Irene Finlay (1891-1962)-the longest serving Lilliputian

Above centre – Irene Finlay, then aged about 10, with other performers, enlarged from a group photo of the Pollard troupe c1902-3, (outside the Badminton Hotel, Vancouver). Source Vancouver As It Was, A Photo Historical Journey, used with their kind permission – it remains one of few high quality and well photographed images of the Pollard children.

In early 1910, 18 year old performer Irene Finlay (1891-1962) eloped with 37 year old Arthur Hayden Pollard (1873-1940), the manager of the Pollard Lilliputian Opera Company tour to India and the Far East, and the junior member of the famous Pollard family. Arthur Pollard had been accused of mistreating the children in his care on the tour, and the news of this had slowly filtered back to Australia. His relationship with Irene Finlay was also a central feature of the scandal. The collapse of the tour has been well documented by Gillian Arrighi (2017) and in a creative retelling by Kirsty Murray (2010).

After the protracted and embarrassing legal proceedings in Madras and the subsequent press attention, Irene and Arthur disappeared. Reports suggested they had gone to Pondicherry, or maybe Saigon, or perhaps North America. In the wake of the tour, Australia’s Federal Parliament passed new laws to restrict children leaving the country as performers.

Above: Despite its grainyness, this photo shows Arthur Hayden Pollard (seated, centre) with the performers in his 1909-1910 troupe. Most of the children are in makeup and are therefore difficult to identify. The Leader (Melb) 21 May, 1910. National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Nine years before, in September 1901, Charles Pollard and his sister Nellie Chester brought their troupe of 30 young Australian child performers to Honolulu, en route to Canada and the US for a 13 month tour. Interviewed by journalists, Charles Pollard had a well prepared story, possibly anticipating the company would face with some child labour laws – especially in the eastern states of the US. The child performers varied in age, but were mostly in their early teens.

Charles Pollard told the Honolulu Advertiser: “Every one of our children hails from Melbourne, and most of them from the five mile radius… that includes Collingwood, Fitzroy and Carlton. They come from all classes, some from respectable parents, some from the street with no parents.” (The Honolulu Advertiser 14 Sept, 1901, P10). But they didn’t really come from “all classes” – they were instead usually from working class families. They were predominantly girls, indentured to the supervising Pollard adults in a way we would find unthinkable today, and were away on overseas tours for lengthy periods – up to 24 months or more in several cases. At first glance, Irene Finlay appears to match this profile of a typical Pollard performer. 

In early 1910, Arthur Hayden Pollard, used even starker language for the press – he described the parents of the children in his care as “people in very humble positions who could not afford to keep them.” (The Madras Times cited by Arrighi 2017, 168). All this fitted well with a narrative that child performers were being taken overseas as some type of public service. The fact that it was also an extremely lucrative business for the supervising Pollards was not mentioned.


The Finlay family

Irene was born in Brisbane in August 1891, to Amelia “Millie” Robins. No father was listed on Irene’s birth certificate – in fact, in the space for father’s name it was specifically stated that Millie was “not married”. The document acknowledged Irene’s living older sisters Nellie (born 1885) and Nattie or Nathalie (born 1889), whose own birth certificates have proved elusive. In 1893, Millie married widower and former pastoralist George Charles Finlay. While living in New South Wales, two children were born of this union – Myra (born 1893) and Nigel (born 1895). George Finlay had already fathered a large family with his first wife, but they all appear to have stayed in North Queensland. In the late 1890s, the newly combined family moved to Melbourne, to a very modest cottage in Napoleon Street, Collingwood.

Above: Napoleon St, Collingwood, today. The Finlay home was at number 11, to the right of the silver car. Today, Irene might recognise the cottages in the left distance, but other buildings are testament to the suburb’s many stages of development – on the left; factories of the post WW1 period, in the distance residential tower blocks of the 1960s, and at right apartment living of the 21st century.

It was while living at No 11 Napoleon Street that 9 year old Irene joined her first Pollard tour – in 1900. She then appears to have dutifully attended every single one of Charles Pollard‘s extended overseas tours thereafter – making six in all. In the eight and a half calendar years between July 1900 and February 1909, she was touring for over seven years. It was a childhood spent in the company of a small group of Australian juvenile performers and the supervising Pollard adults – and she knew Arthur Hayden Pollard well, even as a child. Of the quality of Irene’s performances for Pollards we have limited information. Reviewers of Pollard performances were encouraged to write about the troupe’s leading players – Daphne Pollard, Teddie McNamara and the like. Irene Finlay “acquitted herself well” was a familiar comment made by North American papers, although her success in male roles seems to have been particularly well received.

Above: There are few photos of Pollard performers in costume who can be identified with absolute confidence. However, here is Irene Finlay playing a boy’s part while on Pollard’s lengthy 32 month North American tour (July 1904-Feb 1907). Sacramento Daily Union, 14 May, 1906, via Newspapers.com

The Finlay’s home life was to prove tragic – step father George Finlay died of tuberculosis in 1902, and mother Millie died of liver failure in 1907. For Irene, perhaps her relationships with other Pollard performers was what sustained her as she grew up. Yet while photos such as the one below might suggest normal childhood friendships, we have no other corroborating evidence of this. (Although at least one enduring friendship from Pollards has been noted elsewhere – between Daphne Pollard and Alf Goulding).

Irene and Leah
Above: Irene Finlay and a smiling Leah Leichner sitting side by side in about 1905, possibly on the SS Empress of India. Five years later, Irene eloped with Arthur Pollard, and Leah had been struck by him for “misbehaviour” and sent home early. Enlarged from a photo in the collections of the University of Washington, Special Collections JWS21402

Nellie Finlay takes charge of the family 1907+

In 1900, it was not Irene but her 15 year old sister Nellie Finlay who the Pollards were most keen to employ. She had been appearing on stage from a very young age – in 1897 Nellie was listed in pantomimes in Sydney and in 1898 she performed as part of the lineup at Harry Cogill’s Gaiety Theatre in Bourke Street, Melbourne. But in late 1899, entrepreneur Harry Hall contracted Nellie and Nattie to appear in his “Australian Juvenile Theatrical Company” for a performance tour of South Africa. Charles Pollard promptly issued a writ against the Finlays with the intention of stopping Nellie and Nettie, arguing they had made a prior agreement. The Pollards sometimes threatened legal action against the parents of their performers, and their writs still exist in public records collections in Victoria. Unusually for the time, Minnie Finlay vigorously defended her girls and the Pollard’s case did not hold up in court. Within a year, the two older Finlay girls were in South Africa, performing with Hall, while Irene was appearing with Charles Pollard’s troupe. No hard feelings apparently!

Above left; Nellie Finlay as Dicky, the crossing sweeper, in Bluebell in Fairyland, with Tom Pollard’s troupe. The Critic, 23 Dec, 1908, P7. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Nellie Finlay married fellow vaudevillian Harry Quealy in early 1904, while they were performing in Perth, Western Australia. Quealy had a nation-wide reputation as a regular comic performer and by 1904, the couple were both with Tom Pollard’s “Comic Opera Company.” Reviews of Nellie’s work on stage for Tom Pollard were equally positive. She was, observed The Truth in 1908, a favourite with audiences and her performance as Dicky in the musical panto Bluebell in Fairyland was greeted with great enthusiasm. By 1916, and after 3 years working side by side with Harry on the Fuller circuit, The Sunday Times reported on her “good voice… good [stage] presence..[showing] all the essentials for success in the rapid-fire sketches she and her husband present.”

When Minnie Finlay died in 1907, Nellie Quealy became the family matriarch – she was listed as the contact for Irene when she travelled, and even as late as 1915, for her step-brother Nigel when he joined the Australian Army.


The Disaster in India 1909-1910

When Arthur Pollard arranged his 1909 tour, Harry Quealy was signed up as stage manager, with Nellie also attending as one of the supervising adults, (some reports claim she was Ballet mistress), in addition to Irene and younger sister Myra as performers. Thus Irene had two sisters and a brother in law on the tour with her.

What is often not mentioned in accounts of the scandals that overwhelmed the tour is that Arthur Pollard had plenty of experience with juvenile troupes already – he had helped his older siblings Charles and Nellie (Chester) manage at least five extended tours successfully over the previous ten years. He also knew many of the children very well from previous tours – Freddie and Johnnie Heintz, the three McGorlick sisters, Willie Howard as well as Irene Finlay. He therefore knew exactly what was involved in a performance tour and one is left with the conclusion that he was simply unsuited to managing young people. His very indiscrete relationship with Irene began while on the ship from Australia, or according to Arrighi, in Australia before leaving. It was later reported that when the relationship was noticed, adults on the tour spoke to Harry and Nellie Quealy about it, presumably hoping they could help bring it to an end. They couldn’t.

Much of what Australians knew of the problems with the India tour was reported with a delay of several weeks. Arthur Pollard did attempt a defence at first, and it was given some publicity, but it was to little avail. Calcutta’s weekly The Englishman, reported Arthur Pollard’s court evidence in early April. Pollard told the court “he had always behaved properly and fairly towards the children”… “It was not true he had ruined a girl”… “It was not his intention to divorce his wife” (The Englishman, April 14, 1910, P7). Four days later, the Madras court found Pollard was “not a fit a proper person to be in charge of children” and soon after, he and Irene were gone.

On his return to Australia in mid April 1910, Harry Quealy went out of his way to give his version of events to the Australian press. Pollard’s relationship with Irene was never mentioned in his reports, which at first focussed on ensuring Tom Pollard (still active as an entrepreneur in Australia) and Arthur Hayden Pollard weren’t confused with each other. His story became more dramatic over the next two weeks, particularly after accounts of Pollard hitting children gained currency. By early May, Quealy’s account included suggestions he and Nellie had tried to intervene when Pollard hit some of the children. “Here cut that game, Pollard” he claimed he said. 

The child performers had all returned home by early May 1910 – the further careers of some of them has been covered elsewhere.

Above: Melbourne’s Leader was keen to cover the 1909-10 Pollard tour of India. This photo of the troupe was reportedly taken on 26 Feb 1910 near Bangalore, two days after they broke up. The Leader, 20 April, 1910. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove. Harry Quealy stands at rear, 13th adult from the left. His wife Nellie is not in the photo, neither is Irene Finlay, who had thrown her lot in with Arthur Pollard. Also missing was Leah Leichner, who had already been sent home to Australia. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Harry and Nellie working together 1910 +

Whatever Harry and Nellie experienced on the India tour, or thought of Irene or Arthur Pollard, they did not allow it to hold them back. By July they were back on stage for Harry Rickards at the Sydney Tivoli and by the end of 1910, they had developed their own musical comedy turn, Fun in the Kitchen. They regularly performed together, including four years on the Fuller circuit around Australia, until September 1916, when they departed for a performance tour of South Africa.

Above; Nellie performing in Sydney. The Sun (Syd) 9 July 1916, P18. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

The Quealys moved on to the US in 1917, where they worked up touring vaudeville acts with some success. An effective self-promoter, Harry attracted publicity by all means necessary and with some success. By 1920 Harry, Nellie and their children were living and working in New York.

Top; Nellie and Harry performing together in Indiana on a touring vaudeville program in 1920. Logansport Pharos-Tribune (Indiana) 14 December 1920. Below; the diminutive Harry Quealy as an English sailor in Rain, which ran for 600 performances in New York. Daily News (New York) 9 Jan 1923, P20. Via Newspapers.com.

Irene and Arthur’s later life 1910+

Arthur Pollard was 37 years old when he eloped with Irene in India, taking the company profits with him. Probably using aliases to travel, the couple quickly made their way to England, where they settled in the east Sussex area. Arthur had left behind his wife Mary and their two children, in Charters Towers, Queensland. In spite of his abandoning them, his wife and children stoically carried on and made a success of their lives.

Above: Irene Finlay in 1909, about the time of the last Pollard Lilliputian Opera Company tour. The Leader, 21 May 1910. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove

The very thorough 1911 United Kingdom census reveals the couple living as man and wife in Hastings, Irene now calling herself Irene Olga Pollard. Although provincial England was probably a good place for Australians on the run to live; as local cinema operators, they could not entirely avoid attention. The Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly covered the couple’s work in East Sussex several times during World War One – they ran cinemas at Rye, Tenterden and Hastings. Arthur appears to have been happy to comment on matters of public entertainment, being an opinionated person from an established theatrical family. When their 200 seat “Electric Palace” theatre in Hastings caught fire in January 1915, Arthur publicly committed to rebuild. (Although he and Irene lived on the buildings’ upper floors, the rebuild does not seem to have happened). At the end of the war, Arthur and Irene seem to have divested themselves of their remaining cinemas.

Above: The Kinomatograph Weekly, 25 July, 1918, P115. Via British Library Newspaper Archive.

On 27 February 1925, Irene and Arthur married in New Zealand. What had happened in the intervening seven years seems unclear. On the wedding certificate, Arthur claimed that he was a widower – although he wasn’t, his wife Mary was still alive in Queensland. He was recorded as a “retired Theatrical Manager” while Irene was described as a “Theatrical artiste”. The couple lived comfortably in the suburb of Ponsonby, overlooking Auckland Harbour, until Arthur’s death in 1940.

It is worth noting that in October 1940, Irene Pollard needed to publicly acknowledge the many “expressions of sympathy,… letters, cards, telegrams and floral” tributes she had received when Arthur died. (Auckland Star, 11 Oct, 1940, P1). The few contemporary writers about the Pollard 1909-10 tour were understandably often torn between admiration for the Pollard family as pioneer Australian and New Zealand theatre entrepreneurs, and having to acknowledge that some of Arthur Pollard’s behaviour was reprehensible, even by the permissive standards and lax child labour laws of the time.

Above centre – Arthur Pollard, enlarged from a group photo of the Pollard troupe of 1902-3, (outside the Badminton Hotel, Vancouver). Source Vancouver As It Was, A Photo Historical Journey, used with their kind permission.

Harry Quealy returned to Australia in 1925, after he suffered a stroke during the production of Rain. He died in Australia in 1927. Nellie stayed on in the US, and died at Saranac Lake in New York in 1936, an actress to the end. Irene died in New Zealand in 1962 – there were no children by her marriage to Arthur. Myra left the stage and married an engineer in 1916. She ended up living in Peru. Nathalie also left the stage and appears to have ended her days working at the Abbotsford Convent in Melbourne as a domestic.

To the best of this writer’s knowledge, none of the Finlay girls were ever interviewed about their work on stage, with the Pollards or about the ill-fated India tour.


