Maud Hobson, the gaiety girl who dreamed of Colorado

Maud Hobson c.1890-1900. A widely known “Gaiety Girl” in the George Edwardes’ Company, she was born in Melbourne in 1860. Her family moved back to England when she was an infant. She had lived in Hawaii, Colorado and London by the time she was 30. Talma Photographers, Sydney. Author’s collection. (I have taken something of a liberty with the title of this article. I only have one piece of evidence that she dreamed of Colorado.)

Born in the emerging suburb of Toorak, 5 kilometres south of Melbourne, Australia, on November 13, 1860, Jane Elizabeth Manson would eventually become one of the hugely popular English “gaiety girls” of George Edwardes‘ Gaiety Theatre Company, performing under her stage name, Maud Hobson. Tall, “stately, statuesque and classic” (by this the Brooklyn Standard Union meant she was attractive), she had earned a formidable reputation in Britain, the US and Australia by the end of the nineteenth century. And more than most of the “gaiety girls”, from the mid 1890s Maud was only too happy to speak at length to the press about anything that came to her mind – matrimony, the state of society, costumes and jewellery, and American as opposed to Australian audiences.

Her parents John Manson and Eliza nee Hollingshead, arrived (separately) in Melbourne in 1853, at the height of the Victorian gold rushes. For two Britons in their early twenties, it must have been an exciting environment of extraordinary opportunity. Many of the international arrivals of the 1850s were, like them, aged between 21 and 35. By 1858, half of the newly arrived Australian population lived in the colony of Victoria and Melbourne was the continent’s largest city. How the couple met we do not know, but they married at Melbourne’s St Peter’s Anglican Church in June 1855. John was soon to become “Head Teller” (Manager) of the Union Bank of Australia – an opportunity a young man could never hope to have achieved in London. Yet like some who did well in the booming colony, the couple returned to Britain soon after their daughter’s birth. Perhaps they had “made their pile” or possibly, they still weren’t convinced life in the young city was superior to life in Britain. Maybe John Manson was simply offered a better job back home.

bullion buying

Above: 27 year old John Manson announces the appointment of a bullion broker at the Union Bank’s Bendigo goldfields branch. The Age Saturday 9 Jan 1857. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Maud Hobson’s own account of her early childhood was – typically for an ambitious actor of the time – often short on detail. In several early interviews she suggested her parents were “just passing through” Melbourne when she was born. Later in life she embraced her Australian birth with gusto. It was claimed she was born Jennie or Jeannie, but this appears to have been a pet name used by the family.

MAud performing in 1881

Above: Maud appearing on stage before her marriage to Lieutenant Hayley in May 1881. The Era, 12 February 1881 via The British Newspaper Archive.

A popular up and coming performer in 1880, she admitted in several later press interviews that she owed some of her success to her uncle, the writer and manager of the Gaiety Theatre, John Hollingshead, who had also suggested her stage name. However, she left the stage in 1881, when she married Lieutenant Andrew Burrell Hayley, an officer of the 11th Hussars. A son, William Burrell Hayley, was born in early 1882. Soon after, Maud and little William joined Lieutenant Hayley in a new adventure – a posting to the Kingdom of Hawaii, of all places. There, Hayley took on the role of an attache to King Kalākaua. But while the last King of Hawaii received recognition for his efforts to reinvigorate Hawaiian national identity and shore up its economy, not all of the king’s European advisors were welcomed. On 31 July, 1884, The Honolulu Evening Bulletin took the unusual step of very publicly criticizing Hayley for his “lack of sobriety” and therefore his unsuitability as a Commander of the Mounted Police. He was appointed to this position anyway.


 

The Hayleys in Hawaii. Left; King Kalākaua with officers, including Lieutenant Hayley looking very splendid in white, third from the right. Via Wikimedia Commons. Right; Maud was still occasionally performing in Hawaii – The Honolulu Advertiser, 5 Jan 1886, via Newspapers.com. (click to enlarge)

In 1886, Maud returned to England, for reasons that are no longer known. Of her next few years, we only have court records to guide us, as she did not appear on stage again until mid-1889. Hayley petitioned for divorce from Maud in November 1887. He claimed Maud repeatedly committed adultery with Captain Owen Richard Armstrong, an officer in the Seaforth Highlanders. Hayley was extremely well informed about the places and dates of his wife’s adulterous behaviour, which included travel to the US and five months living “as man and wife” in Colorado. Before the court Maud and Armstrong strenuously denied the charges, but a divorce was granted in October 1888. The case was played out in newspapers in excruciating detail, although as Maud’s stage name wasn’t used, many readers may not have made the connection. The story that Maud spent the summer of 1887 in Colorado with a man she wasn’t married to would be hard to believe, if it wasn’t corroborated by records of shadowy movements that we can access today.

armstrong and maude

The faded manifest of the ship Servia, arriving in New York in June 1887. Owen R. Armstrong, Army Officer and his wife Maud(e) are listed. Via US National Archives and Records Administration, Via Ancestry.com

From mid 1889, Maud reappeared on stage in London for George Edwardes in such productions as ‘Faust Up to Date” and “Carmen Up to Data” – both burlesques with music written by Meyer Lutz. Edwardes was Hollingshead’s successor at the Gaiety Theatre at the eastern end of London’s Strand. She moved in to live with Hollingshead and his family in Kensington at about this time, continuing to enjoy her uncle’s advice and patronage.


