The Musical Legacy of The Countee Family Part 1

Some months ago, I blogged about a connection in my partner Paul’s tree to a Rev. Francis Nelson Countee, via his son Charles who married Paul’s great grandmother’s sister – Eliza Carter. That post focused on the fascinating life story of Charles’s father, but now is the turn of Charles and Eliza themselves.

Eliza was born in Loughborough, Leicestershire in 1870 and baptised in Leicester in 1871. Her parents were Joseph Claircoat(s) Carter – who at that time was a Framework Knitter, and Elizabeth Bishop who married in 1864 and over the course of their marriage had 13 children (of which three died in infancy) and Eliza was their 4th child.

As Eliza grew up, her siblings were mostly involved in work in the shoe and hosiery trade, her brothers having jobs like Rivetter in the Shoe Trade and Shoe Finisher, her sister Aubry was a Shoe Machinist and later a Shoe Fitter, and her other sisters Eva and Leah worked in fancy hosiery.

Eliza married Charles William Countee on 28th August 1887 in Wellingborough, Northamptonshire. Charles was a 20-year-old Salesman living at 24 Bell Street, son of Nelson Countee – Minister (deceased) and Eliza was 19 years old – a Machinist living at 11 Oxford Street, daughter of Joseph Carter – who by then had become a Chimney Sweep.

The 1891 census shows Charles and Eliza living at 4 Horeb Street, Ystradyfodwg, Pontypridd, Glamorganshire, Wales, as boarders in the home of a coal miner Silas Ashford and his wife Lidia. With them was their daughter Frances Mabel (known as Mabel) who was born in 1888 in Leicester. They did have a son William Nelson Countee who was born in 1889 in Blaby, Leicestershire, but he was staying with his Carter grandparents at the time of the census (down as Nelson.) What intrigued me was that Charles’s occupation was given as “Professional” and in a different handwriting next to it was written “Act” which was not given in the transcription on Findmypast. So, by that I assumed it meant he was an actor.

By 1901 Charles and Eliza were with her parents at 117 St Leonard’s Road, Leicester. Mabel and Nelson are not with them, but their youngest child George Frederick Louis was with them – down as Freddy. He was born in Barnsley, Yorkshire in 1895. Charles and Eliza are now both described as being Vocalists. Mabel was staying with her paternal grandmother Maria and was working as a Hosiery Machinist. Nelson was staying with his married maternal aunt Emily Gibson. I found a photograph of 117 St. Leonard’s Road. It is a small two bedroom house. It must have been a cramped living situation.

117 St Leonards Road Leicester

117 St Leonard’s Road, Leicester – from Zoopla

I had initially wondered what Charles’s father – a Minister, had made of his son going into the entertainment business, but when I had researched Charles’s father – it became apparent that Charles’s career in entertainment had been going for some time, as he had often accompanied his father on his tours around the country, singing to accompany his sermons and lectures in the late 1870s and early 1880s. It seems Eliza perhaps didn’t start her career in singing until after she and Charles had met and married. Of course I don’t know how they met, it may have been through singing somewhere.

I found an article in the Leicester Chronicle dated to 23rd Oct 1886, before Charles and Eliza got married, which shows Charles in quite a bad light…

Leicester Chronicle 23 Oct 1886 C Countee

Article from the newspapers collection on Findmypast (via the British Newspaper Archive)

“Aylestone – Charles W Countee, shoehand, Aylestone, was summoned for assaulting Maria Countee, his mother. Complainant said defendant did not bring home enough money to keep him, and when she spoke to him about it he lost his temper and struck her, knocking her out of her chair. P.C. Lockton deposed to seeing the bruise on complainant’s face when she made complaint to him. Defendant alleged that his mother got into a temper, and aggravated him, and after quarrelling for an hour and a half he pushed her into a chair, but did not hurt her. The Bench considered it a sad case, and one that must be dealt with with severity, and sentenced defendant to a month’s hard labour.”

Of course, it is hard to say who is telling the truth, Maria would have been about 41 and Charles just 18 or 19. Maria had been widowed just five months before the incident occurred, you can imagine how difficult life became to lose the breadwinner and to try to make ends meet, and expecting your children who were in work to contribute towards the household.

