Joey Grimaldi – the First Clown

Joseph Grimaldi Park

It’s February now and all Londoners know what that means, the circus is coming to town. Perhaps that concept has been lost in the last hundred years but it was often the case that February was the  month in which the circuses started to perform in the Capital. 

In this blog post we remember a famous son of Islington, Joseph Grimaldi (1778 – 1837). Joey, as he was commonly known, was born to a life on the stage. Both his parents were acrobats and at the age of three Joey took his place on the boards entertaining Londoners. I wish that we had photos showing the three-year-old Joey performing his first acrobatic stunts dressed as a monkey. Joey performed an act with his father, Giuseppe, who wore a sturdy belt and spun in a circle with Joey attached by chain. Joey would fly in a great circle through the air. In later life Joey told the story of the night the chain broke, and he was thrown into the audience.  Here is a man who learned early on that great artists had to endure great suffering. 

When Joey was just nine years old his father, Giuseppe, died. Young Joey now became a full-time acrobat to help put food on the table and support his mother. He performed at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane which catered to an audience of the wealthy. Often on the same night he would perform at Sadler’s Wells in Islington whose performances were pitched a bit lower for the working classes. If you look at the distance between the two theatres it is calculated today at 1.5 miles (2.4km) and will take you 12 minutes to drive. Joey ran that distance from one theatre to the other in just 8 minutes. On some evenings he performed in three different theatres. 

Joey gained skill and popularity to become the most popular performer in the country. He was not great at speaking or learning lines, so all his performances relied on his acrobatic skills and physicality to make people laugh. Joey was following in a long tradition, much of it Italian, of stage comedians popularised since the sixteenth century. But Joey was very modern, and he devised a new look with very colourful clothing, white face paint, and drawing on the face to emphasise his features. He even wore his hair in mohawk style. Before Joey Grimaldi most clowns wore masks, but he invented what we today clearly recognise as the image of a modern clown. 

His stage performances often included tumbling, jumping from great heights, being kicked, and other physical feats few of us would want to endure for even one show. All the hard work took its toll on his body and at aged 43 his doctors were describing his body as decrepit and appearing to be elderly. He had a respiratory ailment which meant that he struggled to breath at times. Within a few years he was forced to retire. 

Frontage remembering St James Pentonville

Not working, and having been swindled out of his savings, he was reduced to wretchedness. There were a few charity performances but not enough to sustain him. On his death in 1837 Joey was buried in the Church of St James Pentonville. The church has gone, and the building has been replaced by church-looking offices. The churchyard remains with just the grave of Joey Grimaldi being noteworthy. Today the area is known as Joseph Grimaldi Park. Here you can also find a musical sculpture by Henry Krokatsis in the likeness of two coffin shaped markers. When you step on the pieces a bell will ring. Those will incredible skill, and I’m not one of them, can play the tune Hot Codlins made famous by Joey Grimaldi. 

Memorial to Grimaldi and Dibden

On the first Sunday in February the clown community gathers to celebrate their father, Joseph Grimaldi. Celebrants who are clowns are asked to attend in clown attire. Celebrants who are not clowns may wish to sit upstairs in the gallery. The service is held at All Saints Church, Livermere Rd, Haggerston, London E8 4EZ. I’ll see you there.

Joey Grimaldi’s grave

For more contact Daniel Hausherr the author of this post.