Billy Williams and the lost story of his little sister Madge

Above: Billy Williams – enlarged from a Song Book cover, via National Library of Australia’s Trove. Madge Williams, while performing for Pollards Lilliputian Opera Company. Photographed while in Hong Kong and on tour, c1901 – courtesy the Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

The Five Second Version
Melbourne born Madge Williams (sometimes also Madge Woodson, but born Banks)(1893-1977) was a star performer with two Pollards Lilliputian Opera Company tours in 1900-1902. Still aged under 10, she left the company while in the US, subsequently performing there and in Britain with her older sister Lily before marrying vaudevillian Bert Coleman. Her older brother Billy Williams (1878-1915) became a very popular music hall performer and an early recording artist in the UK, achieving great fame before his death in England at the height of his career, in 1915. After a final return tour of Australia in 1920-21, Madge retired from the stage. She died in Texas in 1977. 

The Banks Family

Above: Madge in Pollards production of The Belle of New York c1901. Madge’s brother Billy Williams was establishing himself in Britain at the same time. Photo courtesy the Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.

Madge Williams, sometimes Little Madge Woodson – real name Margaret Hilda Banks, was born in Melbourne on August 15, 1893, to Richard Shaw Banks, a draper, and Mary nee McIntosh. Unfortunately a certificate verifying her birth never seems to have been issued – nor one for her older sister Lillian, born in 1875. Based on public death notices for parents Mary and Richard, birth certificates for the family’s boys and on later US documents for Madge, we can see there were six Banks children who survived infancy, four of whom went on stage:

  • Lillian (Lily) born 1875,
  • Richard (Dick) born 1876,
  • William, Will or later Billy (but confusingly also named Richard Isaac on his birth certificate) born 1878, (See below and Note 1 below regarding his name)
  • Reginald (Reg) born 1880,
  • Rowland (Rowley) born 1885 and
  • Margaret (Madge) born 1893

There is no doubt the Banks family had an unorthodox approach to formalising the births of their children, even by standards of the time. All the births for the family’s male children were registered. However, births for the two surviving girls – Lily (b 1875) and Madge (b 1893) appear not to have been registered at all. The birth for another daughter – Margery Valentine (b 1888 – d 1888) wasn’t registered for 10 months, until about the time of the child’s death, and in that case it was reported by 13 year old Lily rather than one of the parents, which appears to be most unusual. Two other daughters’ births were registered, but both had died after only a few weeks. These unusual circumstances suggest a seriously dysfunctional dimension to family life.

Richard Shaw Banks and Mary McIntosh were married on October 23, 1877, at their home – May Cottage on Reilly Street, North Carlton, now called Princes Street, a major Melbourne thoroughfare. Richard Shaw Banks was illiterate and he signed the marriage papers with a mark. The two oldest children of the family – Lily and Richard, were thus born before their parents marriage.

The family rented and moved about, as was common for Melbourne’s urban poor. Jeff Brownrigg has traced some of their movements through inner Melbourne and suggests that the family progressed to more affluent suburbs over time. Electoral rolls show by 1910 Richard and Mary Banks lived at 15 Moffatt Street in South Yarra, further from the industrial inner suburbs but still in a very modest cottage.


“A doll-like child.” Madge on stage 1899

Above, Left: “Little Madge Woodson” featured in Pollard’s advertising in the Salt Lake Telegram, 15 Feb 1902. Right: Madge Woodson having left Pollards, in the San Francisco Examiner, 12 October 1902. Via Newspapers.com

While Madge’s exact pathway onto the stage is now lost to us, we know that amongst her earliest appearances was one when she was aged only about 6, in a performance in Fitzroy in May 1899, where she attracted attention for singing Maude Nugent‘s new song Sweet Rosie O’Grady. In September 1899 she appeared on stage with her brother Will Williams (later to become Billy Williams), who was then part of the Ettie Williams’ troupe. Also appearing with her was another performing brother, Reg. This is the only time members of the Banks family performed together, as far as this writer can determine.