Nick Murphy
July 2021


References

  • 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.
    • 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
  • Australian Performing Arts Collection,
    • Pollard Opera Companies Collection
  • State of Victoria: Births, Death and Marriages
    • 2 March 1902. Death Certificate. George Charles Finlay
    • 24 April 1907. Death Certificate. Amelia Finlay
    • 27 Sept 1917. Marriage Certificate Oliver Oates and Nathlie Finlay
  • State of Queensland: Births, Deaths and Marriages
    • 16 August 1891. Birth Certificate. Irene Robins
    • 21 March 1914. Marriage Certificate. Theodore Evans and Myra Finlay
    • 14 June 1945. Death Certificate. Mary Pollard
  • New Zealand Births Deaths and Marriages
    • 27 Feb 1905. Marriage Certificate. Arthur Haydon Pollard and Irene Olga Finlay
  • Public Record Office, Victoria
    • Civil Case Files Supreme Court of Victoria
      • VPRS 267/ P7  1900/200
        Charles Pollard Nellie Chester Pollards Lilliputian Opera Company v Millie Finlay
  • National Library of Australia’s Trove
    • Quiz and the Lantern (SA) 28 Jan 1897, P15
    • The Age (Melb) 13 June 1898, P8
    • The Herald (Melb) 12 Mar 1900, P4
    • The Referee (Syd) 17 July 1901, P10
    • Maitland Weekly Mercury (NSW) 8 Feb 1902, P13
    • The Age (Melb) 4 Mar 1902, P1
    • The Argus (Melb) 26 Mar 1903, P4
    • Evening News (Syd) 25 Feb 1904, P6
    • North Coolgardie Herald (WA) 25 Mar 1905, P2
    • Barrier Miner (NSW) 27 Nov 1905, P2
    • Maitland Daily Mercury (NSW) 15 July 1908, P4
    • The Critic (SA) 23 Dec 1908, P6, P7
    • Daily News (WA) 9 Mar 1910, P7
    • The Register (SA) 30 March, 1910 P7
    • Leader (VIC) 2 Apr 1910 P23
    • Barrier Miner (NSW) 22 April 1910, P2
    • Truth (WA) 23 April 1910, P2
    • The Register (SA) 25 April 1910 P8
    • Advertiser (SA) 28 April 1910 P9
    • Barrier Miner (NSW) 29 April 1910, P2
    • Leader (VIC) 30 April 1910, P34
    • Evening Star (WA), 11 May 1910, P 3
    • The Herald (VIC) 17 May 1910
    • Leader (VIC) 21 May 1910 P24
    • The Telegraph (Bris), 12 Mar 1925, P5
    • Sunday Times (WA) 21 Aug 1927, P14
  • The British Library Newspaper Archive
    • The Times of India, 6 Jan 1910 P5
    • The Times of India 31 March 1910, P9
    • The Englishman’s Overland Mail (Calcutta) 31 Mar 1910 P7
    • The Times of India, 13 April 1910, P7
    • The Englishman’s Overland Mail (Calcutta) 14 April, 1910
    • The Englishman’s Overland Mail (Calcutta) 12 May, 1910, P6
    • The Bioscope, 1 June 1911, P37
    • The Kinomatograph Weekly, 11 Feb 1915, P37
    • The Kinomatograph Weekly, 25 July, 1918, P115
  • Newspapers.com
    • The Honolulu Advertiser, 14 Sept 1901, P10
    • Woodland Daily Democrat (CA), 20 May 1908, P4
    • The Boston Globe, 7 Oct 1917, P52
  • National Library of New Zealand, Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa, Papers Past
    • Auckland Star, Oct 11 1940, P1

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

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

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

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

Of Elsie Morris, ‘Male impersonator’ & Jolly John Larkins

Above: Elsie Levine Morris in male attire, c1915. Photo courtesy Elsie’s great grand-niece Brenda Young.

Elsie Lavinia (or Levine) Morris was born in South Melbourne in June 1896, to Charles Morris, a bootmaker, and Mary nee Howard. Two years later, Mary then aged 44, had another daughter – her sixteenth, making hers a very large family, even for the time.

Above: Elsie Morris and her mother Mary Morris nee Howard. Photo undated but probably taken about the time she appeared on stage in male attire. Courtesy Elsie’s great grand-niece Brenda Young.

In the early twentieth century, the life and career options for the children of Australian working class families living in cities were limited. Even if they found some work in their teens, girls were expected to end up working in the home, boys to take an apprenticeship or work in a factory. With only private schools offering a pathway to university, a career on the stage could be an attractive and possibly lucrative option for a working class girl or boy who showed some performance skills. Elsie Morris was therefore typical of the children who were signed up with Pollards Lilliputian Opera Company in the period 1898-1909. 

Pollards advertises for new children to audition at Ford’s Hall, Brunswick St, in the heart of working class Fitzroy. Elsie or her family probably saw a similar advert sometime in 1909. The Age, 16 Feb, 1907. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Elsie goes to India with Pollards

Elsie departed Australia as a member of the Pollard troupe of about 30 children, on the SS Gracchus in July 1909, bound for South East Asia and India, to be followed by a long tour through North America.

Above: Elsie Morris as a child performer, as shown in Table Talk, 7 December 1916, P8. Via The National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Gillian Arrighi’s article on the Pollard 1909 tour of India cites one newspaper account where manager Arthur Hayden Pollard described the parents of his child actors as “people in very humble positions who could not afford to keep [their children].” Overwhelmingly girls, the child performers were indentured to the supervising Pollard adults in a way we would find unthinkable today, and were away on overseas tours for lengthy periods – up to 24 months in several cases. The Pollard repertoire included popular musicals – The Belle of New York, A Gaiety Girl and HMS Pinafore and the child performers took multiple roles, girls often playing male roles. It was a format that had been refined over the previous twenty years.

Despite the company’s successful track record, Arthur Hayden Pollard‘s 1909 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. The Pollard reputation was ruined and new Federal legislation followed soon after that restricted the employment of children overseas.

Above: Elsie is in this photo of the Pollard 1909 tour of India, but where? She is possibly in black in the second row, seated, fourth from left. The Leader 2 April, 1910. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove,

Finding her place on stage in Australia

Three years after the Pollard tour, Elsie appeared on stage at Melbourne’s Temperance Hall, singing and performing comedy sketches using skills she had learned, in part, with the Pollard troupe. She took the soubrette role in her choice of song – the voice of a sometimes wistful and slightly flirtatious young female. Although only 17 she was popular enough to be one of the headline acts wherever she went. But in addition to this, by mid 1915 she had also perfected a male impersonation act and was performing it on the Fuller’s circuit. In March 1916 she took the act to Sydney.

Above left: Photo of Elsie Morris courtesy Brenda Young. Above right: Other former Pollard players – like May Martyn (as Maie Vine) also performed as male impersonators – Source Prompt Scrapbook of the performance career of John Martyn Young. National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Elsie had experience as a male impersonator from the Pollard troupe, where many male parts were played by young women, for comic effect. The male impersonator was also an established comic routine in variety, and popular characters presented included the pretentious upper class “swell” or “toff”. This send-up of men and masculinity sometimes bordered on the scandalous, but audiences loved it. Vesta Tilley (1864-1952), Hetty King (1883-1972) and Ella Shields (1879-1952) were amongst the best known British male impersonators, the latter two visiting Australia to perform. Another English actress, Nellie Kolle (1892-1971) moved to Australia and became the most famous of local male impersonators.

Above: Vesta Tilley, popular English male impersonator. Undated post card in the author’s collection.
Above: Nellie Kolle, with The Bunyip Panto Company. Critic (Adelaide), 30 May 1917 P11. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

In December 1916, Adelaide’s The Mail, left this report on Elsie’s act;Elsie Morris, who appears at the Majestic Theatre, is a male impersonator of excellent appearance and fine wardrobe. She looks sufficiently a boy without carrying the deception to extremes. As a matter of fact, Miss Morris makes a charming boy because she is so essentially a charming girl. She has a variety of songs sung in a voice of some power. Among her best numbers are— Never a Girl Inside, You Were the First One to Teach Me to Love, and A Little Loving Every Day.”

The first verse of Elsie’s song Never a Girl Inside gives us a taste of the stage “swell” character:

Now Algenon Brown was a Clerk in the town,
And when he was through for the day,
He’d wander up west, where the windows are dressed,
And make himself dizzy where drapers are busy.
He’d gaze at the wonderful fashions
And marvels of feminine wear…

Above: Source of Lyrics – Maurice Scott, and Clifford Grey. Never a Girl Inside. Star Music Pub. Co., London, 1915. Notated Music. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

A good example of how close male impersonators came to overstepping the bounds of acceptability can be heard here. This is a link to a clip of Nellie Kolle singing In the Woodshed in December 1929. (Click here), with its suggestive refrain “In the woodshed she said she would.”

Elsie seems to have offered a more innocent version of the male impersonation act. In September 1916, New Zealand’s Observer reported Elsie Morris was “too sweet a boy to deceive a recruiting sergeant.”


Enter “Jolly” John Larkins

In September 1920, Elsie married John Larkins (also known as “Jolly” John Larkins and John Larkin Smith), an African-American comedian and singer who had been performing in Australia and New Zealand since his arrival from the US in May 1917. Larkins and Elsie were both appearing together for Harry Clay at the time of the marriage in Sydney but may have known each other since 1917.

Above: Larkins on the cover of sheet music. Authors: James Reese Europe, and Jolly John Larkins. A Royal Coon. Will Rossiter, Chicago, 1907. Notated Music. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

Historian Bill Egan‘s recent study of African American performers in Australia provides a precis of Larkin’s successful career in the US before he arrived. Egan has described Larkins’ act as singing and dancing “interspersed with humorous anecdotes known as ‘patter’. This was delivered in the continuous laughing style that had earned him the title ‘Jolly’ .” The content of his shows regularly changed; in 1918 the Sydney Sun commented on the “ludicrous sight” of the 16 stone Larkins playing a messenger boy in his act. Despite the deeply entrenched racial prejudice in Australia at the time, Larkins was very popular with Australian and New Zealand audiences and the reviews were enthusiastic, although patronising and still racist by the standards of today.

Above: Elsie and Jolly John Larkins performing for Harry Clay in Sydney in September 1920, ten days after their marriage. The Sun (Sydney) 27 Sept 1920. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Contrary to some claims, it was not illegal for Larkins to enter Australia or to marry Elsie. The discriminatory Immigration Restriction Act that existed was designed to exclude non-europeans (particularly Chinese, Indians and Japanese) from entry to Australia as migrants. The shameful “dictation test” that was sometimes used as a tool to do this, would not have been applied to Larkins, who was travelling on a US passport with a contract to perform as an entertainer on the Fuller circuit. Similarly, the state laws that restricted marriages between European Australians and Indigenous Australians would not have applied to Larkins, as he was neither.

The couple were married at St Peter’s Church Darlinghurst on Wednesday 15 September, 1920 by Reverend F W Tugwell with Elsie’s mother Mary as one of the witnesses.

Above: “John Larkin Smith” on his 1917 passport application. Despite claims he was born in 1883, his three available passport applications and the 1880 US Census make it clear he was born in 1877. (US) National Archives via Family Search.

Unfortunately, Larkins was a poor choice of husband. Perhaps unbeknown to Elsie he had already fathered two children by two different women in Australia – a daughter to Rachel “Ray” Anderson, born in Sydney in February 1919 and a son to another woman in Melbourne born in November 1920. (See note 1 below)

Well intended or not, the marriage didn’t last very long and neither did their appearances in the same shows on stage. By February 1921, Nellie Kolle had replaced Elsie as the Fuller’s male impersonator, appearing on the same bill as Larkins. Elsie’s last featured performance on stage in Sydney was in April 1921. Larkins moved on to Queensland and later that year, to perform in New Zealand again. It appears he abandoned Elsie as readily as he did his other Australian female companions. Larkins spent much of the next four years performing in small town venues in New Zealand, although he returned to Australia for short tours several times and to father another child with Ray Anderson in 1924. In July 1925, after eight years in Australia and New Zealand, he left for the US, and never returned.

Elsie’s later life

Why Elsie left the stage is unclear. Her 1928 divorce papers from Larkins suggest that he had abandoned her after three years. Gambling and money troubles were mentioned, but there was no mention of Larkin’s Australian children. However, Elsie herself was named in a different divorce action between Marguerite and Leo Trew in 1922. She was living with Leo Trew in Fitzroy in Melbourne by this time, demonstrating that Larkins had ceased to be a part of her life quite soon after their marriage.

Elsie married Leo Trew in Melbourne in 1929, with her loyal mother Mary again a witness at the ceremony. She later lived and worked with Leo in regional New South Wales and finally in Bondi, where she died in 1966. Of her life on stage she left no commentary at all – a reminder that while for some, a start with the Pollard troupe led to great things on stage and sometimes in film, for most it was, at best an interlude in life.

Above: Elsie later in life. Courtesy Brenda Young.

Note 1
“Jolly” John Larkins

John Larkins is rightly regarded as something of a pioneer amongst African-American performers – on the US and world stage and in Hollywood. The IMDB lists more than 40 film appearances made before his death in 1936, a remarkable success considering the circumstances of the time and the obstacles he would have faced. But there was another side to him that seems much harder to comprehend.

As both Bill Egan and US writer Steve Goldstein have noted, while in Australia, in February 1919 Larkins had fathered a child to a “Ray” Anderson, who is often described as a “dress maker” (but the child was not born in 1921 as the writers mistakenly claim). Ray (or Rae) Anderson was surely Rachael Anderson, a stage performer of the 1910s and a daughter of Laura Wiseman – one of the well known Wiseman sisters who had performed on the Australian stage in the late nineteenth century. Ray Anderson and Larkins had met by the end of 1917, when they were performing together on the same bill in New Zealand.

This writer finds it difficult to believe that in the hot-house world of Australian variety performers, where actors travelled and lived together, and regularly watched each other to “borrow ideas”, Elsie Morris and Rachael Anderson did not know each other. They had both appeared on the Fuller’s and Harry Clay circuits, lived in the same city and were of the same age. In Auckland New Zealand, their acts followed each other by only a few weeks – in late 1917. Their soubrette acts were similar – but in view of that, not surprisingly, they had never appeared on stage at the same time.

Of course, this is speculation, and it hardly explains for the modern reader why Larkins repeatedly took up with women only to leave them soon after. The 1924 divorce case Westbury v Westbury describes the rather sad state of affairs that ensued following Larkin’s five month relationship with a married woman in Melbourne in 1920 and the fate of their child. Just two months later Larkins married Elsie in Sydney. As noted, in 1924, he returned to Ray Anderson and fathered another child, a woman who only at the end of her life, finally discovered Larkins was her father.


Nick Murphy
May 2021


  • Special Thanks
    To Brenda Young, Elsie Morris’s great grand-niece, who wrote to me and encouraged me to return to Elsie’s story. She has kindly given me permission to reproduce several of her precious photos.

