Leah Leichner (1890 – ? ) & Pollard’s last tour of India

Above: 13 year old Leah Leichner (centre) and unidentified girls, and a US soldier, while on the 1903-4 Pollard tour. This photo is enlarged from a group photo taken in Manila in 1903, held in the Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.

Leah Leichner was a performer with Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company. She is significant because in March 1910, reports of her – and others – being mistreated while on the Pollard tour of India formed part of a damning public commentary. This in turn led to legislation banning Australian children being taken out of the country to perform.

Australian newspapers reported that company manager Arthur Hayden Pollard had beaten Leah with a heavy stick, “inflicting a severe wound over the eye, because she went out with a man in a motor car, which was against the rules.” Other child performers had been similarly treated, or confined to bread and water, or had their hair cut, or were punished in other ways. As well as being beaten, Leah Leichner had been sent home to Australia in December 1909, because she was “unruly.” But the Pollard tour was already collapsing by that time, and within a matter of weeks almost all the performers announced they wanted to go home, and more dramatically still, members of the Madras Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children had become involved and removed the children from Pollard’s care.

Pollards in Manilla poss 1905 full screen

Above: University of Washington, Special Collections, JWS24555. The Commonwealth of Australia was 4 years old when this photo of the Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company was taken in the Philippines sometime in mid 1904. Leah stands at the front, on the left, on her second tour. Close examination of the original (here) suggests the children are posing with chained prisoners. Reproduced with permission.

Institutionalized Children?

Gillian Arrighi and others have written of the phenomenon of the child performance tours of the early 20th Century. It is worth pausing and looking past the nationalist sentiment we might attach to these pioneer Australian performers today, and recognizing that this was really a form of genteel child exploitation. Talented they may have been, but almost all of the Pollard’s child performers were underage and some were even under 10 when they travelled overseas for two years or more. Signing their child’s guardianship to Charles Pollard and Nellie Chester, or after 1909 to Arthur Pollard, meant parents received payment for their child’s performances.

Charles pollard 1906   Nellie Chester 1906   Arthur Hayden Pollard 1906

Above, left to right; Charles Pollard, Nellie Chester (nee Pollard) and Arthur Hayden Pollard in 1902. (See a 1910 image of Arthur here). These enlargements are from a group photo via Vancouver As It Was: A Photo-Historical Journey (click to follow the link) and is used with their kind permission. 

Excitement, a chance to travel, a possible career path and a mighty ego boost were the benefits for the children, but they did not directly receive any form of salary and at best a fitful education. With only a handful of exceptions all came from working class families in inner Melbourne (See Note 1 below). It seems likely the Pollards targeted these suburbs, presumably because they found parents and children more receptive to their plans. And as novelist Kirsty Murray has noted, without a state secondary education system, this form of apprenticeship was an attractive option for some parents – an alternative to dreary factory work or an apprenticeship.

Pollards call for kids

Pollard’s advertises for new child performers at Ford’s Hall, 150 Brunswick St, Fitzroy. The Age, 13 Feb, 1907. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Today we might wonder about the impact of this enterprise on a young person, so far from family and for so long, in these formative years. It should also be noted that the Pollards performers were playing adult roles on stage, a fact that even some contemporary commentators found confronting, given the adult content of the musicals they performed. One correspondent for the Hong Kong Daily Press on December 27, 1907 reminded readers “Pollard’s Lilliputians are children, but their performance is anything but childish… That shrimp of a maiden …who portrays a woman many times divorced, how are we to regard her?” As Gillian Arrighi notes in her 2017 article on the case, “the authors of these musical comedies never intended them for performance by children.”

East coast US audiences never got to see Pollard’s perform. The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (the “Gerry Society”) appears to have kept Pollard’s Lilliputians away from the big cities on the US east coast, where the society was most active.


Leah’s birth and childhood in Melbourne

Born Leah Caroline Cohen on 9 July 1890 in Fitzroy, like many Pollard’s performers Leah was from working class inner Melbourne.  Her mother Minnie nee Grant had been born in Mount Gambier, South Australia, while her father Samuel Harris Cohen was an English-born tailor. Only a few years after her birth, Minnie and Leah had left Samuel. In 1900 Minnie married Isaac Leichner, a Rumanian-born fruiterer based at the Queen Victoria Market. Together they lived in nearby Little Lonsdale Street. Leah took her step-father’s surname for her own.


Leah and two Pollards tours of North America

At the age of 12, Leah auditioned for a Pollard’s tour in late 1902, managed by Nellie Chester and her brother Charles Pollard. Manifests show she joined the troupe on SS Changsa, departing in January 1903, bound for Hong Kong and then on to North America. She was in company with names familiar to us now – Daphne Pollard (Trott) and her sister Ivy Trott, Teddie McNamara and Alf Goulding and his sister Irene Loftus (Goulding), and others whose adventures are documented elsewhere including Midas Martin and Willie Thomas.

In 1904 she joined a second Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company tour, first travelling to Queensland, where they tested out their repertoire of musical comedies. In September 1904 the company departed Australia to give performances in the “far east” (Manila, Hong Kong and Shanghai) before arriving in the USA in March 1905. This group of Australian child performers stayed away from home for an extraordinary 28 months – not returning until late February, 1907. Leah can be traced through some of the positive publicity given by the press, but Canadian and US audiences also had their particular favourites in the company, most notably Daphne Pollard.

Daphne_Pollard_and_Leah_Lirchner_in__The_Geisha__(SAYRE_13291)
Above: University of Washington, Special Collections, JWS24603. Daphne Pollard and Leah Leichner re-creating a scene from The Geisha. The photo is credited to Ying Cheong, a photographer and painter in Canton Road Shanghai. It was taken in either 1903 or 1904, on Leah’s first or second tours, before the company reached North America. Used with permission.

The repertoire performed by this troupe included the musicals “A Runaway Girl”, “The Belle of New York”, “The Lady Slavey” and “HMS Pinafore”.

The Geisha

Fibs by Pollards Montreal 1905

Above: This is the cast from The Geisha being performed in Montreal, Canada, in November 1905. The ages in this  program are all incorrect despite the Pollard company assurances. For example, Daphne Pollard was 14, Leah Leichner 15. Extracts from a program in the author’s collection.

Leah and her secret, 1907 – 1908

Leah did not join the next Pollard tour of North America, but in 1907 and 1908 she appeared with troupes in eastern Australia. Perhaps she decided it was time to try out on her own – or maybe she was thought to look too old. She spent much of her time performing at the Adelaide Tivoli Theatre. According to some reviewers she was “dainty”, “sang well”, and was “the brightest item on the bill.” But she did not appeal to all Australians – whose taste in theatre could still be conservative. According to Adelaide’s Gadfly, she made the mistake of appearing on stage in trousers as a “soldier boy”, as she had previously looked “much better in skirts”. 

SMH 17 OCT 1908

Above: Sydney Morning Herald advertisement, 17 October, 1908. for Harry Rickard’s Tivoli Theatre. Leah appears in company with May Dalberg (presumably the same Mae Dahlberg who was later associated with Stan Laurel) Soon after this, Leah disappeared from the stage. Via Newspapers.com

Then in October 1908 Leah received some news that must have been a shock. She discovered she was pregnant and soon after, she ceased appearing on stage. We know nothing of the context of her pregnancy and the birth certificate for her son, born in May 1909 is rather sad and stark. The baby was born at the family home in Little Lonsdale Street, with Leah’s mother Minnie assisting at the birth. No father is named, the responsibility for parenting an illegitimate child then rested entirely with the mother, who also faced extraordinary social stigma. Almost certainly the baby was adopted out, as he disappeared entirely from the historical record. And 6 weeks later, Leah, joined the next Pollard’s tour – that might take another two years. It would be extremely unusual if she were not in a fragile state following the birth.


Leah and the 1909 – 1910 Pollard Tour of India

In April 1909 Charles Pollard announced he was retiring from running the North American tours. Arthur Pollard would take over as manager. (Nellie Chester chose not to join him). The next troupe was partly made up of new faces, but there were a good number of former Pollard players, including Leah Leichner, Irene Finlay, Willie Howard, the three McGorlick sisters, Leslie and Charlie Donaghey and John and Freddie Heintz. Perhaps Arthur Pollard wanted some experienced players in the group and approached seasoned performers such as these to join. (He knew all of these performers well – he had been on several previous Pollard tours). About thirty young people and various adults departed on 3 July 1909 on the SS Gracchus, bound for Java and Singapore. At 19 years of age, Leah was the oldest performer in the troupe.

Arthur Pollard’s assault on Leah apparently took place in Malaya, and she was sent home to Australia in mid December 1909 ( With several other performers – also see Note 1). Of the “motor car” incident we have very little information. But later reports confirm that the problems on the tour started very early on – and demonstrate that Arthur Pollard clearly had a temperament completely unsuited to working with children. Although legally guardian of the children, he had also started an intimate relationship with 18 year old Irene Finlay while on the trip, or possibly before. He attempted to defend himself in a letter to The Madras Times but this only seems to have made things worse, as he denied mistreating the children, but then admitted he had! Pollard also brought “charges” against one of the girls in the troupe, which papers refused to publicise – perhaps this was the story of Leah and her baby.  Pollard also complained “The three girls in question are telling falsehoods and so is Fred Heintz. I have boxed Fred’s ears, and I smacked him on the proper place several times, but never without good cause…Yes it has been a rule in this company to cut a girl’s hair off…” He also complained that he had done the right thing by paying salaries to some parents in advance and he had also paid for some of the children’s clothes.

By April 1910, Australian newspapers were regularly reporting all of the claims and counter claims that were being made in the Madras High Court. The Melbourne Herald  cited a letter from Alice Cartlege to her mother which gave a 12 year old’s simple but indignant perspective:

Madras Feb 17 1910
Dearest Mother,
A few lines to tell you everything at last. I would have told you before but feared you would fret. The company is broken up. Mr Pollard and — (a member of the company) are getting away to America. Pollard has been a pig to us and the way he has banged some of us about is awful. His talk was disgusting. He mocked at us and said we couldn’t get away for two years. In Bangalore he banged every boy except his favorite, and he knocked Violet Jones about. He hit Freddie Heintz about dreadfully, and the people interfered owing to his screams… Mrs Quealy and Miss Thorn the matron are now in charge of us, and they are good to us. Don’t worry, I shall be with you soon. Your loving daughter Alice Cartlege.

