Ben Mowatt and his son, Ben Jr., are known for being the first jugglers to accomplish several important feats. The two most important are being the first person to juggle five clubs (Ben Mowatt Jr.) and the first duo to pass 8 clubs. I recently discovered the following article from The Royal Magazine published in 1903. Stay tuned after the article for some additional information, pictures, and video of the Mowatts.
Club Jugggling by Harold Shepstone
Mr. Ben Mowatt and his son lay just claim to the unique distinction of being the champion Indian club jugglers. In their hands the wooden clubs seem to be human, describing curves, circles, and all sorts of combination, finally returning to the hand of the sender. And juggling with Indian clubs is no child’s play. to swing a pair of clubs in a gymnasium is all very well, but to juggle with them is another matter.
The performances of Ben Mowatt, jun., will undoubtedly attract the more attention. He is without doubt the champion juvenile club swinger in the world. He has been twisting and turning clubs for ten years past, or since he was a baby. What this boy is able to do with heavy clubs seems little short of miraculous.
Everywhere and always Mr. Mowatt has found his Indian club juggling performances very popular. This is because he always gives something good. He changes his work periodically and is always evolving new combinations. The clubs used by the two champions weigh about two and a half pounds. As they twist and twirl in the air they alternately shine like silver and gold as the light falls upon them. The reason for this is because the clubs are plated, one half to resemble silver and the other half gold.
Some idea of their numerous and difficult feats may be gathered from our photographs. A clever combination is that in which father and son, back to back, juggle with six clubs. Both hands of each party are engaged, and considerable practice is necessary to judge the exact height to which the clubs should be thrown.
More wonderful still is the “shower” of eight clubs. This is the greatest number of clubs that can be juggled at one time. Although the clubs cross and recross one another in making their evolutions, they never strike one against the other; indeed, if they did so, they would be thrown off their track with disastrous result so far as the general effect was concerned.
The clubs which young Mowatt handles for this feat weigh, like his father’s, two and a half pounds. His muscles are like iron, and his quickness is something wonderful to watch. A still finer example of club dexterity is given by him with two clubs. They are given a swift twist from his elbows and leg go into the air. They make a journey which lasts a little over a second and return to his hands. Both clubs fly out from the hands in curve and almost on parallel lines, only the right hand clubs goes a little further out than the left one. Bob go out butt end first. Then they hand in the air, left hand club delaying a little longer than the right hand one. They right hand one starts back on another clurve, handle first. They left hand club no longer parallels it but crosses the path it has just taken.
The performer cannot tell you why the clubs make the particular journey they do. He only knows, through long practice, that by giving a certain twist to his hands and muscles he communicates a sense of direction to his clubs that makes them do marvelous things while in the air. If he were familiar with geometry and the laws of curves he could mathematically demonstrate the proposition; but geometry has little to do with the stage, or, for that matter, with the successful swinging of Indian clubs. the younger Mowatt relies wholly upon his muscles and steadiness of nerves, a large quantity of good health and plenty of patience.
A feat that never fails to win applause is the throwing of five clubs, each performer using one hand, and passing a handkerchief from foot to hand at the same time. Juggling clubs between the legs is also a part of the twirlers’ programme. We reproduce a photograph showing the youthful champion holding, though only for an instant, a club between his legs and playing with two others.
Young Mowatt can handle five clubs alone at the same time. That this demands a great deal of skill, judgment, and precision everyone will admit. On once occasion in Chicago young Mowatt sent a club up into the air nearly to the top of the flagstaff on the Masonic Temple. It turned over and over again in the sunshine, finally returning to the sender’s hand. This club must have reached a height of nearly 300 hundred feet, and is undoubtedly the highest point at which Indian clubs have ever been juggled. In his hands the clubs seem to be endowed with reason and intelligence.
Regarding the above article, a couple of points should be taken with a grain of salt. First of all, the claim of tossing a club 300 feet in the air is certainly hyperbole. It’s been calculated that the maximum height someone could potentially throw a golf ball would be around 260 feet, but I think even that estimate is too high. Throwing a relatively heavy club anything close to 300 feet in the air defies logic. Secondly, the weight of the Indian clubs in this article is reported as 2.5 pounds. Other sources, such as contemporary juggler Tom Breen, Jr., reported that the Mowatts were responsible for creating the first light weight clubs, which weighed “only” 1. 375 pounds each. While that’s still very impressive considering that Ben Jr. juggled five, it’s a bit more realistic than 2.5 pounds each. It should also be noted that by the time of this article, Edward Van Wyck was selling juggling clubs that weighed 1.0625 pounds each, so it’s certainly likely that they would have used such clubs. In fact, looking closely at the photos in the article, they do appear very similar to Van Wyck clubs that are in the Historical Juggling Props Museum.
Ben Mowatt first formed the Mowatts in 1895 with Ben Jr. and John Whitfield prior to having Ben’s son Arthur, Tommy Banahan, and others join the troupe. . Ben Mowatt Senior is credited as the first person to create acts for three and four person passing troupes. Below are two early posters dating from 1897 and 1906 and two pictures of the larger Mowatt Troupe in 1908 and 1910. It is known that in 1907 the troupe had 7 members. Ben Mowatt disbanded the troupe in 1915.
Ben Jr. later performed two person acts with his brother Arthur and with John Beahan, as well as with his wife, Billie. These troupes were often billed as the New Yorkers and performed well into the 1940s, at least. Below are two videos from 1936 showing Ben Jr. and partners as the New Yorkers, but first is a screen cap showing which juggler is Ben Jr..