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Walworth’s celebrity wedding and its thousands of people |

We’re used to seeing the wedding of famous celebrities spread in the media, be it Posh and Becks, Harry and Meghan or Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, but this is nothing new in Walworth, writes Southwark historian Neil Crossfield …

On a wet Wednesday afternoon on August 6, 1930, an estimated thousands of people crowded Liverpool Grove to catch a glimpse of the newlyweds leaving St. Peter’s Church. The excitement was so great that police officers had to force a path through the horde of people so that the wedding cars could move on the street.

This was no ordinary couple, however, as both the bride and groom were well-known figures on the UK variety scene and were obviously adored by the many who had emerged and braved the rain. The 24-year-old bride, a Miss Winnifred ‘Winnie’ Yelland, had lived in the Walworth area since childhood. The groom was a well-known Scottish comedian, James Campbell McCleod, also known as “Jimmy Mac”. While a wedding between two entertainers was nothing new, this union made it noteworthy that Winnie Yelland was only 3 feet 7 inches tall while her husband was reported to be 6 feet tall!

Winnie as a child with her family, image courtesy Derek Yelland

The marriage records in St. Peters indicate that the bride and groom lived at 357 Walworth Road just around the corner from the church at the time of the wedding. Winnie was born in Exeter, Devon, in August 1906. By 1911 the family had moved to London and lived on Meadow Row, just off New Kent Road. This was right across from the old Elephant and Castle Theater (later the Coronet Cinema) and maybe she developed her passion for the performance after seeing shows there?

Studies of census records around this time show that this part of Walworth was home to several music hall artists and musicians, possibly due to its proximity to the West End and the multitude of theaters and music halls in south London. Winnie had started her stage career at the age of fifteen and soon became an accomplished singer and dancer performing across the UK.

Newspaper reports on the Time Note said the romantic bond between the couple was cemented when Jimmy Mac saved Winnie from drowning after she fell into a tank of water while performing together in Blackpool. Afterward, Winnie learned to swim herself and, in turn, saved a fellow actor from drowning while touring Guernsey. This girl’s stage name was “Little Lady Godiva” who was 2 feet 10 inches tall and was once reported as the “smallest English lady in the world”. They must have stayed friends since she was the bridesmaid at the wedding.

In a language that is rightly not accepted today, the newspapers reported that this was a “dwarf marriage” and that many little fellow men attended the wedding. Performers from Fred Ropers Tiny Town Follies and Charles Dudley’s Midget Gladiators formed a guard of honor as the couple left the church. Although it may seem strange in these more advanced times, “dwarf shows” were still very popular in theaters and music venues in the UK, Europe, South Africa and the United States during the interwar period. These types of acts had their roots in the Victorian freak show and unfortunately showed that attitudes towards small people were still largely unexplained at the beginning of the 20th century.

Many of the performers would undoubtedly have been extremely talented, but the attitude towards their disability during this period may have meant that their opportunities to find employment in regular theater troupes may have been limited and they therefore limited themselves to performing in one of those troops . Historians have suggested that these perpetuate the myth that happy communities of little people are more of a naturally occurring phenomenon than the invention of exploitative impresarios and managers.

In 1925 ‘Ropers Midget’s’ spent the season at Dreamland Amusement Park in Margate, a popular destination for many Londoners. These troops included singers like Winnie, but also acrobats, cyclists, comedians and orchestras. Roper took on the direction of a famous American act, “Morris Gest’s Midgets,” which cast “Little Miracle Town” at the 1939 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows, New York.

The bride wore an ivory satin gown designed by the theater company’s cloakroom mistress, and around her neck she wore “a massive necklace of mummy heads with a scarab from the sarcophagus of a thousand-year-old Egyptian king.” Whether or not this piece of jewelry had received a pharaoh’s curse is unknown, but the 1939 registry shows that Winnie was now divorced from Jimmy Mac, so it may not have been so lucky for her.

After the wedding ceremony in the packed church, the wedding party retreated to the nearby South London Palace Theater on London Road, where the wedding cake was reported to be as big as Winnie. Photos show it standing on a table to be cut. It seems that much of the spectacle surrounding the wedding was purposely designed to promote Fred Roper, a showman of the highest order.

Cinema reviews show that Winnie performed with ‘Burton Lester’s Midgets’ well into the 1950s. She was a good friend and worked with Jimmie Clitheroe, another well-known short entertainer. Eventually she moved back to south London and lived in Lewisham for many years. Family members fondly remember telling funny stories and laughing contagiously. She died in November 1983.

Jimmy Mac also stayed in show business as a comedian and manager until at least the 1970s. He died in North London in 1984. Winnie may have been short, but the affection with which she was held by her fans was enormous.

Winnie Yelland later in life at a family event – Image courtesy of Derek Yelland

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