It seems Arthur Pollard, unwilling to face a court outcome, made a run for French Pondicherry with the proceeds of the performances to date, taking Irene Finlay with him but abandoning the rest of his charges in the process. A few months later, in May 1910, the child performers were returned home to Melbourne on the SS Scharnhorst and the French steamer SS Caledonian. The disastrous Pollard tour of 1909 was over.

The Leader 2 April 1910

Above: The company on Sunday 26 February 1910, two days after breaking up, photographed on the estate of Mr Scovell, near Bangalore. The Leader, 20 April, 1910. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.

The Outcomes

The Australian Emigration Act of 1910, written and passed by Federal parliament within 10 months of the tour, prohibited any child being taken out of Australia to perform “theatrical, operatic or other work.”(See Note 3)

The bad publicity brought the days of Pollard’s extended overseas tours for child actors to an end. But while the Pollard’s popular reputation had been damaged, it was not so badly that Nellie Chester could not run a final North American tour in 1912, with older children.

Leah Leichner appeared again on the Australian stage in early March 1910. She made one short public comment to correct details of events of the tour – the motor car incident, then nothing more. She continued performing until she married actor-turned electrician Frederick Johnstone, in 1914. Johnstone joined the Army in late 1915, in the great surge of enlistments following the Australian landings at Gallipoli. But Johnstone launched divorce proceedings against Leah in 1919. He said she had been living with another man, pretending he had been killed at Gallipoli. Sadly, Leah disappeared completely from the historical record after this and what became of her we do not know.

She left an intriguing footnote behind. Both Minnie and Isaac died within months of each other in 1916. Presumably, respecting their wishes, Leah buried her mother in the Anglican section of Boorondara Cemetery. However, Isaac was buried in the Jewish section of Fawkner cemetery, some 20 kilometres away. The headstones express similarly warm sentiments to both Isaac and Minnie.

   Belle Leichner c 1920

Above “Bella Lichner”, most likely to be Leah’s step sister Bella (born to Isaac and Minnie in 1900)  is known to have performed at the Tivoli in Adelaide in the early 1920s. Via the National Library of Australia. Prompt Collection Scrapbook

Note 1
While making their way home in April 1910, Truth newspaper  listed some of the members of this company. It is reproduced here to give some idea of the group’s strong inner suburban Melbourne profile. However, the list appears to be missing some names, including Leah Leichner’s and Irene Finlay’s, and the author has corrected some spellings.

Alma Young, 12 years, 28 Fitzroy Street, Fitzroy;
Ruby Ford, 17 years, 368 Cardigan Street. Carlton;
Florrie Allen, 8 years, 437 Cardigan Street, Carlton;
Rita Bennett, 12 years, 58 Osborne Street, South Yarra:
Dora Isaacs, 16 years, 280 Lygon Street, Carlton;
Millie 17 years, Rose 15 years, Clara 12 years, McGorlick, 81 Rokeby Street, Collingwood;
Lottie Parry, 9 years, 74 Rupert Street, Collingwood;
Violet Jones, 15 years, “Waratah,” 26 Moore Street, South Yarra;
Ella 13 years, Pat 12 years, Nugent, 95 Rowena Parade, Richmond;
Elsie Morris, 13 years, 5 Greeves Street, Fitzroy;
Ethel 14 years, Nellie 18 years, Naylor, c/o Lucas’s Cafe, Swanston Street, Melbourne;
Ivy Ferguson, 12 years, 104 Grey Street, East Melbourne;
Alice Cartlege, 15 years, 322 Lygon Street, Carlton;
Willie Howard, 11 years, 46 King Williams Street, Fitzroy;
Mary [Myra] Finlay, 16 years, Sydney;
Fred and John Heintz, 14 years, 84 Kerr Street Fitzroy
Charlie, 13 years, Leslie Donaghey, 14 years, Sydney,
Arthur Austin [no address]
Walter Byrne [no address]

The interested reader should note that the manifest for the SS Gracchus, arriving back in Sydney on 16 December 1909 from Calcutta, appears to contain the names of 9 other girls and two boys, in addition to 19 year old Miss Leah Leichner. If a third of the troupe had been sent home by December, it was already in serious trouble.

Gracchus enlargement 16 December 1909

Above: Part of the manifest of the SS Gracchus, arriving in Sydney, 16 December, 1909 from Calcutta, India.
Inward Overseas Passenger Lists (British Ports). Microfiche VPRS 7666, copy of VRPS 947. Public Record Office Victoria, North Melbourne, Victoria

Note 2
There are several newspaper reviews of the Pollards troupe in Hawaii in March 1908 that mention performances by Leah Leichner. It is not likely that she travelled for a short time to Hawaii to briefly join a Pollard tour, and she would not have been there on 11 March, as she was performing at Launceston’s Empire Theatre on 29 February. (See for example, The Honolulu Advertiser 11 March 1908)


Note 3
Between 1912 and 1919 Nellie Chester organised yet another group of Australian performers to work in North America, using Pollard’s in their Company title. Some of these were adults, others older adolescents. The troupe changed as time went by but continued to trade off the company name. Some had been performers in the past. You can read more of this troupe in the page on Queenie Williams.

22 July 1912

Above: The Honolulu Advertiser 22 July 1912.Via Newspapers.com

Special Thanks

University of Washington Special Collections, for permission to use the photo of Daphne and Leah.

Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne. Their collection – donated by Irene Goulding in the 1980s, is invaluable.

To Jean Ritsema, in Michigan, for her research efforts in North America.

To Claudia Funder, Research Service Coordinator,  Arts Centre Melbourne


References

Collections

  • Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne
  • University of Washington Special Collections

Text

  • 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.

National Library of Australia’s Trove

  • The Telegraph, 17 Apr 1909.
  • The Herald , 23 March 1910, 17 May 1910
  • Truth, 2 April 1910.
  • The West Australian, 21 Apr 1910
  • The Age, 25 Apr 1910
  • Barrier Miner 29 Apr 1910
  • The Leader, 20 April, 1910, 21 May 1910
  • The Argus, 18 October 1910

Newspapers.com

  • The Honolulu Advertiser 11 March 1908, 22 July 1912

Singapore Government Digitised newspapers project – Newspaper SG

Federal Register of Legislation (Australia)

Vancouver As It Was: A Photo-Historical Journey

Nick Murphy
March 2021

A list of ships and their actor passengers

Above: The Matson liner SS Monterey, which carried many hopeful Australian actors to the US. State Library of Victoria, Allan Green Collection. Allan C Green 1878-1954 photographer. ca. 1932-ca. 1952.

These are the first departure dates of some twentieth century Australian actors. Of course, many travelled to the US or UK under other names, but for ease of reading their best known stage name is used.

P&O Ad 1932

Above: A symbol of status and  modernity – a P&O advertisement from The Home, 1 March, 1932, P3. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove. Readers may find Angela Woollacott’s book To Try Her Fortune in London (2001) interesting, particularly Chapter 1.

Maie Saqui
Sailed to the UK in May 1897 on the RMS Orizba 

Marc McDermott
Sailed to North America in July 1902 on the RMS Miowera

Dulcie Cooper, Ashley Cooper and Emily Curr
Sailed to North America in June 1905 (Ashley) and August 1905 (Emily & Dulcie) on SS Ventura 

Paul Scardon, Mario Majeroni and Giorgio (George) Majeroni
Sailed to North America in December 1905 on SS Sonoma

Oliver Peters (O.P) Heggie
Sailed to the UK in 1906 on the SS Grosser Kurfürst

“Toots” and Lorna Pounds
Sailed to the UK in April 1911 on SS Suevic

Elsie Jane Wilson and Rupert Julian
Sailed to North America in July 1911 on the SS Zealandia

Queenie Williams, Billy Bevan, Ivy Moore and other Pollard performers Sailed to North America in August 1912 on the SS Makura

Elsie Mackay
Sailed to the UK in November 1912 on the SS Morea

Arthur Shirley
Sailed to the US in November 1914 on the RMS Niagara

Louise Lovely
Sailed to the US in December 1914 on the SS Sonoma

Matson lineEnid Bennett
Sailed to the US in March 1915 on SS Ventura

Nina Speight
Sailed to the US in April 1916 on SS Great Northern

Dorothy Cumming
Sailed to the US in July 1916 on SS Makura

Sylvia Bremer
Sailed to the US in October 1916 on SS Ventura

Marjorie Bennett
Sailed to the US in December 1916 on SS Ventura

Harry Quealy and Nellie Quealy (Finlay)
Sailed to North America in January 1917 via South Africa on SS City of Lahore 

Judith Anderson
Sailed to the US in January 1918 on SS Sonoma

Gwen Burroughs
Sailed to the US in May 1918 on SS Sonoma

Ena Gregory
Sailed to the US in January 1920, on the SS Ventura

Trilby Clark
Sailed to the UK in July 1920 then to the US in Feb 1921.

Suzanne Bennett
Sailed to the US in October 1922 on the SS Niagara.

Lotus Thompson lotusabouttodepart
Sailed to the US in March 1924, on SS Ventura.

Robert Grieg and Isabelle Holloway
Sailed to the US via the UK in 1925

Blanche Satchel 
Sailed to the UK in May 1925 on RMS Ormuz, then on to the US in August.

Phyllis Gibbs
Sailed to the US in June 1927 on SS Sierra

Marcia Ralston
Sailed to the US in October 1927, on SS Sonoma.Carol on her way to UK 1930

Fred Stone
Sailed to the UK in May 1929 on SS Benalla.

Lucille Lisle
Sailed to the US on the SS Sonoma in May 1930

Carol Coombe
Sailed to the UK on the SS Moldavia in July 1930

Click to enlarge: This is the menu from the MV Warwick Castle, in 1936.  Clearly aspiring actors had to be careful what they ate from this huge menu! The Union Castle ships ran from South Africa to England, but it is typical of ship board food of the time. Author’s collection.

