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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


An Australian performer?

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

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

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

Nick Murphy
January 2021


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

References

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

Tales of Pollard’s Child Performers

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

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

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

Pollard’s performers in Vancouver 1905. This photo is enlarged from a group photo via Vancouver As It Was: A Photo-Historical Journey (click to follow the link) reproduced with permission. Left to right: Ivy and Daphne Trott (Pollard), Irene Findlay, Leah Leichner, Willie Thomas all from inner Melbourne.

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

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


Oscar, Freddie & Johnnie Heintz

Oscar Heintz was born in 1891, twins Freddie and Johnnie Heintz in 1896. Their father John Heintz was a baker, and he and his wife Annie nee Garland lived 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. John Heintz died in 1900 aged only in his late 30s. A few years later, his three boys joined the lengthy Pollard’s tour of Asia and North America, that departed Melbourne in July 1904 and returned home in February 1907.

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

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

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

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

Alice and Ethel Bennetto

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

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

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

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

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

Ethel Naylor

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

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

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

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


Minnie, Nellie and May Topping

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

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 one “L”) 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 no other players did 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 well into the 1920s. 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.

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

Australian Accents from Cinema’s Golden Age

Above: Warner Bros photo credited to Schuyler Grail. Feb 1938, NBC radio announcer Buddy Twist interviewing Australian actress Mary Maguire. Author’s collection (Enlargement).

Above: In the lower section of the same photo, one can see Maguire’s fingers are heavily bandaged – presumably she had just caught them in a car door or similar. No matter how cultivated she might have sounded in this radio interview, one can assume a stream of Australian invective issued forth when the accident happened. Author’s collection.

It is generally accepted that the origins of the Australian accent are from southern Britain, and the conventional wisdom today is that there are three main variations to it:

Of course, accents don’t really fall into such easy categories. Those labels might be better thought of as markers on a continuum, with any one accent sitting somewhere along it. Also, unlike the variations in British and US accents – that are sometimes regional, variations in Australian accents are usually attributed to social class. Parenting and education, as well as other social factors are believed to have a strong impact on how Australians speak. (Of course, physical features such as the tongue and jaw also impacts how people speak too). 

In a very good survey of Australian accents for the ABC, John Hajeck (University of Melbourne) and Lauren Gawne (La Trobe University) note that Australians also often accommodate other accents with ease. Perhaps this explains Adelaide actor Damon Herriman‘s great success in adopting Dewey Crowe’s US accent in the TV series Justified, or Melbourne singer Kylie Minogue’s great ease in shifting from a contemporary British accent to a general Australian one.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, elocution lessons, (sometimes a part of a private school education but also available from private tutors) were designed to remove all vestiges of a colonial accent, be it from Australia, South Africa or somewhere else. In a short article on actor Judith Anderson, and others, Desley Deacon of ANU has pointed out how common elocution lessons were, and how important these were in opening up a performance career. The resulting accent, found all over the British Empire and beyond, dovetailed nicely with the “transatlantic accent” preferred in US 1930s sound films.


1. Australian accents – tending to broad.

The broader Australian accent still often appears in Australian-made films, continuing as part of a well established comedy tradition that has long worked on stage. It’s also used in contemporary advertising, and much loved by contemporary politicians, alongside acceptable slang words like “mate” and “g’day”. Yet, today, that’s not how most Australians speak – indeed it would take a conscious effort to speak like that all the time.

Broad accents from the 1930s can be heard in Australian made films such as Frank Thring‘s His Loyal Highness (Aust:1932) and Ken Hall’s On Our Selection (Aust:1932).

The broad accent rarely appeared in pre-war US and British films. Even in the late 1950s, John Meredyth Lucas commented that a distinctive Australian accent made casting very difficult for the TV series Whiplash. It was unattractive, he felt and by implication might have made sales of the series difficult. In a similar vein, when the US trade paper Harrison’s Reports reviewed Smiley (Aust:1956) they felt it was unlikely to be well received in US because of the Australian accents. But when Jocelyn Howarth was being introduced to US audiences (as Constance Worth) in 1937, Photoplay magazine assured readers she was free of the “caricatured Australian accent.” The distinctive broad Australian accent still had a few outings – such as in MGM’s very self conscious The Man from Down Under (1943). It also occasionally slipped into other films – here are two examples:

  • Brian Norman (1908-1995) in Search for Beauty (US: 1934)


    WB Molloy
    Here Sydney-born Brian Norman, in his one and only film outing, forces some con-men to start morning exercises at the health farm. His broad Australian accent is unmistakable. He became a lawyer after returning from Hollywood. 
    Audio from copy of film in author’s collection. Photo – William Brian Molloy or “Brian Norman” in the Sydney Sun, 1 April 1934. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.


  • Lotus Thompson‘s (1904-1963) one line as a random person at a ball, in Anthony Adverse (US: 1936).


    Lotus3Lotus Thompson from Queensland was briefly a silent star of some standing in Australia and the US, but her career was all but over by 1930. She appeared in some uncredited extra parts in the 1930s. Her few words as an extra here – “Please talk about them” seem to have an noticeable Australian twang.
    Audio from copy of film in the author’s collection. Available through Warner Brothers Archive. Photo-author’s collection c.1924.


2. The accents of former Australian vaudevillians 

Although none of the following actors appear to have had elocution lessons and each had only limited formal educations, all arrived in Hollywood after very long careers on stage in Australia, the US and the UK – enough experience and time to give them an accent that might have come from anywhere.


  • Snub Pollard (1889-1962) also from Melbourne in Just My Luck (US: 1935).


    Snub Pollard Exhibitor's Trade Review Dec. 1922 - Feb. 1923
    The prolific Snub Pollard also had a long career with Pollard Lilliputian’s before moving into Hollywood films in 1915. In this clip Mr Smith (Pollard) 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. With the coming of sound Snub Pollard could only find work as an extra – but worked to the end of his life. Audio from copy of film in the author’s collection. Film is still widely available. Photo – Exhibitor’s Trade Review (Dec. 1922 – Feb. 1923) via Lantern Digital Media Project.


  • Paul Scardon (1875-1954) from Melbourne and Western Australia in Gentleman Joe Palooka (US: 1946).


    early scardon
    Scardon had an Australian stage career before moving to the US in late 1905, appearing in US films from about 1911. Here, later in life, he plays an uncredited role as a clerk whose records are being stolen by Knobby Walsh, played by Sydneysider Leon Errol (1881-1951) Copy of film in the author’s collection. The Joe Palooka films are widely available. Photo – Picture Play Weekly. April-Oct 1915. Via Lantern Digital Media Project.

3. Cultivated Australian accents and the importance of elocution

Wealthy Australians living on the continent’s coastal fringe often sent their children to private schools. These schools still put resources into a young person’s rounded personal development – now less commonly through “Speech” (elocution) classes, but still through public speaking, debating and by encouraging the performance arts.


  • Nancy O’Neil (1907-1995) from Sydney in a clip from Something always Happens (UK:1934).
    Nancy on a Lux soap card 1933-4

    O’Neil had attended Sydney Church of England Girls Grammar School before travelling to London to study at RADA in 1928. She appeared in film and on stage in England in the 1930s and like most of the other young Australian women in British films of the time, she sounds as English as everyone else.

    Obituaries for these women often claim they “came to England to lose their accent”. But they actually had little accent to lose.
    Audio from copy of the film in the author’s collection. The film is available through Loving the Classics. Photo – Lux Soap Famous Film Stars card, c1933-4. Author’s Collection


  • Shirley Ann Richards (1917-2006) from Sydney as an Australian nurse in Dr Gillespie’s New Assistant (US: 1942), with US actor Richard Quine as an Australian doctor from Woolloomooloo (the Sydney suburb’s name is a source of great humour in the film).


    Richards
    Richards had a private school education at Ascham and The Garden School in Sydney and had the benefit of a mother who was an active member of the English Speaking Union. Later in life she also recalled the importance of the educated women who were close friends of the family. Although she is “laying it on with a trowel” in this clip, this is close to how she really spoke, even after 40 years in California. Audio from copy of film in the author’s collection. TCM currently have a collection of the Dr Gillespie films for sale. Photo – author’s collection.


4. Australian accents – tending more general

The decline of the cultivated Australian accent in the last 50 years is one marker of change in the way Australian English is spoken. At the same time, the general Australian accent seems to have appeared more often in the post war period. However, as the first example demonstrates, the general Australian accent was well and truly in established use before the Second World War.

  • Jocelyn Howarth (as Constance Worth) (1911-1963) from Sydney in the excruciatingly awful The Wages of Sin (US:1936) .


    Howarth on the way to Hollywood
    Here Howarth makes no attempt to disguise her accent, which sounds bizarre alongside the broad American accents of her “family members,” who are lazy and won’t get little Tommy his milk. Audio from copy in the author’s collection. This film is still available from specialist DVD outlets. Photo of Jocelyn Howarth on her way to the US, 13 April 1936. Honolulu Star, via Newspapers.com.


  • Joy Nichols (1925-1992) from Sydney in a Rinso soap commercial made with Bill Kerr (1922-2014), for release in cinemas in 1946.

    Nichols, a butcher’s daughter from inner Sydney, began her long radio and stage career in Australia in wartime. This brought her in close contact with other well known Australian performers, and visiting Americans (she was even briefly married to one). 
    Joy Nichols Turf

Nichols was a skilled singer, comedian and radio performer. Here she is again with fellow Australian Dick Bentley (1907-1995) and Briton Jimmy Edwards at the British Daily Mail radio awards in 1950 – representing the popular radio show Take It From Here. (Click to follow link to youtube – from 5:30)
Photo – Turf cigarette collectable card, c 1950. Author’s collection.


  • Patti Morgan (1928-2001) from Sydney in Booby Trap (UK: 1957). In one of her few film roles, Patti Morgan’s voice seems firmly from Sydney.  

Patti Morgan Cover of Pix 1945

Patti Morgan appeared in only a few British films, but continued her modelling and TV career with success. Audio from copy of film in author’s collection. The film is still available from Loving the Classics and Renown pictures. Photo of Patti on the cover of Pix, 6 Oct, 1945. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.


5. Some other Australians speak

Further Reading on Australian accents

Nick Murphy
December 2020

Little Dulcie Cooper & her dad go to America

Dulcie Cooper (1903-1981), Ashley Cooper (1880-1952)

Above: Dulcie Cooper, “aged eight, in the part of Eva, St. Clair’s daughter in Uncle Tom’s’ Cabin at the Empress Theater, Vancouver, December 1912″. Enlarged from a public domain photo in the collections of the City of Vancouver Archives (Link to original photo).

The 5 second version
Dulcie Cooper was born Dulcie Mary Robinson in Sydney Australia on 3 Nov 1903. Active on the North American stage for over 50 years, she first appeared in Vancouver in 1910 with her parents Ashley and Emily. She appeared in films in the early 1920s but it was the New York stage where she was best known. She appeared in a handful of Hollywood films in the early 1920s, and one sound film. She died in New York on 3 Sept 1981.
Her father Ashley Cooper was born Cecil Augustus Robinson in Sydney Australia on 16 June 1880. A draftsman with an interest in acting, he arrived with his wife Emily and daughter Dulcie in the US in 1905. He later adopted Ashley Cooper as a name. He was appearing on the US and Canadian stage by 1910 and later in some Hollywood films. Ashley Cooper relocated to New York in 1925 and he became a regular Broadway performer and stage manager. He died in New York on 3 Jan 1952.

