Elsie Jane Wilson (1885-1965) actor and Hollywood director

Above and below; Sydney-born actor and director Elsie Jane Wilson in a spread in Photoplay magazine in late 1917. She had been working in the US for 6 years. [1]Photoplay magazine Oct 1917-March 1918, via Lantern, Digital Library

How could a successful Australian actress, who directed her first film in Hollywood in 1917, at the age of about 32, be so quickly forgotten? Unfortunately, even in her lifetime, press accounts tended to assume Elsie Jane Wilson was, like her husband Rupert Julian, New Zealand born, or perhaps English, and since then, even homegrown accounts have overlooked her. It is only in the last few decades that Elsie has finally attracted some of the interest she deserves. Recent writers include Mark Garrett Cooper at the Women Film Pioneers Project (here), Karen Ward Mahar and Robert Catto at his specialist website devoted to Rupert Julian (here).

Directing was “man’s work” Elsie suggested to interviewer Frances Denton in the Photoplay interview. But the posed photograph used in the article presents Elsie as a woman of ability and authority.[2]Photoplay magazine Oct 1917-March 1918, via Lantern, Digital Library

One of a group of women who directed at Universal Studios in the 1910s, Elsie had enjoyed a successful Australian stage career before appearing on stage in the US and acting in 40 films. She is known to have directed at least 10 films and also wrote several screenplays – all this before 1920. Her working life after 1920 remains obscure, although there is evidence suggesting she kept working in partnership with Rupert.

The Wilson family

Elsie Jane Wilson was born in Sydney on November 7, 1885[3]NSW Births Deaths & Marriages, Birth Certificate 3700/1885 to James Wilson, a 51 year old Scottish immigrant and his 37 year old English wife Jane nee Jordan. By the time of her marriage to New Zealand actor, Percival Hayes (stage name Rupert Julian) in 1906,[4]Victoria Births Deaths & Marriages Marriage Certificate 6213/1906 Elsie was able to describe her father as “a gentleman”, which – in the language of the time – suggested a person of independent means. Records show however, that most of his life he was a bootmaker[5]or “clicker” – a skilled tradesperson who cut boot leather and the family lived for many years in Riley Street, in the inner eastern Sydney suburb of Woolloomooloo.[6]A City of Sydney Archive photo of nineteenth century houses in Riley Street can be seen here

The Wilson family and their neighbours in the 1889 Sands Sydney directory.[7]Sands 1889 Directory, City of Sydney Archives & History Resources

James and Jane Wilson were typical of immigrant couples who had arrived in Australia in the mid 19th century, attracted by the goldrushes, or by the government bounties designed to address skilled labour shortages. The couple had married in Adelaide, South Australia in 1866, but ten years later they were living in Sydney. In addition to Elsie, two other daughters – Nellie (born Catherine Eleanor Wilson in 1877) and Marie (born Marion Wilson in 1889) had stage careers. Undoubtedly encouraged by James and Jane to see the stage as a pathway to success and financial freedom (secondary schooling and university education was not usually an option for working class families), the three girls all appeared on the stage from an early age.

Success of sister Nellie Wilson

Nellie Wilson was born Catherine Eleanor (or sometimes Helen) Wilson in Sydney in 1877.[8]NSW Births Deaths & Marriages, Birth Certificate 2389/1877 She is important in this story because she enjoyed great success on the stage – and Elsie would have grown up as an observer to that success. Elsie was just seven years old when Nellie was touring Australia and New Zealand, notably with Tom Pollard’s Lilliputians, and in company with the likes of Wilmot Karkeek, Harry Quealy, Will Percy and Maud and Mae Beatty – all of whom Elsie is likely to have met, and – significantly, all of whom ended up pursuing careers overseas.[9]See Auckland Star, 28 Nov 1901, P2 Via National Library of New Zealand Papers Past

Elsie’s older sister Nellie Wilson in 1910 [10]Sunday Sun (Syd) 20 Nov 1910, P12, via National Library of Australia’s Trove

Nellie continued on stage in Australia and New Zealand through the 1900s, taking only a little time off for a marriage in 1902 to George Irish, a flamboyant Melbourne motor salesman.[11]Victoria Births Deaths & Marriages Marriage certificate 3786/1902 The marriage did not stop her performing however, and she toured South Africa in 1904 and 1905. The theatrical firm of JC Williamson’s made use of her repeatedly in their Royal Comic Opera Company touring Australasia – which included consistently popular musicals like Florodora, The Belle of New York and The Mikado.

Elsie Wilson – the “promising Australian actress”

Elsie Wilson[12]not yet using her middle name appeared on the Australian stage – with the John F Sheridan touring company in 1904 – performing in the familiar repertoire of musical comedies that Australians liked – Naughty Nancy, The Lady Slavey, The Earl and the Girl and The Mikado, [13]The Newsletter: an Australian Paper for Australian People (Syd) 21 Jan 1905, P7 via National Library of Australia’s Trove later joining Julius Knight’s company. It was while performing in Melbourne in 1906 that she married fellow company member Rupert Julian.

Elsie Wilson, in costume, “one of the most promising of Australian actresses” on the cover of Adelaide’s Gadfly, in October 1907.[14]The Gadfly, 30 October 1907, Cover, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove

For the next five years, the couple worked in the same company and developed their stagecraft. A glance at contemporary newspaper advertisements suggests an exhausting schedule of touring regional and sometimes remote Australia and New Zealand. But the reviews of Elsie’s work became increasingly enthusiastic – by late 1907, Adelaide’s The Gadfly could profile Elsie on their front page and express great confidence in her future as an up and coming actor. The paper reported that it had “arrived at the opinion that the lady is a much finer artist than people think she is, for the obvious reason that most critics have ignored her.”[15]The Gadfly (Adel) 9 Oct 1907, P8 via National Library of Australia’s Trove In early 1909, her excellent voice and spirited dancing were being celebrated in Sydney[16]Sunday Times (Syd) 21 Mar 1909, P6 via National Library of Australia’s Trove while only a few months later, on the other side of Australia, Kalgoorlie’s Sun predicted she had all the makings of “a star emotional actress.”[17]The Sun(WA) 6 June 1909, P7 via National Library of Australia’s Trove

In 1908, JC Williamson’s offered her a salary of £8 per week,[18]about $AU 1,100 today. Her contract survives in the Australian Performing Arts Collection a modest salary when compared to Julius Knight’s £50 per week, but acceptable for a 23 year old whose husband was also earning. The very successful Julius Knight tours included a repertoire of costume dramas such as The Scarlet Pimpernel, A Royal Divorce, The Prisoner of Zenda and The Sign of the Cross, and plays by George Bernard Shaw.[19]See Veronica Kelly (2003) “Julius Knight, Australian Matinee Idol: Costume Drama as Historical Re-presentation” in Australasian Victorian Studies Journal, Vol 9, No 1, 2003

Above Left: Elsie’s husband Rupert Julian in costume, c1917.[20]Motion Picture Magazine, April 1917, P18 via Lantern Digital Library Right: One of Elsie’s mentors, Julius Knight, in costume as Napoleon, c1900 [21]Enlarged from a Talma Photo, State Library of Victoria collections

Elsie Jane Wilson appears in the US

Elsie in Everywoman in 1913.[22]Marysville Appeal(CA), 22 Jul 1913, P3 via Newspapers.com

There was no publicity accompanying Elsie and Rupert’s decision to leave Australia or their departure – rather, it was all done on the quiet – a not uncommon strategy by Australian actors in case things did not go to plan and they had to come home. The couple arrived in Vancouver on 26 July 1911, on the SS Zealandia. Officials recorded her height as 5’7″ (170 cms), almost the same as her husband. Elsie now launched herself in the US using her full and more distinctive name, although at various times she also called herself Elsie Hayes or Elsie Julian. The couple made their way to New York, and they both found work – but not together. Elsie was on stage touring in A Fool There Was in 1912, followed by Everywoman in California. She progressed to Little Theatre performances, but by the end of 1913 had joined Rupert Julian and immersed herself in the booming film industry. Attracted by Elsie’s success in the US, older sister Nellie joined them in California in mid 1913. See Note 1 below.

Elsie’s pathway from the stage to film was likely identical to her husband’s. In a 1916 interview, Rupert Julian claimed he had been “induced… against his will to try… the screen… (and) contrary to his expectation… found it fascinating.”[23]Moving Picture Weekly, 11 Nov 1916 via Lantern Digital Library The IMDB lists Elsie’s first film acting role in The Imp Abroad released in January 1914, followed by The Triumph of Mind, directed by pioneer female film director Lois Weber (1879-1939). The film also featured Rupert.

Elsie in 1914 [24]Motion Picture News, July-Oct 1914, P85. Via Lantern Digital Library

We do not know whether Elsie and Rupert became friends with Lois Weber and her husband Phillips Smalley (1875-1939) – or whether the newly arrived antipodeans were simply another of the professionals Weber famously mentored.[25]Perhaps the couple intrigued Lois Weber. Elsie and Rupert hailed from budding democracies – Australia and New Zealand – where Caucasian women could vote, in fact Elsie would already have … Continue reading Rupert Julian appeared in all of Lois Weber’s films in 1913 and it seems likely his “fascination” extended to developing his own skills as a director. Elsie also acted in several Lois Weber films in 1914, but throughout 1915 and 1916 she became a regular in films directed by Rupert – many of these being “shorts,” part of Universal’s policy of producing a “balanced program” of shorts and occasional features – Westerns, comedies and dramas.[26]Jeannette Delamoir “Louise Lovely, Bluebird Photoplays and the Star System.” The Moving Image: The Journal of the Association of Moving Image Archivists. Vol. 4, No. 2 (Fall 2004), pp. … Continue reading Unfortunately, most of these films are lost.

Creative partnerships between husband and wife, collaborating together in actor-writer/director/producer roles, were a feature of filmmaking in the 1910s. Apart from Elsie Jane Wilson & Rupert Julian and Lois Weber & Phillips Smalley, other collaborative partnerships included JP McGowan & Helen Holmes, Ida May Park & Joseph de Grasse, and Ruth Stonehouse & Gilbert “Broncho Billy” Anderson. These partnerships sometimes saw scripts and scenarios formulated that the couple then performed in or directed. Elsie contributed to at least two scripts that were filmed, one – The Human Cactus(1915) – being directed by Rupert. In this case, the couple also acted together in it.

A Pygmalian-type story by Elsie Jane Wilson formed the basis of The Human Cactus. Elsie played Evangeline, the slum girl who is “cultivated”. [27]The Moving Picture Weekly, June 24, 1915, P31 via Lantern Digital Library

Elsie Jane Wilson acting. Left: Elsie with Rupert Julian in The Evil Women Do (1916) also directed by Julian.[28]Motion Picture News, Sept 23, 1916, via Lantern Digital Library Right: As Nancy in the Jesse Lasky version of Oliver Twist (1916), directed by James Young.[29]Photoplay, February 1917, via Lantern Digital Library

Elsie as a Director

Elsie’s first directing experience was as an uncredited assistant to Rupert Julian on The Circus of Life, another film she also starred in, released in mid 1917.[30]The Moving Picture Weekly Nov 3, 1917, P28 Via Lantern Digital Library Her first credited solo directing assignments were on four feature films featuring child star Zoe Rae (1910-2006), released in later 1917.

Advertisements for two of Elsie’s films featuring Zoe Rae.[31]Motion Picture News Aug 25, 1917, P1297 and The Moving Picture World Dec 8, 1917 P1410 via Lantern Digital Library

Regrettably, only one of her films has survived and is freely available today, making analysis of her work extremely difficult. The Dream Lady (1918) has been beautifully restored by the French Centre National de la Cinématographie – it can be seen (here). For an understanding of her other films, we are dependent on synopsises in trade journals and a few reviews – not enough for this writer to attempt any commentary. She acted in several serials in 1917-18, but again unfortunately these have not survived. Her last acting role is reported to have been in an Eddie Lyons comedy short, in 1920.

We know that many of Elsie and Rupert’s films were made under the Bluebird photoplay brand, one of Universal’s subsidiaries with an association for quality, as Jeannette Delamoir has explained.[32]For more on Universal Studio’s production strategy see Jeannette Delamoir “Louise Lovely, Bluebird Photoplays and the Star System.” The Moving Image: The Journal of the Association … Continue reading However, Universal’s head Carl Laemmle made decisions entirely based on commercial principles – rather than any feminist sympathies. By the early 1920s, the studio system had become increasingly dominant. Anthony Slide and Karen Ward Mahar have both written of the post war changes in Hollywood and the consequences for the ten women directing for Universal, including Elsie.[33]See Karen Ward Mahar (2006) Women Filmmakers in Early Hollywood. Johns Hopkins University Press and Anthony Slide (1996) Lois Weber: the director who lost her way in history. Greenwood Press

What happened to Elsie’s career?

Elsie (at right) directing action, in a 1919 Photoplay article entitled “The Women Lend a hand” by Grace Kingsley.[34]Photoplay Magazine, March 1919, P78. Via Lantern Digital Media Library

Elsie’s last credit as a director was in early 1919, on The Game’s Up. But as Mark Garrett Cooper has noted, there is a problem of attribution for female directors of the era, including Elsie Jane Wilson. For example, Cooper notes actor Ruth Clifford (1900-1998) recalled that it was Elsie Jane Wilson who directed her on The Savage (1917), yet the film is traditionally credited to Rupert Julian.[35]See Mark Garrett Cooper (2013) “Elsie Jane Wilson.” In Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. New York, NY: Columbia University … Continue reading Contemporary reports also suggested Elsie helped Rupert direct Mother O’Mine (1917) although again, the film’s credits attribute it to Rupert Julian alone.[36]Motion Picture News, August 25, 1917 via Lantern Digital Library However, it is clear that Elsie continued working after her last credited directing assignment. While formal film credits do not exist, there is a body of evidence in the contemporary press indicating that she was regularly assisting her husband in film production – and keen to seek further work as a director.

The cast of Rupert Julian’s The Honey Bee (1920) on set. Elsie Jane Wilson is in the second row. There is no information regarding why Elsie was there.[37]Motion Picture News, Feb 28 1920, P2127 via Lantern Digital Library

On several occasions after 1919, Elsie was publicly announced in trade magazines and newspapers as the director for a forthcoming production. In February 1920 she was announced as director for Opened Shutters, an upcoming Edith Roberts film.[38]The Los Angeles Times, 6 Feb 1920, P23, via Newspapers.com However, in the end it was directed by William Worthington. In late 1922 The Los Angeles Times announced she was planning to direct again,[39]The Los Angeles Times 29 Nov 1922, P15, via Newspapers.com and in March 1923, she was announced as the director of a new series of Baby Peggy films for Universal, with Rupert Julian writing scripts.[40]Baby Peggy, born Peggy-Jean Montgomery (1918-2020) was a popular Hollywood child star Elsie said she was “elated” over her return to pictures and felt certain she had some new ideas to offer. But it was not to be, although Universal did make a Baby Peggy film in 1923, directed by King Baggot.[41]See Exhibitor’s Trade Review, April 7, 1923, P947 via Lantern, Digital Library. Also see The Los Angeles Times, 17 Mar 1923, P22 via Newspapers.com

However most telling, in June 1924, Universal Weekly, the studio’s own magazine, reported that on account of her work on Rupert Julian’s Love and Glory (1924), Elsie had been given “a letter of thanks and a substantial check” by Julius Bernheim, Universal Studio’s General Manager.[42]Universal Weekly, 14 June 1924, P26, via Lantern, Digital Library The article went on to explain that “although not employed by Universal” she was an active aide to her husband as director, handling his working script and assisting him in directing. It was an unusually fulsome public acknowledgement for someone who was not on the payroll. Some months later, several reports credited her with managing Mary Philbin’s makeup and costumes for Rupert Julian’s The Phantom of the Opera (1925).[43]See for example Oakland Tribune (CA)19 Oct 1924, P64 via Newspapers.com

Whether or not Elsie’s last contribution to film was really in 1925, or perhaps after that date, we know that Rupert Julian’s final films were only 5 years later, in 1930, at the beginning of the sound era.[44]See Robert Catto’s website on Rupert Julian for a synopsis of his career He died suddenly in 1943 as a result of a stroke. Elsie lived on in Los Angeles until her death, aged about 80, in early 1965.[45]The Los Angeles Times, 19 Jan 1965, P40 via Newspapers.com Both had become US citizens and there appear to have been no trips home to see extended family in Australia or New Zealand. Elsie and Rupert had no children. I can find no evidence Elsie was ever interviewed about her screen or stage work and sadly, she was completely forgotten in her country of birth until relatively recently.


Note 1 – Nellie Wilson in the USA

Nellie Wilson joined Elsie in the US between 1913 and 1918. Left: Nellie as Nella in So Long Letty (1915).[46]Los Angeles Evening Express,19 Jul 1915, P7, via Newspapers.com Right: Nellie, arrived home in Australia in 1918.[47]Table Talk, 26 Dec 1918, via State Library of Victoria

Nellie Wilson arrived in the US in mid 1913.[48]Variety, 25 July 1913, P25, Via Lantern Digital Library (Her marriage to George Irish had come to an unhappy end when he was admitted to Kew Asylum in May 1912.) But despite her enviable reputation on the Australian and New Zealand stage, Nellie appears to have struggled to establish herself in the US. It was not until 1915 that she found an ongoing role on the stage – in the musical So Long Letty, having renamed herself “Nella” Wilson in the meantime.[49]The San Francisco Examiner 19 Jul 1913,P3 and The Los Angeles Times 24 Jun 1915, P26 via Newspapers.com She returned to Australia in late 1918.[50]Table Talk, 26 Dec 1918, via State Library of Victoria Nellie visited Elsie in the US again in 1931.

Nellie Wilson’s later fate is unknown. One newspaper report suggested she ran a millinery shop in Sydney.[51]Sydney Morning Herald, 7 June 1934, P9, via National Library of Australia’s Trove Marie Wilson married bank officer Phillip John Madden in Melbourne in 1914 and also retired from the stage.


Note 2: Other Elsies and different Nellies

The English Nellie Wilson in 1895.[52]Music Hall and Theatre Review, 1 February, 1895 via British Library Newspaper Archive

There were several performers called Nellie Wilson – it was not an uncommon name. English performer Nellie Wilson visited Australia in the 1890s, and she can be found on the cover of the British paper Music Hall and Theatre Review, 1 February, 1895 (at left). In addition, a long interview with her after her Australian tour can be found in the same paper, May 26 1899, P331. She resembles our Nellie Wilson in appearance and the two are sometimes confused in collections.

This photo in the collection of the State Library of Victoria appears to show our Nellie Wilson (Click here), see also Peter Downes, The Pollards, P110. Confusingly, an additional photo in the collections of the State Library of Victoria appears to show the English Nellie Wilson.

