The strange story of Maie Saqui

Maie Saqui as she appeared at the height of her fame on the London stage as a “Gaiety Girl,” on a W.D. and H.O. Wills collectible cigarette card, c 1900. Author’s collection.
Below – the stereotypical Edwardes chorus girl from the play A Gaiety Girl. Public domain image by Dudley Hardy, Paris, 1896 via Wikipedia Commons.

Gaietygirl1896May Vivian Saqui was born in Fitzroy, Melbourne Australia on December 19, 1879. For a short period of time she was one of London’s celebrated “Gaiety Girls”, performing in musical comedy at George Edwardes Gaiety Theatre. Her father John Isaac Saqui (also known as “John I” or “Jack”) was a bookmaker and property speculator, later to try his hand at cigar manufacturing. Her mother Esther nee Barnett (or “Stella”) was the daughter of the owner of a large central Melbourne grocery store. She and John I married in 1877. At the time of May’s birth, the family home was listed as being on the corner of Nicholson and Moor Streets, Fitzroy. Five years later, they lived next door. The two fine “boom era” buildings still stand, and today they speak of the opulence, wealth and confidence of the young colony. The family were wealthy enough to be advertising for servants at the time of Maie’s birth.

120 and 122 Nicholson St

The very grand building at left, now No 122 Nicholson street, was built in 1862 by architect John Denny. The white building next door is “Heatherleigh”, a more traditional terrace. The Sands and McDougall directories reveal that in 1880 the Saqui family lived at 122, while by 1885 they lived at No 120. These constant moves probably reflect John I’s activities as a property speculator. Photo- Author’s Collection.

Austin Saqui at BeechworthMaie’s English-born grandfather, Abraham (Austin) Saqui (1834-1889) had arrived with some of the extended family in the colony of Victoria in the mid 1850s – like so many, they were attracted by the fabulous stories of easy fortunes to be made on the goldfields. A talented musician, Austin departed for Beechworth, in the centre of the Ovens Valley goldfields almost immediately. In time, he became a Melbourne hotelier, a “flamboyant bookmaker” and dabbled in owning horses. Austin’s great breakthrough came in 1869, when his horse “Warrior” won the Melbourne Cup, at odds of 20-1, winning him almost £20,000 – a fortune at the time.

Left: Newly arrived Austin Saqui making money performing at the El Dorado Hotel in June 1857. From “The Ovens and Murray Advertiser.” June 6, 1857. Source National Library of Australia’s Trove.

“John I” Saqui (1855-1916) thus followed his father’s footsteps as a bookmaker, and after May’s birth, fathered several more children – Barnett “Baron” Napoleon (1881-1967), Gladys Mignonett (1884-c1919) and Hazel Eileen (1887-1975). Another daughter, Phyllis, died in infancy. By the time Hazel was born at Zabulon Terrace in Drummond Street in 1887, John I described himself as a cigar-maker, although he was also still a bookmaker and the constant move of addresses suggests he was still speculating on properties.

Zabulon Terrace

The spectaular Zabulon Terrace in Drummond Street, Carlton where the Saquis lived when Hazel was born in 1887. The family lived at No 22, the unaltered building on the left. But by 1890, they lived over the road at an almost identical terrace at No 27. Photo – author’s Collection.

From the late 1880s, Maie and sister Gladys appeared in concerts under the tutelage of a relative, well known dance teacher Miss Julia Green. Maie earned a name for herself as a talented dancer before she was ten – even in 1888, “Melbourne Punch” noted “this little lady really deserved the encore she received” with her performance in Dance Du Nuit. The family valued music and dance, and Maie was also to become a talented violinist. By May 1892, at the age of only 13, she had apparently done with school and moved onstage for good, joining the cast of the Australia tour of the London Gaiety Company, in Faust up to Date. This brought her into the company of numerous talented English performers – Maud Hobson, Grace Wixon amongst others. From 1893 she appeared in pantomimes including Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella and then Djin-Djin. Perhaps the highlight was performing  in the first Melbourne run of Trilby in 1896, a play based on a new novel by George du Maurier. Maie’s high-kicking dance in Act 2 was particularly memorable. The anti-Semitic theme of the play (the evil manipulator of the heroine is Svengali, a archetypical Jewish villain of the Fagin, Oliver Twist type) was apparently something Maie could live with or was used to. 


