When Buffalo Bill brought the Wild West to Colchester and Chelmsford (It’s true - it happened)

Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill in 1885. Picture: US Library of Congress

Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill in 1885. Picture: US Library of Congress - Credit: Archant

How Buffalo Bill brought us the reality show, a century before The Only Way is Essex

A Wild West show poster. Thousands of posters and leaflets were distributed by the advance publicity

A Wild West show poster. Thousands of posters and leaflets were distributed by the advance publicity team. Picture: US Library of Congress - Credit: Archant

Imagine life more than 100 years ago. Certainly no internet. No TV, even. Imagine witnessing true spectacle for the first time: noise, rapid movement, colour, excitement. A crackle in the air. Enough to blow your socks off in an England emerging from its long Victorian age.

To our region came exotic visitors from afar: Buffalo Bill and his cast of 800 staff and performers, plus horses and other animals, to show us what life had been like in America’s Wild West.

Even now it seems hardly credible they were here in Essex and Suffolk. But they were. Former BBC journalist David Dunford evokes those amazing days in his new book.

For nearly 20 years Buffalo Bill toured America, Britain and mainland Europe with his Wild West experience – real cowboys, real Native Americans and real soldiers bringing a flavour of the frontier. An astute and tireless publicity drive kept the crowds coming.

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It was a military-style operation, here. Three special trains carried everything, including a portable arena seating more than 12,000 spectators.

And so the Wild West came to Britain’s oldest recorded town.

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The troupe arrived at Colchester North station early on Friday, September 4, 1903, and started unloading at about 5am, reports David. “Despite the early hour, many people came to see the arrival, which was said to be a sight in itself. Among the attractions were the eight-feet two-inch Egyptian giant and the two-feet-high Princess Hawa.”

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A man of substance: Buffalo Bill in 1910. Picture: US Library of Congress

A man of substance: Buffalo Bill in 1910. Picture: US Library of Congress - Credit: Archant

The performers headed for the showground at Reed Hall, about a mile away, “and a procession of Indians going up North Hill caused great excitement.

“The group included several chiefs ‘of dignified bearing’, as The Ipswich Evening Star newspaper remarked. The paper was amused to note that among them was a chief called Lone Bear but the crowds that flocked round him afforded very little solitude.”

The roads to Reed Hall were chock-a-block with carriages, cyclists and pedestrians, and the side-shows that were part of the extravaganza did good business from early in the day, David writes.

If you were there, you surely wouldn’t ever forget it.

The show itself – though Buffalo Bill (aka William Cody) never used that word, insisting this was an authentic portrayal of wild west life – consisted of about 20 scenes and lasted a couple of hours.

It included a cowboy band, a parade on horseback, displays of riding skills by a cosmopolitan cast of experts (Cossack, Mexican, Arab, gaucho and Indian) and artillery drill.

Then there was an “attack” on a wagon train by Native Americans who were chased off by cowboys. “Buffalo Bill thrilled the crowd by shooting glass balls from horseback as they were thrown up by an accompanying cowboy while they galloped around the arena.”

There was lots more, including horseback races, bucking bronchos, shooting displays, war dances, the depiction of a battle by soldiers who’d fought in it in real life, and an “attack” on the actual Deadwood stagecoach by Native Americans.

Buffalo Bill was still in his early 20s when the writer Ned Buntline made him famous as the hero of

Buffalo Bill was still in his early 20s when the writer Ned Buntline made him famous as the hero of a series of dime novels. This lithograph dates from that period. Picture: US Library of Congress - Credit: Archant

“The Evening Star reporter was impressed by Bill’s skill in shooting from horseback,” David notes. “The feat was doubly wonderful, he thought, in view of Bill’s age (he was fifty seven) and the fact he had to wear glasses.”

There was an early performance in Colchester and then an 8pm one, threatened by a violent storm halfway through. The show carried on, though, “without incident, accompanied according to one reporter by ‘vivid lightning flashes and peals of thunder’.”

The days after must have been an anticlimax for spectators unused to such thrills.

The touring spectacle had been to Leyton and Southend before Colchester. The following year it played to Chelmsford and Ilford. It was, stresses David, no circus.

“The men and women who took part had often been involved in the actual incidents they portrayed. It was, in effect, the world’s first reality show. More than a hundred years before the idea became ubiquitous on television and typified by The Only Way is Essex, Buffalo Bill brought his own reality show to the county.”

The man

William Frederick Cody, who had Irish roots, was born in Iowa in 1846. If he’d written a CV more than 50 years later, by which time he was one of the most famous men on the planet, it would have included army scout, buffalo hunter, fighter of Native Americans, Pony Express rider and hero of many “dime novel” adventures that helped craft his legend.

