His earliest professional performance in 1880 was at a the Rosherville Gardens Gravesend, a favourite riverside resort. The 12 year old lad made his very first stage appearance with his own black-face comedy act.
Harry took his stage name from an infamous English court case against The Tichborne Claimant that lasted from Ap 1873-Feb 1874, when Harry was still a toddler. In this court case, a Wapping butcher’s son called Arthur Orton turned up from Wagga Wagga in rural Australia. He pretended he was Roger Charles Titchborne, lost at sea in Ap 1854, and heir to an ancient Hampshire baronetcy. Orton, who weighed 25 stones, did 14 years in gaol. He was released on ticket-of-leave in 1884, and later appeared on the music halls, telling of his adventures and prison experience.
Dwarfish Harry Relph took his stage name in an ironic and comedic reference to the huge Tichborne claimant.
Harry Relph, Little Tich, c1900
Arthur Orton, Tichborne Claimant,
National Portrait Gallery London
By the time of his solo London music hall debut in 1884 at 13, Harry had developed a speciality dance in which he “defied” gravity, either leaning forward at a precarious angle or balancing on the tips of long shoes. This eccentric dance became his specialty. In his famous flopping Big Boots, 30” in length, Tich danced, leant almost horizontal to retrieve his lost hat, and then rose on tiptoe to become over 7’ tall. Finally he took his bow with another quick horizontal lurch which knocked his bald forehead against the stage.
In Drury Lane, his next London home, pantomime audiences loved Little Tich in the 1891 Humpty Dumpty performance with Dan Leno and Marie Lloyd. Then in 1892 with Hop on My Thumb. Three Drury Lane pantomimes, 1891-94, established him as one of Britain's foremost comedians. To see Harry walk on stage, with his burlesque evening dress, top hat, cigar and his silly smile, made people quickly laugh.
Tich’s music hall earnings made him rich. He loved to ride in a big car around London, and into Kent. But he never forgot his Kentish childhood, his early struggles as a poorly paid performer or his nights in a doss-house.
After succeeding in London, Little Tich went on to triumph overseas. In 1896 Little Tich made his debut in Paris and became a good friend of very short Toulouse-Lautrec. He was also greatly admired by famous actor-manager Lucien Guitry and his actor-dramatist son Sacha. The young Charlie Chaplin, in Paris with Fred Karno's Troupe, saw Tich at the Folies Bergère and based his walk on the music hall star (even though Chaplin became the more famous man).
Also in 1896 Tich appeared at the Alhambra Theatre London and the Olympia Music Hall in Paris.
Little Tich sang comic songs & was a skilful instrumentalist, but his greatest successes were energetic dances in which he often parodied artists like Loïe Fuller. Soon Tich was made an officer of the Académie Française for services to French music-hall.
1905’s biggest star on the Australian Tivoli Circuit was Little Tich. This comic little showman commanded a salary that was double the largest sum theatre proprietor Henry Rickards had ever paid to previous stars!!
For 17 years the performer was the toast of the old Tivoli Theatre in London’s Strand. In an unforgettable show in 1907 Tich was one of the Five Harrys: along with Harrys Lauder, Tate, Fragson and Randell. The show was billed as a sensational success.
He was enticed by an American producer to the USA at 3 times his British salary. Phineas T Barnum was a great show man. There Tich developed a series of hilarious sketches of suburban characters: a love-sick tram conductor, sea-sick sailor, incompetent blacksmith and a succession of eccentric elderly ladies. He was most famous for his Spanish Senorita, Tax Collector, the Gas Inspector and Little Miss Turpentine.
Famous at home and abroad, his highly visual comic routines influenced both stage and early film performers. Victorian Cinema reported that the surviving film of the Big Boots dance, made by Clément-Maurice for the Phono-Cinéma-Théâtre in 1900, was a piece of comedic genius. And fans could see Georges Méliès' Le Raid Paris - Monte-Carlo en Deux Heures (1905), Pathé's Little Tich (1907) and Gaumont's Little Tich, the Tec (1909).
Back in Australia Tich told the audience that he was used to playing to ladies and gentlemen, not to a mob of hooligans. Then he walked off. After the afternoon papers’ headlines screamed, ‘Little Tich Insults Australian Audiences’, Tich had misgivings about what sort of reception he would get in later performances. But Little Tich was 60 and his big boots and silly songs were no longer universally loved. Australians broke his heart. He had come on the stage cocky and energetic; he left it a shaky old man. Tich returned to London but his spirit was never the same again.
Relph was married to three professional entertainers; a] English dancer Laurie Brooks in 1889, b] Spanish dancer Julia Recio in 1898 and c] actress Winifred Ivey in 1926. Harry and Winifred’s daughter Mary went on to have a successful stage career of her own.
starring Little Tich 1907
His final performance was at the London Alhambra Theatre in 1927, then he died in 1928. Buried in East Finchley Cemetery, Little Tich’s tombstone says: le plus petit et le plus grand comique du monde.
See the V&A Theatre and Performance Department collections, including the biographical, productions and photographs files, the library holdings, the Richard Findlater Archive and a pair of the famous Big Boots. Read Little Tich, Giant of the Music Hall by Mary Tich and Richard Findlater, 1979 and Little Tich – Music Hall Star by Gordon Irving.