Soon after this appearance, Madge joined Pollards Lilliputian Opera Company, to take a long overseas performance tour through the Far East – and then on to North America from September 1901- October 1902. Will meantime, left for England in late 1899.

As Madge Woodson, she became a popular Pollard Lilliputian Opera Company performer, often vying with Daphne Pollard for pride of place in newspaper reports. That contemporary audiences were so taken with juvenile performers in adult roles seems clear from reviews. The “cute,” “petite” Madge was an “unusual talent” who had a “wonderful French accent”, and was also a “graceful dancer”, while Daphne Pollard was the “sweetest thing that ever happened.” The Great Falls Tribune described Madge as “a doll like child.” (27 Jan 1902)

Above: Madge Woodson with Pollards – and other Australian child performers listed here, with a mix of real and stage names. This is the cast list for the week commencing November 11, 1901, for The Belle of New York, in San Francisco. Author’s collection

In July 1902, while in the US, Madge left the Pollard troupe. They had been performing away from home for 11 months on this tour, and were due to return to Australia. But Madge Woodson did not return, instead, she began a stage career in the US – although still not yet ten years old. Who looked after her interests at this time we do not know for certain, but the likely choice was her older sister Lily, with whom she would later collaborate. Perhaps anticipating the criticism of child stage performance then gaining ground in the US, a long article in the San Francisco Call of 3 August 1902, soon after her break from Pollards, extolled her virtues as an animal lover and an award she had reportedly been given by the Melbourne branch of the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

1903 saw Madge as part of mixed variety lineups in California with a “Lily Boyd”, perhaps her sister Lily, performing in the sketches or “character comedies” The Cook Lady and The Big and the Little of It. Her footsteps in the US for the remainder of this decade are harder to trace, although her sister Lily’s marriage to performer Ed Daly was recorded in Iowa in 1907. In the same year, Madge performed with Australian vaudevillian Leon Errol and his wife Stella Chatelaine as part of Jimmy Cooper’s Jersey Lilies in New York, with good reviews. As Frank Cullen et al note, “Errol was manager, director, sketch writer and chief comic” for the troupe. We can only speculate whether this association with Leon Errol sharpened Madge’s performance skills.

Madge and Lily 1910 -1922

Above: A very grainy photo of Madge and Lily performing as part of the variety lineup at The Lyric Theatre at Muskogee in Oklahoma. Muskogee Times Democrat, 21 March 1910. Via Newspapers.com

The period 1910 – 1922 saw Lily and Madge performing together in the US, South Africa, England and finally Australia again. In 1910, their older brother Billy was at the height of his popularity as a music hall entertainer and recording artist, and at times, they used his songs. Williams was now settled as a stage surname and occasionally their familial connection to Billy was noted, although the sisters appear never to have performed with him. Always a part of a variety lineup, the sisters act consisted of comedy patter and songs, not unlike the one Billy was developing, before his sudden death in 1915.


Above: Madge and Lillian in England, The Sunday Post, 13 August 1916, Via the British Newspaper Archive.

In May 1917, while in South Africa, Madge married Bert Coleman (Jacob Cohen), a fellow vaudevillian – who had a reputation as an amusing “impersonator” and “comic whistler“. Bert was often presented to audiences as English, but in reality he had been born in Savanah, Georgia and made his home in Texas. Following the marriage, Bert often appeared on the same vaudeville bill as Madge and Lily. Two children, Billy and Barney, were born of the union while they performed in England.

Above: Bert Coleman and Madge Williams on a 1917 US passport application. Source US National Archives via Family Search.

In early 1920, Bert, with Madge and Lily, who were now billed as the “Williams Sisters,” came to Australia to appear around the country with Fuller’s theatres. Their vaudeville turn again appears to have been some clever humorous patter between popular songs. Adelaide’s Register reported “Bert Coleman again told humorous stories, sang funny songs, and whistled so musically that it was difficult to judge which section of his turn one admired the most. The Williams sisters continue to be great favourites with their audience, [with] their reputation for producing ‘miles of smiles…”

In April 1921, Adelaide’s The Advertiser commented on their touching rendition of one of Billy’s last songs (he had died in England suddenly in 1915) – Our Little Kiddie Sings the Best Song of All. You can hear an original recording of Billy singing it here.