Judy Kelly
Sailed to the UK in June 1932, on the RMS CathageBlanche and Judy leave Australia

Mary MacGregor
Sailed to the UK in February 1933, on the SS Mongolia

Mona Barrie
Sailed to the US in June 1933, on the SS Monterey.

Gwen Munro
Sailed to the US in September 1933, on the SS Monterey.Gwen on the way home

John Wood
Sailed to the UK in October 1933, on the MV Troja.

Margaret Vyner
Sailed to Europe in late April 1934, on the RMS Orsova.

Margaret Johnston
Sailed to the UK in March 1935, on the SS Mongolia

Janet Johnson
Sailed to the UK in March 1936, on the SS Largs Bay.

Constance Worth
Sailed to the US in April 1936, on the SS Montereyconstance worth returning home by Sam Hood

Mary Maguire
Sailed to the US in August 1936, on the SS Mariposa

Joan Winfield
Sailed to the UK in late 1936, then to the US in 1939

Murray Matheson
Sailed to the UK in August 1936 on the SS Orsova. 

Shirley Ann Richards
Sailed to the US in late 1941 on the SS Mariposa.

Joy and George Nichols
Sailed to the UK in September 1946 on the Dominion Monarch 

Above: Click to enlarge. The RMS Queen Elizabeth’s menu in 1947. Author’s Collection.

Patti Morgan
Sailed to the UK in March 1947, on the MV Selandia

Allan Cuthbertson
Sailed to the UK in March 1947, on the RMS Rangitiki

Gwenda Wilson
Sailed to the UK in February 1949, on SS Arawa

Dorothy Alison
Sailed to the UK in April 1949, on SS Orion

Michael Pate
Flew to the US via Hawaii in November 1950

Lloyd Lamble
Sailed to Europe on the MS Torrens, Jan 1951

Victoria Shaw
Flew to the US via Hawaii in July 1955

Above: Menu from the SS Orion in April 1947. The austerity of the post war world is still obvious. Author’s collection

departing Melbourne036

The joy and excitement of overseas travel by ship is obvious on this girl’s face. Port of Melbourne, c 1937. Author’s collection.

Photos – from the top
1. Screen grab of Lotus Thompson saying farewell in Sydney in 1924 before departing on the SS Ventura.Source Australasian Gazette newsreel via youtube.
2. Carol Coombe on the SS Moldavia. The Home, Vol 11, No 8, 1 August 1930. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
3. Judy Kelly and her mother departing for England on the RMS Cathage. Source: The Home. Vol. 13 No. 8. August 1, 1932. Via National Library of Australia Trove.
4. Gwen Munro returning from the US on the SS Mariposa on 26 August 1934. Source uncredited. Photo in the author’s collection.
5. Jocelyn Howarth (Constance Worth) on her return from the US in June 1939 on the SS Monterey.  Via State Library of New South Wales.

Thanks, links and sources

Robert Maynard provided this photo of former Pollard’s star William Thomas at his butcher shop, on Hampshire Rd, Sunshine, sometime in the 1920s. William (centre) proudly holds his daughter Emma. His years performing for Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company in North America and Asia are far behind him. 

Thanks to…

My lecturers so long ago – Tom Ryan, Arthur Cantrill and Ken Mogg.

And the following people deserve special thanks;

  • Sandra Joy Aguilar, Warner Bros Archives, University of Southern California regarding Mary Maguire
  • Julie K Allen, Brigham Young University, regarding Saharet
  • Melissa Anderson, regarding Lotus Thompson
  • Norm Archibald, regarding Mary Maguire
  • Richard Bradshaw, regarding Fred Stone
  • Dianne Byrne, regarding Mary Magurie
  • Sophie Church, Geelong Grammar School regarding Joan Lang
  • Catherine Crocker, regarding Midas Martyn and the Pollards
  • Simone Cubbin, regarding Mary Maguire
  • Jane Cussen
  • Bill Egan, regarding Daphne Pollard & Jolly John Larkins
  • Jim Eldridge, regarding Saharet
  • Lina Favrin, Yarra Libraries regarding the pollards
  • Katie Flack, State Library of Victoria.
  • Claudia Funder, Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne
  • Alan Garner, regarding Norma Whalley
  • William Gillespie regarding German representations of Australia
  • Marguerite Gillezeau, Archivist at Ascham College regarding Shirley Ann Richards, and also Archivist at Redlands, Sydney Church of England Coeducational Grammar School regarding Anona Winn.
  • Martin Goebel, regarding Saharet
  • Robert Gott
  • Dan Gulino, at radiowasbetter.com,
  • Julie Hansen, regarding Shirley Ann Richards and the Garden School
  • Prue Heath, Archivist, SCEGGS Darlinghurst regarding Nancy O’Neil
  • Joe Henderson, National Archives in Kew, England
  • Joe Jordan, regarding The Desert Rats (1953)
  • Stephen Langley regarding Reita Nugent/Janet Lind
  • Mark Lepp, regarding Saharet
  • Robert Maynard regarding Willie Thomas and the Pollards
  • Michael McCullough regarding Saharet
  • Joyce Mostyn regarding Mary Maguire
  • Jock Murphy, former Director of Collections at the Baillieu Library, University of Melbourne,
  • Ingrid Purnell, editor
  • Kate Rice, inaugural Frank Van Straten Fellow, Performing Arts Collection, Melbourne.
  • Jean Ritsema, regarding Saharet, Wanda Radford, Leah Leichner, Dulcie and Ashley Cooper
  • Sister Helen Salter, Loreto Convent in Brisbane, regarding Mary Maguire
  • John Shrimski, regarding Maie Saqui
  • Robbie Stockfeld
  • Tony Tibballs, Cinema and Theatre Historical Society of Australia
  • Patsy Trench, regarding her mother Nancy O’Neil. Her website is here.
  • Mary Vanderfeen, regarding Saharet
  • Trish Van Der Werff, regarding Shirley Ann Richards
  • Dorothy Weekes, former Archivist at Academy of Mary Immaculate in Fitzroy, regarding Mary Maguire
  • Jeffrey Weissman, regarding Hal Roach and Lotus Thompson
  • Stephanie Welsh, regarding Jocelyn Howarth
  • Libby White, regarding Barbara Smith and Lloyd Lamble
  • John Armine Wodehouse, Earl of Kimberley regarding Mary Maguire
  • Brenda Young, regarding Elsie Morris
  • Charles Zhang, regarding Saharet

and

  • Zetta Florence of Brunswick St Fitzroy, who provide all my archival materials. They don’t know it, but they are in such good company, surrounded by the spirits of Daphne and Ivy Trott, Alf and Irene Goulding, the Topping girls, the Finlay girls, the Heintz boys and many other forgotten performers in Fitzroy.

Key Sources

Further reading is provided, wherever possible, at the end of each article. Hot links exist in the text to key primary and secondary sources online. The most common sources used include

Podcasts

  • Dr Kate Rice (2020-2021) Performing the Past. A series of podcasts based on the Australian Performing Arts Collection, Melbourne.

Text

  • Stephen Alomes (1999) When London Calls. The expatriation of Australian creative artists to Britain. Cambridge University Press.
  • Kaz Cooke (2017) Ada. Comedian, Dancer, Fighter. Viking /Penguin. A fictional account of Ada Delroy‘s life  [funny, extremely well researched and valuable in the absence of interviews with so many early Australian performers.] Her website is here
  • Ray Edmondson and Andrew Pike (1982) Australia’s Lost Films. National Library of Australia.
  • Richard Lane (1994) The Golden Age of Australian Radio Drama, 1923-1960. A History through Biography. Melb University Press
  • Brian McFarlane (2003): The Encyclopedia of British Film. Methuen Publishing Ltd- BFI
  • Kirsty Murray (2010) India Dark. Allen and Unwin. [A fictional work inspired by the Pollard Tour of India in 1909-1910.]
  • Phillipe Mora, Peter Beilby, Scott Murray (eds) and others (1974-2001): Cinema Papers (Magazine) Cinema Papers P/L, Richmond, also MTV Publishing  and Niche Media. See digitised collection at the University of Wollongong
  • Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper (1981 and 1998): Australian film, 1900-1977 : a guide to feature film production. Oxford University Press.
  • Hal Porter (1965) Stars of Australian Stage and Screen. Rigby Ltd
  • Graham Shirley & Brian Adams (1989): Australian Cinema: The First Eighty Years. Currency Press
  • Frank Van Straten (2003) Tivoli. Lothian Books
  • Andrée Wright (1986) Brilliant Careers; Women in Australian Cinema. Pan Books Australia.
  • Angela Woollacott, (2001). To try her fortune in London. Australian women, Colonialism and Modernity. Oxford University Press

Digital resources

Lists of films and stage performances are not provided. Moderately accurate lists of films are often found on the Internet Movie Database. (IMDB), however the reader should note that these are sometimes inaccurate. A list of Broadway performances can be found at the Internet Broadway Database (IBDB).

A list of some Australian stage performances can be found at The Australian Live Performance Database.

Maud Hobson (1860-1913), the gaiety girl who dreamed of Colorado

Maud Hobson c.1890-1900. A widely known “Gaiety Girl” in the George Edwardes’ Company, she was born in Melbourne in 1860. Her family moved back to England when she was an infant. She had lived in Hawaii, Colorado and London by the time she was 30. Talma Photographers, Sydney. Author’s collection. (I have taken something of a liberty with the title of this article. I only have one piece of evidence that she dreamed of Colorado.)

Born in the emerging suburb of Toorak, 5 kilometres south of Melbourne, Australia, on November 13, 1860, Jane Elizabeth Manson would eventually become one of the hugely popular English “gaiety girls” of George Edwardes‘ Gaiety Theatre Company, performing under her stage name, Maud Hobson. Tall, “stately, statuesque and classic” (by this the Brooklyn Standard Union meant she was attractive), she had earned a formidable reputation in Britain, the US and Australia by the end of the nineteenth century. And more than most of the “gaiety girls”, from the mid 1890s Maud was only too happy to speak at length to the press about anything that came to her mind – matrimony, the state of society, costumes and jewellery, and American as opposed to Australian audiences.