Another Elsie Wilson was active in Australia in the late 1910s. Her JC Williamson’s contract from 1917 survives in the collections of the Australian Performing Arts Collection.

Elsie Wilson was also the name of the long time companion of Gladys Moncrieff.


Nick Murphy
September 2022


References

  • Newspaper & Magazine Sources
    • National Library of Australia’s Trove
    • Newspapers.com
    • State Library of Victoria
    • Hathitrust digital library
    • National Library of New Zealand’s Papers Past
    • Internet Archive Library via Lantern Digital Library
  • Primary Sources
    • Australian Performing Arts Collection, Melbourne.
    • Ancestry.com
    • Victoria, Births, Deaths and Marriages
    • New South Wales, Births, Deaths and Marriages

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

Footnotes

Footnotes
1, 2 Photoplay magazine Oct 1917-March 1918, via Lantern, Digital Library
3 NSW Births Deaths & Marriages, Birth Certificate 3700/1885
4 Victoria Births Deaths & Marriages Marriage Certificate 6213/1906
5 or “clicker” – a skilled tradesperson who cut boot leather
6 A City of Sydney Archive photo of nineteenth century houses in Riley Street can be seen here
7 Sands 1889 Directory, City of Sydney Archives & History Resources
8 NSW Births Deaths & Marriages, Birth Certificate 2389/1877
9 See Auckland Star, 28 Nov 1901, P2 Via National Library of New Zealand Papers Past
10 Sunday Sun (Syd) 20 Nov 1910, P12, via National Library of Australia’s Trove
11 Victoria Births Deaths & Marriages Marriage certificate 3786/1902
12 not yet using her middle name
13 The Newsletter: an Australian Paper for Australian People (Syd) 21 Jan 1905, P7 via National Library of Australia’s Trove
14 The Gadfly, 30 October 1907, Cover, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
15 The Gadfly (Adel) 9 Oct 1907, P8 via National Library of Australia’s Trove
16 Sunday Times (Syd) 21 Mar 1909, P6 via National Library of Australia’s Trove
17 The Sun(WA) 6 June 1909, P7 via National Library of Australia’s Trove
18 about $AU 1,100 today. Her contract survives in the Australian Performing Arts Collection
19 See Veronica Kelly (2003) “Julius Knight, Australian Matinee Idol: Costume Drama as Historical Re-presentation” in Australasian Victorian Studies Journal, Vol 9, No 1, 2003
20 Motion Picture Magazine, April 1917, P18 via Lantern Digital Library
21 Enlarged from a Talma Photo, State Library of Victoria collections
22 Marysville Appeal(CA), 22 Jul 1913, P3 via Newspapers.com
23 Moving Picture Weekly, 11 Nov 1916 via Lantern Digital Library
24 Motion Picture News, July-Oct 1914, P85. Via Lantern Digital Library
25 Perhaps the couple intrigued Lois Weber. Elsie and Rupert hailed from budding democracies – Australia and New Zealand – where Caucasian women could vote, in fact Elsie would already have done so, in the 1910 Australian Federal elections. In the US, women’s suffrage was still 6 years away
26 Jeannette Delamoir “Louise Lovely, Bluebird Photoplays and the Star System.” The Moving Image: The Journal of the Association of Moving Image Archivists. Vol. 4, No. 2 (Fall 2004), pp. 64-85. University of Minnesota Press
27 The Moving Picture Weekly, June 24, 1915, P31 via Lantern Digital Library
28 Motion Picture News, Sept 23, 1916, via Lantern Digital Library
29 Photoplay, February 1917, via Lantern Digital Library
30 The Moving Picture Weekly Nov 3, 1917, P28 Via Lantern Digital Library
31 Motion Picture News Aug 25, 1917, P1297 and The Moving Picture World Dec 8, 1917 P1410 via Lantern Digital Library
32 For more on Universal Studio’s production strategy see Jeannette Delamoir “Louise Lovely, Bluebird Photoplays and the Star System.” The Moving Image: The Journal of the Association of Moving Image Archivists. Vol. 4, No. 2 (Fall 2004), pp. 64-85. University of Minnesota Press
33 See Karen Ward Mahar (2006) Women Filmmakers in Early Hollywood. Johns Hopkins University Press and Anthony Slide (1996) Lois Weber: the director who lost her way in history. Greenwood Press
34 Photoplay Magazine, March 1919, P78. Via Lantern Digital Media Library
35 See Mark Garrett Cooper (2013) “Elsie Jane Wilson.” In Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries.
36 Motion Picture News, August 25, 1917 via Lantern Digital Library
37 Motion Picture News, Feb 28 1920, P2127 via Lantern Digital Library
38 The Los Angeles Times, 6 Feb 1920, P23, via Newspapers.com
39 The Los Angeles Times 29 Nov 1922, P15, via Newspapers.com
40 Baby Peggy, born Peggy-Jean Montgomery (1918-2020) was a popular Hollywood child star
41 See Exhibitor’s Trade Review, April 7, 1923, P947 via Lantern, Digital Library. Also see The Los Angeles Times, 17 Mar 1923, P22 via Newspapers.com
42 Universal Weekly, 14 June 1924, P26, via Lantern, Digital Library
43 See for example Oakland Tribune (CA)19 Oct 1924, P64 via Newspapers.com
44 See Robert Catto’s website on Rupert Julian for a synopsis of his career
45 The Los Angeles Times, 19 Jan 1965, P40 via Newspapers.com
46 Los Angeles Evening Express,19 Jul 1915, P7, via Newspapers.com
47, 50 Table Talk, 26 Dec 1918, via State Library of Victoria
48 Variety, 25 July 1913, P25, Via Lantern Digital Library
49 The San Francisco Examiner 19 Jul 1913,P3 and The Los Angeles Times 24 Jun 1915, P26 via Newspapers.com
51 Sydney Morning Herald, 7 June 1934, P9, via National Library of Australia’s Trove
52 Music Hall and Theatre Review, 1 February, 1895 via British Library Newspaper Archive

Sketches of Pollard’s Performers

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

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

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


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

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


Oscar, Freddie & Johnnie Heintz

Johnnie and Freddie Heintz with their mother Annie, c 1907. Private Collection.

Oscar Heintz was born in 1891, twins Freddie and Johnnie Heintz in 1895. Their father John Heintz was a baker, and he and his wife Annie nee Garland lived much of their life in a modest single storied terrace at 84 Kerr Street, just a few doors from the home of Daphne and Ivy Trott, in the heart of Fitzroy ( although the family lived around the corner at 101 Argyle St, when the twins were born). John Heintz died in 1900 aged only in his late 30s. In September 1901 Oscar joined a Pollard troupe tour of North America and then another in early 1903. In July 1904, the twins joined Oscar on a third lengthy Pollard’s tour of Asia and North America, that finally returned home in February 1907.

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

Above: Freddie and Johnnie Heintz performing in the US, c1908. The San Bernardino County Sun (California), 19 Jun 1908, P4, via Newspapers.com

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

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

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

Alice and Ethel Bennetto

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

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

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

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

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

Ethel Naylor

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

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

The 3 story Town Hall Cafe (centre) and the Talma Photographers building, Swanston Street, Melbourne, from the Town Hall corner, c.1899. State Library Victoria, Gwyn James Collection, H93.466/6. (The Talma Building still stands)

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


Minnie, Nellie and May Topping

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

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

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

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

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

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


Nick Murphy
December 2020


Special Thanks

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

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

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

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

General Reading

  • Gillian Arrighi & Victor Emeljanow (Eds) (2014) Entertaining Children: The Participation of Youth in the Entertainment Industry, Chapter 3, Palgrave MacMillan.
  • Gillian Arrighi (2017) The Controversial “Case of the Opera Children in the East”: Political conflict between popular demand for child actors and modernizing cultural policy on the child”. Theatre Journal 69, (2017) John Hopkins University Press.
  • Kirsty Murray (2010) India Dark. Allen and Unwin.
    [Note: While written as a novel for teenagers, this beautiful book is closely based on the events of Arthur Pollard’s troupe in India and is highly recommended]
  • Justine Hyde’s blog Hub and Spoke which includes an interview with Kirsty Murray about India Dark.
  • Leann Richards (2012) Theatrical Child Labour Scandal  Stage Whispers website.

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

Regarding Oscar, Freddie and Johnnie Heintz

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

Regarding Alice and Ethel Bennetto

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

Regarding May, Nellie and Minnie Topping

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

Ted McNamara (1893-1928) What Price Glory!

34 year old Ted McNamara from Australia and 26 year old Sammy Cohen from the USA seemed to be a promising comedy team, who appeared together in Raoul Walsh’s What Price Glory in 1925. 3 years later this title was used as a motto on Ted’s grave. Source PicturePlay Magazine, 1927, Via Lantern Digital Media Project.

Teddy enjoying success in the cinema. Motion Picture Magazine, July 8, 1927. Via Lantern Digital Media Project

Born September 19, 1893, in a small cottage in the Melbourne suburb of Prahran, Teddy or later just Ted (Edward Joseph) McNamara was the fourth child born to Patrick, a baker, and his wife Eliza nee Butler. He spent a large part of his childhood and adolescence on long overseas tours with Pollards Lilliputian Opera Company, developing and refining a reputation as a skilled character comedian. Two older sisters – Alice, born in 1889 and Nellie (Ellen) born in 1891, also went on the stage with Pollards.

Following 22 years on stage, Teddy enjoyed a prominent but very short Hollywood career. Over the three years 1925-1928 he appeared in a dozen films, mostly made by the Fox studio, and some of which survive today. His sudden death in early 1928 robbed Hollywood of a future film comedy partnership, as Fox had teamed him several times with Sammy Cohen, another comedian also emerging in Hollywood. The two comedians first appeared together in supporting roles in Raoul Walsh‘s film version of the popular play, What Price Glory in 1925.


Growing up with Pollards

Above: Teddy while performing in Vancouver. Vancouver Daily World, 3 Jan 1914, P11. via newspapers.com

Teddy was barely 10 years old when he joined Alice and Nellie on the SS Changsa for his first extended Pollard company tour overseas, in January 1903. Performing through Asia and then onto and across North America, this Pollard troupe did not return to Australia until April 1904. And then, after only three months at home, Teddy joined another Pollard tour, departing Australia in July 1904, without his sisters – who stayed in Melbourne, possibly to care for their ailing mother. This tour was away until February 1907, almost 30 months. The rotating program of musical comedies included HMS Pinafore, A Gaiety Girl, The Lady Slavey and the like. And of Teddy we know that while outwardly shy, he was also a joker, popular with his fellow performers and a favourite with the public.

It is tempting to judge this form of apprenticed child employment by 21st century standards – but it has no equivalent today in the economies of Western democracies. More importantly, we might wonder about the impact of these extended performance tours on the development of a young person.

Above: University of Washington, Special Collections. JWS21402. Teddie stands at the rear, clutching the pole. Taken sometime in 1905 or 1906, not all of Pollards Lilliputian Opera Company are in this shipboard photo. Used with permission

In the photograph of the 1904-7 troupe shown above, which can be enlarged at its University of Washington Library home (here), we can recognise Teddy and some of the other Pollard performers. Their experiences would end up being very mixed. A smiling 13 year old Teddy McNamara can be seen at the rear, right & holding the pole, behind Harold Fraser (later Hollywood’s Snub Pollard). Willie Thomas leans out to the left at rear. Within a few years Willie had left the stage and become a butcher. The Heintz twins, Johnny and Freddie sitting in the foreground, look bored and disengaged. Freddie later struggled to build a stage career, but Johnny gave it up and became a baker in Australia. Future Hollywood director Alf Goulding, looking very dapper in suit and cap, stands at right; Charles Pollard steadies Daphne Pollard at left. Both Alf and Daphne remained friends and would experience great success on stage and in film later in life. Leah Leichner beams with happiness in the centre front row. Three years later Arthur Pollard would send her home early from his Indian trip. After some more performances in Australia, she disappeared completely from the historical record.

Like many of the Pollards performers, Teddy saw his future in the United States and he returned again on a third Pollards North American tour departing Australia in July 1907. At the end of this tour, in early 1909, Charles Pollard announced his retirement as manager and came home with most of the company to Australia. But 16 year old Teddy joined a few of the older performers and stayed on in North America for a while. In July 1910, Teddy was performing with some of the old Pollards players in British Columbia. In 1912, Nellie Chester, Charles Pollards sister and one time partner, decided to establish a new company, now with adolescents (as required by the new Australian Emigration laws prohibiting children from travelling outside Australia to perform). Both Teddy and Nellie joined up again. Their mother had died in 1904. It seems sister Alice dutifully kept house for her father in Melbourne, and became a seamstress.

pollards-in-vancouver-1913  Teddie and Queenie Williams in 1916



Pattie (later Patsy) Hill back in Australia. The Call, (WA) 22 July 1927. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove

In 1912 there was a new repertoire of musicals to take on tour across Canada and the western USA – including Sergeant Brue, The Toymaker and later the company’s own original, Married by Wireless. The company was active touring North American cities, on and off, until about 1919, by which time the remaining performers had gone their separate ways. Not surprisingly, in the hot-house environment of a touring company, romances between these young Australian actors had blossomed. Star performer Queenie Williams married Ernest, one of company manager Nellie Chester’s sons. And in November 1913, while in Edmonton, Canada, Teddy married fellow Melbourne performer Pattie Hill (Phyllis Esther Pattie Hill). In 1914, a daughter was born of the union. Sadly, neither marriage lasted very long. Pattie and her daughter returned to Melbourne in 1915 – a divorce was granted in Australia ten years later. Pattie insisted Teddy had promised to regularly send money and follow her home when he could finish his commitments, but never did.

In the US and Canada, Teddy’s reputation as a clever comedian grew with these performance tours. A lengthy interview in The San Francisco Call of 1906 revealed Teddy as a shy and reluctant interviewee, alongside Daphne Pollard, the skilled self-promoter. But reviews of his performances were universally enthusiastic and became more effusive over the years. 19 year old Teddy had “few peers as a character comedian” reported The Vancouver Daily World in September 1912. By July 1916, The Victoria Daily Times predicted that he would “soon have his name written among the few strikingly clever comedians.” Indeed, it might really have been so.

By the early 1920s Teddy was based in New York. He was now a headline act and he continued to gain roles in variety and a range of musical comedies across the US. In private life he had a new partner, also an actor, and in 1923, a new baby daughter.

Ted McNamara headlines in Battling Butler on the Keith circuit. Evening Star, Washington DC, 27 December, 1925. Via Newspapers.com

To Hollywood

kiper-gives-the-flagg-the-bird lipinsky-denies-all-knowledge

Screen grabs of Ted McNamara and Sammy Cohen on the screen – in Fox’s What Price Glory, 1926. The film is still widely available on DVD. Author’s Collection.

Now known as Ted, he was cast as part of the comic relief in Raoul Walsh‘s filmed version of the popular play What Price Glory in early 1926. (His first film had been Shore Leave, a romance). What Price Glory, a First World War Army – buddy film and a vehicle for Victor McLaglen and Edmund Lowe, was to be Ted’s breakthrough role. Using some easily recognised ethnic stereotypes, his was a supporting role as Irish-American soldier Private Kiper, alongside Sammy Cohen playing the Jewish-American Private Lipinsky. The story goes that Walsh had seen Ted on stage in New York and offered him the part. That is likely, as Ted had completed a long run of Battling Butler at the Selwyn and later Times Square Theatre in New York.

Ted and Sammy Cohen in What Price Glory. Dolores del Rio plays Charmaine tending the bar. Exhibitors Herald, 27 November 1926, P24, via Lantern Digital Media Project.

Seen today, the male stereotypes in What Price Glory appear well-worn at best, but the film was well received at the time and Ted must have been pleased with his work and the change of direction it represented. In his survey of military comedy films, Hal Erickson notes that Fox promoted the two comedians based on the film’s success, and as a response to MGM’s comedy team of Karl Dane and George K Arthur. The partnership was repeated several times, including in 1927’s The Gay Retreat, another film set against World War One, where Sammy Nosenbloom (Cohan) and Ted McHiggins (Ted) join the army to look after their employer.

Ted McNamara and Sammy Cohen in Upstream. Screen grabs from a copy on YouTube.

This writer’s favourite of the surviving Ted McNamara films is John Ford‘s 1927 film Upstream, a copy of which was found in New Zealand in 2009. Set in a theatrical boarding house, Ted McNamara and Sammy Cohen play Callahan and Callahan, two tap dancers, secondary comedic characters. The plot is slight and John Ford purists are unlikely to find much to enjoy in it, but it is one of those silent films that has stood the test of time – with every scene containing some sort of industry in – joke and Ford’s skill as a director already evident. Ted’s skills as a comic are also well displayed here.

Ted McNamara’s final film, Why Sailors Go Wrong, was about two rival cabbies who end up on the tropical island of Pongo-Pongo, again with Sammy Cohen as a foil. The film is a reminder of the very ordinary standard of some film comedies of the day, with its slender plot and “low comedy” situations – including sea-sickness, arranged marriages to unattractive island women, implied nudity and jokes about bird droppings. Within a few years, the Hayes office had been established to rid Hollywood of this sort of unrefined fare.

Ted died in February 1928, before the film was released. The stated cause of death was pneumonia, but as film historian Thomas Reeder notes, film gossip was that alcohol also played a part. Reeder quotes Ted’s contemporary Jimmy Starr as saying “Ted was pretty much of a drunk. Success had merely provided him with more money for booze.” Starr recalled that on a rainy night a drunken Ted had fallen into a gutter. “He just lay there.” Ted’s fondness for drink was also noted by Pattie Hill, who repeatedly mentioned his excessive drinking in her divorce petition.

According to newspaper accounts, Ted McNamara was farewelled at his funeral by many of his old Pollard colleagues – including Daphne Pollard, Alf Goulding and Billy Bevan, a testimony to his popularity with the company. What Price Glory was chosen as a motto for Ted’s monument at the Calvary Cemetery in California.

Sammy Cohen continued appearing in films, although he never established an effective comedy partnership again. Pattie Hill became Patsie Hill in Australia, married baritone Vernon Sellars and enjoyed a very long association with Australian theatre and radio.


Note 1
Nellie McNamara had a lengthy stage career of her own. In addition to travelling with Alice on Pollard tours in 1901-2 and 1903-4, Nellie also trained as a contralto and performed on the stage in Australia between 1909 and 1912, with significant acclaim, using the stage name Nellie Mond. The Victorian Premier Mr Murray heard her sing in April 1910, and declared he was quite sure that if given the chance, “she would distinguish herself and charm the public.” She did charm the public for several years, but in mid 1912 she threw it all away to join Teddy again, and Nellie Chester’s final Pollard tour of the US.