Left: Maud – a photo taken well before 1896 (from “Around the world with a Gaiety Girl” page 100, via the Internet Archive). Centre: Maud on an undated postcard (probably about 1890). Right: Maud in The Sketch, July 21 1899. Author’s Collection.

In March 1892, Edwardes and George Musgrove arranged for a tour of some of the London Gaiety regulars, including Maud in a supporting role, to take “Faust Up to Date” on tour to Australia. The London Gaiety Burlesque Company (note how often the name changed) first performed in Melbourne in May. Four months later the company wrapped in Sydney and headed for home. It had been a success. On the eve of the show’s closing, the Sydney Referee reported “‘Faust Up to Date’ at Her Majesty’s still draws the people, fills the exchequer, and promotes hilarity.” Interestingly, Maud sought no personal publicity and made no public comments during this first trip back to the city of her birth.

1893 saw some dramatic changes. In early April the news reached her that ex-husband Andrew Burrell Hayley had died. She did not regain custody of her son from Hayley’s family, but following this event she seemed to find her voice and her place in the world. Later in the year she took a leading role as Alma Somerset in George Edwardes’ new production “A Gaiety Girl”, alongside Marie Studholme and Decima Moore. While a few reviewers felt the leading role required her to do little more than look “exceedingly handsome,” other reviewers were effusive in their praise. At the same time she wrote and appeared in a short one act sketch for the theatre, and it was performed as a matinee at the Gaiety Theatre in early July 1894. “A Successful Mission,concerns Alice Gray, a burlesque actress (played by Hobson), and John Winton, a conservative vestryman (played by George Mudie) who attempts to convince Gray to discourage his love-lorn son’s attentions – to the point of offering her money to shun him. Of course, by the end, he discovers she is an admirable philanthropist and more than honourable. “Brightly written and neatly condensed, it was amusing and effective… and acted with much spirit” reported The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News. One cannot help wondering whether there was a strong element of personal experience being recounted here! 

In September 1894, “A Gaiety Girl” was taken on tour. It opened in New York that month, had moved on to San Francisco and then on to Australia by June 1895. Finally, Maud Hobson freely discussed her Melbourne birth and talked at length about her time in Honolulu, with her “late husband”. One Sydney journalist described her thus; “a young lady tall and most divinely fair” She told the same journalist I, who am a native of Australia…feel that in coming to this country I am just visiting my own folks.” And she went on in this celebratory tone for the entire tour.

Gaiety Company 1895

Maud as part of a large photo spread in The Pictorial Australian, 1 April 1895, shown here with company members Cecil Hope and Harry Monkhouse. Fellow cast member Decima Moore married Cecil Hope in 1894 in New York while on tour (Hope was another former army officer whose real name was Cecil Ainslie Walker-Leigh) and like Maud and Hayley, they divorced a few years later. Monkhouse died in 1900, after being declared bankrupt. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

While she was in Australia (and two years after Hayley’s death), a convoluted account of Maud’s relationship with Captain Armstrong appeared in some western US papers. This suggested that she had divorced Hayley herself, first, in the US, on the grounds of cruelty, and then had married Armstrong, only to find these arrangements were not recognised in the UK. Someone very well acquainted with her circumstances had written or provided the story. This writer cannot find the story in any Colorado papers, but more than thirty syndicated papers in nearby Kansas carried it. Following this brief outing, the story disappeared.

At the end of October 1895, the company departed Australia for England. The rather underwhelming 1896 travel book, “Round the World with A Gaiety Girl,” documents the successful trip.

Maud Hobson was now established as a leading regular in the Edwardes’ company. In August 1897 she appeared in the musical “In Town.”  She again joined the troupe travelling to the US in September 1897, where “In Town” ran at New York’s Knickerbocker Theatre, in company with another very young Australian – Norma Whalley .

Left: “In Town” At New York’s Knickerbocker Theatre.  The Sun, (New York)  September 11, 1897. Right; “In Town” at the Garrick Theatre a month earlier in August 1897, with an almost identical cast.  The Era, August 14, 1897. Via Newspapers.com.

