Harry and Nellie Quealy ~ Life and death in variety

Above: Nellie and Harry Quealy in 1910, at the height of their popularity on the Australian stage.[1]The Theatre (Syd) 1 December 1910, P6, via State Library of Victoria
The Five Second version
Harry Quealy
was another Australian variety performer who had started his career on the stage at a very young age. He worked for Tom Pollard for a decade, developed a reputation for clever comedy and was much liked by audiences. When he met an early death in Australia in 1927, there was widespread and genuine regret. He worked in the US for six years and had a leading role in the US film Madame Sherry in 1917. But he maintained that he always preferred the stage.
Nellie Quealy, nee Finlay, was his partner on stage – the couple working together with great success in Australia. She had also begun her career as a child performer in the early 1890s, appearing overseas with Pollards in 1898. She married Harry in 1904, and as well as pursuing her own career, took on the role of parenting her three performing siblings – Nattlie, Myra and Irene Finlay. She died in the US in 1936, after a long battle with TB.
A stage turn like Fun in the Kitchen (above and below) was only intended to last 15 minutes being part of a mixed variety program.There is nothing in the sketch itself… it is all in the acting, swing and drollery of the situations.”[2]The Northern Miner (Qld) 25 April 1911, P7. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove

It is rare to have photos based on scenes from a variety turn. These are from the boxing scene in Fun in the Kitchen – taken for The Theatre magazine in 1910. [3]The Theatre (Syd) 1 December 1910, P5, via State Library of Victoria

Harry Quealy, born 1876

Harry was born Henry Joseph Quealy in Brisbane in July 1876 to Thomas, a shoemaker, and sometime mechanic at Brisbane’s Theatre Royal – and who was, according to Harry, also “the best dancer in Queensland”[4]The Theatre (Syd) on 1 December 1910, via the State Library of Victoria and his Irish born wife Margaret nee Byrne.[5]See State of Queensland, Births, Deaths and Marriages, Birth certificate Henry Joseph Quealy, 25 July 1876 Harry’s stories about being encouraged onto the stage at a young age are true. He recalled that he was on stage in a benefit concert as early as 1882, when he danced to much acclaim.[6]The Brisbane Courier (Qld) 21 Feb 1882, P1,via National Library of Australia’s Trove By 1891, 15 year old Harry was a part of Tom Pollard’s new juvenile troupe touring Australia. He continued to be associated with Tom Pollard’s troupes of players as they matured, until they finally broke up, about 1908.[7]See Peter Downes (2002) The Pollards, P80-81 Harry’s associates are not well remembered now but were very well known at the time and included – Maud Beatty(1878-1959) and May Beatty(1880-1945), William S Percy (1872-1946), Nellie Wilson(1877-) and Jack Ralston (1882-1933). See Note 1 below regarding various Pollard tours.

Harry Quealy in Tom Pollard’s The Gondoliers, the King of Barataria, The Princess Theatre, Melbourne Australia, October 15, 1892 [8]Program via State Library of Victoria

Harry developed to become a popular comedian for Tom Pollard’s comic operas, taking on numerous character roles –“a list too long for me to give it to you right off” he told The Theatre in 1910. In 1903 he joined Pollard’s “Royal Australian Comic Opera Company” for an extended tour of South Africa.[9]So named because the performers were now too old to be called Lilliputians It was here that Harry met Nellie Finlay, who was touring with Harry Hall’s Juvenile Australian Company at the same time.[10]It is hard to believe Tom Pollard and Harry Hall had not reached some type of agreement regarding itinerary and performances in South Africa

Both Harry and Nellie were short and slight – a physical profile famously preferred by juvenile companies. Harry was inclined to claim he was even shorter than his 162 cms (5’4″) inches while Nellie stood just 152 cms (5′) in height. But it was their skills as dancers, singers and comedians that made them so popular, even before they teamed up on stage. “We both revel in sketch work” Harry assured Theatre magazine.[11]The Theatre (Syd) December 1, 1910, P1-4. Via State Library of Victoria

Nellie Finlay, born c1885

Nellie Finlay was born c1885 in New Zealand.[12]The US census of 1920 lists Nellie’s birthplace as Port Chalmers, New Zealand Details of her childhood are obscure, almost certainly because her mother Millie Robins was unmarried.[13]While her birth certificate has yet to be found, Nellie is listed, aged 6, with sister Nattlie aged 4, on the Queensland birth certificate of her youngest sister Irene. See State of Queensland, … Continue reading Nellie and her sisters Nattlie and Irene adopted the surname Finlay when her mother married George Charles Finlay in 1893.

