Ambrose Harvey

Gypsy traveller, Sea Captain, Showman and Tattoo Artist.

The Sea and the Circus have given the art of tattooing some of its finest exponents. Most early British (and foreign) pioneering tattoo artists had usually spent some time in the Navy or Military.

Electric tattooing had becoming popular during the second Boer War and several Tattoo Artists volunteered for duty. Many entered the profession and made a living while working as travelling performers with the Circus, Waxworks, Museums, Zoos, Fairs and Exhibitions.

Ambrose William Harvey was one such chap.

His backstory is based on similar storylines told by other tattooists of that period. Joe Kitteridge, Prince Vallar, Charles Smith and Professor Norton all had either military backgrounds, early sea travels or had come from a travelling showman’s background.

Ambrose Harvey claimed that he was born in a caravan to a Romany gypsy family. He was actually born in Weymouth in Dorset in 1886 and spent his formative years in Kent. In the 1901 census he is recorded as a boarder aged 15 years old in Canterbury. He later claims to have went to sea and travelled twice around the world. He stated in newspaper interviews that he had learned to speak Hindu and had also taught English language to the Māoris in New Zealand. No records exist to substantiate this but in later years he would often refer to his time at sea. He would proudly boast of obtaining his masters certificate which allowed him to captain any seagoing vessel. He also said that he had worked on the railways in India!

As with all of these backstories the researcher can only assume there is some truth to the claim. If Ambrose did spend time at sea then it’s safe to believe that he would be introduced to the art of tattooing either by his shipmates or by being tattooed in a foreign port. Like many before him he must have seized the opportunity to purchase the necessary tattooing equipment and learn the basics of the art.

What is documented is that when Ambrose returned to civilian life onshore he began a new career as a travelling showman. Entertainment was a much-needed release and distraction from poor living conditions and many people sought out the excitement of travelling Fairs, Zoos and Variety performances.  Ambrose had made the acquaintance of Tom and John Wortley (who both went onto become well known show promoters*) and was learning the ropes of the showbusiness world.  Every showman was looking out for the next 'big thing' and tattooing had enough mystery and mystique to draw crowds wherever it was on display. It's well documented that electric tattoo equipment, designs, pigments etc were being sold by most tattooers to anyone who had enough money to buy it.

Ambrose began his tattooing around 1907 in Londonand spent time in various British cities as part of a travelling Circus. Any ambitious Circus, Travelling Fair or Exhibition would offer good wages to anyone who could offer that particular artistic skill or service. Promoters and fair owners regularly placed adverts in the showbusiness trade newspapers offering top wages for a good tattooist or tattooed lady.

In 1910 Ambrose was tattooing in Dundee at 206 Overgate alongside ‘HAZRA the great Oriental (Coloured) Palmist!’ At this time he would have been in direct competition with Professor Norton who was also tattooing in Greenmarket, Dundee. It’s safe to assume that the 2 artists would already know each other due to their showman background.

Many tattooists such as Prof. Norton, Joe Kitteridge, Tom Riley, Joe Kilbride, George Burchett, Charlie Bell and Prince Vallar all had a common connection at this time. This mostly involves performing with various travelling shows and fairs. Newspaper articles and documents show that all of their paths crossed at some point. This would have either created a unique opportunity to share their collective tattoo knowledge, equipment, tips and information or could have resulted in jealousy, secretiveness and in-fighting…who knows!

In 1911 Ambrose was working in Edinburgh. He met Meg Cronan (who’s family roots could be traced back to gypsy travellers) from Leith and in 1912 they were married in Glasgow with both Tom and John Wortley as witnesses.

Ambrose and Meg’s start to married life looks to have been a short-lived affair as official records show that Ambrose was called up for Military service at the outset of WW1. He was a Private soldier in the Queens (Royal West Sussex) Regiment and later claimed in various newspaper interviews that he’d served during WW1 as ‘Winston Churchill’s batman’ (a type of personal Valet) and that he also served in the earlier Boer War campaign in Africa.

Those claims cannot be properly substantiated at present but what is known is that he deserted his post on 20th September 1915. This was just days before his regiment were due to advance in the battle of Loos, France.

The ultimate penalty for desertion was death by firing squad but in roughly 90% of cases, the sentence was commuted to hard labour or penal servitude. Ambrose would have certainly spent some time in prison for this offence as the British Army suffered their biggest defeat and greatest casualties of WW1 in this fierce battle.

After the War years Ambrose and Meg continued to travel and perform with various shows and attractions. Ambrose persuaded Meg to become a tattooed lady as this was a well sought after sideshow attraction and a guaranteed money-spinning opportunity. It would allow Meg to exhibit her human artwork to the general public and Ambrose could offer electric tattooing to potential customers. He did some exquisite tattooing on her and they teamed up with old friend Tom Wortley and hit the road. Ambrose also worked alongside Charlie Bell and Princess Cristina** at various times of their respective careers.

In the early 1930’s Ambrose began promoting his own travelling Circus. He was known as ‘Circus Jack’ during this period.

