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Biographies: Francis Daniel

Biographies is a series honing in on some lesser known historical figures in the North East, research by our valued contributors.


In the first of our new 'Biographies' series, Pete Hampson explores the life of South Shields publican turned writer Francis Daniel - a well known name in these parts through the turn of the 20th century.

 

Francis Daniel was a well known name in the early 1900’s but is now virtually forgotten.


He managed two South Shields pubs - the Stirling Castle from 1896 and later the Queen’s Hotel (from 1898) but his fame was from his other interests – writing stories, plays and poems.


He was born in 1864 in Stone, Staffordshire, but was living in South Shields by the age of 32, where he was the manager of the Stirling Castle.

Photograph of Francis Daniel

In 1897 Francis started writing booklets of stories and poems which he produced on a monthly basis for about two years. These booklets were quite long (over eighty pages) and contained adverts to help subsidise the cost. Only one copy of these publications apparently still exists: Character Sketches Taken From Life, which is in The Word Library in South Shields. He also wrote several songs.


The surviving booklet contains the first version of the story which made Francis famous – The Angel of Comical Corner (which was only twelve pages long at the time).


The story is about life in the slum areas of South Shields and around Wapping Street in the 1890s. Comical Corner was a bend in the river where ships often struggled in a ‘comical’ way to navigate the River Tyne (watched by curious locals). It is a story of love, prostitution and the hard life of those living in the slums, which were demolished in the 1930s.

In February 1906 Francis produced ‘The Angel’ as a novel, extending its length to one hundred and seventy seven pages. He also added three other short stories. It was sold in South Shields and was so popular it had a second reprint that year and a third shortly after.


Francis’ interests were not just writing stories and poems – he also loved the stage. He turned ‘The Angel’ into a play in 1914 (changing it quite significantly from the novel) which sold out The Theatre Royal in King Street, breaking all box office records there. Francis wrote and acted in this and other plays but it was ‘The Angel’ that he was most famous for.


Francis cleverly marketed his works. He challenged the local population with a £50 bet (a massive amount of money at the time) that no one could prove a humorous eating episode in his novel was impossible (it had happened in his pub!) In one of his other plays, Her Marriage Lines, he gave away facsimile marriage certificates (May 1917).


Daniel toured the North East with his plays (at least seven of which have survived in the archives of the British Library – having been passed by the censor at the time and thus preserved). He starred with Cissie Bellamy, a famous local actress, and wrote plays with her that were performed in South Shields, Consett, Crook and as far away as Bootle by Francis and his troupe of actors.


The Angel of Comical Corner passed into South Shields folklore but is only briefly mentioned in history books and until recently little was remembered about its playwright. On 28th February 2019 the Shields Gazette had an article about him, featuring Pam Siegel – a distant relation of Francis who was looking for information about him and his works.


I obtained my copy of ‘The Angel’ in 2020 by chance with a number of other local books I purchased. I was interested in the numerous references to streets local to South Shields and the ‘Half Penny Dodger’ - the cheaper Shields ferry that went from Comical Corner to North Shields ‘dodging’ the shipping in the Tyne. Copies of the book are said to be very rare.


On 16th April 1919 Francis died at home, aged 54, in his house at 51 Brunswick Street, South Shields and was buried in Harton Cemetery. His grave can be seen in Section T (Catholic) No. 9251.

Headstone of Francis Daniel at Harton Cemetery

I will be reprinting The Angel of Comical Corner, together with other stories from ‘Character Sketches’ and numerous photographs, maps and drawings to illustrate the places referenced in the stories. The original book only had two pictures – a photograph of Comical Corner (actually Wapping Street) and a drawing of Fanny (the main character) sitting on her doorstep.


My research has unearthed three different versions of ‘The Angel’, seven previously forgotten plays by Francis, songs and one copy of the booklet ‘Character Sketches’. If you have any information about Francis, a copy of ‘The Angel’ or any other of his booklets or plays please contact me on: angelofcomicalcorner@btinternet.com


I have set up a Facebook site providing more detail about Francis, his books and plays, and my progress with finding and reproducing his works.

 



Pete Hampson is a former Primary School deputy headteacher with a love of Ravensworth Castle, feeding squirrels and ducks in the park




Photographs courtesy of South Tyneside Libraries, Pam Siegel, Terry Ford and Janis Blower

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