Was Dulcie Cooper really an Australian, as was often claimed? At first glance it seems not, as there is no record of anyone matching her name or profile being born in New South Wales at the time. And later in life, Dulcie confused her story by suggesting a birth in 1907, in San Francisco. But the answer is simple – she was born in Australia under another name. All the same, describing her as “Australian” in any way seems misleading, particularly when we consider that she left Sydney forever in 1905, at the age of only 2.

Ashley Cooper NYPL2 Dulcie NYPL

Undated photos of father and daughter, probably taken in the late 1920s. Left – Ashley Cooper, born Cecil Augustus Robinson in Australia. Right – Dulcie Cooper, born Dulcie Mary Robinson. Both photos from the Billy Rose Theater Division, The New York Public Library Digital Collections. (Click name to link to the original photos)

Dulcie Cooper was born Dulcie Mary Robinson in Woollahra, Sydney, to Cecil Augustus Robinson and Emily nee Curr, on 3 November 1903. Cecil was the son of Australian businessman and well known map publisher Herbert Edward Cooper Robinson. We know Cecil took an interest in theatre, as he is listed as a player for Ada Hatchwell‘s Hasluck Dramatic Club in 1901. However, on Dulcie’s birth certificate Cecil listed his profession as draftsman for Sydney’s Gas Company, a “sensible” career that, perhaps, his father had encouraged him to pursue rather than the stage.

Above – part of Dulcie Robinson’s NSW birth certificate. Via NSW BDM
Columns 2 – date and place, 3 – child’s name, 4 – child’s gender, 5 – Fathers name, profession, age and place of birth, 6 – marriage details, 7 – mother’s maiden name, age and place of birth.

In 1905 the young family decided to pack up and move to North America. Precisely what the circumstances of such a dramatic move were, we no longer know. Even today such a move would require sound financial resources and a degree of determination. Cecil, now borrowing his father’s name and calling himself Herbert Robinson, travelled first, arriving in San Francisco on the SS Ventura on 20 June 1905 – his profession still recorded on the ship’s manifest as draftsman. Emily Robinson and little Dulcie arrived a few months later.

We can partly reconstruct the family’s pathway onto the North American stage from existing records.

The Oregon Daily Journal. 20 October 1908, P14. Via Newspapers.com

Sometime in 1908 or 1909, Herbert and Emily saw an advertisement like this, or perhaps this very one. Theater reviews show they were members of the George W. Lowe touring company at about this time. Now calling himself Ashley Cooper, the 1910 US census shows him with Emily and Dulcie and the dozen or so members of Lowe’s company together in the small town of Dayton, Washington, on tour. Other up and coming actors like Bert Hadley were also travelling with their families. But life performing “on the road” was probably hard for young families and in late 1910, the Cooper family settled down in Vancouver, British Columbia. Ashley and Emily joined Walter Sanford‘s stock company based at the Vancouver Empress Theater performing popular favourites like Get Rich Quick Wallingford.

While it is a guess by this writer, it seems likely the couple owed this lucky break to the influence or reputation of Australian players from the old Pollard Lilliputian Opera Company, who were appearing for Sanford at the same time – including Teddy McNamara, Jack Pollard and Willie Pollard. These Australian-born players had stayed on in Vancouver after a Pollard tour wrapped in April 1909.

In December 1910, 7 year old Dulcie Cooper appeared on stage at the Empress Theater for the first time, as the child Jeannie, in the domestic comedy-drama The Little Church around the Corner. It was a great success and over the next two years her performances were increasingly well received. In August 1911, the Vancouver Daily World enthused “… Dulcie is a born actress and… somebody must have devoted a tremendous amount of loving care and time to her training.” At the age of 10, Dulcie took the lead role in a stage version of Oliver Twist, in May 1913. The City of Vancouver Archives photo at left dates from her success at Vancouver’s Empress Theater in the part of Eva, in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, six months earlier.


In mid 1913 the family left Vancouver for the US west coast again. The “Ashley Cooper Players” (comprising all three members of the family) then appeared in Los Angeles and subsequently on tour in the Western states of the US, their “playlet” or sketch – The Newsboy’s Debt, reportedly written by Emily (using the stage name Emily Curr), with Dulcie in the lead. Dulcie was “the real life of the sketch” according to The Vancouver Sun. It allowed her “ample chance to show her ability in character work and the touching scene at the final fall of the curtain finds many eyes in the house tear dimmed.” After some prominent publicity about Dulcie being “America’s youngest player,” she suddenly disappeared from all advertising – although the play continued to tour on and off until 1917.

As in Australia and on the US East coast, the age children could appear on the stage was increasingly regulated by education and civic authorities. Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company had discovered this ten years before, when they were forced to abandon plans to tour the US east coast because of the influence of New York’s Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

Above: Typical theater fare of the time. “Moving pictures” and vaudeville acts mixed in on the same program. Santa Ana Register. 30 October 1913. Via newspapers.com

In 1921 and by now aged 18, Dulcie appeared in half a dozen films, several with popular actress Clara Kimball Young. Young was struggling financially at this time, and appears not to have enjoyed making these films. Perhaps Dulcie didn’t either, as she soon abandoned film work for the stage again. In later years she seems to have been inclined to dismiss her outings in film, she was “at the awkward age” or “never felt at home in the movies” she variously explained. There was, again, familiar misleading publicity about Dulcie being “America’s youngest performer.” She was petite, and with her cherub like face she looked younger than her years, so it was believable.

Ashley Cooper also had some brief experiences in film in the early 1920s in supporting character roles – unfortunately most of these early films appear to be lost and details are confused. The Turner Classic Movie database provides the most accurate list – showing six credits for Ashley, while the IMDB lists only three. Norman Dawn‘s Son of the Wolf (1922) is one well documented example of a film that should be credited to Ashley Cooper rather than British actor Edward Cooper.

Ashley also continued on the stage in the mid 1920s, usually in vaudeville, while Emily Curr appears to have retired.

Ashley in PArtners of the Tide 1921  Dulcie Camera mag

Above: Ashley Cooper in Partners of the Tide (1921) Moving Picture World – Jan-Feb 1921. Right 20 year old Dulcie Cooper in 1923. Camera! April 1923-1924, Via Lantern Digital Media Project.

A glance at Dulcie’s stage work in Los Angeles at this time highlights just how intense a career on the stage was. In 1924-25 she appeared in a constantly changing, back-to-back program of light comedies and farces at the Majestic Theater, usually with Edward Everett Horton. These included The First Year (October 1924), The Darlings (December 1924), Just Married (January 1925), Outward Bound (February 1925), Cuckoo Pleases (March 1925), The Alarm Clock (March 1925) and Beggar on Horseback (April 1925). In May 1925 Dulcie left the company to have a well earned rest and to visit her parents in New York. Horton, who had made Beggar on Horseback as a film while also performing it on stage, also left at this time.

dulcie-la-times-1925 Horton and Cooper 1925

Above. Left: Dulcie in Just Married at Los Angeles’ Majestic Theater in early 1925. The Los Angeles Times, 18 Jan 1925, P131. Right: Edward Horton and Dulcie in Beggar on Horseback. The Los Angeles Times, 29 April 1925, P51. Via Newspapers.com

The reviews of these comedies were generally enthusiastic. “Clean wholesome entertainment” reported The Los Angeles Times on 23 November 1924. The paper went on to praise Dulcie’s “excellent acting and charming winsomness.” Barbara Cohen-Stratyner points out that Grace Kingsley, a journalist at the Times was an enthusiastic supporter of Dulcie. Even before Hollywood’s golden years, this support could make all the difference to a young actor’s career. Eight years later, the same journalist at the Times was announcing that Dulcie was about to sign a film contract at Paramount or MGM. She did appear in one sound film that survives, The Face on the Barroom Floor (1932) but no contract was signed.

In February 1925, Dulcie married Stafford Cherry Campbell, the stage manager at the Majestic Theater. For reasons now unknown, but perhaps just following a family tradition of changing names when it suited, Dulcie used the name Mary Robinson when she married. Within a few years the couple had divorced, Dulcie claiming, amongst other things, that Campbell ridiculed her when they rehearsed together.

At about this time, Ashley and Emily Cooper moved across to the US east coast. They owed this to Ashley’s part in the musical Topsy and Eva, which starred popular vaudeville players Rosetta and Vivian Duncan. A retelling of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Ashley had a supporting role when it opened in December 1923 at the Majestic Theatre and was still in this role when it finally opened at the Sam H. Harris Theatre in New York a year later. Ashley and Emily settled in New York and he went on to develop his reputation as a reliable character actor, and sometimes a Stage Manager. He appeared in a string of plays on Broadway and in US east coast cities, including the drama Tobacco Road, a story of rural poverty in Georgia, where he played Henry Peabody as well as being stage manager for at least part of its run. It was not well received at first, the play being described by The Brooklyn Daily Eagle as “a picture of squalor… too realistic to be palatable.” However, it went on to a very long run and he was involved with it for at least the six years 1933-1939. He continued to be active on stage until well into the 1940s.

Ashley Cooper finally applied for US citizenship in 1941, having lived and worked in the US for more than 35 years. On these documents his various changes of name were revealed.

Above: Dulcie Cooper at the start of her New York career, in The Little Spitfire at the Cort Theater. Daily News (New York) · 26 Dec 1926, Page 154, via Newspapers.com

Dulcie’s 1926 breakthrough role on Broadway, as Gypsy the feisty chorus girl, in the comedy The Little Spitfire, was not easily won. As Barbara Cohen-Stratyner points out, she was the fourth and final choice for the role. But she made it a success. After its run in New York, she reprised the role for a season at the Hollywood Playhouse. The Los Angeles Times welcomed her back with generous coverage. She was in New York again in 1928, to take a leading role in Courage at the Ritz, now well and truly established as a leading player. She was active on stage into the early 1960s, her roles increasingly character parts and she also appeared occasionally on television. In July 1961, The Columbus Dispatch described her performance as the fortune teller in Blythe Spirit as a “scene stealer,” although she was performing alongside film star Zsa Zsa Gabor. Gabor took Dulcie’s hand for the curtain call, an acknowledgement of Dulcie’s skill and reputation.


Above: The Los Angeles Evening Post-Record advertises The Little Spitfire, 24 May 1927, P4. Via Newspapers.com

As previously noted, some of the commentary provided by Dulcie herself in later years only served to confuse her story, although this was not an uncommon phenomenon amongst actors of the era. Was she really in the 1934 film Men in White with Clark Gable and Myrna Loy? Dulcie also suggested she had appeared as a child star with Charles Ray in the 1910s and with Tom Mix in the early 1920s. These claims are difficult to verify and given her known movements, seem unlikely.

Above: Dulcie Cooper still performing in 1957. The Wilmington Morning News,·(Wilmington, Delaware), 20 Jul 1957, P17. Via Newspapers.com.

Dulcie’s voice
Dulcie speaks with a nice trans-Atlantic accent here in The Face on the Barroom Floor (1932). The product of close association and performing with her parents? Perhaps elocution lessons? Another example of an acquired accent?

