Herbert Campbell: A Voice That Could Frighten a Horse

The great music hall comedian Herbert Campbell (Herbert Edward Story, 1844-1904) was born on this day. Campbell was a London factory worker who was inspired to go into show business after attending a performance of the Christy Minstrels during a British tour. Initially he formed an amateur blackface** band and performed for charities. In the early 1860s, he joined two other performers in the blackface minstrel trio Harmon, Campbell, and Elston. 

Circa 1868, Campbell dropped the blackface and broke into music hall as a solo act. His booming cockney voice and impressive size (well over 250 lbs. and 6′ tall) made a huge impression and he became popular with such songs as “Did You Ever Hear A Girl Say No?”, “It’s Enough To Make a Parson Swear”, “Mother Will Be Pleased”, “They Were A Lovely Pair”. A couple of years later he began to appear in regional pantomimes, leading, a decade later, to headlining in annual pantos at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane alongside Dan Leno. Some decried the pair’s improvisations as adulterating the traditional form, but most regarded their funny business as the very acme of panto’s possibilities. As their fame grew, Campbell, Leno and fellow comedian Harry Randall formed a company to produce their own variety bills featuring themselves as headliners.

Ironically, Campbell was considering retirement at the time of his death. Legend has it that Campbell’s thunderous voice startled a horse as he was he was getting out of a carriage. He injured his leg, which developed septicemia, and he died of a brain hemorrhage a few days later.

One of the biggest stars of his day, there is little to remember Campbell by nowadays. He made but a single film, a short by the British branch of Biograph produced in 1899 designed to advertise his appearance in a pantomime, entitled Herbert Campbell as Little Bobby. Sadly the film appears to be lost. A greater loss still as that he never made any recordings of that legendary voice. A voice that could frighten a horse.

**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad. 

To find out more about music hall and vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,