Alf Goulding – Triumphs and Tragedies with Pollard’s

A pensive Alf Goulding with other members of the Pollard Lilliputian Opera Company on the steps of the Badminton Hotel in Vancouver in 1905. He is flanked by Harold Fraser (Snub Pollard) and Teddie McNamara. The full photo of the Pollard Company is on the Vancouver As It Was website. Photo used with their permission.

The adult working life of prolific Hollywood based filmmaker, Alf Goulding (born 26 January 1885 as Alfred John Goulding), is well documented. He had an impressive output as a director – working first with Hal Roach and later Mack Sennett. By the time he made A Chump at Oxford (1939) with Laurel and Hardy, he had directed over 200 films, and had written and appeared in many others. There were of course, a few duds – including his only Australian film, A Yank in Australia (1942).

It’s less commonly known that Goulding owed much to his long experience with the Pollard Lilliputian Opera Company, and that he was a Melbourne neighbour and long-time friend of Daphne Pollard (Trott) and Snub Pollard (Harold Fraser).

Alf Goulding can be traced through at least six Pollard’s overseas tours (which all ran for more than 12 months) – something of a record – this writer can only find one other Pollard’s performer who matches it – Irene Findlay. It’s hard to know if many people have ever really run away “to join the circus”,  but Alf Goulding is indeed a variation on this. Between the age of eleven, when he went on his first Pollard’s tour, and twenty-four, when he left to settle in the US, he could not have spent more than 24 months living in Melbourne.

Goulding’s place of birth was the suburb of Richmond, but he lived most of his brief Australian life in Fitzroy. His father Frank, a bootmaker, and mother Maggie (stage name Maggie Walsh) were both involved in local Melbourne theatre, with moderate success. Alf’s half-sister from his mother’s first marriage, Elsa Goulding (sometimes known as Elsie Golding), had gained some reputation as a singer by 1893 and, determined to maintain the family tradition, Frank encouraged his oldest son Frank junior, Alf and later his youngest daughter Irene to go on stage. By the time of Maggie’s death in April 1895, Frank junior and Alf had developed a popular act together. Reports from papers in 1894 and 1895 stated that the brothers had the Melbourne audiences in “roars of laughter”.

 

 

Left: The white terrace house at 431 George Street, Fitzroy photographed in 2019. The Goulding family lived here in 1895. Photo – Author’s collection.
Right: Photos of Alf in his early days are hard to find. This photo, now in the public domain, is from c.1905-10 and its original source is unknown. Via wikimedia commons. 

Triumphs, Tragedies and child labour

In 1896, Frank junior and Alf  joined a troupe of the Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company. Under the management of Charles Pollard, this group of under-age performers departed in September for a tour of colonial audiences in South East Asia (Hong Kong, Manila, Singapore etc) and India, where they were received with great enthusiasm. Their father Frank was paid a monthly wage for both children performing, while their travel, food and accommodation costs were covered by Pollard’s. According to a contemporary Singapore paper,  whilst touring, the child performers with Pollard’s had the following program;

  • 9.00 am breakfast,
  • 10 am until 1.30 pm rehearsal, then had
  • 1.30 “Tiffin” (an Indian term for a meal),
  • two hours of siesta, then
  • two hours of lessons with the teacher (who doubled as the cornet player) ,
  • then play and rest before a light dinner and
  • the evening performance.

Singapore Free Press 23 Feb 1897Unfortunately a terrible tragedy occurred when Frank junior died and was buried in Calcutta, in January 1897. We can only imagine how hard this was for Alf, still on tour, let alone his father and sister back in Melbourne. His Indian burial certificate clearly lists the cause of death as smallpox, an even greater tragedy given that a vaccine existed at the time. One wonders if Frank’s father ever knew the truth, as it was never acknowledged.

Frank Junior’s death from “pneumonia” is reported by “The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser”, 23 Feb 1897, via Newspapers SG – digitized newspaper collection. 
Frank Goulding death
Frank Goulding’s death from Smallpox in Calcutta. “Confluent smallpox” generally meant the pustules ran so thickly on the skin they often formed a massive sore. Via Ancestry.com

Yet it was all back to work for the Pollard’s children. Two months later, on April 20, 1897, the same Singapore newspaper reported;  “Master Alfred Goulding scored the principal success again, this clever boy keeping the house in fits of laughter… In the part of Lurcher, the bailiff…his acting could not easily have been beaten by a professional comedian.” Of course, Alf was a professional comedian – even if he was only 13 years old at the time.