A photo of Nellie, presumably taken well before its publication in 1916.[14]The Sun (Syd) 9 July 1916, P18. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove

According to Harry Quealy, Nellie’s performance career began when she was aged only 4 and a half – or in about 1890. She was documented onstage in 1892, dancing a sailor’s hornpipe in a program at the Exhibition Hall at 232-234 Brunswick Street Fitzroy and the Finlay family moved permanently to this area soon after.[15]Fitzroy City Press (Vic) 2 Dec 1892 P2, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove A few years later, this part of inner city Melbourne had become the main recruiting ground for Charles Pollard & Nellie Chester nee Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company troupes and it is not surprising that Nellie and her sisters would end up being associated with them.

By 1897, Nellie had a reputation for her dancing – which included a version of Bessie Clayton’s “back kick dance” – meaning she was flexible enough to kick backwards and touch her head. In late 1898, Nellie and Nattlie joined a Charles Pollard tour of South Africa – performing the usual repertoire of musical comedies – The Geisha, The Gaiety Girl and the like. A report written for Sydney’s Referee included interviews with Nellie and Nattlie: “Nellie Finlay, aged 12 years, who is a bright and clever girl, said: ‘I like South Africa, and travelling. I came to Cape Town from Australia on November 17, 1898. I like playing parts and dancing. My best part is Mamie Clancy in The Belle of New York.[16]The Referee (Syd) 5 Jul 1899, P10, via National Library of Australia’s Trove

The Era reports on the success of Charles Pollard’s troupe in South Africa in August 1899.[17]The Era, London, 26 Aug 1899, P15, via British Library Newspaper Archive

In 1900, Nellie and Nattlie joined Harry Hall’s own troupe to perform in South Africa. [18]Charles Pollard & Nellie Chester nee Pollard attempted to stop Hall’s tour in the Victorian Supreme court but failed. Hall’s group was also made up of other adult members of the … Continue reading However, even by the permissive employment standards of the time, the choice of South Africa as a destination for a children’s troupe was unusual – the country was then in the midst of the Second Anglo-Boer war. See Note 2 below regarding Irene Finlay joining the Pollards.

Nellie Finlay remained connected with Hall’s company in South Africa for several years [19]Referee (Syd) 27 Feb 1901, P10 via National Library of Australia’s Trove – she travelled there again in early 1903, with other up and coming juveniles like Harold Fraser (later Snub Pollard) and Mae Dahlberg (later Mae Laurel). Hall died suddenly in South Africa in late October 1903,[20]Otago Daily Times (NZ) 2 Dec 1903 P6 Via Papers Past and his Australian Juveniles mostly returned to Australia. However, Nellie returned to Australia on the same ship as Harry Quealy, and the couple married in Western Australia in 1904.[21]See State of Western Australia, Births, Deaths and Marriages, Marriage certificate 1336/1904

Working together

Fun in the Kitchen included Nellie dancing on a table, humorous songs and concluded with the boxing match ~ shown here ~ between Cook (Nellie) and Buttons (Harry). Australian audiences loved it.

Following their marriage in Western Australia, Nellie and Harry both appeared on the Australian and New Zealand stages for Tom Pollard, with Nellie increasingly choreographing for productions.[22]Daily Post (Hob), 13 Jun 1908, P7, via National Library of Australia’s Trove Fun in the Kitchen was first performed in September 1908.[23]Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton) 21 Sep 1908, P6, via National Library of Australia’s Trove It met with great approval and appeared in Australia on and off for six years, being entirely devised and regularly refreshed by Nellie and Harry.[24]The Sun (Syd) 27 Apr 1913, P10, via National Library of Australia’s Trove

In April 1909 Arthur Pollard asked Nellie and Harry to accompany his new Lilliputian tour of the “Far East,” India and North America – Nellie as Ballet Mistress and Harry as Stage Manager.(Charles Pollard had announced he was retiring from running his North American tours) [25]Truth (Bris)18 Apr 1909, P8 via National Library of Australia’s Trove About thirty young performers departed in July 1909 on the SS Gracchus, bound for Java and Singapore as first performance stops. However, as this writer has noted elsewhere, the tour of India was a disaster. Pollard was inexperienced as a manager and temperamentally quite unsuited to be a supervisor of children. The tour fell apart and the child performers returned home in early 1910, with considerable press attention. Harry went out of his way to protect the name of his mentor and friend Tom Pollard, but it didn’t help – the Pollard family reputation was ruined and new Federal legislation followed soon after to restrict the employment of children overseas. Harry also studiously avoided saying anything about his sister in law, Nellie’s youngest sister, Irene, who had disappeared with Arthur Pollard after the troupe broke up in Madras. This writer can find no evidence Nellie and Irene saw each other again. Perhaps the early death of their mother Millie Finlay in Melbourne in 1907 saw the family relationships fracture for good.

