Petticoat Lane market and Ras Prince Monolulu

The fabulous racing tipster Prince Monolulu with 'TV stable girl' Phyllis Bebb.

One of the best-known and flamboyant London showmen who pitched up at Petticoat Lane market every Sunday wasn’t Alan Sugar, who started his business career as a stall-holder at the famous East End market, but a black racing-tipster who grandly called himself Ras Prince Monolulu. In fact, from the 1920s until he died in 1965, and unless Paul Robeson was visiting the country, he was probably the most famous black person in Britain.

Petticoat Lane market has, in one form or another, existed in the East End for hundreds of years. The actual road that was called Petticoat Lane had its name changed to Middlesex Street in the 1830s – the word ‘petticoat’ was deemed a little unsavoury for the young Queen Victoria – but the original name has stuck to mean the general area.

Petticoat Lane Market in 1946

Petticoat Lane Market in 1946

Petticoat Lane, 1938

Petticoat Lane, 1938

Monolulu on Derby day in 1954

Monolulu usually wore an ostentatious head-dress of ostrich feathers, a multi-coloured cloak and gaiters, a huge scarf wrapped around his waist and was hardly ever without his huge shooting stick-cum-umbrella. Of course anybody who was considered remotely amusing in those days had to have a catch-phrase and Monolulu’s, heard by everyone at Petticoat Lane and race-courses around the country, was:

“I Gotta Horse, I Gotta Horse’.

Monolulu was born Peter Carl McKay in 1881 and was originally from an island called St Croix, now part of the US Virgin Islands in the West Indies. He arrived in Britain in 1902 and after a year of mostly menial work he managed to join the chorus of the first all-black West End musical show called In Dahomey.

399px-paul_dunbar_in_dahomey_in_london_1904

In Dahomey was initially staged on Broadway to limited success and after just 53 performances it was transferred to London’s Shaftesbury Theatre. The British public had literally seen nothing like it and the show became a huge sensation. The success was capped by a command performance celebrating the birthday of the Prince of Wales at Buckingham Palace, where it was heralded as “the most popular musical show in London.”

The musical featured an elaborate version of the African-American minstrel dance called the ‘Cakewalk’ and featured several hit songs as well as making stars in London of the principal actors.

Aida Overton Walker. Photograph by Cavendish Morton in London 1903

Aida Overton Walker. Photograph by Cavendish Morton in London 1903

George W Walker in 'In Dahomey' 1903

George W Walker in 'In Dahomey' 1903

George Walker and Bert A Williams

George W. Walker and Bert A. Williams

After In Dahomey came to an end there wasn’t much work for black musical actors in London (to say the least) and Monolulu travelled Europe as a fortune teller, violinist, singer, lion tamer and even a ‘cannibal’ in a travelling roadshow. He was in Germany when the first world war broke out and he found himself in a German Internment camp called Ruhleben (which, incidentally was a former race course) near Berlin for the duration of the war.

The Ruhleben Internment camp during the First world war.

The Ruhleben Internment camp during the First world war.

After he returned to England, he began work for an Irish tipster but quickly went solo and took to shouting “I gotta horse” after seeing the religious revivalist Gypsy Daniels shouting “I’ve got heaven” to attract his crowds.

Monolulu at Epsom on Derby day 1923

An almost Hendrixian Monolulu at Epsom on Derby day 1923

monolulu-1stjune32-at-epsom

Epsom, 1932

In 1920 Monolulu reputedly won £8,000 on the Derby when he put all his money on an unfancied horse called Spion Kop. It was a vast sum of money at the time and from that moment on he became a tipster for ever more. When anyone bought a tip from him (at Epsom at the height of his fame he would charge ten shillings) he’d hand over a sealed envelope inside of which was the name of the horse written with careful handwriting on a piece of paper. He’d lean over to the punter and whisper:

“If you tell anyone, the horse will lose”.

It seemed that someone always told someone because Monolulu’s horse nearly always lost. Although no one ever complained.

Prince Monolulu at the Epsom races in 1927

Prince Monolulu at the Epsom races in 1927

Ras Prince Monolulu after his marriage to the actress Nellie Adkins in 1931

Ras Prince Monolulu after his marriage to the actress Nellie Adkins in 1931

Monolulu at the Queen's coronation 1953

Monolulu at the Queen's coronation 1953

Monolulu in 1956

Monolulu in 1956

From the 1930s any British film that featured a race course would include Monolulu playing himself. Eventually he appeared in over ten films with his last appearance being in a Billy Fury vehicle called, fittingly, I’ve Gotta Horse.