Early on in my research it wasn’t until I came across this article that I realised that Charles Countee was black – or at least mixed race in his case.

Northampton Mercury – 23 June 1888

“No Case

Charles William Countee, a coloured man, musician, 15 Thomas Street, High Fields, Leicester, was charged with stealing a coat, value 30s, the property of William Taylor on the 21st ult. Mr. C. C. Becke (Becke and Green) appeared for the defence. On the application of the Chief Constable, the prisoner was dismissed, as it was stated that the felony, if any, was not committed in this town.”

And then another dated 7th July 1888 from the Northampton Mercury which showed that William Taylor was not quite done with Charles yet…

“Brackley – Police Court – Friday June 29.

Before Mr. J. L. Stratton and Mr. F. J. Myers.

Charles Countee, a man of colour, of Leicester Street, Coventry, musician, was charged with stealing a cornet, value 15s, at Grimsbury, on May 21, the property of William Taylor, auctioneer. Mr. Phillips (Messrs. Pugh and Phillips, Northampton) prosecuted, and Mr. S. S. Smith (Fenny Stratford) defended. William Taylor deposed that prisoner was in his employ up to May 22 last as a general assistant. They were then at Grimsbury. It was part of the prisoner’s duty to go round the town blowing a cornet for advertising purposes. Stock was taken at Luton by his clerk under the supervision of Pearson, and in the stock book handed in to him was an entry of a cornet, 15s. Henry Hufton, a clerk in the employ of last witness, identified the cornet produced by the bruises on the bell of it. He also identified the box, as it was broken at the bottom. He saw the cornet on the night of the 21st May. He packed it up that night to go to Northampton, and missed it when they unpacked at that place on 23rd. George Thomas Harrison, the present manager to Mr. Taylor, also identified the cornet. For the defence, Mr. Smith address the Bench at length, and called Samuel Pearson, auctioneer, and formerly manager to the prosecutor, who deposed that he lent the prisoner 15s last July or August to purchase a cornet, but could not swear that the cornet produced was the one bought. Prisoner was committed for trial at the next Quarter Sessions.”

It seems interesting, if not somewhat telling, that the press felt it was important to note that Charles was “a man of colour” or “a coloured man” as if it has some bearing on the case. I wonder if William Taylor didn’t trust Charles due to his own prejudices? Highly likely given the time (and sadly often still true today for a great many people.) It seems quite depressing that the employment Charles had was to just blow a cornet to advertise a business in a street – for a man in his early 20s he should have been employed in something a little more rewarding as it would likely be he was paid a very minimum wage for this sort of work. He had previously been an Office Boy at the time of the 1881 census.

So, what was the outcome of this case? We find out in a later edition of the Northampton Mercury dated 20 Oct 1888.

“A Musician in Trouble
Charles Countee (21), musician, was indicted on a charge of having stolen a cornet, value 15s, the property of W. Taylor, at Warkworth, on the 21st May last. Prisoner, a coloured man, pleaded not guilty, and conducted his own defence in a very ingenious manner. Mr. Lindsell (instructed by Messrs. Pugh and Phillips) prosecuted. The point at issue was the ownership of the cornet, which Mr. Taylor alleged was his. From evidence produced it did not appear clear that the purchase had ever been entered among the items of the expenditure of the firm. Prisoner called as a witness Samuel Thomas Pearson, who said that when Countee came to work for them he had a cornet of his own, which was, however, worn out. Witness lent prisoner 15s to buy another cornet, which he did. He had never paid back the money, but afterwards brought back the cornet to witness and told him he was unable to pay for it. Cross examined: When he told the magistrates, at the previous hearing, that he bought the cornet, he meant that he found the money. Prisoner pointed out that the cornet was his own, that he had borne a good character, and said that his father was a minister, and his mother a Bible woman. The jury returned a verdict of Not Guilty, and the prisoner was discharged.”

