Harry Relph

Harry Relph

20, Peter Street, Milton in Gravesend, Kent

Name

Relation to Head of Family

Condition as to Marriage

Age last birthday

Rank, profession or occupation

Where born

Richard Relph

Head

M

90

Formerly innkeeper

Fawkham, Kent

Mary Relph

Wife

M

46

Wife of above

Ireland

William Relph

Son

U

46

Labourer

Fawkham, Kent

Amelia Relph

Daur

U

24

 

Eynsford, Kent

Robert Relph

Son

U

16

 

Cudham, Kent

Harry Relph

Son

U

13

Actor

Cudham, Kent

Herbert Robins

Grandchild

U

13

 

Milton next Gravesend, Kent

He isn't going back to the barber's shop; not again. He practises on his picco , a superior tin-whistle, and then returns to his letter. Somewhere the owner of a hall will want him; somehow he will scratch together the cash for the journey. Backstage, there may be nothing but a smashed fragment of mirror for him to check his face, which will be coated with burnt cork. The men in Chatham have told him it will be rough; that his stomach will screw itself up in a hungry knot; that he will have to doss down in dingy rooms, or even sleep in corners, where, tiny and grimy, he will look like a lost toddler. His father, ill and fading like a well-worn sheet, has told him his sister Agnes must leave her job as a servant in Gravesend, and act as his chaperone. Harry Relph grits his teeth. It won't be him who needs the chaperone.

Harry Relph was the sixteenth and final child of Richard Relph, who had for many years run a public house called The Blacksmith's Arms in Cudham, which is near Sevenoaks, in Kent. What looks like an enumerator's error is actually quite correct: his father had been seventy-seven when Harry was born on 21 July, 1867. Mary Relph, probably née Moorefield, was his father's second wife. Harry was her eighth child; his oldest half-sibling was thirty-six years older. Richard Relph was to die later the same year, aged 91. His son Harry was by then already well on his way to securing his reputation as a performer. He is better known to us as Little Tich.

Little Tich looks like a tautology, but it was actually Harry Relph himself who gave the language the word tich, in the sense of tiny, helped on its way by the sixteenth-century word tit which meant a small horse, and the later prefixes (titmouse, tom-tit, and so on). And yet, ironically enough, Tich was never intended to describe Harry Relph's height at all (he was 4 feet, 6 inches tall). He adopted it as his stage-name because he was plump as a child, podgy, in fact, like the very overweight fraudster Arthur Orton, The Tichborne Claimant. Orton, a.k.a. Thomas Castro, had been the subject of two lengthy court cases (103 days and 188 days) in 1871. Orton had claimed to be the missing child sought by the wife of a wealthy baronet, Lady Tichborne, who could not believe her son - and heir - had drowned. Orton took Lady Tichborne in, but not the rest of her family; he sued the trustees of the estate he hoped to acquire. When the first case failed, he was in turn arrested for perjury, found guilty, and sentenced to fourteen years' penal servitude. By now, Orton had grown to a colossal twenty-eight stones, and the word Tichborne was synonymous with being fat.

Harry Relph had been fat enough as a child to be called a Young Tichborne by audiences, from whom he stole the sobriquet. But it was soon after 1881 that Harry Relph adjusted his professional moniker. The Claimant case was history; Orton had even been released. From 1884, he would become Little Tich, a trim figure - no surprise, given the high-voltage energy of his act. At the time of the census, he had only just turned professional. He had been obliged by his father to leave school at the age of ten, in 1877, and had originally worked in a barber's, lathering the customer's faces. But he had entertained the pub audiences as a child - until the family moved, when he was aged seven, from rural Cudham to the port of Gravesend. In 1879, he found he could earn some welcome pennies as an act - a tin-whistler, a clog-dancer, and a singer - in the local pubs. He had been performing up to thirty times a night, and had followed fashion by blacking up for his act. Now he was ready to travel the country as an entertainer.

Harry Relph attracted attention for another reason. He had been born with an extra finger on each hand. This was to cause him distress and embarrassment throughout his life, just as his short stature did. Yet there is no doubting that it was the making of him. It appealed to the sentimental streak in his audiences. They wanted to mother him, as did the many women he attracted later in life. He even advertised himself as possessing four extra fingers. Yet when audiences applauded the miniature man with the deformed hands, they had been seduced by more than his physical quirks. Harry Relph - Little Tich - had dazzling talent.

Some stage performers are too big for their boots. Little Tich's boots were, in one sense, too big for him. In the late 1880s, he was to develop, during an American tour, his trademark Big Boot dance. Gradual experiment led him to use boots which were twenty-eight inches long. He could tap them; he could flap them. He could lean over at seemingly impossible angles with them on. He could even pirouette, walking on their tips. They were the act upon which the audience insisted, the act which took him to the top of the professional tree. They were his bane. He had a huge repertoire of characters, dances, routines, songs, all of which delighted theatres and halls across America and Europe. But sooner or later, they wanted to see him perform with his boots.