On Valentine’s day in 1965 Jeffrey Bernard, who was working as a racing journalist at the time, visited an ill Monolulu in Middlesex hospital wanting an interview. Bernard had brought with him a box of Black Magic chocolates and offered the famous tipster a ‘strawberry cream’. Unfortunately, Monolulu started to fatally choke on the chocolate. Bernard backed out of the ward bidding farewell.

Monolulu lived for a lot of his life in Fitzrovia and there was once a pub named after him called Prince Monolulu at 28 Maple Street. Unfortunately a few years ago someone decided that a three-level cocktail bar called Potion was a much better idea.

Here’s an example of Prince Monolulu’s patter recorded in 1933.

Prince Monolulu – I Gotta Horse

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27 Responses to “Petticoat Lane market and Ras Prince Monolulu”

  1. MattTempest says:

    I’m pretty certain the Prince Monolulu pub was still there in 1992/3 – I was living in Ramsay Hall of residence, also on Maple Street, and seem to remember it. Not that I had any inkling of its namesake. Thank you for the backstory – again.

  2. belinda ackermann says:

    thanks
    you are a genius
    the cake walk clip sent me onto youtube and i found some treats
    i have worked with hip hop dancers for the last 10 years and done several shows involving a fusion of hip hop styles and celebrating the history of hip hop
    BUT REAL live film clips FABULOUS

  3. AMD says:

    An amazing story beautifully told. And, as always, I love the photos. In the colour pic from 1959, Monululu looks a lot like Nelson Mandela.

  4. david mcdermott says:

    hi excellent material, both images and text.i give talks to groups about this amazing man who visited great yarmouth and its racecourse regularly.many stories exist about him and amongst the artefacts i have there is one of his original tip sheets
    many thanx
    dave

  5. Rosie West says:

    There were times I thought I had dreamed about Prince Monolulu because he seems such an unlikely character. So thank you for confirming his existence in your brilliant post. You see, I really did come across him a couple of times in my childhood.

    As a Londoner, I think your blog is splendid.

  6. Peter H says:

    Another magnificent story. What a great TV drama this would make, fatal strawberry cream and all. Please consider yourself saluted.

  7. Lito says:

    That’s a great website and a wonderful, well-written story. I’m writing an article about Petticoat Market for Suite101.com and found this information very useful. Thanks.

  8. pat leighton says:

    I am now 74 years old but I remember being taken to Petticoat Lane by my mother as a young child. We saw Prince Monolulu many times and on one ocassion, he said to me, “I gotta horse, do you wanna horse?” I replied “yes”. I was bitterly disappointed at not being able to take a horse home with me. Prince Monolulu is one of my childhood memories.

  9. A great source of information. Prince Monolulu’s jackets have been chosen by Newmarket’s National Horseracing Museum as their contribution to the BBC’s A History of the World project. There’s a feature, audio of the great man and a picture gallery here:

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/local/suffolk/hi/people_and_places/history/newsid_8489000/8489857.stm

  10. carole sprackling warren says:

    I remember the prince,he livedin the same building as my grandad,on the 1st. floor, in cleveland street,that was the early 1950′s,Iwas very young but we used to speak to each other ,he was always in his colourful outfits.

  11. peter sullivam says:

    I LIVED AT 83/85 CLEVELAND ST FROM 1950 TO ABOUT 1964 WE LIVED ON THE FIRST FLOOR AND PRINCE MONOLULU LIVED DOWN STAIRS HE ALWAYS SAID ONE DAY I WOULD BE PRIME MINESTER HI CAROLE WHO WAS YOUR GRANDAD.

  12. carole sprackling warren says:

    Hi Peter,very surprised to see your post.My grandad was John Edward Shea,he had fine thin straight hair slim build and had a moustache , he died in 1954,but just before that he went to live at Luxbourgh lodge [the old marylebone workhouse],my mum was Lily,we lived at Euston.You must be getting on a bit rememberig that…C.W.

  13. Helen Hodges says:

    As a 10yr old in 1960 I met Prince Monolulu when he came to open a refurbished pub called The Three Horse Shoes in Coventry. Themed lounge being racing. Myself and the publicans daughter Sheila Quinney were photographed with him for the Coventry Evening Telegraph. What a character.

