Alice Crawford – the actress from Bendigo

Above: Alice Crawford in costume for “Matt of Merrymount”, c.1908, The New Theatre, London. A reviewer described her as “charmingly natural as the puritan maid.” Postcard in the author’s collection.

Alice Crawford was one of six children born to a prosperous family, on January 5, 1880. Her mother, Margaret Jane nee Layden and father, George Hunter Crawford, lived in the regional  mining town of Bendigo. Her father was was a director of the very successful Frederick the Great Company, which worked several locations to mine Bendigo’s rich gold-bearing leads – at depths of up to 800 feet. He was also a well-known member of the influential Mine Managers Association of Bendigo.

Below: Alice Crawford is praised for her elocution in Melbourne Punch, 13 July 1899. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

1899 Bendigo elocutionistAlice and her siblings grew up in “Del Oro,” a large house that still stands opposite Palmerston Square in Bendigo. She performed on stage from a young age and consistently attracted very positive reviews for her impressive recitations, the earliest given at the age of only 10.

Through the later 1890s she won numerous awards as an elocutionist, and by August 1899 was performing in Melbourne, sometimes with Amy Castles , a noted Bendigo soprano of about the same age. In late 1900 she joined US actress Nance O’Neil‘s company on a tour of Australia and New Zealand, but abandoned it in June 1901 to join British actor – manager Wilson Barrett‘s travelling company. This took her to South Africa, then in September 1902, to England. In December she appeared with Barrett on stage in The Christian King, a “panorama” of the life of King Alfred, at the Adelphi Theatre.

Even a savage bout of pneumonia and the death of her mother did not impact her rise as one of the most popular and admired London actresses. Her mentor Wilson Barrett also died in July 1904, but she quickly found a small role as Iris in The Tempest with leading British dramatist Beerbohm Tree. Success as a Shakespearian actress quickly followed. By the end of 1907 she was regularly hailed as a leading British (or occasionally acknowledged as an “Antipodean”) actress. In 1907 she performed with Tree’s company in Berlin. Ever able to find humour in difficult situations, Alice wrote home to Bendigo of being mistaken for a wayward daughter by a German mother who saw her photo.

Writing in the early 1960s when many of his biographical subjects were still alive, Australian theatre historian Hal Porter described Alice Crawford’s diction as “notably pure” and praised her performances as Shakespearian heroines. Contemporary writers commented on her height, prepossessing manner and “beautifully modulated voice”. Like Carrie Moore, (the Australian born star of musical theatre and light comedy), she was quickly absorbed into the British theatre tradition, and over the next fifteen years was never without work. She appeared in endless newspaper articles, was asked for her opinion on theatre topics (providing an interesting commentary on stage fright on one occasion) and appeared at charity events and fundraisers – notably several for Australian soldiers in England after the outbreak of war.

383px-Lieutenant_Valentine_Williams_(6498250535)  1906 Crawford

Above left: Valentine Williams photographed in late 1915, when he was commissioned an officer in the Irish Guards. Alice Crawford’s brother George was also in the Irish Guards.  Photo from Imperial War Museum Collections @ Flickr Commons and Wikipedia Commons.
Above right: Alice Crawford in 1906, firmly established in the style of popular stars of the time. Postcard in the author’s collection

In 1911 she became engaged to Valentine Williams, a well-known journalist from the Daily Mail, but it was not until 1916 that they finally married. Valentine Williams might be thought of as an “adventurer-journalist”, because even before the Great War he had travelled to cover other conflicts – including the Balkan Wars, the Riff Rebellion and the Portuguese revolution of 1910.

A correspondent at the British Army’s GHQ in 1915, Valentine was seriously wounded in fighting on the Somme, soon after he had joined the Irish Guards – earning himself the Military Cross in the process.

Alice’s stage career slowed at about the same time. The widely believed reason was that she was caring for Valentine, which may have been true, although it is more likely he was nursed back to health in a military hospital. It’s possible she took less stage work because she wanted to try something different. In 1912 she had written her first piece for the theatre, and she also began to try out roles in comedy during the grim years of World War One. In fact, it was reported that she had come to prefer comedy to serious drama.