References

  • Library of Congress
    • Never a Girl Inside (1915) Scott, Maurice, and Clifford Grey. Star Music Pub. Co., London. Notated Music.
    • A Royal Coon. (1907) James Reese Europe, and Jolly John Larkins. Will Rossiter, Chicago, Notated Music.
  • State of Victoria: Births, Death and Marriages
    • Elsie Lavinia Morris, Birth cert 1896. Doc 21723/1896
    • Alan Westbury, Birth cert 1920. Doc 29373/1920
    • Thomas Leopold Trew & Elsie Larkins, Marriage cert. Doc 8604/1929
  • State of New South Wales: Births, Deaths and Marriages
    • John Larkins & Elsie Morris, Marriage cert 1920. Doc 14941/1920 
    • Olga Larkins, Birth cert 1919. Doc 1563/1919
  • Public Record Office, Victoria
    • Frederick Lancelot Westbury, Divorce Case No. 1924/84
  • New South Wales Archives
    • Marguerite Brereton Trew & Thomas Leopold Trew, Divorce case 1922/74
    • Elsie Levine Larkins John Larkins, Divorce papers, 24-02-1928 to 28-06-1929. 272/1928
  • National Archives of Australia
    • John Larkins Smith. Alien Registration Certificate No 7349
  • Family Search (US National Archives)
    • John Larkins Smith, Passport applications 1917, 1919 & 1920
  • 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) John Hopkins University Press.
    • Bill Egan (2019) African American Entertainers in Australia and New Zealand. A History 1788-1941. McFarland.
    • 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]
  • National Library of Australia’s Trove
    • Daily News (WA) 9 March 1910, P7
    • Truth (WA) 2 April 1910, P8
    • Referee (Syd) 13 April 1910, P16
    • Truth (WA) 23 April 1910 P2
    • West Australian, 6 May 1910, P3
    • Herald (Melb) 17 May 1910, P5
    • Sunday Times (Syd) 2 Mar, 1913, P2
    • Riverina Herald (Echuca, Vic) 26 May 1913, P3
    • The Age (Melb Vic) 15 Sept 1913, P7
    • Truth (Qld) 8 March 1914, P6
    • Queensland Times 17 April 1914, P6
    • Sun (Syd) 14 Feb, 1915, P2
    • Labor Call (Melb) 25 Nov 1915, P8
    • Everyone’s 9 July 1924, P34
    • Sun (Syd) 17 Ap 1928. P18
    • Sydney Morning Herald 3 Nov 1918. P14
  • National Library of New Zealand, Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa, Paper’s Past
    • Evening Star (Dunedin), 6 Sept 1915, P5
    • Evening Star (Dunedin), 31 July 1916, P5
    • Evening Star (Dunedin), 1 Aug, 1916, P3
    • The Observer (Auckland), 23 Sept 1916
    • The Observer (Auckland), 3 Nov 1916, P6
    • Evening Star (Dunedin), 17 April 1917, P7
    • Evening Star (Dunedin), 21 Aug 1917, P5
    • The Observer (Auckland), 15 Dec 1917 P6
    • New Zealand Herald (Auckland), 3 May 1918, P8
    • New Zealand Police Gazette 8 Nov 1922, P654
    • Nelson Evening Mail (Nelson), 25 June 1925, P10

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

Molly Fisher & Fred Conyngham try their luck in London

Above: Fred Conyngham with Lu Ann Meredith,(looking suspiciously like Fred and Ginger from Hollywood) in the 1936 British musical With Pleasure, Madame, (aka Ball at Savoy). Sydney Mail, 8 April 1936, P12. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

The 5 second version
Born in Sydney in 1908, Fred Conyngham had a successful career as a dancer and comedian in JC Williamson’s productions in Australia in the ’20s. Travelling to London in late 1928, he established himself on stage and also appeared in a series of mostly forgettable British films. Molly Fisher was born in Hobart Tasmania in 1908. She first performed on the Australian stage in the early ’20s before moving to England in 1930. Like Fred she appeared on stage and in a mix of films. The couple married in 1932. After World War II they returned to Australia to perform together in a show (that flopped). In 1950 they moved to Sydney and left acting behind for good
Fred moved into insurance.

Above – Left: Molly Fisher about the time she and Fred married in London, on a signed fan card, c1932, Author’s Collection. Right – Fred Conyngham in Film Star Who’s Who on the Screen 1939 magazine (UK). Author’s Collection

Fred establishes himself as an actor

Frederick Ronald Talbot Conyngham (pronounced “Cunningham”) was born in Sydney in June 1908, to George Michael Conyngham and Edith nee Goggins. In time George, a tobacconist, became an actor, director and stage manager of some standing with JC Williamson’s, and their Royal Comic Opera Co, and was later was involved with tours by Dion Boucicault Jr. From a young age he coached his two sons, Fred and Russell (born 1904), as singers and performers. Fred and Russell also had training from Guido Cacialli, a well regarded member of the Gonsalez Opera Company, who had been stranded in Australia by the war.

Above left: George M Conyngham in costume for the musical comedy Whoopee!, playing at Melbourne’s King’s Theatre. The Herald (Melb) 28 Sept 1929, P20.  Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Fred (sometimes called Freddy) Conyngham was first recorded as appearing on the Australian stage in May 1926, on a J C Williamson’s Australasian tour of the popular farce The Last of Mrs Chaney. As a juvenile, he had a minor role as a butler, but one that was noted positively by reviewers. He must also have pleased Williamsons, as he was busy with “the firm” for the next three years. He appeared in a leading role in the play Cradle Snatchers, then in Good News in 1928 and finally the new US musical comedy Whoopee! in 1929. In the latter three plays he was on stage with young Tasmanian actor, Molly Fisher. When their relationship began is now impossible to verify, but it seems likely they were at least very fond of one another before Fred departed for England on the Esperance Bay in late 1928. Perhaps they had an agreement that Fred would establish himself first in London, to pave the way.

Above left: Advertisment for Good News playing at St James Theatre in December 1928, and including Fred and Molly in the cast. Truth (Syd), 30 December 1928. At right: Chorus lineup from Whoopee! J C Williamson’s kept the spectacular and amusing shows running throughout Australia, in spite of the Great Depression. The Sun (Syd), 10 July 1929. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Molly on stage aged 13

Molly (Molly Irene Selina) Fisher was born in Hobart in December 1908. There was no family dynasty of performers in her family, both her father and brother Vernon were both motor engineers. But unlike Fred, who throughout his career seems to have avoided the press, Molly was quite adept at speaking to journalists to help create a public persona. Speaking in 1930 to a journalist from the Melbourne paper Table Talk of her leading role in Turned Up, she said “It is an ingenue part, and I am not fond of playing the nice girl with pretty pretty ways, but prefer something in the comedy line, or with some acting possibilities.” Aged only 21, she already felt she was well experienced – her mother had brought her to Melbourne in 1916 to learn to dance (some of the time under the tutelage of well known Melbourne dance teacher Jenny Brennan) and she had been on stage since that time. Her name had first appeared in J C Williamson’s pantomimes as early as 1921, when she was only 13 years old.

Above left: Molly Fisher (left) with Nellie Barnes hamming it up for the camera, while appearing in the pantomime, The Babes in the Wood, Table Talk (Melb) 2 Feb, 1922. Above right: Molly Fisher in a leading role in Turned Up, Table Talk (Melb) 26 Dec, 1929.  Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Molly’s departure from Australia was well publicised by newspapers – “Another Australian Girl for London” reported Sydney’s Daily Pictorial, with a mixture of pride and mock dismay. Molly had been quite open about her plans to leave for England for some time – she felt it was “the only way to see the best artists and watch their work…(and) even to tour in a provincial company means experience.” Following another leading role in the musical Follow Through, she left for England in April 1930, on the P&O steamer Balranald.

Fred Conyngham’s appearances in England

Fred’s first appearance in London was in the musical The Love Race, written by Stanley Lupino and performed at the Gaiety Theatre in June 1930. It ran for over 230 performances with good reviews – Lupino knew the sort of light entertainment audiences liked. Years later Australian actor John Wood would claim Lupino preferred to avoid casting actors with refined English Oxford accents, which explained his “employment of Australians whenever possible.” It is difficult to verify this claim, although a number of Australians did appear in The Love Race. But when British International Pictures (BIP) made a film of the play later that year, it had been reconstructed for the screen, much of the music had been dropped and many of the stage actors, including Fred, did not appear, probably due to scheduling commitments.

Above: Australians in the cast of The Love Race featured in The Home magazine, 2 January 1931. Left to right – Esme Tosh, Harry Wotton, Madge Elliot and Fred Conyngham. All were born in or had grown up in Australia, as was Cyril Ritchard, who was also in the play. Via The National Library of Australia’s Trove

After a tour of South Africa in 1931, Fred appeared in a healthy run of the musical The Cat and Fiddle at London’s Palace Theatre. His stage performances kept him busy for much of the next decade and established his reputation as a capable performer – these included Wild Violets at the Drury Lane in 1932, She Shall Have Music at the Savoy in 1934 and The Flying Trapeze in 1935. It is evident from reviews of Fred’s performances that his singing, dancing and comic timing were regarded as “first class”, “clever” and that he projected “a pleasant personality” on stage. However, this reputation was largely built on consistently good performances in fairly lightweight material – shows that were an entertaining distraction. but often not much more.

In 1932 he appeared in his first film – a 63 minute musical for BIP called The Indiscretions of Eve (it was also the first film for Steffi Duna and Jessica Tandy). In his book on British musical films, Cheer Up! Adrian Wright counts about 320 musicals made in Britain in the first 15 years of sound film. Unfortunately, because of the patchiness of the genre, many are difficult to find today, including this one. However, David Quinlan has described it as “bright and amusing mini musical comedy about an earl [Fred Conyngham] who falls in love with a girl [Steffi Duna] who models in a wax factory…” Most of Fred’s 1930s films comprised musicals – notably Ball at Savoy (1936), Rose of Tralee (1937) and The Minstrel Boy (1937), plus several dramas, comedies, and a thriller, The Crouching Beast (1935).

Above: Fred Conyngham and Peggy Cochrane in Radio Parade of 1935. (1934). This scene is a highlight of the film. The film is still available from Networkonair.com

Radio Parade of 1935, one of only a few of Fred’s films currently available for purchase, was typical of many British musicals of the era. The film has a weak plot – it is essentially a series of musical acts held together by a superficial narrative about a radio station needing to update its programming. Fred had a brief appearance, playing himself, performing There’s no excusing Susan with Peggy Cochrane. Their colour scene together was a highlight at the end of the film.

In December 1938 Motion Picture Herald magazine listed Britain’s top stars – by popularity at the box office. It is a long list starting with actors still recalled today – George Formby, Gracie Fields, Jessie Matthews, Anna Neagle etc. Fred Conyngham was amongst the others listed, his popularity coming off the back of three musical films he made in 1937. But contemporary film historians Denis Gifford and Adrian Wright have also characterised Fred as “Britain’s B-picture Fred Astaire,” which seems to accurately reflect the problem many British actors faced at the time – the film material (plot, direction, photography and effects) was often mediocre.

Early in 1931 the rest of the Conyngham family arrived in London – 25 year old brother Russell, George M and his second wife Gladys and their 4 year old son. His parents stayed for two years, George M being keen to see Russell establish himself.

Molly Fisher in England

Molly Fisher’s first English appearance was in Sons of Guns in Liverpool, which started less than a month after she arrived, a placement she arranged before she left Australia. Her salary was £40 per week, (the equivalent of about £2500 today). Her first London production was a revival of the old favourite The Belle of New York, which ran at Daly’s and then the Winter Garden in mid 1931. However, a great success followed when she took a part in the new musical The White Horse Inn, which ran for a year at London’s Coliseum. In July 1932, in the midst of their busy schedules, Molly and Fred married.

Above: Molly Fisher as Mamie with Johnny Schofield (Blinky Bill) and Norman Page (Von Pumpernick) in The Belle of New York. The Tatler, April 15, 1931, P91. The copyright for this photo is held by the Illustrated London News Group. Via The British Library Newspaper Archive

Like Fred, Molly Fisher appeared in a handful of British films. These were a mixture of thrillers and comedies, with Molly generally taking the supporting role of “best friend” to the leading actress. Unfortunately, like Fred’s films, most of these are B films and difficult to source now. Two that are still available both feature Ivor Novello in the leading role, with I Lived With You (based on Novello’s own play) standing out as a fine romantic comedy.

Above left: Screen grab of Molly (right foreground) as a telephonist with Elizabeth Allen (centre) in the thriller The Lodger (aka The Phantom Fiend) 1932. Above right: Screen grab of Molly (right) with Ursula Jeans (left) in I Lived With You, 1933. This latter film is available through Renown pictures.

Working together again

On several occasions Fred performed with familiar Australian faces. Lucille Lisle had appeared with Fred in Cradle Snatchers in Melbourne. They appeared together again in the film The Minstrel Boy, described by Adrian Wright as “a tepid attempt to establish Lisle as a romantic leading lady.” Also in 1937, Australian born director Alf Goulding used both Fred and Molly for his B-film Sam Small Leaves Town, filmed at Butlin’s famous holiday camp in Skegness (another film that now seems to have entirely disappeared). In 1939, John Warwick, his wife Molly Raynor (actually New Zealand born), Lucille Lisle and Fred all appeared on tour with A Star Comes Home.

Perhaps these are merely coincidences, but Australians still like to think they “look out” for each other. Actor Esmond Knight recalled meeting a fresh faced, newly arrived Australian actor who visited him and Fred in their dressing room during the run of Wild Violets. Fred gave the young man the names of helpful managers to contact. The young man was Robert Helpmann.

While both Molly and Fred continued to perform on tour and in London in the 1930s, as the decade came to a close they made more of an effort to work together. A daughter had been born in 1934, so there was another reason for the family to spend more time together. In 1937, Fred and Molly appeared on stage together at the Shaftesbury in Crazy Days, another Stanley Lupino production. And in early 1940, they performed together in Revue Des Allies at the Prince of Wales Theatre. Records also show that in 1940 they were appearing on BBC radio as part of a variety performance.

A volunteer fireman in 1939, Fred served in the Army during the war and this was very likely as a member of the Entertainment National Services Association (ENSA), providing entertainment to the British and Allied forces. Fred’s brother Russell was also an ENSA performer and director. (See below)

Post war return to Australia

Above: Linda Parker and Fred Conyngham in a scene from When You Come Home (1947), his last British film. This is a screen grab from a short clip on Youtube, the author had been unable to source a full copy.

Following the war, the couple had returned to the English stage and probably appeared in some now lost BBC TV programs. Before leaving England, Fred also appeared in the film When You Come Home, a Frank Randle comedy. Another film difficult to find today, it reportedly used the old familiar device of a story shaped around a music hall, providing plenty of opportunity for varied performers and sketches to hold it all together.

Sometime in late 1947, Fred and Molly were offered work in Marinka, (an operetta inspired by the 1889 murder-suicide involving the Crown Prince of Austria) and planned for a season on Australia’s Tivoli circuit by producer David N Martin.

There are any number of reasons why Fred and Molly may have wanted to come home, but Marinka (even with its shift to light romance and a change of ending) was an unfortunate choice to kick off a rebooted Australian career, if that is what they hoped for. Despite the efforts that David Martin made with the production, it received only modest reviews and was not a success at the box office. Theatre Historian Frank Van Straten suggests it was “out of place” at the Tivoli, which promptly returned to traditional vaudeville fare.

Above: Molly and Fred posing for a publicity shot at the time they appeared in Melbourne in Marinka. Australian Women’s Weekly, 10 July 1948. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

By 1950, Fred and Molly had decided to leave the stage behind. They moved to Sydney, and Fred went into insurance.

Regrettably, but like so many Australian actors, they were never interviewed about their years of acting and dancing. Molly died in April 1966, aged only 57. Fred’s inscription on Molly’s headstone at Sydney’s North Rocks cemetery is touching and speaks of the couple’s strong bond: “You were the one, the only one, to be linked with my restless soul…”

Fred died in 1974.

Russell Conyngham

Fred’s brother Russell did build a successful career in Britain as an actor and later a director. He appeared as a “twinkle-toed” dancer on stage in Britain, often with Iris Boyers, who he married in 1939. In September 1935 The Stage magazine announced that Russell, “the eccentric light comedian… and Iris Boyers, soubrette and leading dancer have formed a new comedy variety act”. During World War II both Russell and Iris worked for ENSA, but in December 1949 they also departed for Australia, with their children, and pursued other interests. Russell died in 1984.

