The man who put the Fields in Sheffield

William Claude Dukenfield (WC Fields)
William Claude Dukenfield (WC Fields)
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‘WELL whaddayaknow?’

One of the entertainment industry’s greatest-ever comedians could have been brought up in Sheffield - if his mother and father hadn’t moved to the USA.

And if the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have their way WC Fields might be coming to Sheffield after all - in an exhibition dedicated to his career.

Fields, real name William Claude Dukenfield, was one of the biggest movie stars of the 1930s.

His film persona’s uniquely droning voice - honed by a copious intake of booze - and startled double-takes are still impersonated today and he is acknowledged as one of Hollywood’s greatest comedians taking names like Eustace P McGargoyle, Larsen E. Whipsnade and Edgar Souse in his films.

Fields was the son of James Duckenfield born, according to his birth certificate traced by The Diary, in the west district of Sheffield on February 16 1841.

James and his family emigrated to the USA in 1854 and he can be seen in our picture in his Union soldier’s uniform during the American Civil War.

James was the son of John Duckenfield and Ann Lydon - James later called himself James Lydon Dukenfield, dropping the ‘c in Duckenfield and using his mother’s maiden name as his middle name - but records at Sheffield Register Office show that young James was born plain James Duckenfield.

The birth record - kept for more than 150 years in a red, hard-bound ledger of births and deaths in Sheffield Register Office - shows that James’s dad John was a ‘combmaker’ who lived in Barker Pool Sheffield.

A combmaker does what it sounds like he does - he makes combs for people’s hair and for textiles in industry, probably from bone, horn or metal in those days.

The entry is all in long-hand copper plate writing, signed by registrar Henry Rawlins and not all of it is easy to read according.

The story of WC Field’s Sheffield ancestry re-surfaced during research done by James Henry Parker for an exhibition by the the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences - the ones who dish out the Oscars every year - currently in Los Angeles but being made ready to come to the UK.

“WC Fields fathers full name was James Lydon Dukenfield who was born in Sheffield, England,” said James Parker.

“When he emigrated to USA he served in the Civil war and he died April 15, 1913 in Philadelphia USA. We would like anyone living in Sheffield who may be related to the Dukenfields or Duckenfields to come forward and help us with more detail about WC Fields’ family.”

According to the exhibition detail James Dukenfield served in Company M of the 72nd Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment in the American Civil War and was wounded in 1863. Fields’ mother, Kate Spangler (née Felton), who was 15 years younger than her husband, and a Protestant of German ancestry.

The 1876 Philadelphia City Directory lists James Dukenfield as a clerk. After marrying, he worked as an independent produce merchant and a part-time hotel-keeper.

Could you be related to WC Fields?

*If you are a Duckenfield and can trace your family back to John and Ann Duckenfield in Sheffield in the 1840s please contact martin.smith@jpress.co.uk and I will put you in touch with James Henry Parker.