Years later Nellie explained to Everyone’s magazine that while a singer in Melbourne, her teacher had taken her to meet Madame Melba, who “nearly scared me out of my wits. She said ‘The voice is all right but for heaven’s sake, make her get rid of that awful Australian accent.’ ” As well as revealing a sharp wit, this anecdote appears to explain why she did not pursue a career as a classical singer. She married US vaudevillian Don Clinton and in 1920 returned to Australia to perform with him on Harry Clay’s circuit.

Unfortunately, the author has yet to find a clear photo of Nellie.


Nick Murphy
August 2020


Further Reading

Text

  • Gillian Arrighi (2017) The Controversial “Case of the Opera Children in the East”: Political Conflict between Popular Demand for Child Actors and Modernizing Cultural Policy on the Child. “Theatre Journal” No 69, 2017. Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Gillian Arrighi, National Library of Australia. Child Stars of the Stage. 
  • Patricia Erens (1984) The Jew in American Cinema. Indiana University Press
  • Hal Erickson (2012) Military Comedy Films: A Critical Survey and Filmography of Hollywood Releases Since 1918. McFarland
  • Thomas Reeder (2017) Mr. Suicide: Henry Pathé Lehrman and The Birth of Silent Comedy. Bear Manor Media

Films

Federal Register of Legislation (Australia)

University of Washington, Special Collections.
Sayre (J. Willis) Collection of Theatrical Photographs.
This invaluable resource contains numerous photos of the Pollard’s Troupes.

The Australian Variety Theatre Archive: Popular Culture Archive, 1850-1930. Clay Djubal and others

Lantern Digital Media Project

  • Fox Folks, 1926.
  • Picture Play, 1927
  • Motion Picture, July 8, 1927

National Library of Australia’s Trove

  • The Age (Melb) 19 April 1910
  • The Prahran Telegraph (Melb) 26 Oct 1912
  • The Age (Melb) 10 Jan 1914
  • The Bulletin (Aust) Vol. 41 No. 2083 (15 Jan 1920)
  • Everyone’s (Aust) 10 March, 1920
  • The Journal (SA) 8 Jan 1921
  • The Telegraph (Qld) 11 May 1926
  • The Call, (WA) 22 July 1927
  • Saturday Journal (SA) 14 Jan, 1928
  • The Daily News (WA) 23 Mar 1928

Newspapers.com

  • The Oregon Daily Journal, 30 Jan 1904.
  • The San Francisco Call, Sun, Mar 4, 1906
  • The Vancouver Daily World, 21 September 1912.
  • Vancouver Daily World,  23 May 1913
  • The Evening Times Star and Alameda Daily Argus (CA), 10 Feb 1914
  • Spokane Chronicle (WA) 18 Sept 1914
  • Marysville Daily Appeal, (CA), 27 Jan, 1916.
  • The Victoria Daily Times, 27 July 1916
  • Spokane Chronicle (WA) 27 Sept 1917
  • Star Tribune (Minneapolis) 21 May 1922
  • Daily News (New York) 15 Sept 1925
  • Evening Star, Washington DC, 27 December, 1925.

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

Queenie Williams (1896-1962) & the last Pollard’s tour of America

Above: “Queenie” Ina Williams at the height of her success in the US with Pollard’s Juvenile Opera Company, c 1917. Cover for the sheet music – Kind Treatment by Tom Pitts. Author’s Collection

The 5 second version
Alfreda Ina Williams was born in Footscray, a western suburb of Melbourne, Australia on 17 November 1896. Following several years on stage in Australia as a child actor, she went on to have a significant stage career in North America. She first arrived in the US in 1912 with the last Pollard’s troupe, but separated from them in 1919, when the Pollard activities came to an end. She then worked in vaudeville, mostly in cities of the US east coast. She retired in 1932 and died in Los Angeles on 9 June 1962.

At the age of 10, “Queenie” Ina Williams was already a popular stage performer in Melbourne Australia. The oldest of four children, she was born Alfreda Ina Williams in 1896 to jockey Frank (Ferdinando) Williams and his wife Annie nee Armstrong. As she explained many years later, she was “puny” as a child, and a Melbourne specialist recommended “calisthenic” dancing as a means to building up her physical strength. She took to it readily, although as an adult was a little under 5 foot (152 cm) tall. A pupil of a well known dance school run by Mrs William Green and Miss Florrie Green in Melbourne, she gained a role in the melodrama The Fatal Wedding. In one scene she famously led a children’s “Tin Can Band,” with a kerosene tin drum. A cautious reviewer (presumably in view of her age) at Melbourne Punch”  wrote “combined with her very clever acting and singing, this child is an excellent dancer. She has been a pupil of Mrs. Green for four years, and she predicts a great future for this little artist.”  The play toured Australian cities – she was in Western Australia when her mother died in December 1906. Such were the expectations of the child performer of the time, she could not leave. She went on to appear in other touring productions, including The Little Breadwinner, with Beatrice Holloway.

Queenie Williams SLVTin Can Band022

Above Left: Queenie Ina Williams in The Fatal Wedding. State Library of Victoria Collection. At right, Queenie, centre with cast. Postcard in the Author’s Collection. She was 10 at the time, but short and and underweight as the photos show.

Sometime in mid 1912, Nellie Chester (formerly Pollard) decided it would be a good idea to take another group of young Australian performers to North America. She had worked the US-Canada route with several “lilliputian” (underage) troupes over the previous decade, in collaboration with her older brother Charles Pollard. A number of talented young Australians got their start this way and by 1912,  some were already at work in the US – Daphne Pollard, Alf Goulding and Harold Fraser (“Snub Pollard”) amongst them.

Nellie Chester brought many familiar faces back for the 1912 US Canada tour, and some new ones. Old favourites Teddy McNamara, William and May Pollard were amongst the best known performers – while newcomers included “Queenie” Williams and Billy Bevan. But the new Australian legislation that followed Arthur Hayden Pollard’s disastrous tour of India in 1909-10 required all performers leaving Australia to be aged over 18 years of age for females or 16 for males. Six of the troupe’s girls were underage – Queenie (16), Ivy Moore (16), Patsie Hill (16), Ethel Naylor (16), Jessica Braydon (17) and Daisy Wilson (16). It is hard to believe Nellie Chester was not aware she was breaking the law.

The SS Makura arrived in Vancouver in late August 1912, and newspaper reviews show the company followed Pollard’s well-travelled performance route across Canada and up and down the US west coast. Performing familiar musicals – The Mikado and The Belle of New York, they also added Sergeant Brue, The Toy Maker and La Belle Butterfly to their repertoire. Not surprisingly, the cities the troupe visited welcomed a return of the “Pollard Juvenile Opera Company”. Nellie Chester may have hoped that Queenie could take the place of Daphne Pollard, who had last performed with Pollard’s five years earlier. On the troupe’s arrival in Honolulu, Pollard’s publicity announced Queenie was their “rising star”. Daphne had been a major draw-card until her departure in 1907 and now had a significant profile of her own. Queenie was similarly charismatic onstage, and resembled Daphne – also being short and slight .

Queenie in 1914 while in Los Angeles  Pollards in VAncouver 1913  Queenie Hanford Journal (Daily) 3 December 1915

Left: “Queenie” Ina Williams in the “Los Angeles Herald”, 17 February 1914. She was 18 years old.
Centre: Pollard’s advertisement in the “Vancouver Daily World”  23 May 1913. Eva, Willie and Teddy had all previously travelled to the US before with a Pollard troupe. Note the variation in the troupe’s name – one of many.
Right: Top to bottom – Daisy Wilson, May Pollard and Queenie Williams. “The Hanford Sentinel” 3 December 1915. Via Newspapers.com.

Over the next eighteen months, as the troupe travelled the US and Canada, the members clearly changed, and the “brilliant chorus of 40” reduced to about 20. William “Billy” Bevan left sometime towards the end of 1913, and joined Alf Goulding and Daphne Pollard in their own stage show in California. But others joined up, including Pollard regular Freddie Heintz.

In October 1913 the troupe travelled to Alaska, a first for the company, and finally, in February 1915, they arrived in New York and performed there for a few months – 15 years after the city had first been mooted as a destination for a Pollard troupe. The “Gerry Society” had successfully kept previous Pollard under-age troupes away from the US east coast (See Note 1). And another event of significance occurred for Queenie. In November 1914 she married Ernest Chester, the son of Nellie Chester and one of the troupe’s managers.


Pollards Spokane Chronicle Dec 23 1913

Above: “Spokane Chronicle”. 23 December 1913. Nellie Chester is almost certainly the conservatively dressed woman in black at the centre of the rear row. Ina may be third from the right in the front row.

By 1916, the Pollard’s troupe were probably well aware that vaudeville was under siege from the booming film industry, although movie shorts were already being incorporated into vaudeville programs. Late in 1916, the company launched their own new spectacular musical “playlet” Married Via Wireless, that more than challenged available film fare, relied on a smaller cast and was apparently easily portable. For two years the production, with its impressive “behind the scenes maze of machinery… responsible for passing ships, a blinking lighthouse, (and) a murderous submarine at its work of destruction,”  toured the US and Canada. Ernest Chester was credited with the scenery design. The very slight plot related to “the romance of the wireless operator and the daughter of the ship”.

Wisconsin State Journal 30 Jan 1919

Above: The Orpheum circuit advertises Married by Wireless as a major feature of its program, in the “Wisconsin State Journal”, January 30, 1919. Note the other offerings – which included comedians, song and dance routines and short films. Via Newspapers.com.

By mid 1919, Married Via Wireless had run its course, and apparently so had Queenie and Ernest’s marriage. Queenie left Pollard’s altogether, indeed this production seems to have been the end of the troupe’s activities. Queenie now used her real name, Ina, a name more suited to a twenty-four year old. She also found new roles in vaudeville – particularly in cities of the US east coast, including Midnight Rounders with Eddie Cantor, which for a short time placed her as a supporting player alongside Madelon La Varre, the daughter of Melbourne-born dancer Saharet.

Ina made the long trip home to Australia to see her family in 1922, and expressed a desire at the time to enter the movies, but was back at work in US vaudeville by September. Now often specializing in routines with just one other comedian; Dick Keene, Hal Skelly, Johnny Dooley and Jere Delaney were amongst her vaudeville partners over the next ten years. She also appeared with fellow Australia Leon Errol. In reviewing her performance with Skelly in Vancouver, one paper described her as “the little dynamo of pep… Their droll remarks and eccentric dance steps keep (the laughter) running throughout their performance.”

Theatre magazine 1924 enlarged Daily News 1924 Leon Errol 1927 Yours Truly

Left: Ina and Johnny Dooley in Keep Kool, “Theatre Magazine” August 1924. Via Hathitrust.org. Centre: Ina explains her childhood start as a dancer. “Daily News” (New York) 28 June 1924. Via Newspapers.com. Right: Ina as a supporting actor to Leon Errol in Yours Truly “Pittsburgh Daily Post”, 9 January 1927. Via Newspapers.com

Interviewed in 1943, Ina acknowledged she knew that with the coming of sound film – the writing was on the wall for vaudeville. She retired in 1932, after twenty solid years of comedy, song and dance on the North American stage. In that year, the last of the US theatres that once hosted vaudeville programs were being converted to sound cinemas. The ever astute Daphne Pollard had made the leap across to film in 1927.

Ina in 1943

Above: Ina Williams being interviewed at home in 1943. Asbury Park Press, 24 Jan 1943. Via Newspapers.com

In July 1923, Ina married Charles Stecher, a consulting engineer, who had nothing to do with the theatre. A daughter was born of the union in 1925. Ina died in Los Angeles on 9 June 1962.

Note 1
In the late 1920s, Ina acknowledged the difficulty the “Gerry Society,” (the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children), had created for Pollard’s. She stated that they had barred her from performing in New York because they discovered she was underage, although she did not give a date for this. (See the Cincinnatti Post, 30 November 1930)

Note 2
Freddie in 1922Not all of the performers in this final “adult” Pollard troupe enjoyed the success in the US that Ina did. Arriving in the US in 1914, Freddie Heintz struggled to find an ongoing career – renaming himself Freddie Garland (doubtless dropping his German surname because of the war) and then Freddie Steele. He crossed the border to join the Canadian Army in 1918 and was briefly married in the 1920s. He ended his days working as a handyman in Freeport, New York. His twin brother Johnnie Heintz would have no more of the life of the travelling performer – he stayed at home and became a pastry chef in Adelaide. An older brother who had also once been a performer for Pollard’s, Oscar Heintz, moved to Portland, Oregan in about 1910 and became a manager for Neon Manufacturing.

Above: A report of Freddie visiting his brother Oscar in The Oregonian (Portland Oregan), 25 July, 1922. Via Newspapers.com

Nick Murphy
April 2020

Special Thanks
to Jean Ritsema, for sourcing so much from US archives. 


Further Reading

Text

  • Gillian Arrighi (2017) The Controversial “Case of the Opera Children in the East”: Political Conflict between Popular Demand for Child Actors and Modernizing Cultural Policy on the Child.
    “Theatre Journal” No 69, 2017. John Hopkins University Press.
  • Gillian Arrighi National Library of Australia. Child Stars of the Stage. 
  • Louis Botto (2002) Playbill. 100 Years of Broadway shows, stories and stars. Applause Theatre and Cinema Books
  • Peter Downes (2002) The Pollards, a family and its child and adult opera companies in New Zealand and Australia, 1880-1910. Steele Roberts, New Zealand.
    [Note- Downes’ book only documents the Tom Pollard branch of the family business in Australia and New Zealand]

Federal Register of Legislation (Australia)

National Library of Australia Trove.

  • Table Talk (Melb)  26 Mar 1908
  • The Herald (Melb) 26 Aug 1922
  • The Daily Mail (Bris) 3 Sep 1922

Newspapers.com

  • Honolulu Star Bulletin 23 July 1912. Pollards bring a future star
  • The Victoria Daily Times (Victoria BC), 20 Aug, 1912. Pollard Kiddies arrive from South
  • Spokane Chronicle, 11 Nov 1914. Queenie Williams marries Chester
  • Daily Arkansas Gazette, 29 March 1919.
  • Times Union (New York) 13 July 1919. Page 4. With Cantor and La Varre
  • Boston Post. Dec 29, 1920. Wears ring she bought herself.
  • Los Angeles Express. April 20, 1922. Modern Damon and Pythias role
  • Vancouver Daily World 27 March 1923. Long and Short of it coming to Orpheum
  • Daily News (New York) · 29 Jun 1924. He Ill Health to thank…
  • Asbury Park Press, 24 Jan 1943. Ina Williams, Cast as Avon housewife – she loves it.

Leah Leichner (1890 – 1957) & 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.

The 5 second version
Born in Melbourne Australia, Leah Leichner became a leading actor with Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company, a juvenile troupe that performed light opera through South East Asia, India and North America in the first decade of the twentieth century. Her story isn’t simply one of a child performer, but is also the tale of an adventurous and unusually confident woman for her era, who determined her own destiny, and overcame significant obstacles. And she appears to be the only Pollards performer to return and make her home in Asia.

She is also significant because in March 1910, reports of the mistreatment of children (and in particular, her) reached Australia, and legislation banning child performers being taken out of the country followed soon after. Thirty years later, Leah was serving as a nurse when Japanese forces overran Hong Kong in late 1941 and she endured more than three and a half years of internment. She died there in 1957.

Her step-sister Belle Leichner also appeared on stage in Australia, India and China.

Left: Leah Constance Johnstone in 1915, aged 25. [1]Enlargement of photo from Johnstone divorce papers. Museum of History, NSW, Formerly NSW Archives

Leah’s birth and childhood

Leah Caroline Cohen was born on 9 July 1890 in the inner Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy, and her profile closely resembles that of other children enlisted in Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company.[2]Victoria, Births Deaths & Marriages Leah Cohen birth certificate, 9 July 1900, 22895 / 1890 Her mother was Minnie nee Grant, from a rural family in Mount Gambier, South Australia, while her father was English-born tailor Samuel Harris Cohen.

Only a few years after her birth her parents separated, and in December 1900 Minnie married Isaac Leichner, a Rumanian born fruiterer based at Melbourne’s Queen Victoria Market. The marriage was performed by the well known and slightly unorthodox Reverend Albert Abbott,[3]See Gerry Brody (24 May 2021) Shonky celebrants and wonky marriages ….. Holt’s matrimonial agency and the Free Christian Church at the State Library of Victoria Blog at the Free Christian Church in Queen Street, with James and Annie Holt from Holt’s Matrimonial Agency as witnesses.[4]Victoria, Births Deaths & Marriages Leichner and Grant Marriage certificate, 22 December 1900, 8251 / 1900 Together they settled down in nearby Little Lonsdale Street and Leah took her step-father’s surname for her own.

A few weeks after the marriage a daughter, Bella, was born.[5]Victoria, Births Deaths & Marriages Bella Leichner birth certificate, 9 January 1901, 5176 / 1901 In time, Bella or Belle, would also end up on the stage.

Perhaps they were friends:14 year old Leah (centre right) on her second Pollard’s tour with Irene Finlay (centre left) University of Washington, Special Collections, JWS21402 (Enlargement)

Of Leah’s childhood we know little. Like most Australian children she learned to read and write, but at the beginning of the twentieth century, secondary education was only available for those who could afford a private education – a very small portion of the population.[6]Robert Murray (2020) The Confident Years, Australia in the 1920s. P16. Australian Scholarly Publishing For Leah, and the other working class children who joined Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company, fame, fortune and the chance to travel must have made life as a performer a very attractive alternative to inner Melbourne factory work or an apprenticeship.

Left: Leah was born in Victoria St, Fitzroy, in a now demolished building at Number 73. Right: It is likely she attended the school in nearby Bell Street, Fitzroy, as did other Pollard performers. Author’s collection.

Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company

It is worth pausing and looking past the nationalist sentiment we might attach to these pioneer Australian performers today, to recognize 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 in 1909 to Arthur Pollard, meant parents received payment for their child’s performances, sometimes in advance.

Pollard’s advertises for new child performers at Ford’s Hall, 150 Brunswick St, Fitzroy, in February 1907. [7]The Age, 16 Feb, 1907. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove

Not everyone approved of the Pollard’s performance model. Fellow performer Irene Goulding recalled that her teacher at Bell Street Primary School in Fitzroy thought it was awful that children would go overseas on a performance tour.[8]Irene Smith nee Goulding interview. Interviewed by Sally Dawes in 1985. Australian Performing Arts Collection, Melbourne But her father Frank Goulding, a widowed ex-performer and now bootmaker, signed Irene up with Pollards, together with her brothers Alf and Frank.[9]Even after Frank’s death from smallpox while on tour in Calcutta in 1897, Alf and Irene Goulding kept performing with Pollards

Pollards in Manilla poss 1905 full screen
University of Washington, Special Collections, JWS24555This photo of the Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company was taken in the Philippines sometime in late 1904. Leah stands at the front, on the left. Close examination of the original (here) suggests the children are posing with chained prisoners. Reproduced with permission.

