Anona Winn (1904-1994) Who did it all without trying.

Anona Winn on an Ardath cigarette card c 1932. The postcard in the background shows the Sydney Post Office in Pitt Street, about the time she was born. Author’s collection.

The five second version
Born in Sydney, New South Wales, on 5 January 1904, Anona Winn moved to the UK in 1926 after establishing herself on the stage in Australia. In her long British career she appeared on stage, wrote and recorded popular songs, and enjoyed a very successful career on British radio, until aged well into her 70s. Scottish comedian Renée Houston once said Anona “does it all without trying.” Clever, creative, popular with her colleagues and loyal to her many supporters, she was awarded an MBE for charity work in 1954. She died in Bournemouth in February 1994.

What was it like to be a young woman fronting up for an audition in the 1920s, grappling with parental expectations and the pressure to perform? We know Anona Winn’s view, because she left a short humorous account in April 1925, about a year before she departed Australia for England. While it is a fictional account, it is safe to assume the short story “The Voice Trial” is at least partly based on her own experiences as an emerging singer. “Jennie develops a few high notes, and the family a still higher opinion of Jennie’s vocal abilities. Jennie shall go on the stage! She shall become one of the galaxy of gleaming stars whose manner of living has been so severely censured by father every Sunday after dinner…” Of course, Jennie does not succeed at her audition. (See Note 1 regarding her short stories)

Born in 1904 in Sydney, New South Wales, Anona was the only child of Lillian Barron nee Woodgate. Lillian endured an unhappy marriage to book keeper Andrew Balfour Barron, that ended in divorce in San Francisco in late 1907. Anona took Wilkins as a surname after her mother remarried in 1909. (See Note 2 below)

Despite claims the name Anona is a native American one, it actually has Latin origins – it was the name of the Roman goddess of the Harvest. As an adult, we know Anona was short and slight. She stood 155 centimetres (5 foot, 1 inch). She had fair hair and brown eyes – we know all this thanks to the very thorough details collected by US customs when she went to New York in 1939.

19 years old but looking even younger, Anona Wilkins posing with a baby from St Margaret’s Maternity Hospital, for The Sun (Sydney) 17 August 1923, via National Library of Australia’s Trove

The Wilkins family had located themselves in Young Street, Cremorne on Sydney’s north shore by 1915, and Anona attended nearby Redlands School, then under the inspired Principalship of Mrs G.A. Roseby. It appears Anona thrived in this creative school environment and quickly made a name for herself as a capable academic student, a gifted pianist and singer. She joined the school’s debating team, won academic prizes and gave solo singing performances. Years later it was claimed she could sight-read music from the age of about 8, which in the light of events, may well have been true.

Anona Wilkins (Winn) at Redlands. She is seated far left in the white dress, with her hands in her lap, kneeling between the first and second rows. Redlands Senior School, 1916, Cecily Tyson Collection. Reproduced with permission by Redlands School Archive

Having also won a number of public music competitions through her teenage years, on leaving school she was accepted into the Sydney Conservatorium of Music in 1920. Her teachers included Madam Goosens-Viceroy and Nathalie Rosenwax, with her developing ability demonstrated at Sydney concerts in late 1921. We can also see evidence she was in Melbourne and performing there in 1922. Did she sing for Nellie Melba, as is claimed? It is quite possible, and Melba was famous for encouraging talented young singers. But not every singer was attracted to a classical career or won over by the encouragement. Nellie McNamara (or Nellie Mond in 1910-12) explained to Everyone’s magazine that she also had been taken to meet Madame Melba, who had advised her to “get rid of that accent” and in doing so “nearly scared me out of my wits.” By early 1923, Anona Wilkins also seems to have decided against a purely classical singing career, although the training was of immense value. In February 1923 she was in the chorus of the new Jerome Kern musical Sally and by July 1923, a featured player in visiting US performer Lee White‘s new show Back Again, at Sydney’s Theatre Royal.

Popular enough to be advertising. The Sun (Sydney), 27 May 1923 Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Touring Western Australia in 1925, Anona now chose Wynne as a new surname. She also appeared on Western Australian radio 6WF, then in its infancy. And after three years of performances in musicals, reviews and pantomimes around Australia with the likes of George Storey and Ada Reeve, she finally decided it was time to try her luck overseas. There were friends who had already done this and undoubtedly plenty of encouraging words from experienced performers like Clay Smith and Lee White. “London needs the fresh youth and talent which Australia can give,” said Smith before departing with Anona’s contemporary Billy Lockwood.

On her way to London in 1926, Anona stopped off in India, with a touring company performing some well known musical comedies, including Maid of the Mountains and Rose-Marie. The details of this tour are scant, but Australian papers reported her performances as a “personal triumph.” By December 1926 she was in England, appearing as “a charming Iris” in the musical comedy A Greek Slave, touring the United Kingdom for twelve weeks with José Collins. She then toured the UK with a Daly’s Theatre company production of The Blue Mazurka.