In August 1898, a second Pollard’s troupe, including Alf and now with Irene, arrived in South Africa. Interviewed in July 1899 by a correspondent for the Sydney Referee , the children were probably all instructed to put a positive spin on their work, the endless travel and to not mention their homesickness. From Johannesburg, South Africa, the correspondent wrote of Alf Goulding, as “the clever young comedian of the company, aged 12 years” and Irene Goulding, “a bonny girl of 8 years.. who hadn’t been very well lately.”  Pollard practice was very typically never to accurately give the ages of the child performers. Alf was in fact 14, and Irene 10.

china mail dec 26 1900With the outbreak of the Boer War, Manager Charles Pollard apparently rushed the company to safety. But it seems he was in no hurry to bring them home – it was July 1900 before the children were all back in Australia, via Hong Kong and other stops in the “far east”, and Charles with exciting war stories to tell. How seriously at risk they were is impossible to tell now.

Gillian Arrighi and others have written of the phenomenon of the child performer tours, and the later impact of the disastrous 1910 Pollard tour of India; which saw new Australian laws restricting children leaving Australia to be performers. It’s also worth pausing and looking past the modern nationalist sentiment we might attach to these pioneer Australian performers today, to wonder whether this was really just another form of child exploitation, even by the standards of the time.

Above: Alf Goulding now listed as the Pollard’s stage manager by the “China Mail,” December 26, 1900. He was almost 16 and the troupe were perhaps on their way home from South Africa. Image via Hong Kong Public Libraries Multi Media Information Systems.

There is some good reason for thinking this. By leaving Australia, not only did Pollard’s avoid Australian education laws, they were also able to essentially not pay their performers, certainly not at adult rates. Parents were paid via a trust fund. And was a life on stage a healthy upbringing for a child? Even at the time, many didn’t think so. The influence of the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, or the “Gerry Society” kept Pollard’s away from the east coast of the US, as is obvious from the tour map below. The society’s opposition to children performing on stage was well-known. The Chicago Tribune of 19 May 1902 touched on this issue in a long article about the company during their only visit to that city; “Although the idea of keeping children on the stage is repugnant to Americans, and although it is forbidden by law in some states, the Pollards claim that their children… suffer no evil effects from the experience.” 

We should also remember that the Pollard’s performers were playing adult roles on stage, a fact that some commentators found confronting, given the adult content of the musicals they performed. One correspondent for the Hong Kong Daily Press on December 27, 1907 reminded readers “Pollard’s Lilliputians are children, but their performance is anything but childish… That shrimp of a maiden …who portrays a woman many times divorced, how are we to regard her?” (in reference to a leading character in The Belle of New York). Yet at the end of their review, the writer felt the need to abandon their concerns and recommended all readers should see it. The Pollard’s performance was “beyond praise” the writer concluded.

A life of touring

Alf’s tours with Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company, managed by Charles Pollard and Nellie Chester – as identified so far by this writer are:

  • I. Sept 1896 – c. Sept 1897, Tour to India and the “Far East” (meaning Manila, Singapore, Hong Kong)
  • II. August 1898 – c. Dec 1900, Tour to South Africa and the Far East.
  • III. September 1901 – October 1902, Tour to North America
    Manifests show SS Sierra departed Sydney 3 Sept 1901, SS Aorangi arrived back in Australia on 17 Oct 1902. Then, three months later…
  •  IV. January 1903 – April 1904, Tour to North America.
    Manifests show SS Changsa departed Sydney 18 Jan 1903, SS Miowera arrived back in Australia on 2 April 1904.

None of this travel seems to have bothered Alf Goulding, indeed he may well have had his own reasons for not wanting to live at home. Back in Melbourne, Frank Senior found the new century and the life without wife, children and oldest son increasingly hard to deal with. Now a bootmaker, he blamed the Pollard company management for the death of Frank Junior and began to send abusive letters to the Melbourne managers, even while they engaged Alf and Irene. He complained that the money promised to him by Pollard’s was not being paid. Frank had already been publicly embarrassed the year before, when details of his passionate letters to a sometime servant/petty thief were plastered about the Melbourne papers. Now in 1903, his stream of abusive letters saw him end up in court again, a lonely father, perhaps also disconnected from his two children. When he failed to pay the £20 fine, he went to gaol for a month.

Returning to Australia on SS Miowera on 2 April 1904, Irene, now aged 15, apparently decided she had had enough of performing and touring.

  • V. July 1904 – February 1907, Tour to the Far East and North America. Departed July 1904 for Queensland and then 27 September 1904 for Hong Kong. Arrived July 8 1905 in Vancouver. Arrived back in Australia 26 February 1907 on the SS Moana.