  14. Vincent Carmody says:

    Today is the second day of the Listowel (Co. Kerry) racing festival (7 days). One of the highlights for us at Listowel Races as teenagers back in the 1950s was the arrival in town of Prince Monolulu. Apart from his colourful dress and personality it was the first time most of us would have seen a black or coloured man.
    Many years ago a very well known short story from Listowel, the late Bryan McMahon wrote a ballad in honour of the race week, sung to the air of Master Mc Grath or Erin Go Brath one of the many verses went,
    “They came from Castleisland, they came from Tralee,
    And a black- looking devil, he came from Fiji,
    We’d a Dutchman, a German, a Chink and a Pole,
    Sure ’twas more like Geneva than lovely Listowel.

  15. Mim Scala says:

    Mim Scala I swear this is true The Prince would occasionally come to The North end Road Market in Fulham and would inevitably wind up in Scala’s after selling tips written on brown Paper. 1953 I came home from school and there he was in the kitchen with my dad he had his feathers on and everything. He told us to back Pinza in the Derby as Mr. Sassoon was a personnel Friend of his and it was a cert . The whole market backed it for a famous win
    I cant remember the price but my Half crown was on XX Mim

  16. Ess Dee says:

    Fascinating! And Mr. Woodger, great photos in the URL you posted – love the one of Prince Monolulu with a group of Pearly Queens! I’d love to see a post about the Pearlies here…I’m American, and first heard of them from a family friend (sadly, long dead now) who had been a vice cop in London before WWII and then served in the RAF as a fighter pilot and then a bomber pilot. After the war he immigrated to Canada and then the U.S. He had incredible stories. I wish I’d recorded him, but this blog has given me far more insight into the world he grew up in. Kudos.

  17. Jo' Williams says:

    My Mum is 104 and although blind now, still has a fantastic memory of times past. We were chatting about horse-racing and she referred to Prince Monolulu and remembered his catch-phrase “I gotta horse”. “In Dahomey” was before her time but when she was 19 she remembers going to see a show “Blackbirds” up the West End where all the cast was black. She remembers still how fantastic the show was and how the singing and dancing was amazing. They were still doing the Cakewalk when she was in her teens, and of course, also the Charleston and the Black Bottom. Mum’s local market was Chapel Street but her evenings were spent dancing “Up West”. Nothing changes, eh?

  18. Rob says:

    Prince Monolulu pops up (very) briefly in this short doc about London markets, narrated by Sid James. It’s about 2:35 mins in, don’t blink or you’ll miss it!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YMHjsmCjL78

  19. Ray Stephens says:

    I remember Prince Monolulu also coming to the East Lane Market, in South London, when I was a child in the early 1950′s. If I remember correctly, he occasionally called at our prefab to take me, and my younger sister, to stand with him at the opposite corner to East Lane and Minnow Street, whilst he sold his betting tips. A great character. I asked my mother about it, but she doesn’t remember!!

  20. John Keogh says:

    I remember seeing Prince Monolulu on TV in the 50′s. It has often occured to me that he would done rather well at the Battle of Bosworth, when Richard 3rd called out , “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!” Then along comes Monolulu with his catchphrase, “I gotta horse!” Thanks for an interesting article. JK.

  21. David says:

    This is a fascinating website, thank you for the wonderful memories. My great-grandparents were neighbours of Prince Monolulu in the late 1940s, they lived in Netley Street off the Hampstead Road.

  22. Carole Davis says:

    Super website. Great to read about the character whose face and costumes I could remember from childhood but whose name I’d completely forgotten. All I could remember was the flamboyant black man shouting “I gotta horse”. I couldn’t even remember where I’d seen him but it all came back to me when i saw your article on Petticoat Lane. Now I can remember it all. Having been brought up in Stoke Newington and now living in NZ I miss all the history of London. Thanks for the memories.

  23. Virginia Bottomley says:

    My husband, Martin says he was blessed by Prince Monolulu as a child….lucky him…
    He is now disappointed to read that he was a fake prince !

  24. Keith Williams says:

    I remember my father took me to Newmarket Races in the early 50′s probably around 1952 and we saw Prince Monolulu dressed in all his finery with a lions claw hanging around his neck and his famous plume on his head he actually called out “I gotta horse as we stood there. I will never forget that.

  25. Derek Bailey says:

    Loved the website. I still remember seeing Prince Monolulu at Petticoat Lane when I was a young boy living in Wapping. Thanks from Colorado, USA for the work to locate and preserve the information.

  26. Pat christen says:

    I worked in London during the war and remember Prince Monolulu at Speakers Corner in Hyde Park. I am 87, and he is one of my strongest memories. Enjoyed the photos, loved the film clip of Petticost Lane. Mant thanks.

  27. Gisela says:

    Prince Ras Monolulu was my godfather (I’m sure he had a lot of other godchildren). I have a picture of him somewhere at my Christening – with all the feathers, of course! :)

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