The Dublin Waxworks at 30 Henry Street was a beloved institution for the young of Dublin in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. As was written of the waxworks in a 1940 edition of The Irish Times, not alone was 30 Henry Street home to a museum of waxworks, it also housed a theatre and provided great entertainment to Dubliners. Night and day, the paper noted:
…the hall of No.30 Henry Street was crowded with the young and old who came to see Mr. James’ new programmes of wonders and surprises, all compromising the latest and most sensational from foreign lands, never lacking in the qualities of the humorous, the dramatic and the grotesque.
This March 1916 advertisement is typical of the shows performed at the waxworks, when the “original wild dancing bushman” visited:
In June 1913, the waxworks was visited by Anita “the living doll”, who was described as “the tiniest adult lady that ever lived.”
The waxworks had been established by Charles Augustine James, who arrived in Dublin in 1892 from the English midlands. The Irish Times noted that James had a “keen interest in the conditions of the working class in Dublin” and that “he financed outings, beanfeasts and parties of all kinds, but still his mind sought for some way in which he could provide a place where a working man could take his wife and family in the evenings. The Henry Street Waxworks was his solution”. In addition to the waxworks, the bijou theatre hosted comedy, drama and visiting acts and wonders.
The waxworks in Dublin contained no ‘chamber of horrors’, something James despised the thought of in such a family environment, but did boast waxworks of political figures and icons, including Parnell, the Duke of Wellington, Gladstone and many others.
Among its most frequent performers was Marcella, the “Midget Queen”, who “sang popular lyrics of the day and always swept her audience along with her.” The first mention of Marcella I can find associated with the waxworks is in the Freeman’s Journal in July 1893, where it was noted she was “the rage of Dublin” and that she “is not wax but alive”
In April 1902, the premises was damaged by a fire, and the Freeman’s Journal noted that “figures which were intended to represent white skinned people were of a dusky hue from the smoke.” The paper noted that the damage done on that occasion was in the region of £1,500.
It was not the fire of April 1902 which would ultimately defeat the Henry Street Waxworks, but the fires of Easter 1916. During the rebellion the Henry Street Waxworks suffered greatly, but prior to its destruction it provided some comic relief to the narrative of Easter Week! Seamus Ua Caomhanaigh recalled in his statement to the Bureau of Military History that:
There was a good deal of fun during the week.In close proximity to the Post Office in Henry St. there was an institution called the Wax Works. I was never in it but I assume it was something like Madame Tussauds in London only on a very small-scale. It had a shop in front. Access was had from one house to another by breaking holes in the walls of the houses, so that one could walk from one end to another of the Street without leaving the shelter of the houses. With the accessibility of all that the Waxworks had to offer, it was not long till a number of our troops were arrayed in various uniforms and costumes from the wax figures, and musical instruments were also acquired, such as mouth organs, melodeons and fiddles,the playing of which and the singing which accompanied them, made a good deal of the time pass very pleasantly.
Diarmuid Lynch, in his statement to the Bureau, also talked about the waxworks, recalling that he had told James Connolly in the General Post Office that “we captured three English Generals”, before pausing and adding “we got them in the waxworks”
Twenty-one years later I was interested to learn the sequel to the foregoing: when sifting data for the record of the GPO area I had a talk with Captain Jim O’Neill Who had been one of Connolly’s Right-hand-men in the Citizen Army. Relating his personal recollections of Connolly, he touched On Connolly’s sense of humour (a quality he was not generally credited with), and I in turn told him of the Waxwork’s story. This brought to O’Neill’s recollection how Connolly had come to him and his assistants in the “armoury” (located in the General Sorting Office) that Wednesday and said: “Well, boys, “tis all over, we just bagged three of their Generals” pausing for effect, he added: “We captured them in the Waxworks”.
William D. Daly, who was a member of the Irish Volunteers in London and took part in Easter Week, recalled that figures of Wolfe Tone and King Edward were taken from the waxworks, and that “some genius put the figures at the windows and immediately a fusilade of bullets came through and we had to duck for a few minutes until the firing died down. The idea of the wax figures of Wolfe Tone and King Edward being riddled by bullets amused us a great deal”
The damage down to Henry Street as a result of the Easter Rebellion was immense, and is evidently clear from this illustration taken from Dublin of the Future: The New Town Plan (1922). The waxworks were already in decline by then, and the 1916 Rising proved disastrous to this and many other small businesses in Dublin.