Tracking one family across Europe to New York
MANY YEARS AGO, in the course of researching my own family tree, I stumbled across an entry in the 1881 UK census that set me on the trail of a Sheldon family of five listed as boarders at an address in the city of Stoke upon Trent, Staffordshire.
The occupations of four of them was given as ‘performer’.
They were James Sheldon, aged 48 and born in Birmingham, his wife Caterline (sic), 38, also said to be born in Birmingham, though that turned out not to be the case, and sons Alfred, 13, and Charles, 11. There was a third child, Frances, a daughter, whose age was given as six months.
My interest was further piqued by the different places of birth listed for each of the children, Alfred in Berlin, Germany; Charles in Lubeck, Germany; and Frances in Amsterdam, Holland.
The census of 1881 was taken on the night of 2nd April and a search through contemporary editions of the local newspaper, the Staffordshire Sentinel, began to cast more light on the family.
The Sentinel dated Friday 18th March (price: one halfpenny) revealed that “The Famous Sheldon Family (three in number)” had been engaged for the opening of the Grand Circus Season the following evening at Mark Gow’s Imperial Cirque in Glass Street, Hanley.
An entry in William A Neale’s book entitled Old Theatres of the Potteries gave a few more details, recounting that the Imperial Cirque had recently been taken over by Mark Dow, a gentleman of great experience in the equestrian world. The programme for the re-opening on 19 March included “the famed Sheldon family of equestrians”.
Also on the bill were the vampires Thomas and James, along with “Beautiful Horses, Artistic Riders, Charming Lady Artists, Well bred Animals, Astounding Acrobats and Comical Clowns”.
Herr Sheldon and his family of acrobats
The Era, a weekly national newspaper focusing on theatres, actors, music hall and related subjects, in its edition of Saturday 26th March 1881, also reported on the re-opening, declaring that Mr Mark Dow had taken on a lease and, after undergoing complete renovation, opened on Saturday last in the presence of an immense audience.
“The interior has been fitted with a lime-light apparatus. Mr Dow, with great judgment, has chosen an admirable company to inaugurate his season here. It comprises Adair, a wonderfully clever gymnast; Monsieur Leroni, contortionist, who is styled ‘the man serpent’; Mademoiselle Ella, Queen of Clubs; the Finette-Raymur troupe, clever acrobats; the Vampires (Thomas and James), who are excellent pantomimists; Herr Sheldon and family, acrobats, who furnish an entertainment in themselves; and the Orford Family.
It added: “The equestrian portion of the entertainment is very good.”
Why James should be referred to as Herr Sheldon was the immediate question that sprang to mind.
Some time elapsed before the next scrap of information was revealed, the German birth record of second son Charles, found on the Family Search website, where his birth was recorded for 6th February 1870 in Lubeck.
His name is recorded as Carl Friedrich Bernhard Sheldon, father James Sheldon and mother Katharina Gotze.
Efforts to find the birth record for Alfred have so far drawn a blank.
A search of Dutch records failed to find birth details for Frances but did reveal two other children, Rose, born on 23 August 1882 in Rotterdam, and Elbert (Albert) on 15th September 1884 in Nijmegen. The surnames are recorded as Scheldon.
James’s occupation is given as “kunstenaar”, or artist, in the record for Elbert.
It would seem that by then the family were settled in Rotterdam because James’s death is recorded there on 18 September 1891. The entry is brief, merely recording his spouse’s name as Katharina Gotze and that his father’s name was also James Sheldon.
The passing of Katharina is also recorded in Rotterdam, on 15th September 1900.
Rose died young, aged just 30, in Rotterdam on 18th February 1912.
The focus switches to America
The 1910 US census lists on Second Avenue in the borough of Manhattan a Charles Sheldon, a nationalised citizen, born in Germany in 1870, married to Mary, who was born in Ireland, and having one child, a son, Francis, born in New York in 1901.
Charles had migrated to the States in 1887. His occupation is given as a timberman working in tunnel construction, while his wife is working as a hotel cleaner. His father’s birthplace is given as Germany, which is at odds with James’s declaration in the 1881 UK census of having been born in Birmingham.
There is also a US immigration record for Albert, which states that he arrived in the States on 25 November 1907, at the port of Black Rock, in Buffalo, New York, and gives his occupation as an electrician. His birthplace is given as Nymegen, Holland, but he declares his nationality to be English. His height is given as 5ft 4ins, his complexion is fair, and he has brown eyes and hair.