Anona Winn with José  Collins in A Greek Slave. Nottingham Evening Post 12 Feb 1927. Copyright of this image is held by Reach Plc, via British Library Newspaper Archive.

Despite stories that she struggled to be noticed at first in London’s competitive theatre scene (it was claimed she threw her book of press cuttings into the Thames in frustration), Anona was later to confirm that being able to sight-read music and sing well was a great advantage in auditions. Her first credited part in a London show was as “Looloo Martin” in the US musical Hit the Deck at the Hippodrome in late 1927, after another player took ill. Her career never looked back.

As with much of Anona’s life, the precise timing of her achievements have become a little hazy over time and in some cases, details have changed in the telling. However, it is clear that in addition to continuing to appear on stage, Anona also appeared on British radio from about 1928 – her first performance being in a program called Fancy Meeting You! She was heard as a regular radio performer from early 1930, presenting You Ought to Go on the Wireless for the BBC followed by a string of other radio shows. The Bungalow Club of 1938 was Anona’s own concept – a mock riverside club, with cabaret turns, comedy and Anona as hostess. At the same time, as well as recording popular works (at one stage with her own dance band –Anona Winn and her Winners), she also wrote original songs – her records being well received in the UK and Australia. Her repertoire was broad; Theatre Historian Peter Pinne notes that in the early 1930s Anona performed works by composer and fellow Australian Dudley Glass, inspired by several children’s books, for the BBC Children’s Hour. In 1935 “The Guardian” commented that she never seemed content with just one style of broadcast. There was always some attractive variety, frequently a novelty- perhaps an impression of a “popular type” or someone else. At the same time, “her pleasantly informed microphone manner (was) a distinct asset in…light…entertainment”.

Anona Winn on the cover of the Radio Times Television Supplement (UK), April 16, 1937, via http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/historyofthebbc.

In 1933, in the early days of experimental TV broadcasting, she was in at least one TV show called Looking In, that apparently still survives. And six months after the BBC began regular TV broadcasting in 1936 she was there again, performing in another revue. In 1934 she had her first and only part in a feature film – a supporting role in British Lion’s On the Air. “Variety” magazine found little to say about it, other than describing it as essentially a revue of “acts of well known and popular artists… surrounded by a modicum of story,” a not uncommon plot device in sound films of this time.

Anona Winn 1938 anona-1940-

Above: Anona continued to appear on stage well into the 1940s. Left; The Radio Pictorial 23 September 1938, via Lantern Digital Media Project. Right on stage with fellow Australian Florrie Forde in Portsmouth. Portsmouth Evening Herald 24 Feb 1940 via British Library Newspaper Archive, Johnston Press PLC.

In January 1947 the BBC announced their new quiz Twenty Questions, based on an old parlour game with a radio format purchased from the US. It was a runaway success and Anona was on the panel for most of its 29 year run, demonstrating an uncanny ability to regularly guess the show’s “mystery object.” In 1965 she hosted another radio program of her own devising, entitled Petticoat Lane. A chat show featuring a panel of well-known women discussing issues raised by listeners, it was also very successful and despite appealing to an older and declining radio demographic, lasted until the late 1970s.

Her creative contributions beyond stage and radio were many, and unfortunately not all seem to be accurately recorded. In the mid 1930s she worked on a film script with Australian Marjorie Jacobson Strelitz, and it is also claimed she “voiced” actors who couldn’t sing for film, and to have composed for film. In an obituary, Peter Cotes noted that in later life she also had an interest in the dress-design firm Bernice and Partners. And she counted the likes of pioneer British producer-director Wendy Toye amongst her friends.

Above: Anona – fan photo c 1950. Author’s collection.

The early 1950s were an exciting time to be an Australian actor in London, and there were plenty working there to benefit from being part of the greater British Commonwealth – close enough to the home country to be part of it, but also confident and at enough of a remove to be able to stand back and gently send it all up, from time to time. Australians could celebrate this period (a final coming of age perhaps) not just through the shared confidence brought about by victory in the recent war, but also with the excitement of the 1956 Olympics, and the many benefits brought on by a booming economy at home. A seasoned performer like Anona shared in the enthusiasm and was often invited to speak publicly of her perspective of Britain, as an Australian. “Be proud of Britain,” she urged one audience. But like many, she worried about some of the changes she saw in 1960s Britain – the increasingly poor use of language, and dramatic changes in fashion – “what with our kinky boots and tights, and such short, short, skirts…”

She returned to Australia at least once, in March 1957, where she appeared on Australia’s fledgling ABC TV, in a quiz show called Find the Link, did other things that went unreported, then flew home to Britain on QANTAS, a true child of the Commonwealth.

Anona married Fred Lamport, a theatrical agent, at the Marylebone Registry office in July 1933. Sadly, the marriage was very short-lived. Both Fred and Anona were suffering pneumonia in early 1935. Anona recovered, but Fred did not – he died on 1 February 1935. She never remarried. Anona’s mother Lillian had joined her in London in the late 1920s, and lived with her and acted as her secretary and dresser for many years. Having lived much of her adult London life in a mock-Tudor apartment in Maida Vale, in the late 1980s she moved to Bournemouth where she died in 1994.