Ambrose’s sideshow offered painless tattooing and Meg performed under the stage name of Gypsy Castella, a lute playing Tattooed lady. Meg’s daughter May performed as a snake charmer billed as Miss Dolores Chiquitta. Their show was a success in London, Hull, Portsmouth and Blackpool. They also claimed to have travelled extensively throughout Europe. Around 1933 they decided to try their luck across the sea in Ireland where they successfully performed for many years up until the 1940’s.

In 1938 Ambrose’s father had died and left him £500 in his will. This would be the equivalent of around £33,000 in today’s money. Ambrose and May purchased a small bungalow in nearby Dundonald, Co Down. The bungalow was on the edge of The Moat parklands and they kept 2 gypsy caravans in their backgarden. They decided to retire from travelling and in 1940 Ambrose decided to concentrate on tattooing as his main source of income.

1940 was a boom time for tattooing and is marked by the start of WW2. Other travelling showmen (Charlie Bell/Prince Vallar/George Norton) all retired from the road and opened shops around this time. Having all previously served in WW1 they may have foreseen the need and demand for tattooing with the young service men getting ready to go off to war.

Ambrose ‘rebranded’ himself as Tattoo Jack and spent the next 15 years tattooing exclusively, mostly in the city of Belfast. He had a succession of tattoo parlours at different locations in the city including 3 Cromac Square, Shaftsbury Square and 109 York Street.

His newspaper adverts at the time said that tattooing helped prevent disease and he was so committed to his profession that he announce that he would be open for business on Christmas day.

In the early 1950’s Ambrose moved his tattoo business to one of the caravans at the rear of his property in Dundonald and continued to work here until he retired in 1956.

On his retirement Ambrose was interviewed by a local newspaper and claimed to be one of the few people in the world that could successfully remove tattoos. This was not entirely true as many tattooists of that time knew how to remove tattoos using a process using Tannic acid, Silver Nitrate and potassium. Ambrose claimed that he would be selling this secret information to a well known Belfast entertainments proprietor and was also going to teach the man’s 22 year old son the business of tattooing!

When his wife Meg died in 1962 Ambrose burned one of the Caravans in respect to Meg’s gypsy traditions and culture. Ambrose died in 1965 aged 79 and is buried in the graveyard of St Elizabeth’s Church, Dundonald.

Ambrose’s tattooing career lasted aver 50 years. He spent over 30 years tattooing in Ireland and played a big part in introducing the artform in that part of the world.

Although Ireland’s complete tattooing history has not yet been fully documented, there were several visiting tattooists that travelled throughout Ireland with the various Shows and Circuses that were popular at the time. Professors Ivory, Lawrence and Ted Frisco all worked on the waxworks circuit.

Johnny Eagle (Johnny Larkin) is often wrongly cited as being the first professional tattooist in Ireland. Joe Kilbride beat him to it by 47 years when he opened a studio Lower Ormond Quay in 1901. Joe Kilbride had an incredible career in tattooing and his travels took him from his hometown of Bradford to many English ports and cities over his 50 year career. He had a fondness for Belfast and tattooed in the city several times during his lifetime. Joe Kilbride also sold tattooing equipment to anyone who was interested in learning the business.

He may have engaged with a young man named John Sperin as records show that he was operating a tattoo parlour at 26 Upper Ormond Quay, Dublin in 1904. There was also professional tattooing being offered by J. North at 28 New Ormond Quay, Dublin for several years between 1908 and 1912.

John Larkin was born in North Dublin 15 January 1929. He claimed his father was a tattoo artist and taught his 3 sons to tattoo. There are no records or articles to substantiate this but family memories say that Johnny and his brother Louis travelled to England and sold their suits in order to purchase some crude tattooing equipment. In 1948 Johnny opened his first tattoo shop on Frenchman’s lane when he was aged 21 years old. This would be the first of several studios for the man who became better known as Johnny Eagle. He later tattooed from premises in O’Connell Street, Gardiner Street, Capel Street, and Henry Place and dominated the tattoo scene both in Dublin and in the south of Ireland for many years.

Sailor Bill Peartree tattooed in Belfast in the 1960s. He later made a home for himself in Coleraine and is survived by his son Bruce who still tattoos in the town today.

North of England tattooing legend Mick Fizz (Mick Brown) worked in Belfast for 6 years (1968-1974) during his remarkable career.

One of Belfasts longest serving and best tattooists was Johnny Venus who began tattooing in the city in 1967 and only recently retired. Apart from a short spell in the USA Johnny has been Belfast top traditional tattooist for over 50 years.

*Tom Wortley later promoted shows featuring Princess Cristina in the USA and UK.

Princess Crisitna** was a tattooed lady. She was married to Charlie Bell Snr who tattooed at 183 The Brook , Chatham in his later years. Cristina married Charlie when she was 17 years old. Charlie was aged 30 and was a travelling showman. He tattooed Cristina and she toured with him for at least 30 years. Charlie settled in Chatham around 1940 and tattooed up until 1955. He taught his son to tattoo (Charlie jnr) and he continued to work in his Father’s shop until the 1970’s. The family still continue to tattoo today.