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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Finlay family

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nellie Finlay takes charge of the family 1907+

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

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

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

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


The Disaster in India 1909-1910

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harry and Nellie working together 1910 +

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

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

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

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

Irene and Arthur’s later life 1910+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Nick Murphy
July 2021


References

  • Text:
    • Gillian Arrighi (2017) The Controversial “Case of the Opera Children in the East”: Political conflict between popular demand for child actors and modernizing cultural policy on the child”. Theatre Journal 69, (2017) Johns Hopkins University Press.
    • Peter Downes ( 2002) The Pollards. Steele Roberts.
    • Kirsty Murray (2010) India Dark. Allen and Unwin
      [Note: While written as a novel for teenagers, this beautiful novel is closely based on the events of the Arthur Pollard troupe in India and is highly recommended]
    • Frank Van Straten (2003) Tivoli. Thomas Lothian
  • Australian Performing Arts Collection,
    • Pollard Opera Companies Collection
  • State of Victoria: Births, Death and Marriages
    • 2 March 1902. Death Certificate. George Charles Finlay
    • 24 April 1907. Death Certificate. Amelia Finlay
    • 27 Sept 1917. Marriage Certificate Oliver Oates and Nathlie Finlay
  • State of Queensland: Births, Deaths and Marriages
    • 16 August 1891. Birth Certificate. Irene Robins
    • 21 March 1914. Marriage Certificate. Theodore Evans and Myra Finlay
    • 14 June 1945. Death Certificate. Mary Pollard
  • New Zealand Births Deaths and Marriages
    • 27 Feb 1905. Marriage Certificate. Arthur Haydon Pollard and Irene Olga Finlay
  • Public Record Office, Victoria
    • Civil Case Files Supreme Court of Victoria
      • VPRS 267/ P7  1900/200
        Charles Pollard Nellie Chester Pollards Lilliputian Opera Company v Millie Finlay
  • National Library of Australia’s Trove
    • Quiz and the Lantern (SA) 28 Jan 1897, P15
    • The Age (Melb) 13 June 1898, P8
    • The Herald (Melb) 12 Mar 1900, P4
    • The Referee (Syd) 17 July 1901, P10
    • Maitland Weekly Mercury (NSW) 8 Feb 1902, P13
    • The Age (Melb) 4 Mar 1902, P1
    • The Argus (Melb) 26 Mar 1903, P4
    • Evening News (Syd) 25 Feb 1904, P6
    • North Coolgardie Herald (WA) 25 Mar 1905, P2
    • Barrier Miner (NSW) 27 Nov 1905, P2
    • Maitland Daily Mercury (NSW) 15 July 1908, P4
    • The Critic (SA) 23 Dec 1908, P6, P7
    • Daily News (WA) 9 Mar 1910, P7
    • The Register (SA) 30 March, 1910 P7
    • Leader (VIC) 2 Apr 1910 P23
    • Barrier Miner (NSW) 22 April 1910, P2
    • Truth (WA) 23 April 1910, P2
    • The Register (SA) 25 April 1910 P8
    • Advertiser (SA) 28 April 1910 P9
    • Barrier Miner (NSW) 29 April 1910, P2
    • Leader (VIC) 30 April 1910, P34
    • Evening Star (WA), 11 May 1910, P 3
    • The Herald (VIC) 17 May 1910
    • Leader (VIC) 21 May 1910 P24
    • The Telegraph (Bris), 12 Mar 1925, P5
    • Sunday Times (WA) 21 Aug 1927, P14
  • The British Library Newspaper Archive
    • The Times of India, 6 Jan 1910 P5
    • The Times of India 31 March 1910, P9
    • The Englishman’s Overland Mail (Calcutta) 31 Mar 1910 P7
    • The Times of India, 13 April 1910, P7
    • The Englishman’s Overland Mail (Calcutta) 14 April, 1910
    • The Englishman’s Overland Mail (Calcutta) 12 May, 1910, P6
    • The Bioscope, 1 June 1911, P37
    • The Kinomatograph Weekly, 11 Feb 1915, P37
    • The Kinomatograph Weekly, 25 July, 1918, P115
  • Newspapers.com
    • The Honolulu Advertiser, 14 Sept 1901, P10
    • Woodland Daily Democrat (CA), 20 May 1908, P4
    • The Boston Globe, 7 Oct 1917, P52
  • National Library of New Zealand, Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa, Papers Past
    • Auckland Star, Oct 11 1940, P1

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

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

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

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

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

Pollards in Manilla poss 1905 full screen

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

Institutionalized Children?

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

Charles pollard 1906   Nellie Chester 1906   Arthur Hayden Pollard 1906

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

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

Pollards call for kids

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

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

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


Leah’s birth and childhood in Melbourne

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


Leah and two Pollards tours of North America

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

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

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

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

The Geisha

Fibs by Pollards Montreal 1905

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

Leah and her secret, 1907 – 1908

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

SMH 17 OCT 1908

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

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


Leah and the 1909 – 1910 Pollard Tour of India

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

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

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

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

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

The Leader 2 April 1910

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

The Outcomes

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

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

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

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

   Belle Leichner c 1920

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

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

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

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

Gracchus enlargement 16 December 1909

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

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


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

22 July 1912

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

Special Thanks

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

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

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

To Claudia Funder, Research Service Coordinator,  Arts Centre Melbourne


References

Collections

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

Text

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

National Library of Australia’s Trove

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

Newspapers.com

  • The Honolulu Advertiser 11 March 1908, 22 July 1912

Singapore Government Digitised newspapers project – Newspaper SG

Federal Register of Legislation (Australia)

Vancouver As It Was: A Photo-Historical Journey

Nick Murphy
March 2021