Above: Bert, Lily and Madge in the Fullers lineup at Melbourne’s Bijou Theatre – appearing alongside Roy Rene and Nat Phillips as “Stiffy and Mo”. The Age (Melbourne) 26 July, 1920.

Madge and Bert returned to the US in November 1922 and moved back to Bert’s home state of Texas, where they lived in Waco, Forth Worth and finally Dallas. Already under siege from cinema, the days of mixed vaudeville programs was well and truly coming to an end by the 1920s and although there is some evidence Bert occasionally performed, Madge did not. Bert turned to running some small businesses.

Madge died in Dallas, on 9 July 1977. By then, she was listed as Margaret Hildegard Cole, daughter of “Jack” and “Maggie” Banks of “New Castle”, Australia, reminding us how wildly inaccurate death certificates can be. Only her date of birth and shared address with Bert, who had died in 1971, remain to confirm her identity. Unfortunately her sister Lily’s later fate remains unknown.


Billy Williams on the Stage c1897 – 1915

As Jeff Brownrigg has noted in his very detailed 1989 account, little is known with certainty of the early days of William Banks or “Billy Williams” (confusingly named Richard Isaac Banks on his 7 Feb 1878 birth certificate)(See Note 1). There were plenty of anecdotes about him given in later years, including stories of his early experiences as a strapper or groom for jockey Tommy Corrigan and his nickname being “Curly Banks.” There was also a tale that the name Billy Williams was borrowed from a successful Australian boxer of the time. Frank Van Straten‘s 1968 interview with Billy Williams’ widow Amy Jennings provides confirmation of his work as a strapper, but not much else of use as regards what happened in his early years. Amy was clearly wanting to protect Billy’s image with some of her answers – she claimed that he was born in Collins Street Melbourne (the most prestigious street in the city’s main business district) and that his father was secretary of the Albert Park Golf Club. But perhaps she just didn’t know. Her memories of Billy as a performer in England seem much more considered and were probably more reliable – the couple had met and married in London in September 1901. Billy had had limited schooling Amy said, and he had no formal musical training. But he had a beautiful voice.

Billy’s first publicly reported appearance as a comedian and singer was as “Will Williams” in late 1897, in Melbourne. He was soon touring regional Australian provincial venues as an “English vocalist” in vaudeville programs, when he was picked up by the Harry Cogill Musical Comedy Company.

Above: Billy Williams, The Edison Phonograph Monthly Jan-Dec 1912, P3. Via Lantern, the Media History Digital Library.

According to Amy Jennings, Melbourne entrepreneur George Adams saw him and sponsored him to try his luck in England. Possibly, or perhaps he just saved up. He is known to have departed Australia aboard the SS Afric in late 1899.

Will was fortunate and appeared at the London Hippodrome soon after arriving, billed as an “Australian comedian.” His memory of the early days was that it was a struggle, according to Amy’s 1968 interview. Early newspapers do not give a very clear idea of exactly what his act entailed, but humorous songs on sentimental, contemporary and popular topics (like The Taximeter Car in 1908 – then a relatively new phenomenon in London) were always a major part of the act. Frank Van Straten has described his style as “fresh, breezy” with a “rollicking repertoire.”

Above: Billy, still appearing as Will Williams, in early 1901. The Music Hall and Theatre Review, 11 Jan 1901. A few weeks later, he was listed as Billy. Via British Library Newspaper Archive

In early 1901 Will re-named himself Billy Williams for the stage. In September that year he married London actress Amy Robinson, but on the wedding certificate he now used the name William Holt Williams, and his father was listed as a draper called Richard Holt.

Billy’s songs – sometimes of his own composition – such as John, John, Put your Trousers on (1906), lent themselves well to gramophone recordings and there were soon plenty in circulation. Jeff Brownrigg suggests it was fellow Australian Florrie Forde who encouraged him to begin recording songs. Some of these remained popular for many years – such as When Father Papered the Parlour (1909). Indeed, Williams is rightly identified as “Australia’s first popular recording star” by Brownrigg. As early as 1907 he sang songs written by Fred Godfrey (born Llewellyn Williams), but after 1911 nearly all of the songs he sang were jointly credited with Godfrey, like The Kangaroo Hop (1912). From late 1906 he was billed on stage as “The man in the velvet suit”, and Amy Jennings confirmed that he usually wore one on stage. He would come offstage wringing wet with perspiration, she recalled.

