When Buffalo Bill brought the Wild West to Ilford

Poster for Buffalo Bill's tour.

Poster for Buffalo Bill's tour. - Credit: Archant

At the beginning of the 20th century Colonel the Honourable William Frederick Cody was one of the most famous men in the world.

Buffalo Bill in 1903, around the time of his first performance in Essex.

Buffalo Bill in 1903, around the time of his first performance in Essex. - Credit: Archant

Better known as Buffalo Bill, he was an Indian fighter, army scout, buffalo hunter, Pony Express rider and hero of countless dime novels. He was, therefore, an unlikely figure to be found on the streets of Ilford in the early 1900s.

The reason lay in his other great talent: he was above all a brilliant showman and had been the star of his own travelling Wild West show for nearly 20 years.

The show was no circus. The men and women who took part had often been involved in the incidents they portrayed.

The cowboys had actually ridden the range, the cavalrymen were real veterans and the Indians were real Indians. It was, in effect, the world’s first reality show.

Chief Iron Tail during the 1904 tour which visited Ilford.

Chief Iron Tail during the 1904 tour which visited Ilford. - Credit: Archant

Buffalo Bill’s Wild West (the word “show” was never used in publicity) was astounding. It featured hundreds of performers, horses and animals. When the Wild West first came to Britain from America in 1887, for Queen Victoria’s Jubilee, one newspaper heralded it as “an exact reproduction of daily scenes of frontier life”.

Over the years the show grew and grew. By the time it came to Ilford in June 1904 there were 800 staff and performers and it had added horsemen from around the world as well as many circus sideshows.

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But at its heart it remained true to Buffalo Bill’s desire to portray the excitement of the old West.

Now a new book, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West – The First Reality Show in Essex, reveals for the first time what happened when this amazing show visited the county. It’s written by former BBC journalist, David Dunford, who lives in Chelmsford.

In 1903 the Wild West had visited three Essex towns, Leyton (then still part of the county of Essex), Southend and Colchester. In 1904 it came to Chelmsford and Ilford (also still in Essex).

The performance consisted of around 20 scenes and lasted some two hours. Among the highlights a prairie immigrant wagon train was attacked by Indians who were driven off at the last minute by a group of cowboys led by Buffalo Bill himself. Bill also thrilled the audience by shooting glass balls from horseback as they were thrown up by an accompanying rider.

Groups of Indians, Mexicans, Arabs and Cossacks gave separate displays of extraordinary horsemanship.

Another feature was a re-enactment of the Battle of the Little Big Horn where General George Custer and his 7th Cavalry were massacred by Sioux Indians.

There was also a thrilling stunt by Carter the Cowboy Cyclist who careered down a ramp from a platform 40 feet high and jumped across a 40ft gap to land on another ramp.

The show was so massive that it had to be transported on three special trains. These rolled into Ilford station early on the morning of June 21, 1904, having travelled overnight from Chelmsford.

The Wild West was soon established on the Kingfield Estate off Ilford Lane. It was a huge attraction with people pouring into the town from far and wide to see the show’s exotic cast.

From time to time local dignitaries were invited to ride in a stagecoach as it came under attack from a band of Indians.

For the afternoon show a group of girls performing in a Broadway musical in London arrived to board it. After careering around the arena, pursued by the Indians, they were duly rescued by Buffalo Bill and his cowboys. As they stepped down from the coach the girls each kissed Bill causing him to blush furiously. The Indians howled with delight and the cowboys cheered.

Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, The First Reality Show in Essex is published on October 1 by Essex Hundred Publications, at £7.99 and available from bookshops or online.