Click to enlarge.
Left: Maie appears in the first Melbourne outing of Faust Up to Date in 1892, with some of George Edwarde’s visiting London troupe, including Maud Hobson and Grace Wixon. “Lorgnette”, Tuesday 3 May 1892. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.
Centre: Maie performing at Melbourne’s Princess Theatre, at the age of 16. “The Australasian”, 30 March, 1895. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.
Right: John Saqui advertising his services. (He was a little hopeful in selling his father’s “gout cure.” In 1889 Austin had taken a fatal overdose of laudanum to manage the pain of his gout) “The Sportsman,” Tuesday 9 Jan 1894. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

The pantomime Djin-Djin, The Japanese Bogie Man, A Fairy Tale from Old Japan, opened in Melbourne on December 26, 1895. These screen grabs are from the full program held by the State Library of Victoria – which can be viewed online. Maie Saqui is listed in the program, together with numerous other well known actors of the time, including Carrie Moore. Written by Bert Royle and J.C.Williamson, with music by Leon Caron and with strong Australian themes, the show was hugely popular and according to Ian Dicker, the audience refused to leave on the final night of the Melbourne season.

Unfortunately, at the same time her career was taking off, Australia and particularly the otherwise booming city of Melbourne had slumped into a severe depression. A number of Australian banks closed between 1890 and 1893, numerous businesses shut down and scores of land speculators were ruined. Unemployment surged while the only public works to continue was the building of Melbourne’s much needed sewerage system. It has been suggested that John I Saqui lost all his money at this time, and indeed, given his business interests, it would be unusual if he did not take a hit of some sort. But there was another even more serious reason why his business closed.

Truth on saqui attackSome time in 1890, John I was assaulted as he arrived home to Drummond Street. (The illustration at right is from the “Truth” newspaper account some thirty years later) He was found unconscious at his front door – he had been struck on the head. It was thought this was part of a campaign to rob wealthy bookmakers. Although he recovered and returned to work, his mental health failed over the next six years. In August 1896 Stella took the heart-wrenching decision to have John I admitted to the Yarra Bend Asylum. He had become seriously delusional. Stella blamed his state on the old injury to his head, and a note from a doctor she consulted (still in the asylum records) seems to concur. We can imagine the anguish the tight-knit family must have felt and one wonders just how bad John had become before Stella was forced to have him hospitalised.

In May 1897, at the end of the run of Trilby, it was announced that Maie was heading to England. She travelled as a “23 year old” on the RMS Orizba.  By giving that age, there were fewer questions to answer than if acknowledging she had yet to turn 18. Good fortune and good connections were with her. Within weeks of her arrival in London she was performing, and soon had a contract with George Edwardes of the Gaiety Theatre. It was claimed Grace Wixon helped mentor her. In July 1898 Stella and her three other children set sail for England on the RMS Ormuz, while John I’s mother Julia took up residence for a time at 27 Drummond Street. (This also suggests the family had weathered the 1890s crash reasonably successfully.)


Left: The Messenger Boy cast, half way through its 1900 run, from “The Standard,” June 14, 1900. Via Newspapers.com.
Right: Maie – about the time she arrived in London and began work for Edwardes. From “The Black & White Illustrated Budget”,1899.Via the Internet Archive.

She proved to be spectacularly successful in Edwarde’s musicals. She notably performed in The Geisha (1897), The Messenger Boy (1900) with Maud Hobson, The Toreador (1901) and Gilbert and Sullivan’s Trial by Jury (1902). Melbourne newspapers enthusiastically reported on her London performances, she was after all, a local girl. For example, on October 13 1899, “Table Talk” reported that “Miss Saqui’s… dainty dancing so delighted the patrons of ‘A Gaiety Girl’ at the Gaiety Theatre…  Some two years ago… she submitted her credentials to that excellent judge, Mr. George Edwardes, who being more than satisfied with them, secured her services for three years, and she at once stepped, or bounded, into public favour….”

Both Maie’s sisters Gladys and Hazel performed on stage for Edwardes, appearing in musicals at the Gaiety between 1902 and 1910. Gladys in particular gained publicity, partly because she was thought to closely resemble Maie.

