J. H. Stead: ‘The Perfect Cure’
by Bob Davenport
Q: Why is J. H. Stead like Holloway’s ointment?
A: Because he is a perfect cure.
Readers of the 1863 edition of Riddles and Jokes. Collected by the Editor of ‘Every Boy’s Magazine’ might not have collapsed with mirth at that exchange, but they would almost certainly have understood it, for in the previous years the music-hall performer J. H. Stead had achieved an enormous success with a song called ‘The Perfect Cure’, which, as Alfred Rosling Bennett recalled some 60 years later, ‘raged through the land like an influenza’ and, the Oxford English Dictionary suggests, led to a vogue of using ‘cure’ – ‘apparently an abbreviation of curious or curiosity: compare curio’ – to mean ‘an odd or eccentric person; a funny fellow’.
Bennett saw Stead in action at the Crystal Palace in January 1861: ‘Then there was Mr. Stead, who sang and danced The Perfect Cure. And he was all that. He sprang a couple of feet in the air at every bar, and never paused for some ten minutes. The words [see below] were the merest drivel, the attraction consisting solely in the eccentric appearance of the singer, his antics, agility, and endurance.’ He kept his feet together, his arms at his sides, and jumped stiff-legged from his toes.
A couple of months later Charles Dickens saw him at Weston’s Music Hall, in Holborn, London. In an article describing the variety of entertainments on offer at these fairly new things called music halls, he described a ‘comic singer, … a slim inexhaustible man, who accompanied himself (if the expression may be allowed) by a St. Vitus’s Dance of incessant jumping, continued throughout his song, until the jumps were counted by the thousand: the performer being as marvellously in possession of his fair mortal allowance of breath at the end of the exhibition as at the beginning.’ That was Stead.
He was still at it 8 years later, when Henry C. Lunn of the Musical Times went to a ‘Comic Concert’ in St James’s Hall:
Mr. J. H. Stead … sang and danced the composition which has made his reputation – the ‘Perfect Cure.’ Mr. Stead is usually described as ‘the man who never stood still;’ and indeed, seeing that he has jumped into so good a thing, there is no reason why he should relax his efforts as long as the public will pay to see him, and his muscular system will hold out. Abstractedly, there is nothing either pleasing or amusing in seeing a full-grown man, in a striped suit and an eccentric cap, bounding up and down like an India-rubber ball, whilst he is trying to sing. But it is clever, nevertheless; and, although we do not sympathise with his ‘line of endeavour,’ as Carlyle says, we can at least praise him for his industry.
James Hurst Stead was born in Hull, Yorkshire, in about 1828, the son of George Hurst and Grace Stead, who married in December 1830. After his death a correspondent to the show-business weekly The Era recalled seeing him in 1852 in a small concert room called the Military Arms in Portsea, Portsmouth. His comic-song repertoire then included ‘I’ve Joined the Teetotal Society’ and ‘The Cure’, which he sang wearing ‘a long black coat, large white neckcloth, gaiters, and large rimmed low black hat; in fact the costume of a French curé – the chorus being sung after the Quaker fashion, with the raising and lowering of the body. It was very funny, and he used to meet with great applause … His salary was then £1 a week [equivalent to about £125 today].’ In the following year The Era announced that ‘“Pop Goes the Weasel” has been introduced by Mr J. H. Stead in a laughable entertainment entitled What’s o’Clock’ at the Royal Colosseum, Bradford.
In 1856 Wilton’s Music Hall in London was advertising the ‘Engagement of the greatest Buffo Comic Singer in England, the celebrated Mr. J. H. Stead’. In August 1860 he was at Weston’s Music Hall, with which he would become particularly associated, and The Era commented that his ‘singular jumping song, which gives him the name of “the Cure,” would of itself afford the visitor a rare and peculiar treat’. The bowing French cleric of his earlier act had by now been replaced by the pogoing figure in a striped costume and dunce’s hat seen by Bennett, Dickens and Lunn.
The tune had been composed by Jonathan Blewitt (1782–1853), and was originally used in a song called ‘The Monkey and the Nuts’. Blewitt sold the copyright for 2 guineas, and so received none of the more than £2,000 that his music made with the words used by Stead. These told a cautionary tale:
Young Love he plays some funny tricks,
With us unlucky elves,
So gentlemen, I pray look out,
And take care of yourselves,
For once I met a nice young maid,
Looking so demure,
All at once to me she said
You’re a perfect cure …
I wasted on her lots of cash,
In hopes her love to share,
I with her used to cut a dash,
And all things went on square
Until I caught another chap
Who on his knees did woo her;
She cried as she my face did slap,
You’re a perfect cure …
I was laid up for sev’n long months,
Indeed I’m not romancing,
Which brought me on Mr Antinny’s dance,
That’s why I keep on dancing.
