In November 1860 "Signor Persivani" appeared at the South of England Music Hall in Portsmouth. Billed as the "wonderful gymnast from Paris" he was in fact a native of Portsea.
Born William Roger Brown, the 1841 census records him as two months of age in Bull's Court, Queen Street. His father, John, is a Navy man from Ireland, his mother, Elizabeth, a stay trimmer of Portsea.
He most likely developed his skills outside the pubs on Queen Street where his innate ability for clowning would have earned welcome pennies for the family. He developed a natural athleticism and supple strength into gymnastic feats and contortionism which would astonish and amaze later audiences. A review for Wilton's Music Hall, London, in 1866 notes; "Persivani twists into all shapes but the one given to the great human family...his curious contortions are startling". His ability to jump and touch the back of his head with both feet at once no doubt delighted but it was as a clown that audiences took him to their hearts.
Of his 1870 performance as clown at the New Theatre Royal, Bristol, a reviewer noted that he has been "often deservedly eulogised...and contributed in no small degree to the great success of the Bristol Pantomime". As late as 1874 a Bristolian traveller to the Grande Cirque, Paris, saw a performance of "the old Bristol favourite, Persivani the Clown".
It was in July 1873 that Persivani first appeared in Paris when he was described as "creating a furore" with his partner Vandevelde as English clowns. In February 1874 he was again in Paris where he performed twice before the Shah of Persia. He was to return to Paris several times after, the last being in 1884 with Lauri's Pantomime Company.
May of 1885 saw Persivani appointed as General Manager of the Gaiety Theatre, Walsall which he successfully ran till April of 1886. Persivani hoped to gain a similar appointment elsewhere but sadly it never came. Perhaps he was feeling the strain of so much travelling and strenuous training that he now took on the management of public houses in Birmingham including the Prince of Wales Bar next to the theatre of that name on Broad Street, Birmingham.
In 1888 Persivani again took to the road in Hull with the Continental Circus. He received a "handsome scarf pin" at his benefit but from this point on it is clear he was suffering ill health. The Era of 1889 reported; "...poor Persivani...a hopeless sufferer from cancer". But the years of acclaim had not left Persivani a wealthy man. Among the subscribers to a Persivani Fund were Henry Irving and Vesta Tilley.
The Birmingham Post, 5th of February 1890, reported the death of a Birmingham Clown. Just as Bristol had years before, Birmingham claimed him as their own. But something Persivani said of himself and his partner in 1883 shows where his affections truly lay; "Lucky dogs, both belong to Portsmouth".
Ed Jones
January 2014