Left: 13 year old Gladys Saqui performing on a local tour in Victoria, with Elsie Golding (Alf Goulding’s half sister). “The Bendigo Independent,” Oct 5, 1897. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.
Right: 18 year old Gladys Saqui – a new performer at the Gaiety Theatre, introduced to the public by “The Sketch,” December 3, 1902. Author’s collection. Copyright held by Illustrated London News Group.

In 1904 Maie married Arthur Hope Travers, a Captain in the Grenadier Guards who had seen service in the Boer War. She chose to retire from the stage. A daughter was born of the union in 1905. Sadly Maie’s health began to fade soon after. She was reported to be very ill in early 1907, and she died in March 1907, aged only 27. Travers eventually remarried and served with distinction again in the First World War. Maie’s English stage career had lasted just six years. Gladys too, had a short career on stage – less than ten years.


When their mother Stella died in England in 1946, she left an estate of £9345 to her surviving daughter, Hazel. Hazel had married British actor Nelson Keys in 1908, after her own brief experience on stage. Hazel and Nelson raised a family of five boys, most of whom entered the British film industry with great success. Hazel died in 1975.

John I Saqui died in the Yarra Bend Asylum in October 1916. He had been there for twenty years.


Notes:

  1. Her name?
    May or Mary? Her 1879 birth certificate is quite clear. She was born May and she appears as May in the birth certificates of her siblings. She chose “Maie” as a stage name.
    Similarly, Barnett was the family name of Esther (Stella) Saqui, not Barrett. Esther’s father, owner of a well known Russell Street grocery was named Barnett Barnett. He can be found in numerous mid C19th Melbourne newspaper accounts. When Barnett died in 1887, he left the bulk of his estate, including a significant property portfolio, to daughter Esther (Stella).
  2. Sarah Saqui, The Psyche
    Sarah Saqui, A sister of Maie’s grandfather  was the courtesan who entertained Alfred, the Duke of Edinburgh on the first royal visit to Australia in 1867. Writer Steve Harris specifically names Saqui as the Duke’s main Australian consort – she was also known as “the Psyche”. Contemporary papers like “The Truth” also stated this. She is reputed to have described the Duke as the meanest man she had ever met. The Duke’s detective John Christie also alluded to the Duke’s amorous pursuits in Melbourne’s red light district. Sarah was apparently also a bartender, a well known singer, married three times and may have lived out her days in the United States. We have no way of knowing whether Maie had met or even knew about her notorious relative.

 

 

Nick Murphy
May 2019


Further Reading

  • Ian Dicker (1974) J.C.W. A Short Biography of James Cassius Williamson.  The Elizabeth Tudor Press
  • Black & White Illustrated Budget Magazine (1899). London, Black and White Pub. Co. Digitized by Smithsonian Libraries.
  • Steve Harris (2018) The Prince and the Assassin: Australia’s First Royal Tour and Portent of World Terror. Melbourne Books.
  • John Lahey (1993) Damn you, John Christie! State Library of Victoria.
  • J. P. Wearing (2013) The London Stage 1890-1899: A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel. Scarecrow Press.
  • J. P. Wearing (2013) The London Stage 1900-1909: A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel. Scarecrow Press.
  • Victorian Heritage Register 122 NICHOLSON STREET FITZROY, Yarra City WORLD HERITAGE ENVIRONS AREA
  • Footlights Notes 1994+ wordpress – Gladys Saqui
  • Winners of the Melbourne Cup at Races.com.au
  • Public Record Office Victoria. Mental Health Records

National Library of Australia- Trove
In addition to the newspapers hotlinked in the text, the following may be of interest:

  • “The Kyneton Observer”  THE COMPULSORY CLAUSE THE EDUCATION ACT.  26 Jun 1883. Comment: John Saqui finds himself in trouble for not sending Maie to school.
  • “The Age”  Sat 20 Jul 1895
    Comment: Stella Saqui thanks members of the public for their interest in John’s health.
  • “The Truth” The Voice behind Saqui, 10 May 1925
    Comment: A moderately accurate account of the assault on John Saqui, that appeared ten years after his death.

 

 

Maud Hobson, 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. The 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

The real Mona Barrie

Mona Barrie (formerly Mona Barlee) in MGM’s “Cairo”. It’s hard to accept Mona as a wicked Nazi spy while she wears this extraordinary hat! This is a convoluted 1942 spy film with music, comedy and drama, featuring robot bombers and doors in pyramids that open with the sound of a “high C”. But she was firmly established as a screen actor and had been at work in Hollywood for eight years, and before that for eleven years in Australia. Photo – probably from MGM. Author’s Collection.