Above: Harry Quealy is one of the few who can be identified in this photo of the disastrous 1909 Pollard tour of India. He is standing, sixth from right, behind two seated girls in black. [26]The Leader 2 April, 1910. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove

Back home, Harry and Nellie resumed their career in vaudeville. For six years, they toured far flung towns and cities in Australia and New Zealand, as part of varied variety lineups, almost without a break. Fun in the Kitchen made a regular return, but they also had new acts – Ragtime Musical Stores, On the Stage and Only a Dream unfortunately only the titles survive. Fun in the Kitchen continued to tickle Australia audiences, in late 1912 the Kalgoorlie Miner reported that the huge audience “screamed with laughter, and wanted more.” [27]Kalgoorlie Miner (WA) 15 Nov 1912, P7, via National Library of Australia’s Trove At the conclusion of a final, very long run on the Fuller circuit and shortly before they left Australia in September 1916, the Sunday Times of Sydney reported that Nellie “possesses all the accomplishments necessary for success in vaudeville, with a good voice, a good presence, and shapely figure she has all the essentials for success in the rapid-fire sketches she and her husband present.[28]Sunday Times (Syd) 2 Apr 1916, P19,via National Library of Australia’s Trove

Harry, Nellie and their first daughter Maize in 1915.[29]The Theatre (Syd) 1 Feb 1915. Via State Library of Victoria

Working in the US

It was wartime, but the Quealys were able to catch a ship to South Africa, and in January 1917 they arrived in Boston – the shipping manifest for SS City of Lahore suggests they had work already arranged. Harry’s first few years in the US saw his enthusiastic self promotion at work again – but many of the claims he made at this time to boost his profile now appear to be without foundation.[30]For example – that he tried to enlist in the Australian Army 4 times, that he was Scottish singer Harry Lauder’s cousin, and that he had performed on every continent

In 1917 Nellie was pregnant with their second child, Aileen, born in that year in New York. Harry found work in a film in mid 1917 – just one – a version (silent of course) of the musical comedy Madame Sherry. Clear photos of Harry, credited as H J Quealy, can be seen at Kay Shakleton’s Silent Hollywood website.[31]Why just the one film? Perhaps the experience of friend and former Pollard colleague William S Percy, who had also dabbled in film in Australia and then on his arrival in the US, had some influence He then found work in Oh Boy, a successful New York musical comedy that had opened in August at Boston’s Wilbur Theatre.

Harry Quealy (as H J Quealy) at right, in Madame Sherry, released in September 1917 [32]Exhibitors Herald (Jun-Dec 1917 Reviews, via Lantern Media History Library

There is also evidence the Quealys were working together on tour at the end of 1920, in the “novelty” vehicle On Manilla Bay, but after this the couple did not work together again.[33]These so called “mechanical electrical” novelty shows were an effort by vaudeville to respond to the growing power of the moving picture. Married by Wireless, also produced by former … Continue reading

Harry and Nellie touring the US together, (and using their connections in a Pollard designed show), in late 1920.[34]Logansport Pharos-Tribune (Indiana) 14 Dec 1920, P9 via Newspapers.com

Nellie was busy – without Harry – in the early 1920s, on tour performing with Frank Roberts in Time – a sequence of episodes in the night life of a large city, and later in partnership with Jack Girard, who was sometimes listed as “Jack Quealy” in Shoe Echoes.

In 1920 Harry toured the US in the musical SeeSaw, followed by a run in Canada with fellow Australian Alma Gray in The Royal Perriots in 1921. And in 1922 he took a role in Rain, at the Maxine Elliott Theatre in New York – a Somerset Maugham story,[35]Daily News (New York) 9 Jan 1923, P20 via Newspapers.com later filmed several times, as Sadie Thompson.

It is not clear whether Nellie and Harry had separated by this time, or whether their careers just took them in different directions, by some sort of mutual agreement.

Early and tragic deaths

Fate did not treat Nellie or Harry well.