Above: Russell Conyngham about 1934. Bath Weekly and Chronicle Herald, Oct 20, 1934, P19. Via the British Library Newspaper Archive

References

  • Text
    • Denis Gifford (1978) The illustrated who’s who in British Films. Batsford.
    • Esmond Knight (1943) Seeking the Bubble. National Book Association. Hutchinson.
    • Brian McFarlane (2003) The Encyclopedia of British film. Methuen, BFI – Methuen
    • John Parker (1936) Who’s Who in the Theatre. A Biographical record of the Contemporary Stage.(Eighth Edition) Sir Isaac Pitman and Sons
    • John Parker (1939) Who’s Who in the Theatre. A Biographical record of the Contemporary Stage.(Ninth Edition) Pitman Publishing
    • David Quinlan (1984) British Sound Films: The Studio Years 1928-1959. B T Batsford
    • Jeffrey Richards (Ed) (2000)The Unknown 1930s, An Alternative History of the British Cinema. I B Tauris. esp Chapter 5, Stephen Guy; “Calling All Stars: Musical films in a Musical Decade”
    • Frank Van Straten (2003 Tivoli. Thomas Lothian
    • J.P. Wearing (Ed)(2014) The London Stage 1930-1939 : a calendar of productions, performers, and personnel. Rowman and Littlefield
    • Adrian Wright (2020) Cheer Up! British Musical Films 1929-1945. The Boydell Press.
  • National Library of Australia’s Trove
    • Table Talk 2 Feb 1922
    • The World’s News 14 May 1926, P6
    • Table Talk, 4 Aug 1927, P9
    • Arrow (Syd)), Friday 23 Nov 1928, P15
    • Truth 25 Nov 1928, P11
    • Sunday Times (Syd), 6 Jan 1929, P18
    • Sunday Times (Syd) 3 Feb 1929, P14
    • Table Talk 2 Jan 1930, P20
    • Daily Pictorial (Syd) 27 Mar 1930, P23
    • The Home 2 Jan 1931, P34
    • Labor Daily (Syd) 2 Ap 1936, P10
    • Sunday Mail, 8 May 1936, P12
    • Mercury (Hob) 22 March 1938, P5
    • The Sydney Morning Herald, Mon 16 Oct 1939, Page 6
    • The Sun (Syd) 11 Jan 1948, P2
    • The Herald (Melb) 21 May 1948, P6
    • The Argus (Melb) 29 May 1948 P5
    • The Australian Women’s Weekly 10 July 1948, P13
  • British Library Newspaper Archive
    • The Tatler, 15 April 1931, P91
    • The Sketch, 16 March 1932, P476
    • Kinematograph Weekly, 5 May 1932, P40
    • The Worthing Gazette, 9 Nov 1932, P11
    • The Stage,  21 June 1934, P15
    • Bath Weekly and Chronicle Herald, Oct 20, 1934, P19
    • The Era, 2 Sept 1934
    • The Bystander, 29 May 1935, P375
    • Clitheroe Advertiser and Times, 18 Dec 1936, P6
    • The Stage – Thursday 19 October 1939, P6
    • Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News 12 Jan 1940, P60
    • Kinematograph Weekly, 19 Dec 1946
  • Lantern Digital Media Project
    • Motion Picture Herald 31 Dec 1938, P13-14

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

Allan Cuthbertson (1920-1988) – from Romeo to Fawlty Towers

Above: A very young Allan Cuthbertson. The Wireless Weekly 22 Nov 1941, Page 4. Via The National Library of Australia’s Trove. Almost all the existing high quality photos of Cuthbertson as a British actor are firmly held by commercial photo archives. The reader will thus have to forgive the grainy quality of photos used here, mostly sourced from digitised Australian newspapers.

The 5 second version
Western Australian born Allan Cuthbertson forged a hugely successful career on screen and stage in Britain – often playing a stereotypical, frosty, British military type – film historian Brian McFarlane described him as “a superb conveyor of icy distain.” However early in his career he played a variety of roles and in later life was more than capable of sending up the military stereotype he was known for (think Colonel Hall in Fawlty Towers). He is hardly a forgotten Australian but still warrants a place on this site because his Australian acting experience usually only merits a one line mention in biographies, and the context of his interest in acting is never explained. He died in London in 1988, with numerous stage, radio, TV and film performances to his credit. His brother Henry was also an actor and director of note, while another brother William, was killed while serving with the RAF in 1944.

Allan Cuthbertson told Australian theatre historian Hal Porter that one of his earliest memories was of being backstage at Perth’s His Majesty’s Theatre, watching his spot-lit father on stage. There is not much doubt that in his case, the passions of his father and older brothers played a part in fostering his interest in acting and his later decision to try his luck in London. Once established there, he remained a great advocate for Australians making the move overseas. “Don’t despair if you can’t land a job as soon as you arrive in London. Do anything. Wash up in a hotel… but keep on trying the agents.”

Above: Screen-grab of Allan Cuthbertson, 35 years after leaving Australia, playing the Australian Ambassador in the German TV mini-series Der Schwarze Bumerang  (The Black Boomerang) (1982). It is unclear why he relented his rule on not playing Australians for this one performance.

The Cuthbertson family of Perth

Born in Perth, Western Australia, in 1920, Allan Darling Cuthbertson was the youngest of three sons of Isabel nee Darling from Adelaide and Ernest Cuthbertson, a Scottish born partner in Hodd, Cuthbertson and North, a large firm of auctioneers and real estate agents in Perth, Western Australia. Amongst his other interests, Ernest was also an enthusiastic amateur performer, and for many years a leading figure in the Western Australia Society of Concert Artists.

A talented baritone, he was well known in Perth for directing performances for the stage. The grainy photo at left was printed when he was arranging a tableau entitled The Founding of Perth, part of the city’s celebrations in 1929. He was active almost up to the time of his early death, aged only 52, in 1936.

Above: Ernest Cuthbertson, The West Australian, 9 August 1929, P26. Via The National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Ernest and Isabel’s three sons William (1914-1944), Henry (1917-1988) and Allan all attended Perth’s prestigious Hale School, Australia’s oldest private Boys’ school. William (Bill) had a spectacular academic career – he was twice Dux of his school and went on to complete a Bachelor of Science and then Masters of Science at University of Western Australia. Following in their father’s footsteps, all three boys took a keen interest in theatre while still at school and in time both Henry and Allan joined Perth’s Repertory Club Players.

Henry first appeared in radio drama in 1936, while 18 year old Allan directed his first play in 1938, and also wrote some plays. Then, in March 1938, the two oldest boys – Bill and Henry (or “Bruzz” to his friends) embarked on the SS Moreton Bay for England – Bill to complete a Phd as a Chemist, Henry to pursue his career as an actor. Allan almost certainly had dreams of joining his older brothers, but it would be another 9 years before he too travelled to London. Eric Porter notes Allan went into a Bank on leaving school.

Above: Allan and Henry Cuthbertson. Left: Allan as he appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on October 28, 1947. But the photo appears to have been taken some years earlier, before he grew his moustache. Right: Henry Cuthbertson in the ABC Weekly, 26 June 1954. Both photos via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Older Brothers in Britain 1938-1944

Henry Cuthbertson found work in Britain as a radio announcer for the English company Radio Normandie and apparently appeared in three films made in late 1938 as an extra, including They Drive by Night and Goodbye Mr Chips. He then joined several repertory companies touring Britain in 1939-40, and was singled out for some positive reviews in regional papers. Isabel Cuthbertson passed on reports of her son’s successes on stage to West Australian newspapers with understandable pride“Henry was quite unknown when he went to London” she reported, “and had obtained all his work on his own initiative.” But in July 1940 he decided to return to Australia, arriving home on the ship Orcades in August. Less than two years later a U-boat sank the Orcades off the coast of South Africa, an awful reminder of how dangerous passenger travel in wartime was.

After completing his PhD at Leeds University, Bill Cuthbertson worked as a research scientist. When war broke out, he joined the Royal Air Force. After the lengthy training required for navigators, he joined 101 Squadron, flying operations over Germany and occupied Europe in Lancaster bombers. On 1 July 1944 his bomber was shot down and Bill and the rest of the crew – a typical Bomber Command mix of young Britons, Canadians and Australians, were all killed. Tragically, Bill had been married only a few months. St George’s College, his University of Western Australia alma mater, have a photo of him on their website (here) and there is a very moving tribute to him (here).

Allan & Henry join the RAAF 1941-1946

Back in Australia, Henry Cuthbertson joined the Royal Australian Air Force in June 1941. Allan joined up in December 1941, the day before Japan launched its assault in the Pacific. They served in separate sections – Allan ended the war as a Flight Lieutenant, flying Catalinas for 111 Air Sea Rescue Flight, while Henry was a Sergeant in RAAF Command, serving at RAAF hospitals. Discharged as medically unfit in 1944, Henry returned to radio in Perth, becoming an announcer for 6PR, and performed in radio versions of plays, including as Henry Higgins in Pygmalion.

After discharge from the RAAF, Allan also threw himself back into acting – on radio, and in theatre with the George Edwards Company in Sydney. He would later state, “Thank God for my experience in Sydney radio and with George Edwards, because it was there that I learned something about getting the most out of a script at sight or after only a preliminary reading.”

Above: Allan Cuthbertson rehearsing Murder Without Crime in 1946 with, from left Ross Buchanan, Madge Ryan and (in his arms) Thelma Grigg, and Stage Manager Delemere Usher. Both Ryan and Grigg also travelled to London to try their luck. Sydney Morning Herald, 12 June 1946. P7, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Allan Cuthbertson in Britain 1947 +

In March 1947 Allan Cuthbertson sailed for Britain on the Rangitiki. “There is so much to learn in London now with the great theatrical revival” he told one Australian journalist in April 1947. “Even by seeing dozens of plays, one can learn a great deal.” Also on board was a young Gertrude Willner, whom Allan would marry in London in late July 1949. (see Note 1 below)

Above: Allan Cuthbertson, The Daily News (Perth), 13 Sept 1947, P18. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Compared to so many other actors who arrived in London at this time, Allan was extremely fortunate with his career. Within a few months of arriving he had played with some repertory companies and then won the leading part of Romeo in a revival of Romeo and Juliet, although a reviewer for The Stage felt Allan and costar Isabel Dean were not experienced enough for the roles. But only a matter of weeks later, Allan was appearing in Noël Coward’s Point Valaine at the Embassy, in its first ever London outing. It ran for a very modest 34 performances, with, again, very modest reviews. However, by mid 1948 The Stage was able to report enthusiastically on Allan’s “vigorous interpretation” of Laertes, in Hamlet, at St James Theatre.

Three other plays particularly stand out in Allan Cuthbertson’s early career – the first being a part in very long run of The Beaux’ Stratagem at the Lyric, followed by a leading role in George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman, that ran for most of 1951. The Sketch reported “Allan Cuthbertson… does remarkably well in the exacting part of Octavius” displaying great “sincerity of manner.” Even newspapers at home enthusiastically reported on his increasing successes on the London stage.

Above: A reminder of the wide variety of roles Allan Cuthbertson played. With Kay Hammond in Man and Superman. The Sketch, 14 March 1951, P219. Copyright held by by The Illustrated London News Group. Via The British Library Newspaper Archive.

In 1953 Allan played an important role in Carrington VC. Written by former Royal Artillery officer Campbell Christie in collaboration with his wife Dorothy, it is the tale of a military Court martial, with Allan in the supporting role of the thoroughly unsympathetic Lt-Colonel Henniker. The play was a great success in London, and Allan was asked to reprise the role of Henniker for Anthony Asquith‘s film, made the following year.

Above left: Program cover for the play Carrington VC, which opened in London in July 1953. Author’s Collection. Above right, a scene from the film, with Allan reprising his role as Colonel Henniker, opposite Noelle Middleton playing Captain Alison Graham. Australian Women’s Weekly, 8 June 1955, P53. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Not surprisingly, this role as an authoritarian and unsympathetic military officer became his signature role. Not only did he repeat the part of Colonel Henniker again for TV and for radio, he played a variation of it in at least another two dozen film and TV appearances – like Major Baker in The Guns of Navarone (1961). It is true that later appearances of this character were sometimes in comedies – by the 1970s the military martinet had often become an object of humour (including Colonel Hall in Fawlty Towers and Major Daintry in Ripping Yarns). Allan acknowledged this typecasting himself in a 1963 interview during a return visit to Australia: “I used to enjoy playing Charley’s Aunt(a farce)… “but since ‘Carrington’ its been villains.” Tongue in cheek he added “I can’t think why!” About the same time he told Eric Porter that he had “settled down as a film character actor…a sort of symbol of the sneering Englishman.” Here, he was almost certainly thinking of his supporting role as the awful, domineering husband in Room at the Top (1959).

By 1963 he had 70 film and TV roles under his belt and in an interview with Patricia Rolfe for The Bulletin he acknowledged that although he took almost all film work offered to him, often in preference to the stage, he had always avoided playing Australian roles, apparently for fear this would limit his work. (Australian then meaning a broad-accented role). He told Rolfe he had turned down the role of the Australian character “Digger” in The Hasty Heart. Melbourne-born actor John Sherman took the part in the 1949 film version and it certainly did his UK career little good – once typecast in such a role, it was difficult to find others.

Above: Routine TV work. A screen grab of Allan Cuthbertson (playing a wicked nobleman) and Alan Wheatley (as the Sheriff of Nottingham) in a 1957 episode of The Adventures of Robin Hood. The series is now in the public domain and can be watched here at the Internet Archive.

After a long career in film and television – if not playing officers and nasty husbands he often played lords, lawyers or detectives, he did return to the stage. He notably appeared in Charley’s Aunt, at the Adelphi, in 1979 and in the mid 1980s he appeared in a revival of Emlyn Williams’ The Corn is Green at the Old Vic. And later in his career he also appeared as a straight-man with a number of British television comedians, including Dick Emery, Tommy Cooper and Morecambe and Wise.

And he finally relented about playing an Australian. In the 1982 German mini-series Der Schwarze Bumerang  (The Black Boomerang) he had a small part as the Australian Ambassador. However, as his character is dubbed into German, perhaps he felt it didn’t matter. His natural accent almost certainly approximated the one we hear in his films – a cultivated accent being the product of his education at one of Australia’s most prestigious schools, and years of radio and theatre work in Australia – before he even arrived in Britain, aged 27. Australian actor John Wood, with whom Allan performed in Carrington VC, spoke with a similar cultivated Australian accent.

Allan Cuthbertson’s conservative preferences in theatre were well known – he described his tastes as “Edwardian”. Contemporary avant-garde theatre he was not enthusiastic about and he once said he felt Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot had the effect of “keeping people out of the theatre”.

Allan Cuthbertson died in England on 8 February 1988. Obituaries appeared in Australia and Britain, although the irony that a quintessential stage and screen Englishman was actually an Australian was not mentioned. In private life he was a collector of antiquarian books, art and caricatures (Thomas Rowlandson, George Cruikshank and modern artists like Ronald Searle). The collection was sold up in 2000, and some of it is now held by the Cartoon Art Trust in London.


Henry Cuthbertson in Australia 1946 – 1988

Henry Cuthbertson enjoyed a very long association with the theatre in Australia. The Australian Live Performance Database lists his last performance, of many on stage, as occurring in 1979, although he also appeared in some Australian TV programs as a supporting actor as late as the early 1980s and apparently also in a film called Backstage in 1988 (unseen by this writer). However, it is through his reputation as Head of Drama for the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) that he was most well known – regularly directing radio and television for the national broadcaster. He had married in 1946 and died in Melbourne in April 1988, only a few months after his brother.

At Left: Henry Cuthbertson in 1954, having just become Head of Drama for the ABC. ABC Weekly, 24 July, 1954, P8 Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Note 1
In his interview with Patricia Rolfe for The Bulletin in 1963, Allan Cuthbertson explained part of Gertrude Willner’s story. Feminist, writer and philanthropist Lady Jessie Street had met Gertrude in Europe in 1938, and exercised some influence in the difficult task of getting the 27 year old refugee into Australia. She arrived in June 1939 on the Strathallen. For a time she lived with Street, and went on to study Arts at the University of Sydney (she graduated in 1944). She probably met Allan in Sydney after his RAAF service, but they are also both listed (separately) on the Rangitki’s 1947 list of passengers travelling to England, and may have met then. Allan and Gertrude had one child.

