"My father said the day I was born was a red-letter day. He received final demands for the gas, the electricity, the rates and half a dozen HP items."
Comedian Thomas Frederick Cooper (Tommy) was born in Llwyn Onn Street, Caerphilly, Wales, on the 19th of March, 1921 to Thomas, Samuel and Gertrude Catherine Cooper.
Though technically Welsh, it was Devon that gave him his identity and his faint West Country burr. His father was from Caerphilly and his mother from Devonshire. Tommy inherited his determination from his mother and his unique sense of humour from his father.
The polluted air of Caerphilly disagreed with the family and so, at the tender age of four, Tommy and family moved to Exeter, where he spent most of his childhood. His parents ran a variety of small business'. They had an ice cream van and they used to go around all the fairgrounds. Tommy was looked after by other fairground people - often he was even looked after by a chimp!!
Thomas Samuel and Gertrude Catherine Cooper
Passport from the 1950s proving Date of Birth
Tommy, back row, second right
Eventually the family settled in Fawley, near Southampton in 1933, after Tommy’s father lost their home to gambling. Tommy’s mother went on to run a haberdashery shop.
When Tommy was eleven he was given a magic set by his aunt Lucy. Later, he would thank her during a live performance; ‘Auntie, if you’re watching, thank you very much for that magic set, but I still can’t do the tricks’.
Tommy returned to Exeter to go to college. After leaving school at fourteen, he had a brief career as an apprentice shipwright in Hythe, Kent. He was sent home for a week whilst in this job. And why did he get sent home? Because he was constantly honing his magic skills on the other apprentices and so holding their work up.
It was on that ship that Tommy gave his first public performance. At the ripe old age of 16. Cooper stood up in front of a lunchtime audience of riveters, platers and boiler-makers. Up he got, just like that, and proceeded to dazzle them by producing a series of fancy coloured hankerchiefs from a cylinder and, hey!, what's that behind my ear? Why it's the ace of spades! Only thing was the hankies got stuck in the cylinder and while he was trying to free them what fell out of his sleeve? The ace of spades!
The audience fell about and the young 16-year-old ran off with tears streaming down his face. When the tears had dried and the embarrassment had faded, Tom sat down in his quarters and started to practice again.
Interviewed later, by Sylvia Duncan, Tommy was asked, "But how did you discover you could get a living by making mistakes?"
Tommy paused. "It was Auntie's fault. She gave me a conjuring set when I was eleven. Then when I worked as an apprentice shipwright, I used to entertain the fellows instead of getting on with the job. After that came the Army. That took me to the Middle East. I got married in Cyprus and picked up a fez in Egypt. I still wear it. Now it's branded on me, like George Robey's eyebrows and Little Tich's feet. When I was demobbed I took up conjuring professionally.
That was when the trouble started. I was nervous, so nervous that tricks wouldn't go right. I couldn't keep my hands still - so I waved at the audience, they waved back at me and we were buddies. Then I produced an egg. Every magician has to have an egg, it proves his skill. Usually they come in for breakfast next morning. Mine didn't. It broke. I nearly cried. The audience howled. So I went on breaking eggs. Of course it's all simple humour. See this?" Tommy solemnly plucked a hair from hishead and put it in a large carrier bag. "Now I'll show you how that short hair becomes a long hair." much weaving of hands over the bag and Tommy produced a very long hare, cut out ofwhite paper!! "Dear me this will never do." TC was busily plucking bits of hair from his jacket. My bit of fluff" - a suggestive giggle. Then out of his pocket came a toy angora rabbit. "The one that jumps out of my hat. Always before I'm ready of course."