Leah on tour, 1903-1904, 1904-1907

In late 1902, at the age of 12, Leah auditioned for a Pollard’s tour, managed by Nellie Chester and her brother Charles Pollard. Shipping manifests show she joined the troupe and in January 1903 departed on SS Changsa,, bound for the “far east” – Manila, Hong Kong and Shanghai and then on to North America. She was in company with other familiar names, including Daphne Pollard (Trott) and her sister Ivy TrottTeddie McNamaraAlf Goulding and his sister Irene Loftus (Goulding)Willie Thomas and Irene Finlay. They were back in Australia 15 months later, in April 1904.

Three months after their return, in July 1904, Leah 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 again travel through ports in South East Asia and China before arriving in the USA in March 1905. This group of child performers stayed away from Australia for an extraordinary two and a half years – not returning until late February, 1907. Leah can be traced through some of the positive publicity given by the Canadian and US press, but the Pollards also made sure particular performers were profiled, most notably Daphne Pollard.

The repertoire included such popular musicals as A Runaway Girl, The Belle of New York, The Lady Slavey and HMS Pinafore, usually regularly rotated during a week of performances.

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 tour. Reproduced with permission.

Fibs by Pollards Montreal 1905
Above: This is the cast from A Gaiety Girl 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.[10]Extracts from a program in the author’s collection.

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?” And as Gillian Arrighi notes in her 2017 article, “the authors of these musical comedies never intended them for performance by children.”[11]Gillian Arrighi, The Controversial “Case of the Opera Children in the East”: Political conflict between popular demand for child actors and modernizing cultural policy on the … Continue reading

Audiences on the US east coast never got to see Pollard’s perform during Leah’s tours, or at any other time. The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (the “Gerry Society”) were particularly active over the issue of child performance on stage and they appear to have kept Pollard’s Lilliputians away from the big cities on the US east coast, where the society was most active.[12]This was reported in North America at the time – see for example The Chicago Tribune, 19 May 1902, P12 (a highly fanciful account but one that acknowledges the concept of child performers to be … Continue reading But there was enough interest in other towns and cities of North America to keep the Pollard’s troupes going. They returned home on the SS Moama in early 1907.

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

Leah on stage in Australia 1907-1908

The next Pollard tour to North America departed in June 1907, but Leah did not join it. Instead, in 1907 and early 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 mature. 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”.[13]The Gadfly (SA), 27 Nov 1907, P8, via National Library of Australia’s Trove

SMH 17 OCT 1908
An advertisement for the Tivoli Theatre in 1908. Leah appears in company with May Dalberg ( the same Mae Dahlberg who was later associated with Stan Laurel) Soon after this, Leah disappeared from the stage. [14]Sydney Morning Herald , 17 October, 1908 Via Newspapers.com

Leah and her secret, 1908

Then in late 1908 Leah 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 Claude, 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.[15]Victoria, Births Deaths & Marriages Claude Leichner birth certificate, 18 May 1909, 12829 /1909 No father is named, the responsibility for parenting an illegitimate child then rested entirely with the mother, who also faced extraordinary social stigma. But it is now clear that Minnie took over the parenting of grandson Claude, and 6 weeks later, Leah joined the next Pollard’s tour – that might take her away for an extended period of time.

Leah and the 1909 – 1910 Pollard tour of India

The Arthur Pollard troupe together, with children dressed for a performance. The date or location is unknown but this photo appeared in an Australian newspaper in May 1910, by which time they were home.[16]Leader (Vic) 21 May 1910, P24, via State Library of Victoria

In April 1909 Charles Pollard announced he was retiring from running the Pollard’s tours.[17]The Telegraph (Qld.) 17 Apr 1909, P8, via National Library of Australia’s Trove The youngest member of the Pollard family, Arthur, 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 some former Pollard players, including Leah Leichner, Irene Finlay, Willie Howard, and the twins Johnnie and Freddie Heintz. Perhaps Arthur Pollard wanted some experienced players in the group and approached seasoned performers such as these to join. (He knew these performers well – he had been on all of the previous Charles Pollard-Nellie Chester tours). About thirty young people and various adults departed on 3 July 1909 on the SS Gracchus, bound for Java and Singapore.[18]The Daily Telegraph (Syd) 7 July 1909, P12, via National Library of Australia’s Trove At 19 years of age, Leah was the oldest performer in the troupe.

Arthur Pollard’s assault on Leah apparently took place in Malaya. Australian newspapers reported that Leah had been beaten 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[19]The West Australian (WA) 21 Apr 1910, P3, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove Leah was then reportedly sent home to Australia from Calcutta in mid December 1909, because she was “unruly.” Other child performers had reportedly been roughly treated, or confined to bread and water, or had their hair cut, or were punished in other ways. 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 managing children.

Although legally guardian of the children, Pollard 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 an unspecified girl in the troupe, which newspapers refused to publicise. [20]The Daily News (WA) 9 Mar 1910, P7, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove This writer feels it was the news of Leah’s baby at home – her secret had got out somehow. Pollard claimed that several of the main complainants “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 said 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.

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 had removed the children from Pollard’s care.[21]The Daily News (WA) 9 March, 1910, P7, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove

Above: The company, without Leah, Arthur Pollard or Irene Finlay, on Sunday 26 February 1910, two days after breaking up, photographed on the estate of Mr Scovell, near Bangalore. [22]The Leader, 20 April, 1910. Via the State Library of Victoria

By April 1910, Australian newspapers were regularly reporting all of the claims and counter claims that had been made in the Madras High Court.[23]The West Australian (WA) 21 Apr 1910, P3, via National Library of Australia’s Trove The Melbourne Herald cited a letter from Alice Cartlege to her mother which gave a 12 year old’s simple but indignant perspective: “Dearest Mother, A few lines to tell you everything at last… 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…”[24]The Herald (Vic) 23 Mar 1910, P6, via National Library of Australia’s Trove It seems Arthur Pollard, unwilling to face a court outcome, then made a run for French Pondicherry, taking with him the proceeds of the performances to date, and Irene Finlay, but abandoning the rest of his charges in the process.[25]Barrier Miner (Broken Hill, NSW), 29 Apr 1910, P2, via National Library of Australia’s Trove A few months later, in May 1910, the child performers were returned home to Melbourne on the SS Scharnhorst and the French steamer SS CaledonianThe disastrous Pollard tour of 1909 was over.[26]The Herald (Vic.) 17 May 1910, P5, via National Library of Australia’s Trove

There was a consequence at the highest level. 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.” 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, this time with older players.

Leah after Pollards

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. It had been a group of Pollard performers in the car going for a picnic, not just her. And it was she and her family who had arranged her return to Australia, not Pollard. In fact, her stepfather had sought advice from the well known Melbourne lawyer and former state premier, Sir George Turner, about her situation, and it was with his encouragement that she was returned home.[27]The Age (Vic) 25 Apr 1910, P9 Via National Library of Australia’s Trove

Leah continued performing in Australia until she married actor-turned electrician Frederick Johnstone, in 1914.[28]Victoria, Births Deaths & Marriages Leah Leichner and Frederick Johnstone Marriage certificate, 22 August 1914, 8536 /1914 Johnstone joined the Army in late 1915, in the great surge of enlistments following the Australian landings at Gallipoli. Leah appears to have taken over parenting Claude by this time – and her mother Minnie and step-father Isaac both died in 1916.

Unfortunately, Fred Johnstone launched divorce proceedings against Leah in 1918. In a detailed divorce case, he complained she had been living with another man, while he was away in Europe, pretending he had been killed at Gallipoli. After his discharge as medically unfit in early 1918, he made strenuous attempts to tail Leah and find the co-respondent – unusual steps even for the time. Leah refused to take Johnstone’s complaint seriously or to defend herself in court, and a divorce was finally granted in 1920. Reading the divorce documents today one gains the impression she was determined not to be intimidated by the process.[29]Museums of History, NSW, NRS-13495-13-[13/12942]-628/1918 | Divorce papers Frederick Alexander Johnstone – Leah Constance Johnstone, Maurice Costello

Above: Leah and Fred Johnstone in 1915, at the time he joined the AIF. [30]Johnstone divorce papers, Museum of History, NSW. (Formerly NSW Archives)

Leah’s movements after the divorce are less clear, but there is compelling evidence that in the early 1920s she took Claude and moved to Calcutta, India. What her circumstances were, is still not clear.

Belle Leichner c 1920
“Bella Lichner”, Leah’s step sister is known to have performed at the Tivoli in Adelaide in the early 1920s. [31]Via the National Library of Australia. Prompt Collection Scrapbook

In the post-war period her sister Bella also appeared as a performer in Australia. In 1925, Bella was performing with Anona Winn in the London Musical Comedy Company in Calcutta.[32]The Times of India, 25 Nov, 1925, P7, ProQuest Historical Newspapers The company’s repertoire included the ever familiar and popular light operas that Pollards had once performed. By 1928, Bella was entertaining expats in a revue at Shanghai’s Little Club, situated just near the Nanjing Road.[33]The China Press, 5 June, 1928, P3, ProQuest Historical Newspapers It was while in Shanghai that Bella married Joseph Vella, an engineer.

Leah Constance Hawkett in Hong Kong

There is no evidence Leah returned to the stage at any time, but by the 1930s she had found a home in Hong Kong, and married James Henry Hawkett, a Royal Navy port official.[34]His formal title was Pier Master. In February 1940 James was awarded a Humane Society medal for saving three Chinese from drowning off Stonecutter’s Island, Hong Kong Leah was now known to all as “Connie,” a nickname apparently based on her adopted middle name of Constance.[35]Her middle name at birth had been Caroline

Left – James Hawkett in 1939. Right Leah, now known to all as “Connie” Hawkett late in life. Other surviving photos from this era show her broad smile. Private Collection.

Despite a significant age difference with James – she was 14 years his senior – the couple enjoyed a happy and lasting relationship.

Unfortunately, their happy life was interrupted for three years and eight months, following the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong in December 1941. Leah’s friend Mabel Redwood (1895-1975) wrote her memoirs of internment in Hong Kong under Japanese occupation, and her book It Was Like This opens with a joke made by ‘Connie,’ “an irrepressible Australian.” The women were both in the Auxiliary Nursing Service (ANS), working in a casualty clearing station set up in the Hong Kong Jockey Club. On Christmas Eve 1941, Mabel recounted that as the 24 British nurses crawled into their cold camp beds, ‘Connie’ joked “Whose going to hang up their stockings tonight?Connie’s joke helped, for we felt the situation could hardly have been grimmer.” [36]Mabel Winifred Redwood (2003) It was like this, P1, ISIS Books Both Leah and James survived Japanese internment.

Leah Constance Hawkett died in Hong Kong in May 1957. Her well constructed and cared for grave in Hong Kong cemetery speaks of great affection from James Hawkett, who also arranged for a photo of a smiling Leah to be placed on the headstone. It has faded in the Hong Kong climate, but can still be seen at her Find a Grave entry, here. James Hawkett remarried and raised three children. He died in England in 1999, but a family member has told this writer that James regularly visited her grave whilst living in Hong Kong.

What happened to everyone else

  • Arthur Pollard was 37 when he eloped with 18 year old Irene, abandoning the Pollard troupe, and his wife Mary and two children in Charters Towers, Queensland. He and Irene ran cinemas and lived as man and wife in southern England before moving to New Zealand in the early 1920s. He married Irene in 1925. More on their professional and personal lives can be found here. He died in New Zealand in 1940. Irene Pollard died in 1962.
  • Some of the children continued performing after the Arthur Pollard tour. Florrie Allen, the youngest of Arthur Pollard’s tour, continued performing on stage in Australia and then turned to running her own dancing school. Elsie Morris had some success with a male impersonation act, while Freddie Heintz moved to the US and attempted a stage career – without much success, probably because his brother Johnnie had given up the stage and become a baker. Like Johnnie, most of the young Pollard’s performers disappeared from the historical record.

NOTE 1 – The participants on Arthur Pollard’s Tour

  • 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 is missing some names, including Leah Leichner’s and Irene Finlay’s, and the author has corrected some spellings.[37] Truth (WA) 2 Apr 1910, P8, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
    • Alma Young, 12 years, 28 Fitzroy Street, Fitzroy;
    • Ruby Ford, 17 years, 368 Cardigan Street. Carlton;
      [Note – Officially, Ruby was the troupe’s teacher.
      Leah’s maternal grandmother Sarah Grant lived a few doors away at 324 Cardigan St]
    • 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 William Street, Fitzroy;
    • Mary [Myra] Finlay, 16 years, Sydney;
      [Note – Not listed here but also on tour was Myra’s older sister Nellie Quealy as well as Irene]
    • Fred and John Heintz, 14 years, 84 Kerr Street Fitzroy
    • Charlie, 13 years, LeslieDonaghey, 14 years, Sydney,
    • Arthur Austin [no address]
    • Walter Byrne [no address]
Florrie Allen performing after the tour.[38]Table Talk (Melb) 24 Nov, 1910 via State Library of Victoria She had complained that Arthur Pollard had pushed her under a seat on a train to avoid having to pay for her ticket. [39]The Bendigo Independent (Vic)18 May 1910
P6 via National Library of Australia’s Trove

Nick Murphy
Revised January 2023

Thanks

  • To John and Joan Grant of Brisbane, for their kind assistance.
    John, who is Leah’s grandson, was able to confirm many details.
  • University of Washington Special Collections, for permission to use their photos from the J Willis Sayre Collection of Theatrical Photos.
  • Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne. Their collection – donated by Irene Goulding in the 1980s, is invaluable, and to Claudia Funder, Research Service Coordinator,  Arts Centre Melbourne
  • To Jean Ritsema, my friend in Michigan, for her ongoing research efforts in North America..

Further Reading

Museums of History, New South Wales.

  • NSW State Archives, Johnstone Divorce papers

Gwulo Old Hong Kong History Site

Text

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

Federal Register of Legislation (Australia)

Vancouver As It Was: A Photo-Historical Journey

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

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 Enlargement of photo from Johnstone divorce papers. Museum of History, NSW, Formerly NSW Archives
2 Victoria, Births Deaths & Marriages Leah Cohen birth certificate, 9 July 1900, 22895 / 1890
3 See Gerry Brody (24 May 2021) Shonky celebrants and wonky marriages ….. Holt’s matrimonial agency and the Free Christian Church at the State Library of Victoria Blog
4 Victoria, Births Deaths & Marriages Leichner and Grant Marriage certificate, 22 December 1900, 8251 / 1900
5 Victoria, Births Deaths & Marriages Bella Leichner birth certificate, 9 January 1901, 5176 / 1901
6 Robert Murray (2020) The Confident Years, Australia in the 1920s. P16. Australian Scholarly Publishing
7 The Age, 16 Feb, 1907. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove
8 Irene Smith nee Goulding interview. Interviewed by Sally Dawes in 1985. Australian Performing Arts Collection, Melbourne
9 Even after Frank’s death from smallpox while on tour in Calcutta in 1897, Alf and Irene Goulding kept performing with Pollards
10 Extracts from a program in the author’s collection.
11 Gillian Arrighi, 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
12 This was reported in North America at the time – see for example The Chicago Tribune, 19 May 1902, P12 (a highly fanciful account but one that acknowledges the concept of child performers to be repugnant to Americans) and The Montreal Star, 2 Sept 1905, P1
13 The Gadfly (SA), 27 Nov 1907, P8, via National Library of Australia’s Trove
14 Sydney Morning Herald , 17 October, 1908 Via Newspapers.com
15 Victoria, Births Deaths & Marriages Claude Leichner birth certificate, 18 May 1909, 12829 /1909
16 Leader (Vic) 21 May 1910, P24, via State Library of Victoria
17 The Telegraph (Qld.) 17 Apr 1909, P8, via National Library of Australia’s Trove
18 The Daily Telegraph (Syd) 7 July 1909, P12, via National Library of Australia’s Trove
19 The West Australian (WA) 21 Apr 1910, P3, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
20 The Daily News (WA) 9 Mar 1910, P7, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
21 The Daily News (WA) 9 March, 1910, P7, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
22 The Leader, 20 April, 1910. Via the State Library of Victoria
23 The West Australian (WA) 21 Apr 1910, P3, via National Library of Australia’s Trove
24 The Herald (Vic) 23 Mar 1910, P6, via National Library of Australia’s Trove
25 Barrier Miner (Broken Hill, NSW), 29 Apr 1910, P2, via National Library of Australia’s Trove
26 The Herald (Vic.) 17 May 1910, P5, via National Library of Australia’s Trove
27 The Age (Vic) 25 Apr 1910, P9 Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
28 Victoria, Births Deaths & Marriages Leah Leichner and Frederick Johnstone Marriage certificate, 22 August 1914, 8536 /1914
29 Museums of History, NSW, NRS-13495-13-[13/12942]-628/1918 | Divorce papers Frederick Alexander Johnstone – Leah Constance Johnstone, Maurice Costello
30 Johnstone divorce papers, Museum of History, NSW. (Formerly NSW Archives)
31 Via the National Library of Australia. Prompt Collection Scrapbook
32 The Times of India, 25 Nov, 1925, P7, ProQuest Historical Newspapers
33 The China Press, 5 June, 1928, P3, ProQuest Historical Newspapers
34 His formal title was Pier Master. In February 1940 James was awarded a Humane Society medal for saving three Chinese from drowning off Stonecutter’s Island, Hong Kong
35 Her middle name at birth had been Caroline
36 Mabel Winifred Redwood (2003) It was like this, P1, ISIS Books
37 Truth (WA) 2 Apr 1910, P8, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
38 Table Talk (Melb) 24 Nov, 1910 via State Library of Victoria
39 The Bendigo Independent (Vic)18 May 1910
P6 via National Library of Australia’s Trove

Alf Goulding (1885-1972) – Triumphs & Tragedies with Pollards

A pensive Alf Goulding with other members of the Pollard Lilliputian Opera Company on the steps of the Badminton Hotel in Vancouver in 1904. He is flanked by Nellie Chester, one of the company managers, with Jack Cherry and Fred Bindloss. The full photo of the Pollard Company is on the Vancouver As It Was website. Photo used with their permission.