Harry Relph as Little Tich in 1890

 

Harry Relph's private life was extraordinary. Of his colossal family, he only maintained amicable relations with his sister Agnes (at the time of the census, working as a servant in Gravesend), who was quite close to his own age. His first wife, whom he met in America, was called Laurie Brooks. They married in Illinois in January1889; ten months later, they had a son, Paul, back in England. For a brief period, the family were next-door neighbours of Dan Leno, with whom Little Tich had appeared onstage in 1890. In 1897, Harry came back to his London home to find that Laurie had vanished. She had left him - and Paul - for another man. She also stripped their house of its possessions.

Within about a year, he had a new partner, a Spanish dancer called Julia Récio; he married Julia quietly in 1904, when news arrived that Laurie had died. Julia was apparently eleven years his junior; years later, when Julia died, Harry discovered that she was actually ten years older than she had claimed. Both Julia and Harry lived separate lives, even to the extent of furnishing their home (two flats) in different styles. They had no children, but Julia brought up Paul's daughter Constance, and Roudy Knoepper, the orphaned nephew of Harry's dresser, as her own. For much of the year, they were joined by Julia's niece, another Julia, whose mother had also died young. It later transpired that Constance was passed off by Julia as her own child by Harry.

Harry, meanwhile, supporting this extended family on his considerable income, also maintained a series of brief relationships with women he called his concubines. And then, in 1915, he fell for Win Ivey, a 23-yearold singer who was appearing opposite him as Principal Boy in Sinbad The Sailor at the Royal Court Theatre, Liverpool. Harry was Sinbad. He set Win up in a London flat, and, in early 1918, Win Ivey had Harry's daughter, Mary. By this time he had become estranged from his own son, Paul, with whom he was never in contact after 1916.

For over a decade, Harry therefore maintained two households. Unknown to him, so did his wife Julia, who had a long affair with one of Harry's closest friends, Emile Footgers. It is possible that Harry Relph was more aware than he admitted of the deceptions and counter-deceptions in his domestic life, and that he accepted them rather than the possible scandal which might follow their disclosure. When Julia died suddenly in 1926, how much was discovery - Julia's affair, her age - and how much was no revelation at all is open to question. In an odd echo of the departure of his first wife, his home was once again stripped of its possessions, either by the servants, or more likely by Footgers. Significantly, he brushed this aside. He would only have had to get rid of the possessions himself, he claimed.

Only now was Harry able to live with, and marry Win Ivey; only now was he able to become Mary's father - until then, he had been passed off as Uncle Harry. He moved into the house in Brent which he had only that year helped Win to purchase. There followed the first two years of domestic, and indeed financial stability that Harry had known in his life. These were cut tragically short after an onstage accident - Little Tich clouted himself with a mop during some stage business, and the resulting thrombosis led to a stroke. After three months of paralysis, unable to communicate, Harry Relph died on February 10th, 1928.

Little Tich had an extraordinarily long and lucrative career, and - unlike Dan Leno - he was successful overseas, perhaps most especially in France. He was also astute enough not to confine himself to pantomime, and he had enough energy to keep almost constantly on the move, creating new characters, developing new stage creations. He also had the nous not to return too quickly to the sites of his greatest triumphs. His schedules were punishing. Yet he defies any stereotype of a music-hall performer. He learned four languages; he was well-read; he played the 'cello; he was a skilled water-colourist. Onstage, his rapport with the audience was a matter of expert clowning, of sudden turns of phrase, of fighting with objects and costumes which seemed to turn on him. He was a tremendous physical presence, too, a genuine acrobat. But it was also a question of personality. He unlocked the sentimental, benevolent laughter that lay deep in all but his most oikish audiences. He stood his ground, too. On several occasions, he cut short an act if he felt his audience were working against him - cut short an entire tour to Australia after they booed his refusal to revive the Big Boots routine in 1927.

An autobiography appeared in 1911, but it was ghosted, and consists of a variety of gags. Its opening, facetious as it is, is curiously revealing in its vagueness:

I was born (to the best of my recollection) some years ago today. Being one of a family which numbered several others, I was not an only child. I was a child only. How well I cannot remember the ivy clustering round the moss- grown churn! How vividly I fail to recall the honeysuckle - and the bee!

Little Tich goes on to insist, with pride, that he was born in Cudham, near Sevenoaks. Cudham and his childhood, however, were left far behind in his real life. Harry Relph never went back. His whole life was a movement forward from the freak-show at The Blacksmith's Arms towards the absolute artistry, the consummate acting of his shows. He loathed the snobbery of England:

This country is supposed to be more democratic than ever it was. yet the line of demarcation between variety artistes and actors is, in this respect, drawn as rigidly as ever. No such division is made in France or in America. There an actor is an actor, whether he plays Hamlet or wears the red nose and sloppy trousers of a vaudeville comedian.

 

Sources :

Little Tich by Little Tich

Little Tich, Giant Of The Music Hall, by Mary Tich and Richard Findlater,

Hamish Hamilton, 1979

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