Like most other Australians wanting to work in the US at the time, Mona Barrie (then Barlee) arrived in California on the Matson liner Monterey in June 1933, to pursue her dream. Her career took off remarkably quickly and for the next fifteen years she was busy in Hollywood, in more than 40 films, of varying quality. For various reasons she developed nothing like the profile of her contemporaries Mary Maguire or Constance Worth and yet, her movie career was, by any measure, much more successful. She even has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Mona 6

Mona Barrie in Hollywood. Over time she developed a reputation for glamorous and fashionable attire. This Fox Films photo was taken in 1935. Author’s collection.

The oft-repeated story that soon after arriving in the US she went to New York to stay with a friend appears to be true. Mona had enjoyed a successful career on stage in Australia and had met US performer Florrie Le Vere and her songwriter husband Lou Handman during their 1928 tour. The two women had struck up a friendship. Mona had traveled to stay with them at their apartment on Riverside Drive, New York.

It was claimed she got her film start “by accident.” The Adelaide News wrote “She was on her way to London and passed through Hollywood. Three talent scouts saw her and begged her to have a screen test. She accepted, had a test, and signed a contract.” This was the usual “rags to riches” fame story then so popular. A report by Melbourne’s Table Talk, in November 1933, told a similar story. It claimed she had been offered a screen test by a Fox Film scout, “Mr Solomon Pinkus” having been spotted on a New York bus. She had been on her way to London. This story would be more believable if it wasn’t very similar to the one Constance Worth and Mary Maguire would wheel out as well. But, perhaps it was they who were copying Mona’s experience.

Whatever the truth, on September 2, 1933, Fox Films announced that they had offered a contract to Mona Barrie, one of “Australia’s leading actresses”. (The change of stage name was so typical of the time) It was all remarkably quick. She was put to work on the crime drama B film “Sleepers East,” and then the more substantial historical romance “Carolina.”

Mona Centre

Mona, centre, as one of “nine pretty girls who adorn the production (of The Merry Widow) at Her Majesty’s.” This appears to be Mona’s first outing on the stage. Table Talk, 12 October 1922. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Born in Tooting, England, a southern suburb of London, in 1906, Mona Barlee Smith and her three siblings and mother Jessie Barlee, had arrived in Australia in 1914. Her father Phil Smith had arrived courtesy a J.C. Williamson’s contract a year before. 

Unfortunately, like the stories of her start in film, Mona’s Australian story is badly muddled in online accounts – these are not only confused about her date of birth but also her date of arrival in Australia. Perhaps she contributed to this confusion herself in later years. But there’s not much doubt around her real date of birth. Although often claimed to have been born in 1909, we can confidently say she was born in 1906. She was 5 years old during the 1911 English census, and 8 in April 1914 when she arrived in Melbourne. Not only that, we can find the index entry for her British birth – it also states 1906.

Click to enlarge.
Left: 1911 English census, when the family lived at 37 Malvern Rd, Surbiton, Surrey, lists 5-year-old Mona. Right: The Australian passenger list for SS Miltiades, arriving 18 April 1914 lists 8-year-old Mona. (This image has been modified to fit). Via the 
British National Archives and Public Records Office, Victoria, via Ancestry.com.

Her parents Phil Smith, a comedian, and Jessie Barlee, a comedian and singer, both had successful careers of their own, sometimes working together on the stage in England, and then for 9 months in Australia. Unfortunately, their professional and personal relationship ended in mid 1915, and a very public divorce followed in 1917-18. In addition, Jessie, still supporting Irene (16), Mona (12), Roland (6) and Joan (5), took Phil to court for child support. Phil Smith disputed this claim, because Jessie and Irene were now on stage and earning money themselves – he claimed.

Left: Phil Smith and Jessie Barlee performing at Melbourne’s Bijou Theatre, The Herald 29 April 1915. Centre: Phil Smith, The Sydney Mirror, 25 October 1918. Right: Irene (later Rene) Barlee, Western Mail 22 Feb, 1923. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.