Her parents John Manson and Eliza nee Hollingshead, arrived (separately) in Melbourne in 1853, at the height of the Victorian gold rushes. For two Britons in their early twenties, it must have been an exciting environment of extraordinary opportunity. Many of the international arrivals of the 1850s were, like them, aged between 21 and 35. By 1858, half of the newly arrived Australian population lived in the colony of Victoria and Melbourne was the continent’s largest city. How the couple met we do not know, but they married at Melbourne’s St Peter’s Anglican Church in June 1855. John was soon to become “Head Teller” (Manager) of the Union Bank of Australia – an opportunity a young man could never hope to have achieved in London. Yet like some who did well in the booming colony, the couple returned to Britain soon after their daughter’s birth. Perhaps they had “made their pile” or possibly, they still weren’t convinced life in the young city was superior to life in Britain. Maybe John Manson was simply offered a better job back home.

bullion buying

Above: 27 year old John Manson announces the appointment of a bullion broker at the Union Bank’s Bendigo goldfields branch. The Age Saturday 9 Jan 1857. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Maud Hobson’s own account of her early childhood was – typically for an ambitious actor of the time – often short on detail. In several early interviews she suggested her parents were “just passing through” Melbourne when she was born. Later in life she embraced her Australian birth with gusto. It was claimed she was born Jennie or Jeannie, but this appears to have been a pet name used by the family.

MAud performing in 1881

Above: Maud appearing on stage before her marriage to Lieutenant Hayley in May 1881. The Era, 12 February 1881 via The British Newspaper Archive.

A popular up and coming performer in 1880, she admitted in several later press interviews that she owed some of her success to her uncle, the writer and manager of the Gaiety Theatre, John Hollingshead, who had also suggested her stage name. However, she left the stage in 1881, when she married Lieutenant Andrew Burrell Hayley, an officer of the 11th Hussars. A son, William Burrell Hayley, was born in early 1882. Soon after, Maud and little William joined Lieutenant Hayley in a new adventure – a posting to the Kingdom of Hawaii, of all places. There, Hayley took on the role of an attache to King Kalākaua. But while the last King of Hawaii received recognition for his efforts to reinvigorate Hawaiian national identity and shore up its economy, not all of the king’s European advisors were welcomed. On 31 July, 1884, The Honolulu Evening Bulletin took the unusual step of very publicly criticizing Hayley for his “lack of sobriety” and therefore his unsuitability as a Commander of the Mounted Police. He was appointed to this position anyway.


 

The Hayleys in Hawaii. Left; King Kalākaua with officers, including Lieutenant Hayley looking very splendid in white, third from the right. Via Wikimedia Commons. Right; Maud was still occasionally performing in Hawaii – The Honolulu Advertiser, 5 Jan 1886, via Newspapers.com. (click to enlarge)

In 1886, Maud returned to England, for reasons that are no longer known. Of her next few years, we only have court records to guide us, as she did not appear on stage again until mid-1889. Hayley petitioned for divorce from Maud in November 1887. He claimed Maud repeatedly committed adultery with Captain Owen Richard Armstrong, an officer in the Seaforth Highlanders. Hayley was extremely well informed about the places and dates of his wife’s adulterous behaviour, which included travel to the US and five months living “as man and wife” in Colorado. Before the court Maud and Armstrong strenuously denied the charges, but a divorce was granted in October 1888. The case was played out in newspapers in excruciating detail, although as Maud’s stage name wasn’t used, many readers may not have made the connection. The story that Maud spent the summer of 1887 in Colorado with a man she wasn’t married to would be hard to believe, if it wasn’t corroborated by records of shadowy movements that we can access today.

armstrong and maude

The faded manifest of the ship Servia, arriving in New York in June 1887. Owen R. Armstrong, Army Officer and his wife Maud(e) are listed. Via US National Archives and Records Administration, Via Ancestry.com

From mid 1889, Maud reappeared on stage in London for George Edwardes in such productions as ‘Faust Up to Date” and “Carmen Up to Data” – both burlesques with music written by Meyer Lutz. Edwardes was Hollingshead’s successor at the Gaiety Theatre at the eastern end of London’s Strand. She moved in to live with Hollingshead and his family in Kensington at about this time, continuing to enjoy her uncle’s advice and patronage.


Left: Maud – a photo taken well before 1896 (from “Around the world with a Gaiety Girl” page 100, via the Internet Archive). Centre: Maud on an undated postcard (probably about 1890). Right: Maud in The Sketch, July 21 1899. Author’s Collection.

In March 1892, Edwardes and George Musgrove arranged for a tour of some of the London Gaiety regulars, including Maud in a supporting role, to take “Faust Up to Date” on tour to Australia. The London Gaiety Burlesque Company (note how often the name changed) first performed in Melbourne in May. Four months later the company wrapped in Sydney and headed for home. It had been a success. On the eve of the show’s closing, the Sydney Referee reported “‘Faust Up to Date’ at Her Majesty’s still draws the people, fills the exchequer, and promotes hilarity.” Interestingly, Maud sought no personal publicity and made no public comments during this first trip back to the city of her birth.

1893 saw some dramatic changes. In early April the news reached her that ex-husband Andrew Burrell Hayley had died. She did not regain custody of her son from Hayley’s family, but following this event she seemed to find her voice and her place in the world. Later in the year she took a leading role as Alma Somerset in George Edwardes’ new production “A Gaiety Girl”, alongside Marie Studholme and Decima Moore. While a few reviewers felt the leading role required her to do little more than look “exceedingly handsome,” other reviewers were effusive in their praise. At the same time she wrote and appeared in a short one act sketch for the theatre, and it was performed as a matinee at the Gaiety Theatre in early July 1894. “A Successful Mission,concerns Alice Gray, a burlesque actress (played by Hobson), and John Winton, a conservative vestryman (played by George Mudie) who attempts to convince Gray to discourage his love-lorn son’s attentions – to the point of offering her money to shun him. Of course, by the end, he discovers she is an admirable philanthropist and more than honourable. “Brightly written and neatly condensed, it was amusing and effective… and acted with much spirit” reported The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News. One cannot help wondering whether there was a strong element of personal experience being recounted here! 

In September 1894, “A Gaiety Girl” was taken on tour. It opened in New York that month, had moved on to San Francisco and then on to Australia by June 1895. Finally, Maud Hobson freely discussed her Melbourne birth and talked at length about her time in Honolulu, with her “late husband”. One Sydney journalist described her thus; “a young lady tall and most divinely fair” She told the same journalist I, who am a native of Australia…feel that in coming to this country I am just visiting my own folks.” And she went on in this celebratory tone for the entire tour.

Gaiety Company 1895

Maud as part of a large photo spread in The Pictorial Australian, 1 April 1895, shown here with company members Cecil Hope and Harry Monkhouse. Fellow cast member Decima Moore married Cecil Hope in 1894 in New York while on tour (Hope was another former army officer whose real name was Cecil Ainslie Walker-Leigh) and like Maud and Hayley, they divorced a few years later. Monkhouse died in 1900, after being declared bankrupt. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

While she was in Australia (and two years after Hayley’s death), a convoluted account of Maud’s relationship with Captain Armstrong appeared in some western US papers. This suggested that she had divorced Hayley herself, first, in the US, on the grounds of cruelty, and then had married Armstrong, only to find these arrangements were not recognised in the UK. Someone very well acquainted with her circumstances had written or provided the story. This writer cannot find the story in any Colorado papers, but more than thirty syndicated papers in nearby Kansas carried it. Following this brief outing, the story disappeared.

At the end of October 1895, the company departed Australia for England. The rather underwhelming 1896 travel book, “Round the World with A Gaiety Girl,” documents the successful trip.

Maud Hobson was now established as a leading regular in the Edwardes’ company. In August 1897 she appeared in the musical “In Town.”  She again joined the troupe travelling to the US in September 1897, where “In Town” ran at New York’s Knickerbocker Theatre, in company with another very young Australian – Norma Whalley .

Left: “In Town” At New York’s Knickerbocker Theatre.  The Sun, (New York)  September 11, 1897. Right; “In Town” at the Garrick Theatre a month earlier in August 1897, with an almost identical cast.  The Era, August 14, 1897. Via Newspapers.com.

Maud was now approaching 40, but she was regularly referred to as the “reigning English beauty”.  In 1900 she appeared in London as Lady Punchestown in the musical “The Messenger Boy.” The cast also included another young Australian, 21 year-old Maie Saqui from Melbourne. She must have felt some degree of national consciousness as she also appeared in a patriotic sketch with Maie and other Australian favourites in June, entitled “Australia’s tribute to Britannia” (in aid of widows and orphans of Australians and New Zealanders who had fallen in the Boer War).

By 1902 she was at a highpoint in her career – light comedy and musicals had become her forte. That year she played Lady St. Mallory in “Three Little Maids”She travelled to perform in the US again, and briefly to South Africa. After a “serious operation,” Maud travelled again to Australia in 1904 with another Edwardes’ Gaiety troupe. She was extremely popular in Australia, and she knew it. A journalist for a newspaper in Kalgoorlie, Western Australia, put a typically Australian voice to this popularity when he wroteMaud is the biggest-hearted woman the stage has ever known. Last time she was here she sold some of her magnificent emeralds to pay doctor’s bills for a girl member of the Company, and more of ’em to pay the hotel bill of a now- dead fascinating man member. You never heard of a woman speaking ill of Maud. That’s the record!” 

Maud 1904

Maud Hobson during her final 1904 tour of Australia. The Australasian, Sat 14 May 1904 via National library of Australia, Trove. 

She spoke at length about herself and her career during this visit. She admitted to a nervous disposition, a condition she said had seen her spend much of 1903 resting. But she also spoke of her future, and mentioned her fiance who had an American ranch and was a minor cattle king. It was again, a successful tour.

1905 was her last year of activity on the stage – she took on a role in the popular musical Lady Madcap, in company with Zena Dare, Gabrielle Ray and Marie Studholme. Over the next few years she travelled to the US again but there were now stories of serious ill health. After what some papers reported was “a lingering illness,” she died in London on January 6, 1913. Maud Hobson was remembered fondly in British, US and Australian newspapers. The Era stated she had “a handsome appearance… amiable personality and was an intelligent and agreeable actress.”