Source; Bill Sprague Collection – Internet Archive. This is a pre-Hollywood code film about the dangers of alcohol. The author thinks Dulcie is quite successful in this, her last film role.

Dulcie remarried in 1932. Her second husband was Elmer H Brown, an actor and director ten years her senior. Two sons were born of the union. She died in New York in 1981. Ashley Cooper kept working on stage for most of his life. He died in January 1952. Emily Curr died in New York in December 1944.



Nick Murphy
November 2020



Note 1
Cecil’s much younger sister Eileen Robinson (1896-1955) also acted, working in Australia, England and in the US. She was married to US writer, stage and screen actor Alan Brooks (born Irving Hayward) until his death in 1936.

Note 2
An Australian dancer and beauty contest winner named Dulcie Cooper was a contemporary of this Dulcie. The song “Hello Miss Aussie, What are you doing now?” by Alfred Jarvis is about Dulcie Cooper the Australian dancer.

Special Thanks
Again to Jean Ritsema in the USA, who again assisted finding sources in the US.




Further Reading

  • Original US archival documents sourced from
  • Text
    • Hal Porter. Stars of Australian Stage and Screen (1965) Rigby
  • National Library of Australia’s Trove
    • The Daily Telegraph (Syd) 23 Nov, 1901, P2
    • The Sydney Mail & NSW Advertiser. 1 March 1902, P559
    • Everyones.Vol.6 No.367 (16 March 1927) P15
    • The Sydney Morning Herald, 18 Jan 1933, P12
    • The Australian Women’s Weekly, 29 Jul 1944 P 12
  • Newspapers.com
    • Enterprise News Record (Oregon) 23 July 1910, P3
    • Vancouver Daily World, 8 Aug 1911, P10
    • The Vancouver Sun, 8 July 1913, P5
    • The Paducah Sun-Democrat (Paducah, Kentucky), 6 Sep 1915, P 8
    • The Los Angeles Times, 3 Aug, 1921. P36
    • The Los Angeles Times, 6 Nov 1924· P 25
    • The Los Angeles Times, 23 Nov 1924, P69
    • The Los Angeles Times, 28 Dec 1924, P52
    • Los Angeles Evening Post, 14 Mar 1925, P10
    • The Los Angeles Times, 29 Apr 1925, P51
    • The Los Angeles Times, 22 May 1925, P25
    • Daily News (New York) · 26 Dec 1926, P154
    • The Los Angeles Times, 15 May 1927, P56
    • The Los Angeles Times, 24 May 1927, P35
    • Los Angeles Evening Post-Record, 15 Jul 1930, P16
    • The Los Angeles Times, 24 May 1932, P7
    • The Brooklyn Daily Eagle 5 Dec 1933 P 24
    • The Daily News (New York) 5 Jan 1952, P23
    • The Wilmington Morning News,·(Wilmington, Delaware), 20 Jul 1957, P17

Nancy O’Neil (1907-1995)

“Am I Irish? Well, with a name like mine I suppose I ought to be. But I’m a true-blue Australian really, for I was born in Australia and so were my parents.” (Journalist Leslie Rees – January 1934. See Note 1)


The five second version
Born in 1907 as Nancy Muriel Smith, she was another member of the great wave of enthusiastic young Australian women who arrived in London between the wars determined to pursue an acting career. She studied at RADA and built a successful career on the West End and in British films in the 1930s. She then returned to supporting roles in film later in life. Her younger sisters Barbara Smith (born 1911) and Lorraine Smith (born 1915) also pursued acting careers in the UK and Australia. Nancy died in England in 1995.

Nancy Muriel Smith had good reason to choose a different name for stage use – not only was the surname “Smith” not all that memorable for an aspiring actor, but she almost certainly wanted to establish credentials of her own. This was particularly so given who her family were. Her father was noted Sydney physician Stewart Arthur Smith (1880-1961), her uncle was Professor of Anatomy and anthropologist Grafton Elliot Smith (1871-1937) while her third uncle, Stephen Henry Smith (1865-1943), was the Director of Education in New South Wales. They were a formidable trio – and regularly attracted public attention as part of their work – Grafton was knighted in 1934, about the time Nancy was making herself known in Britain. Nancy’s mother, Muriel nee Pitt was a wealthy wool broker’s daughter. It was Muriel particularly who was to be the forceful advocate for Nancy’s interest in the stage, and that of her two younger sisters – Barbara and Lorraine.

Born in Sydney on 25 August 1907, Nancy attended Sydney Church of England Girls’ Grammar School from 1921-1925. She may have appeared in some amateur theatre in Sydney, but it seems her eyes were firmly on gaining overseas training and experience – and a trip to Britain and North America with her parents in 1927 probably encouraged her interest in acting. In October 1928 she returned to England with Muriel to study at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. Extended study at RADA was unusual for Australians in the midst of the Depression, but the family’s resources made a difference. However, Nancy’s pathway to success on the very competitive London stage was as challenging for her as it was for most young Australians – it took five years of hard work before she gained public recognition in early 1934.

Above: 15 year old Nancy Smith at Sydney Church of England Girls Grammar School in 1922, sitting front row, third from the right. In her final year (1925) Nancy was captain of the “A” Tennis Team and a Probationary Prefect. Photograph from the Doreen Higgins collection, used with kind permission of SCEGGS Darlinghurst.

Nancy’s name first appeared in reviews when Somerset Maugham’s The Breadwinner toured English provinces in mid 1931, under the management of theatre impresario Barry O’Brien. It was not uncommon for young actors to understudy roles in London and then take the lead when the play went on tour. This also appears to have been Nancy’s experience – the play had opened in London in September 1930. She also understudied for Winifred Shotter in Ben Travers‘ farce, Turkey Time at the Aldwych Theatre in 1931. And then, only a few months later, the society pages of Australian newspapers announced Nancy’s engagement to Cyril Kleinwort, one of the sons of English merchant banker Sir Alexander Kleinwort. She had met Kleinwort in 1927, whilst crossing the Atlantic with her parents on their way home to Australia. However, Nancy returned to Australia in February 1932, apparently needing to recover from an unspecified illness, or perhaps to escape the engagement. Either way, the romance seems to have petered out. Kleinwort was not mentioned again.

Above: Nancy in Harrison Owen’s Dr Pygmalion with Margaret Rawlings. The Australasian, 3 Sept 1932, via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.

While at home in 1932, she finally appeared professionally in a leading role on the Australian stage – in The Kingdom of God in Sydney, followed by Dr Pygmalion – where she performed with touring British actress Margaret Rawlings in Melbourne. The reviews were very positive and working with Rawlings invaluable – “spade work for the future” she once described such experiences.

In London again in early 1933, she was cast in her first film – Jack Ahoy with comedian Jack Hulbert, for Gainsborough Pictures. Hulbert approved her casting personally, according to journalist Leslie Rees. The film was popular and she was singled out for praise in her ingénue role as the Admiral’s daughter. It was a great breakthrough. Soon after, she was cast in her first lead in a West End play – Man Proposes. It ran at Wyndham’s Theatre for only two weeks in late 1933, but these successes were enough to ensure she was well and truly established. At last, reviewers were seeing beyond her appearance – her petite size (she was 5 feet or 152 cms tall), her “dimpled cheeks and glossy black hair.”

 Jack Ahoy AWW 1934 Nancy on a Lux soap card 1933-4

Left: Nancy and Jack Hulbert in Jack Ahoy (1934) The Australian Women’s Weekly, 30 June, 1934, via the National Library of Australia’s Trove. Right: Nancy on a Lux Soap Famous Film Stars card, c1933-4. Author’s Collection.

Above: This grainy image shows most of the Smith family together in London’s Hyde Park. Nancy O’Neil, Muriel, Stewart and Lorraine Smith. Lorraine had recently arrived to pursue an acting career, following two films in Australia. (See below) The Daily News (WA) 30 Oct 1935. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Not everything she tried was as successful as Jack Ahoy of course. The Secret of the Loch, also made in 1934, concerned what The Bystander called “the Loch Ness problem.” (The problem being the monster – at that time the subject of some publicity). Even for the time, it must have been seen as a silly film. However, watching some of Nancy’s other films today we can see why she was a popular young star. There was a vibrancy to her performances and she was very much at ease before the camera. And she was versatile enough to appear in light comedy, musicals and thrillers. The musical comedy Brewster’s Millions, made in 1935, where Nancy played the ingénue for Jack Buchanan‘s character, was another success.

Above: Ian Hunter (left) and Nancy O’Neil (right) in Michael Powell’s entertaining “quota quickie” comedy Something Always Happens (1934) Screengrab from copy in the author’s collection.

Above – Nancy’s voice from the scene shown above. If she ever had vestiges of a colonial accent, her years in England, including two years at RADA, resulted in a voice identical to that of every other young Australian then working in Britain – and indistinguishable from everyone else. 

Above: Nancy O’Neil in the thriller Headline (1943). Although she is holding the gun she is about to get shot! Screengrab from copy in the author’s collection.

Nancy made at least 18 films in the 1930s, but for a time, the stage remained her priority. Soon after the success of Jack Ahoy she took the role of Blanche in Vintage Wine at Daly’s Theatre, for most of its May to December 1934 run. She then appeared in Someone at the Door at the Comedy Theatre, another play that enjoyed a long run and good reviews.

In early 1938 Nancy quietly married someone completely unconnected with stage and screen – Dermot Trench, a chartered accountant. The press missed the event, or were not informed. A son was born of the union in 1941 and a daughter in 1944. Nancy continued to appear in supporting roles on the stage again in the 1940s and early 1950s, and occasionally returned to film. For example, she appeared as the Town Clerk’s wife in Charles Crichton‘s highly regarded comedy about eccentric small town English life, The Titfield Thunderbolt, made in 1953.

Nancy died in London aged 88, on 5 March 1995. Denis Gifford’s 1995 obituary for Nancy in The Observer describes her British films as “cheap and cheerful,” and these may indeed be her surviving legacy, as they were for other Australians of the era – Lucille Lisle and Judy Kelly.  


Lorraine & Barbara’s careers

Lorraine  barbara-smith-1935-

Above left: John D’Arcy and Lorraine Smith in Strike Me Lucky. “Everyone’s” 19 Sept 1934, (Vol.14 No.760). Right: Barbara Smith. “The Bulletin”, 20 Nov 1935, (Vol. 56 No. 2910). Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Lorraine Smith appeared on stage in Australia and in two local films – Harry Southwell’s When the Kelly’s Rode (1934) and Ken Hall’s Strike Me Lucky (1934). And a year later, as Lorraine Grey, she appeared in just one British film, Sexton Blake and the Mademoiselle (1935). Publicity of the time suggested a much more fulsome career, but following this she apparently gave up acting. (The IMDB currently confuses Lorraine Smith’s career with several others).

Like Nancy, Barbara Smith also attended RADA, and appeared on repertory company tours in England. She found a career on radio and the stage in Australia and was active performing in Australia to the mid 1960s. This writer is unable to verify the claim she appeared in British films. She married Australian actor Lloyd Lamble in 1945, but the couple divorced soon after.


Note 1
West Australian novelist and journalist Leslie Rees enthusiastically documented the successes of Australian actresses in London in the 1930s, where he also reviewed drama for “The Era”. See also his article “Antipo-deities: How Australian Girls have captured British Stage and Screen” in “The Era”, April 4, 1934.

