November 22, 2001
"LITTLE BILLY" MERCHANT, who has died aged 81, was a much admired midget circus entertainer.
William Merchant was born on July 31 1919 and, having been abandoned by his parents at an early age, grew up in an orphanage in Bristol. As a youngster he was fascinated by the local variety theatre, which he would visit at every opportunity, and in 1937 a chance encounter at the Bristol Empire with John Lester's celebrated troupe of midgets brought him his first job.
After working in Lester's act, he joined Joe Boganny's band of acrobatic dwarves, another renowned music hall act of the era. During his time with Boganny, Merchant appeared at all the leading variety venues with such well-known stars of the day as "Wee" Georgie Wood and Elsie and Doris Waters.
When war came, he worked as an aircraft fitter for the Bristol Aeroplane Company. He then spent the summer of 1944 at Chessington Zoo Circus in Surrey, playing alongside the clown Fiery Jack (Fred Zetina).
Merchant next teamed up with the Austin brothers, Len and Alby, and in 1945 they were featured at Blackpool with other clowns such as Coco. Merchant returned to Blackpool two years later with Charlie Cairoli, whose simple style of make-up he afterwards imitated.
He and the Austins next worked with Chipperfield's Circus for two years before parting company. Merchant then appeared as a reprise clown with Bertram Mills, playing Olympia in London each winter until 1964, and touring with the show's travelling circus until it closed the same year.
He was often teamed with the Mills circus's other principal midget clown of the post-war years, Nikki, and the two were regularly billed as "Britain's funniest 'little fellows' ", as dwarves were known in circus parlance. On one occasion they appeared with the ringmaster Frank Foster in a skit in which Foster, dressed in drag, played Brunhilde, while Nikki wore Robin Hood garb and Little Billy was a diminutive Norseman.
Although Merchant was offered a place with the Moscow State Circus, in 1965 he retired from show business and went to live with friends in Reading. This interlude did not last long, however, as his former colleague at Mills, Jacko Fossett, found himself in need of another partner.
Fossett had joined Cirkus Schumann in Copenhagen after Mills had folded, and when Schumann's long-serving dwarf clown Kiki retired in 1968, Merchant was persuaded to team up with Fossett and Antonio (Schumann's other in-house midget clown).
After Schumann's was also forced to close, the trio went to Cirkus Benneweis in Denmark. In the years that followed, Little Billy and Jacko Fossett enjoyed great success together on the continent with Cirkus Krone in Munich and at the Stadthalle in Vienna, as well as in Puerto Rico.
They regularly returned to Britain for television shows featuring Chipperfield's and Billy Smart's circuses, and often played winter seasons at the Belle Vue Circus, Manchester. They also spent six summers working at the Great Yarmouth Hippodrome.
In 1978, Merchant and Fossett won an award at the annual Clown Festival held at Blankenberge, Belgium. Merchant retired again to Reading after the end of that year's winter season at Belle Vue.
In the 1980s, he moved to Skegness, where he and Fossett eventually lived in the same nursing home. On occasions they also found themselves in neighbouring beds when ill health necessitated hospital treatment for both, though in all their years together they never exchanged a cross word. Fossett called him "the best partner I have ever had, and the one with whom I never had an argument."
Merchant was the recipient of a lifetime achievement award from the Circus Friends' Association of Great Britain last year.