History: Mike Scanlon investigates the old-time attraction of Snake shows

Snake man: Book cover shows John Cann keeping a watchful eye as he handles a red-bellied black snake.

Snake man: Book cover shows John Cann keeping a watchful eye as he handles a red-bellied black snake.

SNAKES alive! Who would have imagined stumbling across another insight into the colourful career of Arthur Greenhalgh, the famous Newcastle showbiz entrepreneur.

In later life, Greenhalgh ran the famous, now demolished, Beach Hotel in Watt Street, in inner Newcastle (not the surviving Merewether hotel landmark), when petrol rationing forced his sideshow alley stars off the road in World War II.

Some of his big vehicles were then confiscated, so it’s said, to help grade the future tarmac at what would become the Williamtown RAAF base.

The busy showman had gone into partnership and the new entertainment venture, called Greenhalgh & Jackson, prospered with sideshow rides and unusual human carnival attractions.

Greenhalgh’s Watt St hotel in the war years housed his stranded, travelling tent show acts, including the bearded lady, an Irish giant and midgets. Much later it was even dubbed the “freaks and fantastics” pub.

For years, right up until its demise in mid 1978, photographs of the strange 1940s workforce still covered the tiled walls of the old pub, soon replaced by the NewMed building of the old Royal Newcastle Hospital.

That’s the later background of Arthur Greenhalgh. His family pops up briefly among Australia’s greatest ‘snakeys’, showbiz characters occupying a chapter of an engaging  book about legendary Aussie reptile handler John Cann in The Last Snake Man (with Jimmy Thomson).

It’s the story of an amazing, bygone Australia, a century of snake shows and an extraordinary period, when people working with dangerous venomous snakes was a regular attraction of the Sydney and NSW country showbiz circuit. By 1980, however, even the memories of the once popular snake shows were rapidly dying out.

In the new book, a Captain Greenhalgh pops up in 1914 handling small, but deadly, tiger snakes for the amusement of the public in Sydney’s Rushcutters Bay. This was despite publicity surrounding the recent deaths of better-known snake men.

The book continues that the Greenhalgh family was actually best known for its sharp-shooting shows. The captain, his son Arthur and daughter Eddy had a popular act in the 1920s.

“Arthur also took on an American partner, Abe Jackson, a motorbike stunt rider formerly of the ‘Reckless Jacksons’. The partnership prospered and diversified, taking in snake shows,” the authors write.

“Arthur was never a handler himself, but he employed many acts and in 1924 married the beautiful snake girl Navada.”

She, along with Essie Bradley (later Cann’s mum) and better known as ‘Cleopatra’ (Queen of the Snakes) worked the 1923 Sydney Royal Easter Show for Greenhalgh.

But the cavalcade of flash characters from a bygone age cannot hold a candle to the life and times of snake man John Cann himself.

He and his brother George grew up with 300 pet snakes in their backyard and took over a famous snake show from their parents in 1965.

For almost 100 years, John Cann’s family ran the famous 40-minute snake pit shows in Sydney’s Le Perouse.

Despite wars and epidemics, poverty and the Great Depression of the 1920s and 1930s, the popular La Perouse snake pit never closed.

John Cann, now aged 80, performed public snake shows there on Sunday for 45 years. And by the time he staged his last show and retired in April 2010, he’d survived the occupational hazard of five potentially fatal snakebites.   

But he modestly says it’s “not quite right” for him to be called the Snake Man of the La Perouse, claiming that title instead belongs to his father, George ‘Pop’ Cann.

“No one knew snakes better than my dad,” John Cann insists. The knowledgeable ‘Pop’ Cann even went on to become curator of reptiles at Taronga Park Zoo.

And as you might suspect, wrangling snakes has been only been part of son John Cann’s adventurous life.

Besides being a wildlife expert and world authority on turtles, he’s the author of  Freshwater Turtles of Australia. He also has Cann’s snake-necked turtle named after him and was awarded an OAM in 1992 in recognition of his services to the community, conservation and the environment.

Earlier in his career John Cann was also an Olympic athlete, a top rugby league player and NSW champion boxer, a film stand-in and since then besides snakebites, says he’s survived a broken neck, a stroke, cancer, being shot at by Indonesian soldiers in New Guinea and been ripped off by kids who went on to become the Anita Cobby killers.

All-in-all, a fast paced, thoroughly entertaining yarn. Something to really get your fangs into, you might say.

(The Last Snake Man by John Cann with Jimmy Thomson. Publishers Allen & Unwin. $32.99).

EPIC EVACUATION

THE full story of Dunkirk, the desperate evacuation of besieged British and French soldiers in World War II, will never be told.

These were the words of author and journalist A.D.Divine, CBE, DSM, in 1945. And yet, probably more than other writer, Divine has been responsible for spreading the patriotic tale of uncommon valour during the mass military evacuation from France over nine crucial days in May 1940. 

Today, the name of prolific writer Arthur Durham Divine (1905-1987) is largely forgotten, despite him writing a highly-praised book about the Dunkirk evacuation from multiple, first-hand sources, including his own.

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: The cover of the reprinted classic, Dunkirk.

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: The cover of the reprinted classic, Dunkirk.

Divine’s reputation is now slowly being re-established, especially for his massively detailed and epic 1945 book, Dunkirk, now reprinted in 2018.

Factual and authorative, if a little dry, the book has been hailed as the best contemporary account of the improbable rescue of an Allied army, trapped and under attack on the beaches of Dunkirk, by a flotilla of both big and little ships in May 1940.

The book’s reprinting is very topical coming in the wake of three recent films. Besides Christopher Nolan’s spectacular Dunkirk and Their Finest, there was the compelling Darkest Hour starring Gary Oldman as British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

Fellow wartime author Compton Mackenzie once summed up Divine’s book as a sublime story of an evacuation “such as the world had never seen and is never likely to see again” told in the best way possible by collating in a single volume all the first-hand material available.

AD Divine was himself wounded commanding one of the ‘Little Ships’ so crucial in the heroic exercise. Besieged by the German Army and despite the odds, some 38,000 Allied soldiers were rescued on the first day.

Besides the destroyers and minesweepers, the vast rescue flotilla included tugs, motor boats, yachts, ferries and fishing boats. Some 338,000 battle-weary soldiers were eventually rescued with the ‘Little Ships’ responsible for saving 90,000 of those lives.

As you might say, “Seen the movies? Now read the original book”.

Dunkirk by A.D Divine. Faber & Faber, $24.99.