Harry Quealy (centre) as Quartermaster Bates in Rain, 1923.[36]Hearst’s International, Vol 43, 1923, P93, Via Internet Archive

In October 1923, during the long run of Rain in New York, Harry suffered a debilitating stroke, bad enough to keep him off stage and in hospital for some months.[37]Variety, 11 October 1923, P9 via the Internet Archive Library With financial support from friends, he returned to Australia in March 1925, and lived with his sister Mary at her home in Lyon Street, Randwick, Sydney.[38]The Telegraph (Bris) 12 Mar 1925, P5 via National Library of Australia’s Trove

Despite the positive spin he tried to put on his circumstances – he claimed he was much improved by the sea voyage home – he required nursing and died in 1927, aged 51.[39]See State of New South Wales, Births, Deaths and Marriages, Death certificate Henry Joseph Quealey(sic), 2 July 1927

Still working in the US, Nellie was diagnosed with tuberculosis in late 1929.[40]Variety Oct 9, 1929, P84. via the Internet Archive Library Before the era of antibiotics, bed rest, fresh air and diet were all that could be done to treat the disease. Nellie went into a specialist sanitorium at New York state’s Saranac Lake, run by the National Vaudeville Association.[41]See Saranac Lake Historic Wiki – Gonzalez Cottage And there she stayed, her progress regularly reported for the benefit of other performers, in the pages of Variety – in a public fashion we would find unthinkable today. In December 1935 Variety reported she was “doing nicely after a slight setback,” but she succumbed to the disease in 1936.[42]Variety Dec 11 1935, P70, via the Internet Archive Library She was aged about 50.

Harry and Nellie’s two daughters lived out their lives in the United States.

Nellie’s youngest sister Irene eloped with Arthur Pollard after the disastrous 1909 tour, went to England with him and finally married him in New Zealand, in 1925. Nattlie Finlay and step sister Myra Finlay both left the stage. A step brother Nigel Finlay, pursued other interests.


Note 1 – the Pollard tours

Based on Peter Downes work, we might define the Pollard troupes this way:

  • James Pollard‘s (Original) Lilliputians (mostly comprising his own children, 1880-1886),
  • Tom Pollard‘s Lilliputians aka the Pollard Opera Company (Australasia, the Far East and South Africa, 1891-1905)
  • Tom Pollard‘s Juvenile Opera Company (mostly Australasia 1907-c1908)
  • Charles Pollard & Nellie Chester nee Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Companies (one to South Africa, then generally to the Far East and North America 1896-1910 )
  • Arthur Pollard‘s Company (to the Far East and India 1909-1910)
  • Nellie Chester nee Pollard’s “Pollard Company” (only active in North America 1909-1914 but mostly comprising Australians)

Tom Pollard’s troupes are the subject of Peter Downes book The Pollards (2002) – and their members came from across New Zealand and Australia. Charles Pollard & Nellie Chester nee Pollards companies were mostly enlisted from inner Melbourne. Most child actors did not swap companies.

Note 2 – The Finlays and the courts

There were at least 7 civil cases brought by Charles Pollard & Nellie Chester nee Pollard against members of their troupes, between 1898 and 1904, including several against the Finlay family. Despite the legal wrangling in 1900, Nellie’s youngest sister Irene Finlay joined a Charles Pollard & Nellie Chester nee Pollard troupe to North America. She ended up travelling on five overseas tours with them, reminding us again that the Pollards were running a business and parents of child performers were entering into transactions with them – there was no altruism involved.


Nick Murphy
August 2022


References

Text

  • Gillian Arrighi and Victor Emeljanow (2014) Entertaining Children: The participation of youth in the entertainment industry. Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Gillian Arrighi (2017) “The Controversial ‘Case of the Opera Children in the East’: Political conflict between popular demand for child actors and modernising cultural policy on the child.” Theatre Journal No 69, 2017, Johns Hopkins University Press via Jstore.
  • Peter Downes (2002) The Pollards. Steele Roberts.
  • Maryna Fraser (Ed), Edmund Bright, Thomas Richard Adlam (1985) Johannesburg Pioneer Journals, 1888-1909. (Excerpts from the memoirs of William T Powell) Van Riebeeck Society
  • Camille Hardy (1978) “Bessie Clayton: An American Genée” Dance Chronicle, 1978 – 1979, Vol. 2, No. 4, pp. 251-278. Taylor and Francis via Jstore.
  • Kirsty Murray (2010) India Dark. Allen and Unwin
    [Note: While written as a novel for teenagers, this beautiful book is closely based on the events of Arthur Pollard’s troupe in India and is highly recommended]

Web

Newspaper & Magazine Sources

  • National Library of Australia’s Trove
  • Newspapers.com
  • State Library of Victoria
  • Hathitrust digital library
  • National Library of New Zealand’s Papers Past
  • Internet Archive Library

