"In the winter evenings the young people of the parish met in the village school, where they were taught Scottish country dancing by one "Shufflin Katie" who accompanied the dancers on a pocket-size fiddle."
Although no further information is given in the book, this is clearly the same man who travelled all around Fife and beyond for decades, putting on shows in such places as St Andrews, Cupar, Auchtermuchty, Newburgh, Leachars, Dysart, Leslie, Leven, Markinch, Falkland, Thornton, Kennoway, Lochgelly and Kirkcaldy. Born circa 1820, in Devon, to William Stephens and Mary Burgess, William junior was born into a family of performers. By 1825 the Stephens were performing in Scotland. Below is a piece from 9 June 1825 Fife Herald. one of the "two young boys about six years of age" dancing on stilts was William.
Around 1840, William junior married Ann Ferguson of Ayrshire and made the shift from performing with his father to performing with the support of his wife (and later their children). The family group began to be referred to as "Shuffle Katie", after one of the popular dancing marionette characters from their show. In fact the character had been part of his father's repertoire too. Due to the nature of their occupation, the Stephens family lived a fairly nomadic lifestyle. Census data finds them staying at a range of places over the decades (often recorded as 'lodgers').
In 1851, William and Ann were in Johnstone in Renfrewshire with daughters Ann and Agnes. William was described as a 'musician', By 1861, the family had grown (daughter Wilhelmina was born in 1856) and were lodging in Kilconquhar (William still described as a "musician" and his two eldest daughters noted as "professional vocalists"). In 1871 the whole family were in Collessie but split between two different houses. William was an "Artist (Travelling Comedian)" as was his wife, while his three daughters were "Vocalists". 1881 found the Stephens in Falkland - all 'boarders' and William described simply as an "artist".
A review of a show in 26 May 1881 Fife Herald stated that "with new scenery, new figures, &c, his entertainment, long popular in Fife and far beyond it, is now more attractive than it ever was." However, Mr Stephens died just weeks later on 24 July 1881 from pneumonia while staying in Largoward. He was aged 61. The record of his death gives his occupation as 'marionette player' and describes his father as the same. This indicates that although the descriptions of William's occupation varied over the years, reflecting his many talents, his skills as a puppeteer were core to his identity. His death brought an end to the performances so loved by the people of Fife and beyond. Mrs Stephens advertised over seventy marionettes and twenty-one scenes for sale later in 1881. Ann Stephens died in Cupar in 1905.
Below is a selection of mentions of the Stephens family from the newspaper archives. Note that many of the set pieces are based on well know stories, songs and poems such as 'The House that Jack Built', 'The MIller O' Dee', 'Mr Peter Paterson', 'The Laird of Cockpen', 'Willie Brewed A Peck O' Maut', 'Babes in the Wood' and 'Robin Tamson's Smiddy'.
A long-time favourite across the Kingdom of Fife, the appeal of "Shuffle Katie" endured for decades and was fondly recalled for many decades after his death. In the 26 April 1924 St Andrews Citizen, Dean of Guild W.T. Linskill reminisced:
"the gem of all shows" was Shuffle Katie. Stephens was "a clever fellow. He was a musician, a bit of a ventriloquist, a good mimic, manager and entertainer, and was assisted by his clever, versatile family. There was singing, dancing and clever marionettes, smartly manipulated. But the peach of this clever entertainment was, to my mind, his wonderful shadow shows. He had wonderfully constructed mechanical jointed figures (made of iron I believe) most skilfully worked by wires and strings. They were shown through a thin, stretched sheet with powerful lights behind. I shall not in a hurry forget our delight at "The Broken Bridge", a shadow sketch, the best of the lot, I thought. I would go a long way to see it all again...."
This was not the only time that Linskill wrote in the paper about Shuffle Katie. In another piece he recounts the story of The Broken Bridge. His description shows that Stephens performance was very similar to this modern day version (click link to view video): Broken Bridge.
Perhaps an ancestor of yours was taught to dance by William or was entertained by the Stephens family? If you have any anecdotes to tell, please comment.