Bognor Clown

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Frank Bale - The Bognor Clown


[ABOVE] A studio portrait of  Frank Bale the Bognor Clown, photographed by Donald Massey of Bognor around 1909. [ PHOTO : Courtesy of Karen Nesbitt, great grand daughter of Frank Bale ]

Frank Bale was born in Lambeth, Surrey, on 18th May 1873. Frank was born into a theatrical family - his father was a professional "juggler and balancer" and other family members performed as entertainers in music halls.

Frank's father, William Bale, was born in Gosport, Hampshire in 1841, but by the mid 1860s he had moved to London, where he married Sarah Andrews (born c1841 Paddington) in 1867. William and Sarah Bale settled in Lambeth where they produced at least four sons - George (born 1867), William (born 1869), Arthur (born 1870) and Frank (1873). A fifth son, Albert, was born in Hammersmith in 1875. By 1881, the Bale family were living in West London, where, during the census, William Bale was recorded as a thirty-nine year "juggler".

In 1894, Frank married Kate Eliza McLellan (born 1871, Tottenham, London), the daughter of a bread and biscuit baker, in the Paddington district of London. A baby girl, named Dorothy Florence Bale, was born to the couple in 1894. A son, named Arthur Percy Bale, arrived a year later, in December 1895. Violet Kathleen Bale, Frank and Kate's third child, was born in 1902.

Frank and his brothers became entertainers like their father. Together with his older brothers, George and William, Frank Bale formed a novelty juggling act, touring England, Europe and the USA. Another brother, Arthur, performed as an entertainer on the London Music Hall circuit. ( In 1901, Frank's older brother, Arthur Bale, is recorded in the census as a "Music Hall Artist" ).


[ABOVE] A postcard portrait of Frank Bale the Bognor Clown performing with his acrobatic dog, "Towzer".[ PHOTO : Courtesy of Karen Nesbitt ]

[ABOVE] A photograph of the Bale brothers as the "Royal Zannettos". On the left of the picture is the eldest brother, George Bale. William Bale, known as "Pip", is in the centre dressed as a Japanese Geisha. Frank Bale ,who became "The Bognor Clown" is standing on the right. [ PHOTO : Courtesy of Karen Nesbitt ]

In the 1890s and early 1900s, the Bale brothers toured Europe and the USA as the "Royal Zanettos" -  a juggling troupe who performed in Japanese costume. Frank Bale and his two brothers, George and William ("Pip") were often abroad on tour, travelling to many parts of Europe. George, "Pip", and Frank Bale were away from home when the 1901 census was taken, but Frank's wife Kate, together with their children, Dorothy aged 6, and Arthur, aged 5, are recorded at the family home in Paddington.

Between 1908 and 1909, the "Royal Zanettos" toured the United States. After the three brothers returned to England from America in 1909, Frank Bale decided to go it alone and perform as a solo entertainer.

Frank Bale and his family moved down to the seaside resort of Bognor in West Sussex. Under the name of "Benette", Frank Bale created an act which featured performing animals. A monkey dressed in human clothing was trained to ride a bicycle and drive a miniature motor car. A dog named "Towser" ("Towzer").*  performed amazing acrobatic tricks and spectacular stunts, including a "high dive" from the top of a ship's mast planted in the sands at Bognor beach.

* "Towser" or "Towzer" , from the word "touse" , meaning "to pull about", was often used as a dog's name in Victorian and Edwardian times. David Copperfield in the novel by Charles Dickens is nicknamed "Towzer" after he bites his cruel stepfather Murdstone.

[ABOVE] A detail from a newspaper photograph showing Frank Bale as the "Bognor Clown ", posing with his performing dog. [ PHOTO : Courtesy of Karen Nesbitt ]

[ABOVE] A postcard publicising Benette's "Monkey and Dog Act" (c19100. An oval portrait of Frank Bale appears in the centre of the postcard, surrounded by pictures of his dog and monkey performing amazing tricks.  [ PHOTO : Courtesy of Karen Nesbitt ]


[ABOVE] A newspaper photograph dating from the 1920s, showing Frank Bale, "The Bognor Clown"  with his youngest daughter Violet on the beach at Bognor. Violet  assisted her father with his "Living Marionettes" act. The advertising placard in front of Violet informs the public that "The Bognor Clown" performs daily on the sands. [ PHOTO : Courtesy of Karen Nesbitt ]

[ABOVE] A picture postcard showing Frank Bale the Bognor Clown performing to a large crowd on the beach near Bognor Pier in the 1930s. [PHOTO : Courtesy of Karen Nesbitt ] [ABOVE] A detail from the picture postcard on the left showing Frank Bale the Bognor Clown performing to a large crowd on the beach near Bognor Pier in the 1930s. [PHOTO : Courtesy of Karen Nesbitt ]


Frank Bale and his family lived at Milford House on the Steyne at Bognor. Frank supplemented his income as an entertainer by running two boarding houses on The Steyne. Frank Bale became known as "The Bognor Clown" and performed on Bognor's seafront for over 20 years. Frank Bale was assisted in his various acts by his children. His eldest daughter, Dorothy, who had a lovely voice, sang and played the piano. Dorothy performed on the stage as a singer and entertainer in her own right until she married Frank Millington in 1917. Frank's son, Arthur Percy Bale, joined the armed forces during the First World War. Arthur enlisted as a Private in the Second Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment and was killed on the Somme in France on 17th October 1916 at the age of twenty. Violet Bale, Frank's youngest daughter assisted her father on Bognor beach when he established his "Living Marionettes" Show in the 1920s.

Frank Bale performed in Bognor until he retired in 1935 at the age of sixty-two. After his wife Kate died in 1939, Frank moved away from Bognor and went to live with his married daughter Dorothy and her family in the Lincolnshire village of Bottesford.

Frank Bale, formerly known as "The Bognor Clown", died in Bottesford, Lincolnshire on 20th February 1942, at the age of 68.






[ABOVE] A studio portrait of  Private Arthur Bale, the only son of Frank Bale the Bognor Clown. Arthur died on the Somme in October 1916.    [ PHOTO : Courtesy of Karen Nesbitt ]

[ABOVE] A studio portrait of  Frank Bale's eldest daughter Dorothy , who performed under the stage name of "Edie Bale". This publicity photograph recorded Edie's role in a 1915/1916 production of "Cinderella". [ PHOTO : Courtesy of Karen Nesbitt ]



Thanks to Karen Nesbitt, a great grand daughter of Frank Bale, for providing the photographs and family history information for this feature on the Bognor Clown. Karen's grandmother Dorothy Bale was the eldest child of Frank Bale.


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