Arthur Nelson

A representation of Arthur Nelson on a 1851 playbill.

Arthur May Nelson was born in Bristol about 1816 the son of a musician. His career began as an actor in provincial and minor theatres. Married at the age of 19 to Ann Moon, an equestrian circus performer, he had by then specialised as a ‘talking’ or Shakespearean clown working, amongst others, for Parrish’s Theatrical Booth at the traditional annual fairs held in the major towns and cities in early nineteenth century Britain.

In 1842 he was engaged for the first time at Cooke’s Royal Circus being one of three clowns during the summer season. Nelson was a favourite with the Cooke family, one of Britain’s greatest circus dynasties, being engaged by various members of the family during his career. It was with Cooke’s he first adopted Dicky Usher’s benefit stunt of being ‘towed’ by four geese in a washing tub along waterways and on the sea. It was to become a ‘signature’ for his appearance in many towns and cities throughout the country.

It was in 1845, that the ‘stunt’ was to backfire when crowds at Great Yarmouth gathered on a suspension bridge to watch him. One of the chains snapped propelling hundreds into the water causing the death of 78 mostly women and children.

The following year he spent some time in America where he developed his ‘musical novelty’ act to much applause. In future years his ability to use common objects as instruments provided a unique theatrical experience ensured that he was rarely out of work, whether performing as the star attraction, or as an accompaniment to others.

Like all good clowns he moved seamlessly between circus ring and pantomime stage and appeared in a number of London pantomimes in the period 1849-51. In the mid-1850s he was to attempt to move into ‘management’ but this was to prove generally unsuccessful and he returned to performance.

At the age of 44, Nelson was to unexpectedly die from gangrene of the leg while touring with Pablo Fanque’s tented circus. He is buried in Burley cemetery in plot 7814.