Alvin Sawyer


Alvin Sawyer (b. 1874? Tarmage, Ohio, USA to Alvin Sawyer (senior) and Charlotte) and The Smart Set Cadets were a music hall act that used to travel around Britain in the early 20th century. Notably, they did concert parties in Prestwick and Largs (click to see pictures) near Glasgow in the summers. Sawyer was his stage name – his real name was Alvin Moore. G.H. Elliot “The Chocolate Coloured Coon” was his younger partner who went on to great fame in England.

Although born in the U.S., Alvin and family had moved to England by the time he was seven.

Alvin had an off-beat sense of humour, although he was quite shy off stage. It is said that Spike Milligan’s father used to do G. H. Elliot impressions when Spike was young in India – maybe a little bit of Goon humour – and thus some zany British humour – came from Alvin. The Beatles did an album called “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” – such a group was not entirely fictional and I’m sure that there were many other pseudo-military acts in the UK at the time. (Please let me know).

Alvin actually volunteered for the first world war, however, since he had been born in the U.S, was not allowed to join up, although he grew up at Whitley Bay near Newcastle Upon Tyne. The above picture shows Alvin with his family in 1928 on his retirement. In the middle is his wife, Nellie Sawyer (Moore), who he married in 1910. She was also his pianist, composer, and music director. Their three children are Alvin, Kenneth, and Lois Moore (Joyner). Ken and Lois were both born in Largs at 55 Main Street, just opposite Largs station.

Barrfields Pavilion was opened in Largs in 1928 – Alvin was offered to run it, but apparently he preferred to retire down south in Rottingdean, where the family lived in a cottage named Cumbrae, after the isle of Cumbrae opposite Largs. He also built a larger house Alkenlo, after the children, Alvin, Kenneth, and Lois, but the family never moved in. He helped organize the village fete in Rottingdean, and was much appreciated for his service.

If you visit Largs, you should also take the ferry across to Cumbrae and the bus down to Milport. Also visit Vikingar, and Lord Kelvin’s house to the north of the town, which has an interesting tower.

Nellie was a very talented musician and could play any piece on the piano on first hearing. Here is the sheet music for “In Your Simple Red Cross Uniform”, which shows a very sophisticated understanding of harmony, like beginning with a major II7 chord leading to V7, in other words Lydian mode. If anyone has any other of Nellie’s music would they please be able to scan it and send it to me.

Alvin Sawyer and The Smart Set Cadets are mentioned in a recent book “Scotland and the Music Hall”. The book says he was an American, although his family had returned to England when he was eight years old and he spoke with a Newcastle accent rather than an American accent. However, this was enough for the authorities to turn him down volunteering for service in WWI. In 1909, Alvin took over the waterfront entertainment at Largs with the Smart Set Cadets – a “dapper concert party who dressed in smart naval uniforms”. Soon there were sister troops in Preswick and Troon – they represented “the epitome of Edwardian style”.

The entertainment proceeded as in this quote from “Scotland and the Music Hall”:

The entertainment presented by such groups was tailored to the family audience, taking its cue from the mood of optimism and well-being that pervaded the holidaymakers. Coarse, not to say political or contentious, material was strictly excluded. Combining music-hall elements with a compressed, revue-style format, shows began with an up-beat opening chorus in which the company introduced themselves and welcomed the audience, after which the programme continued with individual spots, gags and sketches. After the interval, in which a member of the company went round 'bottling' for contributions with a bottle of collecting box, the second half continued with more of the same, the show finishing with a cheery ensemble farewell. Parties usually numbered between six and eight performers, including a piano accompanist and two or three female members. The range of artists would typically include a senior comic, who would chair proceedings, a pair of sentimental duettists, a serio-comic singer, a ventriloquist or other speciality, and a comic double-act of some sort. Such parties became extremely popular with holidaymakers, not the least because the performers, seem close up in stage make-up or by the light of the tilly lamps that were lit as dusk fell, seemed glamorous and exotic figures, the handsomer men often acquiring considerable local followings. Sawyer's Smart-Set Cadets performed at Largs until 1928.

The “piano accompanist” would have been Nellie who had attended the Royal College of Music. Alvin and Nellie are buried at the back of St Margarets Church, Rottindean in East Sussex near Brighton, England. G. H. Elliot is also buried in the church yard. He is mentioned in Spike Milligan’s obituary:

Milligan was born in Poona, India. He was the son of an Irish captain in the Royal Artillery, and Irishness, represented by his contempt for authority and his free-wheeling humour - one thinks of the novelist Flann O'Brien - always ran through his work. His father was a frustrated entertainer who did impressions of GH Elliott, the "Chocolate-Coloured Coon" at camp concerts, but never had the confidence to turn professional, and Milligan appeared at such concerts from an early age.

Another mention on the Web:

G H Elliott, The Chocolate Coloured Coon, was a veteran of British Music Hall. He wore black face, and when I saw him in Huddersfield he was in his seventies and almost in heart failure. He wouldn’t slow down, he cavorted around the stage and gave his very best, but he was breathless after each number and at times seemed like to die and cremate himself on the footlights. He had inspired Spike Milligan’s father to imitate him, but he had been too shy to perform in public, a condition that did not affect his son.

Rottingdean had some other famous residents, namely Rudyard Kipling and Jimmy Edwards. Strangely enough an uncle of mine P.L. Bhandari had occupied Kipling’s office in Lahore, Punjab, India in the 1940s. He was also a writer.

More postcards and pictures of Alvin Sawyer


                    Alvin Sawyer                                                            Nellie Sawyer


          Alvin Sawyer in Rottingdean                                           Alvin Sawyer’s grandson

         shortly before his death in 1954                                          (recent photograph)

Here are some other pictures I found on the Web

Business and scientific data and conversions for iPad/iPhoneSI_Data_Converter.html


Alvin Jr, Ken, Nellie, Lois, Alvin Sawyer