One day a Beadle call’d on me,
I felt alarmed you’re sure,
Along with me, come on, says he [spoken: ‘I know yer’],
For you’re the perfect cure …
He took me ’fore the magistrate,
And there stood faithless she,
An artful tale she did relate,
And laid the blame on me.
The case created lots of fun,
At my expense be sure,
Look out or else you may be done,
Like I the perfect cure …
Each verse was followed by
A cure, a cure, a cure, a cure,
Now isn’t I a cure,
For here I go,
My high gee wo [i.e. horse],
For I’m a perfect cure.
And there was a walk-around written in halfway through – perhaps to permit him to catch his breath.
Stead was, said The Era after his death ‘encored five times nightly as “The Perfect Cure” at Weston’s Music Hall, Holborn. On one occasion the jumps he took from the platform during the singing of this eccentric song were calculated to be only four short of five hundred, and this dangerous form of exercise he took each night for more than a year.’
In fact, as the 1869 Musical Times review demonstrates, he carried on performing this song for much more than a year. In 1881 The Era reported that ‘Mr J. H. Stead, whom we may call a veteran comic singer as compared with many, and who is as capable of amusing an audience as the majority of newer hands’, had recently concluded his act at the Bedford Music Hall with ‘his old, unique, and still popular performance as “The Cure”’, and in 1884 ‘a distinguished Philadelphia physician’, in an article on whether skipping over a rope damaged the health, reported that ‘Last year, when in London, I walked into Pavilion Music Hall one evening and my old friend Jimmy Stead was dancing “The Cure.” I don’t think it has shortened his life at all.’
Stead was not the first person to sing the song: Henri D’Alcorn, whose company had published it, recalled that the song was first performed at the Mogul Music Hall (later renamed the Middlesex), ‘and was sung before being taken up by the late J. H. Stead to a scissors grinding machine accompaniment, in lieu of the jumping performance’.
The tune was at some point adopted by fiddlers:
Stead’s act also influenced another branch of show-business. In nineteenth-century England, long before the arrival of films and television, puppet shows were a popular form of entertainment for adults, and several of them travelled around the country presenting shortened versions of London’s latest popular entertainments. In the 1860s, extending and contracting trick marionettes performed to the chorus of ‘The Perfect Cure’ in these shows, and became known as ‘cures’ themselves.
Stead’s other big hit was ‘The Great Sensation Song’, written by Frank Hall and – at least in the published version – commenting on theatrical regulations, conflict between the northern and southern states in America, fashions, the franchise, and popular preaching:
Up and down the blessed town
I run for information;
Trying to discover if
There’s any new sensation.
Politics and accidents
And scandalizing too, Sir,
Either’s all the same to me,
As long as it is new, Sir.
‘His “Sensation” song, and “The Cure,” are peculiarly his own; and in their execution Mr. Stead is unapproachable,’ declared The Era in August 1861.
The census for that year shows Stead living in St Pancras, London, with his 61-year-old mother, and gives his occupation as ‘Comedian’. The 1871 census has him living at a different address in St Pancras – 3 Prebend Street, now Baynes Street, Camden Town – with Sophia Stead, some 20 years his junior and listed as ‘Wife’, and daughters ages 2 and 1, as well as a domestic servant. Burial records indicate that a 3-year-old son, Thomas Rushbrook Stead, had died nearly 4 years earlier. In 1881, at the same address, James and Sophia had a further four daughters and a son, but no servant now. Another daughter was born in 1883, but died when a month old.
Stead was a keen fisherman, and would often walk to his fishing ground as soon as his performance was over, to be ready for the first light of day. He would be seen on the banks of the river Lea with his friend the comic singer Billy Randall, ‘pulling out the roach’, a writer to The Era recalled in 1893.
In March 1885 The Era published a letter intended
to draw the attention of proprietors and managers of music halls, also brother and sister artists, to the case of our dear old friend Stead, the Cure. He has been an out-door patient of the Brompton Hospital for the Chest and Lungs during the last fifteen months, and as we all know that he has worked hard for the last thirty years and proved himself to be a faithful servant of the British public, also one of the first to assist at a benefit for a fellow artist, I beg to suggest that those of our creed with more influence than myself will form themselves into a committee, and take one of the popular halls, and give a substantial testimonial benefit to the grand old man.