Its notable that Maud’s acknowledgement of being born in Melbourne occurred later in life, when she was well established and a contemporary of Nellie Melba, Nellie Stewart, Norma Whalley and Maie Saqui. It would be wrong to over-emphasize Maud as an Australian –  for other than being her place of birth, her experiences of Australia were confined to her theatrical tours. In her mind, she was almost certainly British, more than anything else. And yet, one senses she developed a fondness for Australia – she was happy to make the long trip out on three occasions. She reputedly also made friends while on her Australian tours – perhaps these were old acquaintances of her parents, from the roaring days of the Victorian gold rushes.

Maud’s son, William Burrell Hayley died in 1967, after a distinguished military career. Her uncle and mentor John Hollingshead died in 1904. The Gaiety Theatre, which had seen Maud and the other Gaiety Girls perform so often, was seriously damaged by bombs during World War Two and was finally demolished in the 1950s.

 

Nick Murphy
May 2019

 

Notes:
1. The most accurate account of Maud’s divorce is the actual petition, held by the National Archives in Britain. The Era of 28 April 1888 also provides an accurate account of her life to that time. Hayley was in the 11th Hussars (not 10th or 5th as is sometimes reported) and was not a General, even if given this title as a courtesy.

2. Was she ever known as “the White Queen” of Honolulu? There is no evidence of this other than Maud’s own words.

 

Further Reading

Text

  • Granville Bantock and Frederick G. Aflalo (1896) Round the World with a Gaiety Girl. London, J. Macqueen. Digitised by University of California Libraries
  • Boyle Lawrence (1900) Celebrities of the Stage. London, George Newnes.
    Digitised by the Public Library of India.
  • J. P. Wearing (2013 ) The London Stage 1890-1899: A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel. Scarecrow Press.

Websites

Newspaper archives

National Library of Australia – Trove

  • Australian Star, April 3, 1895. The Gaiety Girl Company
  • Australasian, September 28, 1895. Gentleman Joe at the Princess Theatre
  • Melbourne Punch, October 17, 1895. A Gaiety Girl at Home.
  • The Critic, June 15, 1904. Miss Maud Hobson at Home
  • The Sunday Times, July 3, 1904. Confidences of Stage Favourites
  • Table Talk. May 16, 1904. Miss Maud Hobson

British Library – British Newspaper Archive

  • The Era, April 28, 1888. The London Theatres
  • The Era, 11 June 1913. The Death of Miss Maud Hobson
  • Sunday Post, October 22, 1922. My Thirty years at the Gaiety

Newspapers.com

  • The Brooklyn Daily Eagle. December 26, 1894. Burlesque and Comedy
  • The Washington Times. December 16, 1894. The Theatres
  • The Pittsburg Mail. October 17, 1895. Gaiety Girl’s Life

Sylvia Breamer (1897-1943) – I’m not a German!


Enlargement of a photo of Sylvia Bremer, possibly from the Witzel Studios, Los Angeles. c 1918. Author’s Collection.

The 5 Second version
Born Sylvia Poppy Bremer, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, 9 June 1897, she died in New York City, USA, 7 June, 1943. After very successful stage work in Australia, she travelled to the US with her first and much older husband Willett Morrison. Her first film in Hollywood was for Thomas Ince, and she was active in film from 1917-1926. She could not re-establish herself after the coming of sound and an unhappy second marriage.

Sylvia Bremer is hardly a forgotten Australian at all. Ralph Marsden’s biography Who was Sylvia? was published in 2016 – making use of hitherto unseen private photos of Bremer – and including a great deal of painstaking new research on her career. Here are two photos of a very young Sylvia from Australian libraries – they are now out of copyright.



Bremer was born into a comfortable family home in Double Bay, a harbour-side suburb of Sydney, in June 1897. As with several of the other women documented on this website, she was a student at Ascham College, which is probably where she developed her interest in theatre. Her father was Frederick Glasse Bremer – her ambitious mother was Jessie Bremer (née Platt). Her mother remarried after Bremer’s early death. Her origins seem to have been a constant source of interest for the press, or embarrassment for her. In an interview with Julian Johnson for Photoplay magazine in 1918, she tied herself in knots to emphasize (or exaggerate) her British naval connections.  Her father was not a battle-ship captain as she claimed, but a hard working public servant in the Lands Department, who had died when she was only 13. She was obviously sensitive to accusations of German ancestry, as in 1917 she had changed the spelling of her surname from Bremer to Breamer, apparently to make her sound less German in the midst of war.

Sylvia as profiled in The Theatre (Syd) 1 Feb 1911. West’s Pictures had run a beauty competition, but 13 year old Sylvia was disqualified due to her age. Presumably she was entered by her mother. State Library of Victoria

Following several years of stage work in Australia and tuition from Douglas Ancelon & Stella Chapman’s school of Elocution and Dramatic Art, in October 1916 she travelled to the US with her first husband, 48 year old actor-director Willett Morrison on the SS Ventura. And there she stayed – her first film for Thomas H. Ince was The Pinch Hitterreleased in 1917.

Above; Sylvia in Motion Picture Magazine, August 1917. She had just appeared in The Narrow Trail with William S Hart. The rest of the story here reminds us how unreliable movie mags are as a source – she supposedly grew up in “the Australian bush” at “Baggadella”. Via Lantern Digital Media Project.

As Ralph Marsden recounts, Sylvia’s story was not a happy one at all. Her career in film did not last – it was over well before the coming of sound in 1927 (she made over 40 films in just ten years). She was active on stage from 1926 -1930, her performances with the Bainbridge Players in Minneapolis in late 1930 appear to be her last, except for a role in the 1936 talkie Too Many Parents, a Paramount kid picture with Billy Lee and Frances Farmer. Although its not really clear why she lost her currency, her tumultuous private life and widely published criticisms of the shallowness of work and life in Hollywood probably did not endear her to key figures in the industry – including the powerful film producers who might otherwise have employed her. “Sylvia now loathes pictures and everything Hollywood means. There can be no real friendship in Hollywood-nothing but jealousy and sham,” she was reported as saying in 1930.


Here is part of Sylvia Breamer’s only scene in “Too Many Parents”(1936), as the mother of the insufferable Billy Miller (Billy Lee). Twenty years after arriving in the US, her accent is an English one. Copyright held by Universal films.

Breamer 2
A postcard of Bremer, produced about 1920. Ironically, it appears to have been printed in Germany. Author’s Collection

Sylvia married three times, but each relationship ended acrimoniously or abruptly. There were no children from any of the marriages.

She died in New York aged only 45, in 1943. Perhaps one of the most moving photos in Marsden’s book is a grainy photo of Sylvia and her sister on the streets of New York, taken shortly before she died. Her passing appears to have gone unnoticed in Australia. Her mother, step-father, sister and brother all moved to the US. For a time, her brother Jack worked as a cinematographer. 

Marsden’s book is recommended for anyone interested in Breamer’s career and those of the other early Australian women pioneers in Hollywood with whom she was acquainted – including Enid BennettMarjorie Bennett and Louise Lovely. 

Sylvia Bremer advertising for Australian beauty products in The Theatre Magazine. Left, for Healatta soap on 2 December 1912.(Given her age, it appears likely her mother arranged the advertisement) Right for Clements Tonic, 2 October 1916. Via State Library of Victoria.

Nick Murphy, December 2018


Further Reading

Text

Library Collections

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Florrie Forde (1875-1940) – Gertrude Street’s gift to Music Hall

Above left: The United Service Club Hotel on the corner of Young Street and Gertrude Street, about the time Florrie was born. Source the State Library of Victoria Picture Collection. At right: The very altered building today. Author’s collection.

Florrie Forde was born Flora Flannagan in Fitzroy on 16 August 1875, to Lott Flannagan and Phoebe (Simmons). In time, she would become one of the great British Music Hall stars of the early twentieth century. A great deal has been written about her – she cannot be described as a forgotten Australian! Yet it perplexes the author that in a neighbourhood that also saw the births of Daphne Trott, Alf Goulding and Saharet, there is, today, no acknowledgment she was ever there.

Florrie and sister

Above: Florrie Forde and sister. Stewart & Co., photographer. [ca. 1889-ca. 1906] This beautiful photograph is from the collections of the State Library of Victoria.

This short article is intended to showcase her birthplace and her birth certificate. Links to longer articles can be found below.

FF better copyAbove: Part of Flora Flannagan’s birth certificate. Column 2 – date of birth, place of birth (no street number given); 3 – name  (Just Flora and no May Augusta); 4 – gender; 5 – father’s name, profession, age and place of birth; 6 – date and place of marriage, other children; 7 – wife’s name age and place of birth (unknown, America). Via Victoria Birth Deaths & Marriages.

She was born at one of the family residences in Gertrude Street Fitzroy – the handsome but modest United Service Club Hotel run by her father at 88 (now 122) Gertrude Street being a possibility – although her birth certificate does not give a definitive address.

The 1875 Sands and McDougall directory for Melbourne lists her father’s business at 200 Gertrude Street. Today, this site is a tiny park, on the corner of Smith and Gertrude Streets, Collingwood. But this was surely only a business address at the time anyway.

Sands Directory 1875 for Flanagan. jpg

In the same edition, the United Service Club Hotel is listed as managed by David Garcia:

Sands Directory 1875

Two years later however, the 1877 edition lists Lott Flanagan at the hotel. But it should be noted that there was probably some “lag” in time between when information was collected and the directory was published.

1877 Sands Directory

Source: State Library of Victoria, online digitised versions of the Sands and McDougall Directories for Melbourne.

In addition, in a very thorough survey of her early life in Australia, researcher Tony Martin Jones has suggested that instead of a noisy pub, her place of birth may have been at her maternal grandparents shop and residence nearby. Barnett and Susannah Simmons ran a crockery store at 181 (now 203) Gertrude Street. That building is still only a few doors from an even larger, noisy pub – the Builder’s Arms. Unfortunately, we are now unlikely to ever know for sure.

Gertrude Street

A terrace of shop/residences in Gertrude Street, Fitzroy. Taking into account the change to street numbers, the Simmons crockery store was the building on the right, behind the blue car. Author’s Collection

Florrie first appeared on stage in Sydney in early 1892, and quickly became a popular singer and performer in pantomime. By 1894 she was a regular performer in Sydney and Melbourne. In 1897 she made her first appearance in London – apparently playing three music halls in the one night.

