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Askey, Arthur Bowden (1900–1982), actor and entertainer, was born on 6 June 1900 at 29 Moses Street, Liverpool, the elder child and only son of Samuel Askey (d. 1958), secretary of the firm Sugar Products of Liverpool, and his wife, Betsy Bowden (...

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Arthur Bowden Askey (1900–1982) by Anthony Buckley, 1939 © Kenneth Hughes / National Portrait Gallery, London

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Beckman, Sir Martin (1634/5–1702), pyrotechnist and military engineer, was born in Stockholm, Sweden, the son of Melcher Beckman and his wife, Christiana van Benningen. Their names and his profession suggest a Dutch origin.

By his own account Beckman left his native Sweden about 1645 in order to serve the English crown. His brother served as a royalist captain in the civil war and was royal engineer to the exiled ...

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Bellew [formerly Higgin], John Chippendale Montesquieu (1823–1874), popular preacher and public reader, was born at Lancaster on 3 August 1823. He was the only child of an infantry officer, Captain Robert Higgin (d. 1853) of the 12th regiment, who had married in 1822 a daughter of ...

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Belzoni, Giovanni Battista (1778–1823), performing artist and Egyptologist, was born on 5 November 1778 in Padua, the son of a barber, Giacomo Belzoni, and his wife, Teresa. He went to Rome aged sixteen to prepare himself for monastic orders; he claimed also to have studied hydraulics. The French invasion of ...

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Giovanni Battista Belzoni (1778–1823) by Maxim Gauci, pubd 1821 © National Portrait Gallery, London

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Boruwlaski, Joseph [formerly Józef Boruslawski], styled Count Boruwlaski (1739–1837), travelling performer and memoirist, was born in November 1739 near Halicz, Galicia, Poland, the third son of a lower gentry family. The principal source for his life is his own memoirs, published in several editions between 1788 and 1820. When he was nine his father died, leaving a widow with five sons and one daughter. Three sons were very tall, but three children suffered from achondroplasia, an inherited condition in which the cartilage in the bones fails to grow. ...

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Carson, Hugh Francis [Frank] (1926–2012), comedian, was born at 46 Great Georges Street, Belfast, on 6 November 1926, the son of John Carson, a dustman and newspaper seller, and his wife, Josephine, née Augusta. He was of part Italian descent, his grandmother having emigrated from ...

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Castle, Roy (1932–1994), entertainer and charity campaigner, was born on 31 August 1932 in Holme Valley Memorial Hospital, Holmfirth, West Riding of Yorkshire, the only child of Hubert Castle, an insurance agent, and his wife, Eliza Alice Swallow, a mill worker. His childhood was spent in ...

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David Devant (1868–1941) by unknown photographer [detail] V&A Images, The Victoria and Albert Museum

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Devant, David [real name David Wighton] (1868–1941), conjuror and illusionist, was born on 22 February 1868 at 4 Boston Terrace, Holloway, London, eldest of the seven children of James Wighton, a Scottish artist, and his wife, Mary Ansell. After attending local schools he worked at several jobs before becoming a professional entertainer. His interest in magic was aroused when he was about twelve and was fuelled by visits to ...

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Du Val, Charles Henry (1846–1889), entertainer, was born at Platt Terrace, Rusholme, Manchester, on 27 October 1846, the youngest child and only son of Irish parents, John Du Val, a schoolmaster, and his wife, Eliza Ann, née Murray. He was educated in Manchester...

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Grossmith, George (1847–1912), entertainer and author, was born in London on 9 December 1847, the eldest of the three children of the journalist and entertainer, George Grossmith (1820–1880) and his wife, Louisa Emmeline Grossmith, née Weedon (d. 1882). While his father was alive he was referred to outside the family as ...

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George Grossmith (1847–1912) by Lock & Whitfield © National Portrait Gallery, London

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Map, Walter (d. 1209/10), royal clerk, raconteur, and satirist, was probably born in or about the early 1130s. He sprang from a border family, probably living in Herefordshire, and may have been partly Welsh: his surname is a version of the Welsh Vab...

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Thomas Seccombe

revised by M. C. Curthoys

Pepper, John Henry (1821–1900), illusionist and educationist, was born at Great Queen Street, Westminster, on 17 June 1821, the son of Charles Bailey Pepper (d. 1854), a civil engineer. He was educated at Loughborough House, Brixton, and King's College School, in the ...

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Secombe, Sir Harry Donald (1921–2001), entertainer, was born in Swansea on 8 September 1921, the younger son and third of four children of Frederick Ernest Secombe, a commercial traveller for the wholesale grocery firm Walters and Batchelors and an amateur cartoonist, and his wife, ...

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Sir Harry Donald Secombe (1921–2001) by David Poole, 1968 © David Poole / The Army Benevolent Fund; photograph National Portrait Gallery, London

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Wise, Ernie [real name Ernest Wiseman] (1925–1999), entertainer, was born on 27 November 1925 in Leeds, Yorkshire, the eldest of the five children (three sons and two daughters) of Harry Wiseman, a railway signal lamp-man, and his wife, Connie Wright. The family subsequently moved to ...