On the road with Pollards Opera – Irene Goulding remembers.

Above: Alice Pollard (1885-1943) and Irene Goulding (1888-1987) photographed in Shanghai, China c 1901, dressed for the comic opera Dorothy. Photo – courtesy The Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

Sometime in 1985, Sally Dawes, a researcher with the Performing Arts Collection in Melbourne Australia, recorded an interview with 97 year old Irene Smith nee Goulding (1888-1987). Irene was the younger sibling of Alf Goulding (1885-1972) and Frank Goulding (c1882-1897) and is apparently the only member of Pollards Lilliputian Opera Company to be interviewed for posterity. Listening to this precious recording held by the Australian Performing Arts Collection, the listener cannot help but admire how much Irene recalled, 85 years on. I am grateful to Claudia Funder, APAC Research Centre and Acquisitions Coordinator, for drawing this interview to my attention – it tells us so much. But the interpretation of Irene’s words and meaning, as she leafed through many of the photos shown here, is my own.

Above: Left – Alf Goulding in the role of Lurcher for the opera Dorothy in 1896, long before his success as a Hollywood director. Right – Irene Goulding (left) with Ivy Trott in The Gaiety Girl;  Photos – courtesy The Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

Irene’s first remark when Sally Dawes turned on her tape recorder in 1985 was to exclaim that her older brother Frank had died (from smallpox while on the 1897 Pollard tour of India), and that she herself had been so sick (on a later tour of South Africa) that she became delirious. She recalled that at one stage she imagined the Prince of Wales was attending to her.

Above left – Frank Goulding as the Major-General in Pirates of Penzance, 1896, shortly before his death from smallpox in India. Above right – Many of the photos in this collection were acquired from the Goulding family. This inscription on the reverse of another photo was written by Alf, addressed to his father, a bootmaker in Fitzroy, and contains the words “rest Frank’s soul.” Photos – courtesy The Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

Despite the awful death of Frank, Irene had also signed up with the Nellie Chester – Charles Pollard troupe in about 1899. Her father had asked her if she also wanted to join, and although her favourite teacher at the Bell St State School (Fitzroy) strongly disapproved, she did. Later in life she apparently regretted her limited education, a consequence of a childhood spent on performance tours, but her comments when interviewed also reveal a strong sense of loyalty to “Aunty Chester” in particular, as the children called Nellie Chester. Irene’s first touring experience was in South Africa, probably departing Melbourne in early 1899. Learning parts for the company’s repertoire of musical comedies such as The Belle of New York and The Geisha, was very hard work, Irene recalled. Payment for her work was sent to her widowed father in Melbourne. She recalled being given pocket money while on tour, to buy sweets.

Occasionally one or other of the Pollard adults let slip how much money they made from their enterprise. In one unguarded moment in 1901, Charles Pollard revealed that he had netted £30,000 from the previous few years touring. This is the equivalent of about $AU 2,270,000 today. Another report on the operations of Tom Pollard in 1900 suggests similar success with his troupes travelling through Australia and New Zealand.

Interviewed in July 1899 by a correspondent for the Referee , the child performers were probably all instructed to not mention the downside of endless travel such as the inevitable homesickness. From Johannesburg, South Africa, the Sydney Referee correspondent wrote approvingly of the Pollard’s operation, and described 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.” The Pollards had learned, years before, during their 1884 tour, that bad publicity could be fatal. This report from South Africa was all very positive.

A distant memory of Irene’s when interviewed in 1985 was of the South African tour being cut short, as the “Boer War” broke out in October 1899. The children were hurried back to Western Australia and then resumed a touring schedule in South East Asia.

Above: The Pollard troupe in Manila, posing with US soldiers. The presence of Teddie McNamara, sitting front left, dates this photo to mid 1903, not long after the Philippine-American War. Irene Goulding stands behind and to the left of the tall white-uniformed officer, and is flanked by Jack Cherry and Ivy Trott. Photo – courtesy The Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne .

The performance stops made by the Charles Pollard-Nellie Chester troupes might surprise readers today. On the way to North America, the tours usually included colonial outposts – Singapore, Manila, Hong Kong and Shanghai, cities which all provided enthusiastic expatriate audiences. The fact that these performance tours went to places that had been or would soon be risky colonial war zones (such as South Africa, China and the Philippines) also reminds us that the Pollards were running a business, not a school or a charity, and their decisions were always commercial ones. Fighting had only just ended in the Philippines when the photo above was taken. (An extraordinary photo taken on the next tour in 1904 seems to show many of the same child performers posing with Filipino prisoners at a Manila gaol. See University of Washington Special Collections image here).

Irene’s memory was of a wonderful time as a child on the Pollard tours – and of the young men who were so attentive, of the unusual buildings in the tropics with their wide verandas, of being served dinner in hotels. America was “so big” she recalled, and not surprisingly, many of the Pollard performers returned and made their homes in the US – there was so much more work there.

Above: Some of the female Pollard performers in Manila, c1901-3. Front row left to right: Florrie Sharpe, Ivy Trott, Mrs Nellie Chester (nee Pollard), Alice Bennetto and unidentified. Back row, left to right: May Topping, Nellie McNamara and Irene Goulding. Irene disliked this photo – she said she felt her parted hair made her look like a grandmother. Photo – courtesy The Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

Overwhelmingly comprised of girls, who usually also took on many of the male rolls, the members of Pollards troupes were drawn mostly from inner Melbourne suburbs. Indeed, of the children in the photo above, the Topping, Trott, Goulding and Bennetto families all lived in close proximity to each other in Fitzroy, suggesting they knew each other before joining up.

Irene was the daughter of Frank Goulding, a bootmaker and sometime performer, and Margaret nee Walsh, a performer. She was born in a house in Greenwood Street, Collingwood that no longer stands. As well as her older brothers, she had a step-sister Elsie, from her mother’s side, who later performed under the name Elsa Golding (sic). At the time of Margaret’s sudden death in April 1895, the Goulding family lived at 431 George Street, Fitzroy.

Interviewed by “Curious” for the Calcutta Englishman in mid 1901, Charles Pollard admitted that most of the children lived in a five mile radius of Melbourne. However, he insisted they came from “all classes”, and “selection, together with training” was the secret of Pollard’s success. He also pointed out that the child performers willingly learned from each other – he said Irene had taught Madge Woodson the role of Molly Seymour for The Geisha.

Above left: Some of the cast of The Geisha c 1901-2. Officers – Emma Thomas, Irene Goulding, Lily Thompson and Daphne Trott (aka Daphne Pollard); Girls – May Topping, unidentified, unidentified and possibly Merle Ferguson (aka Merle Pollard). Above right: Madge Woodson, (aka Madge Williams), born Margaret Banks in Richmond. Date of photo unknown. Photos – courtesy The Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

Caring they may have been, but the Pollard company played fast and loose reporting the children’s age, no doubt adjusting these as it suited their preferred public profile. On the shipping manifest for SS Sierra, bringing the troupe to the US in September 1901, Alf Goulding, now the Stage Manager, was represented as 19. Irene’s age was listed as 11. Their real ages on this trip were sixteen and thirteen. On the same trip, Daphne Trott (usually Daphne Pollard) was really ten, not 6 years old as reported.

Possibly unbeknownst to Irene and other children, Nellie Chester and Charles Pollard were quite prepared to use force to make some of their parents fulfil their contracts. In 1900 the Pollards issued a writ against Frank Goulding (amongst others) to discourage him from letting Irene perform with Harry Hall’s proposed juvenile company. They won, or Frank backed down, but Frank remained aggrieved with the company, even while they employed Alf and Irene. In 1904, when the company’s former conductor Ernest Wolffe attempted to start his own new juvenile troupe using many of the Pollard’s most popular players – including Alice and Teddie McNamara, Oscar Heintz, Daphne and Ivy Trott, the matter ended up in court again. Wolffe lost and the children stayed with Pollards, for the mammoth 32 month tour of 1904-1907.

Above: A Pollard program flyer (here the company is titled Pollard Juvenile Opera Company) from November 1, 1901, when they performed in San Francisco. No ages are given here, and there is a long list of real and stage names, mixed in with joke names. Fred Pollard was really Freddie Bindlass from Collingwood, but Irene remembered this boy with the sweet voice by an alternative stage name – Freddie Stewart. Irene Goulding herself used the stage name Irene Loftus. Author’s Collection.