Nick Murphy

20 March 2021


References

  • Text
    • Richard Dalby “The Allan Cuthbertson Collection.” Book and Magazine Collector. P 64-73. No 201, December 2000.
    • Brian McFarlane (Ed) (2003) The Encyclopedia of British Film. BFI-Methuen
    • Eric Porter (1965) Stars of Australian Stage and Screen. Rigby Ltd
    • J.P. Wearing (2014) The London stage 1950-1959 : a calendar of productions, performers, and personnel. Rowman and Littlefield
  • Newspapers.com
    • The Guardian 15 Feb 1988, P35
  • National Library of Australia’s Trove
    • The West Australian Fri 9 Aug 1929, P26
    • Sunday Times (WA) 1 July 1934, P1
    • The Daily News (WA) 11 April 1936 P9
    • Sunday Times (WA) 10 July 1938 P13
    • The Daily News (WA) 21 Feb 1939 P1
    • The Wireless Weekly 22 Nov 1941, P4
    • Sydney Morning Herald 12 June 1946, P7
    • Mount Barker Record (WA) Aug 5, 1946 )4
    • The Australian Women’s Weekly 19 Ap 1947 P17
    • The Daily News (WA) 13 Sept 1947
    • Sydney Morning Herald 28 Oct 1947 P11
    • The Daily News (WA) 16 July 1949, P22
    • ABC Weekly 26 June 1954
    • ABC Weekly 24 July 1954
    • Australian Women’s Weekly 8 June 1955, P53
    • The Bulletin 8 June 1963, P22
    • Australian Women’s Weekly 12 June 1963, P10

  • British Library Newspaper Archive
    • Reading Mercury 29 April 1939 P24
    • The Stage 14 August 1947
    • The Stage 11 Sept 1947
    • The Sketch 9 June 1948
    • The Stage 24 Feb 1949
    • The Sketch 14 March 1951
    • West London Observer 7 Jan 1955, P4
    • The Stage 30 May 1985
    • The Stage 8 Feb 1988


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

Dorothy Alison (1925 – 1992) – Broken Hill’s award winning actor

Above: Dorothy Alison, then modelling as Perk Alison, on the cover of Pix magazine, 12 April, 1947. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove. This photo was connected to a lightweight article on “fear.” Pix was the type of magazine one read while waiting at the hairdresser.

The 5 second version.
Dorothy Alison was active on the Australian stage, also appearing on radio and in several films. She joined the great post war exodus of Australian actors seeking opportunities overseas, and after two years working in an office, finally gained a role in the British film Mandy, after which she had roles steadily on TV and in film and sometimes on stage. She enjoyed something of a renaissance in the 1980s – working in Australia, appearing in a number of acclaimed TV miniseries. She is arguably one of Australia’s most successful actor exports. She was twice nominated for a BAFTA award in the 1950s, and won an Australian Logie award in 1981. She was married to actor and agent Leslie Linder from 1952-1971 and the couple had several children. In 2020, Mandy Miller, the child star of the film Mandy (1952) recalled her co-star fondly as “the lovely Dorothy Alison”.
Her younger sister Wendy Dickson was a highly regarded stage, set and costume designer in Australia. Her father William Dickson had been an important politician in New South Wales.

Dorothy Alison Dickson was born in Broken Hill, a booming mining town of 25,000 people in far western New South Wales on 4 March, 1925. She was the oldest of four sisters, all of whom would have some connection with the performing arts over time. Her father, William Dickson, a Lancashire born accountant, was to become an important figure in the Union movement and Australian Labor Party politics. He married Alice nee Cogan, a local woman, in 1922, and in time entered State Parliament. Their modest family home at 290 Oxide Street still stands today. (see Note 1)

Above: Possibly a union parade in Broken Hill about the time the Dickson family lived there. This is a public domain photo from the collections of the State Library of South Australia and has been cropped slightly. The original can be viewed here. The original title reads “Parade along Argent Street, Broken Hill, c 1920. A large crowd is gathered along each side of the road.”

The Dickson girls – Dorothy, Beth, Wendy and Marion, were all encouraged in the performing arts from a young age. Broken Hill drama teacher and director Miss Lena Atkinson included Dorothy and sister Beth in a performance called The Man in the Moon in 1934, and Dorothy and her sister Wendy in her 1936 production Let’s Pretend . Dorothy was 11 years old when she took the role of Captain Hook in Atkinson’s Peter Pan panto in June 1936. Apparently one of Ms Atkinson’s star pupils, Dorothy was often singled out for her acting. “It is remarkable to see a child put such force into a role…” reported one newspaper correspondent. After the family moved to the comfortable Sydney suburb of Vaucluse in the late 1930s and while she was still a student at Sydney Girls High School, Dorothy joined the Independent Theatre, under the dynamic direction of Doris Fitton. She appeared in Fitton’s production of Christa Winsloe‘s Children in Uniform in September 1942. (Several writers, including her obituarist at The Guardian claim that she was a successful dancer as a child. However, this writer can find no evidence to support this)

But something else important had already happened by this time. In mid 1942, pioneering Australian director Charles Chauvel used her in his propaganda short about the coal mining industry Power to Win. Chauvel turned out four of these shorts for the Ministry of Information. Elsa Chauvel recalled that the film utilised real union figures both in the planning and the filming and it is very likely that William Dickson’s union connections helped connect the filmmaker to his daughter. She was 17. (See Note 2)

Above: Power to Win, 1942, directed by Charles Chauvel. Click to watch a film clip at the NFSA Australian Screen website. Dorothy in her first film, as Ruth the coal miner’s daughter. Charles Chauvel made this for the Department of Information. (see also Note 2)

In later years Dorothy explained that she had dutifully spent much of the war as a typist, before stepping back into acting again, after it was all over. As the title photo above shows, she can be seen modelling, using the name “Perk Alison” an activity she undertook to raise her profile again in 1946. In April that year she also attracted some publicity when she and other Independent Theatre members tried to stage Lillian Hellman‘s The Children’s Hour as a charity fundraiser. Two theatres felt the play’s suggestion of same sex love would not appeal to “nice people” and it was dropped. However working with Yvonne Fifi Banvard (by then a producer) she appeared in some radio dramas and later in 1947 – a breakthrough – she was cast in Harry Watt‘s Eureka Stockade, an Ealing Studios version of the Miner’s rebellion at Ballarat in 1854. Dorothy’s role as publican Catherine Bentley was small but important in retelling the events leading to the rebellion. She subsequently dropped “Perk Alison” as a stage name and used “Dorothy Alison” – or sometimes Allison, based on her first and middle names. (It was a good idea – there was already another Dorothy Dickson acting in London).

Above: Screen grab of the opening credits of Charles Chauvel’s Sons of Matthew (1949). The titles are narrated, and open like an ornate 19th photo album. Both Dorothy Alison and her real sister Marion Dickson play Rose O’Riordan at different times of life. The DVD is part of the Charles Chauvel Collection, widely available through Umbrella Entertainment, Author’s copy.

In 1947 she was also cast in Charles Chauvel‘s pioneer story Sons of Matthew, to play Rose, one of the daughters, with real life 11 year old sister Marion Dickson playing the same character but in younger years. While the experience of making this film seems to have turned Marion off acting for good, it clearly inspired Dorothy. After more radio work, a season of Measure for Measure with John Alden‘s Shakespearean players, in early 1949 she departed for London on the SS Orion. She had booked herself into low cost accommodation at Helen Graham House, opposite the British Museum while she searched for work. Years later she recalled that the £200 she had saved up went quickly, and she found little acting work in London. Despite arriving with numerous letters of introduction, she ended up doing office work again. “For three years I had little acting, just one part in a BBC radio play, and any amount of typing.” Back in Australia, her younger sister Beth was performing with John Alden’s Shakespearean troupe.

Above: Dorothy’s younger sister Beth Dickson, while performing Shakespeare, in the Adelaide News 31 March 1952 P11. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove

It may have been a long time coming and her big break just “sheer luck”– as she was to observe herself , but Dorothy was also fortunate in her first British film – Mandy. No other Australians wanting work in England found themselves debuting in a film directed by the likes of Alexander Mackendrick, one of the most creative directors of the time. Her role was a small but crucial one – a teacher who works with the congenitally deaf child Mandy. The breakthrough scene where Mandy makes her first sound is filmed in such extreme closeup that one can see the pores on Dorothy’s skin. It is all the more powerful because of the grim intensity that has built slowly through the previous 50 minutes.

Above: Screen grab of Dorothy Alison as the teacher of the deaf, in a critical scene in Mandy (1952) A restored version of the film is available from Studio Canal. The child star Mandy Miller recently gave her memories of the film and her career (here), and the Studio Canal interview includes this key scene between Dorothy and Miller.

One might think that the effusive reviews of her performance, and there were plenty – in addition to a BAFTA nomination in 1953, also led to lots of new opportunities. But as she dryly noted herself, “there wasn’t a single decent offer, just a frightening silence.” It was most disheartening. There was some joy however – in late 1952 she married British actor Leslie Linder and in late 1953, after a few roles including a perfunctory one in Turn the Key Softly, she returned to Australia for a family visit, privately uncertain whether she wanted to keep on trying. Others had noticed the problem. Sydney Sun journalist Jack Pollard complained that Dorothy was getting a rough deal. Acting work seemed much easier for “the glamour girls with ample curves and no acting talent” he wrote.

However, the challenges for actresses in 1950s England were certainly more complex than just how they looked. Sweeping changes in society saw cinema attendance dramatically decline, while at the same time there were fewer film roles for women (one Australian journalist estimated only one in ten roles were for women). In the background there was the dramatic growth of television, changing how actors worked. Like her contemporary Betty McDowall, Dorothy did her share of acting in the new medium, although only a few of her early performances survive today.

Above Left: Screen grab of Dorothy Alison in an episode of the TV series The Adventures of Robin Hood. This episode, Ambush,(c1957) was directed by Lindsay Anderson and also guest starred Donald Pleasance. At right: Dorothy Alison with fellow Australian Charles Tingwell in Life in Emergency Ward 10 (1959), a film spin off of a popular TV show.

As we review her 1950s British feature films today, we can identify another problem she seemed to face. After Mandy, and probably because of it, she was often typecast as the wholesome, selfless woman. Consider her role as the ill-fated friend of Sister Luke (Audrey Hepburn) of the Congo in The Nun’s Story (1959); as the kindly Mrs Barnes who helps the disturbed Mr Wilson (Richard Attenborough) in The Man Upstairs (1958); as Joan – the good friend to an female ex-con Monica (Yvonne Mitchell) in Turn the Key Softly (1953); as the dedicated doctor-wife who helps save Tod (Colin Sampson) in The Scamp (1957); as Nurse Brace in Reach for the Sky, providing a stoic female equivalent to Kenneth More‘s Douglas Bader (1956). Film historian Brian McFarlane has accurately described her as “one of the most reliable character actors in 50s British cinema” and indeed she was, but it might also be argued that many of the characters she played were variations on a theme.

Above: Dorothy Alison in her first important British stage role as Laura in C.P. Snow’s The Affair, running at the Strand Theatre from late 1961. Program in the author’s collection.

It is surprising that unlike so many of her Australian contemporaries, (Betty McDowall, Sara Gregory and others) it was a decade before she had a significant role on the English stage. In October 1961, Dorothy took a leading part in The Affair, an adaption by Ronald Miller of a C P Snow novel. Her performance as Laura Howard, the key female role in the play, was well received and the play enjoyed an 11 month run at The Strand.

In the early 1970s Dorothy’s marriage to Leslie Linder failed. Now with three children, she continued to appear on stage, and in occasional TV appearances – plus a few films, including several thrillers. She had a memorable supporting role in Lionel Jefferies’ sentimental film vision of England’s past, The Amazing Mr Blunden, in 1972. She was 47 by this time, but carried the role of the widowed mother with two teenagers and a baby well. She had also successfully turned to script writing – authoring episodes of TV programs for ITV and the BBC- Dead of Night, The Man Outside and ITV Playhouse, and possibly others that have not been recorded.

Above: Dorothy Alison in later life. Photo accompanying her obituary for The Guardian, 29 Jan 1992, P35.

In 1981 she returned to Australia. The Australian arts were enjoying a renaissance, and for the next eight years this was generally where she worked – perhaps finding meatier roles, or at least fresh opportunities for an actor now aged in her mid 50s. She appeared for five months as the “battle-axe Ward Sister” in the touring play Whose Life is it Anyway? which included another ex-pat Australian, Annette Andre. She also performed as the stoic Mrs Firth, in A Town Like Alice, a mini-series based on Neville Shute’s novel. Skilfully filmed and well performed, A Town Like Alice won an Emmy for best international drama in November 1981, and in Australia it dominated the 1982 Logie Awards. Dorothy Alison, the Australian who had left 30 years before, won best supporting actor, alongside British actor Gordon Jackson and leading actors Bryan Brown and Helen Morse.

Over the next few years, Dorothy’s work included several Australian films, some TV dramas and narrations for documentaries (including a docu-drama on New South Wales’ first female lawyer Marie Byles), and three more mini-series on Australian themes – A Fortunate Life, Melba and Tusitala. In 1988 she had a supporting role in Evil Angels (aka A Cry in the Dark), the contemporary story of the awful death of baby Azaria Chamberlain – that so divided Australian society, directed by Fred Schepisi. In early 1986 she joined another play on an Australian tour, this one being Tennessee William’s Sweet Bird of Youth, headed by Lauren Bacall and Colin Friels. Hers was a smaller part, but a reviewer in the Melbourne Age was delighted that “Australian performers” like Dorothy could match “the amplitude of Miss Bacall.”

This later period of her work may tend to colour our understanding of her career – so much of it is available to collectors today. However, it is remarkable that she apparently made such an easy transition back to working in Australian film and theatre late in life – as only a handful of Australian women did this. She had returned to England again by 1990 and died at her home in Hampstead in early 1992. She was only 66.


Wendy Dickson (b 1932), Dorothy’s youngest sister, has enjoyed a long career as a successful designer for theatre, TV and film in Britain and Australia. Her film work has included Antony and Cleopatra (1972), Break of Day (1976) with her husband Ken Hannam and two films for Fred SchepisiThe Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith (1978) and Evil Angels (1988), with Dorothy. Her theatre work in Australia has taken her all over the country and included work as diverse as contemporary theatre, ballet and Opera. For a number of years she was associated with the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust. Interviewed by The Age newspaper in 1967, she recalled that as a young girl, she “desperately wanted to work in the theatre,” but becoming convinced she couldn’t act, turned to design.

Above left : Wendy Dickson in The Bulletin, April 16, 1977, P42. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Note 1. Family

Aged 20 in 1913, Lancashire-born William Edward Dickson moved to Broken Hill, a mining town about 1100 kilometres west of Sydney. It would have been the sort of dramatic change that might have daunted many, but Dickson thrived and became active in the very strong union movement. He moved to Sydney in the mid 1930s although he had been a member of the Legislative Council (the State Upper House of Parliament) from the mid 1920s. At various times he served as a State Minister, and at the time of his death in 1966, was President of the Council (Speaker of the Upper House). He was given a state funeral.

Dorothy’s younger sisters were Elizabeth (“Beth”) born 1927, Wendy born 1932 and Marion born 1936.

Above left, Dickson on his first appointment to Parliament. The Sydney Morning Herald Sat 26 Dec 1925, Page 10, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Dorothy Alison’s date of birth is often incorrectly listed on the internet as April. But as both her death certificate and this US travel document from late 1962 show, she was born on 4 March 1925.


Note 2. An earlier film?
The NSFA website suggests Dorothy Dickson also appeared in Chauvel’s MOI short While There Is Still Time (1941) , however this writer believes the actress is a different person. Smiths Weekly, and The Sydney Morning Herald also reported that the lead was played by Nola Warren.

