Trumpeter James Donoghue: from the Charge of the Light Brigade to a Victorian Black and White “Midget Minstrel” show

Scale model of James Donoghue. (Alexander's Toy Soldiers:

Scale model of James Donoghue. (Alexander’s Toy Soldiers:

I’ve just spent a week exploring the life and times of the Charger 1064 James Donoghue, a Trumpeter in the 8th Hussars. The journey took me to a rather surprising place – the world of the late Victorian “Black and White Minstrel Shows”. Or rather, of “midget” minstrels – professional child performers.

Like so much that gives me pleasure in researching the lives of the Light Brigade, I had no idea where or when the trip would start. In this case it was a brief comment in a letter in which Donoghue claimed that it was he (and not Martin Lanfried or anyone else) who had sounded the Charge at Balaclava (he didn’t, and neither, almost certainly, did anyone else). And that he had been Lord Cardigan’s Field trumpeter throughout the War (he was Colonel Shewell’s).

So Donoghue was making bold – perhaps even ludicrous – claims. But what turned out to be most intriguing was the comment that at the time of writing (1892), James “O’Donoghue” was working as a “drill-instructor, ‘Midget’ Minstrels” in Newcastle.

A letter from James

A letter from James “O’Donoghue” claiming he sounded the Charge at Balaclava (Newcastle Courant, 16 April 1892).

A number of Chargers (including William Pennington, Nathan Henry, and Joseph Doughton) are known to have made something of a living from “personal appearances”, usually in uniform, and perhaps giving highly melodramatic recitations of Tennyson’s poem. Some acted as living witnesses in support of great dioramas and mechanical models of Crimean battles, some joined in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West shows.

In most cases their participation was the result of penury in later life, but also perhaps the pursuit of a little glory and quite a lot of fun. As one of Donoghue’s obituaries said, having moved in later life from Warrington to the village of Penketh, where he lived in “comparative retirement”, eventually he

…became tired of the quiet life of a village and was engaged by a public entertainer to lecture from town to town on his experiences in the Crimea, in which capacity he was very successful, his graphic description of the dangers and excitement of a military life never failing to interest.

[Warrington Guardian, 21st of November 1894.]

The reality was even more colourful. He had joined  Montague Roby’s Midget Minstrels, a “Christy” or “Coon” show on the lines of the “Black and White Minstrels”. Formed circa 1887, the troupe’s principal selling point was that thy were children and teens (not, incidentally, “dwarves”, as the proprietor often had to stress):

The boys appear in the burnt cork and black hair of the ordinary “nigger” minstrel, whilst the girls are tastefully attired in ordinary short frocks.

[“Roby’s Midget Minstrels”, The Era, 24 January 1891.]

The girls do not, as it is technically termed, “black up,” and for this relief “much thanks,” the blacking being confined to the male members of the troupe. The girls are charmingly costumed in the Minnie Palmer style of dress, while the boys wear Eton suits and extravagantly large white collars. The programme included much the same class of items that generally make up similar entertainments.

[“The Midget Minstrels in Nottingham”, Nottingham Evening Post, 24 November 1891.]

According to R.J. Broadbent’s Annals of the Liverpool Stage, the Minstrels “did wonderful business” in Liverpool for seventeen consecutive weeks from Christmas 1889. Local press coverage over the next few years shows they travelled widely in the following years, including to Nottingham, Halifax, Sunderland, Sheffield, York, Guernsey and London.

A contemporary diary reports:

“there are 16 boys and girls (some about 7 or 8 years old) and they do most wonderful things. Two little girls have most beautiful voices…They sang (the whole troupe) the ‘Anvil Chorus’ out of ‘Il Trovatore’. The best thing was Longfellow’s ‘Excelsior’, which they sang and acted to the life. They had beautiful scenery and everything to make it look real. It looked like a piece of opera. They acted ‘The old Virginey home’ to finish up. So amusing.”

[The Diary of Elizabeth Lee: Growing Up on Merseyside in the Late Nineteenth Century, entry for 2nd of March 1889.]

Programme for a performance of Montague Roby's Midget Minstrels, 1890. James Donoghue was the troupe's

Programme for a performance of Montague Roby’s Midget Minstrels, 1890. James Donoghue was the troupe’s “drill instructor” at this time. Notice the “Grand Opening Chorus” is titled “To Arms! Prepare”. [McCann Collection, Royal Academy of Music.]