It’s actually Mona’s older sister, Irene Barlee Smith, stage name Rene Barlee, who first earned a name for herself on stage. In 1920 she was described as one of  “J. C. Williamson’s latest finds in soubrettes.” She appeared in various touring shows – such as The Midnight Frolics, and in popular pantomimes including Little Red Riding Hood and The Forty Thieves. In language typical of the time, newspapers generally described her as a good “little singer”, a “clever little dancer”,  a “pretty”, “dainty” performer.  She consistently received good reviews – yet for all her success, Rene decided to leave the stage in 1927 after marrying Murray Church, a Shell Oil Company executive who lived in Western Australia. We are fortunate in that Frank van Straten interviewed Rene in the 1970s. A short extract appears in Van Straten’s sumptuous book, Tivoli.

Mona 1926Mona Barlee first appeared on stage at the age of 16, in 1922, in the chorus of “The Merry Widow” at Melbourne’s Her Majesty’s Theatre. (As theatre historian Clay Djubal notes, this is another reason for believing her birth was in 1906. Had she been born in 1909, she would have been performing at the unlikely age of 13). Within a few years Mona was appearing as a featured supporting player. In late 1925, she took the lead role in Jerome Kern, P.G Wodehouse and Guy Martin’s musical “Leave it to Jane” – for J.C. Williamson’s, and although the first Melbourne reviewer in Table Talk felt she was rather “too lightweight”, after six months touring, the Adelaide Mail was able to comment on her “delightful soprano voice and a personality which impresses the audience.” She went on to perform in the Australian run of George and Ira Gershwin, Desmond Carter and B. G. De Sylva’s brand new musical “Tell Me More”.

Above: Mona Barlee and Freddy Mackay in “Tell Me More”. The Australasian 31 July 1926. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Mona married Charles Harold “Bob” Rayson in Melbourne, in August 1928. She did not retire from the stage as some accounts claimed,  but the marriage was short-lived and less than three years later a divorce was granted.

Adelaide Theatre Royal 1931

Mona Barrie on stage in Noel Coward’s “Hay Fever” at Adelaide’s Theatre Royal in 1931 – in company with other well known Australians; amongst them some familiar names – Cecil Kellaway, Mary MacGregor , Coral Brown and John Wood. The News (Adelaide) 21 August, 1931. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

In 1932, Mona had a small part in her first film – “His Royal Highness,” a musical comedy made in Melbourne by F.W. Thring and written by and starring popular comedian George Wallace. Film historians Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper describe some of the scenes as “heavy handed”, being influenced by Wallace’s experiences as a stage performer. Eventually the film was sold for distribution in England under the modified title “His Loyal Highness.” This writer regrets to admit that on viewing the film, Mona Barlee’s bit part is so minor, he was not certain he could confidently recognise her.

By 1933, reviews of Mona’s stage performances were generally very positive. Eight years after that first ambivalent review, the Melbourne Herald was effusive in its praise for her in “While Parents Sleep“, a new comedy by Anthony Kimmins. Under the heading “Mona Barlee has a future”, the reviewer wrote “Her performance was largely responsible for the play’s success… She has fine talents as a player of sophisticated parts, and this performance should leave no doubt about her future, either here or abroad.” The Western Mail in Perth was even more effusive, writing; “She has worked hard, and, backed by brains, ability, and personal attractiveness, she will undoubtedly be added to the list of Australians who have won world fame.” Indeed, Mona was apparently thinking along similar lines. Years later, when she met Australian portrait artist Stanley Parker again, he recalled they used to “drink cocoa in her little flat in Collins Street [in central Melbourne] and talk about coming to London”. In the height of the Great Depression, that had hit Australia so hard, perhaps the idea of moving country had an even greater attraction. By February 1933 she had her passport and at the end of May she wrapped up her Sydney season of “While Parent’s Sleep”, and boarded the Monterey. She never came back.

John and Mona Table Talk 1933

John Wood, Agnes Doyle and Mona Barlee in “While Parents Sleep”, Table Talk, Jan 26, 1933. Wood left for England and Mona for the US soon after. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Mona’s success in the US has been documented, although again somewhat indifferently. She was not tall as has often been claimed, the very thorough US immigration documents kept for new arrivals record that she was only 5 foot 2 or 3 inches, or about 1.60 metres, an average height. Her eyes were brown, not blue, as some accounts claim. Where reviews were given of her work, they were consistently positive throughout her two decades of performing in film – and sometimes on the US stage. For example, of the B-film “Strange Fascination,” made in 1952 (it was Mona’s second last film), reviewer Helen Bower said that while the picture was not to her taste, she could forgive director Hugo Haas a great deal for casting the wonderful Mona Barrie as Mrs Fowler. She stood out “like a Cartier creation amid a heap of junk jewelry. She is authentically a lady… How’s for Hollywood giving Mona Barrie a better break?” she asked. Hollywood didn’t.