The 5 second version
Born Alfred John Goulding in Richmond, Victoria, Australia, 26 January 1885. Died Hollywood, California, USA, 25 April, 1972. He began his career as a comedian with brother Frank, then joined Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company in 1896. He took part in a number of extended Pollard’s tours, increasingly acting as stage manager. After the last tour wrapped up in 1909 he and some other performers stayed in the US. He was directing films in Hollywood by 1917, sometimes with comedians like Laurel and Hardy and some of the old Pollard players. He spent most of 1940-45 in Australia before returning to the US. He directed his last film in 1959. The IMDB credits him with directing over 200 films, and writing at least 60.
Left: Alf in 1922. Motion Picture News (Jul-Aug 1922), Via Lantern, the Digital Media Library

The adult working life of prolific Hollywood based filmmaker, Alf Goulding (born 26 January 1885 as Alfred John Goulding), is well documented. He had an impressive output as a director – working first with Hal Roach and later Mack Sennett. By the time he made A Chump at Oxford (1939) with Laurel and Hardy, he had directed over 200 films, and had written and appeared in many others. There were of course, a few duds later in life – including his only Australian feature film, A Yank in Australia (1942) and his final films in Britain.

It’s less commonly known that Goulding owed much to his long experience with the Pollard Lilliputian Opera Company, and that he was a Melbourne neighbour and long-time friend of Daphne Pollard (Trott) and Snub Pollard (Harold Fraser).

Alf Goulding can be traced through at least seven Pollard’s overseas tours (which all ran for more than 12 months) – something of a record – this writer can only find one other Pollard’s performer who matches it – Irene Finlay. It’s hard to know if many people have ever really run away “to join the circus”,  but Alf Goulding is indeed a variation on this. Between the age of eleven, when he went on his first Pollard’s tour, and twenty-four, when he left to settle in the US, he could not have spent more than 24 months living in Melbourne.

Goulding’s place of birth was busy Hoddle Street in the suburb of Richmond, but he lived most of his brief Australian life in Fitzroy. His father Frank, a bootmaker, and mother Maggie (stage name Maggie Walsh) were both involved in local Melbourne theatre, with moderate success. Alf’s half-sister from his mother’s first marriage, Elsa Goulding (sometimes known as Elsie Golding), had gained some reputation as a singer by 1893 and, determined to maintain the family tradition, Frank encouraged his oldest son Frank junior, Alf and later his daughter Irene to go on stage. By the time of Maggie’s death in April 1895, Frank junior and Alf had developed a popular act together. Reports from papers in 1894 and 1895 stated that the brothers had the Melbourne audiences in “roars of laughter”.


431 George St
Left: The white terrace house at 431 George Street, Fitzroy photographed in 2019. The Goulding family lived here in 1895. Photo – Author’s collection.

Triumphs, Tragedies and child labour

In 1896, Frank junior and Alf  joined a troupe of the Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company. Under the management of Charles Pollard, this group of under-age performers departed in September for a tour of colonial audiences in South East Asia (Hong Kong, Manila, Singapore etc) and India, where they were received with great enthusiasm. Their father Frank was paid a monthly wage for both children performing, while their travel, food and accommodation costs were covered by Pollard’s.

The Goulding family in Pollard's

Above: All three Goulding children performed for Pollard’s. Left- Alf made up in the role of Lurcher for the opera Dorothy in 1896. Centre – Irene (left) with Ivy Trott. Right Frank Goulding as the Major-General in Pirates of Penzance, 1896. Photos -courtesy The Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

According to a contemporary Singapore paper,  whilst touring, the child performers with Pollard’s had the following program;

  • 9.00 am breakfast,
  • 10 am until 1.30 pm rehearsal, then had
  • 1.30 “Tiffin” (an Indian term for a meal),
  • two hours of siesta, then
  • two hours of lessons with the teacher (who doubled as the cornet player) ,
  • then play and rest before a light dinner and
  • the evening performance.

Singapore Free Press 23 Feb 1897Unfortunately a terrible tragedy occurred when Frank junior died and was buried in Calcutta, in January 1897. We can only imagine how hard this was for Alf, still on tour, let alone his father and sister back in Melbourne. His Indian burial certificate clearly lists the cause of death as smallpox, an even greater tragedy given that a vaccine existed at the time. One wonders if Frank’s father ever knew the truth, as his death was described as being due to pneumonia in most reports.

Above: Frank Junior’s death from “pneumonia” is reported by “The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser”, 23 Feb 1897, via Newspapers SG – digitized newspaper collection.
Frank Goulding death
Frank Goulding’s death in January 1897 from smallpox while in Calcutta. “Confluent smallpox” generally meant the pustules ran so thickly on the skin they often formed a massive sore.

Dr Barnes VACCINATIONS SIGN, GERTRUDE ST

Above: This 19th century medical sign advertising public vaccinations is still visible on the side of a Fitzroy building, in 2021. Ironically, it is only a few hundred metres from Frank Goulding’s Fitzroy homes and the Brunswick Street hall the Pollard’s used for rehearsals. Author’s collection.

Yet it was all back to work for the Pollard’s children. Two months later, on April 20, 1897, the same Singapore newspaper reported;  “Master Alfred Goulding scored the principal success again, this clever boy keeping the house in fits of laughter… In the part of Lurcher, the bailiff…his acting could not easily have been beaten by a professional comedian.” Of course, Alf was a professional comedian – even if he was only 13 years old at the time.

In August 1898, a second Pollard’s troupe, including Alf and now with his sister Irene, arrived in South Africa. Interviewed in July 1899 by a correspondent for the Sydney Referee , the children were probably all instructed to put a positive spin on their work, the endless travel and to not mention their homesickness. From Johannesburg, South Africa, the correspondent wrote of Alf Goulding, as “the clever young comedian of the company, aged 12 years” and Irene Goulding, “a bonny girl of 8 years.. who hadn’t been very well lately.”  Pollard practice was very typically never to accurately give the ages of the child performers. Alf was in fact 14, and Irene 10.

china mail dec 26 1900With the outbreak of the Boer War, Manager Charles Pollard apparently rushed the company to safety. By early 1900 the children were all back in Australia, and then a new tour was organised to colonial outposts in the “far east” – including Hong Kong and Singapore. Meantime, Charles Pollard had exciting war stories to tell. How seriously at risk the children were in South Africa is impossible to tell now.

Gillian Arrighi and others have written of the phenomenon of the child performer tours, and the later impact of the disastrous 1910 Pollard tour of India; which saw new Australian laws restricting children leaving Australia to be performers. It’s also worth pausing and looking past the modern nationalist sentiment we might attach to these pioneer Australian performers today, to wonder whether this was really just another form of child exploitation, even by the standards of the time.

Above: Alf Goulding now listed as the Pollard’s stage manager by the “China Mail,” December 26, 1900. He was almost 16 and the troupe were perhaps on their way home from South Africa. Image via Hong Kong Public Libraries Multi Media Information Systems.

Regarding the Pollards

There is some good reason for thinking this. By leaving Australia, not only did Pollard’s avoid Australian education laws, they were also able to essentially not pay their performers. Instead. parents were paid via a trust fund. And was a life on stage a healthy upbringing for a child? Even at the time, many didn’t think so. The influence of the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, or the “Gerry Society” kept Pollard’s away from the east coast of the US, as is obvious from the tour map below. The society’s opposition to children performing on stage was well-known. The Chicago Tribune of 19 May 1902 touched on this issue in a long article about the company during their only visit to that city; “Although the idea of keeping children on the stage is repugnant to Americans, and although it is forbidden by law in some states, the Pollards claim that their children… suffer no evil effects from the experience.” It was repugnant to some influential Australians too. The Pollard Lilliputians never performed in their home city of Melbourne, or Sydney.

We should also remember that the Pollard’s performers were playing adult roles on stage, a fact that some 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?” (in reference to a leading character in The Belle of New York). Yet at the end of their review, the writer felt the need to abandon their concerns and recommended all readers should see it. The Pollard’s performance was “beyond praise” the writer concluded.

We have little insight into the Pollard business model. However, it was lucrative – in 1900 one Australian paper reported that Charles Pollard had netted over £3,000 in two years – the equivalent of about $AU450,000 in 2020 currency.


A life of touring

Alf’s tours with Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company, managed by Charles Pollard and Nellie Chester – as identified so far by this writer include

  • I. Sept 1896 – c. Sept 1897, Tour to India and the “Far East” (meaning Manila, Singapore, Hong Kong)
  • II August 1898 – c. 1900, Tour to South Africa and the Far East. (However, details of these first two tours are still sketchy.)
  • III. July 1900-April 1901, Tour to Singapore, Penang, Hong Kong and Manila
  • IV. September 1901 – October 1902, Tour to North America
    Manifests show SS Sierra departed Sydney 3 Sept 1901, SS Aorangi arrived back in Australia on 17 Oct 1902. Then, three months later…
  •  V. January 1903 – April 1904, Tour to North America.
    Manifests show SS Changsa departed Sydney 18 Jan 1903, SS Miowera arrived back in Australia on 2 April 1904.
  • VI. July 1904 – February 1907, Tour to the Far East and North America. Departed July 1904 for Queensland and then 27 September 1904 for Hong Kong. Arrived July 8 1905 in Vancouver. Arrived back in Australia 26 February 1907 on the SS Moana.

Pollard's in Canada and the US 1905-1907

The Pollard Company’s “Grand Tour” of North America (March 1905- Jan 1907) avoided much time in the eastern USA, where child labour law made performances impossible. The troupe was in Sacramento during the April 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The map is based on company member Midas Martyn’s diary. Thanks to Catherine Crocker for sharing this information. Courtesy Google Maps. Click to go to the google map
  • VII. July 1907 – February 1909, to the Far East and North America
    Another trip departed in late July 1907,  again testing out shows in Queensland before departing for the Far East. The Company arrived in the US on the SS Nippon Maru from Yokohama, Japan on 3 March, 1908. It appears most of the company from this tour arrived home in Australia on SS Moama in March, 1909.

Meanwhile in Australia…

None of this travel seems to have bothered Alf Goulding, indeed he may well have had his own reasons for not wanting to live at home. Back in Melbourne, Frank Senior found the new century and the life without wife, children and oldest son increasingly hard to deal with. Now a bootmaker, he blamed the Pollard company management for the death of Frank Junior and began to send abusive letters to the Melbourne managers, even while they engaged Alf and Irene. He complained that the money promised to him by Pollard’s was not being paid. Frank had already been publicly embarrassed the year before, when details of his passionate letters to a sometime servant/petty thief were plastered about the Melbourne papers. Now in 1903, his stream of abusive letters saw him end up in court again, a lonely father, perhaps also disconnected from his two children. When he failed to pay the £20 fine, he went to gaol for a month.

Returning to Australia on SS Miowera on 2 April 1904, Irene, now aged 15, apparently decided she had had enough of performing and touring. Fortunately for us, in 1985 Irene was interviewed by Sally Dawes for The Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne. Although aged in her late 90s, her memories of some events – Frank’s death, the songs she sang for Pollard’s and her trips with the Company remained clear to the end of her days.


Alf’s final tour to the US, 1909+

Ald 1911Charles Pollard announced his retirement in early 1909, while the company was in Honolulu, heading home. At this point, many of the older company members, including Alf, decided to branch out with their own performance company (dropping Lilliputians from the title). With about 12 others, including Eva Moore, Emily Davis, Ada Hind, Freddie Bindloss, Jack Cherry, Harold Fraser and Teddy McNamara, this smaller group set off again in late March 1909 to the US, then touring back across the US and Canada, with Alf as Actor – Director-Stage Manager. But instead of storming the US east coast as they planned, they again specialised in visiting all the familiar Pollard’s locations where their popularity was assured. This arrangement lasted for a year or so, until the group went their separate ways.

In 1912, Nellie Chester resurrected a young adult troupe or Australian performers to work in North America, called Pollards Juveniles. But Alf was not involved with this – he now pursued a stage career of his own design.

Alf in makeup as Ko-Ko for The Mikado. The Province, British Columbia, 11 April, 1911.  Via Newspapers.com

LA Times 28 May 1914

Alf and Daphne Pollard performing together in A Knight for a Day, Los Angeles Times, 28 May 1914. Via Newspapers.com

Alf Goulding appears to have maintained a personal and professional friendship with former Pollard Company performers for much of his life. In 1911, Alf was married to Gladys Watson, with Daphne (Mrs Ellington Bunch) and her husband as witnesses. They were married in Seattle by the same official as Daphne and her husband had used, exactly three months before. When former Pollard alumni Teddy McNamara died of pneumonia in early February 1928, on the eve of great success, all the Hollywood based former Pollard players attended his funeral – Goulding, Daphne Pollard, Snub Pollard and Billy Bevan. 

Above: Marriage certificates for Daphne Trott and Alf Goulding weddings. US national archives via Family search.org.

It is hardly a coincidence therefore that Goulding is reputed to have been instrumental in convincing Daphne to work for Mack Sennett in 1927, and he was apparently on hand when she arrived at Sennett studios. He also directed a number of her first films – including Run Girl Run, The Swim Princess and The Campus Carmen. He also worked closely with Snub Pollard (Harold Fraser) in his early years in Hollywood. His first appearance as a director in Hollywood seems to date to 1917. Snub Pollard once explained that he had just “drifted into films,” and it seems likely it was the same for Alf.

Goulding’s output in Hollywood was impressive – today the IMDB credits him with directing more than 200 films for Hal Roach and later, for Mack Sennett, and writing at least 50. His sister Irene, interviewed in the mid 1980s, recalled his great success in the US, but also complained that Alf was a poor money manager and had burnt through three fortunes.


Left: This is one of few photos I have seen of Goulding at work. It shows Snub Pollard (Harold Fraser), Harold Lloyd, and Alf Goulding at right, on the set of Somewhere in Turkey (1918)  Right: Advertisement for Rolin Comedies – Snub Pollard and Ernie Morrison, directed by Alf Goulding. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Above: Alf (at right) on the set of Grass Skirts (1929) with Lloyd Hamilton and Ruth Hiatt. Exhibitor’s Herald-World. 28 Dec, 1928, via Lantern Digital Media Library

An Australian sojourn

Alf lived in Australia again in 1940-45. He had been busy in Hollywood and England through the 1930s, and then, after making A Chump at Oxford for Hal Roach, he travelled to England to make one more film – Olympic Honeymoon. By the end of 1940, he was back in Australia. This movement in the first year of war relates to his lack of visa status back in the US. Variety reported that he had incorrectly re-entered the US from England on a short term visitor’s permit and thus been ordered to leave.(Variety 3 Jan, 1940, P32) At least several Australian newspapers  – from 1939 and late in 1940 also reported on this misfortune. While in Australia, he not only directed the feature A Yank Down Under (in May 1942 but which was not immediately released) but also a number of documentaries – wartime propaganda pieces for the Ministry of Information. According to the National Film and Sound Archive, these include;

  • Australia Marches On No 1; Canberra The Federal Capital (1941),
  • Australia Marches On No 2; Cavalcade of Transport (1940),
  • Australia Marches On No 3; Boystown (c.1940) and
  • Marjorie Lawrence – The Voice of a Nation (1945).

It was probably not very fulfilling work. He returned to England in May 1945 on the MV Stirling Castle, and directed a few more quota quickies. He returned to the United States in about 1950, after ten years away.

Alf Goulding died in Hollywood in 1972. Irene died in Melbourne in 1987.


Note 1
Alf’s date of birth is regularly and incorrectly given as 1896. However, the Victorian BDM, which can be searched for free, is quite clear. It’s possible that Goulding himself may have contributed to this confusion – it was not uncommon in Hollywood’s golden age to “drop a few years”

Nick Murphy, May 2018, August 2020, April 2021


Special thanks

  • To Claudia Funder at The Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne, for introducing me to the Pollard Collection.
  • To Catherine Crocker for sharing the information from Midas Martyn’s diary of the 1904-7 Pollard’s tour and Jamie L Bird, one of Alf’s grandchildren, for her comments.

Further reading

  • 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” No 69, 2017. John Hopkins University Press.
    (This can be purchased at https://www.press.jhu.edu )
  • Amy Kitcherside: Turn The page; a review of Kirsty Murray’s “India Dark”
  • Stage Whispers; Theatrical Child Labour Scandal
  • Child Stars of the Stage; Gillian Arrighi, National Library of Australia.
  • Brent E. Walker (2010) “Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory: A History and Filmography of His Studio and His Keystone and Mack Sennett Comedies, with Biographies of Players and Personnel.” McFarland and Co. ISBN 978-0-7864-3610-1

From National Library of Australia, Trove, Digitised Newspaper Collection

National Film and Sound Archive Collection

Hong Kong Public Libraries Multi Media Information Systems

  • China Mail, December 26, 1900
  • Hong Kong Daily Press, December 27, 1907
Singapore Government Digitised newspapers project Newspaper SG

Newspapers.com

  • The Chicago Tribune, 19 May 1902
  • Los Angeles Times, 28 May 1914
  • The Province, (British Columbia), 11 April, 1911

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

Snub Pollard (1889 – 1962) of North Melbourne

Above: Harold Fraser, aka “Snub Pollard” photographed without makeup about the time he returned to Australia to see his parents, c 1922. Press photographer unknown. Damaged photo in the author’s collection.

The 5 second version
He was born Harold Hopetown Fraser in North Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, 9 November 1889 and died in Los Angeles, California, USA, 19 January, 1962. Having travelled to South Africa with “Harry Hall’s Juveniles” in 1903, he joined other Australian child performers in Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company in 1904 and went on two long tours of  the “far east” and North America in 1905-7 and 1907-9. From mid 1909 he worked in variety on stage in the US. He made the transition to film work in about 1915, his first generally accepted to be Essanay Studio’s A Coat Tale. Over the next decade he sometimes appeared with other Pollard’s alumni members, such as Alf Goulding and Jack Pollard (aka John Cherry). Following his busiest era of activity in the early 1920s, he performed occasionally in variety, and continued in often un-credited roles in film and on TV. The origin of his stage name “Snub” is unknown. 
Above: Snub’s photo – dedicated to an Australian nephew also called Harold, and whom he affectionately called “Snub” in return.  Courtesy Australian Performing Arts Collection, Melbourne.  

Also see Snub Pollard writes to his family, based on his letters home to his extended Australian family, here


“Snub Pollard” was born Harold Hopetown Fraser in North Melbourne on November 9, 1889. According to the Internet Movie Database he has a staggering 600 US movie and TV credits to his name, although his most active years were the late 1910s and early 1920s when he appeared in numerous comedy “shorts”. Even if his later roles were little more than walk-ons, it is an impressive record for a working class boy from the inner suburb of North Melbourne. (Also see Note 3 below)

Snub_Pollard_-_Jan_1923_ETR

Above: “Snub Pollard” in 1922 or 1923, in his familiar Hollywood make-up, including characteristic “walrus” moustache. This persona was developed in Hollywood but may have some origins in his on-stage experiences. Source – unidentified film from an advertisement for Pathé Exchange films , January 6, 1923 Exhibitors Trade Review. Photo via Internet archive and wikipedia commons.