There is compelling evidence a child’s size and physical development were critical to being a Pollard’s performer, rather than simply just their age. Children who were physically undersized – like Willie Thomas and Daphne Trott, enjoyed longer careers with Pollards than most. Irene said she was always “little” too – but she finished up with Pollards when the SS Miowera brought her home in early April 1904. She was 16.

After her time with the Pollards, Irene Goulding performed in some smaller roles on stage, apparently in pantomimes and perhaps in the chorus for shows on the Tivoli circuit – and she was able to recall some of these details for Sally Dawes in 1985. Irene married Albert Smith, a driver, in 1931. Of her famous brother Alf, she seems to have last seen him during World War 2, when he lived in Australia again. He was “a clever boy” Irene recalled, but foolish with money. She said “he went through three fortunes” during his lifetime, perhaps in saying so she was a little regretful of her own opportunities missed. Of the other children in Pollards, Irene Goulding could recall gossiping with them about their parents’ Fitzroy businesses. Her contemporary in age and Fitzroy neighbour Ivy Trott she remembered clearly, but as Ivy and her family had left Australia in 1907, she had apparently lost contact.

Irene died in Melbourne, Australia in 1987.


Special thanks
to Claudia Funder at the Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne, and Dr Kate Rice, the collection’s inaugural Frank Van Straten Fellow.

Nick Murphy
June 2021


References

  • Australian Performing Arts Collection,
    • Pollard Opera Companies Collection
    • Irene Smith (Goulding) interview by Sally Dawes.
  • State of Victoria: Births, Death and Marriages
    • Irene Goulding 28436/1888
    • Alfred John Goulding 5583/1885
  • Public Record Office, Victoria
    • Civil Case Files Supreme Court of Victoria
      • VPRS 267/ P7  unit 1280,  item 1900/195
        1900/199
        Charles Pollard Nellie Chester Pollards Lilliputian Opera Company v Alexander Sheddon
      • VPRS 267/ P7  unit 1280,  item 1900/199
        1901/562
        Charles Pollard Nellie Chester Pollards Lilliputian Opera Company v Frank Goulding Irene Goulding
      • VPRS 267/ P7 unit 1280, item 1900/200
        1900/187
        Charles Pollard Nellie Chester Pollards Lilliputian Opera Company v Harry Hall Alice Landershute Marie Sheddon Neillie Sheddon May Victoria Topping Nellie Finlay
      • VPRS 267/ P7  unit 1307,  item 1901/562
        1900/188
        Charles Pollard Nellie Chester Pollards Lilliputian Opera Company v Alexander Sheddon M E Sheddon Marie Sheddon Nellie Sheddon
      • VPRS 267/ P7  unit 1280,  item 1900/188
        1904/329
        Charles Albert Pollard Nellie Chester Pollards Lillipution Opera Company v Ernest Augustus Wolf
        fe
      • VPRS 267/ P7  unit 1360,  item 1904/329
        1900/200
        Charles Pollard Nellie Chester Pollards Lilliputian Opera Company v Millie Finlay
  • Text:
    • 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 69, (2017) Johns Hopkins University Press.
    • Peter Downes ( 2002) The Pollards. Steele Roberts.
    • Dagmar Kift (1996) The Victorian Music Hall. Culture, Class and Conflict. Cambridge University Press.
    • Kirsty Murray (2010) India Dark. Allen and Unwin
      [Note: While written as a novel for teenagers, this beautiful novel is closely based on the events of the Arthur Pollard troupe in India and is highly recommended]
    • Frank Van Straten (2003) Tivoli. Thomas Lothian
  • National Library of Australia’s Trove
    • Argus (Melb) 19 June 1884, P6
    • The Age (Melb) 6 April 1895, P3
    • Referee (Sydney) 5 July 1899, P10
    • The British Australasian, 17 May 1900
    • The Ballarat Star, 14 July 1900, P2
    • The Ballarat Star, 7 Feb 1901, P4
    • The Age (Melb) 7 May 1903, P9
    • Daily News (WA) 9 March 1910, P7
  • Newspapers.com
    • The Honolulu Advertiser 14 Sept 1901, P10

This site has been selected for archiving and preservation in the National Library of Australia’s Pandora archive

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