The seed of his touring jamboree lay in Scouts of the Plains, a largely improvised play in which he appeared in New York in 1872. It was a big hit and “gave Bill the idea that, certainly where the Wild West was concerned, the audience wanted ‘reality’ rather than acting”.

Newspaper advertisement for the Wild West’s performance in Chelmsford. From the front page of the Es

Newspaper advertisement for the Wild Wests performance in Chelmsford. From the front page of the Essex Chronicle, June 17, 1904 three days before the show - Credit: Archant

The “show” was born later. In 1885 Chief Sitting Bull, leader of the Sioux at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, joined on $50 a week and spent a season with the troupe, says David. And sharpshooter Annie Oakley was with the gang for 17 years.

It first came to England in 1887; and by the turn of the century the operation was making a mint.

Late in 1902, Bill’s wild west experience left New York for a season at Olympia in London and then toured the country, including the stop at Colchester. “By the end of October 1903 it had travelled nearly 3,000 miles and performed in almost one hundred towns and cities.”

The “cast” was back in England the following spring for what was billed as the final visit to Britain. “See it NOW or NEVER”, exhorted the publicity blurb.

In June, 1904, the Wild West travelled from Wimbledon to Chelmsford. The PR drum had been well and truly banged and anticipation was high. The Great Eastern Railway put on extra trains and cheap return fares were offered from most stations in the county.

The Chelmsford show took place on Goldlay Meadows, off Baddow Road.

“The two shows on Monday went off without a hitch. Between eight and nine thousand people attended the afternoon performance and all the cheaper seats were sold out. The evening performance attracted an even bigger crowd put at 11,000.”

And then it was gone: off to Ilford. On to Scotland and other destinations before wrapping up in Staffordshire late in October. “The 1904 season would be the last time the Wild West was seen in Britain and it was a spectacular success… The tour had visited more than 130 towns and cities and covered more than 4,100 miles by rail…”

David details Buffalo Bill’s life in the years that followed: marital turbulence; financial ups and downs; a number of “farewell” tours in mainland Europe and America.

Part of the cover of David Dunford's book

Part of the cover of David Dunford's book - Credit: Archant

His last appearance was in Virginia in 1916. “He had planned to return to the show the following year but in (the) January, while on a visit to a Colorado sanatorium to take a mineral water cure, he collapsed.

“Buffalo Bill was taken to his sister’s home in Denver and died there in his wife’s arms, aged seventy, on January 10th 1917.”

Annie Oakley said: “Whenever the day’s work was done, he could always be found sitting alone watching the sinking sun, and at every opportunity he took the trail back to his old home. The sun setting over the mountain will pay its daily tribute to the resting place of the last of the great builders of the West…”

‘Buffalo Bill’s Wild West – The First Reality Show in Essex’ is published by Essex Hundred Publications at £7.99. www.essex100.com

Out of the blue

So how did David Dunford (a man of Essex who went into journalism and became editor of the BBC General News Service) hear about this intrepid showman’s stops in East Anglia?

“I found out about the Buffalo Bill visit to Essex when I was researching my first book, on the history of horse racing in Chelmsford, and came across a newspaper ad for Buffalo Bill’s performance in the town... I’d never heard of it, thought it was a fascinating story and the whole thing grew from there.”

By the way, after that 1903 appearance in Colchester the troupe moved on to Ipswich and through East Anglia. Sounds to me like the basis of David’s next book… Please!

Food for thought

At about the time the show visited Essex, the 800 people travelling with it were said to be consuming 1,400lb of meat each day, as well as seven-hundredweight of potatoes, 450lb of bread and 30-hundredweight of other vegetables.

David’s book also reveals that 2,100 meals were served each day, requiring 10 cooks and 60 waiters.

Dawn of a legend

While working as a trapper, Will broke his leg and had to wait for help alone, snowed in and surrounded by wolves, for 29 days.

• Once, when he needed a job, he joined the army as a scout and served under General Custer.

After that, he found work supplying meat to railway builders – becoming a skilled buffalo killer and gaining his nickname. In 17 months (David says in his book) Buffalo Bill killed 4,280 of the animals.

• During the time he was taking groups of affluent folk on buffalo hunts he met ‘dime novel’ writer EZC Judson, aka Ned Buntline. “Almost overnight Buntline made Cody famous with a story in the New York Weekly entitled ‘Buffalo Bill, The King of the Border Men.’

“It was the first of many tales in which Bill was glorified and which cemented his place in the minds of millions of people. Buffalo Bill Cody was famous at the age of just twenty three.”

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