Note 2
US actor Nance O’Neil (1874 – 1965) apparently pronounced her first name as “Nancy,” hence there has sometimes been confusion between the two women.


Nick Murphy
November 2020


Further Reading

Thanks:

  • Prue Heath, Archivist, SCEGGS Darlinghurst.

Text:

  • Ross Pike and Andrew Cooper (1980) Australian Film 1900-1977. Oxford University Press.
  • Michael Powell (1987) A Life in Movies. Alfred A Knopf
  • J. P. Wearing (2014) The London Stage 1930-1939: A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel. Rowman and Littlefield
  • Angela Woollacott, (2001). To try her fortune in London. Australian women, Colonialism and Modernity. Oxford University Press

Web:

  • National Library of Australia’s Trove
    • Evening News (NSW) 29 Nov 1927, P14
    • The Sun (NSW) 7 Oct 1928, P4
    • The Australasian 17 October 1931 P11
    • The Herald (Vic) 29 Feb 1932 P14
    • The Sun (NSW) 3 Mar 1932, P25
    • The Herald (Vic) 16 Aug 1932, P14
    • The Herald (Vic) 22 Aug 1932, P10
    • The Australasian 3 Sept 1932
    • The Truth (NSW) 17 Dec 1933 P21
    • Western Mail (WA), 18 Jan 1934 P29
    • Everyone’s 24 Jan 1934 P11
    • The Herald (Vic) 19 April 1934, P30
    • The Sun (NSW) 29 April 1934, P11
    • The Sydney Morning Herald 24 May 1934
    • News (SA) 17 July 1934, P6
    • Labor Daily (NSW) 2 Aug 1934 P 10
    • The Sun, (NSW) 28 Oct 1935, P1
    • Advertiser (SA) 30 Oct 1935, P12
    • Mirror (WA), 30 Nov 1935, P 20
    • The Bulletin Vol. 56 No. 2910 (20 Nov 1935)
    • The Sun (NSW) 1 Dec 1935., P 26
    • Australian Women’s Weekly 8 May 1937 P54
    • Daily Telegraph (NSW), 25 May 1938, page 9
    • Barrier Miner (NSW) 25 Jan 1947, P3
  • British Library Newspaper Archive
    • The Stage 27 Aug 1931, P18
    • The Sketch 28 Feb 1932, P384
    • The Era 6 Dec 1933, P6
    • The Era 6 April 1934, P3
    • The Bystander 8 May 1934, P 256
    • The Daily Mail 28 May, 1934 P26

Lucille Lisle (1908 – 2004)

Above: 11 year old Lucille Hunter Jonas advertising Rexona soap in Australia’s national magazine, The Bulletin, 11 Sept 1919. She was already well established on the stage. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove

The five second version
Lucille Lisle was born Lucille Hunter Jonas in Melbourne, Australia on 16 May 1908. She first appeared on stage in Australia at the age of about 11. From 1930-32 she performed on Broadway and in 1932 moved to Britain. She appeared in two Australian and about ten British films, but the stage remained her preference and the West End was where she experienced her greatest successes. She worked in radio in the 1940s before retiring. She died in Kent, England on 23 September 2004.

Lucille Lisle in 1938, at the height of her British stage and screen career. The Age (Melbourne) 16 July 1938. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove..

The oft repeated story that 21 year old Australian actress Lucille Lisle had to abandon ship at night and then help bail out a leaky lifeboat was actually true. It is one of those rare occasions when an entertaining story about an actor has a solid basis in fact. Lucille was one of 18 performers in Wyrley Birch‘s American Comedy Company, travelling on the 4500 ton ship Manuka en-route from Melbourne to Dunedin, New Zealand. In thick fog on the night of 16 December 1929, the ship ran into a reef near Long Point, and became a total wreck. All 250 passengers and crew were saved but their personal belongings and the cargo, (including the company’s scenery and costumes) were lost. But new scenery was rushed to New Zealand from Sydney, and in the best antipodean tradition, the people of Dunedin donated clothes. The show must go on.

She was born Lucille Hunter Jonas in Richmond, a suburb of Melbourne, Australia on 16 May, 1908, the only child of David Henry Jonas and Caroline nee Hunter. From an early age, the family lived in Sydney where her father was a company manager. Caroline, or Cissie Hunter, was an actor herself, well known from her time touring in the 1900s with the John F Sheridan company. Lucille attended Sydney’s Sacred Heart Convent, Kincoppal, although for how long seems unclear. From a very early age, she was also appearing on the stage, with the consistent encouragement and support of her mother Caroline. For at least some time in the early 1920s Lucille was also a pupil of Miss Mary MacNichol, a Sydney elocutionist and drama teacher. At the same time she was appearing in pantomimes and charity events, in company with the likes of Ena Gregory and Esma Cannon.

“Give your children Heenzo” Lucille’s mother was responsible for her appearance in this advertisment for a cold and flu preparation, and she also provided a testimonial. Sunday Times (Sydney) 9 May 1920. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

In 1924 Lucille, now using the stage name Lucille Lisle, was lucky enough to be cast by filmmaker Beaumont Smith for a part in Hullo Marmaduke, a (now lost) “funny pommy in Australia” film, starring established English comedian Claude Dampier. She was also in a role in F. Stuart-Whyte‘s Painted Daughters, a sophisticated and successful film described by Ross Pike and Andrew Cooper as “a romantic melodrama about high society and the flapper generation” – segments of this film still exist. Aged only 16, Lucille Lisle was developing an impressive acting career.

Above: Lucille (left) as a Tivoli chorus girl. Table Talk. 5 November 1925. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Although there were no more films for her in Australia, for the next five years Lucille was never out of stage work and her public profile in Australia steadily rose. Her second lead role in J.C. Williamson’s pantomime Aladdin was followed by a supporting role in the popular new American farce Cradle Snatchers. She also earned praise for having taken on a role in the play Old English with very little notice, in October 1926. Enthusiastic Australian journalists called her “Australia’s Mary Pickford,” although the same description was regularly applied to other young women, including Mary Maguire. She was in enough demand to gain work alongside a wide variety of actors, including contemporary song and dance man Fred Conyngham and visiting US actor Noel (Nat) Madison. Ten years later she would appear in the British film The Melody Maker with Fred.

At the same time, as Theatre historian Frank Van Straten notes, the arrival of talkies in Australia in Christmas 1928 had a dramatic impact on live theatre – it would never be the same again. So Lucille’s place with the popular Wyrley Birch company, touring Australia and New Zealand (with a repertoire of new plays) in early 1929 was probably her own response to the uncertainty of working in theatre in the Great Depression. But then, in May 1930, despite the trauma of the adventure on the Manuka, Lucille and her mother departed for the US on the SS Sonoma.

Lucille Lisle in 1927, while appearing in Cradle Snatchers. From Table Talk, 22 Sept, 1927. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

After visiting Noel Madison in Hollywood, Lucille and Caroline headed for New York, posting updates home along the way, for the benefit of Australian newspapers. With extraordinary good fortune, she quickly gained a role in Stepdaughters of War and she was then continuously performing on the US east coast. In early 1931 she joined G.P. Huntley Junior and Jane Cowl in the comedy Art and Mrs Bottle, for a tour of the US and Canadian east coast cities. She wrote to the Sydney Sun newspaper that she loved New York, although it was expensive. And she also cautioned interested Australian girls – they should always have “lots of money, and your fare back home, paid in advance.” But money was something Lucille and her mother didn’t seem to have to worry about, because in July 1932 she packed up and moved on to London and again, quickly found work.

It was not uncommon for Australian newspapers of the 1930s to provide readers with long lists of Australian actors now working successfully in Britain and Lucille was soon prominent amongst these. The lists were not always very accurate – as they regularly included New Zealanders, or others who had really only spent a short part of their life in Australia, or in the case of Merle Oberon, none of their life at all. It made for great reading all the same, and in an era of emerging Australian national icons (think racehorse Phar Lap and cricketer Don Bradman), these success stories resonated with audiences. And there is evidence that at least a few actors – like Judy Kelly and John Wood – felt some sense of being an Australian rather than simply a member of the greater British Empire. But much of the film work listed for this group was in underwhelming “quota films” – and this was also to be Lucille’s first acting experience in Britain.

Above; Lucille Lisle. The Australian Women’s Weekly, 4 June, 1938. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Quota films or “quota quickies” were a result of the 1927 Cinematograph Film Act – designed to protect the British film industry by forcing the big, mostly US owned distribution companies to subsidise the production of British films. Interviewed by Brian McFarlane years later, British filmmaker Freddie Francis insisted quota films were shown to the cinema cleaners in the mornings, thus easily and cynically fulfilling the legal obligations of the quota! Cheaply and quickly made, most ended up as “second” or supporting features or B films, although there is now a body of literature reappraising the era of quota films.

Lucille’s role in Fox’s After Dark, directed by Al Parker, was announced only 6 weeks after her arrival in Britain. Like so many of these films, it was adapted from a play, but at only 45 minutes in length, it did not sustain a coherent or memorable plot. It concerned a jewel theft followed by a denouement in a (very restrained) un-spooky house. Contemporary British film reviews tended to praise all local film content, but in far off Australia, the Sydney Morning Herald felt it could truthfully critique Expert’s Opinion, Lucille’s second British quota film. It was dismissed as “a quickie of very ordinary pretensions… The direction is indifferent and [the] actors…do not impress on the screen. Australian Lucille Lisle is equally uninteresting.”

There could not have been a starker contrast between the few films she appeared in and her stage work. Although she was never interviewed about her work, it is likely that Lucille realised her career would not be made in quota films. By the end of 1932 she was understudying the role of Stella Hallam in Rose Franklin‘s play Another Language, “a first rate tragi-comedy” at the Lyric Theatre. She then played the role while it toured England. By May 1933 she had a leading role in Emlyn Williams‘ satire The Late Christopher Bean, which opened at St James’s Theatre in May. This role established her as a young actor of note and ability on the London stage. The cast also included Cedric Hardwicke, Barry K Barnes and Edith Evans. The show ran for 487 performances, a record for that theatre, with Spectator magazine praising it as “a brilliant comedy”.

Above: Lucille (right) with some of the leading players of The Late Christopher Bean. The Stage 18 May 1933. Copyright The Stage Media. Via The British Library Newspaper Archive.

As one would expect, there were hits and misses on stage too. In early 1935 she appeared at the Phoenix Theatre in A Knight in Vienna, a play about a young man’s romantic adventures in Vienna, written by an Australian, Archie N. Menzies. After one performance, it was banned by the Lord Chamberlain, for reasons we can only guess today. Ole George Comes to Tea saw three performances, Sexes and Sevens also only three performances (the Times newspaper described the latter as “feeble even in its own kind” ). There was an interesting variety of topical contexts in some of her plays – Juggernaut at the Aldwyth Theatre in early 1939 dealt with Jews living in contemporary Vienna. But popular comedies were clearly preferred by pre-war British audiences. Anthony and Anna ran for over 700 performances at the Whitehall Theatre and for much of it Lucille took the leading part of Anna.

Above: Lucille Lisle in 1935, at the time she was appearing in Anthony and Anna at the Whitehall Theatre. Program in the author’s collection.