On 4 March 1910, Billy, accompanied by Amy and his son Reg, returned to Australia for entrepreneur Harry Rickards, on the RMS Omrah. He shared the program with psychics, comedy sketch artists and acrobats but it was a very successful tour, especially when Australian audiences were reminded he was one of them. Valerie Abbey from the National Film and Sound Archive has given a summary of Billy’s 1910 tour, which appears as an appendix to Jeff Brownrigg’s 1989 article, here.

Above – left: Billy appears in Australia again “after an absence of 12 years”, part of Rickards Vaudeville lineup. The Age, 16 April 1910. Right: Billy Williams Song Book cover, National Library of Australia’s Trove.

By Christmas time 1910, he was back in England again, performing for enthusiastic audiences and making more gramophone records. In 1912 he performed at the first Royal Variety performance.

Following the death of his mother Mary in South Yarra in 1912, his father Richard joined him in England, but he also underwent a change of name, becoming “Richard Holt Williams”. He died at Billy’s home in 1914.

Billy Williams died only a few months later, on 15 March, 1915. There had been newspaper reports of his indisposition in October 1914, but by November he had returned to giving concerts in Scotland. On 24 November, The Edinburgh Evening News noted a large group of enthusiastic soldiers in the house, ” who welcomed Williams as an old favourite. They proclaimed their choice of songs, and he responded with a bright and breezy rendering of several popular numbers…” He was ill again by February 1915 and his death certificate clearly lists septic prostatitis, which must have been an exhausting condition for a performer where boundless good humour and energy was essential. His death occurred following an operation, but there is no evidence supporting the suggestion of syphilis – as appears in the current manifestation of Wikipedia’s page on Billy. (He had several children with Amy and she lived another 65 years, which renders this unlikely)


Note 1 – Billy Williams’ birth name

Billy Williams name is the source of understandable confusion among his biographers – partly because his 1878 birth certificate gives his name as Richard Isaac Banks. However, every other document attributable to the family (such as public memorial notices for the deaths of parents Mary and Richard, the birth and death certificates for his siblings), give his name as William Isaac Banks, or Billy. Most importantly, when the child who would become Billy Williams was born on 7 Feb 1878, as already noted the family already had a child named Richard, born on 2 August 1876, in addition to Richard being the father’s name.

The most obvious explanation was that this was human error made when William Isaac Banks’ birth was being registered – but perhaps there are other explanations. At any rate, there is no evidence of him being called anything other than William, Will or Billy during his lifetime, or “Curly” as a nickname. (William was also a grandfather’s name.)


Note 2 – Other family members

Richard Shaw “Dick” Banks (1876-1930) The oldest of the Banks boys, he became a professional golfer in Australia. He died at the young age of 53. A National Library photo is here.

Rowland “Rowley” Banks (1885-1928) was also a professional golfer. Suffering ongoing ill health, he died in Newcastle, NSW whilst seeking a warmer climate.

Reginald Banks (1880 – ?) Reg also adopted the surname Williams and performed on stage with some success. However his later fate is unknown.

Above: Reg Williams performing in comedy in Adelaide, The Gadfly, 21 Aug 1907, via The National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Nick Murphy July 2021


