Preston acrobat guilty of beating his young trainee with a rope

Local historian Keith Johnson looks back at a cruel assault of a boy aged around six being trained for a life in the circus...

By Henry Widdas, Communities Content Page Manager
Thursday, 13th January 2022, 11:31 am
Updated Thursday, 13th January 2022, 11:32 am
The young acrobats had lodgings on Lancaster Road
The young acrobats had lodgings on Lancaster Road

John Robert Meek, aged 17, an acrobat at the Preston Theatre Royal, appeared at the Preston Borough Police Court in late January 1877 charged with committing a cruel assault upon John Hughes, a boy aged about six.

The court heard that the boy was being trained to be an acrobat by the accused and that they lodged at the same place on Lancaster Road. The youngster had been sent by his father, a stage manager at Liverpool, to be taught the arts of a tumbler by Meek.

It appeared that Hughes had not performed to the satisfaction of his tutor who was keen to have him on stage as quickly as possible to join him and the other acrobats performing daily at the Theatre Royal.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The first witness called was Elizabeth Brooks who told the court that both the little fellow and the accused lodged with her. On the previous Saturday night she heard Hughes crying in his room and went to see what was the matter, only to discover that he was in much pain and covered in bruises, particularly to his back. After bathing the wounds she had told her brother who reported the incident at the nearby police station.

Det. Sgt Charnley, who visited the lodging house and examined the lad, testified that when he spoke to the prisoner he admitted using a rope to inflict the bruises saying, “ I don’t deny doing it: he would not do as I told him. It was for his own benefit.”

Louis Hay, another acrobat, related how on the previous Wednesday Hughes was practising and he did not do his work well and Meek hit him twice with a rope, and on the Friday he was similarly punished for messing about.

Dr. Pilkington testified as to examining the boy, explaining that he had found discoloured bruising on his back, thighs and buttocks, all likely having been caused by the rope which he showed to the court. In his opinion he was a little, delicate boy who had been treated roughly.

In Meek’s defence it was claimed that he had to teach the youngster the correct way to behave and that if necessary administer punishment. It was also stated that Dr. Garner who had also examined the boy was of the opinion that several of the bruises were long standing and not inflicted by Meek.

The Bench retired for a few minutes to consider the evidence and when they returned the chief magistrate William Birley then addressed the prisoner.

Telling him that it was a very serious case and that inflicting such punishment was unacceptable. Meek was then informed he was sentenced to four months imprisonment.

Mr. Birley then addressed the boy’s father, telling him he ought to find his son a more suitable profession. It was an opinion that his father, who had shown little sympathy for his son’s plight, clearly cared little about as he shrugged his shoulders and turned and left the court shaking his head.

For Meek who had been appearing in the extended run of the popular Christmas pantomime ‘Dick Whittington And His Cat’ his acrobatic career, as part of the Elliott family troupe, was brought to a temporary halt.

The Theatre Royal opened in 1802 and by 1870 the theatre had been upgraded. In advance of the Preston Guild of 1882 further improvements were made.

The conversion to a cinema followed in time for the cinema heydays of the 1930s and it closed in 1956 being demolished and replaced by the ABC Cinema on the same site. The ABC having a relatively brief life span of just 23 years before closing in 1982.