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Alf Goulding (1885-1972) – Triumphs & Tragedies with Pollards

A pensive Alf Goulding with other members of the Pollard Lilliputian Opera Company on the steps of the Badminton Hotel in Vancouver in 1904. He is flanked by Nellie Chester, one of the company managers, with Jack Cherry and Fred Bindloss. The full photo of the Pollard Company is on the Vancouver As It Was website. Photo used with their permission.

The 5 second version
Born Alfred John Goulding in Richmond, Victoria, Australia, 26 January 1885. Died Hollywood, California, USA, 25 April, 1972. He began his career as a comedian with brother Frank, then joined Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company in 1896. He took part in a number of extended Pollard’s tours, increasingly acting as stage manager. After the last tour wrapped up in 1909 he and some other performers stayed in the US. He was directing films in Hollywood by 1917, sometimes with comedians like Laurel and Hardy and some of the old Pollard players. He spent most of 1940-45 in Australia, and directed his last film in 1959.

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 later in life – including his only Australian feature film, A Yank in Australia (1942) and his final films in Britain.

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 Finlay. 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 busy Hoddle Street in 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 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.

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.

Above: All three Goulding children performed for Pollard’s. Left- Alf made up in the role of Lurcher for the opera Dorothy in 1896. Centre – Irene (left) with Ivy Trott. Right Frank Goulding as the Major-General in Pirates of Penzance, 1896. Photos -courtesy The Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

According to a contemporary Singapore paper,  whilst touring, the child performers with Pollard’s had the following program;

Unfortunately 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 his death was described as being due to pneumonia in most reports.

Above: 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’s death in January 1897 from smallpox while in Calcutta. “Confluent smallpox” generally meant the pustules ran so thickly on the skin they often formed a massive sore.

Above: This 19th century medical sign advertising public vaccinations is still visible on the side of a Fitzroy building, in 2021. Ironically, it is only a few hundred metres from Frank Goulding’s Fitzroy homes and the Brunswick Street hall the Pollard’s used for rehearsals. Author’s collection.

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 his sister 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.

With the outbreak of the Boer War, Manager Charles Pollard apparently rushed the company to safety. In July 1900 the children were all back in Western Australia, and then they spent time in colonial outposts in the “far east” – including Hong Kong and Singapore. Meantime, Charles Pollard had exciting war stories to tell. How seriously at risk the children were in South Africa 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.

On the Pollards

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. Instead. 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.” It was repugnant to some influential Australians too. The Pollard Lilliputians never performed in their home city of Melbourne, or Sydney.

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.

We have little insight into the Pollard business model. However, it was lucrative – in 1900 one Australian paper reported that Charles Pollard had netted over £3,000 in two years – the equivalent of about $AU450,000 in 2020 currency.


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 include

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

Meanwhile in Australia…

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. Fortunately for us, in 1985 Irene was interviewed by Sally Dawes for The Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne. Although aged in her late 90s, her memories of some events – Frank’s death, the songs she sang for Pollard’s and her two trips to the US remained clear to the end of her days.


Alf’s final tour to the US, 1909+

Charles Pollard announced his retirement in early 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 performance company (dropping Lilliputians from the title). With about 12 others, including Eva Moore, Emily Davis, Ada Hind, Freddie Bindloss, Jack Cherry, Harold Fraser and Teddy McNamara, this smaller group set off again in late March 1909 to the US, then touring back across the US and 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. This arrangement lasted for a year or so, until the group went their separate ways.

In 1912, Nellie Chester resurrected a young adult troupe or Australian performers to work in North America, called Pollards Juveniles. But Alf was not involved with this – he now pursued a stage career of his own design.

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

Alf and Daphne Pollard performing together in A Knight for a Day, Los Angeles Times, 28 May 1914. Via 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.

Above: 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 in 1927, 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. His first appearance as a director in Hollywood seems to date to 1917. Snub Pollard once explained that he had just “drifted into films,” and it seems likely it was the same for Alf.


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: Advertisement 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 the closest he had to family. When former Pollard alumni Teddy 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. 


An Australian sojourn

Alf lived in Australia again in 1940-45. He had been busy in Hollywood and England through the 1930s, and then, after making A Chump at Oxford for Hal Roach, he travelled to England to make one more film – Olympic Honeymoon. By the end of 1940, he was back in Australia. This movement in the first year of war relates to his lack of visa status back in the US. At least several Australian newspapers  – from 1939 and late in 1940 reported on this. While in Australia, he not only directed the feature A Yank Down Under in May 1942 (which was not immediately released) but also a number of documentaries, wartime propaganda pieces for the Ministry of Information. According to the National Film and Sound Archive, these include;

It was probably not very fulfilling work. He returned to England in May 1945 on the MV Stirling Castle, and directed a few more quota quickies. He returned to the United States in about 1950.

Alf Goulding died in Hollywood in 1972. Irene died in Melbourne in 1987.


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

Nick Murphy, May 2018, August 2020, April 2021


Special thanks

To Claudia Funder at The Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne, for introducing me to the Pollard Collection.

To Catherine Crocker for sharing the information from Midas Martyn’s diary of the 1904-7 Pollard’s tour and Jamie L Bird, one of Alf’s grandchildren, for her comments.


Further reading

From National Library of Australia, Trove, Digitised Newspaper Collection

National Film and Sound Archive Collection

Hong Kong Public Libraries Multi Media Information Systems

Singapore Government Digitised newspapers project Newspaper SG

Newspapers.com

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