In October it announced that ‘Mr J. H. Stead, the once famous “Cure,” we hear, is at present in the Hospital for Diseases of the Chest, Victoria-park, where he has been for the past five weeks.’
Benefit concerts were advertised and subscriptions invited, with the comment ‘It need only be mentioned that he has a wife and ten children dependent upon him for support, whilst there is not the remotest hope of his ever being able to resume his profession.’ (James and Sophia had 13 children in all, of whom 3 predeceased him.) One benefit took place at Shoreditch Town Hall on 30 November and included ‘a new overture called “The Cure,” arranged by Mr. G. W. Hunt’; performed by Miss Amy Vernon and Mr J. Baker, it was ‘most cordially received’. With subscriptions, £163 1s. 10d. was raised. Another benefit, on 2 December at the former Weston’s Music Hall, renamed the Royal, raised £104 5s. 4d.
And during the last quarter of 1885 James Hurst Stead and Sophia Elizabeth Rushbrook got married. It seems that she had hitherto been only his common-law wife, but the seriousness of his health had presumably prompted them to regularise their relationship.
Stead continued to decline. On 9 January 1886 The Era reported that ‘Mr. J. H. Stead, “The Cure,” last week alarmed his friends by exhibiting symptoms of serious mental aberration, and his removal to a lunatic asylum has been ordered by his medical attendant.’
Finally came the news that on 24 January 1886 he had died. Reporting his death, The Era noted that
Two benefits were lately given for his advantage, and the interesting fact was quite recently discovered that he had no less than £2,700 invested in the funds [equivalent to over £300,000 today]. As he at one time lost a large sum through the failure of a bank, he must have been a man of provident habits, especially as he had a large family to keep, and salaries at the time when he flourished were much smaller on the music hall stage than they are at present.
The Glasgow Herald commented, ‘This, and similar cases which have lately happened, may, it is feared, tempt the charitable to hesitate before relieving even real distress in the future.’
He was buried in St Pancras Cemetery on 2 February. An open hearse accompanied by three mourning coaches carried his body from Camden Town to East Finchley, where ‘a large number of residents of Camden-town also assembled in the cemetery.’ A month later his estate was valued at £3,134 17s. for probate purposes.
• Richard Anthony Baker, British Music Hall: An Illustrated History (Stroud: Sutton, 2005)
• Alfred Rosling Bennett, London and Londoners in the Eighteen-Fifties and Sixties (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1924)
• J. Blewitt and F. C. Perry, ‘Song of the Perfect Cure’ (London, 12th edn, )
• Nick Daly, ‘The Chromolithographers of Modern Life’
• Charles Dickens, ‘Managers and Music-Halls’, All the Year Round, 23 March 1861
• The Era, 16 June 1853 (‘Provincial Theatricals’); 27 January 1856 (advertisement for Wilton’s Music Hall); 26 August 1860 (‘Weston’s Grand Music Hall’); 25 August 1861 (‘Weston’s Music Hall’); 21 May 1881 (’The London Music Halls’); 14 March 1885 (’J. H. Stead, the Cure’, letter from Charles Murray); 3 October 1885 (JHS in Victoria Park hospital); 7, 14, 21, 28 November 1885 (advertisements for benefits); 5 December 1885 (’The J. H. Stead Benefits); 12 December 1885 (results of Royal benefit); 9 January 1886 (JHS mental decline); 16 January 1886 (results of Shoreditch benefit); 30 January 1886 (‘Death of Mr. James H. Stead’), 6 February 1886 (‘Funeral of J. H. Stead’); 13 February 1886 (’The Cure’, letter from H. D’Alcorn); 20 February 1886 (‘The Cure’, letter from James Somers Dyer); 4 November 1893 (‘Random Recollections’, letter from J. P. Billings)
• Frank Hall, ‘The Great Sensation Song’ (London: Foster & Co., [1861?])
• Henry C. Lunn, ‘A Comic Concert’, Musical Times, 1 August 1869
• Riddles and Jokes. Collected by the Editor of ‘Every Boy’s Magazine’, 3rd series (London: Routledge, Warne, and Routledge, 1863)
• Clement Scott and Cecil Howard, The Life and Reminiscences of E. L. Blanchard, with Notes from the Diary of Wm. Blanchard, vol. 2 (London Hutchinson, 1891)
• ‘Skipping the Rope a Good Thing’ (from the Philadelphia Times of 15 June 1884), Carroll Herald, 12 November 1884
• Victoria & Albert museum, notes on a ‘cure’ marionette from the Tiller–Clowes troupe