When I first read this, I must admit I was so very much rooting for Charles to come out the victor, and when I saw about him defending himself – and how it was described as being “ingenious” I was very pleased. Although reflecting a little, I wonder if perhaps this was written as if a little surprised that “a coloured man” could have taken the initiative to defend himself and point out the issue of ownership in the first place? Perhaps I am reading too much into it?

Charles Countee Criminal Register Entry 1888

The criminal register entry for Charles – from Findmypast

His statement at the end about him being a good character, and using details about his parents to help sway that, does seem a little at odds to that first newspaper mention of him and the alleged assault on his own mother. I then came across him again in the Leicester Chronicle dated 16 Aug 1890.

“Ratby – Charles Countee, pianist, Leicester, was summoned for assaulting Frederick Harrison, sign writer, Leicester, at Ratby, on the 6th August. The prosecutor applied to have the case withdrawn, as Countee had tendered him an apology, and he believed he was truly sorry for what he had done. The case was accordingly withdrawn.”

Of course, we don’t have any details about what the assault was in relation to, but it must have been initially deemed serious enough to have been brought before the local sessions. It is good to see though that an apology sufficed and that the case was dropped.

From these articles we can tell that despite his religious upbringing, he wasn’t spared from trouble. Perhaps there was an element of rebelling, struggling with tough times at home with not earning much, or was he simply just someone on the receiving end of racist prejudices, assuming he was a thief? Did he lash out at Frederick Harrison because he was provoked after a racist comment or just simply had a disagreement? We will never know. What we do know from these articles is that Charles was multi-talented musically – being able to play a cornet and a piano.

I first started to see mentions of Charles in the papers for his entertainment career outside of his travels with his father in 1897, when he appeared in The Era – dated 24th April 1897 where he is mentioned as being part of the company of performers at Cropper’s Palace of Varieties in Ashton under Lyne, Lancashire, run by a G.H. Cropper. “Mr. Charles Countee is a capital baritone and a good topical vocalist.” He performed along with people such as Miss. Marion Webster – a sweet and charming ballad singer, Miss. Pauline St. John – a serio-comic. Mr. Will Leavern – a motto vocalist and a tenor Mr. Joe Sykes.

I first came across Eliza in The Era dated 1st May 1897 – but not under the name Eliza – she performed under the name of The Two Countees also working for Cropper’s Palace of Varieties. They are described as duettists and were already heading the programme. I believe at this time The Two Countees were Charles and Eliza, sometimes they have been called “The Countees” as a mention in The Era in November 1899 refers to them as “The Countees (Marie and Charley) duettists” and then separately “Mr. Chas Countee, vocalist”.

I saw an advertisement in The Era on 2nd April 1898 which mentioned The Two Countees:

Wanted – First class variety artists, all lines. April 11th, six nights. Terms to Arthur Milton, 1 West Grove Terrace, Halifax. The Two Countees and Neros, write.” Perhaps he was their manager?

From April 1898 Charles is described as a comedian, The Era of 30th June 1900 reported that “the favourite duettists” The Two Countees were topping the bill (again) and were “as popular as ever“. Charles this time was described as “a coloured vocalist.” In other entries he is described as a “favourite artist.

Between the years of 1897 and 1900 they seemed to mostly be appearing at Croppers Palace of Varieties in Ashton under Lyne in Lancashire. This was where a lot of my ancestors came from, so I do wonder if any of my family ever watched them perform? It would be wonderful if they did.

The papers then go quiet for a period after 1900. I found a mention of The Countees in early February performing at the Derby Palace of Varieties, “The Countees are possessed of fine voices and they were heard to much advantage in their able rendering of a couple of well-known songs.”

Palace of Varieties Derby

The Palace of Varieties in Derby – a former corn exchange building – image from

Sadly Charles Countee died on 21st February 1905 at 57 St. Leonard’s Road, Leicester. He was noted as being a Professional Singer and his cause of death was enteric fever, which had lasted 1 month, peritonitis which had lasted 4 days and cardiac failure. This is basically Typhoid Fever most likely caused by the Salmonella bacterium, which Charles may have contracted by eating or drinking food or water contaminated by faeces of an infected person. He would have presented symptoms of a high fever, headaches, stomach ache and diarrhoea or maybe constipation. These days Typhoid Fever is mostly only seen in developing countries and here in the UK we can be vaccinated against it before travelling to known locations where it is a problem. Back in 1905 antibiotics were unheard of, had they been widely available then Charles could have been treated within the first few days and made a full recovery, sadly that wasn’t the case. The loss of Charles must have been such a blow to Eliza and their three children, his decline likely very rapid and his loss quite sudden.