Left: Florrie Forde in 1898. Source: Melbourne Punch August 24, 1898, via National Library of Australia’s Trove.
Centre: Florrie Forde not long after her breakthrough on the stage in London. Source: “The Sketch,” Sept 21, 1898. Photo copyright Illustrated London News Group. Author’s Collection. At right – A signed postcard taken sometime later in, life, probably in the early 1930s. Author’s Collection.

A talented singer with an exceptional wit, she was supremely confident on stage and held a genuine affection for her audiences – music hall being her favourite. Her name is still connected with many of the music hall songs she made popular, such as the World War One favourites “A Long Long Way To Tipperary”, “Pack Up Your Troubles In Your Old Kit Bag” and “Has Anybody here seen Kelly.”  She appeared as herself in several British films in the mid 1930s, and in character in “My Old Dutch” in 1934.  Her Australian accent remained with her all her life, as the numerous recordings she made demonstrate. As theatre historian Frank Van Straten notes, she achieved all this without any formal musical training – a remarkable achievement.

alice004
This C1930 booklet of sheet music lists many of Forde’s popular songs. Author’s Collection

Jeff Brownrigg’s entry at the Australian Dictionary of Biography provides an account of her work and quite tumultuous, perhaps dysfunctional, upbringing. She worked all her life – dying suddenly after entertaining in a Scottish naval hospital in April 1940. Obituaries in the UK and Australia were effusive. Florrie was very much the voice of the people, and apparently even Dame Nellie Melba was an admirer.

anona-1940-
Above – Only a few months before her death, Florrie was still on stage, here with fellow Australian Anona Winn, in Portsmouth. Portsmouth Evening Herald 24 Feb 1940, listing shows commencing 26 Feb. Via British Library Newspaper Archive, Johnston Press PLC.

Nick Murphy, Rewritten November 2020


Further Reading

Norma Whalley – the Mysterious Australian “Gaiety Girl”

Norma Whalley is shown here at the height of her fame as an actress in the US and England. Big hair and extravagant headwear seems to have been the trademark of a “Gaiety Girl”. But we are no closer to knowing who she really was today than audiences were in 1900. Postcard in the author’s collection.

Norma Whalley first appeared on the stage in London as the Comtesse d’Epernany, in the popular musical The Circus Girl at the Gaiety Theatre, in late 1896 or early 1897. By September 1897 she was appearing in New York in a minor role in the play In Town, a member of the Gaiety Theatre Company, brought over by George Edwardes. Edwardes had already had great success with other musicals – in particular A Gaiety Girl in 1893-4. Under-studying for Marie Studholme, Norma appeared in a leading role soon after arriving, when Studholme became unable to perform due to “lameness.”

The term “Gaiety Girl” was to become a popular phrase to describe some of the young, glamorous British female performers, most often members of Edwardes’ company at some time. Like Norma, the Gaiety Girls could sing and dance, and were adept at “light comedy.” All presented as well-mannered and well dressed, purportedly representing modern womanhood, and they apparently dazzled audiences wherever they went. Edwardes seems to have chosen his female cast members deliberately to have that effect. His pioneering efforts to establish musical comedy were successful and helped establish the genre we know today.

Of her past, Whalley was always vague. In 1899 she was to claim that she had toured South Africa soon after the Jameson Raid (January 1896) and met President Kruger. He was a “squatty, ugly old man…devoid of manners.” Unfortunately, its impossible to track anything of her life before 1897.

 

Left: George Edwardes c1900. Source; James Jupp (1923) “The Gaiety stage door; thirty years’ reminiscences of the theatre”. Via the Internet Archive. Centre: Marie Studholme c 1900. Postcard in the author’s collection. Right: Melbourne born Maud Hobson who also travelled with the Gaiety troupe to New York in 1897. From “The Sketch”, July 21 1899.

Born in the mid to late 1870s, Norma Whalley was supposedly the daughter of the “late Henry Octavius Whalley, a well-known physician of Sydney.” Other accounts state it was Melbourne.  But equally likely, it was neither. Despite this claim being repeated ad nauseam in biographies of her (all of which cross-reference to each other or the same few newspaper sources), there is simply no evidence of a person called Henry Octavius Whalley living in Melbourne or Sydney in the mid to late nineteenth century. Not only did Australian newspapers of the time not mention him, but census records and shipping records make no mention of him either. And most importantly, no one of this name appears in any of the usually reliable Sands directories for Sydney and Melbourne  produced between 1860 and 1900. And there are just nine recorded births of a child called Norma in Sydney between 1870 and 1880 –  and just four females born with the surname Whalley – but none called Norma Whalley. And there is, similarly, no matching child in the Melbourne birth records. The usually comprehensive history of Australian actors by Hal Porter (produced in 1965 – when many of his subjects were still alive) provides no information.

Norma Whalley in about 1900. Postcard in the author’s collection

Norma Whalley’s identity seems to have been deliberately obscured. There is nothing to verify that she was Australian at all, except her word. Perhaps like Saharet she wished to obscure a humble birth, or maybe an impetuous marriage gone wrong or an embarrassing parent. What better way to stay in command of one’s destiny than create an interesting but deceased father on the other side of the world! Perhaps the confusion also relates to our understanding of nationality today as opposed to then. In the late nineteenth century, a person born in the colony of New South Wales was just as likely to think of themselves as British – Australia not becoming self-governing until 1901.

After her successful season in New York, in January 1898 she returned to London on the S.S. St Louis with Studholme and some of the other Gaiety company members. Later contracted to George Lederer, she was back in New York again by March 1899, performing in The Man in the Moon, “a spectacular fantasy in three acts.” It ran successfully for some months at the New York Theatre, although not everyone was enthused with its four-hour running time or her performance (see Brooklyn Life, 10 June 1899 for example). Her involvement in this production came to a sudden end when she was dismissed for breaking character and chatting to a friend or admirer in the audience, during a performance in late September. But within a month, she had teamed up with Walter Jones, a popular “tramp “comedian, touring cities in the US. The partnership was both personal and professional, but it too came to a sudden end in July 1900 when Jones suddenly left to marry a wealthy widow. Nevertheless, her popularity was at its height by mid 1900 and for the first time she mentioned her Australian birth to inquisitive US journalists.


Norma with Walter Jones, Los Angeles Times, 1 April, 1900.  Her matrimonial affairs attracted considerable press attention. At right Norma in The San Francisco Examiner, 8 July 1900. Via Newspapers.com

Hoyts 1900

Dunne and Ryley’s troupe traveled all over the US, headlined by Mathews and Bulger. Norma Whalley and Walter Jones are listed in the cast in this advertisement from Montana’s Butte Daily Post, 15 May 1900. Via newspapers.com.

Soon after, it was announced that she was engaged to another performer – James “Sherry” Mathews, one half of the comedy team Mathews and Bulger.  They married in New York on 29 March 1901. Here, on the marriage licence, she recorded her birthplace as Sydney, Australia, and her age as 22. Her mother was listed as Mary J Rayson, her father “Harry”. Intriguingly, she was also recorded on the marriage certificate as divorced – hinting at another, earlier marriage.

Unfortunately the relationship with Sherry Mathews also failed. He was already ill in 1901 and suffered a stroke in mid 1902, and was severely incapacitated, being admitted to Sterne’s Sanatorium in Indianapolis, one of the most exclusive that could be found. Norma was at first praised for caring for him, but then came in for savage press criticism, particularly after she sued for a divorce in 1904, officially on the grounds that Mathews had deceived her about his state of health. The Broadway Weekly of 26 May 1904 even suggested that she was responsible for breaking up the Mathews and Bulger team and that when Mathews became ill, she was one of the first to desert him.

Norma had indeed left the US to perform in England in September 1902, in productions that included George Edwarde’s new musical The School Girl (where she was in company with other familiar Gaiety girls – Edna May, Marie Studholme, Violet Cameron, Marianne Caldwell and Billie Burke). Following the granting of her divorce, she married London lawyer (Edward) Percival Clarke, the son of barrister Sir Edward George Clarke. Percival Clarke followed his father into the law and was knighted in 1931.

Norma School Girl
Norma Whalley in “The School Girl,” with G.P Huntley as Sir Ormesby St. Leger. The musical ran at  London’s Prince of Wales Theatre from May 1903. Postcard in the Author’s Collection.

With the publicity surrounding her 1904 marriage, the Australian dimension to her story was finally picked up by the Australian press. Unfortunately, these accounts were not well researched or accurate – it was now that the story of the “late Henry Octavius Whalley, the well-known physician of Sydney” was introduced and gained currency. It was also claimed that she had once been a popular comedienne in Sydney. Perhaps she was, but it’s hard to believe there are no existing records to confirm this.

Following her marriage to Clarke, she did not retire from the stage, as Australian newspapers predicted, but she did become more selective with roles. For example, she appeared as Mrs. Fergusson, the wicked husband-stealer, in W. Somerset Maugham‘s new comedy Penelope in 1909 and in J.B. Fagan’s play Bella Donna, in 1916. In 1915 British society magazine Tatler reported she was going into nursing to support the war effort, accompanied by a serious picture of Norma in a nurse’s uniform. This may explain why she disappeared for the later part of World War One. The British Journal of Nursing also reported her training as a nurse at Guy’s Hospital.

Above: Norma Whalley and Graham Browne in ‘Penelope.’ “Now what does all this mean?”she demands. Postcard signed by Whalley in the author’s collection. Dover Street Studios. 

Between 1920 and 1926 she appeared in regular supporting roles in at least 16 British silent films. Women and Diamonds, made in 1924 with Victor McLaglen and Madge Stuart, appears to be the last of these. She later appeared in a few small character parts in the first years of sound film. We can only guess, but it seems that film work was an after-thought to a successful stage career, not something she aspired to do for the rest of her life. By the time she traveled to Cairo to appear in the 1934 Michael Balcon comedy-adventure The Camels are Coming, she was almost 60, and had been performing for almost 40 years. Her persona was well and truly British, as her role in this film demonstrates. Listen to her voice in this scene, which takes place outside the famous Shepheard’s Hotel. Norma, as a stereotypical British tourist, is escorting her daughter (Peggy Simpson) around the sights of Cairo when she runs into a bogus guide.

