Charles Smith

Charles Smith - various Scottish locations 1903 -1925

Tinsmith, Sailor, Soldier…Tattoo Artist!

Career choices were pretty much set in stone in Hesley, Yorkshire when Charles Clement Augustus Smith was born on 22nd May 1871.charles smith

You either left school and began working in the Coal Mining industry or toiled all day in the Tin Mines. The other possible career opportunities open to a young man in those days was to go to sea as a member of the Royal or Merchant Navy. If that life did not appeal, you always had the option to join the Military and serve as a soldier in one of Britain’s many foreign wars.

Charles Smith did all of these occupations in his early lifetime but it’s what he did in his later years that make him stand out above his peers.

Charles became a pioneering Tattoo Artist.

But his journey into tattooing was not forged in the Tin Mining industry which he entered in 1885 aged 14 years old.  He saw a life of hardship and toil ahead of himself and decided to take charge of his own destiny.

On 2nd October 1886 Charles signed up as an able-bodied seaman with the Merchant Navy for a four year term, serving onboard the S.S Westgate sailing out of Liverpool.  

As a 15 year old boy, away from home for the first time in his life, it must have been an overwhelming experience for him but one which would offer more exotic opportunities.

The S.S Westgate was a regular visitor to America and, like many young seamen of that period; Charles would have certainly visited New York on his travels.  When his ship docked in port it’s safe to assume that he would have encountered tattooing of some form. 

Any sailor who was lucky enough to land in New York around this time would also be among the first to be exposed to the new exciting phenomenon of tattooing by electricity. This technology was being used and sold by pioneering US tattoo artists such as Samuel O’Reilly.

This is a common scenario that has repeated itself my times during this tattoo history research.

One of the first stops for a seaman when he arrived in a new port or country was to seek out the local bars, brothels and tattoo parlours.

The sailor was usually in search of a permanent reminder of his home, sweetheart or a token tattoo to commemorate his visit to the foreign land. The savvy, established Tattoo Artists that operated in these establishments would offer electric tattooing in several colours. They catered for this type of customer and would tattoo sailing shiips, Anchors and hula girls non-stop until the fleet had returned to the ship and departed for home. Some tattooists would also sell equipment to would-be tattooers. They offered to furnish any interested party with a full box of equipment to enable them to enter the trade for themselves…for a substantial fee.

Machines, colours, designs and stencils were all openly sold and promoted. This unique business opportunity was embraced by many visiting sailors.There would be plenty of quiet time at sea on your return journey to hone your craft. There would also be plenty of willing, would-be customers among your shipmates to practice upon!!

Charles Smith must have decided to spend his hard earned Navy wages on tattooing equipment as official records show that after 3 years (in 1989) at sea he had deserted his post on-board The Westgate and had run away in search for his next adventure.

 He had actually returned home to Sheffield and married Caroline Broderick in 1890.

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By 1901 Charles had began tattooing professionally at 22 Bamforth Street, Sheffield.  Very few other tattooers were actually operating at this point in time and if we look at the timeline of British tattooing, Charles Smith was among the top 10 of the early pioneers of the art in Britain at the time.  

However, soon the opportunity of further foreign travel and adventure lured him away from his wife, tattooing and home life in Sheffield once again.

In Sept 1901 he had enlisted (along with another 6000 like minded souls) as a private in the Yorkshire and Lancaster regiment.  The Second Boer war was in full swing in South Africa. The regiment supplied troops for the war campaign from its initial outbreak in 1899 until its final conclusion 1902. There's little doubt that he would have taken his tattooing equipment with him.

Tom Riley a fellow Yorkshireman and leading tattooist had also did the same thing and amassed a small fortune tattooing soldiers and officers while serving with the Imperial Yeomanry.

After demobilisation Charles returned to civilian life. 1903 saw both Caroline and Charles now living and working in the Scottish city of Glasgow.  Charles had decided that tattooing would be his true calling and began working exclusively on the Waxworks and Circus circuit.

Glasgow, Dundee, Aberdeen and Edinburgh were all breeding grounds for this popular new type of entertainment.  A competent Tattooer could make a lucrative living moving from one pitch to the next. There were not enough good tattooists at the time to satisfy the demand of the waxworks promoters. A good tattooist could command a handsome fee for his work.

Charles worked in all the major Scottish cities for the next 3 years, always pursuing the best possible remuneration for his artistic skills.

The constant moving from town to town and the lack of routine was stressful and Charles and Caroline drifted apart in 1909.  He was working at this time in the popular Marine Gardens attraction park in Edinburgh and commuted around the main Scottish cities, tattooing in the winter off-season.

By 10th August 1914 WW1 was looming, Charles was living and working in Aberdeen and had enlisted in the Royal Navy. He signed up to serve onboard HMS Halcyon, a torpedo gunboat that was converted to a minesweeper. He completed his Military service in 1919 without incident and was soon back in the city of Aberdeen.

At the time Aberdeen had witnessed its fair share of visiting tattooing Professors.

Balerno, Norton, Whittingham, Harvey and Lloyd had all tattooed in the city at some point in the previous 20 years. There was also the imposing legacy of the famous Woolwich tattoo artist Joe Kitteridge who’d worked at New Market Gallery for nearly 10 years. When Kitteridge had departed, his space at The New Market Gallery was occupied by Charles Briley who worked there until 1919.

When Charles Smith returned from active service to Aberdeen he looked to return to his old trade.He may have approached Briley to buy him out of his stance as the records show that Charles Smith tattooed at New Market gallery for the next 6 years until his death in 1925 aged 54 years old.

Charles Smith's memory must be commemorated for the part he played in tattooing in the early part of the 20th century.  As young man he’d already travelled the seven seas, fought in the Second Boer War and also served in the Royal Navy during WW1. This was in addition to being a successful professional tattoo artist in Sheffield, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee and Aberdeen.