Note 3. Awards.
Most sources incorrectly claim Dorothy Alison won BAFTA awards for Mandy (1952) and Reach for the Stars (1956), cross referencing each other as a source, in the usual Internet fashion. The truth is that she was nominated both times, a great honour in itself, but did not win. She was nominated in 1953 as Most Promising Newcomer for Mandy, but lost to Claire Bloom for Limelight. In 1957 she was nominated as best British Actress for Reach for the Stars, but lost to Virginia McKenna for A Town Like Alice. All of this can be easily verified on BAFTA’s own website.


Nick Murphy
March 2021


References

  • Text
    • Elsa Chauvel (1973) My Life with Charles. Shakespeare Head Press, Sydney
    • Brian McFarlane (Ed) (2003) The Encyclopedia of British Film. BFI-Methuen
    • J.P. Wearing (2014) The London stage 1950-1959 : a calendar of productions, performers, and personnel. Rowman and Littlefield
    • Picture Show and Film Pictorial (Magazine) Nov 16, 1957. Author’s collection.
  • British Library Newspaper Archive
    • The Stage, Sept 28, 1961, P13
    • The Illustrated London News, Oct 7, 1961, P598
  • National Library of Australia’s Trove
    • Barrier Miner (Bkn Hill) 14 Nov 1934, P 3
    • Barrier Miner (Bkn Hill) 21 Nov 1935, P2
    • Sydney Morning Herald, 5 Sept 1942, P11
    • Herald (Melb) 29 April 1946, P9
    • Pix, 12 April 1947.
    • Age (Melb) 28 Jan 1949, P1
    • ABC Weekly 19 Feb 1949, P14
    • The Mail (Adel) 31 Mar 1952, P11
    • The Age (Melb) 4 Aug 1952, P2
    • Sydney Morning Herald, 4 Aug 1952, P3
    • Sunday Herald (Syd) 7 Sept 1952, P16
    • The Sun (Syd) 12 March 1953, P37
    • Barrier Miner (Bkn Hill) 17 Sept 1953, P13
    • Barrier Miner (Bkn Hill) 23 Nov 1953, P9
    • The Australian Women’s Weekly 25 Jan, 1956, P36
    • The Australian Women’s Weekly, 26 June 1957, P41
    • The Australian Women’s Weekly 1 Oct, 1958, P66
    • ABC Weekly, 7 Jan 1959, P7
    • The Canberra Times (ACT) Sat 24 Apr 1965, P9
    • The Canberra Times (ACT) 23 May 1966, P3
    • The Age (Melb) 27 Jun 1967, P15
    • The Australian Women’s Weekly 1 May 1974
    • The Bulletin April 16, 1977
    • The Canberra Times (ACT) 19 April 1981, P8
    • Sydney Morning Herald, 27 Jan 1986, P52
    • The Age (Melb) 1 Feb 1986 P 125
    • Sydney Morning Herald 20 Jan 1992
  • Newspapers.com
    • The Age (Melb) 22 Feb 1986, P149
    • The Guardian (UK) 29 Jan 1992, P29

Betty McDowall (1924 – 1993) -London was “Tough as Hell”

Above: Betty McDowall, aged 21, on the cover of the Australian Broacasting Commission’s ABC Weekly, on December 8, 1945. Note her surname is misspelled McDowell here. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

The 5 second version
Betty McDowall had an extraordinarily active career on stage and radio – commencing in Australia in 1942. She moved to England in 1951, developing a performance persona that film historian Brian McFarlane has described as “quietly appealing.” Although appearing in some leading roles in film, she had more success in supporting roles of domestic life on British TV, becoming a familiar face on numerous programs into the early 1970s. Between 1977 and 1985 she had a regular role on the BBC radio series The Archers. Married three times, she died in England in 1993. Her surname was regularly misspelled McDowell.

Unlike many of her contemporaries, Betty McDowall never became an enthusiastic self-promoter and little can be found to inform us of her Sydney childhood or her reflections on her own career over time. But in 1965, in one of her rare public comments, Betty McDowall gave the opinion that an actor’s life in London was “tough as hell.” This comment appeared in a Canberra Times article by Tom Lake, making a refreshing change from the usual celebratory reporting about the doings of Australians acting overseas. For once, a reporter wrote frankly about just how hard it was to break in and to maintain a career. Lake’s survey of Australian actors included Alan White, Lloyd Lamble, Dorothy Alison, Shirley Cameron and others. Dorothy Alison, who had just temporarily retired, claimed that on arrival she had been armed with “all sorts of introductions, none of which did any good.” Lake also highlighted an added problem for women – there was much less work available for them than for men; perhaps only 1 in 10 jobs were for actresses.

Betty was born Elizabeth Margarita McDowall in Sydney on 14 August, 1924, to John Lloyd McDowall, a clerk connected with the racing industry and Florence nee Warren. Her father John had been born in Chongqing, China in 1894, to John (senior), an expatriate postal commissioner for the Qing Dynasty and his Chinese wife, unnamed in official documents. But Betty’s father seems to have lived in Australia from his youth, marrying Florence in Sydney in June 1917. Betty was the third of the couple’s three daughters. (See Note 1)

Sadly, John and Florence divorced in the early 1930s. By this time John’s profession was listed as a hairdresser, although he was doing well enough in the height of the Depression. In 1932 he had inherited a brother’s estate and was able to support Betty as a boarder at Mount St Bernard’s Convent School in Pymble (a northern suburb of Sydney). She left the school aged only 15, having developed an early love for the theatre and almost certainly having received training from one of Sydney’s many private drama tutors. In time, she also turned her hand to fashion design like her older sister Ursula, and she wrote scripts for radio. A 1948 account of Betty’s early life also suggested she was an “outdoors girl,” who sailed her own VJ dinghy (a fast, light skiff developed in the early 1930s) on Sydney harbour, and who liked cycling, poetry and philosophy. Maybe, but this latter description sounds suspiciously like familiar newspaper padding, designed to conform to popular notions of the “typical Australian girl.”

Above: Betty McDowall was a regular in the pages of ABC Weekly, between 1945 and 1951 reflecting how busy the young actor was on radio. Left, on the cover on June 12, 1948, with her name again misspelled. Right, posing to advertise the radio comedy George and Margaret June 11, 1949. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Betty McDowall’s earliest performance experiences were in radio serials for the Australian Broadcasting Commission (still known to Australians today as the ABC), and on the Macquarie radio Network. One of her first was in Dr Mac, a comedy-drama based around the doings of a small town doctor. Her first appearance on stage professionally was possibly in mid-1943 at Sydney’s Minerva Theatre, in the play Janie, directed by Alec Coppel. Melbourne born Coppel already had experience as a writer in England and had come back home in 1940. He later went on to a Hollywood career – writing numerous screenplays, including Vertigo (1958). Unfortunately, we do not know how the 19 year old Betty came to Coppel’s attention, but he cast her as one of the friends of Janie, an American high school girl (played by Gwenda Wilson) who holds a disastrous party for US servicemen while her parents are away. Reviews of the comedy were generally positive – the idea of girls having a tearaway party in their parents’ absence was quite novel for war-weary Australians. In February 1944, after several more plays, Betty appeared in a leading role in Patrick Hamilton’s thriller Rope, again directed by Coppel for the Minerva Theatre.

Above: Betty featured in Truth newspaper, March 12, 1944, in a feature on women and war work. The byline reported that she baked for her husband between performances. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

On May 1, 1942, at the age of only 17, Betty married James Joseph White, a musician. She was so young she needed her mother’s permission to marry. Unfortunately, the couple’s relationship did not last beyond the end of the war. Within a few years White had become inattentive, announcing that he “didn’t want to be tied down”, and he increasingly stayed out late. In divorce court in 1946 Judge Edwards expressed his confusion about the excuse that White had stayed out late at “jam sessions”, a term the judge had never heard. Well and truly channeling archaic attitudes of nineteenth century Australia he announced “I don’t understand…what such activities would have to do with jam”. Truth newspaper joined in with frivolous reporting of the unhappy event, under the heading “Marriage was all Jammed up”.

At the same time all this was unfolding, Betty thought she had a chance of performing on Broadway in the play Flying Fox, written by visiting US serviceman Warren Cheney. Cheney’s intentions were honourable – he wanted to present a contemporary vision of Australia for US audiences, using real Australian actors, including Betty and Ron Randell. But nothing came of the scheme or the play. However, Betty did find more work in local theatre and in an endless stream of radio comedy and drama. And in early 1947, she had another breakthrough – she was cast in her first film role. Always another Dawn was a feature film made by Sydney’s McCreadie brothers, who already had some experience with making short films. It was a war drama, partly filmed on board the Australian destroyer Bataan. In addition to Betty, it starred capable actors in Guy Dolman, Queenie Ashton and Charles Tingwell. Unfortunately, despite the ability of the cast, the film did not fare well. The lighting was criticised as poor, the dialogue dull, and the plot, which included the death in combat of the key protagonist (Tingwell) was heavy handed. Betty never gave an opinion of the film herself, but interviewed in 2002, Tingwell recalled her as one Sydney’s fine young actresses.

Above: Betty performed alongside Michael Pate in the 3UZ radio serial Forrester’s Wharf shortly before leaving for England. Pate had departed for the US in November 1950. The Age, Thu 22 Mar 1951, P1, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Despite the film’s lack of success, there continued to be a stream of stage opportunities that reflected recognition of her ability. In mid 1948, The Sydney Morning Herald noted her good humoured and vivid portrayal of Lydia in Pride and Prejudice at the Minerva. When British actor Robert Morley brought his play Edward, My Son to Australia in October 1949, Betty won the role of the girl Edward marries, requiring her to be on stage just twice – but long enough to attract the positive attention of reviewers. Meanwhile radio performances continued to be her “bread and butter”. 1951 saw her perform on radio with two up and coming Australians – Michael Pate in Forrester’s Wharf and Rod Taylor in My Friend Irma.

The late 1940s and early 1950s saw many young actors leave to try their luck internationally – there was simply not enough work in Australia. Betty’s contemporaries Gwenda Wilson and Dorothy Alison had both departed for London in 1949 and their letters home sometimes appeared in newspapers – it is fair to assume those who were friends also wrote encouragingly to each other. Betty left for England in 1951 – a brave move despite her record of success at home – as she had no connections there. Her first theatre work in London was not as an actor, but as an Assistant Stage Manager for the Tennent Productions play – Indian Summer in late 1951. She played her first role on the London stage in Tennent’s The Same Sky in early 1952.

Coinciding with Betty’s arrival in Britain were dramatic shifts in cinema attendance and the growth of a new phenomenon – the rapid rise of British Television, with a dramatic increase in numbers of household sets spurred on by events such as the 1953 Coronation, and after 1955, the addition of ITV as an alternative to the BBC. As a consequence, there was greater demand for programming, and new work for actors. All the same, her first television outing in April 1953 was hardly very profound fare – it was a videoed promotional version of the play Half Seas Over, a comedy about a female US Channel swimmer that was soon to open at the Q Theatre. (Betty played the swimmer’s sister).

It may have been hellishly hard work as she was later to claim, but her career took off quickly and diverse performances across stage, TV and cinema became her trademark. By December 1956 it was reported that Betty had already appeared in 68 TV roles, and the Lancashire Evening Post’s TV reviewer could describe her as one of his “favourite Television actresses”. For Tatler magazine, at about the same time, the young Australian was a “television personality” worthy of including in a photospread. Her TV performances were in a mix of filmed plays – usually current at theatres, guest parts in serials and one off stories of the “armchair theatre” type, then so popular.

At left above, Betty McDowall’s growing popularity is reflected in the TV pages of The Stage, 12 July 1956, P12. Copyright held by Stage Media. Via British Library Newspaper Archive.

Betty’s first feature film role was in Ealing films The Shiralee, made in late 1956 and set in outback Australia. Featuring numerous Australians then working in England – Peter Finch, Charles Tingwell, Frank Leighton, Reg Lye, Ed Devereaux, Bill Kerr and others, it was filmed partly at the MGM studios in London, as well as on location in New South Wales. Betty had just one scene – as a kindly English-sounding nurse, taking a telegram for Macauley (Finch) the swagman (or itinerant worker). This single appearance in an indoor scene was almost certainly filmed in London. (See Note 2)

Above: Screen grab from Ealing Films The Shiralee. Betty as a kindly nurse in her one scene, with Peter Finch. The film is widely available for purchase – this copy from Network’s Ealing Studios Rarities Collection.

Soon after she took her first leading role in another film – Timelock, playing the mother of a child who accidentally gets locked in an airtight bank vault, protected by a timelock. It is a clever plot for a B film, but largely famous now for the appearance of a very young Sean Connery as one of the workmen assigned to cut into the vault. Betty’s performance playing a now familiar role – the slightly exotic, good looking, but sensible mother, was reviewed positively.

Above: Screen grabs from Timelock (1957). Left – Betty as the child’s increasingly strained mother. At right, Sean Connery as one of the workmen. The 70 minute film is set in Toronto, Canada, although filmed in England.

After a few more supporting roles in films, including Jack the Ripper, in 1960 she took another leading role in the British B film Dead Lucky, coincidentally opposite another young Australian, Vincent Ball, both of them playing London reporters investigating a gambling ring. Interviewed by film historian Brian McFarlane in the late 1990s, Ball recalled that while the 1950s was a good time to be working in British film – “if you’d done a stint in rep and had a decent agent, you could get work” – he only ever felt really secure when he had an ATV contract for an ongoing television series. He seemed to suggest insecurity came with an acting career. Betty appeared again with Vincent Ball in Echo of Diana in 1963, another 60 minute B film.

Surviving and easily accessible for today’s enthusiasts are some of Betty’s performances in 50s and 60s TV series, now on DVD, that give us some insight into her work. For example, in 1964 she appeared in an episode of The Saint called “The Loving Brothers”. Set in “Outback Australia” but clearly filmed on a cheap set and in a stark English quarry, it again featured many of the familiar Australian faces then working in London – like Ray Barrett, Reg Lye, Dick Bentley and Ed Devereaux, who ham things up ridiculously, well and truly conforming to the established postwar stereotype of Australians. In this episode she played a thoroughly unlikeable social-climbing wife of one of the very unpleasant brothers. Sydney-born Annette Andre played the episode’s passive romantic interest opposite Roger Moore.

While television and film is always a lasting legacy, it tends to colour our understanding of an actor’s career. This may also be the case with Betty McDowall, as it is in fact stage work that seems to have sustained her reputation in the 1960s. For example, she earned praise for her performance in Tennessee Williams’ Period of Adjustment at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 1962, The Stage noting that she provided one of the funniest closing lines in the West End. Reviewers of Rule of Three, which ran at The Duchess Theatre in late 1962, also praised her performance, although some found the three short Agatha Christie plays dated and predictable. She managed all of these at the same time she had a recurring role in the TV series Outbreak of Murder. In 1968 she returned to Tennessee Williams again, performing in Sweet Bird of Youth.

Above: Betty, now aged in her late 30s, appeared in Rule of Three, at the Duchess Theatre in December 1962. Photo from a program in the author’s collection.

Above: Betty touring with a popular London comedy in 1973, with up and coming Australian actor Judith Arthy. The Wells Journal 27 July 1973. Copyright is held by Reach PLC. Via British Library Newspaper Archive.

Betty McDowall did not fade away. She continued on stage and in supporting roles on screen, although there was clearly less work. In 1977, following the sudden death of her old friend from Sydney, Gwenda Wilson, she took over the role of Aunt Laura, in The Archers. She played the role in this immensely popular BBC radio series until the character’s demise in 1985. In a way, it seems fitting that 40 years after her first appearances on radio, this was also how she finished her career.