57 St Leonards Road Leicester

57 St. Leonard’s Road, Leicester from Zoopla – the house Charles died in.

I believe that at some point, whether before or after 1905, The Two Countees then consisted of Eliza and her daughter Mabel, with Eliza using the stage name Marion. We pick them back up again in 1908 where The Two Countees are mentioned as performing at the The Grand Hippodrome in Sheffield in April.

hippodrome sheffield

The Hippodrome in Sheffield. It had opened as a variety theatre a year before The Two Countees appeared there. Image from

They are variously described as being; harmonising vocalists, delightful vocalists, belles of harmony, “well to the fore as duettists and humourists, and gain hearty applause“.

They spent the next couple of years touring and performing. I have tracked them in the newspapers appearing at the following places:

May 1908 – The Grand Theatre, Bolton, Lancashire

June 1908 – Tivoli, Manchester, Lancashire

Aug 1908 – Hippodrome, Wigan, Lancashire

Sep 1908 – Empire Music Hall, Burnley, Lancashire

Jan 1909 – Royal Theatre of Varieties, Warrington, Cheshire

Feb 1909 – Hippodrome, Stalybridge, Cheshire

Feb 1909 – Hippodrome, Greenock, Scotland

May 1909 – Tivoli, Manchester, Lancashire

June 1909 – Grand Tivoli, Liverpool, Lancashire

June 1909 – New Hippodrome, Hull, Yorkshire

June 1909 – The Central Hall, Sheffield, Yorkshire

July 1909 – Oxford Theatre, Middlesbrough, Yorkshire

Aug 1909 – Empire Music Hall, Burnley, Lancashire

Aug 1909 – Hippodrome, Leigh, Lancashire

Jan 1910 – Theatre Royal, Attercliffe, Yorkshire

Mar 1910 – Hippodrome, Peterborough, Northamptonshire

Apr 1910 – Hippodrome, Dewsbury, Yorkshire

Aug 1910 – Palace of Varieties, Northampton, Northamptonshire

Sep 1910 – Empire, Hull, Yorkshire

Sep 1910 – Tivoli, Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

Oct 1910 – Hippodrome, Exeter, Devon

Nov 1910 – Grand Theatre, Bolton, Lancashire

I have found some pictures of the various venues they performed at, they must have been such vibrant places, full of song and dance, laughter and good times. At a time when cinema was just emerging, this was one of the main sources of entertainment, affordable for most and you got to see a range of acts. The images below show a programme from the Tivoli Theatre in Manchester from, an artists impression of the Grand Theatre & Hippodrome in Leigh from and a photograph of the Burnley Empire Music Hall from – the organisation who are fund raising to restore the theatre as it is in a state of disrepair.

Notably the last entry on the list above – Eliza and Mabel were performing on the same bill as Lille Langtry, a famous actress, known perhaps more for her private life, than her career. I wonder if they met, spoke to one another?


Lillie Langtry taken in 1899 – from

Part 2 will pick up with Eliza and her family from 1911 onwards.

8 thoughts on “The Musical Legacy of The Countee Family Part 1

  1. I’ve seen similar references based on race and religion in US papers from those times. It’s always disturbing. I wonder when newspapers stopped doing that. It’s such a sign that if you weren’t white and Christian, you were something “other” that had to be noted.

    Charles certainly had an interesting and exciting life! On to Part 2.

  2. Once again Alex, a fantastic blog. Thank you.
    Do you have the photo of The Two Countees ? I thought that I had sent it to you. Let me know if I didn’t.

  3. Hi Alex, Mable Countee was my Nanna and I have quite a few photo’s of them on stage if you would like me to send you some. Could give you some back ground to Mable’s life if you would like it. Diane

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