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.

Balaclava’s Greatest Hits: Trumpeter Lanfried sounds the Charge …

Trumpeter Lanfried, photographed late in life.

Trumpeter Lanfried, photographed late in life.

I’ve always wanted to write a blog about developments in the “Lives of the Light Brigade: The EJ Boys Archive” and the related Charge of the Light Brigade website, but I’m such Old Technology myself, and so allergic to instruction manuals, that until now the prospect has been too forbidding. Too many things to learn, too many decisions to be made.

But I’ve hit on a plan. I’ll try to write shortish pieces fairly regularly to reflect some of the material I’ve come across or been contacted about. (I frequently receive emails from people who come across the site, chiefly wanting to know more about an ancestor, or suggesting amendments and additions.) The articles I write are likely to be fairly rough and ready visually and technically, but I hope to get the hang of it as I go along.

Today I heard about an article by Peter Aspden in the Financial Times (“Sounds of the past, ways of the future“, 9 Jan 2015) that refers to (but does not name) Trumpeter Lanfried, 17th Lancers, the only person who rode in the Charge (160-odd years ago) whose voice we can still hear today. (There are many photographs, of course, but no moving images of Chargers, so far as I know, though a film was made of them before WW1 that has since disappeared. But that’s for another day.)

You can listen to the recording here.

‘I am Trumpeter Lanfried. One of the surviving trumpeters of the Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava. I am now going to sound the bugle that was sounded at Waterloo, and sound the charge as was sounded at Balaclava on that very same bugle… on the 25th of October, 1854.’

The article begins:

‘The woman’s voice is stilted, funereally slow, but full of portent. “When I am no longer even a memory, just a name,” it says, “I hope my voice may perpetuate the great work of my life.” Then a long pause. “God bless my dear old comrades of Balaclava and bring them safe to shore. Florence Nightingale.”

‘Hundreds flocked to the town and village squares of England to hear the sensational recording that had been freshly cut in the summer of 1890. Not so much for the message, but for the medium. The wax cylinder toured by George Gouraud, an associate of Thomas Edison, was the iPhone 6 of the late Victorian era.

‘Listeners huddled around Gouraud to be wowed by his latest playlist. There was, in addition to Nightingale’s prescient missive, a reading by Lord Tennyson of his “The Charge of the Light Brigade”, and the plaintive call to that very charge, played by the bugler who had first blown those doom-laden notes. Here was history made vivid in a completely new way.’

The EJBA contains quite a lot about Trumpeter Lanfried’s life, his antecedents and descendants, and about the recording.

Notice Martin Lanfried does not claim to have sounded the Charge at Balaclava – the evidence is overwhelmingly against anyone having done so, in spite of numerous claims to the contrary (including his own gravestone). Nor that the trumpet he is playing was ever at Balaclava. Or does he? It really is quite ambiguous.

Martin Lanfried was born in Gibraltar on the 25th of August 1834, probably the son of Bandmaster Lanfried of the 60th Rifles. He enlisted at Dublin on the 10th of November 1844, when he was just 14 (and only 4′ 10″ in height). Ten years later he was shot through the right arm during the Charge at Balaclava. A bullet, striking his pouch, glanced off and killed his horse. (He was brought out of action by 1149 James Mustard, also 17th Lancers. This act kept them in close friendship all their lives, and every signed copy of the Balaclava Dinner menus seen have their signatures next to each other.)

After he recovered from his injuries, he went out to India on Brunel’s S.S. “Great Britain” to suppress the “Mutiny” there. He was discharged in 1865, and went to live in the Brighton area, where he worked as a Draper’s clerk and as a musician, married twice, and had at least seven children.

In later life, Lanfried (along with the few surviving Chargers) became quite a celebrity, and was often asked to sound the Charge – for example on October 27th 1890 at a special Variety Performance. The Times reported the following day:

‘At a given moment, some of the famous “Six Hundred” to the number of 30 or 40, appeared on the stage, when Trumpeter Landfried sounded the “Charge” as he did on October 25th 1854, whereupon Mr. Charles Warner came forward and recited Lord Tennyson’s poem, with much feeling. The veterans, who appeared in civil garb, were loudly cheered, and by way of response, they waved their hats and shouted “Hurrah”.’


Martin Lanfried (variously referred to in life and since as “Landfrey”, and “Landfield”, but by now firmly cited as “Landfried”) died in Hove and was buried, with full military honours, in grave N. 171 Block F. Section, on 13 December 1902. The stone bears a rather witty inscription on the stone, referring directly to the sounds he made in life:

‘Here lies a soldier of the King and of the King of Kings.


Who from his 15th year he served his country in the 17th Lancers at Sevastopol, the Alma, Balaclava – sounding the charge at the latter engagement – and in the Indian Mutiny, and retiring as Trumpet-Major in 1865. Joined the 1st Sussex R.G.A. (Vols.), becoming Bandmaster in 1890.

Born 25th August 1834. Died 8th December 1902.

God grant that he may sleep sound from the “Last Post” until “Reveille”.’

Let me know what you think of this first blog. It’s a start.