Her British obituaries were heartfelt, a voice that had been with Britain for so long, had gone.


Note 1 – Her Writing.
Between late 1924 and mid 1925 Anona Wilkins wrote a few very witty short stories for Australian newspapers, including the Sydney Evening News. These can be read online at Trove. Only two deal directly with the stage – The Voice Trial and 25 Years After. They are worth reading as a testimony to her sophisticated skills as a writer. These seem to have given rise to the idea she was a journalist, but there is no doubt she stayed on stage at the same time.

Note 2 – The enigma of her Birth.
English-born Lillian May Woodgate had married Scottish-born bookkeeper Andrew Balfour Barron in Sydney on 5 April 1902. Soon after this, Andrew Barron travelled to the United States to become head book keeper for Buckingham and Hecht, a large San Francisco shoe-manufacturer. In August 1907 he was charged with embezzling and his affair with a typist was uncovered during court proceedings. By this time Lillian was also in the US and she stood by him until his infidelity was revealed. The San Francisco Call of 22 August 1907 noted that she was accompanied in court by “2 year old daughter Anona.” Barron was sentenced to three years in San Quentin Prison and Lillian sued for divorce, returning to Australia soon after.

Anona’s original Australian birth certificate for January 1904 does not list any father, nor refer to Lillian and Andrew’s marriage. Did Lillian return to Australia to have the child? Did she have Anona by someone else? In 1919, Anona’s step-father William Wilkins made a declaration listing himself as Anona’s foster-father. The document also incorrectly suggested Lillian May Woodgate/Barron/Wilkins was Anona’s foster-mother. The ambiguities of these documents hint at turmoil and great personal unhappiness across two continents, and help explain why Anona was characteristically vague about her birth.

Fortunately, Lily and William’s marriage (1909) appears to have been a happy one, until his sudden death in October 1924.

Relevant Birth, Deaths and Marriages NSW – certificates

  • Lillian Woodgate and Andrew Barron, NSW Marriage Certificate, 5 April 1902, #2732/1902
  • Anona Barron, NSW birth certificate, 5 January 1904, #153/1904
  • Lillian Barron and William Wilkins Marriage Certificate, 21 April 1909 #3392/1909
  • Registered declaration regarding Anona Wilkins birth, 5 May 1919, #1687/1919

Nick Murphy
September 2020


References

Thanks

Special thanks to Ms Marguerite Gillezeau, Archivist at Redlands school for her assistance.

Websites

Film clips

Radio clips

Music clips
There are a number of Winn’s songs to be found on social media. Here are a few:

Text

  • Simon Elmes (2009) And Now on Radio 4: A Celebration of the World’s Best Radio …Arrow Books.
  • John Hetherington (1967) Melba. F.W.Cheshire
  • David Hendy (2008) Life on Air. A History of Radio 4. Oxford University Press
  • Barbara MacKenzie & Findlay MacKenzie (1967) Singers of Australia, From Melba to Sutherland. Lansdowne Press
  • Seán Street (2009) The A to Z of British Radio. The Scarecrow Press
  • J. P. Wearing (2014) The London Stage 1920-1929 : A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel . Second edition. Lanham : Rowman & Littlefield Publishers
  • J. P. Wearing (2014) The London Stage 1930-1939 : A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel. Second edition. Lanham : Rowman & Littlefield Publishers

The Independent (UK) Obituaries

  • June Averill, Anona Winn Obituary, The Independent, 18 Feb 1994
  • Peter Cotes, Anona Winn Obituary, The Independent, 14 March 1994

Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University

Lantern – Digital Media Project

  • Variety, Tues 13 Feb 1934

National Library of Australia’s Trove

  • The Mail (SA) 4 August, 1923.
  • The Sun (Sydney) Sat 1 Sept, 1923
  • The Daily News (WA) 18 Sep 1925
  • Everyones. Vol. 5 No.330, 30 June 1926
  • The Bulletin.Vol. 57 No. 2920, 29 Jan 1936
  • The Wireless Weekly, 29 May 1938
  • ABC Weekly Vol. 2 No. 42, 19 October 1940
  • ABC Weekly, 6 April, 1957

Newspapers.com

  • The San Francisco Call, 22 Aug 1907.
  • The San Francisco Examiner, 7 Nov 1907
  • The Guardian, (UK) 8 June 1935.
  • Sydney Morning Herald, (Syd) 28 July 1938.
  • The Guardian, (UK) 8 Feb 1994.

British Library Newspaper Archive

  • The Stage, 25 Nov 1926
  • Nottingham Evening Post, 12 Feb 1927
  • The Stage, 31 March 1927
  • Daily Herald (London), 2 Feb 1935
  • Sheffield Independent, 22 April 1938
  • North Wales Weekly, 28 Jan 1960
  • Liverpool Echo 1 Nov 1962
  • Coventry Evening Telegraph 17 Mar 1966
  • Coventry Evening Telegraph 18 Mar 1966
  • The Stage, 24 Feb 1994

 

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