Buffalo Bill in Wales

Thursday 12 January 2012, 09:14

Phil Carradice Phil Carradice

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Imagine the scene. It's 1903 and the streets of Ebbw Vale or Aberdare or Bangor are filled, not with steel workers, coal miners or farmers wives out to do their weekly shopping, but with whooping cowboys and shrieking Indians, gaily but terrifyingly daubed in their war paint.

There is a smell of gunsmoke in the air, the thunder of horses hooves echo down the roadway. Buffalo Bill and his Wild West Show have come to town.

At this distance it's hard to know what Welsh men and women would have made of the spectacle. It was not just outside their experience, it was light years away. They may have read about cowboys, perhaps even seen pictures in the popular papers, but to meet them face to face? It must have been a mind-blowing experience.

William Cody came three times to Britain, firstly in 1887 to help celebrate Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee. His visit was so successful that returned four years later in 1891 and then again in 1902. The British, and the Welsh in particular, could not get enough of Buffalo Bill.

Cody was undoubtedly a man of action. By the age of 15 he was riding for the fabled Pony Express. By 1864 he was a scout for General Phil Sheridan and three years later had become a buffalo hunter for the Kansas Pacific railroad. It was said that he shot over 4,000 buffaloes in a two year period, which was how he got his name.

International fame came with a written report telling how he acted as a guide for the Grand Duke Alexis of Russia on his tour of the west. This was soon backed up by a lurid "penny dreadful" novel, written by Ned Buntline, called Buffalo Bill, King Of The Border Men.

In 1883 Cody decided it was time to make a little money out of his experiences. He would, he thought, show people what the American West was really like and formed his famous Wild West show. He was not the first to form such a band, the original Wild West shows having begun in the 1840s. But he was certainly the best.

When Cody was asked to come to Britain in 1887 he brought with him over 500 people - cowboys and Indians, back stage workers, grooms and so on. He also had 180 horses, 18 buffalo and numerous other animals including elks and Texas longhorn cattle.

Despite what many people believe, Sitting Bull - one of the victors over General Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn in June 1876 - did not accompany him on this first trip to Britain. Sitting Bull did appear in the show in the USA in 1885 but did not travel across the Atlantic and by 1890 he was dead.

The famous Annie Oakley, sharpshooter and trick shot specialist was in the company, however, and, it was reported, she even shot a cigar out of the mouth of the German Kaiser who had come to help his grandmother celebrate her jubilee.

When Cody returned to Britain in 1891 he stayed for over 12 months and visited many different cities. Amongst them was Cardiff. He was clearly fond of the place as he made a six-day stopover, netting a cool £10,000 in the process. He set up camp in Sophia Gardens, creating an arena 175 yards long and 70 yards wide.

Here the people of Cardiff and the surrounding valleys could see Indian braves and their families resting outside their tepees and stare in wonder at the huge buffaloes that wandered peacefully around the park. A parade through the centre of Cardiff saw huge crowds thronging the roads and as a publicity exercise it was a dramatic success.

On the first day of the show over 20,000 spectators packed into Sophia Gardens. The next three days were just as popular and it was estimated that, overall, nearly 130,000 people came to watch Buffalo Bill and his showmen.

Cody returned to Wales, the trip lasting from 1902 to 1904. They stopped in Wales for several months and visitied places as diverse as Aberdare, Abegavenny, Cardiff (of course), Porthmadoc, Rhyl, Carmarthen and Pembroke Dock.

In all Cody gave 333 performances during this visit. One of the highlights was an attack on the Deadwood Stage, Cody himself holding the reins and with local dignitaries - even, if he could persuade them, members of the royal family - on the inside of the stagecoach.

This was Buffalo Bill's last visit, however. Ill health and a series of financial misfortunes prevented him returning. He may have made considerable sums of money from his shows but the vast retinue of animals and performers cost an awful lot to maintain.

When he died in 1917, William Cody was virtually bankrupt but his position as one of the most renowned showmen of the age - second only to the great Barnum - was assured.

He had many imitators, such as Texas Bill Shufflebottom and Bronco Billy, but, as the people of Cardiff and all of Wales would certainly have acknowledged, there was only ever one Buffalo Bill Cody and only one real Wild West show.

Welsh locations that hosted the Wild West shows:

Aberdare - 4 July 1903
Aberystwyth - 7 May 1904
Bangor - 29 May 1903
Barry Dock - 19 May 1904
Bridgend - 18 May 1904
Builth Wells - 12 May 1904
Cardiff - 20-26 September 1891, 6-11 July 1903 and 20-21 May 1904
Carmarthen - 13 May 1904
Caernarfon - 4 May 1904
Dolgellau - 6 May 1904
Ebbw Vale - 1903
Holyhead - 3 May 1904
Llandudno - 2 May 1904
Llanelli - 13 July 1903 and 16 May 1904
Neath - 17 May 1904
Oswestry - 11 May 1904
Pembroke Dock - 14 May 1904
Porthmadoc - 5 May 1904
Rhyl - 27 May 1903
Ruabon - 29 May 1903
Swansea - 14-15 July 1903

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    Comment number 1.

    You give the dates for Buffalo Bill's 1903/04 visits to Wales. Is there a list or any record of where he went on his two earlier visits to Wales?

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    Comment number 2.

    My grandfather went to see Buffalo Bill in Pembroke Dock in 1904, I remember him telling me about it. The show was held on the Quins rugby pitch, where our booted feet pattered around 60 years later, Phil! Grandfather said that the horsemanship displayed was incredible – I doubt such horsemanship had ever been seen in Pembrokeshire at that time even though horses would still have been the common mode of transport. Bill Cody’s show must also have left a lasting impression on my grandfather since his favourite recreational reading was Western novels and he belonged to a book club that specialised in these. He also never missed a Western film if there was one showing at the Grand Cinema. There are old photos of the advertising hoardings but I know of none of the shows themselves – have you ever come across any Phil?

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    Comment number 3.

    A reply to Noreen and Roger - Sorry, I don't know exactly where Buffalo Bill went on his earlier visits. I know he went to Pembroke Dock in 1891 but other locations are unknown to me. Perhaps others can help.
    The other query, no I've never seen photographs of the Show either. I've seen cards of the market hall in Pembroke Dock, with advertising posters on the wall, but nothing of the actual Show itself. They've got to be out there somewhere.

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    Comment number 4.

    I wrote an article about Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show’s visit to Swansea in the May 2010 issue of The Bay. The online version is at http://www.theswanseabay.co.uk/articles/4/Lifestyle-Leisure/58/BuffaloBillComestoTown!.html

    The Show’ only 1891 performances in Wales were in Cardiff, 20 – 26 September. These dates are on Phil’s list. Cody didn’t visit Wales at any other time on his earlier tours. His only visit to Pembroke Dock was 14 May 1904 - there is no record of a trip to Pembroke Dock in 1891, and it would have been a little odd to go all that way for just one show.

    I have searched for photographs or illustrations of the Show in Swansea with little result. The only picture I have found is in West Glamorgan Archives, showing tepees in Swansea’s Victoria Park. There is one photo of Cody beside the Deadwood Stage, with unidentified citizens of Cardiff, on the Buffalo Bill web site http://images.buffalobill.org/ Search for Cardiff under European Show Sites. There are many more photos of the show in Britain, Europe and the USA.

 

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