She was married twice in England – to electronics engineer Leslie Cody from 1953 – 1962 and then to Michael Leader in 1967. Leader, who worked for the BBC, was also a well known genealogist.

Betty McDowall died in December 1993. There were no children from any of her marriages and her Australian sisters had predeceased her. Sadly, this writer has found no obituaries or notices concerning her passing.

Above: Betty on a fan card c 1960-65. Author’s collection.

Note 1
Betty’s father John McDowall‘s (1894-1973) birth in China is alluded to in his 1933 – 35 divorce papers, and on her sister Ursula McDowall‘s birth certificate from 1918. John senior’s (1864-1923) position as a Postal Commissioner in Nanning, and his sudden death there in October 1923, is mentioned in The North- China Herald and Supreme Court and Consular Gazette, 24 Nov 1923, p520.

John senior’s various awards for service from the Emperor were also publicly recorded in China and Britain. Betty’s aunt Juanita’s (“Nita”) great success as a student at Shanghai’s Thomas Hanbury School also gained some acknowledgement in The North – China Herald, see Feb 2, 1905, p240.

Note 2
The astute viewer of The Shiralee, wishing to confirm actors’ names, will notice that the closing credits are a mess. In the usual way, the leading actors’ names match the characters’ names – which are bold, larger and in Capital letters. Then suddenly, there is a switch and some supporting actors‘ names are in Caps while others are not – and presented as though Mark Daly was played by Betty McDowall , or Guy Doleman was played by Lou Vernon. Clearly this was put together by someone who hadn’t seen the film and didn’t know the actors. It’s unusual to see such sloppy work in a Michael Balcon film.

Above: Screen grab of closing titles from the author’s copy of The Shiralee. Available from Network’s Ealing Studios Rarities Collection

Nick Murphy
February 2021


References

  • New South Wales Births, Death and Marriages
    • Marriage Cert 15906/1942
    • Birth Cert 18251/1918
  • New South Wales State Archives
    • NRS-13495-14-298-859/1934, Divorce papers Florence Ursula McDowall – John Lloyd McDowall 05-10-1933 to 24-07-1935
  • Text
    • Brian McFarlane (Ed) (2003) The Encyclopedia of British Film. BFI-Methuen
    • Brian McFarlane (1997) An Autobiography of British Cinema. Methuen
    • Stephen Vagg. Australasian Drama Studies, 56, April 2010. Alec Coppel Australian playwright and survivor. P 219-232
    • J P Wearing ( 2014) The London Stage 1950-1959. A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel.  Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
      [Note – this source erroneously lists Betty McDowall twice – once as Betty McDowell]
    • Vanessa Whitburn (1997) The Archers : the official inside story : the changing face of radio’s longest running drama. Virgin, London.
  • Other Websites
    • OzMovies.comAlways another Dawn – Review and resources.
  • National Library of Australia’s Trove
    • The Sydney Morning Herald, 4 Dec 1934, P6
    • Daily Telegraph (Syd), 6 Oct 1940, P23
    • The Sydney Morning Herald, 6 May 1943, P7
    • The Sun (Syd) 9 May 1943, P4
    • Truth (Syd) 12 Mar 1944, P25
    • Truth (Syd) 17 June 1945, P27
    • ABC Weekly, 8 Dec 1945,
    • Truth (Syd) 21 April 1946, P24
    • The Sun (Syd) 14 Feb 1947, P5
    • The Sydney Morning Herald 24 Nov 1947, P5
    • The News (Adel) 18 Dec 1947, P3
    • West Australian (Perth) 19 Dec 1947, P22
    • The Sydney Morning Herald 18 May 1948, P3
    • The ABC Weekly, 12 June 1948
    • Australian Women’s Weekly, 9 Oct 1948, P19
    • The Sydney Morning Herald, 18 May 1948, P3
    • Daily Telegraph (Syd) 8 Mar 1949, P4
    • ABC Weekly 11 June 1949
    • ABC Weekly 12 March 1949
    • Sunday Herald (Syd) 23 Oct 1949, P6
    • The Courier Mail (Bris) 31 May 1950, P8
    • The ABC Weekly, 12 Aug, 1950,
    • The Sunday Mail (Bris) 23 May 1954, P26
    • The Sydney Morning Herald, 12 Jan 1961, P17
    • The Sydney Morning Herald, 13 May 1963, P14
    • Canberra Times, 24 April 1965, P9

  • British Library Newspaper Project
    • The Stage 7 May 1953, P9
    • The Stage, 12 July 1956, P12
    • Lancashire Evening Post – Wed 1 August 1956, P5
    • The Tatler Wed 22 August 1956, P24
    • Daily Herald – Thurs 6 December 1956, P3
    • The Stage, 31 Jan 1957, P12
    • The Tatler, 27 June 1962.
    • The Stage, 12 July 1962, P16
    • The Daily Mirror, 6 Nov 1962, P9
    • The Observer, 14 Jul 1968, Sun · P 26
    • The Stage, 21 Nov, 1968, P9

Principal Girl. The brilliant career of Sara Gregory (1919 – 2014)

Above: Sara Gregory c1950-55 – unmarked collector’s card. Author’s Collection

The Five Second Version
Sara Gregory was a very popular stage performer in Britain in the 1940s and early 50s. Born in Australia in 1919, she studied at London’s RADA and returned to tour Australia performing Gilbert and Sullivan in 1940-42. Back in England she appeared in numerous musicals and pantomimes, usually as the Principal Girl. One of her standout successes was Zip Goes A Million, a George Formby musical based on Brewster’s Millions. She retired in the mid 1950s, aged only in her 30s. She appeared in some televised versions of her stage plays, but appears to have been too busy to work in film. Her husband was actor and theatrical agent Richard Stone.

Olivia Sara Leveson Gregory, the youngest of four daughters of Hugh Campbell Gregory and Katharine nee Leveson, was born in Sydney in 1919. Her English born parents had married in London in 1903 before moving to Kobe, Japan, where Hugh became a merchant handling products for export to the West. After living in Kobe’s foreign settlement for several years (during which time their two oldest daughters were born), the family relocated to Sydney where Hugh became a partner in Reid & Gregory, importers, describing themselves to the public as “Eastern Merchants” and handling a range of products – slippers, glass, ceramicware and silks. In the early 1920s, the family moved to Adelaide where Hugh Gregory established another importing business.

In common with some of the other young Australian women who made names for themselves as actors in Britain in the 1930s and 40s, Sara’s experiences in a school that fostered a passion for the arts seems to have been crucial. She attended Walford House School in Adelaide between 1930 and 1936, where she clearly excelled at her studies, the school’s magazine regularly listing her scholarly success and numerous dramatic and musical performances. By her final year she had become a Prefect and House Captain. It seems likely that while still at Walford she had determined to pursue further studies at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, as she departed for England only a few months after finishing school. Miss Mabel Baker, the school’s long-serving Headmistress, must have been very proud watching Sara’s career unfold.

Above: Sara Gregory, standing at left, as a Walford House Captain in 1936. Walford House Magazine. Used with kind permission of Walford Anglican School for Girls Archive.

From a young age Sara also pursued creative interests outside school. In 1931 she was reported as dancing with Lorraine Angus – an extraordinary Adelaide child prodigy not much older than herself, who gave her own lessons and ran her own concerts, explaining that she did it herself because “grown-ups often get in the way“. In mid 1935 Sara took the lead role in a production of Children in Uniform, a play by German Christa Winsloe. It was a serious and confronting drama about a student’s love for her teacher – which ends in suicide, all set against a background of a strict Prussian girls’ school. It was presented by Adelaide’s Worker’s Education Association (WEA) Little Theatre, and directed by Adelaide resident and former Australian film star Agnes Dobson.

Above: Children in Uniform by the WEA Little Theatre. Left: The Advertiser (Adelaide) 31 July 1935, Right: Performers in the play (Sara is front row, second from the left) News,(Adelaide) 31 July 1935, both via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Children in Uniform was an unusual choice of play for an Australian semi-professional troupe at the time, with its all female cast and suggestions of same sex-love. The Adelaide Mail offered its congratulations to Sara for her performance, and to the WEA for its “delicate handling of a doubtful theme.”

In March 1937 Sara and her older sister Pat departed for England on the Moreton Bay. In London there was a large extended family – from both her mother’s and father’s sides – ready to look after her interests while she studied at RADA. On arrival, the girls headed to Berkeley Gardens in Kensington, to the home of their unmarried maternal aunt Pauline. 24 year old Pat was planning to teach in Britain.

Sara excelled at RADA and by March 1939 she had completed her diploma. The Stage newspaper reported her among the performers at the Academy’s annual performance at the Apollo Theatre and noted that she was the event’s bronze prize winner – a great achievement for a 20 year old girl from Australia. She had already made her first appearance on stage in a pantomime a few months earlier during the winter break – in the leading role of Cinderella, playing through English regional centres.

Above: Sara Gregory in Robert Donat’s The Glass Slipper, a later retelling of the Cinderella story, at St James Theatre in December 1945. She was later to claim this was her favourite part. Cyril Andrews (1947) The Theatre, The Cinema and Ourselves. Clarence House Press. via Lantern Digital Archive.

In the summer of 1939, while performing in a cabaret at Saltburn-by-the-Sea, a coastal town in Yorkshire, Sara met fellow actor Richard Stone, whom she would eventually marry. Stone’s unusually candid autobiography, published shortly before his death in 2000, notes that Sara’s “formidable” uncle Lance Leveson (a senior manager at Vickers Armstrong) seriously disliked him, which may explain what happened next. In late 1939, Sara (apparently with Lance’s active encouragement) auditioned for and won a role in a company being formed to tour Gilbert and Sullivan operettas throughout Australia for J.C Williamson’s. Yet this could only be a part of the story. Sara’s mother Katharine had joined her in England in 1938 and must also have encouraged the audition and the return to Australia. She travelled with Sara on the Orontes in January 1940. Australian papers announced the impending return of the successful young actress, who, they reported, had always wanted to play Gilbert and Sullivan, ever since she saw Evelyn Gardiner on stage in Australia. Gardiner herself was in the company, with Viola Tait (then Viola Hogg-Wilson), Max Oldaker, Richard Watson, Vincent McMurray and others.

War had already been declared when the Orontes set sail, and the voyage was an anxious one. Viola Tait recalled rehearsing with Sara amongst passengers often “hanging around in agitated groups, speculating on the U-boat menace.” They arrived safely in Australia in February 1940.

Above, Left: Sara Gregory on her return to Australia, at the start of the long G&S tour, The Herald (Melb) 1 Feb 1940. Right: On arrival in Adelaide. The Mail (Adel) 24 May 1941, via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Viola Tait, who became a close friend, described Sara thus in her autobiography – “her hair festooned her pretty features… and her retroussé (turned up) nose almost vanished when she smiled and showed her perfect white teeth. She was an ideal soubrette for Gilbert and Sullivan.” For the next two years, the company toured every major city in Australia and New Zealand, Sara performing the soubrette roles together with Phyllis Curnow. The company opened in Sydney with The Gondoliers in March 1940. Reviews of her work on the tour were consistently enthusiastic – Melbourne’s The Age remarked that while her voice “was small”, it was “tuneful” and she displayed “a roguish comic sense.” Brisbane’s Telegraph was impressed by her “everlasting vivaciousness.” Her return to Adelaide in May 1941 received great publicity and her former Headmistress was able to confirm what an outstanding student she had been. It was while in Adelaide and shortly after her 22nd birthday that she announced her engagement to Richard Stone (although he was still in England and now in the Army). In his memoirs, Stone recalled that she had accepted his proposal before she left England.

With a fortuitous offer of work in the UK, Sara was able to leave Australia in early 1942, once she found a passenger-cargo ship that would carry her. (The offer of work was vital, as without it she could not travel in wartime). Sailing via the Pacific, the Panama Canal and east coast USA, the SS Sarpedon finally got Sara to England again in late April 1942 – the last leg from Nova Scotia to Liverpool being in an escorted convoy. Within a few days of arrival in England she married Richard Stone, who then promptly returned to the Army for another two years.

Above: Sara Gregory, c November 1947. Program cover photo for the musical Good Night Vienna, playing at the New Opera House, Blackpool. Author’s Collection.

Her first appearance on the London stage occurred only a few weeks later, as a member of the revue Light and Shade at the Ambassadors Theatre. In December 1942 she appeared in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Westminster Theatre, The Stage picking the 23 year old out for comment as “a charming Titania,” who sang beautifully. Although Sara was busy performing in London and on tour throughout the war, Viola Tait has noted that it was her 1944 role as Goody, the Principal Girl in the pantomime Goody Two Shoes, that broke records at the Coliseum Theatre and ran for 175 performances. Sara’s mezzo-soprano voice and short stature seems to have ensured she consistently played wholesome Principal Girl roles in pantomimes – including in Robert Donat‘s The Glass Slipper (1945), Dick Whittington (1949) and Cinderella (1951).

Principal Boy roles in pantomimes are also traditionally played by young women – but almost always in a short tunic and usually showing off as much leg as possible. (See one of Sara’s co-stars, Hy Hazell below right, for example).

Above: Left – Program cover for Zip Goes a Million, c 1952, starring Sara Gregory, and by this time, Reg Dixon (who had replaced George Formby). Right – Unrelated to the show but in the same program, Hy Hazell was announced as Principal Boy in an upcoming Jack and Jill panto from the same producer, Emile Littler. Program in the author’s collection.

Sara’s best remembered role came in 1951, when she won a leading part as as Sally Whittle in Zip Goes a Million, a musical version of the 1902 novel Brewster’s Millions, playing opposite the very popular British singer George Formby (as Percy Piggott).

Zip Goes a Million was a significant commitment and remains a testimony to her capacity – as Sara had three young children by this time, and her husband Richard Stone was working hard to establish his own business as an agent. The show ran for 540 performances between October 1951 and February 1953 and despite indifferent reviews on opening, grew to be an enormous success. George Formby was apparently an easy co-star to work with, but his wife Beryl was recalled by both Stone and Sara as difficult and jealous, often watching performances from the wings, checking for any imagined impropriety between Sara and Formby. Formby withdrew in April 1952 because of ill health and Reg Dixon took over the role. When the show went on tour, Sara dropped out, to spend more time with her young family.

She did not immediately retire, as some accounts have suggested – it seems more like a leisurely exit. She appeared in a long run of The Two Bouquets in 1953, and a short run of East Lynne in 1954. At least several of these later plays were filmed for television, a practice common in the early days of British television – serving to foster interest in a current theatre production while also providing cheap and quick TV programming. Despite her popularity, she did not appear in any British films, although in his memoirs, Richard Stone notes one instance where Sara was offered a film role which she had to decline because of stage commitments. She also returned to the stage at least once in later life. In 1975 she played the fairy godmother in a Cinderella panto in Canada.

Stone’s memoirs also record that he and Sara Gregory returned to Australia several times in the 1970s and 80s. Her last visit was to celebrate the launch of the book Dames, Principal Boys…and All That, by her long time friend Viola Tait, in April 2001.

Although she and Stone retired to the Isle of Wight, later in life she spent some of her time in California to be nearer her children. She died there in April 2014.


An Australian performer?

In early 1948, Australian comedian and resident in London, Dick Bentley interviewed Sara and actor Bill Kerr for radio. Although the recording couldn’t be sourced for this article, it is safe to assume Bentley was asking them about their experiences as Australian actors working in England. Sara’s experience closely mirrors that of other Australian women who made England home at about the same time – Lucille Lisle, Judy Kelly, Nancy O’Neil and others. It might suit our purposes today to believe she identified as an Australian. But the answer is probably very simple – it didn’t really matter that much at the time, certainly not as much as today – in an era of heightened national consciousness. Australians then seem to have thought of themselves as variations of the British race.