In 1942, Lucille married an officer in the Royal Navy Reserve, Lieutenant Nicholas Harris, the youngest son of Sir Percy Harris, deputy leader of the British parliamentary Liberal Party. A son was born of the union in 1943. During the war years, Lucille’s performances were confined to radio drama, in adaptations of popular works like The Ghost and Mrs Muir. Her last performances were in the early 1950s and may have included some television, but this is difficult to verify as so much early TV was not recorded. She had, by this time, been performing for almost 35 years.

In later years Nicholas and Lucille lived in Kent. Nicholas Harris was an art collector with a particular interest in traditional Chinese paintings and Lucille seems to have shared these interests. She never returned to Australia – both her parents having relocated to England to be near her. She died in Kent in 2004.

Not all Australians who tried their luck in 1930s Britain stayed on. Lucille’s contemporaries, Fred Conyngham and Molly Fisher, returned to Sydney, Australia in early 1948 and pursued non-theatrical interests. Fred became a quality-control inspector.


Nick Murphy
24 October 2020


Further Reading

Web

Text

  • Ray Edmondson and Andrew Pike (1982) Australia’s Lost Films. National Library of Australia.
  • Brian McFarlane (1997) An Autobiography of British Cinema. Methuen
  • Robert Murphy (Ed)(2009) The British Cinema Book. 3rd Edition. BFI/Palgrave Macmillian
  • Ross Pike and Andrew Cooper (1980) Australian Film 1900-1977. Oxford University Press.
  • Matthew Sweet (2006) Shepperton Babylon. Faber and Faber
  • Frank Van Straten (2003) Tivoli. Thomas Lothian
  • J. P. Wearing (2014) The London Stage 1930-1939: A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel. Rowman and Littlefield.

National Library of Australia’s Trove

  • Sunday Times (Syd) 6 Mar 1904
  • The Australian Star (Syd) 17 June 1905
  • Townsville Daily Bulletin, 6 July 1907
  • The Bulletin, 11 Sept 1919, Vol 40, Issue 2065
  • Sunday Times (Syd) 5 October 1919
  • Everyone’s 28 Feb 1923, Vol 3 No 156
  • Table Talk, 5 Nov 1925
  • Table Talk, 12 Nov 1925
  • Table Talk, 4 Feb 1926
  • Table Talk, 22 Sept 1927
  • Sydney Mail, 5 Oct 1927
  • Advocate (Melb) 11 Oct 1928
  • Sun (Syd) 26 Mar, 1929
  • Truth (Bris) 22 Sept 1929
  • Daily News (Perth) 4 Nov 1929
  • Sun (Syd) 27 Dec 1929
  • Table Talk, 1 May 1930
  • The Sydney Morning Herald, 17 May 1930
  • Sun (Syd) 24 Aug, 1930
  • Sun (Syd) 12 Oct 1930
  • Sun (Syd) 28 Dec 1930
  • Smith’s Weekly 15 October 1932
  • The Herald (Melb) 27 Feb 1933
  • Examiner (Tas) 22 Sept. 1937
  • The Age (Melb), 16 Apr 1938
  • The Australian Women’s Weekly, 4 June 1938
  • The Sydney Morning Herald, 5 Sept 1938
  • The Daily News (Perth) 2 Nov 1938
  • Table Talk, 12 Jan, 1939
  • The Herald (Melb) 25 Mar 1942
  • The Sun (Syd) 27 June, 1942

Papers Past

  • Christchurch Cargo, 18 Dec 1929. Vol LXV, Issue 19805
  • Hawera Star, 6 Jan 1932, Vol LI
  • Nelson evening Mail, 5 Sept 1934, Vol LXVI,
  • Evening Post, 9 April 1943 Vol CXXXV, Issue 84
  • Hutt News, 28 May 1947, Vol 20, Issue 47

British Library Newspaper project

  • The Era, Wednesday 14 September 1932
  • The Stage, 18 May 1933
  • The Tatler, 31 May 1933.
  • Eastbourne Gazette, 3 Jan 1940
  • Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail, 2 Dec 1940
  • Eastbourne Gazette, 3 Jan 1940
  • Dundee Evening Telegraph, 28 Feb 1942
  • Dundee Evening Telegraph, 28 Feb 1942
  • The Tatler and Bystander, 1 April 1942
  • The Stage, 11 Jan 1951

Elsie Mackay (1893-1963) – The Pilbara, Lionel Atwill & Max

Main: A photo of Roebourne from the top of Mount Welcome, 11 June, 2019. Author Samwilson/photography, via Wikimedia Commons. The original is here. Shared under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license. Enlargement of Elsie Mackay: “A Fair Daughter of Australia.” Melbourne Punch Dec 17, 1914. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.

The five second version
Between 1913 and 1925 Elsie Mackay appeared on the London and US stages with great success. Born in remote Roebourne, Western Australia in 1893, she was the daughter of a wealthy pastoralist. She is most famous now for abandoning her marriage to Lionel Atwill in late 1925, a decision that seems to have side-tracked her career for good. She returned to Australia with her second husband in December 1933 and continued to perform on radio and the stage. She died in Hawthorn, Victoria Australia in 1963. She made one US film in 1920.

West Australian born Elsie Mackay was unusual for her time, in that she narrated a short and reasonably frank article to journalist Walter James regarding her life. It appeared in the literary magazine “Southerly“, in 1950, 16 years after her return to Australia. She was revealed as modest, witty, and unusually honest in recounting her professional successes. Hers was not a long acting career, but it was successful and she met and mixed with some of the theatre world’s best between 1913 and 1925.

Elsie Mackay posing uncomfortably in front of a ship’s crew. Enlarged from a photo in the Library of Congress Bain News Service collection. (She is mistakenly recorded as Elsa). Taken while Elsie was performing with Herbert Tree, c 1916.

A girl from Roebourne

Born in the town of Roebourne on the north-west coast of Western Australia on 20 February 1893, Elsie Gertrude Mackay was the oldest of three children born to Samuel Peter Mackay and Florence nee Taylor. Roebourne today is a town of about 1000, in the midst of what the casual observer might regard as unproductive dry scrub country, but it continues to be an area of great mineral wealth and is traditional home to the Ngarluma people. In the nineteenth century it was an important civic centre between Perth and Darwin, servicing the pearling and pastoral industries and the nearby goldfields. Elsie’s father Sam Mackay held the pastoral lease for a huge and remote area of land that was named Mundabullangana Station, about 100 kilometres from the town. Exactly how the Mackays amassed their fortune was alluded to in his 1923 obituary – he was an extremely wealthy land owner and keen race horse breeder by the time of his death. Australians would call him a Squatter.

Roebourne, c1909. The horse tram connected the town to the nearby port of Cossack. The Victoria Hotel building is still standing. State Library of Western Australia Image number 008282PD.

Elsie spent some of her infancy at the very solid but modest homestead at Mundabullangana, which she later fancifully described as “the backwoods” of North-west Australia. I really passed a very uneventful childhood… I must say that I was never kidnapped by bushrangers or anything of that sort” she told a journalist. (See Note 1 below)

She later attended the Queen’s School, a girl’s school in inner city Perth. It was run by a Miss Ethel Simpson and carried on in her two-story home in Mount Street, surrounded by large houses built for affluent families. Attended by only about 30 students, most of whom were borders, the school specialised in developing a girl’s passion for the arts, music and languages. Newspaper reports of prizes awarded show Elsie was particularly successful at French. The school closed in 1916 and most of the students were absorbed by PLC Perth, but young Elsie had left in 1908 – to attend a finishing school in Lausanne, Switzerland, run by Mademoiselle Reuy. The contrast between Switzerland and the red earth of the Pilbara region could not have been more dramatic.

This appears to be an early photo of Elsie, and was used in The Sun (Sydney), 5 June 1921 to celebrate her ongoing success in the US. Via the National Library of Australia.

While Elsie was studying in Europe, Sam and Florence moved to Victoria, where their son Keith was attending Melbourne Grammar school. They had several properties in Victoria – they built a large home in Berwick, east of Melbourne (while also maintaining a home in central Melbourne’s St Kilda) but kept significant property interests in Western Australia. However the comfort brought by their considerable wealth and social position did not avoid a collapse in their marriage. Elsie recalled that her parents quarrelled constantly. In 1910 they finally divorced acrimoniously and very publicly. Only a few months later, Sam Mackay married British actress “Fanny Dango,” and honeymooning in Europe, they collected Elsie to join them.

Elsie Mackay’s step-mother Fanny Dango in Table Talk, 16 Sept 1909. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove

An English stage career.

After a short sojourn back in Australia, Elsie arrived in England on the SS Morea in late 1912, ready to start her career – her dream had always been to act. Her entree to the British stage was at least partly due to the good connections of her step-mother. Fanny Dango was really one of five Rudge sisters who had all gone on the stage – their equally colourful stage names being Letty Lind, Millie Hylton, Adelaide Astor and Lydia Flopp. In addition, Adelaide, (real name Elizabeth Rudge), was married to actor – manager George Grossmith Junior, another important connection into the London theatre world. Fanny was, Elsie recalled, a kind step mother, who helped overcome her father’s objections to a life on the stage.

Elsie’s first stage experiences were in The Girl on the Film at the Gaiety Theatre in 1913 – when she had just two words to say, followed by two lines in After the Girl. Her breakthrough role came in 1914, when she understudied Mrs Patrick Campbell as Eliza, in Pygmalion, opposite Sir Herbert Tree as Henry Higgins. The play was well received in London and Elsie’s work heralded as a success whenever Mrs Campbell was indisposed. Elsie said that she had to audition for the part in front of George Bernard Shaw himself, and Tree. She “was rather nervous” she admitted – which was hardly surprising – these two were leading figures in the British theatre world. She later claimed Shaw asked where she had picked up her perfect cockney accent. “I am an Australian!” she answered. (That seemed to explain it). Following some study at RADA, she brought “charm and tact” to a leading role in Grumpy at the Savoy – (“Grumpy” played by Cyril Maude, being an old criminal lawyer who solves a diamond robbery). Elsie was now established.

Cyril Maude and Elsie Mackay performing Grumpy, 19 September 1915, New York Times. Via Newspapers.com

Performing in the US

Elsie briefly returned to Australia in 1915 – money for travel was never an issue for her, and then she headed to the US, to join Cyril Maude in a tour of Grumpy. Following this, she was re-engaged by Herbert Tree to tour in the US playing in Henry VIII and The Merry Wives of Windsor. Over the next few years, her busy US career brought her in contact with numerous well known actors, including George Arliss and Lionel Atwill.

Left – Daily Register, New Jersey, 12 June 1918. Via Newspapers.com Right – Lionel Atwill, long before he became a Hollywood heavy, performing in Australia. Table Talk, 15 Sept 1910, via National LIbrary of Australia’s Trove.

Not all of her plays were hits. Her first performance with Lionel Atwill was Another Man’s Shoes in June 1918 at New Jersey’s Broadway Theatre. It lasted only twenty performances in New York in September 1918. But Clarence, a light American family comedy about a handyman who enters the neurotic Wheeler family circle, written by popular US author Booth Tarkington, ran for nine months at New York’s Hudson Theatre in 1919-1920.

Above: The play Clarence, with Elsie playing the Wheeler family’s governess. Illustrated in the New York Herald 16 Nov 1919. Via Newspapers.com

Enter Lionel Atwill

Lionel Atwill would become an important figure in Elsie’s life – albeit relatively briefly. They apparently met in 1918, in rehearsals for Another Man’s Shoes. We can only guess as to what attracted the couple to each other. At 27, Elsie had a reputation for knowing her own mind. 33 year old Atwill was a talented and extremely popular actor, having arrived in the US in 1915. One newspaper syndicate report even described him as “the young man American women choose for the Prince Charming of their dreams.” (“The Independent Record”, Helena, Montana, 2 May 1926) However, Atwill had married fellow actor Phyllis Relph in England on 19 April 1913 and they had a son. He did not defend himself in court when Phyllis launched divorce proceedings because his affections had strayed to Elsie. Phyllis won custody of their son John and ongoing child support. Meanwhile, as soon as they could, Elsie and Lionel married on 7 February 1920, in Chicago. Fortunately, Elsie was not named in the divorce proceedings.

Another change occurred at about the same time – when her first (and apparently only) film Nothing But the Truth was released. Perhaps Lionel encouraged her to do this – he had already appeared in several films himself. Unfortunately, her experience was not very successful. Motion Picture News of Jan-Feb 1920 noted it was her first film but reported that she “does not register…a screen personality. She appeared somewhat camera conscious…and did not photograph well.” (See Note 2 below)

Lionel and Elsie performed together in a number of plays with much greater success, including David Belasco’s production of Deburau – a telling of the nineteenth century French mime that ran for six months at the Belasco Theatre, famously moving audiences to tears in the final act.

Elsie and Lionel performing together. Left in Deburau, Dayton Daily News, 22 Mar, 1921. Right, in The Comedian. Daily News, (New York), 25 March 1923. Via Newspapers.com

In July 1922 Elsie returned briefly to Australia again. Her father Sam was extremely unwell – one of his legs had been amputated and he was struggling to recover. She was back in the US in September having given no statements to the Australian press. Sadly Sam did not recover, he died in May 1923, leaving a large estate – Elsie being one of the beneficiaries. Tragically, her younger brother Keith was killed in an aircraft accident only 14 months later. This left Elsie with only one step – sibling; Peter, the son of Sam and Fanny, born in 1911.

Enter Max Montesole

Above: The Inglenook. Lionel and Elsie’s home on Long Island. Theatre Magazine, Vol 33, Jan -June 1921. Via the HathiTrust Digital Library.

Of Lionel and Elsie’s life together we know little, except that they lived together in a mansion called “The Inglenook” at Douglaston on Long Island. Elsie told Walter James about the grand weekend house parties and the bootleg liquor she and Lionel bought. So what went wrong with the marriage? Unfortunately Atwill’s reputation has been so tarnished by a sensational 1942-3 court case, and coloured by his later career in Hollywood specialising in mad doctors and unsympathetic noblemen, that one might easily conjure up all sorts of reasons for the failure the marriage.

Newspaper accounts show that sometime in mid 1925 Elsie began rehearsals on the play, The New Gallantry. Amongst the cast was Max Montesole, a 38 year old English actor and director. Atwill seems to have been responsible for the later suggestion Montesole was an “unknown” actor at the time, but nothing was further from the truth. Max Montesole had been active on stage for over twenty years, was a Shakespearean specialist, had experience with the likes of Herbert Tree and Ellen Terry and had arrived in the US in 1911. Like Elsie he had dabbled briefly in film but the New York stage was obviously his preference. He had seen wartime service in the Canadian army and later the Royal Flying Corps. But he was also a complex man – he had three marriages and several children to his name by the time he met Elsie, the most recent marriage being to New York actress Mary Fowler in May 1923. In her 1950 narrative with Walter James, all Elsie could say was that within a few minutes of meeting Max, she knew her marriage to Lionel Atwill was over. “He and I were predestined” she said. Both Elsie and Max were confronted by their spouses. Elsie indignantly denied any impropriety and publicly announced she would challenge Atwill’s impending suit.

In mid December 1925, Max and Elsie packed up and left for England together on the SS Samaria, departing through Boston to draw less attention. (She needed to be in England to attend to an estate, anyway, she said). But for the next two years, US newspapers ran endless stories of the scandal, often full page – with such unusually accurate information they could only have been fed by the deeply aggrieved Lionel Atwill and Mary Fowler.

Elsie and Max Montesole on the Samaria. The Daily News (New York) 1 Jan 1926. Via Newspapers.com

8 year sojourn in France and England

Following the couple’s departure from the US, Elsie Mackay disappeared from the public record for a number of years. In conversation with Walter James in 1950, Elsie revealed they spent four years living very happily on the French Riviera – almost half of her interview for Southerly magazine recounts this joyful time. They were probably also “lying low” after the scandal – with the added complication being that they were not yet married. But by 1930 they had moved back to London and then later moved to Cornwall. In 1933 “The Guardian” newspaper reported Elsie and Max Montesole living in Cawsand, near Plymouth, when they were apparently also caring for one of Max’s children. Montesole also undertook some London theatre work at this time – both as a producer and actor. Notably, he appeared in the 1930 Savoy Theatre production of Othello, with Paul Robeson in the title role. (Martin Duberman cites Peggy Ashcroft’s opinion – that Max had saved the deeply troubled production from being a complete disaster). Max also produced a short London season of performance and music for Robeson. Max and Elsie married at St Germans in Cornwall in late 1933, after presumably, Mary Fowler finally agreed to divorce Max, something she had indicated she wasn’t very keen to do eight years before. And within weeks of the wedding, Elsie and Max were on the ship Hobson’s Bay, arriving in Australia in late December 1933.

Work in Australia.

Above: Newspaper reports on Elsie and Max after they returned to Australia. Left – The Daily Telegraph (Sydney) 16 July 1936. Right – Max in costume, appearing in The Wireless Weekly 13 Nov 1936, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Soon after arriving and settling in Western Australia, Max and Elsie began a recital program on Western Australia’s 6WF and 6WA, part of Australia’s national radio network, the ABC. Their program included a diverse range of selections – from Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde, with the couple working in partnership throughout. They also toured widely, giving popular stage recitals throughout Australia, although the accompanying resumes of their professional careers became more creative as time went by. Max wrote poetry and wrote for newspapers. He made commentary on the importance of elocution and provided an opinion about the Australian accent that was probably less well received. He would have held a radio discussion on censorship with Australian artist Norman Lindsay in September 1936, had a bureaucrat at the ABC not lost his nerve and cancelled the show.

Max Montesole’s 1935 book Little Memories of Big People. These collected monographs on interesting people also appeared in newspapers. Author’s collection.

Max died in 1942, aged only 55. Elsie felt he had never really recovered from injuries he sustained in World War One. In the 1940s she continued with some fundraising recitals, but after the death of her mother Florence in August 1945, made no further appearances. Elsie was living in the Melbourne suburb of Hawthorn when she died in 1963, aged 70.


Nick Murphy
October 2020


Note 1
There is a website devoted to Mundabullangana (or Munda) station here, including a photo of the historic main house. The Thompson family are the current leaseholders and since 1986 the property has run cattle rather than sheep. The website notes that Mundabullangana means “end of stone country” in the local language.

Note 2
The IMDB currently muddles up Elsie Mackay with British actress Poppy Wyndham (born Elsie Mackay in British India in 1893, who died in a plane crash in 1928). This same error was sometimes made in Elsie’s lifetime, as the two women resembled each other.


Further Reading

Text

  • Gerald Bordman (1995) American Theatre: A Chronicle of Comedy and Drama 1914-1930. Oxford Uni Press.
  • Martin Duberman (2014) Paul Robeson, A Biography. Open Road Media.
  • William Grange (2020) The Business of American Theatre. Routledge.
  • Walter James. “Elsie Mackay” . Southerly, the magazine of the Australian English Association, Sydney. Vol. 11, No. 1, Mar 1950: 7-19 [online]
  • Max Montesole (1935) Little Memories of Big People. Imperial Printing Co, Perth.
  • Eric Porter (1965) Stars of Australian Stage and Screen. Rigby Ltd
  • Marjorie Waterhouse (1965) “Looking Back” The Kookaburra PLC Jubilee Edition, 1965, P83-84. via PLC Perth media releases
  • J. P. Wearing (2014) The London Stage 1910-1919 : A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel. Rowman and Littlefield.
  • J. P. Wearing (2014) The London Stage 1920-1929 : A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel. Rowman and Littlefield.
  • J. P. Wearing (2014) The London Stage 1930-1939 : A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel. Rowman and Littlefield.

Australian National Centre of Biography

Library of Congress, USA
Bain Collection

State Library of Western Australia

Victorian Heritage Database

Other Websites

National Library of Australia’s Trove

  • Western Mail (WA) 29 Dec 1906 P13
  • Evening Star (WA) 10 Aug 1910 P3 
  • Table Talk, 16 Sept 1909
  • Table Talk, 15 Sept 1910
  • Evening Star (WA) 10 August 1910
  • Leader (Vic) 22 Aug 1914
  • West Australian, 29 Aug 1914
  • The Lone Hand. Vol. 2 No. 10, 1 September 1914
  • Melbourne Punch 17 Dec, 1914.
  • Winner (Vic) 28 Feb 1917
  • The Sun (Syd) 5 June 1921 P 21
  • The Herald (Vic) 31 Jul 1922, P 12 
  • West Australian 21 Feb 1924, P10
  • The Home 1, Vol 4, No 4, Dec 1923
  • Sunday Times (WA) 31 March 1935, P1
  • Kalgoorlie Miner (WA) 3 Aug 1935 P4
  • The Daily Telegraph (Syd) 16 July 1936
  • The Wireless Weekly, Vol 28, No 20, 13 Nov 1936
  • The Wireless Weekly, Vol 28 No 21, 20 Nov 1936

Newspapers.com

  • New York Times,19 Sept 1915
  • The Gazette (Montreal Canada), 14 Nov 1916
  • The Kansas City Times, 20 Dec 1916
  • The Kansas City Star, 28 Dec 1916,
  • Daily Register (New Jersey), 12 June 1918.
  • The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 22 Oct 1919
  • The Sun (NY) 16 Nov 1919
  • New York Herald 16 Nov 1919
  • Fort Worth Record, Jan 11, 1920
  • The Standard Union (NY) 1 Nov 1 1920
  • Dayton Daily News, 22 Mar, 1921
  • Fort Worth Record-Telegram, 13 Mar 1921
  • The Daily News (NY) 25 Mar 1923
  • The San Francisco Examiner, 5 Nov 1925
  • The Daily News (NY) 17 Dec, 1925
  • The Evening News (PEN), 18 Dec 1925
  • The Daily News (NY) 20 Dec 1925
  • The Daily News (NY) 27 Dec, 1925
  • The Daily News (NY) 1 Jan 1926
  • St. Louis Post Despatch 10 Jan, 1926
  • The Palm Beach Post, 31 Jan, 1926
  • Star Tribune (MN) 7 Feb 1926
  • Helena Daily Independent (Montana) 2 May 1926
  • The Daily News (NY) 16 Jan 1927

Lantern Digital Media Project

  • Motion Picture News, Jan-Feb 1920
  • Variety, Sept 1925

British Newspaper Collection

  • The Era, 2 Sept 1914
  • The Guardian, 2 Feb 1933

Original documents sourced from

Joy Nichols (1925-1992) – from the Tivoli to the West End

Joy Nichols at the height of her success in the British radio show Take It From Here, c1950. Fan card in the Author’s collection

The Five Second version
Born in Sydney on 17 February 1925, singer, impressionist and comedian Joy Nichols became a favourite on stage and radio in wartime Australia from a very young age. She made the transition to performing in postwar Britain with apparent ease, and is most often associated with the BBC’s long running radio show, Take It From Here. She seemed destined for stardom, but her 1953 Australian return show was a disaster. She scored some later success with the London season of The Pajama Game and in supporting roles on Broadway, but her later career was fitful and she might really be a case of an actor who reached her peak too early. She died in New York on 23 June 1992. She had appeared in several Australian and British films.

Looking back on her career in 1965, Joy Nichols admitted that she was “too young” to realise what was happening when she became such a quick success in England. She told Australia’s Bulletin magazine that in 1948 she “rather took if for granted and didn’t think much of what was going to happen in the years ahead.” It was remarkably candid, as she was acknowledging a 25 year career that seemed disjointed and ultimately may not have been very rewarding.

She was born Joy Eileen Nichols in Sydney on 17 February 1925, the youngest of four children of Cecil William “Bill” Nichols, a wholesale butcher, and Freda nee Cooke. Her brother George Nichols also pursued a career on the Australian stage with some success, but two older brothers had no such interest, and following their father’s footsteps became meat inspectors in New South Wales.

George and Joy Nichols photographed while performing on the Tivoli circuit, c 1945. Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, Tivoli Theatre Collection. PXA 808, IE1050864.

On the basis of her early academic efforts, Joy was awarded a scholarship to Fort Street Girls High School in 1937 and while she apparently went on to excel academically, her appearances on radio and stage started at about the same time. Her name is found as a singer in various eisteddfods and as a comedian in charity concerts as early as 1935. Later accounts would claim she was encouraged in her interest in music and comedy by her mother and was performing from the age of 8. Her breakthrough seems to have been when she gained a regular place on the Macquarie radio network’s “Youth Show” in 1940. She was heralded as the program’s “outstanding radio discovery.”

15 year old Joy contributing to the war effort in 1940. Left – The Sun (Sydney) 2 June 1940. Right – Daily News (Sydney) 9 March 1940. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

In a world war where newspapers and radio were the only source of news and patriotic performances were vital to maintaining morale, Joy Nichols was soon in great demand. She was an entertaining and very accomplished singer. Her young age – she was only 15 years old, did not seem to effect her popularity or qualify in any way the language of journalists who enthused about her. In September 1941, the Brisbane Truth reported on her part in a show called Ballyhoo, running at the Cremorne Theatre: “When pretty Joy Nichols gets done up in khaki and sings her ‘Victory Vee’ number, we think any recruiting sergeant would get quite a few inquiries from enthusiastic males in Cremorne’s ‘Ballyhoo’ audiences.” Perhaps she hoped her first film role in Alf Goulding‘s A Yank in Australia (1942) would be received the same way. Unfortunately the film was never given a release and while it still exists today, is impossible to find outside the vaults of Australia’s National Film and Sound Archive.

Her wartime career brought her in close contact with other well known Australian performers. Evidence of this includes a surviving Rinso soap commercial made with Bill Kerr, for release in cinemas.


In early 1941, she appeared for the first time with 33 year old Dick Bentley, in an Australian Broadcasting Commission community concert. Bentley, a talented musician and comedian, had returned to Australia with several years of British radio experience under his belt. Eight years later, Joy would be teamed with him in Britain, in the very successful radio program, Take it from Here.

In 1943, Joy gained further positive publicity when she sang Jack O’Hagen‘s new song about a wartime romance between a US serviceman and an Australian girl – When a boy from Alabama meets a Girl from Gundagai.

In the midst of many stage and radio performances, she also promptly did just that herself – in late 1944 after a whirlwind courtship, she married Lieutenant Harry Dickel, a US serviceman then in Australia, who had some connection to the theatre. Like a number of such wartime romances, the relationship did not last.

In early 1946, Cinesound director Ken G Hall cast Joy in a supporting roll as Kay Sutton, an American girl, in Smithy (aka Pacific Adventure), his bio-pic about aviator Charles Kingsford-Smith. As the sound clips on this page suggest, a vaguely North American accent was something Joy had already been working on. One of her specialities was impressions of movie stars, and she was, she said, a great admirer of Bing Crosby. The film completed, Joy and brother George joined the great wave of Australian actors determined to try their luck overseas after the war. They arrived in England on the ship Dominion Monarch on 30 October, 1946.

George and Joy soon appeared successfully as a double act on tour together in the UK, but George found the going tough. By April 1949 he was back home in Australia. “The BBC’s audition list is very long” he said, by way of advice to aspiring Australian actors. For Joy, there seem to have been nothing but more work on offer. Bob Hope reportedly chose her for a lightning tour of US bases in Europe in 1947, while back in England there were roles in pantomimes, and touring shows like Follow The Girls.

Above: Joy Nichols in the stage revue Take it from Here, based on the radio program, at the Winter Gardens Pavilion, Blackpool 1950. Photos from a George Black Ltd brochure, author’s collection.

Theatre Historian Eric Midwinter has provided the most succinct account of the origins of the BBC radio show Take It from Here. It emerged in 1948 – partly born of previous radio programs and combining Joy and Dick Bentley (now back in Britain) with popular British comedian Jimmy Edwards, and with Wallas Eaton in a supporting role. Producer Charles Maxwell brought in writers Frank Muir and Denis Norden – and a success was born. As surviving broadcasts show, the 30 minute program had a three part format, musical numbers (sung very well by Joy and Dick and reasonably well by Jimmy) separating the three main comedy sketches, that were often built around current events. The program was remarkable in that while topical for British listeners, it was equally popular when broadcast in countries like Australia. This was in part thanks to Muir and Norden’s writing, which went on to influence a new generation of British comedy.

Joy can be heard in the following clip with Dick Bentley, playing the very silly Miss Arundel, whose deep giggle and references to boyfriend Gilbert were a regular feature. After Joy left the show in mid 1953 she was replaced by June Whitfield. Whitfield played “Eth” in The Glums, an ongoing sketch in the show by late 1953 (the character often mistaken for one of Joy’s).

Joy as Miss Arundel, giggling and telling Detective Dick Bentley about her boyfriend Gilbert. Via the Internet Archive. Joy also gives this trademark throaty giggle here in a 1950 Radio awards ceremony – at 6.15 (click to follow link)
The cast of Take it from Here appeared in a live review at the London Adelphi in 1950-51. The show ran for 570 performances. Program in the author’s collection

Frank Muir’s entertaining autobiography, A Kentish Lad, recalls an anecdote from Take It From Here, that gives some insight into her sense of humour and the wicked Australian banter that went on behind the scenes. He describes Joy chatting before one show with Jimmy Edwards, Dick Bentley and Wallas Eaton, and turning to a recent gynecological exam she had endured, describing the event to the others in such “candid detail,” that bachelor Wallas Eaton began to “turn green.” Dick Bentley then threw in “you poor thing. And my (dog’s) got diarrhoea …”

In 1949, Joy married US actor-singer Wally Peterson, one of the principals of the London cast of Oklahoma! and later South Pacific. At the same time, her professional life remained very busy, it included a live theatre spin-off of Take It From Here, appearances at Royal Command Variety Performances and a Max Bygraves revue, all the while appearing on radio. But, in the midst of all this success, she, Wally and their 16 month old daughter packed up and left England for Australia. She was engaged to appear in her own show on the Tivoli circuit in September 1953, but the trip seems primarily to have been to see her family. The story that Wally wanted to leave England because he could not get work is wrong – like Joy he was a well established broadcaster, actor and singer and was regularly in demand – he was also a popular recording artist for the Decca and Parlophone labels.

Photos of Joy relaxing and in rehearsal in Australia appeared in the Australian Women’s Weekly, 14 October 1953. But by the time these were published she had already withdrawn from the show. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Unfortunately, although the anticipation created by Joy’s return to Sydney was great and the initial reviews were positive, the 1953 Tivoli show entitled Take It From Me turned out to be a disaster. She managed a few performances, but then suffered a nervous breakdown. Her mother Freda wanted to reassure audiences, and told the Sydney Sun that Joy was just “overwhelmed by the wonderful reception” Australians had given her. In language so typical of the era, she added; “Joy is a very highly strung girl and a good sleep will soon fix her up.” But it didn’t. She spent two weeks in hospital, and rested for another three months before departing by air for the US, in December 1953, to spend time with Wally’s family in Boston.

One of Joy’s greatest successes came in London again, in 1955, when she took a role in The Pajama Game. Comparing it to the often modest British musicals, The Guardian newspaper described the play as the latest “clumping great Broadway musical”. Most reviewers welcomed Joy’s return to the West End, and The Stage reported she played the part of Babe Williams with “humanity and real charm.” It hit a spot with London audiences, running for 580 performances. She also appeared in a few films at this time – most notably a cameo role, singing, in Charlie Chaplin’s A King in New York (1957). After she and Wally had finally settled in New York in the late 1950s, she also appeared in a few roles on Broadway, most notably in the musical Fiorello!


Joy in Not So Dusty (1956) – a British B film about two dustmen (garbage collectors) featuring Bill Owen and Leslie Dwyer. This screen grab from a clip on Youtube.

In 1965 she returned to Australia again, to show off her 3 year old twins to the family and perform in the musical, Instant Marriage at the Tivoli. This time, there was much less publicity – although Joy did her best to stir up interest. “I want to make people laugh like I do” she said. But variety theatre like the Tivoli had struggled to maintain audiences against the challenge of television, and this play, “about a girl trying to find a marriage bureau and mistakenly getting involved with a strip joint,” was hardly sophisticated fare, even with the imported addition of Wallas Eaton in the cast. The show flopped. Theatre historian Frank Van Straten describes it as “a frantic, unfunny farce without a single singable song.”

It is rare for an actor to pose with their entire family for the press. But on 21 July 1965, during Joy’s final visit to Australia, The Australian Women’s Weekly ran this photo of the entire Nichols family together. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Joy continued to appear in occasional supporting roles on the New York stage, but fate and circumstance seemed against her. In 1969 it was announced she would appear in an expensive new London musical, Two Cities. But she didn’t – only a few weeks before opening night she walked out on rehearsals, reportedly after disagreements with leading actor Edward Woodward. She was replaced by Nicolette Roeg.

Above: Joy advertised as appearing in the musical Two Cities. But soon after this advertisement appeared in The Observer on 2 Feb 1969, she was replaced by Nicolette Roeg. Via Newspapers.com.

Joy’s marriage to Wally came to an end in 1977, and she subsequently moved back to England again. She took out a large advertisement in The Stage in March 1979 to announce that she was back and looking for work. But sadly, there wasn’t very much work for her. She was in her mid-50s, and had well and truly lost her currency. She finally turned to fairly mundane retail work, being spotted working in a Mothercare store in Oxford St. This sort of riches to rags story, as always, attracted some media attention – but Joy simply said she needed the money.

Joy succumbed to cancer, aged only 66 in 1992. In a lifetime of moving around, she had moved back to New York at the end. Her obituaries reminded readers of the great pleasure Joy had brought listeners in post-war Britain, then a time of austerity and recovery.

