.
Martin was initiated into Chelsea Lodge No. 3098 on 17th June 1910. He was initiated by Alfred William Henry Beales who had started his working life as a draper’s assistant but had become a music hall performer, agent and theatre manager professionally known as Harry Bawn. With his touring days over Martin moved back to the North-East and resigned from Chelsea Lodge on 27th February 1922.
Exactly one month later he was accepted as a joining member of Lord Armstrong Lodge No. 3074 at Whitley Bay at which time he was listed as a confectioner. He became the Lodge organist and in 1932 he was a founder of Brier Dene Lodge No. 5344, also at Whitley Bay. He was awarded Northumberland provincial honours as Past Provincial Grand Organist.
On Saturday July 26th 1924 Martin started what was to become an annual busking tour of the town to raise money for local charities. Hoping for £50 to go to the Newcastle Infirmary, he walked the streets playing his concertina non-stop for 12 hours. One report noted that “his handicap in life sits so lightly upon him that it is hard to realise that Martin is sightless“. August 1925 was his second 2nd tour going for £55 to Newcastle Infirmary. It was also in 1925 that he also started along run of radio appearances.
In October 1929 there was a benefit for Martin at the Coliseum, Whitley Bay, to recognise and show appreciation for his services to charity. It was noted that during the previous six years he had raised over £800; the Royal Victoria Infirmary Newcastle alone receiving £400 and other charities receiving a similar amount between them. Martin wasn’t finished yet, he completed ten annual busking tours raising in excess of £1200 with the Variety Artistes’ Benevolent Fund & Institution at Brinsworth House always being well remembered when allocations were made from his endeavours.
Martin died in 1941. His education and training at the Royal Normal College had served him well. The college which had been founded in 1872 still flourishes today. It is now known as Royal National College for the Blind and is based in Hereford.