The record shows that he intended to become a permanent US resident but that he had no address to go to. He had arrived on the steamship Sicilinda with $11 in his pocket. He gives his last permanent address as McDougalls Centre, Canada.
The record is part of a collection relating to Canadian border crossings covered by the district office of the US Immigration and Nationalisation Service at St Albans, Vermont.
A further record of Albert’s arrival Stateside shows that he arrived in New York on the Sicilinda on March 18.
The McDougalls Centre in Calgary was Alberta’s first training school for teachers when it opened in 1908. It is regarded as an excellent example of the Renaissance Revival style of architecture.
Thereafter, Albert’s trail also goes cold.
Of Alfred and Frances no further traces have yet been found.
There is no record of a James Sheldon being born in Birmingham in 1833, but there is one that fits in neighbouring West Bromwich, where James Sheldon was christened on 10th November 1833 at All Saints Church.
His parents are recorded as James and Mary, which fits with other details we know about James. There are no further entries for this particular James either in subsequent census or marriage records.
Persuing James’s performing career
The Era newspaper throws up a few more small clues about the career James may have pursued as a performer. Its issue of 25 December 1870 has an entry relating to Carlisle, where, noting that in Adams’s Grand Circus “Mr Sheldon appeared in his balancing act, and was well received”.
The issue of 1st December 1872 has an item headed “Amusements in Hamburg and Berlin
(From our own correspondent): HAMBURG – J. W. Myers opened his new and elegant Cirque on Saturday, 16 November and had a crowded audience.
“The building is constructed to accommodate 5,000 persons. It is very prettily decorated, and brilliantly lighted.
“The company includes Mesdames Rose Madigan, Myers, Bonfanti, Studley, Felix, Cashmore, and Gotz; Messrs. James Madigan, George Delevanti, Harry Thorpe, Sam Dolevanti, Harry Warde, Percy Stansbury, Fred. Felix, Ike Cashmore, Naudmann, Gotz, Haydn, J. and P. 0llando, W. Harmston and his wonderful son, Charles and John Madigan, Master Delevanti, Mr. John Cooper (lion and elephant trainer), the Hoginis, Harry Bonfanti, J. Sheldon, the wondrous Carl, and John Delevanti.
“The performing mules have created roars of laughter. The elephants have astonished all who have seen them. Mr. Maurice is Business Manager, and Mr. John Delevanti Director of the Cirque, the band being under the conductorship of Mr. Studley.
That both the Sheldon and Gotz names appear on the list of performers could be significant.
Back in Stoke upon Trent, the Staffordshire Sentinel of 11 January 1881 has this entry:–
“Harmston’s Circus – There seems to be a well-sustained effort by the proprietor of the circus in Tontine-street, that the programme shall not lack in interest. This week we have another spectacle, the entertainment concluding with an exciting military and barbaric scene, entitled The Zulu War, and capture of King Cetewayo, in which 80 people are said to be engaged. In this piece we have reproduced on a small scale some of the more tragical events which took place in South Africa some months ago, and with which every one is more or less familiar. The synopsis of the events is as follows: – The arrival of the British forces in Zululand –meeting of the Zulu tribes–arrival of Cetewayo –the King’s address –revenge –burning of the Zulu women –departure for the war –battle of Isandula –the battlefield by moonlight –the English colours saved –imposing tableau –Molly Moloney among the Zulus -the battle of Ulundi –defeat of the Zulus –capture of King Cetewayo –final tableau. The piece is well received.
“There are plenty of other items in the entertainment besides the above; for instance, there is still the successful equestrian pantomime of O’Donoghue; or, the White Horse of Killarney and the Chamed Lily, in which are introduced the pretty fairy ballet and laughable harlequinade. Among the other sources of entertainment in the extraordinary gymnastic evolutions on the aerial bars, by Monsieur and Mademoiselle de Vere; the Trojan Youths, in their Olympean revelry on two horses, as illustrated by Mr. G. and Mr. T. Yelding; Herr Sheldon, in his drawing-room entertainment; Funny Little Bell, in one of his laughter-provoking interludes, Ac. A continuance of such a programme is certain to ensure good houses.”
Circus was big business in Victorian Britain. To find out more about its history, follow these links: