The crocodile handler who performed on the Hartlepool stage - with snakes around her neck

What do Churchill the crocodile, Koringa the snake handler, a 12-year-old lion tamer and a three-legged duck have in common?

Monday, 20th June 2022, 4:55 am

The answer is – they all appeared in touring shows in Hartlepool.

Graeme Harper is back with another of his intriguing examinations of the town’s past.

This time, he looks at the bizarre and exotic acts that appeared on stage.

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Graeme Harper's latest research looks at the animal acts which performed on Hartlepool stages, particularly in Lynn Street.

In their heyday, the theatres around Lynn Street were home to visiting animal shows of all descriptions.

These would feature wild animals that had been trained to perform on stage. It was a branch of entertainment which was fraught with obvious danger.

In July 1951, a local variety bill was headlined by ‘Koringa – described as ‘the only girl fakir in the world’.

Koringa’s exotic act mostly consisted of handling snakes and crocodiles. Her leading crocodile was called Churchill and a highlight of the performance was when Koringa hypnotised the huge beast and stood on his head whilst wearing a necklace of live serpents.

A view of Lynn Street at the junction of Musgrave Street with the Empire Theatre pictured.

The show ended with her being buried in a snake-infested sand pit.

Other acts on that night’s bill included Bobby Burns from the’ Ministry of Mirth’, and xylophonist Krazy Kliff Kranton - ‘the Furious Funster.’

A night to remember for sure.

Koringa was publicised as a snake charmer who had been orphaned at the age of three and raised by fakirs who taught her in the ways of oriental sorcery.

The Robert Brothers circus was appearing at the Emipre Theatre in 1957.

In reality she was born as Renee Bernard in France and was discovered by the Mills brothers circus when they witnessed her dancing on razor blades and hot coals.

However, she branched out into the world of animal shows and continued with her own exotic brand of reptilian wizardry until her retirement in 1968.

Another extraordinary female performer was Ellen Sanger who also appeared under the name Madame Pauline De Vere, the Lion Queen.

She originated a show called ‘Miss Ella’s Educated Lions’ that came to the town’s Palace Theatre in 1905. Her claim to fame was that she was the first woman to put her head inside a lion’s mouth.

A parade passing through Lynn Street in the early 1900s with the sign for the 'Palace' in the distance.

She was also a favourite of Queen Victoria and was known to give the long-reigning monarch private shows. Sanger claimed that she was more nervous about meeting the Queen than she was poking her head into the jaws of a lion.

Female lion tamers had become a popular attraction, but one nearly met a sticky end during a performance in Hartlepool in 1891 when she tripped whilst in the lions’ cage and was pounced on. Luckily, by using her whip she recovered and carried on to loud cheers from the audience.

The unfortunate trainer was Mademoiselle Sherizade who toured with Bostock & Wombwell’s Gigantic Double Menagerie, Museum and

Exhibition of Strange and Curious People.

She starred alongside two other lion tamers: Sargano and Captain Rowley. The highlight of their act involved their star lion Prince riding a horse.

Hartlepool was an unlucky town for lion tamers.

The Wonders of the World exhibition which came to Hartlepool.

In November 1894, the exotically named Martini Bartlett was grabbed on his way out of the cage and had to be rescued by circus workers bearing hot irons.

Possibly the most renowned lion tamer of his day was Herr Julius Seeth who brought his animals to town in 1895 for a performance at the Alhambra. The theatre manager was so thrilled to have him perform that he presented Herr Seeth with a specially inscribed gold medal in recognition of the event.

Another internationally famous animal trainer was Birmingham-born John Cooper who visited Hartlepool as part of Myers Circus in June 1881. Cooper had followed a traditional route into the industry by running away from home and joining a circus as a child.

Cooper claimed to have been the world’s youngest lion tamer, having taken up the profession aged 12, by which time he had already lost a finger. He lived to the age of 87 and put his longevity as a performer down to being teetotal, believing that most dangerous incidents were down to intemperance.

Not all animal shows were as perilous as those involving big cats

In June 1950 the Wonders of the World exhibition appeared at Mill House. It advertised a five-legged sheep, a three–legged duck, a five-footed dog and a cat with six paws.

’All these animals are alive and well worth seeing’, said the promotion.. Among the more standard exhibits were a pigtail ape called Sunny, and a giant octopus.

Our thanks go once again to Graeme for his insight into Hartlepool’s past. Watch out for more in the weeks to come.

In the meantime, why not catch up on some of the other stories he has shared with us.

There was the story of the Hartlepool department store which had its own zoo.

Then there was the tale of the dead elephant which was found at Seaton beach.

Or how about the day we told how Hartlepool had its own version of the Loch Ness Monster?

And lastly, what about the auction of a kangaroo, bear, a monkey, and a rat coypu.

Go to our website to discover more.

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