Monas last film
Above: Mona Barrie in “Strange Fascination”. The Detroit Free Press. 8 November, 1952

And her voice? This writer would argue that while it was well spoken it was an unmistakably Australian accent. Unlike so many Australians working in Hollywood, she was an established and skilled actor and was confident in her own ability. She almost certainly felt she didn’t need elocution lessons. And if pressed on her origins she could honestly claim to being English-born, after all.

Above: Mona Barrie in a short extract from the Lux Radio Theatre production of “Saturday’s Children“. October 26, 1936. Click to follow the link to the Old Time Radio Downloads Website.

Mona Barrie’s final film was in 1953, a bit role in “Plunder of the Sun”, perhaps fittingly directed by the prolific Australian-born director, John Farrow.

Of Mona’s family, we know that her mother Jessie Barlee lived to the age of 99. She died in 1979 at her apartment in Melbourne’s St. Kilda. Phil had died in 1946. Roly Barlee, Mona’s younger brother, became a radio announcer and occasional actor in Melbourne. He died in 1988. Mona died aged 58, on 27 June 1964, from unknown causes. She is buried next to her second husband Paul Bolton – they had married in Mexico on December 14, 1933. Of the family’s Australian residences we only know that in the mid 1920s Jessie and her younger children lived comfortably at 6 Faraday Avenue, Rose Bay, in Sydney. The pretty house that was home to this creative family is still there.

Further Reading

  • National Library of Australia’s Trove. (Citations are inline)
  • Ed Lowry, Charlie Foy (Paul M Levitt Ed) (1999) Joe Frisco: Comic, Jazz Dancer, and Railbird. Southern Illinois University Press.
  • Frank Van Straten (2003 ) Tivoli. Thomas C. Lothian, South Melbourne.
  • www.oldtimeradiodownloads.com
  • Clay Djubal (2015) Research notes on Mona Barrie. Australian Variety Theatre Archive.
  • Ralph Marsden (2013) History of the Bijou Theatre. Theatre Heritage Australia
  • Helen Bower, Detroit Free Press, 8 November 1952. “Mona Barrie lends movie distinction”
  • 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.

 

Nick Murphy
April, 2019

While at the cinema…

Perhaps you’d like some MacRobertson’s Old Gold Chocolate while watching the show?

Old Gold

Mmmmm!

Or some Turkish Delight – as favoured by the scantily clad harem dancers shown here?

 

Maybe you have a cough? That Allen’s nurse looks like she knows what she’s on about.

 

Or maybe its time for something filter smooth… in the foyer? Actors Evelyn Laye and David Niven are reputed to have helped market this brand of tobacco.

Capstan

(As far as I can tell, smoking was banned in Australian theatres from the 1940s, largely for safety reasons. Not so the UK. In the 1970s  the author watched a Sean Connery film in a stuffy London cinema – through clouds of smoke – an experience I have no desire to repeat.)

After all those lollies and soothing smokes, you might need some of this?

califig

Should be good – plus Califig is 11 percent proof!

So after all, maybe all you need is some fresh Aussie fruit?

aussie011

Or perhaps just a nice cup of Glen Valley Tea?

glen valley tea

Glen Valley tea sign, Johnson Street, Fitzroy, January 2019. Author’s Collection

Nicholson Street, Fitzroy North 2013

In 2013 this painted sign for Indian Root pills was briefly exposed in Nicholson Street North Fitzroy when an unstable terrace house was demolished. A new building has since covered the sign. 

But perhaps you shouldn’t have been at the cinema! Perhaps you needed some furniture carefully removed!

removalists

Westgarth Street, Fitzroy, December 2017 – a few streets from Daphne Trott (Pollard)’s birth place. Author’s Collection

The labels shown here were collected from a former lolly shop my brother purchased in Rathdowne Street Carlton in 1992. Most of the collection was taken by Museum Victoria.

