Florrie Forde (1875-1940) – Gertrude Street’s gift to Music hall

Above left: The United Service Club Hotel on the corner of Young Street and Gertrude Street, about the time Florrie was born. Source the State Library of Victoria Picture Collection. At right: The very altered building today. Author’s collection.

Florrie Forde was born Flora Flannagan in Fitzroy on 16 August 1875, to Lott Flannagan and Phoebe (Simmons). In time, she would become one of the great British Music Hall stars of the early twentieth century. A great deal has been written about her – she cannot be described as a forgotten Australian! Yet it perplexes the author that in a neighbourhood that also saw the births of Daphne Trott, Alf Goulding and Saharet, there is, today, no acknowledgment she was ever there.

Florrie and sister

Above: Florrie Forde and sister. Stewart & Co., photographer. [ca. 1889-ca. 1906] This beautiful photograph is from the collections of the State Library of Victoria.

This short article is intended to showcase her birthplace and her birth certificate. Links to longer articles can be found below.

FF better copyAbove: Part of Flora Flannagan’s birth certificate. Column 2 – date of birth, place of birth (no street number given); 3 – name  (Just Flora and no May Augusta); 4 – gender; 5 – father’s name, profession, age and place of birth; 6 – date and place of marriage, other children; 7 – wife’s name age and place of birth (unknown, America). Via Victoria Birth Deaths & Marriages.

She was born at one of the family residences in Gertrude Street Fitzroy – the handsome but modest United Service Club Hotel run by her father at 88 (now 122) Gertrude Street being a possibility – although her birth certificate does not give a definitive address.

The 1875 Sands and McDougall directory for Melbourne lists her father’s business at 200 Gertrude Street. Today, this site is a tiny park, on the corner of Smith and Gertrude Streets, Collingwood. But this was surely only a business address at the time anyway.

Sands Directory 1875 for Flanagan. jpg

In the same edition, the United Service Club Hotel is listed as managed by David Garcia:

Sands Directory 1875

Two years later however, the 1877 edition lists Lott Flanagan at the hotel. But it should be noted that there was probably some “lag” in time between when information was collected and the directory was published.

1877 Sands Directory

Source: State Library of Victoria, online digitised versions of the Sands and McDougall Directories for Melbourne.

In addition, in a very thorough survey of her early life in Australia, researcher Tony Martin Jones has suggested that instead of a noisy pub, her place of birth may have been at her maternal grandparents shop and residence nearby. Barnett and Susannah Simmons ran a crockery store at 181 (now 203) Gertrude Street. That building is still only a few doors from an even larger, noisy pub – the Builder’s Arms. Unfortunately, we are now unlikely to ever know for sure.

Gertrude Street

A terrace of shop/residences in Gertrude Street, Fitzroy. Taking into account the change to street numbers, the Simmons crockery store was the building on the right, behind the blue car. Author’s Collection

Florrie first appeared on stage in Sydney in early 1892, and quickly became a popular singer and performer in pantomime. By 1894 she was a regular performer in Sydney and Melbourne. In 1897 she made her first appearance in London – apparently playing three music halls in the one night.

Left: Florrie Forde in 1898. Source: Melbourne Punch August 24, 1898, via National Library of Australia’s Trove.
Centre: Florrie Forde not long after her breakthrough on the stage in London. Source: “The Sketch,” Sept 21, 1898. Photo copyright Illustrated London News Group. Author’s Collection. At right – A signed postcard taken sometime later in, life, probably in the early 1930s. Author’s Collection.

A talented singer with an exceptional wit, she was supremely confident on stage and held a genuine affection for her audiences – music hall being her favourite. Her name is still connected with many of the music hall songs she made popular, such as the World War One favourites “A Long Long Way To Tipperary”, “Pack Up Your Troubles In Your Old Kit Bag” and “Has Anybody here seen Kelly.”  She appeared as herself in several British films in the mid 1930s, and in character in “My Old Dutch” in 1934.  Her Australian accent remained with her all her life, as the numerous recordings she made demonstrate. As theatre historian Frank Van Straten notes, she achieved all this without any formal musical training – a remarkable achievement.

alice004
This C1930 booklet of sheet music lists many of Forde’s popular songs. Author’s Collection

Jeff Brownrigg’s entry at the Australian Dictionary of Biography provides an account of her work and quite tumultuous, perhaps dysfunctional, upbringing. She worked all her life – dying suddenly after entertaining in a Scottish naval hospital in April 1940. Obituaries in the UK and Australia were effusive. Florrie was very much the voice of the people, and apparently even Dame Nellie Melba was an admirer.

anona-1940-
Above – Only a few months before her death, Florrie was still on stage, here with fellow Australian Anona Winn, in Portsmouth. Portsmouth Evening Herald 24 Feb 1940 via British Library Newspaper Archive, Johnston Press PLC.

Nick Murphy, Rewritten November 2020


Further Reading

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