Above: Mercia Swinburne, National Portrait Gallery Collection. By Bassano Ltd, Whole-plate glass negative, 24 August 1920. NPG x101315. Creative Commons Licence.
The 5 second version
Did Mercia Swinburne ever really think of herself as Australian? The answer is – probably not. She lived most of her life in London, becoming a leading figure on the British stage. For many of her era, being Australian born was simply a variation on being British anyway. Born in Sydney in 1900, Mercia was almost continuously at work in the UK between 1920 and 1950, and also performed on stage in the US, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. She married British actor George Relph (1888-1960) in 1924, with whom she sometimes appeared. Her older brother Jack Swinburne (1892-1974) was also an actor and later a film production manager. Mercia died in England in 1993. She appeared in three films during her career.
At left, Mercia in a Pond’s cream advertisment, The Sketch, August 15, 1928. Via British Library Newspaper Archive. Ponds still produces beauty products.
When British actor Mercia Swinburne returned to Australia with Laurence Olivier’s triumphant Old Vic tour in 1948, she was inclined to dismiss her Australian birth almost as an accident of history – she had left the country “as a tiny child”, she said. This was true, although it didn’t really give a very accurate picture of her upbringing and rather undersold her own remarkable achievements. Swinburne’s career spanned almost 40 years.
We can hardly blame her for a degree of caution in discussing the Australian period of her childhood. As was often the case in the 19th and 20th centuries, the preferred way of managing an unhappy or tumultous period in one’s life, particularly events that carried a “social stain” such as a divorce, was simply to pretend it had never happened.
Childhood – Australia, South America and Britain
Mercia Swinbourne was born in Sydney to Leah Liardet nee Conway in 1900. At the time of her birth, her mother was going through a painful divorce from Cavendish Liardet – it had been an unhappy marriage for some time. Leah and Cavendish already had one child – John Evelyn Liardet or Jack, born in 1892. However, Mercia’s biological father was apparently Charles Richard Swinbourne, a local alderman, wool broker and exporter, and a partner in Swinbourne and Stephen, a large wool scouring firm based on Botany Bay. Charles Swinbourne was named as co-respondent in the 1899 divorce papers lodged by Cavendish Liardet, a few weeks before Mercia’s birth. A divorce was granted to Cavendish soon after. (See Note 1 below)
In March 1903, Charles Swinbourne, Leah (sometimes known as “Lily”), Jack and Mercia departed for England on the P&O liner Suevic, with the children listed with the surname Swinbourne. Two years later, Leah and Mercia travelled from England to join Charles in Buenos Aires, where he seems to have followed business interests for several years, perhaps in the booming Argentinian wool industry. But the 1911 UK census shows Leah, a woman of “private means”, and Mercia, a schoolgirl, were again back in England, living near the seaside at Brighton, Sussex.
1911 also saw Mercia on stage for the first time. She appeared in a supporting role in one of a series of “dramatic episodes” (short plays) – called Only a Woman, at London’s Court theatre on 16 June. In later years Mercia said she had studied with Kate Rorke, a well known London actress and teacher of elocution – and perhaps it was her influence that found the very young Mercia her first role on stage. Jack’s success as an 18 year old actor might also have had some part in influencing her choices – he was on stage in The Captain of the School, “an intensely amusing story of public school life” at The Gaiety in late 1910.
Above: A very young Mercia in The Sketch, 10 October 1917, while appearing in George Grossmith’s Theodore & Co. Copyright held by the Illustrated London News Group. Via British Library’s Newspaper Archive.
There was another dramatic change in Mercia’s life in January 1912, when she and her mother arrived back in Sydney. Only a few days after they arrived, Charles Richard Swinbourne finally married Leah Conway at Bondi’s Methodist Church.
Leah and Mercia stayed on in Sydney for two years. Mercia sometimes appeared in society events, including an instance when she presented a posy of pansies to the wife of visiting actor-director William Devereux. She was “a pretty young English girl” newspapers reported. But in April 1914, Leah and Mercia were on their way to England again, without Charles, and that seems to have been the end of their relationship.