Nick Murphy, December 2018.

Robert Greig and Beatrice Holloway go to Hollywood

Above: Years before he became well known as a Hollywood character actor, Robert Greig is shown here with fellow actor and wife Beatrice Holloway. They remained a devoted couple until his death in 1958, although the move to the US meant the end of her career. Source; Table Talk, Thursday 29 June 1922. Via National Library of Australia Trove 

Robert Greig was the quintessential movie butler of Hollywood’s golden age. He first appeared in the Marx Brothers “Animal Crackers” in 1930, playing the role of Hives the butler, followed by another twenty years of related roles – more butlers, doormen, stuffy judges and remote English lords. Various online biographies generally make no reference to the first fifty years of his life, or the significance of Beatrice Denver Holloway, his wife and on-stage collaborator for many years, who moved with him to the US in the late 1920s.

Beatrice Denver Holloway was born in Richmond, Melbourne Australia in 1884. The daughter of actor-manager Charles Holloway and actress Alice Doerwyn, she learned her stagecraft with her parents and the Holloway Dramatic company, travelling Australian cities and towns. Her earliest appearance was at the age of 10, as the child Anne, in “The World Against Her,” a drama on the “question of marriage.”

Beatrice Holloway

Beatrice Holloway c.1900-1910. The Royal Studios, Brisbane. Via The National Library of Australia

She later had notable success in a popular, sentimental story of two homeless boys – “Two Little Vagabonds” by George R. Sim and Arthur Shirley. This production was toured throughout Australia and New Zealand in 1903, with Beatrice playing Dick and Sophie Lashmore as the consumptive Wally. While it is a style of production that audiences would now find very dated, it found enthusiastic audiences in 1903. The following typical lines are spoken by Wally as he departs this world;
“I won’t be a thief never no more, lady, never so more so long as I live. And I shall see my muvver, my real muvver in Heaven. Good-bye, my old pal Dick.”

Otago Witness 1904.jpg

Source: Otago Witness, 30 March 1904. Via National Library of New Zealand, Papers Past

Robert Greig was born in Toorak, Melbourne, Australia in December 1879. At birth, he was named Arthur Alfred Bede Greig. However, Robert Greig was his stage name and in life he was known as Bob or Bobbie to all who knew him well. After an education at Xavier College and some mundane experience working at Dunlop Tyres and as a commercial traveller, he became increasingly interested in amateur theatricals, and then, nearing the age of 30, made the transition to professional performer. He was offered a contract with the Hugh Ward Comedy Company, in 1909. He toured with them for a season, performing comedy roles in “The Man from Mexico” and “Mr Hopkins”.

Beatrice and Bob met and first performed together in “Beauty and the Barge” in 1911. It was the start of a long and productive partnership. They married in December, 1912. It was a novelty wedding for the time – considerable press attention was given. Melbourne Punch ran full page photos of the wedding party which included Fred Niblo and Josephine Cohan – who had arrived from the US only six months before. They had met while preparing for George M Cohan’s “Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford,” which had its Australian premiere at the Criterion Theatre in Sydney, in August 1912. Niblo gave the bride away and was a witness. 

1912 wedding

Beatrice and Bob’s wedding reception at the Oriental Hotel, Melbourne. Standing L-R; Tom Cochrane, Josephine Cohan, Fred Niblo. Seated L-R; Bertha Ballenger, Beatrice, Bob, Mrs Holloway (Constance Doerwyn) Source; Punch, 26 December, 1912  Via National Library of Australia, Trove.

During Niblo and Cohan’s three years in Australia, they often worked with Beatrice and Bob, although apparently not on Niblo’s two Australian filmed versions of “Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford and Officer 666, made for J.C.Williamson’s in 1916. Bob stated a great admiration for American plays. “They are all about natural people…there is always a big, good-natured man in anything American,” he told Adelaide’s Critic in November 1913. 

As Elisabeth Kumm has noted, Australian theatre was already undergoing change even before the outbreak of World War One. After a brief hiatus in 1914, Australians flocked back to the theatres for escapism, and US comedies and performers filled some of the headline acts once dominated by British stars, now difficult to engage. In early 1918, Bob became Associate Director for the Tivoli theatre circuit. It seems the disruption of the War and attractive local contracts kept the couple busy in Australia for more than ten years, touring Australian towns and cities. Often under the banner of the Greig- Holloway Comedy Company the couple performed new plays like “Baby Mine” and familiar favourites including “Officer 666”.