Harold’s father, George Gunn Fraser, was a horse-drawn (hansom) cab driver. Museum Victoria reminds us there were over 200 registered hansom cabs in Melbourne in 1899. His mother, Isabella (nee Elliot) had already had three children when Harold was born in their modest terrace home at 59 Courtney Street, North Melbourne. Another daughter, May Evelyn Fraser, was born in 1892.

59 courtney 1

Above: Snub Pollard’s birthplace – 59 Courtney Street, North Melbourne in 2019. The house (centre left) was almost certainly too small for the family. Author’s collection.

71 leveson 2 

Above: By 1905, the Fraser family lived at 71 Leveson Street, North Melbourne. The cobbled lane (Jones Lane) beside the house may have provided better access for a cab driver. George’s horse and cab would have been kept nearby – perhaps in stables off the lane. In the distance is the North Melbourne Town Hall spire. Author’s collection.

Of his childhood and schooling we know little. In March 1903 Harold and May joined Harry Hall’s Juvenile Australian Company tour of South Africa, in company with other young Australian and New Zealand children like May Dahlberg and Nellie Finlay – a performance tour that appears to have lasted at least 8 months, cut short by Hall’s death in October. One South African memoir recalls Harold Fraser as a shy young man. “When spoken to, he (Harold) would hesitate for a few seconds before he answered, rather vaguely.”(Powell in M. Fraser, 1985) In mid 1904, now aged about fifteen, Harold and May joined Charles Pollard and Nellie Chester’s Lilliputian Opera Company, in time for another of their marathon performance tours – first testing out shows in Queensland, then to the “far east” (performance stops in Manila, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Japan) and finally North America.

Years later, he was to suggest he had been picked out of a church choir by one of the Pollards, although this appears to be another of Snub’s creative stories about his life and ignores his previous experience with Harry Hall in 1903.

Above left: Snub Pollard as a Melbourne choir boy, from an unidentified US paper c 1950.  Courtesy Australian Performing Arts Collection, Melbourne

a gaiety girl

Above: The Pollard’s program for performance of the popular musical A Gaiety Girl in Montreal, 29 November 1905. It features May and Harold Fraser in addition to Daphne Pollard, Alf Goulding and other well known Pollard performers. The ages of performers were deliberately under-stated. Program in the author’s collection.

Charles Pollard and his sister Nellie Chester had already managed several previous tours of the “Far East” and North America. It is hard to believe, but this writer can find no evidence that this troupe returned home before February 1907 – apparently a performance tour outside Australia of over two years. (See a photo of the troupe in Manila here c1904-5) Even if the performers were not as young as claimed (Harold was 16, not 12, while Daphne Pollard was 14, not 10), it was an extraordinary undertaking for children at the time. Their tour of North America took them up and down the US East coast several times, and across most of Canada. The SS Moana brought most of them home in late February 1907.

By July 1907, the company, featuring Harold Fraser and many of the familiar Pollard performers, were back in Queensland performing and testing the usual favourite shows. Then the company departed again for the “far east,” Canada and the west coast of the USA. In early 1909, at the end of another very long tour, Charles Pollard announced his retirement and some of the older performers, including Harold Fraser and Alf Goulding, decided to form their own “adult” Pollard’s group. After a quick return home, in March 1909, Harold – accompanied by former Pollard troupe members Fred Bindloss (aka Fred Pollard), John Cherry (aka Jack Pollard), Eva Moore and Emily Davis sailed on the SS Aorangi for the US. They seem to have performed together for a year or so, then drifted apart – although the evidence suggests they remained on good terms.

pollards in 1910
Above left: In 1910, Harold Fraser performed with some of the former Pollard’s Lilliputians, now adults, and now just calling themselves “the Pollards” in the US. Alfred Pollard is almost certainly Alf Goulding. Source; The Bakersfield Californian, November 1910. Via Newspapers.com. 
Above right: “Harry Pollard” performing with Dixie Blair in HMS Pinafore at Idora Park, Oakland, California, in August 1912. The annotation on the reverse states he was about to tour overseas.
Courtesy Australian Performing Arts Collection, Melbourne

For the pre-war period, the professional life of Harold Fraser often remains unclear. However, we know that in August 1912 he joined a small company at Idora Park, which included Roscoe Arbuckle, Walter De Leon and others and with an intention to tour light opera to Honolulu, Japan, China, Manila and India – a sort of reverse order to the old Pollards Lilliputian Company tour. Apparently a speculative performance tour, they were all back in California by February 1913.(see The Honolulu Star-Bulletin 17 Feb 1913, P3 for the SS Persia’s passenger list) The tour’s success or otherwise remains unknown.

The accounts of his entry into Hollywood’s emerging film industry vary considerably. Known in his early years as “Harold Fraser,” then “Harry Pollard” (an unfortunate choice because actor-director Harry A. Pollard was already well established – see photo of him here), film fans today delight in identifying him as an extra in some of the early films of Ben Turpin and Charlie Chaplin. However, the most plausible account of his entry into film-making was also the most simple, an explanation he gave to Table Talk in 1923, on a return visit to Melbourne rings true; “I just naturally drifted into them…I don’t exactly know how.” Harold’s background in vaudeville and his friendships with emerging filmmakers like Alf Goulding almost certainly helped. But the Lonesome Luke films made for Hal Roach between 1915 and 1917, where he played second fiddle to Harold Lloyd, helped establish him as a bankable and recognizable star. Although he had used the stage name “Snub” as early as 1915, it is from about 1917 that he adopted it consistently. This also coincides with his most prolific years – 1917 to 1924. Writer Matthew Ross estimates that Snub was turning out one film a week for Roach at one stage – an extraordinary workload.

Snub_Pollard_&_Ernie_Morrison_-_Rolin_Comedies_Ad_1920.jpg

Above : An ad for a Hal Roach Rolin Comedies with Snub Pollard. The ad from the Exhibitors Herald (Aug 7, 1920) shows a still from Insulting the Sultan (1920) which starred Pollard, Ernie Morrison, and Marie Mosquini, and was directed by old friend Alf Goulding. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Kalton C Lahue and Sam Gill’s 1970 history of early cinema comedians Clown Princes and Court Jesters provides one of the best surveys of Snub Pollard’s work – “he had some of the necessary talent and the good luck to work under several directors whose understanding of comedy construction was well enough developed to showcase Pollard’s strengths and gloss over his weaknesses” (P286). Lahue and Gill date Snub’s parting from Hal Roach (perhaps Snub was annoyed that he was back to making one reel comedies) as occurring in early 1926, when he made the mistake of setting up his own company to make “Snub Pollard Comedies”. A mistake because neither his new directors, nor the Weiss Brothers who distributed his films, were able to do him justice. His company failed.(P295)

Above: Snub Pollard  with fellow Australians Joe and Vera White, and in the foreground, child actor Ernie Morrison or “Sunshine Sammy.” The photo appeared in Sydney’s Theatre Magazine, Jan 1, 1921, P25. Via State Library of Victoria.

An easily accessed survey of Snub’s cinema work is also given in Matthew Ross’s Lost Laugh Magazine in Snub Pollard, The Man behind the Moustache. Links to many of his existing films are provided in the article. The classic short It’s A Gift  (1923) can be viewed online (here) and Ross also provides some context as to how that film evolved. Ross suggests Snub Pollard’s act had become dated by the mid-20s and his films for Weiss were “a step down” in quality from his work with Hal Roach.

Snub still found an audience as a live vaudeville entertainer, however reviews seem to suggest his live acts were also a step down from past successes on the screen. One Australian paper reported on the mediocre nature of Snub’s US vaudeville act in 1930: “[He is] now doing sketch called, ‘Out of Gas’ According to reviews, Snub’s new act is just fair. Snub looks the part, but in vaudeville he hasn’t any directors to tell him what to do to be funny, and no gag man to think out the situations.” (Daily News, WA, 3 Jan 1930, P.10)

Above: Snub Pollard live on stage in Los Angeles. A postcard sent to Snub’s young nephew Harold in Australia, dated October 20, 1930. Courtesy Australian Performing Arts Collection, Melbourne.  

Snub’s film output had slowed by the time talkies arrived, but he was still able to find supporting character and extra parts, generally of increasing insignificance. A long run as a side-kick to Tex Ritter in Westerns of the late 1930s provided him with exposure and steady income, but one needs to realise these were B films, cheaply and quickly produced. However, he remained busy in film and later in TV almost until his death in 1962. There is more on Snub’s period as an extra here, based on his letters to family in Australia.

During this final phase of his career – Snub displayed the skills of an unusually effective self-promoter. However, its difficult to see his later film roles as professionally very rewarding. Even his cameo performance made no difference to the underwhelming 1934 Australian bushranger musical, Stingaree, also featuring fellow Australians Billy Bevan and Robert Greig.

Left: Snub complains about Hollywood humour. Corsicana Daily Sun 14 May, 1957. Via Newspapers.com.
Right: Snub with others discusses plans to combat communism. Los Angeles Times, 24 Sept, 1950. Via Newspapers.com

Snub Pollard remains much of an enigma to the student of cinema today. As an adult and without makeup he was average in every way – he weighed about 150 pounds, stood an average height of 167 centimeters (5 foot 6 inches), had receding brown hair and brown eyes. Interestingly, he had a tattoo on his right upper arm – although what it was or said is now unknown. It was noticeable enough to be listed on his citizenship documents. In his public commentary he did not assist any real understanding of himself, his comments were designed to promote “Snub Pollard” the star rather than reveal much about the man behind. Even his correspondence with his nephew, surviving in the collections of the Australian Performing Arts Collection in Melbourne, tells us less about the man than we might expect. 

Above: Snub Pollard’s voice. From Just My Luck (1935). Here, Mr Smith (Snub Pollard/Harold Fraser) and Homer Crow (Charles Ray) discover they have lost their money, whilst eating at a cheap diner famous for beating up any non-paying customers.  Snub appears to be channelling Stan Laurel. Video in the author’s collection.

Yet unlike many Australian performers of the time, Snub Pollard undertook the long sea voyage home to see his family, and he did it at the height of his popularity. In March and April 1923 he visited Melbourne, whilst on his honeymoon with Elizabeth, his second wife. He visited his parents – his father still driving a cab. He travelled to Portarlington to see his older brother George, a blacksmith, a joyful reunion. In 1924, Snub also paid for his mother to travel to California to see him.

Above left: Before Snub’s return to Australia in 1923, his parents moved into this house at 83 Palmerston Street, Carlton. Newspapers reported that Snub purchased it for them. The ornamental parapet on this 1880s cottage is highly unusual and appears to be a later addition – perhaps dating to a renovation in the 1920s. This writer cannot think of another inner Melbourne terrace decorated this way. Is it the “Spanish style” more often found in Hollywood? Author’s Collection.
Above right: Harold Fraser aka “Snub” Pollard, at the time of his visit home to Melbourne. Author’s Collection.

Harold Fraser married three times – each ended unhappily. He married 17-year-old Myrtle Webb in April 1917 – he claimed to be 23 – but he was in fact 28. Within a matter of months the relationship had ended. He married Elizabeth Bowen in March 1922, claiming to be 30 – when he was now 33. This marriage also broke down and ended in divorce in 1927. In 1935 he married again, this time to Ruth Bridges aka Gibson. He was 46 by this time, but registered his age as 38. This relationship was also over by 1940. One error in age on a marriage certificate seems understandable. But the same error existing in all three marriage certificates perhaps points to other problems of identity and sense of self. Or, is it just a case of “everyone does it”?

snub and marie

Above: Snub Pollard on set with Hal Roach Studio co-star Marie Mosquini. In March 1922 it was reported they were engaged. They weren’t.

Perhaps the most famous late-life interview with Snub is the one syndicated in Australian papers in May 1951 under the headline – “Snub Pollard, Melbourne born silent day star looks back” Now consigned mostly non-speaking roles, he made the rather wistful statement; “The fact that I am not on top now does not bother me. Most people never get there at all.”

Above: Screen grab showing Snub Pollard (right) as an extra in the background of “The Earl of Chicago” (1940), with fellow Melbourne actor Harry Allen in the foreground. Allen had a small speaking scene and fellow Australians Tempe Pigott, William H O’Brien, Billy Bevan and Frank Baker also appeared in the film. MGM and Warner Home movies re-released this film on DVD in 2011.

Above: Screen grab showing Snub Pollard’s very brief scene as a taxi driver in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) . Copy at the Internet Archive.

Snub’s close involvement with the new labour union, the Screen Extras Guild, is not well documented, but his correspondence with his Australian nephew shows he had a senior role and the organisation occupied much of his time in the 1940s. Also involved was another Australian and perennial Hollywood butler, William H. O’Brien. Long since absorbed by the Screen Actors Guild, it was set up to protect the rights of background actors. Snub served in a senior role in SEG for at least 15 years.

Above: Snub Pollard on holiday in the 1950s – a private photo sent to his nephew in Australia. Apparently a heavy smoker all his life, he died of cancer in early 1962. Courtesy Australian Performing Arts Collection, Melbourne. 

Unfortunately, the stories about Snub became more inaccurate after his death in 1962. A brother of Daphne? An original Keystone Kop? No. But some newspapers reported so and these stories still appear in print today. See Note 1 below.

Snub’s mother died in Carlton in 1930, his father (a cabman to the end of his days) died ten years later. His sister May did not stay on stage. She returned to the family home in Leveson Street and became a dressmaker. In 1920 she married Claude Hill and moved to a comfortable house in Merton Street, South Melbourne. She died there in 1966.

 


NOTE 1
An original Keystone Cop?
Mack Sennett repeated the gag of 6 or 7 incompetent policemen in numerous short comedies, through to the early 1920s. We know the names of these performers, and Snub wasn’t one of them. The confusion almost certainly came about because in 1939’s “Hollywood Cavalcade”  C20th Fox’s film about silent film-making, Snub did act as a Keystone Cop. He also appeared as a policeman in several early comedies and as a Cop on some later personal tours. On his death, several of the real surviving Cops gently attempted to correct the record and pointed out that in the early days, Snub had worked for Hal Roach, not Mack Sennett. (see Los Angeles Times, 24 Jan 1962). But the story has persisted anyway.

NOTE 2
Origins of the stage name Snub?

While we know why he chose Pollard as a stage name, the significance of the stage names Snub and the later, lesser used “Peewee,” in some of the Tex Ritter Westerns, is unclear.

NOTE 3
Birth certificate, showing his father’s profession

Snub Pollard was inclined to suggest his father was a racehorse owner. (See for example Pantomime Magazine Jan 7, 1922 “…father owns racehorses that have won many cups”)

When George and Isabella married in Dunedin, New Zealand in 1881, they gave their professions as jockey and barmaid respectively. Eight years later, George Gunn Fraser’s occupation is listed on young Harold’s 1889 birth certificate as a cab driver. Australian electoral rolls to the late 1920s also list him variously as a cab driver, cab proprietor and wagonette proprietor. Of course, he may still have been a racehorse owner as well.

Snub's birth cert

Above: Harold Fraser’s birth certificate, 1889.Via Births, Deaths & Marriages, Victoria
Transcription of Birth Certificate;
Columns
2 –  November 9th 1889. Courtney St. Town Hotham, County of Bourke
3 – Harold Hopetown. Not present
4 – Male
5 – George Gunn Fraser. Cab Driver. 34 years. Victoria [Father’s name, age, place of birth]
6 – June 10, 1880, New Zealand [Date of marriage].  – Violet 8, George 5, Ralph 2, Georgina dead [Names and ages of other children]
7 – Isabella Fraser formerly Elliot, 30 years. Richmond Victoria. [Mother’s name, maiden name, age, place of birth]
8 – Isabella Fraser, mother, 59 Courtney St, Hotham. [informant]

Nick Murphy
2018, Updated December 2022

 


Thanks

  • To Claudia Funder, Australian Performing Arts Collection, Melbourne, for permission to leaf through their Snub Pollard Collection.

Further Reading

  • 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” No 69, 2017. Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Kevin Brownlow (1968) The Parade’s Gone By… University of California Press.
  • Peter Downes (2002) The Pollards, a family and its child and adult opera companies in New Zealand and Australia, 1880-1910. Steele Roberts, New Zealand.
    [This excellent book gives some idea of how the Pollard companies worked, but is concerned with the New Zealand wing of the family]
  • Maryna Fraser (Ed), Edmund Bright, Thomas Richard Adlam (1985) Johannesburg Pioneer Journals, 1888-1909. (Excerpts from the memoirs of William T Powell) Van Riebeeck Society
  • Kalton C Lahue and Sam Gill (1970) Clown princes and court jesters. A S Barnes
  • Trav S.D (Donald Travis Stewart), (2006) No Applause – Just throw Money. The book that made Vaudeville Famous. Faber and Faber, New York
  • Brent Walker (2013) “Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory: A History and Filmography of his Studio and His Keystone and Mack Sennett Comedies, with Biographies of Players and Personnel” McFarland & Co

Websites

National Library of Australia – Trove Newspaper Collection

Newspapers.com

  • The Bakersfield Californian, November 1910.
  • Los Angeles Times, 24 Sept, 1950.
  • Corsicana Daily Sun, 14 May, 1957. 

Lantern Digital Media Project

Original documents sourced from

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

Stars of Old Fitzroy

The inner Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy, looking north from St. Vincent’s hospital. Gertrude Street can be seen in the foreground. Author’s Collection.

Fitzroy stars 4

Although much of the suburb of Fitzroy has been redeveloped, many of the homes of the actors featured on this site still exist. The Melbourne online encyclopedia reminds us that Fitzroy was amongst the city’s first suburbs, land being auctioned in the area as early as 1839. So this concentration of creative personalities is not all that surprising. It was a small area with great contrasts in wealth, education and opportunity.


A: Mary Maguire (1919-1974)

Born Ellen Theresa Maguire in 1919 in South Melbourne, “Peggy” later “Mary” Maguire was the daughter of well-known Melbourne publicans. The Academy of Mary Immaculate educated all the five Maguire girls until the family moved to Brisbane c 1932. Her overly ambitious parents ended up taking her on to Hollywood and then England in pursuit of a film career.

Her aunts and uncles ran numerous Melbourne hotels while her grandparents lived in the inner east of the city – Richmond and Hawthorn.

Maguire-enrolment-1

A school enrolment from another era! Peggy Maguire’s (spelled McGuire) enrolment record at the Academy of Mary Immaculate in 1923. Her pet name was good enough apparently, plus father’s name and his hotel in Bourke Street! How different to the 21st Century. Courtesy Academy of Mary Immaculate.