Mercia’s stage career
From the age of about 15, Mercia Swinburne (her surname now spelled without an “o”) appeared in small or chorus parts in a string of successful London productions. These notably included several wartime musicals produced by George Grossmith Junior – Tonight’s the Night in 1915, Theodore & Co in 1916-17 and Yes Uncle! in 1917. Popular with the war-weary English public who craved some escape and distraction, they all enjoyed long runs and for Mercia surely affirmed her decision to act, in addition to these being being useful experiences in building a career. All the same, her success was remarkable, given her youth.
Above: Twenty year old Mercia perfoming in His Lady Friends at the St James Theatre. It was a comedy, that ran for 135 performances. Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 28 August 1920. Copyright held by the Illustrated London News Group. Via British Library’s Newspaper Archive.
Theatre historian J P Wearing lists more than forty London stage appearances by Mercia in the 1920 and ’30s – an extraordinary output and for much of the time these were back to back performances. Notably, she also appeared with a list of significant performers, including some still well remembered today – like British actors Basil Rathbone and Charles Hawtrey and visiting Canadian actor Raymond Massey. While performing in The Way of an Eagle in 1923 she met George Relph. She toured South Africa with him in 1924, and they married in 1925.
Of note to even casual readers today was the bubbling enthusiasm for her work. Writing for The Sphere on 14 November 1931, reviewer Phillip Page commented “Miss Mercia Swinburne is so devastatingly lovely to look upon, has such a neat sense of humour and is such an accomplished actress that I marvel that dramatists do not come to her on bended knees with their plays. Perhaps they do, and the plays are not good enough.” The play was the comedy Make Up Your Mind.
There is not much doubt that on account of her reputation as an up and coming actor, and her good looks, she also became a darling of the society press in London. In the 1920s and 30s she was often photographed for the pages of Tatler, The Bystander, The Sketch and The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News. She also became a regular in the advertising pages – where she endorsed the likes of Ciro pearls, Odol toothpaste, Ponds cream, Phosferine tonic and De Reszke cigarettes.
Above: Mercia and George advertising De Reszke cigarettes in The Daily Mirror, Jan 28, 1938. The notion that the couple enjoyed a sophisticated smoke over a “quiet game of chess” before performing is definitely “of its time”. Via British LIbrary’s Newspaper Archive.
Amongst her many and varied performances were the crime and murder-mysteries so popular between the wars in Britain. These included Australian born writer Dion Titheradge’s The Crooked Billet which ran for 168 performances at The Royalty in 1927, and Edgar Wallace’s The Squeaker – A Scotland Yard Drama which began a long run at The Apollo in May 1928. In this play, George Relph took the lead role of Sutton, aka “the Squeaker,” a car dealer and fence, in a complicated plot that is solved by a journalist. Mercia played the “distracted heroine” Beryl, ward of “a respectable but once notorious criminal.”(Punch 6 June 1928). However, many of Mercia’s stage appearances were in short runs of plays – including some pioneering productions with social comentary. The Love Game, which ran for 60 performances at the Prince of Wales Theatre in 1931 dealt with what The Times called a “painfully real discussion of infidelity.” (The Times cited in Wearing, 1930-39, P131)
Above: George Relph and Mercia appearing together in the popular, The Squeaker – A Scotland Yard Drama at the Apollo Theatre, mid 1928. Photos from program in the author’s collection.
Early in January 1936, Mercia broke her leg in a car accident. Returning home on New Year’s Day, Mercia and George were passengers in a car driven by a friend, writer/director Anthony Kimmins. The accident was serious enough that she did not perform at all in 1936. (Kimmins is remembered for writing and directing the successful British – Australian film Smiley in 1956, and its sequel.) However, by early 1937 she was back on stage and in August she and George reprised their roles in another run of The Squeaker.
Mercia and George continued to appear on stage during World War 2. Like many actors who wanted to contribute to the war effort, both appeared for the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA) and the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA – the forerunner of the British Arts Council). Mercia’s engagements again included a wide range of plays – from Mrs Darling in the familiar and popular panto Peter Pan to tours of comedies such as Merton Hodge’s The Wind and the Rain.