 

Pollard's in Canada and the US 1905-1907

The Pollard Company’s “Grand Tour” of North America (March 1905- Jan 1907) avoided much time in the eastern USA, where child labour law made performances impossible. The troupe was in Sacramento during the April 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The map is based on company member Midas Martyn’s diary. Thanks to Catherine Crocker for sharing this information. Courtesy Google Maps. Click to go to the google map
  • VI. July 1907 – April 1909, to the Far East and North America
    Another trip departed in late July 1907,  again testing out shows in Queensland before departing for the Far East. The Company arrived in the US on the SS Nippon Maru from Yokohama, Japan on 3 March, 1908. It appears most of the company from this tour arrived home in Australia on RMS Makura in April, 1909.

Ald 1911Charles Pollard announced his retirement in March 1909, while the company was in Honolulu, heading home. At this point, many of the older company members, including Alf, decided to branch out with their own Pollard’s Company (dropping Lilliputians from the title). With about 15 others, including Carrie Moore’s sisters Olive and Ivy, Harold Fraser and Teddie McNamara, a new adult Pollards troupe would be established. And indeed, through 1910, the group set off again back across Canada, with Alf as Actor – Director-Stage Manager. But instead of storming the US east coast as they planned, they again specialised in visiting all the familiar Pollard’s locations where their popularity was assured.

Alf in makeup as Ko-Ko for the Mikado. The Province, British Columbia, 11 April, 1911. Via Newspapers.com

But by 1914, the adult Pollard troupe had broken up, and for a time they went their separate ways.

LA Times 28 May 1914

Alf and Daphne Pollard performing together in “A Knight for a Day,” Los Angeles, May 1914. Los Angeles Times, 28 May 1914. Vis Newspapers.com

Alf Goulding appears to have maintained a personal and professional friendship with former Pollard Company performers for much of his life. In 1911, Alf was married to Gladys Watson, with Daphne (Mrs Ellington Bunch) and her husband as witnesses. They were married in Seattle by the same official as Daphne and her husband had used, exactly three months before.

Below: Marriage certificates for Daphne Trott and Alf Goulding weddings. US national archives via Family search.org.

 

 

It is hardly a coincidence therefore that Goulding is reputed to have been instrumental in convincing Daphne to work for Mack Sennett, and he was apparently on hand when she arrived at Sennett studios. He also directed a number of her first films – including “Run Girl Run,” “The Swim Princess” and “The Campus Carmen”. He also worked closely with Snub Pollard (Harold Fraser) in his early years in Hollywood.

 

 

Left: This is the only photo I have seen of Goulding at work. It shows Snub Pollard (Harold Fraser), Harold Lloyd, and Alf Goulding at right, on the set of “Somewhere in Turkey” (1918) Source: Unknown – via Pinterest.
Right: Advertisment for Rolin Comedies – Snub Pollard and Ernie Morrison, directed by Alf Goulding. Source: Wikimedia Commons. 

There was perhaps a real camaraderie amongst the old Pollard players. For Alf, the performers he knew had probably been family. When former Pollard alumni Teddie McNamara died of pneumonia in early February 1928, on the eve of great success, all the Hollywood based former Pollard players attended his funeral – Goulding, Daphne Pollard, Snub Pollard and Billy Bevan. 

Alf Goulding died in Hollywood in 1972, after a long and very well documented career as a screenwriter and director. The later career of the talented Irene Goulding is not clear, but it appears she may have worked in sales in Melbourne. She married Albert Smith in 1931, and lived most of her later life in a comfortable house in Riversdale Rd, Hawthorn.

Nick Murphy, May 2018 updated February 2019

 

Note 1
His date of birth is regularly and incorrectly given as 1896. However, the Victorian BDM, which can be searched for free, are quite clear. Its possible that Goulding himself may have contributed to this confusion – it was not uncommon in Hollywood’s golden age to “drop a few years”.

 

Further reading

  • Gillian Arrighi (2017) The Controversial “Case of the Opera Children in the East”: Political Conflict between Popular Demand for Child Actors and Modernizing Cultural Policy on the Child.
    “Theatre Journal” No 69, 2017. John Hopkins University Press.
    (This can be purchased at https://www.press.jhu.edu )
  • Amy Kitcherside: Turn The page; a review of Kirsty Murray’s “India Dark”
  • Stage Whispers; Theatrical Child Labour Scandal
  • Child Stars of the Stage; Gillian Arrighi, National Library of Australia.
  • Brent E. Walker (2010) “Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory: A History and Filmography of His Studio and His Keystone and Mack Sennett Comedies, with Biographies of Players and Personnel.” McFarland and Co. ISBN 978-0-7864-3610-1

From National Library of Australia, Trove, Digitised Newspaper Collection

Hong Kong Public Libraries Multi Media Information Systems

Singapore Government Digitised newspapers project Newspaper SG

Newspapers.com

 

 

 

 

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