This 1940 photo from the collections of the National Library of Australia shows Sara at “Cook’s Cottage” (the family home of Captain James Cook) in Melbourne. The cottage had been moved to Australia from England only 6 years before to celebrate the City of Melbourne’s centenary of British settlement. 80 years on it is still there, now as much a reminder of how Australians once felt about England, as it is a monument to James Cook.

Above: Sara Gregory (at right). Photo also shows (Left and Centre) singers Helen Fullard and John Fullard with Sara while visiting Cook’s Cottage, Melbourne, 1940. National Library of Australia, Lady Viola Tait collection.

Nick Murphy
January 2021


Special Thanks
To Eleanor Adams, Archivist, Walford Anglican School for Girls, for access to the Walford House Magazine.

References

  • Text
    • Cyril Bruyn Andrews (1947) The Theatre, The Cinema and Ourselves. Clarence House Press
    • Gale Research Co (1978) Who was who in the Theatre 1912-1976 Vol 2, D-H. Gale Research Company, Detroit.
    • Charles Osborne (1988) Max Oldaker, Last of the Matinee Idols. Michael O’Mara Books
    • Richard Stone (2001) You should have been in Last Night. Book Guild Publishing.
    • Viola Tait (1971) A Family of Brothers. The Taits and J C Williamson, a Theatre History. Heinemann.
    • Viola Tait (2001) Dames, Principal Boys– and All That: A History of Pantomime in Australia. MacMillian.
    • Viola Tait, Elisabeth Kumm (Ed) (2018) I Have a Song to Sing – Some Memories of Gilbert and Sullivan and JC Williamson Ltd. Theatre Heritage Australia/Tait Memorial Trust.
    • J.P. Wearing (2014) The London stage 1950-1959 : a calendar of productions, performers, and personnel. Rowman and Littlefield.
  • Original US archival documents sourced from
  • National Library of Australia’s Trove
    • The News (Adel) Sat 17 Oct 1931, P1
    • The Advertiser (Adel) 31 July 1935
    • The News (Adel) 31 July 1935
    • The News (Adel) Tue 15 Dec 1936, P3
    • The Herald (Melb) 1 Feb 1940
    • The Advertiser (Adel) 20 Feb 1940, P16
    • Sydney Morning Herald 27 Feb 1940, P5
    • The Mail (Adel) Sat 24 May 1941, P12
    • The News (Adel) Tue 3 Jun 1941, P6
    • The Advertiser (Adel) Wed 9 Jan 1946, P3
    • ABC Weekly Vol. 10 No. 15 (10 April 1948)
  • British Library Newspaper Archive
    • The Stage – Thursday 9 Mar 1939, P11
    • The Stage – Thursday 3 Jan 1946, P9
    • The Sketch – Jan 23, 1946, P38
  • Newspapers.com
    • The Ottawa Journal 11 Jan 1975, P35

Sketches of Pollard’s Performers

Above: University of Washington, Special Collections, JWS24555. (Enlargement) Reproduced with permission. The Commonwealth of Australia was 4 years old when this photo of the Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company was taken in the Philippines in late 1904 or early 1905. Close examination of the original (here) suggests the children are posing with chained prisoners. The children include front row, 1st from left: Leah Leichner, 2L Teddy McNamara, 6L Freddie Heintz, 1st from Right: Harry Fraser (later Snub Pollard), 2R Johnnie Heintz, 4R Daphne Pollard. Standing in the rear at left is Oscar Heintz.

On 30 June 1901, The San Francisco Call announced the impending arrival of an exciting troupe of young Australians, Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company from Melbourne. While the paper assured readers they were all extremely talented, it explained they were “all children of the poorer classes”, one performer being “picked up on the streets,” it was claimed.

Over the period 1898-1909, Charles Pollard (1858-1942) and his sister Nellie Chester (1861-1944) took travelling troupes of children overseas, overwhelmingly girls and mostly residents of the inner suburbs of Melbourne, to perform musical comedies at colonial outposts in South East Asia and then through the cities of Canada and the USA. One tour was away for over two years. These troupes were always known as Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company, although they had a continually changing mix of new and seasoned performers. The children were indentured to the Pollards in a way we would find unthinkable today – and even then, Pollard tours sometimes caused controversy, most notably in 1909-1910 when Arthur Hayden Pollard‘s (1873-1940) tour to India collapsed in scandal.

Pollard’s performers in Vancouver 1903. Left to right: Ivy and Daphne Trott (Pollard), Irene Finlay, Leah Leichner, Willie Thomas all from inner Melbourne. The photo of Leah is enlarged from the Australian Performing Arts Collection and used with permission. Other photos are from a group photo via Vancouver As It Was: A Photo-Historical Journey (click to follow the link) reproduced with permission.

The Pollard’s performers were generally the children of unskilled and semiskilled workers; bakers, boot-makers, tailors, plumbers, ironmongers, carriers, cab-drivers and fruiterers. Several parents were bookmakers, the Trott girls (Ivy Trott and Daphne Pollard) were the children of a french polisher, Midas Martyn‘s father was a bookbinder. They were almost all children from families living in modest cottages built in close proximity to light industry – and they particularly hailed from Fitzroy, Collingwood and Abbotsford. Some lived in such close proximity to each other it is inconceivable they were not acquainted before they signed up.

Here are some short accounts of a few of the Pollard children.


Oscar, Freddie & Johnnie Heintz

Oscar Heintz was born in 1891, twins Freddie and Johnnie Heintz in 1895. Their father John Heintz was a baker, and he and his wife Annie nee Garland lived much of their life in a modest single storied terrace at 84 Kerr Street, just a few doors from the home of Daphne and Ivy Trott, in the heart of Fitzroy ( although the family lived around the corner at 101 Argyle St, when the twins were born). John Heintz died in 1900 aged only in his late 30s. A few years later, his three boys joined the lengthy Pollard’s tour of Asia and North America, that departed Melbourne in July 1904 and returned home in February 1907.

Above left: The Heintz family lived at 84 Kerr St Fitzroy, the house with the red door. On New Year’s Day 1913,Freddie was chased into his home by Police, after swearing in the street. He threw a chair at them before being arrested. Photo – Author’s collection. Above right: Freddie and Johnnie Heintz on the July 1904 – Feb 1907 Pollard’s tour of North America. Photo – courtesy Robert Maynard

Remarkably, at the end of the tour in 1907, 16 year old Oscar Heintz stayed on in the US, settling in Portland, Oregon, where with the help of the YMCA, he studied, worked in a bank, married, raised a family and eventually became sales manager for Neon Manufacturing. His was the classic American immigrant made-good story. He returned to Australia to visit family in 1929.

Freddie and Johnnie Heintz travelled again with a Pollard’s tour that departed later in 1907, and also on the ill-fated Indian tour in 1909. The twins then appeared on stage in Australia for several years, Freddie performing for a time with Tom Liddiard’s troupe. Freddie, probably the more boisterous of the twins, returned alone to the United States in 1914 – performing for a while with Queenie Williams and some of the other former Pollard’s players. He changed his stage name at least twice – to Freddie Garland and later to Freddie Steele, but struggled to build an ongoing stage career of his own. He crossed the border to join the Canadian Army in 1918. He seems to have ended his days alone, working as a handyman in Freeport, New York. His twin brother Johnnie Heintz would have no more of the life of the travelling performer after 1911 and following in his father’s footsteps, became a pastry chef, based in Adelaide.

Above: Freddie visiting Oscar, as reported in The Oregonian (Portland Oregan), 25 July, 1922. Via Newspapers.com

Alice and Ethel Bennetto

Alice (1886 +) and her sister Ethel (1889+) were born at 36 Argyle Street, Fitzroy, to Arthur Martin Bennetto, a bricklayer and Sarah nee Montague They both travelled on the Pollard’s tour of North America in Sept 1901 – Oct 1902.

When US President William McKinley died in September 1901, the Pollard’s company, then travelling through Honolulu, joined a Jewish memorial service held in the assassinated President’s honour. 16 year old Alice Bennetto led a chorus of Pollard’s children singing during the service. Company treasurer Arthur Levy introduced the children’s music with the solemn words “We have come as Israelites…” suggesting that more than a few of the performers were from inner Melbourne’s large Jewish community.

In 1903 the Bennetto family had moved to 86 Kerr St Fitzroy, next door to the family of Oscar, Johnnie and Freddie Heintz. Both the Bennetto girls went on to stage careers in Australia and New Zealand, with some success. Ethel, famous for her dancing and singing, earned some notoriety in 1918 when the Melbourne Police took exception to some of the scanty “Egyptian” costumes she wore in the Tivoli theatre production Time Please. She also appeared in the (now lost) Australian comedy film Does the Jazz lead to Destruction? Soon after, while performing in New Zealand, she met and married a doctor and subsequently left the stage.

But Alice maintained her career. She was still singing for Australians thirty five years later, as a member of Stanley McKay’s Gaieties troupe.

Above: Ethel in Egyptian attire, reported by The Sun (Sydney) , 28 Jul 1918, Page 10, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.
Above left: The very modest terrace at 36 Argyle St Fitzroy, the house with red painted verandah iron in the centre – the home of the Bennetto family when Alice and Ethel were born in the 1890s. Photo – Author’s collection. At right: Alice Bennetto in Table Talk (Melbourne), 6 January 1910. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Ethel Naylor

Born in Williamstown, Victoria in 1896, Ethel Naylor travelled on the July 1907- April 1909 Pollard’s tour to North America. In July 1909, she also departed on Pollard’s Indian tour, this time with her older sister Nellie. The girls were the daughters of bookmaker Joseph Naylor and Alice nee Kennedy.

Their family life had been very difficult – Joseph suffered such serious mental illness that he was hospitalised in the asylum at Kew in 1905. He died there in 1907. Of his seven children, only Ethel, Nellie and one other sibling survived childhood – an experience enough to test the sanity of anyone. His widow Alice found life hard, and she drifted between residences. The only contact Truth newspaper could find for her when the Pollard’s Indian tour returned in 1910 was Alice’s workplace address – which was the famous Lucas’ Town Hall Cafe, in Swanston Street, Melbourne, now where the Capital Theatre stands.

Above: Ethel Naylor featured in the Oroville Daily Register (California), 24 Jan 1916. Via Newspapers.com
The 3 story Town Hall Cafe (centre) and the Talma Photographers building, Swanston Street, Melbourne, from the Town Hall corner, c.1899. State Library Victoria, Gwyn James Collection, H93.466/6. (The Talma Building still stands)

Ethel did perform on stage again, and with significant success. In July 1912 Nelly Chester raised another Pollard’s troupe for touring the US. This time the players were older, and no longer described as Lilliputians, or children, so as to comply with the 1910 Emigration Act. However, many were former Pollard’s players, including Ethel. She did well with the “Pollard’s Juvenile Troupe” that travelled through the United States and Canada. Like many of the performers on this final tour, Ethel stayed on in the US. By the late 1920s she had well and truly changed direction and was working as a registered nurse at the General Hospital in Aberdeen, Washington state. She married in 1932.


Minnie, Nellie and May Topping

Henry Topping was a plumber, and with his wife Mary Ann, nee Plant, they parented seven children. The family lived in and around the northern end of Fitzroy Street, a north-south street that runs the length of the suburb of Fitzroy. They lived a few hundred metres from the Trott and Heintz families in nearby Kerr Street. Minnie (born 1885), Nellie (born 1888) and May (born 1890) Topping all appeared with Nellie Chester and Charles Pollard’s troupes. All three children travelled together on the 1901-1902 tour to North America, and May and Minnie again in 1902-3.

May and Minnie Topping, photographed in 1909. The Gadfly (Adelaide), 20 January 1909, Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove. Photo of the northern end of Fitzroy St, looking south, from the footpath outside the Topping’s now demolished home. Author’s collection.

The Topping sisters moved across to the other Pollard’s Liliputian (consistently spelled with two rather than 3 “L”s) Company in 1907 – this company was run by Tom Pollard and performed exclusively throughout Australia and New Zealand. They are unusual in that respect – as most players did not do this. We can assume they found the extended North American travel with Charles Pollard and Nellie Chester too arduous.

Minnie Topping, who had proved to be a very popular performer, left the Australian stage in 1913, after marrying a Queensland pastoralist. May continued to perform with the Lionel Walsh – Phil Smith company until her marriage in 1923. By this time, the family home (the girls lived here until they married) was at 521 Canning Street Carlton North, a building that still stands. (Left- author’s collection)

We know a little more of the Topping family life because in 1899, a long suffering Mary Ann took Henry Topping to court to force him to support the family, and the Melbourne Herald reported the case. He was a drunken and violent husband and Mary Ann and the children had left him because of this. By way of a somewhat lame explanation, Henry explained that he was not a certified plumber, and had only made 2 shillings so far that week. The court found in favour of Mary Ann and ordered Henry to support his family. Of the black eyes he had inflicted on Mary Ann, the court had nothing to say.

George (born 1881), another of the Topping children, was an Australian Rules Footballer for Carlton, and later an AFL Umpire. The girls’ youngest brother, Albert, was killed soon after arriving on the Western front in August 1916.


Nick Murphy
December 2020


Special Thanks

  • University of Washington Special Collections, for permission to use the photos of the troupe. Their collection of photos of the Pollard’s troupes while on tour in North America is invaluable.
  • To Jean Ritsema, in Michigan, for her research efforts in North America.

Fiction
In the absence of meaningful contemporary interviews with these performers, two works of fiction are highly recommended – that help give some sense of the context, motivation and everyday lives of young Australian performers.

  • Kaz Cooke (2017) Ada. Comedian, Dancer, Fighter. Viking /Penguin. A fictional account of Ada Delroy’s life.
  • Kirsty Murray (2010) India Dark. Allen and Unwin. A fictional work inspired by the Pollard Tour of India in 1909-1910.

The Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne, holds an interview with Irene Goulding, a former Pollard performer, made in 1985.

General Reading

  • Gillian Arrighi & Victor Emeljanow (Eds) (2014) Entertaining Children: The Participation of Youth in the Entertainment Industry, Chapter 3, Palgrave MacMillan.
  • 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) John Hopkins University Press.
  • 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]
  • Justine Hyde’s blog Hub and Spoke which includes an interview with Kirsty Murray about India Dark.
  • Leann Richards (2012) Theatrical Child Labour Scandal  Stage Whispers website.

Birth certificates, Ships manifests, Voting rolls, Census details etc sourced from

Regarding Oscar, Freddie and Johnnie Heintz

  • Via Newspapers.com
    Calgary Herald (Alberta, Can) 9 Oct, 1908 P7
    The Evening News (Penns) 13 Dec 1922, P12
    Oregonian (Oreg) 10 Oct, 1929
  • Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
    Herald (Vic) 3 Jan 1913, P 6

Regarding Alice and Ethel Bennetto

  • Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.
    Advertiser (SA) 29 Nov 1923, P11
  • Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper (1980) Australian Film, 1900-1977. Oxford University Press/AFI
  • Newspapers.com
    The Honolulu Republican 1 Oct 1901.

Regarding May, Nellie and Minnie Topping

  • Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.
    The Herald (Vic) 16 Mar 1899, P1
    The Australian Star (NSW) 3 Sept 1901, P7
    Table Talk (Vic) 16 Feb, 1905, P16
    The World’s News (NSW) 26 Oct 1907,
    Evening Telegraph (Qld) 31 Aug 1908, P4
    The Gadfly (SA) 20 Jan 1909, P8
  • Peter Downes (2002) The Pollards, A Family and its child and adult opera companies in New Zealand and Australia 1880-1910. Steele Roberts, Aotearoa