The Old Vic Tour of 1948
The famous 1948 “Old Vic Tour” of Australia and New Zealand that included Mercia and George has been very well documented. Led by their friends Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, it was a resounding success. Part of the success was undoubtedly generated by the star-glamour Olivier and Leigh carried with them, but it was also a clever program of performances delivered by a large group of experienced and up-and-coming British actors. Performing a repetoire of Shakespeare’s Richard III, Sheridan’s The School for Scandal and Thornton Wilder’s contemporary comedy-drama The Skin of our Teeth, they spent 7 months touring all the major capitals of Australia and New Zealand. On their departure for New Zealand in September 1948, a newspaper report politely indicated the company had made a net profit of £200,000 in Australia (over $AU12 million in 2020 value), and also set an Australian record for seats sold.
Above: Mercia and Vivien Leigh. But all eyes are on Vivien. The Chronicle (South Australia), 8 April 1948. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.
Above: Some of the company taking a curtain call for The School for Scandal in Sydney. Australian Women’s Weekly, 10 July 1948. Mercia had first performed with Olivier in Queen of Scots, in 1934. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.
After the war, Mercia and George lived comfortably at the Argyll Mansions on the King’s Rd in London’s Chelsea. They travelled to perform once again in 1950 – to appear in supporting roles to Basil Rathbone and Valerie Taylor in a season of Aldous Huxley’s melodrama The Gioconda Smile, at New York’s Lyceum Theatre. The actors were praised but reviews of the play itself were mixed. And with that, Mercia appears to have made a decision to leave acting for good. George continued to act, almost to the time of his death in 1960.
Unfortunately, while the many biographers of Olivier and Leigh used Mercia as a source, this writer has been unable to find any interviews with her regarding her own work, and as is often the case, there appear to have been no obituaries written when she died in 1993.
Mercia’s three films
The stage was clearly a preference for many actors of Mercia’s generation, despite the press hype surrounding actors in the cinema. Unfortunately, both of Mercia’s films from the 1930s are now considered lost. Alibi (1931) was based on the Agatha Christie story The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and a subsequent stage play. Mercia was given a leading role in this Hercule Poirot thriller – and surviving reviews seem positive. Not so memorable or well recieved was The Compulsory Wife (1937), a “quota quickie” made to fulfil a studio’s obligations under the Cinematograph Films Act (1927). Picturegoer magazine dismissed it in a few lines and concluded the “direction and production are very weak.” (Picturegoer 7 Aug 1937)
She appeared in a supporting role in one more film – in 1948 – Basil Dearden’s Saraband for Dead Lovers, starring Stewart Grainger and Joan Greenwood. Based on a historical romance by Australian born author Helen de Guerry Simpson, this was generally well received by reviewers, but was not especially successful at the box-office. It was Ealing Studios first colour film.
Above: Mercia Swinburne in Australia. Daily Telegraph (Syd), 4 July 1948, P28. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.
Jack Swinburne’s career
Jack Swinburne joined the Royal Flying Corps during World War One, returning to the stage after the war. He toured South Africa in an acting troupe in 1920. Following his return to Britain he moved into management – first in theatre, then radio, and by the late 1940s he was regularly a production manager for British films. He returned to Australia at least once, in 1928, with his English wife, comedienne Mamie Soutter, who appeared for a short time at the Empire Theatre in the musical Take the Air. He ended his career as production manager on most of the later Carry On films and died in 1974. A shutterstock photo from his Radio Olympia days c1937 can be seen here. The World Radio History website has a copy of a 1939 Radio Pictorial here, featuring Jack and Mamie.
That the Liardet marriage was unhappy is born out by a NSW Police Gazette report of Leah Liardet being “missing from her lodgings” in August 1898. The report was made out by Cavendish, and gave a very detailed description of Leah, including her “green straw hat” “very white teeth” and “aquiline nose”. 16 months later, Mercia’s birth certificate (2 February 1900) did not list a father, but the surname Swinbourne was used for the child. In the divorce commenced in late November 1899, the grounds for divorce was Leah’s adultery with Swinbourne. The impending birth of a child – Mercia – wasnt mentioned.
