Article first published in the Laurel & Hardy magazine 1990, by Jack Stevenson
It would be difficult to find any post-1947 out-of-situ photographs (public) of the boys not wearing a small gold emblem in the lapel of their jackets. It is an emblem that the 'Boys', and especially Stan, wore with pride for the rest of their lives. The emblem is a rat and it showed them as it does now as members of the Grand Order of Water Rats (G.O.W.R.) as much worn with pride now as when Stan and Babe joined in March 1947. So who are the Rats? And what are they about?
The origins are clouded somewhat and I cold-quote, conflicting "authoritative" sources. However two stories consistently surface.
In 1889 Dan Leno, one of the greatest stars of Music Hall and acclaimed as Britain's greatest comedian, was treading the boards with another king of comedy, Joe Elvin. Whilst in Stan Laurel's father's territory (and Stan's) in my homeland of the North-East of England (Newcastle), Joe met a wealthy racehorse owner who talked Joe into buying a trotting pony called "Magpie." Promising it to be a "winner," Joe was hoping for rich rewards on the trotting races in Charlie Chaplin's home area of Kensington in London.
Along with Dan Leno, Wal Pink, who wrote much of the material for many of the stars of Music Hall and other artistes," they formed a syndicate to pool any winnings - and winnings there were. Wal Pink, a man of religious background, had doubts and to ease his guilt suggested that the winnings should be put to charity. There was no disagreement and the debate was what to name themselves. One day Magpie was pulling a small cart of stars to Epson Races. It was raining heavily - the soaked little donkey stopped at a crossroads. A bus driver shouted from his car mocking the drenched beast. Joe Elvin shouted, "This is our trotting pony - The Magpie!" "Magpie!" came the reply, "Looks more like a bloody water rat!"
That was it, the stars proclaimed, "The Water Rat, the most unloved little creature of all, plus the word rats reversed is star. We will elevate the lowest to the highest in the firmament of good fellowship and charity. And so in Summer of 1889 at a pub in Sunbury on Thames, they formed the G.O.W.R. and the pub became and still is The Water Rats bar does have a brief history of it's origin as above and a framed piece of Laurel & Hardy along with some wonderful early Music Hall posters - worth a visit!.
[Photograph on the left is Dan Leno, he was Stan Laurel's idol when he was young.. Is this person that gave Stan his smile?
Dan Leno / The Huntsman' (Gramophone and Typewriter GC-2-2515) rec. London, c. November 19, 1901. ]
The second origin of the G.O.W.R. has no mention of the trotting donkey, only some greats of Music Hall drinking socially at the Magpie Pub namely, Dan Leno, Wal Pink, Harry Freeman, Eugene Stratton, Joe Elvin and Joe O'Gorman. They wanted to form a fraternal club for charity cause and in that year of 1890 Harry Freeman became King Rat.
Whatever the origin, the charity aspect has no doubts and monies raised goes to the Variety Artistes Benevolent Fund and to Brinsworth House , a home for the benefit of old performers some of whom have fallen on hard times and some who want to spent the twilight of their lives with people and fellow artistes who speak the same language. This was something close to Stan's heart and Jack McCabe's books refer to Stan throughout his life and especially his later years as forever financially supporting some of his less successful artistes. I recall Jimmy Murphy (Stan's valet) telling me of regular generosity to fellow performers by Stan during his time with him at Fort Laurel and there were some surprises in Jimmy's "Guest list".
Wee Georgie Wood with Stan & Babe all sporting their Water Rats emblem. Stan and Wee Georgie Wood were good friends. Wee Georgie was King Rat in 1936.
So You Wanna Be A Rat!
Well to wear that coveted emblem is not easy. First you have to want to be a Rat and the council is very selective on who they accept . The procedure from the beginning does seem to have strong parallels with Freemasonry - The council is called a Lodge, the prospective member is an Initiate. The Brotherhood, having agreed on a candidate, call the Initiate for a "Making". The Administrators are known as Bait Rat, Collecting Rat, Test Rat, The King Rat and has more parallels with Masonry with its Artefacts. The Initiate is blindfolded and led to the Lodge Door, the Chief Trap Guard asking King Rat for permission to bring him in. There now follows secret questions and responses and he eventually enter with two guards either side - The whole lodge sings the rousting Rat anthem. The Initiate is given a password, which must be given to enter the portals. When various questions and responses are made, the candidate is relieved of his blindfold and allowed to see his fellow Brothers. He is now a Baby Rat until another making and then a Red Collar and ten years later a Blue Collar- the ritual continues as he is introduced to other titled Rats.
The normal Lodge meeting has some of the quickest wits in the entertainment world and as Lodge progresses and a particularly appropriate aside is spoken another member may call "Jester's Medal" and if King Rat agrees a star shaped medal hung by a ribbon is placed around the Jester's neck for the future until someone else claims the right. Every member then pays a coin for the entertainment.
When Stan and Ollie joined they suggested an adjustment to this ritual that has ensured a perpetual place in the Rats history and ritual. They suggested that if a joke was corny in extreme or went flat then somebody shouts "Egg" and, if the King Rat and Lodge agree, this large wooden egg on a ribbon is placed around the unfortunate fellow's neck. He pays a steep fine and wears it until someone else commits the same mistake.
Stan was proposed by Fred Russell who had been King Rat three times. He was seconded by Talbot O'Farrel , another past King Rat. Babe was proposed by legendary Will Hay and seconded by a British comedy institution, Bud Flanagan. The King Rat that year was Rob Wilton. It was an extremely rare occasion as both proposers were ex-King Rats.
I have been invited and privileged on two occasions to visit the lodge room and it is a joy to see the memorabilia connecting the Boys to the Lodge. Apart from the egg, a pair of silver ashtrays, inscribed by the Boys, sits in front of King Rat's ornate chair and on the wall is a large framed photo.
When Hardy passed away, Charlie Chester (who was at the Boys initiation) sent Stan a tribute to Ollie and received the following reply:-
My Dear Charlie,
Have just received a copy of your wonderful eulogy to my dear late partner "Olly", which Leonard Jones so kindly sent me.
It's difficult for me Charlie to express my deep appreciation for your kind and sweet thought in creating this beautiful tribute, but I want you to know I feel very grateful to you for the lovely sentiment - My sincere thanks Charlie. Am having it framed.
Trust alls well & happy with you, wish you continued succes
Bye, Good Luck &God Bless
PS. Please convey my Love & Best to all in Lodge."
ADDENDUM & HOW!
During my research for this brief article I followed through some conversations Stan had to one of his friends in my later collection where he tells her that the BBC Are coming over to record us for a Water Rats programme (OCT 1955) - Did it happen? And is this still around? Helpmate Philip Hyman came up trumps with the film called "This Is Music Hall" - a now rather dated tribute to the G.O.W.R. but it has a jewel in it, and that jewel is very precious indeed. It is beyond doubt the last professional sound footage of "Our Boys" together and lasts about 5 minutes The situation is a desk with Stan and Babe sitting there. The location - Stan's home in Franklin Avenue, Santa Monica. Stan and Babe reminisce about fellow Rats and their acts for a while, but it is their last few sentences that becomes a moving and fitting epitaph to the lives of my pals and yours, Stan and Ollie - I repeat it below:
(Babe) Goodbye brother Water Rats and our many friends and fans - Good Luck and God Bless you all"
(Stan) : "We'll never forget you".
(Babe) "That's right Stanley, we never shall".
(together) - "Goodbye"("Perfect Day" style). Babe wiggles his tie!).
Jack Stevenson 1990