B: Maie Saqui (1879-1907)

May Saqui was born at 120 Nicholson Street, Fitzroy (a building that still stands) in 1879. She was the daughter of well known Melbourne bookmaker and property developer John I Saqui. After some success in Australia, in 1897 she travelled alone to London where she developed a successful career, appearing as a very young “Gaiety Girl” in the George Edwards company in London. Maie’s sisters Gladys and Hazel also had careers on stage.

120 and 122 Nicholson St

Both buildings at 120 and 122 Nicholson street, still private residences, were owned at various times by the Saqui family.


C: Saharet (1878-1964)

Paulina Clarissa Molony was born in Rowena Parade, Richmond in 1878 and grew up in a number of inner Melbourne locations, including the notorious Little Lon area of central Melbourne. In 1881, her mother gave birth to her sister Julia (Millicent) at 168 Nicholson Street, Fitzroy. A building in Nicholson Street still stands at that address. Performing in the US and Europe as Saharet, Paulina Clarissa became one of the most celebrated dancers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Boarding House Nicholson St Fitzroy

168 Nicholson street, Fitzroy was possibly a boarding house in 1881. The current building, in the centre of the photo may also have been built after Saharet’s sister’s birth. However, the site is one of few surviving links to Saharet in Melbourne.


D: Harry Allen (1877-1951)

Born at 2 Barkly St, Carlton, Melbourne, in 1877. Henry “Harry” Radford Allen worked hard to establish himself in Australia. He moved to New York and after performing there with some success, found himself in film. In the later part of his career he was working in Hollywood, taking on minor supporting and often un-credited roles, generally as a cockney cabman, a doorman, a butler or similar. Harry had at least 100 film credits of this type.

Possibly No 2 Barkley St Carlton

Although many of the small cottages in this area have been demolished, it is possible his birthplace was similar to this one, a cottage surviving as part of a tyre business on the corner of Barkly St and Johnston St in Carlton.


E: Daphne Pollard (Daphne Trott)(1891-1978)

Born at 56 Kerr St, Fitzroy, Victoria, in 1891 (in a building that survives).
The Trott family (father Walter was a French Polisher) also lived at 96 King William St, Fitzroy c1903-5 (The 5 room dwelling was demolished by 1960)

Daphne was active with Pollards Lilliputian Opera Company from 1898-1907, then on stage in the US and UK, then in Hollywood 1927-1935, appearing in about 60 films. Her sister Ivy Trott (1887-1984 ) also joined several Pollard performance tours.

54-56 Kerr St Fitzroy

Above: The former Trott home at 56 Kerr Street, Fitzroy, where Daphne was born, is the left of the single story pair of cottages, and is still a private residence.


F: Alf Goulding (1885-1972) & Irene Goulding (1888-1987)

Alf Goulding was born in Richmond on 26 January 1885, while Irene was born in Collingwood in 1888, (both houses have been demolished)

Alf’s family, with sibling Frank (junior)(1883-1897) lived at 431 George St Fitzroy at the time of mother Maggie’s sudden death in 1895.
Alf’s father Frank Goulding, an actor and part time bootmaker, then lived in a number of modest houses in Fitzroy in the early C20th – at 49 King William Street in 1914 (building survives), at 235 Fitzroy St in 1919 (demolished) and at 25 Hanover Street by 1931 (also demolished).

431-george-st

Above: The white terrace was the Goulding home at 432 George St, Fitzroy, when Maggie died in 1895.

All three Goulding children joined Pollards Lilliputian Opera tours in the late 1890s. Alf did 6 tours between 1896 and 1909, increasingly taking on stage management. Irene did 3 tours while Frank only 1- he died of Smallpox while touring in India in 1897. Alf went on to a long career as a director in Hollywood.


G: Oscar (1891-1939) Freddie (1895-1949) & Johnnie (1895-1945) Heintz

All three Heintz boys joined tours of the Pollard Lilliputian Opera Company.

Oscar Heintz was born when the family lived at 183 George St, Fitzroy on 17 March 1891
(The building survives). Twins Freddie and Johnnie Heintz were born when the family lived at 101 Argyle St, Fitzroy, on 3 December 1895. (This building also survives)

For many years the Heintz family lived at 84 Kerr St, Fitzroy. John Heintz, a baker, died in 1900. A few years later, his three boys joined the lengthy Pollard tour of Asia and North America, that departed Melbourne in July 1904 and returned home in February 1907. Although aged only 16, Oscar stayed on in the US. Freddie and Johnnie Heintz travelled again with another Pollard tour that departed later in 1907, and also another ill-fated Pollard Indian tour in 1909.

IMG_6740

Above – the former Heintz home at 84 Kerr St, Fitzroy is the cottage with the red door. It is still a private residence.


H: Florrie Forde (1876-1940)

Born 16 August 1875, in Gertrude St, Fitzroy (the exact address is not listed on her birth certificate).
The likely location is the former United Service Club Hotel on the corner of Young Street and Gertrude St, run by her father Lott Flannagan. (This building survives)
Florrie first appeared on stage in Sydney in early 1892. In 1897 she appeared in London for the first time. She became a popular favourite in British music hall, also appearing as herself in a few British films.

IMG_0229

Above: The former United Service Club Hotel.


Nick Murphy
Updated April 2021

Willie Thomas’ great adventure with Pollard’s Lilliputians

Above: Enlargement of a group photo of Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company in Manila, 1903. Willie Thomas is at right. Also shown – from left Teddie McNamara, Oscar Heintz, Fred Bindlass. Willie was the only one of these boys not to move to the US. Photo courtesy Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.

The 5 second version
Born William (Willie) Thomas in Collingwood, Victoria, Australia, 1 January 1889,
died Boulder, Western Australia, 1969. Willie Thomas was in some respects the typical performer in Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company. Born in working class inner Melbourne, he was picked to join at least four extended Pollard company tours of the Far East and North America, between 1901 and 1907. His sister Emma, (born Collingwood, Victoria, Australia, 12 January 1885) also performed for Pollard’s and later accompanied as a supervisor.
On leaving the company, Willie became a butcher in Sunshine, Melbourne, and later in Western Australia.

“Willie” Thomas was a child performer in Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company, as it toured cities in South East Asia and North America, several times, between 1901 and 1907. He is shown below with his older sister Emma Thomas, while the company was in Vancouver.

willie and may
Willie was perhaps 14 and Emma 17 when this photo was taken c1902-4. Behind him in the peaked cap is Charles Pollard, company manager. The full photo of the Pollard Company is on the Vancouver As It Was website. Used with their permission.

William Thomas was born in Collingwood in January 1889 to Ironmonger William Albert Thomas and his wife Emma, nee Stone. There were four older children – two brothers and two sisters in the family. Two other sisters died in infancy.

Much of the history of Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company is lost to us today and confusingly, there was more than one troupe of performers using this or a similar name in the early twentieth century.  Managed by Charles Pollard and his sister Nellie Chester, we know that they ran several extended and highly acclaimed tours to the Philippines, Japan, China and North America between 1901 and 1909 – each lasting a year or more, punctuated by a short break of a few months at home in Melbourne. This troupe is also of interest historically, because so many of its performers were from working-class inner Melbourne. And a number of its performers also went on to stay on in the US and work in Hollywood – including Alf Goulding, Harry Fraser or “Snub Pollard“, Daphne Pollard, Teddy McNamara, Fred Pollard (Fred Bindlass) and Jack Pollard (John Cherry). And the talented Willie Thomas from Collingwood worked amongst them on the three performance trips – September 1901-October 1902, January 1903-April 1904, and July 1904- February 1907.

Pollards in San Francisco Nov 16 1901 at the Tivoli Opera House,
Above: Part of the program for Pollard’s performing at the Tivoli Opera House, San Francisco on November 16, 1901. Both Willie (12) and Emma (16) have leading roles in The Belle of New York. Author’s Collection.

Historian Gillian Arrighi points out that several Australian companies employed child actors for prolonged offshore tours at this time. This practice enabled the producers to avoid contravening child labour and education laws in newly federated Australia. And apparently it was lucrative – for families and the organisers. Child performers made pocket-money selling postcards of themselves, while parents back in Australia were paid sometimes in advance or via a trust fund.

Pollards c 1903

Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company in costume, taken in the US about 1905. It appears to show Willie Thomas, second from right at the front, next to Daphne Pollard. The two little boys fourth and fifth from the left in the front row are Freddie and Johnnie Heintz. In the  postwar world Johnnie became a pastry cook in Adelaide. Freddie tried his luck acting again in the US. Copy of postcard courtesy Robert Maynard

The Thomas’ names are also found amongst other Pollard performers on the shipping manifests of the time. More interesting are the accounts that appeared in US and Australian papers as they travelled, that documented some of their experiences. By 1905, Willie was amongst the Company’s leading performers.

Sioux_City_Journal_Wed__May_28__1902_     San Francisco Chronicle 6 Sept 1903 cropped

Left: On his first tour of North America, Willie Thomas and three other performers had a near miss with a gas leak, according to The Sioux City Journal (Utah), May 28 1902. Via Newspapers.com .Right: A second tour, another performance. The San Francisco Chronicle, September 6, 1903, announces a new Pollard season and some of the stars – including Willie. Both these articles confirm the constant rotation of shows while on tour. Via Newspapers.com

willie Thomas4

Robert Maynard still holds the postcards, makeup box and other ephemera that belonged to his grandfather. There are also over 50 postcards that Willie collected including several from Shanghai, Japan, Suva, Canada and the United States. These are unmarked, so he apparently never posted them home, rather – keeping them as mementos of his travels. The remains of his makeup box includes fake moustaches and numerous sticks of grease paint.

Willie and Emma’s final North American tour with Pollard’s seems to have ended in early 1907, when he was 17 and she was 21 – both now too old to convincingly be presented as child actors. (Emma appears to have travelled as a non performing adult on this tour). Perhaps also, this marathon Pollard tour of 1905-1907 convinced Willie that performing on stage was not what he wanted to do.

Pollard's in Canada and the US 1905-1907

Above: Willie Thomas’ makeup box. Map – The Pollard Company’s “Grand Tour” of North America (March 1905- Jan 1907) avoided much time in the eastern USA, where child labour law made performances impossible. The troupe was in Sacramento during the April 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The map is based on Midas Martyn‘s diary. Thanks to Catherine Crocker for sharing this information. Courtesy Google Maps. Click to go to the google map – the author’s attempt to illustrate this extraordinary tour.

This writer has commented elsewhere of the controversy accompanying Pollard’s travels to the Far East and North America.  The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, or the “Gerry Society” kept Pollard’s away from the east coast of the US. The society’s opposition to children performing on stage was well-known. The Chicago Tribune of 19 May 1902 touched on this issue in a long article about the company during their only visit to that city; “Although the idea of keeping children on the stage is repugnant to Americans, and although it is forbidden by law in some states, the Pollards claim that their children… suffer no evil effects from the experience.” 

Whatever other reasons he had for leaving the stage, a few years on and now calling himself “William,” he had became a butcher. He was also a competent Australian Rules Football player, playing for teams in Boulder Western Australia (where he spent a few years between 1910 and 1913) and Sunshine, Victoria.


Above left: William in the Boulder City (Western Australia) Football Club in 1911, seated front left,
Above right: William seated at right with Sunshine Braybrook Football Club in 1914. Photos courtesy Robert Maynard.

Following the outbreak of war and during the surge of enlistments following the Gallipoli landings, William and his two older brothers Albert and Jack (John) joined the Australian Imperial Forces. With other soldiers of the 3rd Division AIF, they sailed on the Medic, arriving at England in July 1916. William went on to serve in France with the 29th and 30th Batteries, 8th Field Artillery Brigade. In the photo enlargement below, William is seated on the left, Albert is on the right – unusually the two brothers served together. In February-March 1918 William’s military record shows he was granted leave in England. There he saw Albert De Courville‘s latest review, Box o’ Tricks, at the London Hippodrome, featuring a very old friend, Daphne Pollard in the line-up, whom he met after the show. The conversation must have been a joyful one about show-biz;  it defies belief that William, having been under fire and in action for the last 14 months, would wish to talk about the appalling reality of trench warfare.


Above: William and Albert (enlargement)  in France c1918. Photos courtesy of Robert Maynard

Miraculously, all three Thomas brothers survived the war and returned to Australia in 1919. In the early 1920s William set up a butcher’s shop in Sunshine, a western suburb of Melbourne, in partnership with brother Albert. In 1924 he married Lizzie O’Brien and brought up a large family, at first in the house next to the shop, and later in nearby Adelaide Street. Lizzie, the “life of the party” and a favourite with all the children in the family, called him “Butcher.” Like many returned soldiers, William liked a drink, and earned a reputation for regularly being thrown out of the Sunshine pub. One can’t help wondering if the Sunshine pub became the place he liked to practise the keen sense of humour he had developed on stage with Pollard’s, years before.

William Thomas’s Butcher shop, on Hampshire Rd, Sunshine. William Thomas is proudly holding his daughter Emma, with brother Albert (second from left) and nephew William (at right) and another butcher. Before widespread refrigeration, the horse and gig was a quick and convenient way to sell and deliver meat. Photo Courtesy Robert Maynard.
Advert at right from the Sunshine Advocate, 9 June 1928, Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Unfortunately, the Depression hit William’s family hard. Such businesses were used to extending credit but also dependent on a regular cash flow. A kind man (in 1924 he had paid for his nephew to travel to a scout jamboree in England) William’s generosity eventually got the better of his business in the hard times of the 1930s, and it closed down.

By 1941, the family had relocated to Boulder, Western Australia, where William, determined to make a fresh start, became a butcher again. He died there, aged 80, in 1969. Sister Emma had died in Sunshine in 1963.

A few years after Willie Thomas’ final tour, the era of the travelling troupes of Australian children came to an end. In 1909, another Pollard family member, Arthur Hayden Pollard, who had been on some of the North American trips, raised a mostly new troupe to perform in South East Asia and India. It was a disaster and amid the claims of impropriety, cruelty and underpayment, the troupe broke up in February 1910, with the children forced to find local support to make their own way home. New Federal legislation in 1910 banned Australian children travelling overseas to perform.

William kept his Pollard’s make-up box all his life, which says something about how fondly he viewed this exciting stage of his childhood. If he regretted his seven years of travel and performing, and then leaving the stage behind forever, he never said.

Emma Thomas 1950s

Above: Emma Thomas (left) in the 1950s, welcoming Mr and Mrs Pettit on a visit to Melbourne. The Pettits employed William as a butcher in Western Australia by this time. The days of Pollards Lilliputians were far behind. Photo courtesy Robert Maynard.

Note:

Emma and Willie travelled with the following Pollard Lilliputian Opera Company tours of South East Asia and North America under the leadership of Charles Pollard and Nellie Chester:

1. Departing Australia via SS Sierra 3 September 1901,
Returning to Australia via SS Aorangi 17 October 1902.

2. Departing Australia SS Chansha 18 January 1903,
Returning to Australia SS Miowera 2 April 1904.

3. Departing on a Queensland tour July – Sept 1904, then to “the far east” late September 1904, then SS Empress of India arriving Vancouver BC, March 1 1905.
Apparently returning home on the SS Moana in February 1907, an extraordinary tour of 32 months.

Another Pollards trip departed sometime in June 1907, arriving in the US on the SS Hong Kong Maru from Yokohama, Japan on Mar 3, 1908. They arrived home in Australia on RMS Makura on April 17, 1909. Emma and Willie were not on this final trip or its disastrous follow-up to India organised and led by Arthur Haydon Pollard.


Nick Murphy, Updated March 2020

Special Thanks

To Robert Maynard, William Thomas’ grandson, for so generously sharing his family history – much more than I could fit in this article.


Further Reading

Collections

  • Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.


Websites

National Library of Australia – Trove

“STAGELAND.” Evening News (Sydney, NSW : 1869 – 1931) 27 September 1902: 2 (EVENING NEWS SUPPLEMENT).

Evening Entertainments.” The Telegraph (Brisbane, Qld. : 1872 – 1947) 26 July 1904: 7.

SEND-OFF TO SCOUT THOMAS (1924, May 24). Sunshine Advocate (Vic. : 1924 – 1954), p. 4.

“POLLARD’S LILLIPUTIAN OPERA COMPANY.” Leader (Melbourne, Vic. : 1862 – 1918) 2 April 1910: 23.

“THE POLLARD TROUPE.” Leader (Melbourne, Vic. : 1862 – 1918) 21 May 1910: 24. Web. 15 Oct 2018

“POLLARD OPERA COMPANY.” The Age (Melbourne, Vic. : 1854 – 1954) 22 April 1910: 8. Web. 15 Oct 2018

Daphne Pollard (1891-1978) – I had to know 36 operas!

Daphne Pollard, c 1920. Author’s Collection

The author’s more recent (2022) article on Daphne Pollard can be read here at Theatre Heritage Australia online


The 5 second version
Born Daphne Trott in Fitzroy, Victoria, Australia, 19 October 1891, she died in Los Angeles, California, USA on 22 February 1978. A child performer with the Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company from about 1900 to 1907, she travelled through South East Asia, Canada and the United States on at least four extended tours before becoming a very popular comedy performer on stage in the US and Britain in her own right. She was busy appearing in films in Hollywood, late in her career – 1927-36. Most of her family moved to the US with her in 1908. She never performed in Melbourne, Australia – her place of birth.

The talented actress Daphne Pollard was born Daphne Trott at 56 Kerr Street, Fitzroy, Melbourne, in October 1891 to Walter Trott and Annie nee Daniels. She was one of those rare gifts to the stage – she could sing and dance and became an expert in slapstick – the physical comedy so popular at the start of the twentieth century. Standing a little over 1.40 metres tall (or 4 foot eight and a half inches) as an adult, she was on stage from the age from an early age. She was a good-looking child performer, with great confidence for her age. She was to become the star attraction of the Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company, an Australian troupe (or more accurately – series of troupes) featuring talented children usually from the inner Melbourne suburbs of Fitzroy and Collingwood, who took on the adult roles in musical comedies. However, Gillian Arrighi has reminded us that the musical comedies performed by Pollard’s, such as their perennial favourite, A Gaiety Girl, were suggestive, with plots preoccupied with sexual relationships – or “playful gambolling on the verge of indecency” as Edwardian theatre critic William Archer wrote (see Arrighi p.154).

Daphne photographed in Shanghai
Photo attributed to Ying Cheong, a photographer and painter in Canton Road Shanghai, Source -National library of Australia.
Daphne_Pollard_and_Leah_Lirchner_in__The_Geisha__(SAYRE_13291)
Daphne Pollard and Leah Leichner re-creating a scene from The Geisha. Likely by Ying Cheong, Shanghai Courtesy University of Washington, Special Collections, JWS24603.