- British Pathe newsreels (Mercia appears briefly in both these clips)
- National Portrait Gallery Collection (UK)
- Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University
- Douglas Pike (ed), Geoffrey Serle (Ed), AGL Shaw (ed), (1967) ‘Liardet, Wilbraham Frederick Evelyn (1799–1878)’, accessed online 8 October 2021.
- Alan Roberts, (1988) ‘Simpson, Helen de Guerry (1897–1940)’, accessed online 22 October 2021
- New South Wales Births Deaths & Marriages
- Birth Certificate Mercia Swinbourne, 2 Feb 1900, 14087/1900
- Marriage Certificate Charles Richard Swinbourne and Leah Conway, 10 Jan 1912, #3751/1912
- Victoria, Births Deaths & Marriages
- Marriage Certificate Cavendish Dawson Evelyn Liardet and Leah Conway, 22 Jan 1889. #1715/1889
- Marriage Certificate Cavendish Dawson Evelyn Liardet and Leah Conway, 22 Jan 1889. #1715/1889
- NSW State Archives
- Divorce papers – Cavendish Dawson Evelyn Liardet – Leah Liardet, Charles Robert (sic) Swinbourne. NRS-13495-29-[13/12535]-3457.
- Ancestry.com & Familysearch.org
- Shipping Manifests, Census lists, Voter registration roles and City Directories
- Clive Barker and Maggie B Gale (Eds)(2000) British Theatre between the Wars 1918-1939. Cambridge University Press.
- Geoffrey Milne (2004) Theatre Australia Un Limited: Australian Theatre Since the 1950s. [Australian Playwrights Mongraph 10. Veronica Kelly (Ed)] Editions Rodolpi
- John Parker (Ed) (1952) Who’s Who in the Theatre. Isaac Pitman & sons. 11th Edition.
- J. P. Wearing (2014) The London Stage 1910-1919 : A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel . Second edition. Lanham : Rowman & Littlefield Publishers
- 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
- British Library Newspaper Archive
- The Graphic, 31 Dec1910 P25
- The Stage 20 July 1911, P22
- The Sketch 10 Oct 1917, P40
- The Sketch, 5 Nov 1919, P1
- The Stage, 15 Jan 1920, P23
- Illustrated Sporting & Dramatic News, 28 August 1920, P1
- The Tatler, 26 Oct 1921 P119
- The Daily Mirror 14 March 1925
- Illustrated Sporting & Dramatic News, 21 March 1925 P668
- The Sketch, 6 Oct 1926, P39
- The Sketch, 2 Nov 1927 P249
- The Sketch 20 June 1928
- The Sketch 15 August, 1928
- Illustrated Sporting & Dramatic News, 24 August 1929, P445
- The Bioscope 11 March 1931, P1
- Illustrated London News 18 July 1931, P37
- The Sphere, 14 Nov 1931, P27
- Illustrated London News 12 March 1932, P35
- The Stage 14 June 1934, P10
- Daily News 18 Feb 1937, P9
- The Era, 15 April 1937 P14
- The Daily Mirror, Jan 28, 1938
- Marylebone Mercury, 7 December 1956 P2
- Internet Archive
- Punch 6 June 1928
- Punch 15 Feb 1933
- Picturegoer Weekly, 26 Feb 1938, P31
- International Motion Picture Almanac, 1951
- National Library of Australia’s Trove
- NSW Police Gazette, 24 August 1898 – Page 282
- Sydney Morning Herald, 14 July 1898 P8
- Evening News (Syd) 23 March 1900, P4
- Everyones. Vol 9 No 421, 28 March 1928
- The Chronicle (Sth Aust), 8 April 1948
- Daily Telegraph (Syd) 4 July 1948, P28
- Australian Women’s Weekly, 10 July 1948
- Daily News (New York) · 9 Oct 1950, P540
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