References

  • Australian Performing Arts Collection,
    • Pollard Opera Companies Collection
    • Irene Smith (Goulding) interview by Sally Dawes.
  • State of Victoria: Births, Death and Marriages
    • Richard Banks Birth Certificate 9 August 1876 . 14675/1876 (This is Richard “Dick” Banks)
    • Banks Marriage. 4144/1877
    • Richard Isaac Banks Birth Certificate, 7 February 1878. 9017/1878 (This is Billy Williams)
    • Margery Valentine Banks Birth Certificate, 15 February 1888. 32706/1888
      (This sister died 10 months later)
    • Mary Banks Death Certificate, 5 November 1912. 15487/1912.
  • HM Passport Office, General Register Office.
    • William Holt Williams. Death Certificate. Died Hove, England, 13 March 1915
  • Texas Death Certificates
    • Barney Cohen, 16 June 1930. #31546
    • Jacob Bert Cole, 8 August 1971. # 55022
    • Margaret Hildegard Cole, 9 July 1977. #48767
  • US National Archives via Ancestry and Family Search
    • Passport Application for Jacob Cohen (Stage Name Bert Coleman). 2 May 1917
    • Passport Application for Jacob Cohen. 28 Feb 1918
    • Passport Application for Margaret H Cohen. 1 May 1920.
  • National Film and Sound Archive (Australia)
    A large collection of material relating to Billy Williams, including photos, audios and Peter Burgis’ 1972 with Amy Jennings (not read for this article)
  • Clay Djubal – The Australian Variety Theatre Archive
  • Music Hall MastersBilly Williams series All the songs Album 2 (CD) 2001
    • Frank Van Straten (Dec 1968) Interview with Amy Jennings (Billy’s former wife)
  • Text:
    • Jeff Brownrigg (1989) [Notes to accompany recording] Australia’s Billy Williams, A Selection from the Brownrigg-Williams Collection at Australia’s National Film and Sound Archive.
      Downloadable at Move Classic Music Label here.
    • Frank Cullen, Florence Hackman, Donald McNeilly (2007) Vaudeville, Old & New, An Encyclopedia of Variety Performers in America, Vol 1. Routledge.
    • Peter Downes (2002) The Pollards. Steele Roberts.
    • Frank Van Straten (2003) Tivoli. Thomas Lothian.
  • National Library of Australia’s Trove
    • North Melbourne Courier & West Melbourne Advertiser, (Vic). 24 Sept 1897 P9
    • North Melbourne Courier & West Melbourne Advertiser, (Vic). 8 Jan 1898 P10
    • Fitzroy City Press, (Vic). 4 Aug 1898, P3
    • Fitzroy City Press, (Vic). 4 May 1899, P3
    • Fitzroy City Press, (Vic). 21 Sept 1899, P3
    • Fitzroy City Press, (Vic). 5 Oct 1899, P2
    • Fitzroy City Press,(Vic). 28 Sept 1900, P3
    • The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW) 3 Sept 1901, P6
    • Brisbane Courier, (Qld). 13 Oct 1902, P6
    • The Argus, (Vic). 26 March 1903, P4
    • Sunday Times, (WA). 19 June 1910, P1
    • The Age, (Vic). 9 Nov 1912. P5
    • The Age, (Vic). 2 Oct 1914. P1
    • The Argus (Vic). 1 May 1915, P11
    • The Daily News, (WA). 18 June 1920, P6
    • Daily Herald (SA). 8 April 1921. P1
    • The Advertiser, (SA). 11 April 1921, P8
    • The Journal, (SA). 16 Ap 1921, P4
    • The Sun (NSW). 8 Aug 1928, P13
    • The Age, (Vic). 15 Oct 1938, P35
  • Newspapers.com
    • San Francisco Call. 30 June 1901, P18
    • The Honolulu Republican (Hawaii). 19 Sept 1901, P4
    • San Francisco Chronicle. 10 Nov 1901, P9
    • San Francisco Chronicle. 3 Aug 1902.
    • Vancouver Daily World (BC, Can). 19 Aug 1902, P2
    • The Honolulu Advertiser (Hawaii). 29 Sept, 1902, P10
    • The San Francisco Examiner, 12 October 1902, P40
    • Standard Union, (New York). 8 Oct 1907 P3
  • The British Newspaper Archive
    • The Era, 20 Oct, 1900
    • Surrey Comet 2 Jan, 1901, P3
    • Music Hall and Theatre Review, 11 Jan 1901, P4
    • Music Hall and Theatre Review, 1 March 1901, P4
    • Preston Herald, 17 March 1915, P2

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