If she ever was Australian born, one would not guess so from this voice.

One of Norma Whalley’s final roles in the Gaumount British adventure-comedy, “The Camels Are Coming “(1934). Source: VHS copy in the author’s collection.

Sir Percival Clarke died suddenly in 1936. Norma, now Lady Clarke, remarried in 1940, this time to John Beauchamp Salter. When she died at her home in Grosvenor Square in London, in October 1954, she left a significant estate. There were no children from any of her marriages. A few reports in later life and British obituaries on her death noted her Australian birth. However these were more concerned to comment that Lady Clarke had “married well,” like some other Gaiety Girls. There were no Australian obituaries.

As Lady Percival Clarke, Norma visited Australia in late 1938. Although she made some comments on the Australian sense of dress, attitude to tipping and the hair raising speed of Melbourne taxis, she made no reference to being Australian born.

The mystery of Norma’s origins remained well into the 20th century. Norma’s mother Mary died at her cottage in Church Rd, Whitstable in June 1932. The Whitstable Times and Herne Bay Herald reported her death, and the fact she was the widow of the “late Henry Octavius Whalley” of Melbourne Australia. If Norma had a humble birth as this writer suspects, it was well and truly hidden.

        
Other Gaiety Girls who “did well” for themselves in marriage.
Left: Zena Dare, who after marriage became Lady Maurice Brett.
Centre – New York born 
Edna May who married millionaire Oscar Lewisohn.
Right Denise Orme who became the Duchess of Leinster. Postcards in the author’s collection.

A British Pathe newsreel from 1946 includes footage of some of the Gaiety Girls later in life, including Norma. See it here


Nick Murphy
Updated June 2020

 

Note 1.
Researcher Alan Garner has listed some of the other British productions Norma Whalley appeared in, which include the following. (For further information refer to works by J.P. Wearing, listed below)

Comtesse d’Epernay in The Circus Girl – Gaiety, 5th December 1896
Lady Rosemary Beaulieu in Three Little Maids – Apollo, 10th May 1902 (transferred to Prince of Wales’s, 8th September 1902)
Birdie Beaulieu in The Linkman – Gaiety, 21st February 1903
Pepita in Madame Sherry – Apollo, 23rd December 1903
Mrs Olivia Vanderhide in Lady Epping’s Lawsuit – Criterion, 12th October 1908
Countess Marie of Riest in The King’s Cup – Adelphi, 13th December 1909
Mrs Crespin in The Liars – Criterion, 27th October 1910
Mrs Chepstow and Mrs Marchmont in Bella Donna – St James’s, 9th December 1911
Yvonne Stettin in The Turning Point – St James’s – 1st October 1912
Mrs Marchmont in Bella Donna – St Jamses’s, 31st May 1916 (revival of 1911 production)
Mme. Lemaitre in Buxell – Strand Theatre, 7th November 1916

Note 2.
The story that Norma Whalley had an early marriage to actor Charles Verner (really Charles E.V. Finlay 1848-1926) appears in a few accounts in Californian papers after her 1904 marriage to Percival Clarke. Verner himself appears to have claimed so. Despite the significant age difference it is possible. However, so far, there is no supporting evidence of this and it may just be a muddled-up account based around Verner’s real 1878 marriage in Melbourne to actress Mary Hendrickson, which ended in a very messy US divorce in 1888.

 


Further Reading

Texts, including those via Internet Archive

  • The British Journal of Nursing, January 1915
  • Hal Porter (1965) Stars of Australian Stage and Screen. Rigby
  • “The Editor’s Chat.” The Broadway Weekly 26 May 1904
  • James Jupp (1923) The Gaiety stage door; thirty years’ reminiscences of the theatre. With an introduction by Mabel Russell Philipson.  London, Jonathan Cape. Digitized copy –  University of Toronto
  • J.P. Wearing (2013) The London stage 1890-1899 : a calendar of productions, performers, and personnel. Lanham, Maryland : Rowman & Littlefield
  • J.P. Wearing (2014) The London stage, 1900-1909 : a calendar of productions, performers, and personnel. Lanham, Maryland : Rowman & Littlefield
  • San Francisco Dramatic Review 1899 Volume 1-2
    Digitized copy – California State Library Califa/LSTA Grant
  • The Wasp 1900, Volume 43 Digitized copy – California State Library Califa/LSTA Grant
 

Via Newspapers.com

  • “Thinks Krugers Manners Bad.” Chicago Tribune, 30 Dec 1899, Sat, Page 2
  • “Hoyt’s A Rag Baby” Advertisment. Butte Daily Post, 15 May 1900
  •  “Walter Jones and Norma Whalley at the Orpheum.” Los Angeles Times, 1 April, 1900. 
  • “Miss Norma Whalley has no tears to shed.” The San Francisco Examiner, 8 July 1900

Via National Library of Australia’s Trove

  • “London Personal Notes”  The Advertiser (Adelaide, SA)  Tue 20 Sep 1904  Page 7 
  • “Our Well-Dressed Women “Amazes” English Visitor” The Courier-Mail (Brisbane, Qld.) Tue 22 Nov 1938 Page 1 

Other Media

 

 

Mary Macgregor (1904-1954) a brief adventure in Hollywood

An enlargement of a publicity still. Myrna Loy (left) and Mary Macgregor of Queensland (as the maid Ellen), in “Wife Vs Secretary” (1936). Author’s Collection. Source – probably MGM.

Mary Macgregor (not to be confused with Mary Maguire) was born Francis Mary Macgregor on 16 August 1904, into a Queensland family with considerable social standing; her father Peter Balderston Macgregor was a highly regarded King’s Counsel and later a Judge. At a young age she earned a reputation for her prose –  and she won a prize for a patriotic poem in 1916. The first stanza reads:

Oh, soldiers of Australia, Who went to give your all
Right gallantly you did obey, the Mother Country’s call !
When Britain’s bugle-call rang out across Australia’s plains.
You left our peaceful wattle land to fight where cruel war reigns.

Brought up in a family that encouraged the arts, she first performed on stage at University, where she was studying literature, and then won a breakthrough role as Jill in Oscar Asche‘s Melbourne production of “The Skin Game”by John Galsworthy, in 1924.


The Skin Game

Prince and the Pauper 1930

Left: The Melbourne Argus, 26 April 1924 advertises Mary in “The Skin Game” via National Library of Australia’s Trove.
Right: The Telegraph (Brisbane), 22 April 1930 praises her on her performance in “The Prince and the Pauper”, via National Library of Australia’s Trove

She spent the next ten years on stage in Australia and New Zealand – earning consistently positive reviews and becoming so popular she was never out of work. Amongst her notable stage work were roles for the Leon Gordon company. This company travelled Australia performing several of his plays, including “White Cargo”, where Mary took the role of the sultry mixed race character, Tondelayo.

Of playing Tondeleyo, she remarked; “The part is, to say the least, unconventional, and different from anything I have ever played … the idea of browning myself all over and wearing the scanty attire of the coloured vamp, was hard to get accustomed to. Moreover, my mother, when I mentioned the matter to her, was most disapproving …” In the minds of many Australians, acting was still a questionable profession, and for some, only a few steps removed from prostitution.

The Age Feb 1930Tondelayo

Left; The Age, Melbourne, announces the first run of “White Cargo” in Australia. 1 Feb, 1930, via National Library of Australia’s Trove
Right; Mary Macgregor on stage at a Melbourne theatre as Tondelayo. Table Talk, 13 Feb, 1930. National Library of Australia, via Trove

Macgregor departed for England on the SS Mongolia in February 1933,  and soon after found work on stage in a season of “Cynara”and a part in John Gielgud‘s tour of “Hamlet.” Now approaching thirty, she was an experienced actress – witty, good-looking, good-humoured and extremely confident.

She went on to California in June, 1935 where she joined John Wood, another Australian stage actor she knew well from Australian performances together in “The Barretts of Wimpole Street” and with whom she had already spent time in England. Wood had just starred as Flavius in the RKO film “The Last Days of Pompeii.” Mary’s account of her voyage to the US, the only passenger on board the Norwegian freighter Heranger, as it endured a heavy crossing of the Atlantic, became a story she often recounted. In February 1936, her engagement to Wood was publicly announced.

Macgregor then appeared in a small role in the film “Wife Vs Secretary” – a romantic john woodcomedy starring Jean Harlow, Clark Gable, Myrna Loy and Australian-born May Robson. Macgregor’s part was as the maid, Ellen. She then returned in some haste to Brisbane to see her ailing father. But Wood returned to London, where he was to act in a number of films, including two with Mary Maguire. Macgregor was coy when questioned about the engagement, and it was soon dropped as a topic for newspaper publicity pieces. They did not marry.

 
Above: John Wood about the time he was in Hollywood. The photo appears to have been used by Herbert de Leon, a London agent, soon after Wood’s return to London.  He was extremely handsome and was supposedly made offers of marriage by love-stuck viewers of “The Last Days of Pompeii”. Author’s collection.

Sounding every bit the English maid, Brisbane born Mary Macgregor as Ellen, in MGM’s “Wife Vs Secretary” (1936), her only Hollywood outing. The MGM film is widely available for purchase and held by Turner Classic Movies.

At home in Brisbane, Macgregor was treated as film-making royalty and the story of her six months in Hollywood was endlessly spun out in newspapers. In April, the Brisbane Sunday Mail reassured readers about her time in Hollywood – The Brisbane actress met many celebrities there. Macgregor was much more blasé – “Once you know two or three people in Hollywood’s film world, it is no time before you have met nearly all the others.” When the film was released in Australia in July, she was employed to appear at some screenings to introduce the film and discuss “Hollywood and noted stars.”

The Brisbane Courier Mail’s review of the film was typically effusive and very much in a Wife v secretarycelebratory style;  “In the strong glare of the stars in…Wife versus Secretary, which started a season at Cremorne Theatre yesterday, patrons might fail to recognise the talented actress who plays the role of a maid. She is Mary Macgregor, of Brisbane, who has achieved no small name as a stage actress, and whose feet are now planted on the ladder of success at the top of which glitters screen stardom.”