Primary Sources

  • Ancestry.com
  • Victoria, Births, Deaths and Marriages
  • New South Wales, Births, Deaths and Marriages
  • Western Australia, Births, Deaths and Marriages

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

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 The Theatre (Syd) 1 December 1910, P6, via State Library of Victoria
2 The Northern Miner (Qld) 25 April 1911, P7. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
3 The Theatre (Syd) 1 December 1910, P5, via State Library of Victoria
4 The Theatre (Syd) on 1 December 1910, via the State Library of Victoria
5 See State of Queensland, Births, Deaths and Marriages, Birth certificate Henry Joseph Quealy, 25 July 1876
6 The Brisbane Courier (Qld) 21 Feb 1882, P1,via National Library of Australia’s Trove
7 See Peter Downes (2002) The Pollards, P80-81
8 Program via State Library of Victoria
9 So named because the performers were now too old to be called Lilliputians
10 It is hard to believe Tom Pollard and Harry Hall had not reached some type of agreement regarding itinerary and performances in South Africa
11 The Theatre (Syd) December 1, 1910, P1-4. Via State Library of Victoria
12 The US census of 1920 lists Nellie’s birthplace as Port Chalmers, New Zealand
13 While her birth certificate has yet to be found, Nellie is listed, aged 6, with sister Nattlie aged 4, on the Queensland birth certificate of her youngest sister Irene. See State of Queensland, Births, Deaths and Marriages, 16 August 1891 – Birth Certificate, Irene Robins
14 The Sun (Syd) 9 July 1916, P18. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
15 Fitzroy City Press (Vic) 2 Dec 1892 P2, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
16 The Referee (Syd) 5 Jul 1899, P10, via National Library of Australia’s Trove
17 The Era, London, 26 Aug 1899, P15, via British Library Newspaper Archive
18 Charles Pollard & Nellie Chester nee Pollard attempted to stop Hall’s tour in the Victorian Supreme court but failed. Hall’s group was also made up of other adult members of the Pollard family – Alice Landeshut nee Pollard, Will Pollard and May Pollard were all supervising adults – and thus, these actions suggest a tradition of tension and mistrust within the Pollard family itself.
19 Referee (Syd) 27 Feb 1901, P10 via National Library of Australia’s Trove
20 Otago Daily Times (NZ) 2 Dec 1903 P6 Via Papers Past
21 See State of Western Australia, Births, Deaths and Marriages, Marriage certificate 1336/1904
22 Daily Post (Hob), 13 Jun 1908, P7, via National Library of Australia’s Trove
23 Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton) 21 Sep 1908, P6, via National Library of Australia’s Trove
24 The Sun (Syd) 27 Apr 1913, P10, via National Library of Australia’s Trove
25 Truth (Bris)18 Apr 1909, P8 via National Library of Australia’s Trove
26 The Leader 2 April, 1910. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove
27 Kalgoorlie Miner (WA) 15 Nov 1912, P7, via National Library of Australia’s Trove
28 Sunday Times (Syd) 2 Apr 1916, P19,via National Library of Australia’s Trove
29 The Theatre (Syd) 1 Feb 1915. Via State Library of Victoria
30 For example – that he tried to enlist in the Australian Army 4 times, that he was Scottish singer Harry Lauder’s cousin, and that he had performed on every continent
31 Why just the one film? Perhaps the experience of friend and former Pollard colleague William S Percy, who had also dabbled in film in Australia and then on his arrival in the US, had some influence
32 Exhibitors Herald (Jun-Dec 1917 Reviews, via Lantern Media History Library
33 These so called “mechanical electrical” novelty shows were an effort by vaudeville to respond to the growing power of the moving picture. Married by Wireless, also produced by former Pollard members and toured in the US, was another
34 Logansport Pharos-Tribune (Indiana) 14 Dec 1920, P9 via Newspapers.com
35 Daily News (New York) 9 Jan 1923, P20 via Newspapers.com
36 Hearst’s International, Vol 43, 1923, P93, Via Internet Archive
37 Variety, 11 October 1923, P9 via the Internet Archive Library
38 The Telegraph (Bris) 12 Mar 1925, P5 via National Library of Australia’s Trove
39 See State of New South Wales, Births, Deaths and Marriages, Death certificate Henry Joseph Quealey(sic), 2 July 1927
40 Variety Oct 9, 1929, P84. via the Internet Archive Library
41 See Saranac Lake Historic Wiki – Gonzalez Cottage
42 Variety Dec 11 1935, P70, via the Internet Archive Library

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