As an example, consider the lyrics of the song “Baby Baby” from The Lady Slavey:
“Lovers are silly young things you know and I am as silly as any.
I’ve worn two engagement rings you know, but two, you’ll agree are not many”

It is interesting to reflect on the impact of a childhood spent growing up “on stage” – as Daphne and some of the Pollard’s children experienced. There is little evidence to help us – although Willie Thomas’ and Leah Leichner’s stories may contain some clues. Daphne spoke briefly about the experience shortly after she married in 1911, when she told the Los Angeles Herald  “I’m off for good now; no more acting for me. I’ve had enough. Twelve years on the stage is really long enough, and It’s not my fault that I had all that twelve years before I was 20 years of age. I used to like it, of course, and when I was a kiddie and we traveled about a lot and had nice times with the other children. It was lots of fun, but for two years now I have known that this glamour was gone and I have wanted to leave.” But in spite of these sentiments, she did not leave the stage.

In time, Daphne Trott was to become an outstanding vaudevillian in her own right. The headline photo on the top of this page shows her in 1920, at the height of her popularity on the London stage. Like Harry Fraser (Snub Pollard), she took the stage name Pollard, partly as convenience but also because many of the company performers liked to maintain the pretence of belonging to a family troupe. Later in careers it was a familiar and easy remembrance of times past.

In Melbourne, Daphne Trott’s father Walter and an uncle ran a furniture upholstery and French polishing business, although the Melbourne depression of the 1890s hit the family’s fortunes hard. We don’t know what attracted Daphne to the stage – perhaps as a child she saw other well-known Fitzroy girls, like Florrie Forde, perform at the Melbourne Opera House or the Theatre Royal. Daphne joined Pollard’s troupe in about 1900, with older sisters Ivy and Myrtle. The family lived in nearby, later moving to a similarly modest dwelling at 96 King William Street, Fitzroy and finally to another cottage at 45 Westbank Terrace in Richmond.

About the time of Daphne’s departure for the US, the Trott family business operated on the corner of King William St and Brunswick St, Fitzroy (site now occupied by the orange and white supermarket in the distance). Author’s Collection. 
54-56 Kerr St Fitzroy
56 Kerr St, Fitzroy, was listed as Daphne Trott’s October 1891 birthplace and the family home for most of the 1890s. It is hard to believe this very modest single story terrace house had room for a baby and five older siblings! Only a few houses away in this street lived the Heintz family, whose twin boys Freddie and Johnnie also travelled on tour with Daphne.

In June 1900 Daphne and two older sisters Hilda and Ivy joined a Pollard Lilliputian Opera Company tour through South East Asia – Singapore, Penang, Rangoon and Calcutta. They followed this with another tour, departing in early September 1901 – this time to include Canada and the United States. 

Only a few days before Daphne’s departure on her second tour, the Trott’s much loved youngest child, four year old Wally, died as a result of typhoid fever. He had lingered in the Children’s Hospital for several weeks. (The story that he broke his neck doing somersaults on the bed on the eve of Daphne’s departure seems to be just that, another showbiz story). Although Wally’s headstone lies broken and forgotten at Kew cemetery, the surviving inscription reveals the depth of the family’s grief. It must have taken great strength for Daphne and her sisters to leave Australia. Twelve months later, in October 1902, the company arrived home, having won positive reviews up and down the North American west coast.

Wally Trott
So dearly loved, so deeply mourned.”  Wally Trott’s headstone at Kew Cemetery. Author’s Collection.

Performing for the Pollard opera companies was not for the faint-hearted. Their Australasian and overseas tours involved rigorous preparatory training and took child performers away from home for months, sometimes a year or more. The company were on yet another tour between January 1903 and April 1904.

In May 1904, before departing yet again, an effort by Ernest Wolffe, the Pollard’s ex-musical director, to entice the child performers away to form a new breakaway group, led to a messy court case in Melbourne’s Supreme Court. It also revealed some of the Company’s workings – that the parents of Pollard’s child performers would be paid via a trust fund – generally 10 shillings a month in the first 6 months, followed by £1 per month thereafter. Charles Pollard and Nellie Chester provided a tutor and paid for all the travel costs and accommodation. The child performers made pocket money by selling autographed souvenir photos after each show. Operating outside Australia, laws regarding education did not apply.

Not withstanding his offers of higher pay, Wolffe’s efforts failed. The court apparently found the children’s existing contracts with Pollard’s were still valid. Daphne and Ivy Trott resumed their arrangements with the company. Following a short season in July – September 1904, testing and refining their repertoire for Queensland audiences, the Pollard Lilliputians arrived in North America in March 1905. Their stops along the way had included 5 months performing for enthusiastic colonial audiences in the “Far East”, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Japan.

Pollard’s advertising-already picking out its most popular stars during its third tour of North America. The Calgary Herald, 3 January 1906 via Newspapers.com

One surviving photo from this tour shows some of the performers and supervising adults sitting on the steps of the Badminton hotel in Vancouver. At the front, sitting slightly apart and wearing a large hat, is young Daphne, her poise and confidence unmistakable. Her 17 year old sister Ivy, an accomplished performer who also performed on this tour, stands on the left at the back. Also in the back row stand Alf Goulding and Harry Fraser – both of whom, like Daphne, would eventually find their way to Hollywood.

Ivy and Daphne c 1905
Above:  Ivy Trott (14) and Daphne Trott or Pollard (11) in Vancouver in c1901-2. Enlarged from a group photo via Vancouver As It Was: A Photo-Historical Journey and used with their kind permission.

Program notes from performances in Montreal, Canada in 1905 reveal a typical Pollard’s schedule, which included six different popular musical comedies delivered across a week of performances – A Runaway Girl; The Belle of New York; A Gaiety Girl; The Geisha; HMS Pinafore and The Lady Slavey. It was no leisurely tour. Years later Daphne told a reporter;
“As a child actress in the Pollard Lilliputian Opera Company… I had to know thirty six operas by heart. (In) one I played the part of an old sheriff with side-whiskers, although I was only twelve at the time. One of the side-whiskers came off before the audience, but that, of course, made it all the funnier. We were all children, but we included grand opera in our repertoire.”

Part of a Pollard program from Montreal during their marathon 1904-07 North American tour. The ages are obviously wrong. Author’s Collection.

In February 1907, the Pollard marathon two + year tour finally ended, and most of the Company returned home on the SS Moana. It must have become obvious by this time that Daphne’s future was not just performing with Pollard’s. By mid-1907, Daphne and Ivy had accepted contracts with Frank W. Healy’s San Francisco Opera Company and they began performances later that year. For the next nine years Daphne performed in vaudeville throughout the United States, more or less continuously, developing her skills and attracting widespread acclaim. (Ivy married and left the stage in 1908.)

In 1908, the Trott parents and all but one of Daphne’s siblings followed her to North America, settling permanently in Seattle. It was a dramatic move, one that must have taken some deliberation by the whole family. And now, aged 19, Daphne felt more confident than ever to express her views. In April 1910 she announced that she supported a woman’s right to vote – a right enjoyed by most women in her native Australia but not yet granted to women in the United States. “Votes for Women. I’m going to march in the streets and carry a banner” she told a Seattle Star journalist. Her renown and popularity was such that she was chosen as Seattle’s first ever Queen of the Golden Potlatch Festival (now known as the Seafair Festival) the following year. Soon after, in a joyful and rather theatrical elopement, she married journalist Ellington Strother Bunch.

Above: Daphne Pollard c1915, at the time she appeared in The Passing Show of 1915. Author’s collection.

If Daphne really did intend to retire after her 1911 marriage, she changed her mind soon after. By mid – 1916, Daphne was a seasoned enough performer to know the ways audiences in different US cities responded. She was also deeply immersed in her stagecraft and most unusually for the time, she was prepared to pause and publicly reflect on it. In a lengthy expose of the art of a typical review performance, for The Green Book Magazine, she wrote;

“The principal first out does her scene, usually not an important one so early in the evening, and exits after a song or dance number, marking the time for applause. The audience speaks then, and—believe me—there is not one of us who has not learned to judge its tone…If the applause is liberal and pretty much from all parts of the house, hopes soar high…

Next out may be the second comedian. He notches up the pace, sets the whole show a pitch higher and works like a fiend, all the time trying to gauge results and get bearings… By the time the first act is on its feet, we’ve got that audience so well sized up that each of us knows to a nicety the impression he or she will make.”


Pollard
Program for Albert De Courville’s “Zig-Zag!” 1917. Author’s Collection.
Zig Zag France023
Program for De Courville’s 1917 Folies Bergere production, showing Shirley Kellogg on the cover. It also starred Daphne. The Australian war memorial holds an identical program, except with Daphne Pollard on the cover. Author’s collection.

Following the success of another review The Passing Show of 1915 and at the height of the Great War, she traveled to London. There she appeared in a string of very popular revues at the Hippodrome for Albert De Courville. Zig-Zag! opened in January 1917 and was followed by Box o’ Tricks in 1918. (De Courville’s company also performed at the Folies-Bergere in Paris.) In 1919 she appeared in Joy Bells with another experienced Australian-born, US-based comedian, Leon Errol in the cast. In all, she spent almost ten years in London, taking a break for the birth of her only child – Ellington Walter Bunch in 1922 and several returns to New York, including one to appear in the Greenwich Village Follies in late 1923. Daphne Pollard is jointly credited as composer of several of the pieces performed in these shows. Reviews of her work continued to be enthusiastic and she easily managed both US and British cultural contexts. Friend Stan Laurel recalled one of her stage acts, as a “Cockney dame” (‘Arriet ‘Emmingway from Huntershire County “Hingland”), who struggled to manage the transition to living in the US. This character was later recycled as the theme of the short films America or Bust (1930) and Help wanted, Female (1931).

Filmstars002
London Sunday Pictorial. 25 February 1917. Daphne Pollard is in the centre. Author’s collection

By 1927 Daphne Pollard had been active on stage for thirty years, almost continuously, when Mack Sennett finally convinced her to appear in Hollywood films. Sennett had apparently made a few approaches to her earlier in her career. It’s quite likely that the astute Daphne Pollard also saw vaudeville and music theatre as under siege from the booming cinema industry, and decided to jump ship for purely practical reasons. Her surviving movies often mislead the casual reader today to think these were the sum of her working life. In fact, her 60 Hollywood films, made for Sennett and later RKO and then Universal were merely a footnote – most of them made in a period of just five years.

Sennett was a prolific producer, director and actor, who churned out over 1400 titles during his career. His fondness for slapstick and physical comedy was firmly rooted in vaudeville and of course, for him, Daphne Pollard was another actress trained in this tradition. One of Sennett’s former editors, William Hornbeck, interviewed by writer Kevin Brownlow years later, commented on how unsophisticated Sennett’s films often were, even for the time. Many of the films Daphne appeared in were made during the transition of silent to sound films, and as filmmakers like Sennett struggled to adapt to what worked in this new dimension, the humour often fell flat. And seen today, audiences may find the humour tasteless and some of the story-lines weak. The blackface ending to Two Smoked Hams (1934) and the burning building rescue in His First Flame (1935) are two obvious examples of seriously outdated humour.

DP1916
Above- Daphne Pollard as an everyday adult, on a passport application, in about 1916. Via Ancestry, via US National Archives 

Daphne Pollard’s first film for Sennett was The Girl from Everywhere (1927), a 20 minute comedy with Carole Lombard. She appeared in several more with Lombard, including Run Girl, Run and The Campus Carmen, both made in 1928. Several of these were directed by her friend and one time neighbour from inner Melbourne, and an old Pollard Lilliputian Opera associate, Alf Goulding.

As a consequence of Sennett’s prolific approach, her roles over the next few years were varied and while she sometimes appeared as one of the leading players, character roles, especially the fussy mother or the English servant, had become her stock in trade. In the otherwise dull 1930 sound musical Bright Lights, Daphne and Tom Dugan provide the comic relief playing a feuding married couple. In 1931’s The Lady Refuses she plays the eccentric maid.

Daphne sings!

This is Daphne singing a comic song about being “in the market” (meaning the stock market) in Mack Sennett’s Bulls and Bears (1930).

Here she is the drunken Aunt Agnes in Sennett’s Honeymoon Zeppelin (1930).


Only occasionally in her films do we see flashes of her skills as an extraordinarily energetic and highly experienced vaudeville performer– as when she demonstrates her admirable comic timing by snapping her teeth at Oliver Hardy in Thicker Than Water in 1935, or when she dances for the leading juveniles with such confidence and ease in Kid Dynamite made in 1943. But we can see her skills at their best when she takes the coquette role, one she had performed so often on the stage, wooing fireman “Smokey Mo” (Shemp Howard) in His First Flame, made in 1935. When she throws her handkerchief in front of him to gain his attention, and then wrestles him onto a park bench, it is a sequence straight from the vaudeville tradition. “I love you, I love you, I love you” she says aggressively, with her foot in Howard’s face.

his first flame
Above: Screen grab of Daphne Pollard and Shemp Howard in His First Flame (1935). Author’s collection. Howard’s pre-3 Stooges films are currently available to collectors on DVD.

Her well known straight role, as Oliver Hardy’s shrewish wife in the Hal Roach studio films Our Relations and Thicker than Water marked the end of her intensive Hollywood career. When she appeared in her last brief and un-credited role in Laurel and Hardy’s very silly The Dancing Masters, in 1943, she had been performing for 46 years.

She died in Los Angeles in 1978, her passing reported in the US but completely unnoticed in Australia. In time, the usual nonsense was written about her by eager fans – that she was sister of “Snub Pollard” or that her “Australian accent” got in the way of a career in sound films. Even the most perfunctory research shows neither proposition to be true.

Back home in Australia, Daphne’s older sister Hilda, having married Percy Wood, a Melbourne plumber, enjoyed a happy but childless marriage. She spent her last years living a few hundred metres from the Hoyts Merri Theatre in North Fitzroy, where presumably, she went to watch her sister’s movies. The descendants of Daphne Trott and her family now all live in the US.

Daphne Pollard the Passing Show
Above: Daphne with George Munroe in The Passing Show of 1915. The Pittsburg Press, 27 June 1915. Via Newspapers.com.

What sort of person was she? Unfortunately we only have sketchy evidence to make a conclusion. Historian Bill Egan has pointed out to this writer that Daphne led a threatened walkout when African-American performer Florence Mills shared the stage and the advertising for the Greenwich Village Follies in New York in late 1923. It is difficult to see this as anything other than professional jealousy and race prejudice, a point that was made even at the time. 

Stan Laurel’s correspondence seems to suggest she was a feisty and forceful personality. Yet we also know that she maintained an affection for all her old friends into later life. When Teddy McNamara died of pneumonia in Hollywood in 1928, she attended his funeral with all the old Pollard Company performers. Willie Thomas, another performer from Pollard’s caught up with her in London in 1918, while he was on leave from the Australian forces on the Western Front. Meeting her backstage at the London Hippodrome was, Willie always said, a joyful reunion.

Nick Murphy,
Updated June 2021


Note 1: The origin of the story that the “Emperor of China” wanted to buy her apparently has its origins in the following story. Zhang Zhidong was a high ranking Chinese official in the Qing Dynasty. The offensive comment attributed to Daphne may be true but as the contemporary journalist noted, the entire story is likely an exaggeration.

hong kong daily press daphne pollard story 1905 05 27
Hong Kong Daily Press, May 27, 1905. Via Hong Kong Public Library Multimedia System

References:

Collections

  • Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.
  • Public Record Office, Melbourne. Supreme Court Civil cases 1904/329 Pollard and Chester v Wolffe.

Publications

  • 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” No 69, 2017. Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Peter Downes (2002) The Pollards, a family and its child and adult opera companies in New Zealand and Australia, 1880-1910. Steele Roberts, New Zealand.
  • Bill Egan (2004) Florence Mills : Harlem jazz queen. Scarecrow Press.
  • Kirsty Murray (2010) “India Dark.” Allen & Unwin Australia.
    See also https://insideadog.com.au/blog/incredible-india (India Dark is a fictional retelling of the disastrous Pollard tour of India in 1909 – but none of the Trott children performed in this)
  • Brent Walker (2013) “Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory: A History and Filmography of his Studio and His Keystone and Mack Sennett Comedies, with Biographies of Players and Personnel” McFarland & Co
  • Various (1888) “Victoria and its Metropolis, Past and Present. The Colony and its people in 1888.” Volume 11B. McCarron Bird and Co, Melbourne. P. 621. (See Trott family)
  • Trav S.D (Donald Travis Stewart), (2006) No Applause – Just throw Money. The book that made Vaudeville Famous. Faber and Faber, New York
  • Daphne Pollard 1916.Rehearsing the Audience”, The Green Book magazine, Pages 737-740
  • Kevin Brownlow (1968) The Parade’s Gone By… University of California Press.
  • Angela Woollacott (2001) To Try her Fortune in London. Oxford University Press.

Websites

Original US archival documents sourced from

National Library of Australia – Trove Newspaper Collection

  • The Age, 13 July 1901, P2 Advertising.
  • The Register, 4 July 1908, “Dramatic Notes”. Page 10
  • The World’s News, 4 Dec 1920, “Daphne Pollard”. Page 5

Newspapers.com

  • The San Francisco Call, 4 March 1906, P23. “Australian children…”
  • Los Angeles Herald, 30 March 1906, P9 “Little actress has ambition…”
  • Calgary Herald (Canada) 5 Aug 1907, P5 “Daphne and Ivy back”
  • Los Angeles Herald, 2 Sept 1907. P3 “Quintette of Principals from San Francisco Opera Co…”
  • The Winnipeg Tribune (Canada) 17 Dec 1906, P8 “Music and Drama”
  • The Seattle Star, 29 April, 1910. P14 “Marion Lowe has a… talk with tiny Daphne Pollard”.
  • The Lincoln Sunday Star, 11 July 1915. P7. “In the New York Theatres”
  • The Seattle Star, 6 June 1916, P.1
  • Pittsburg Courier, 3 Nov 1923. “White actress jealous of success of Florence Mills…”

Hong Kong Public Library Multimedia System

  • Hong Kong Daily Press, May 27, 1905. “Chang Chi-Tung and Daphne Pollard”

California Digital Newspaper Collection

  • Los Angeles Herald, Volume XXXVII, Number 310, 7 August 1911

British Library Newspaper Archive

  • The Bystander, 31 January 1917. P203, “Hands across the sea”.
  • The Graphic, 10 March, 1917. P292 “Zig Zag”
  • The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 24 March 1917, P90. “Round The theatres”
  • The Sketch, 17 April 1918. P64-65. “Lost to the Grenadiers…”
  • The Era, 20 April 1921. P13. “Why I like to look ugly”
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