It is hard to say exactly what Donoghue did as the Midget Minstrels’ “drill-instructor”, but several of the turns had an obvious military theme. For example, the “Grand Opening Chorus” in 1890 is listed in the programme as “To Arms! Prepare”, which is suggestive. And the finale in 1890-1891, Snooks, is said to have been a humorous romantic sketch involving the heroine’s love for an army lieutenant, on the hunt for an army deserter. Presumably Donoghue, who had been born in a barracks (his father was a soldier in the 5th Dragoon Guards) and had served for more than 15 years, was able to create a degree of verisimilitude to the children’s performances.

James Donoghue treads the boards

But Donoghue’s role was not exclusively in drilling the young actors. According to a number of reports, James Donoghue also appeared on stage as part of the show:


James “O’Donoghue” on stage in Sunderland, 1892.

The Midget Minstrels

…During the evening Miss Freear recited “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” and then introduced Serjeant James O’Donoghue, one of “The Six Hundred.”

[Sunderland Daily Echo, 5 January 1892.]

The Midget Minstrels

…”The Charge of the Light Brigade” is again recited by Miss L.B. Freear, who, at the close, in a few well-chosen remarks, fittingly introduces Sergeant James O’Donoghue, on of the Balaclava heroes, and drill instructor to the Midget Minstrels, who, as field trumpeter to Lord Cardigan on that memorable day, sounded the celebrated charge at which, as the poet says, “all the world wondered.”

[Huddersfield Chronicle, 10 September 1892.]

Some of the local press coverage is quite detailed about Donoghue’s role in the performance, with particular reference often being made to his uniform and medals (“As each medal was named in turn there was a fresh outburst of cheering from the audience”):

The Midget Minstrels in Huddersfield

…Miss Louie B. Freear gave a well emphasised recital of “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” with orchestral effects, and at the close introduced a hero of the charge to the audience in the person of Sergeant James O’Donoghue, late of the 8th Hussars, and now drill instructor to the troupe.

In introducing the veteran – who wore the uniform of his old regiment with the once familiar sling jacket – Miss Freear explained that at the time of the charge Sergeant O’Donoghue was field trumpeter to Lord Cardigan, and therefore sounded the celebrated charge.

On his breast he wore five medals. The first was the Crimean medal, with four clasps – Alma, Balaclava, Inkerman, and Sebastopol; second, the French Legion of Honour from Napoleon III for valour and distinguished bravery; third, the Turkish Medal; fourth, the Indian Mutiny Medal with clasp for Central India; and fifth, the medal for long service and good conduct.

As each medal was named in turn there was a fresh outburst of cheering from the audience, and at the close the veteran retired amid a scene of much enthusiasm…

Huddersfield Chronicle, 30 August 1892.]

Louie Freear in a favourite role, as a

Louie Freear in a favourite role, as a “slavey” (household drudge), photographed in the early 1900s.

Louie Freear in Chinese costume photographed in the early 1900s.

Louie Freear in Chinese costume photographed in the early 1900s.

I have yet to find any images of Roby’s Midget Minstrels, but a number of fine photographs exist of Louie Freear taken about ten years later, when she was still appearing in similar roles. [These and other portraits of her can be seen on the National Portrait Gallery’s website here (accessed 22.4.2015).]

The Midget Minstrels in Nottingham

In the second portion the programme the item most deserving commendation Miss Louie reciting “The Charge the Light Brigade.” Miss Freear’s elocution was all that could be desired, and she evinces good dramatic powers. The recitation was accompanied by the orchestra, some of the effects being quite startling, and at times the instruments were rather too loud for Miss Freer to be properly heard. However, Mr. Kennon, the conductor, kept a watchful eye upon his forces, and the effect was very good.

After concluding the recitation, Miss Freer introduced to the audience Sergeant Jas. O Donoghue, late of the 8th Hussars, who rode in the memorable charge. The veteran, in his uniform, looked every inch a soldier, and he was heartily cheered.

At the time of the charge O’Donoghue was field trumpeter to Lord Cardigan, and therefore sounded the celebrated charge. He wore the Crimean medal, with four clasps for Alma, Balaclava, Inkermann, and Sebastopol; the French Legion d’Honneur from Napoleon III, the Turkish Medal, Indian Mutiny Medal, with clasp for Central India, and a long service and good conduct medal, altogether a fine record.

[Nottingham Evening Post, 24 November 1891.]

So James Donoghue may never actually have sounded the “Charge!” at Balaclava, but he certainly relived the events nightly on the music-hall stage.


I am grateful to Chris Poole for drawing my attention to the Newcastle Courant letter. I am also currently in correspondence with Rowan Gibbs, whose genealogical researches have led him to research  a number of Crimea-related theatrical promotions in the 1850s, such as “Wladislaw’s Mechanical Exhibition of the late War” and “Hamilton’s Panorama”. I hope to say more about these in the near future.