In 1919 Valentine was back at work covering the Versailles Peace Conference for the Daily Mail.  But after the war he increasingly turned to writing spy thriller novels, of the genre also inhabited by John Buchan, and inspired (he said), by his adventures as a correspondent – and on advice of Buchan himself. He left the Daily Mail in 1922. The first of his Clubfoot series, featuring the evil German master spy, Dr Adolph Grundt, appeared in 1918. Grundt is opposed – naturally – by a wholesome British hero, Desmond Okewood, and his secret service brother Francis.

Alice did not stop work, but the nature of her work changed. In 1921 she appeared in her only film, but a significant one – J. Stuart Blackton‘s The Glorious Adventure, a revolutionary early colour feature film made using a process called Prizma-colour. Seen today, it is unusually easy to watch – beautifully costumed and well acted by an experienced cast, including by Alice Crawford in a supporting role. Increasingly, Alice and Valentine’s work and lives became intertwined. For twenty years Alice’s letters home to Australia, which were often released to the press, recounted her adventures on stage and with Valentine.

The Sketch 1921 Alice and Valentine 1924

Above: In 1921, weekly magazine, The Sketch heralded Alice’s role in “The Glorious Adventure” an early colour film, while in 1923 they portrayed Alice and Valentine at their comfortable home in Mayfair. Copyright held by The Illustrated London news, accessed via the British Library and the British Newspaper Archive project.

According to Phillip Stafford, in the mid 1920s Valentine visited the US on a publishers tour and apparently fell in love with the place – Alice had visited New York briefly in late 1909. Six years later they returned, living there until the late 1930s. Together, they wrote and sometimes performed together – a genuine and loving partnership. The 1931 play Berlin, based on one of his novels, was credited to both Alice and Valentine. Together they also wrote and performed in four radio plays for NBC. Valetine went on to write several scripts for films and more popular novels.

When his autobiography, The World of Action came out in 1938, it included numerous anecdotes of his life, including many that involved Alice. Five pages were devoted to Alice and her achievements alone. Not everyone enjoyed his autobiography however,  the reviewer for the Adelaide News took exception to his failure to acknowledge Alice as an Australian. To Valentine, Alice was apparently as English as he was, and perhaps by 1938, that was how Alice saw herself too. And they were not alone in seeing the white inhabitants of the Empire as a collectively British – confusing to Australians today perhaps.

The UK National Portrait Gallery holds a photo of the couple taken in 1939 here.

On the outbreak of war, Valentine joined the Secret Intelligence Service. Malcolm Muggeridge recalled that he was screened for service by Valentine during a visit to his London club.”Writers of thrillers tend to gravitate to the secret service” Muggeridge commented. Kim Philby also came across Valentine in his secret service role. But soon Alice and Valentine were sent back to the US to work for the British Embassy developing propaganda – the kind of messages intended to encourage the USA into supporting Britain.

Crawford c1908Unfortunately, of Alice’s later life we know nothing. Following Valentine’s death in the Gotham Hospital in New York  in November 1946, she simply disappeared from the historical record and so far, this writer, has found no trace of her life at all.

Left: Alice Crawford’s signature was quite distictive, as can be seen in this example. Author’s collection c.1906

 

 

Notes

  1. The very few websites that canvas Alice’s life and career claim she died in 1931, and all cross-reference each other in perpetuating the error, in typical internet fashion. In fact, as the 1940 border crossing note from the US below shows, she was alive long after that.Alice 1940
    Above: July 18, 1940. Rouses Point border crossing details for Alice Crawford Williams. US National Archives via Ancestry

     

  2. Alice’s younger sister Ruby Gertrude Crawford (born 1886) acted on stage inRuby crawford 1904 Australia before she married Albert Victor Leggo in 1916. Leggo, a manufacturer, property and mine owner like Crawford, was the brother of Henry Leggo, who operated a preserves and canned foods business that still operates in Australia today as Leggos. (The now US owned company suggests the name is Italian in its current advertising. In fact, Leggo is a Cornish name)
Above right: Ruby Crawford, from Table Talk, 1 December 1904. Via National Library of Australia Trove

 

References

Alan Burton (2016 ) Historical Dictionary of British Spy Fiction. Rowman & Littlefield.

David Stafford (2012) The Silent Game. The Real World of Imaginary Spies. Chapter 5. University of Georgia Press.

Hal Porter (1965) Stars of Australian Stage and Screen. Angus and Robertson.

Nigel West (2005) Historical Dictionary of British Intelligence.  Scarecrow Press.

Further reading from National Library of Australia, Trove,
Digitised Newspaper Collection

 

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