Maud was now approaching 40, but she was regularly referred to as the “reigning English beauty”.  In 1900 she appeared in London as Lady Punchestown in the musical “The Messenger Boy.” The cast also included another young Australian, 21 year-old Maie Saqui from Melbourne. She must have felt some degree of national consciousness as she also appeared in a patriotic sketch with Maie and other Australian favourites in June, entitled “Australia’s tribute to Britannia” (in aid of widows and orphans of Australians and New Zealanders who had fallen in the Boer War).

By 1902 she was at a highpoint in her career – light comedy and musicals had become her forte. That year she played Lady St. Mallory in “Three Little Maids”She travelled to perform in the US again, and briefly to South Africa. After a “serious operation,” Maud travelled again to Australia in 1904 with another Edwardes’ Gaiety troupe. She was extremely popular in Australia, and she knew it. A journalist for a newspaper in Kalgoorlie, Western Australia, put a typically Australian voice to this popularity when he wroteMaud is the biggest-hearted woman the stage has ever known. Last time she was here she sold some of her magnificent emeralds to pay doctor’s bills for a girl member of the Company, and more of ’em to pay the hotel bill of a now- dead fascinating man member. You never heard of a woman speaking ill of Maud. That’s the record!” 

Maud 1904

Maud Hobson during her final 1904 tour of Australia. The Australasian, Sat 14 May 1904 via National library of Australia, Trove. 

She spoke at length about herself and her career during this visit. She admitted to a nervous disposition, a condition she said had seen her spend much of 1903 resting. But she also spoke of her future, and mentioned her fiance who had an American ranch and was a minor cattle king. It was again, a successful tour.

1905 was her last year of activity on the stage – she took on a role in the popular musical Lady Madcap, in company with Zena Dare, Gabrielle Ray and Marie Studholme. Over the next few years she travelled to the US again but there were now stories of serious ill health. After what some papers reported was “a lingering illness,” she died in London on January 6, 1913. Maud Hobson was remembered fondly in British, US and Australian newspapers. The Era stated she had “a handsome appearance… amiable personality and was an intelligent and agreeable actress.”

Its notable that Maud’s acknowledgement of being born in Melbourne occurred later in life, when she was well established and a contemporary of Nellie Melba, Nellie Stewart, Norma Whalley and Maie Saqui. It would be wrong to over-emphasize Maud as an Australian –  for other than being her place of birth, her experiences of Australia were confined to her theatrical tours. In her mind, she was almost certainly British, more than anything else. And yet, one senses she developed a fondness for Australia – she was happy to make the long trip out on three occasions. She reputedly also made friends while on her Australian tours – perhaps these were old acquaintances of her parents, from the roaring days of the Victorian gold rushes.

Maud’s son, William Burrell Hayley died in 1967, after a distinguished military career. Her uncle and mentor John Hollingshead died in 1904. The Gaiety Theatre, which had seen Maud and the other Gaiety Girls perform so often, was seriously damaged by bombs during World War Two and was finally demolished in the 1950s.

 

Nick Murphy
May 2019

 

Notes:
1. The most accurate account of Maud’s divorce is the actual petition, held by the National Archives in Britain. The Era of 28 April 1888 also provides an accurate account of her life to that time. Hayley was in the 11th Hussars (not 10th or 5th as is sometimes reported) and was not a General, even if given this title as a courtesy.

2. Was she ever known as “the White Queen” of Honolulu? There is no evidence of this other than Maud’s own words.

 

Further Reading

Text

  • Granville Bantock and Frederick G. Aflalo (1896) Round the World with a Gaiety Girl. London, J. Macqueen. Digitised by University of California Libraries
  • Boyle Lawrence (1900) Celebrities of the Stage. London, George Newnes.
    Digitised by the Public Library of India.
  • J. P. Wearing (2013 ) The London Stage 1890-1899: A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel. Scarecrow Press.

Websites

Newspaper archives

National Library of Australia – Trove

  • Australian Star, April 3, 1895. The Gaiety Girl Company
  • Australasian, September 28, 1895. Gentleman Joe at the Princess Theatre
  • Melbourne Punch, October 17, 1895. A Gaiety Girl at Home.
  • The Critic, June 15, 1904. Miss Maud Hobson at Home
  • The Sunday Times, July 3, 1904. Confidences of Stage Favourites
  • Table Talk. May 16, 1904. Miss Maud Hobson

British Library – British Newspaper Archive

  • The Era, April 28, 1888. The London Theatres
  • The Era, 11 June 1913. The Death of Miss Maud Hobson
  • Sunday Post, October 22, 1922. My Thirty years at the Gaiety

Newspapers.com

  • The Brooklyn Daily Eagle. December 26, 1894. Burlesque and Comedy
  • The Washington Times. December 16, 1894. The Theatres
  • The Pittsburg Mail. October 17, 1895. Gaiety Girl’s Life

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