Charles Penrose and Fanny Blows

Charles Penrose ‘The Laughing Policeman’
and Fanny Blows

Charles Penrose born in Biggleswade created a unique selection of comical & witty records between 1911 and 1933, for various labels, originally played on wind-up gramophones. The Laughing Policeman, made in 1926, became a cult classic in the 50’s, 60’s & 70’s on the BBC programme Children’s Favourites and is still made use of by advertisers. I can recognise his Biggleswade accent and every word is clearly understood. He was living at Putney in 1901 with his wife Hetty and must have appeared at London music halls. During the 1930’s he had small parts in quite a few British films and was a regular radio performer when everyone listened to the BBC. I remember his popular wartime radio programme Down at the old Pig & Whistle and my father telling me that he was born in Biggleswade. His gramophone records are now collector’s items and much sought after.

The song starts:
“I know a fat old policeman,
He’s always on our street,
A fat and jolly red-faced man,
He really is a treat”

The Biggleswade Chronicle of 8th December 1939 quoted an article in the Radio Times when Charles wrote about his early life in Biggleswade. “I was born and brought up in what was then the little market town of Biggleswade. My father was a maker of clocks and watches and I was expected to follow in his footsteps. By the time I was about sixteen I had become quite useful at repairing clocks, and a certain little old woman, who had a very pretty little cottage, always sent for me when anything went wrong with her most prized possession, an old grandfather clock. One day a message came from her by one of the schoolchildren, ‘If you please Mrs. Fanny Blows says will you come and have a look at her old grandfather.’ Somewhat ambiguous, but I knew what she meant. When I arrived the old lady seemed very perturbed. I said ‘don’t worry, Mrs. Blows we’ll soon put the old clock right’. She said ‘When it stops dead like that it’s a sure sign of a death in our family and I’m the last you know’. ‘Nonsense’ I said, ‘you’ll live for years yet’. Strangely enough, I could find nothing wrong with the old clock, and after a drop of oil it was ticking merrily away as usual.

I may add that whenever I again went to see Mrs. Blows’ clock she always gave me a right royal tea with what she called her ‘home made seedy cake’. On one occasion she said, ‘You know my old jug, the one you set such store on. I want you to have it, and I want you to take it now, just to please me. It’s been in our family for years.’ I’d always admired Mrs. Blows’ old jug for its rich gay colours and the old mans face somehow seemed like that of an old friend. He always seemed to smile at me benignly when ever I visited the cottage. Well, I didn’t like to take the jug, but she was so persuasive that it ended in my going off with it wrapped under my arm. Little did she know it was the start of a collection of Toby Jugs, and that her old jug was a very much sought after early ‘Ralph Wood’ Strangely enough, a week or two after she had given me the jug, the old lady died.”

Charles Penrose died in 1952 aged 75 and a national newspaper report wrote that he was born in Biggleswade. The North Beds Courier queried this, and surely enough his stepbrother, Mr. A. E. Brown of 6 Banks Road, contacted the paper to say that his father Obadiah Brown, who was a widower, had married Mrs. Cawse, then a widow. The real name of Charles Penrose was Charles Cawse. He lived over the Jewellers shop at 1, High Street, next to the White Horse.

Research reveals that Richard James Cranch Cawse was born in Lambeth about 1846 and was apprenticed in 1860 to John Jefferies 1a renowned watch & clock maker at 25 High Street, Biggleswade next to the Crown Hotel. James married a local girl (according to the 1881 census), Elizabeth King in Shoreditch, London at the end of 1869. They settled down in Biggleswade, setting up as a jeweller, watchmaker and silversmith at the site of an ancient public house the Dog & Doublet at 3 High Street, next to the White Horse.

The Cawse family is listed in the 1881 census2 together with his wife, two daughters (Blanche Adeline and Alice Elizabeth) and a son Charles Penrose Dunbar Cawse who was born there in 1876.

The following appeared in the Bristol Mercury and Daily Post ( Bristol, England ),
Thursday, August 13, 1885; Issue 11622.
A daring robbery was committed at Biggleswade early on Tuesday morning at the shop of a jeweller named CAWSE. Some 32 watches, a number of chains, rings, and brooches were taken, and the robber was seen to run down a lane in the direction of Hitchin. Seven watches and chains were picked up that he had dropped in his flight. A chair and ladder had been taken out of the church and used to get over some gates.
The family moved away before 1891 (not in Biggleswade census for that year) and in 1894 the business was sold to Alfred Henry Blake whose watercolours of local scenes are much sought after nowadays. After Alfred died in 1925 his business was sold to Humphries & Edwards and they carried on for more than 40 years. Woodward’s, Solicitors are the present occupants.

A.W. Watkin in ‘True Tales told of Biggleswade of Old” wrote “ An old lady called Fanny Blows was a very strange person. She always wheeled a one-wheel barrow about the town, so that she could sit on it when she felt tired, and mostly was to be seen on the Market Square. Here she got her living; she accosted passers-by with jokes and, mostly without request, received money. Her appearance was very quaint, for she wore other peoples’ clothes that had been given to her; none of which ever fitted her. Mostly she had on a coal-scoop bonnet with a frill inside, after the style of Madame Tussaud. She would sing and dance and swing her skirts in real ballerina fashion, generally being well paid for her antics. The police, of which we had a few, never interfered. Her best source of help came from the Barnett’s, in the Park, (Squire Barnett of Stratton Park) whom she visited frequently, wheeling her barrow to the house She never came away empty her geniality always provoking sympathy.”

In the 1851 census, Oliver and Fanny Blows lived in Shortmead Street, near to what is now Beaumont Close Nursing Home, they had two daughters and a son. Oliver was an Agricultural labourer, Fanny and the children were all straw plaiters. Next door lived John and Mary Blows with two daughters. Fanny Blows who was born in Potton was listed as a widow in the 1881 census living in a tiny cottage in Fox’s Yard, Sun Street where Harris’s Amusement Depot now stands. The Biggleswade Chronicle on 10th June 1896 reported that Fanny Blows died at the Workhouse aged 80….

Ken Page
9th August 2005
(with additions by Mike Strange, May 2007 and March 2010)

1 From The Morning Chronicle ( London, England ), Friday, September 26, 1856; Issue 28004.
Married – On the 23rd inst., at Biggleswade Chapel, Mr Joseph SALTER, of Kentish-town, to Elizabeth, youngest daughter of Mr. John JEFFRIES, silversmith of that place.

2 1881 Census Reference – RG11/1630, Folio 14, Page 21
– In addition to the family there was a domestic servant Jan Elizabeth FLANDERS of Biggleswade