Above: “Wife vs Secretary” opens at the Cremorne Theatre. Mary’s role was uncredited. The Courier Mail, 23 July 1936. National Library of Australia, Trove

When Macgregor joined radio station 2GB’s BSA Players (Broadcasting Service Association Players, later the Macquarie Players) in 1937, The Australian Women’s Weekly explained that she had decided to stay in Australia – Hollywood would have to wait for this star. And in the same vein, on John Wood’s return in late 1939, he also returned to radio and the stage with great fanfare. When the play, “The Quiet Wedding” opened at the Minerva Theatre in Sydney, he was heralded in the press as “Australia’s great film and stage star, John Wood, fresh from triumphs overseas.” A few more stage roles followed, including a season of Dorothy Sayers’ “Busman’s Honeymoon” which included a rather joyful re-teaming with John Wood. But in November 1940, Wood joined the Australian Army,  being captured 14 months later at the end of the Malayan Campaign. The story of his efforts with the Australian Concert party in Changi are well documented.

By 1942 Mary had turned to war work, and she appeared less and less on radio. In February 1944 she married John Chirnside, one of the sons of John Percy Chirnside , and the couple moved to the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria. Her acting career came to an end. Mary died barely ten years later in February 1954, aged only 50. Chirnside died the following year, leaving a significant estate. The couple did not have children.

Following repatriation, John Wood left Australia in 1948, joining the great exodus of Australian actors moving to England at the time. He performed on the West End for a few years, but then retired to Spain with his wife, actress Phil Buchanan. He also died young – in 1965.

Unfortunately, the group of performers who knew Mary well have also passed on – Lloyd Lamble, Peter Finch, Allan Cuthbertson, Lou Vernon – only Lamble left an as yet unpublished memoir. It’s a great pity Mary did not leave her own memoirs for us – we know that she was a great raconteur and her memoirs of the Australian stage would have been entertaining.

MMacgregor

From Table Talk 30 Jan, 1930 Via National Library of Australia – Trove

Note:
The IMDB credits her with some roles on TV in the late 1970s. Obviously this is a different person with a similar name.


Nick Murphy
September 2018

Further Reading

Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University

National Library of Australia – Trove – Digitised Newspaper Collection

  • The Australasian (Melb) Sat 19 Aug 1916
  • The Argus (Melb), 26 April 1924
  • Table Talk 30 Jan, 1930
  • The Age, (Melb), 1 Feb, 1930
  • Table Talk, 13 Feb, 1930
  • The Telegraph (Brisbane), 22 April 1930
  • Daily Standard (Brisbane), Thu 27 Feb 1936
  • The Courier Mail (Brisbane), 23 July 1936
  • The Australian Women’s Weekly, Sat 20 Mar 1937

British Library Newspaper Archive

  • Daily Mirror, Dec 12, 1961 

Joan Winfield (1918-1978) – celebrated violinist and actor


Above – Joan Winfield in 1942. Press photo, source unknown, in the author’s collection. 

Joan Marie Therese MacGillicuddy was born in Melbourne in 1918, the second child of Dr Maurice and Nell MacGillicuddy, important figures in society and the local charitable community. Joan and her older sister Mary Mauricette (born in 1913 and called Billie by the family) had grown up with a love of performance and music. Maurice ran a well known and successful medical practice in the city and Richmond. Both girls gained fame in Melbourne as musicial prodigies – Mauricette was an accomplished pianist studying at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, while Joan, still a student at Catholic Ladies College, was a skilled violinist.

Joan as violinist 1934Mauricette farewell 1936

Joan and Mauricette as they appeared in The Advocate, the Melbourne Catholic newspaper.
Note that Joan had won the Victorian Open Violin Championship for Under 25 years, not as is often claimed, “The Australian Violin championship.” All the same, it was a remarkable achievement for a 15 year old. The Advocate 26 July, 1934 and  The Avocate, 26 March 1936 via The National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Joan also enjoyed the stage, and took a leading role in several pantomimes performed for charity. In 1930 she appeared in The Doll’s House Tea Party, with another aspiring actress, Peggy Maguire, who she would later meet again in Hollywood as Mary Maguire. Joan apparently enjoyed this so much she played the same role again in 1931.

Joan and Peggy

Peggy Maguire is in the maid’s costume, 6th from the left. Joan MacGillicuddy appears to be in the centre, 8th from left. Via  The National Library of Australia’s Trove – The Argus, 16 June, 1930

Life changed in 1936, when the family decided to travel to Britain so that Mauricette could continue her studies in music. John Meredyth Lucas (Joan’s husband after 1951) suggested the move was also because Maurice had discovered he had terminal cancer and wanted to make the most of his final years. After numerous parties and farewell concerts, the family departed Melbourne in April. In July 1937, Mauricette, now making a name for herself in London as a musician, was presented at court. Joan was studying “dramatic art,” – it was later reported to be at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. The family resided for a time at the Duke Street Mansion Apartments in Grosvenor Square and then in June 1939 sailed to New York on the SS Normandie.  (Maurice’s sister lived in New York. He died there in August 1942)

Below right: Joan and another Warner Bros. starlet, Faye Emerson, in a typical wartime publicity shot. The film they appeared in together was actually Lady Gangster and the cups they were pictured with an obvious studio stunt. [Hollywood Magazine Jan-April 1942, Via Lantern]

Hollywood Jan-Dec 1942According to John Meredyth Lucas, it was in New York sometime in 1941 that Joan was spotted by a Warner Bros. scout and offered the standard contract  – the type that enabled a studio to “try out” new faces for up to seven years, but did not necessarily offer much in return. Merle Oberon described the studio system at this time as a “sausage machine,” an apt metaphor for its treatment of young stars like Joan. She was to be known professionally as Joan Winfield, a name plucked from Bette Davis‘ character in the 1941 film The Bride came C.O.D. It was claimed her spectacular swimsuit body made her a popular pin-up with allied troops, which is almost certainly another studio publicity story. After years of completely unremarkable B-films for the likes of Warner’s prolific director “Breezy” Eason, (see the rather underwhelming 50 minute Murder on the Waterfront for example), her career was confined to un-credited supporting roles, later in father-in-law Michael Curtiz‘s films. If this annoyed her or disappointed her, she never publicly said so.

Joan 1945

Above: Joan Winfield
as she appeared in The Des Moines Register (Iowa), 4 March 1945. Beauty, swimsuits and health were important features of Joan’s publicity, and for someone confined mostly to minor or un-credited roles, she enjoyed remarkable publicity. Via Newspapers.com.

This is probably because she found interests beyond acting. She became a US citizen and married Hollywood writer – director – producer John Meredyth Lucas (son of director Wilfred Lucas and Bess Meredyth) in 1951. They had met on the set of the wartime drama The Gorilla Man, in 1943. Together they raised three children and Joan increasingly worked for charitable causes, continuing to take small film parts until 1957.

east melbourne

Hotham St East Melbourne in 2020. The last MacGillicuddy home in Melbourne, the grey building on the right and now a private residence again, looks out on this streetscape that has changed little since Joan revisited it in 1960. Author’s collection

Joan returned to Australia in 1959, while John was directing and writing scripts for the TV series Whiplash, an Australian “western” starring Peter Graves. They visited the beautiful MacGillicuddy home in Hotham Street, East Melbourne. Much to her horror, it had become a scruffy boarding house. But her old school nearby, Catholic Ladies College, was still operating and some of the nuns who taught Joan were there to greet her. In his autobiography, John recalled being deeply moved by the welcome given to his wife in the school’s best parlour. Sister Bernard held Joan’s hand for the entire visit and recounted what had happened to her classmates and all of the nuns.

Apparently a heavy smoker all her life, Joan died after a battle with cancer, aged only fifty-nine, in June 1978.

A Doll's House Darwell and Melbourne

Above: Jane Darwell with Joan’s sister Dale Melbourne in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House c 1945. Author’s Collection.

In addition to singing, Joan’s sister Billie also took to acting, performing on stage in the United States in the mid 1940s, using the stage name Dale Melbourne. Independent producer James B Cassidy organised a tour of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House throughout North America in 1944-6 and apart from Billie in the role of Nora, it also featured well known actors Francis Lederer, Jane Darwell and Lyle Talbot (yes – the same Lyle Talbot who appeared in Plan 9 from Outer Space in 1957). Cassidy and Billie were married, until his untimely death in 1952.

Vancouver Sun 18 Nov 1944
Above: A Doll’s House advertised in the Vancouver Sun, 18 November 1944. Via Newspapers.com

In 1981 Billie married John Herklotz, a Californian businessman and philanthropist. She died in 1998 but remains well remembered at the University of California. The University’s Conference facility at the Centre for Neurobiology of Learning and Memory is named after her.

John Meredyth Lucas’s autobiography, with its entertaining accounts of making a pioneering TV series in Australia, was published shortly after his death in 2002. He is, of course, remembered for his own prolific and diverse body of work especially on television – which included writing, producing and directing Star Trek, The Six Million Dollar Man, Harry O and The Fugitive.

Note: Lucas’ parents, US actress and writer Bess Meredyth and director Wilfred Lucas, made three films in Australia in 1920-1 with Snowy Baker and local producer E. J. Carroll, one of which, The Man from Kangaroo has survived to the 21st Century. 

Nick Murphy
Updated July 2020

Further Reading

  • John Meredyth Lucas (2004) Eighty Odd Years in Hollywood: Memoir of a Career in Film and Television. McFarland and Co.
  • Ross Carpenter Legends of Australian Ice – Site also includes photos of Joan and Mauricette.

National Library of Australia, Trove,

  • The Argus, 16 June 1930
  • The Advocate 26 July, 1934
  • The Avocate, 26 March 1936
  • The Australian Women’s Weekly 5 Aug 1944  Page 11
  • The Argus (Melbourne) 12 Jun 1946

Newspapers.com

  • The San Francisco Examiner, 15 Oct 1944
  • Vancouver Sun 18 Nov 1944
  • The Courier-Journal (Louisville, Kentucky) 18 Jan 1945
  • The Des Moines Register (Des Moines, Iowa) 4 Mar 1945
  • The Los Angeles Times 27 August 1981

Lantern Digital Media Project

  • Hollywood Magazine, Jan-Dec 1942