                        Bob and Bea 1918  Officer 666 in 1924

At left – Bob and Beatrice in 1918. Melbourne Punch, August 22, 1918. via National Library of Australia, Trove.
Right – Bob Greig and Beatrice Holloway – still performing ‘Officer 666’ in Adelaide in 1924, ten years after the play’s first run in Australia. The Adelaide Register, 12 July 1924. via National Library of Australia, Trove

With many friends and connections overseas, Bob and Beatrice often spoke of travelling to the United States, where both he and Beatrice felt sure they would find work. The demand in the US for Beatrice’s “style of work” was great, he once said. In fact, it was not until 1925 that they travelled to the US, and then it was Bob who appeared onstage at Philadephia’s Garrick Theatre in “A Night Out”, not Beatrice. 

Bob’s first Hollywood role was an important straight character role as Hives the Butler,  in the 1930 Marx Brothers’ film “Animal Crackers”. Bob had played the same role in the Broadway musical production a year before. But aged in his 50s and by now, very overweight, he found himself consigned to playing similar roles in Hollywood films. An Australian newspaper report appeared in 1936, stating he was feeling typecast and had tried a trip to the UK to break the cycle. If this was so it didn’t work. In a career of more than 100 films, the movie butler became his signature role.

A few years after settling in the US, Robert Greig had a refined transatlantic accent. In this short clip from Dorothy Arzner’s “Merrily We Go to Hell”(1932),  Jerry Corbett (Frederic March) complains he can’t find a baritone. Bartender Robert Greig explains that he is one. 

By the time of the 1940 US census, he and Beatrice lived comfortably in an apartment on Franklin Avenue Los Angeles, living on a modest income from his films. Robert died in 1958, Beatrice in 1964. What became of Beatrice’s career aspirations we do not know. 

Robert Greig memorial

Robert Greig’s memorial plaque at Holy Cross Cemetery in Los Angeles. A sign of the couple’s enduring affection. 

The couple did not return to Australia and soon lost touch with their Australian admirers. One hopes that the couple lived a happy life. But one can’t help feeling that the “fondest memories” Beatrice referred to on Robert’s memorial were of the years before Hollywood.

Nick Murphy, December 2018

Further reading

 

Sylvia Breamer – I’m not a German!

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

Of course, Sylvia Bremer is not a forgotten Australian at all, I just wanted an excuse to include this photo from my collection!  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. Copies are available from bookshops – also Amazon and ebay.

Bremer was born into a comfortable family home in Double Bay, a harbour-side suburb of Sydney, in June 1897. Following several years of stage work in Australia, in 1916 she travelled to the US with her first husband and there she stayed – her first film for Thomas H. Ince was The Pinch Hitter, released in 1917. But as Ralph Marsden recounts, her 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 small role in the 1936 talkie Too Many Parents, a Paramount kid picture with Billy Lee and Frances Farmer. Possibly her widely published criticisms of the shallowness of work and life in Hollywood had not endeared her to key figures in the industry – including the powerful film producers who otherwise might have employed her.

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.

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

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

Breamer 2This author can claim some small contribution to the unusually accurate Wikipedia article on her  – I found and added her interview with Julian Johnson for Photoplay magazine in 1918. In this interview 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. She was obviously sensitive to accusations of German ancestry, as only a year before, she had changed the spelling of her surname from Bremer to Breamer,  apparently to make her sound less German in the midst of war.

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. 

 

Nick Murphy, December 2018

Further Reading

Florrie Forde – 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.

Part of Flora Flannagan’s birth certificate. She was very clearly named Flora, not “Florence” and without middle names “May Augusta” even if these were adopted later. 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 the most likely – although her birth certificate does not give a definitive address. However, 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. However, I think this is less likely – that building is 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: Mebourne 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 postcard taken sometime later in, life, probably in the 1920s. 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 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.

 

Explanatory signage for Orlando Fenwick and Samuel Amess, on streetsigns in nearby North Carlton. I’m certain they were honourable men, but where’s the similar sign for Florrie Forde!? Author’s collection.

Nick Murphy, December 2018

Further Reading