Only a year after Joy’s 1965 visit, Jimmy Edwards came to Australia to feature in the Tivoli circuit’s final shows in Sydney and Melbourne. His shows brought large-scale variety theatre to a close in Australia.

Wallas Eaton, who had turned green when hearing Joy’s gynecological story, moved to Australia in 1975, where he continued acting. He died in Sydney in 1995. Dick Bentley died in England the same year.

Joy at the height of her fame on a British “Turf” cigarette box. c1950 Author’s collection.

Nick Murphy
September 2020


Further Reading

Audio

Film

Text

  • Eric Midwinter (undated) Take It From Here. Britishmusichallsociety.com
  • Frank Muir (1997) A Kentish Lad. The Autobiography of Frank Muir. Bantam Press.
  • Frank Van Straten (2003 ) Tivoli. Thomas C. Lothian
  • J.P Wearing (2014) The London Stage, 1950-1959, A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers

British Newspaper Archive

  • The Stage, 10 July 1947
  • The Stage, 4 Dec 1947
  • The Scotsman, 24 Dec 1947
  • The Daily Mirror, 30 Dec 1947
  • Manchester evening News 16 March 1948
  • The Stage, October 20, 1955
  • Illustrated London News, 29 October 1955
  • Daily Herald, 1 June 1962
  • The Stage, 19 August 1965
  • The Stage, 29 March 1979
  • The Stage, 15 October 1992

National Library of Australia’s Trove

  • The Australian Women’s Weekly, 22 June 1940
  • Mudgee Guardian & North Western Representative, 15 July 1940
  • The Australian Women’s Weekly, 20 July 1940
  • The Argus (Melb), 25 Oct 1943
  • The Age (Melb), 2 Sept 1949
  • The Age (Melb), 29 July 1953
  • The Sydney Morning Herald, 3 Sept 1953
  • Sun (Syd), 11 Sept 1953
  • Daily Telegraph (Syd), 17 Sept, 1953
  • The Australian Women’s Weekly, 14 Oct 1953
  • The Australian Women’s Weekly, 14 Sept, 1960
  • The Bulletin, 17 July 1965, Vol 87, No 4455
  • The Australian Women’s Weekly, 21 July 1965
  • The Bulletin, 14 Aug 1965, Vol 87 No 4459

Newspapers.com

  • The Sydney Morning Herald, 31 Aug 1954
  • The Sydney Morning Herald, 4 Nov 1965
  • The Sydney Morning Herald, 23 Jan 1969
  • The Observer, 2 Feb 1969
  • The Age (Melb), 2 July 1992
  • The Guardian, 3 July 1992

The Independent

  • June Averill, Joy Nichols Obituary 7 July 1992

Variety

  • Wally Peterson Obituary, April 3, 2011

The Times

  • Joy Nichols Obituary 29 June 1992

Anona Winn (1904-1994) Who did it all without trying.

Anona Winn on an Ardath cigarette card c 1932. The postcard in the background shows the Sydney Post Office in Pitt Street, about the time she was born. Author’s collection.

The five second version
Born in Sydney, New South Wales, on 5 January 1904, Anona Winn moved to the UK in 1926 after establishing herself on the stage in Australia. In her long British career she appeared on stage, wrote and recorded popular songs, and enjoyed a very successful career on British radio, until aged well into her 70s. Scottish comedian Renée Houston once said Anona “does it all without trying.” Clever, creative, popular with her colleagues and loyal to her many supporters, she was awarded an MBE for charity work in 1954. She died in Bournemouth in February 1994.

What was it like to be a young woman fronting up for an audition in the 1920s, grappling with parental expectations and the pressure to perform? We know Anona Winn’s view, because she left a short humorous account in April 1925, about a year before she departed Australia for England. While it is a fictional account, it is safe to assume the short story “The Voice Trial” is at least partly based on her own experiences as an emerging singer. “Jennie develops a few high notes, and the family a still higher opinion of Jennie’s vocal abilities. Jennie shall go on the stage! She shall become one of the galaxy of gleaming stars whose manner of living has been so severely censured by father every Sunday after dinner…” Of course, Jennie does not succeed at her audition. (See Note 1 regarding her short stories)

Born in 1904 in Sydney, New South Wales, Anona was the only child of Lillian Barron nee Woodgate. Lillian endured an unhappy marriage to book keeper Andrew Balfour Barron, that ended in divorce in San Francisco in late 1907. Anona took Wilkins as a surname after her mother remarried in 1909. (See Note 2 below)

Despite claims the name Anona is a native American one, it actually has Latin origins – it was the name of the Roman goddess of the Harvest. As an adult, we know Anona was short and slight. She stood 155 centimetres (5 foot, 1 inch). She had fair hair and brown eyes – we know all this thanks to the very thorough details collected by US customs when she went to New York in 1939.

19 years old but looking even younger, Anona Wilkins posing with a baby from St Margaret’s Maternity Hospital, for The Sun (Sydney) 17 August 1923, via National Library of Australia’s Trove

The Wilkins family had located themselves in Young Street, Cremorne on Sydney’s north shore by 1915, and Anona attended nearby Redlands School, then under the inspired Principalship of Mrs G.A. Roseby. It appears Anona thrived in this creative school environment and quickly made a name for herself as a capable academic student, a gifted pianist and singer. She joined the school’s debating team, won academic prizes and gave solo singing performances. Years later it was claimed she could sight-read music from the age of about 8, which in the light of events, may well have been true.

Anona Wilkins (Winn) at Redlands. She is seated far left in the white dress, with her hands in her lap, kneeling between the first and second rows. Redlands Senior School, 1916, Cecily Tyson Collection. Reproduced with permission by Redlands School Archive

Having also won a number of public music competitions through her teenage years, on leaving school she was accepted into the Sydney Conservatorium of Music in 1920. Her teachers included Madam Goosens-Viceroy and Nathalie Rosenwax, with her developing ability demonstrated at Sydney concerts in late 1921. We can also see evidence she was in Melbourne and performing there in 1922. Did she sing for Nellie Melba, as is claimed? It is quite possible, and Melba was famous for encouraging talented young singers. But not every singer was attracted to a classical career or won over by the encouragement. Nellie McNamara (or Nellie Mond in 1910-12) explained to Everyone’s magazine that she also had been taken to meet Madame Melba, who had advised her to “get rid of that accent” and in doing so “nearly scared me out of my wits.” By early 1923, Anona Wilkins also seems to have decided against a purely classical singing career, although the training was of immense value. In February 1923 she was in the chorus of the new Jerome Kern musical Sally and by July 1923, a featured player in visiting US performer Lee White‘s new show Back Again, at Sydney’s Theatre Royal.

Popular enough to be advertising. The Sun (Sydney), 27 May 1923 Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Touring Western Australia in 1925, Anona now chose Wynne as a new surname. She also appeared on Western Australian radio 6WF, then in its infancy. And after three years of performances in musicals, reviews and pantomimes around Australia with the likes of George Storey and Ada Reeve, she finally decided it was time to try her luck overseas. There were friends who had already done this and undoubtedly plenty of encouraging words from experienced performers like Clay Smith and Lee White. “London needs the fresh youth and talent which Australia can give,” said Smith before departing with Anona’s contemporary Billy Lockwood.

On her way to London in 1926, Anona stopped off in India, with a touring company performing some well known musical comedies, including Maid of the Mountains and Rose-Marie. The details of this tour are scant, but Australian papers reported her performances as a “personal triumph.” By December 1926 she was in England, appearing as “a charming Iris” in the musical comedy A Greek Slave, touring the United Kingdom for twelve weeks with José Collins. She then toured the UK with a Daly’s Theatre company production of The Blue Mazurka.

Anona Winn with José  Collins in A Greek Slave. Nottingham Evening Post 12 Feb 1927. Copyright of this image is held by Reach Plc, via British Library Newspaper Archive.

Despite stories that she struggled to be noticed at first in London’s competitive theatre scene (it was claimed she threw her book of press cuttings into the Thames in frustration), Anona was later to confirm that being able to sight-read music and sing well was a great advantage in auditions. Her first credited part in a London show was as “Looloo Martin” in the US musical Hit the Deck at the Hippodrome in late 1927, after another player took ill. Her career never looked back.

As with much of Anona’s life, the precise timing of her achievements have become a little hazy over time and in some cases, details have changed in the telling. However, it is clear that in addition to continuing to appear on stage, Anona also appeared on British radio from about 1928 – her first performance being in a program called Fancy Meeting You! She was heard as a regular radio performer from early 1930, presenting You Ought to Go on the Wireless for the BBC followed by a string of other radio shows. The Bungalow Club of 1938 was Anona’s own concept – a mock riverside club, with cabaret turns, comedy and Anona as hostess. At the same time, as well as recording popular works (at one stage with her own dance band –Anona Winn and her Winners), she also wrote original songs – her records being well received in the UK and Australia. Her repertoire was broad; Theatre Historian Peter Pinne notes that in the early 1930s Anona performed works by composer and fellow Australian Dudley Glass, inspired by several children’s books, for the BBC Children’s Hour. In 1935 “The Guardian” commented that she never seemed content with just one style of broadcast. There was always some attractive variety, frequently a novelty- perhaps an impression of a “popular type” or someone else. At the same time, “her pleasantly informed microphone manner (was) a distinct asset in…light…entertainment”.

Anona Winn on the cover of the Radio Times Television Supplement (UK), April 16, 1937, via http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/historyofthebbc.

In 1933, in the early days of experimental TV broadcasting, she was in at least one TV show called Looking In, that apparently still survives. And six months after the BBC began regular TV broadcasting in 1936 she was there again, performing in another revue. In 1934 she had her first and only part in a feature film – a supporting role in British Lion’s On the Air. “Variety” magazine found little to say about it, other than describing it as essentially a revue of “acts of well known and popular artists… surrounded by a modicum of story,” a not uncommon plot device in sound films of this time.

Anona Winn 1938 anona-1940-

Above: Anona continued to appear on stage well into the 1940s. Left; The Radio Pictorial 23 September 1938, via Lantern Digital Media Project. Right on stage with fellow Australian Florrie Forde in Portsmouth. Portsmouth Evening Herald 24 Feb 1940 via British Library Newspaper Archive, Johnston Press PLC.

In January 1947 the BBC announced their new quiz Twenty Questions, based on an old parlour game with a radio format purchased from the US. It was a runaway success and Anona was on the panel for most of its 29 year run, demonstrating an uncanny ability to regularly guess the show’s “mystery object.” In 1965 she hosted another radio program of her own devising, entitled Petticoat Lane. A chat show featuring a panel of well-known women discussing issues raised by listeners, it was also very successful and despite appealing to an older and declining radio demographic, lasted until the late 1970s.

Her creative contributions beyond stage and radio were many, and unfortunately not all seem to be accurately recorded. In the mid 1930s she worked on a film script with Australian Marjorie Jacobson Strelitz, and it is also claimed she “voiced” actors who couldn’t sing for film, and to have composed for film. In an obituary, Peter Cotes noted that in later life she also had an interest in the dress-design firm Bernice and Partners. And she counted the likes of pioneer British producer-director Wendy Toye amongst her friends.

Above: Anona – fan photo c 1950. Author’s collection.

The early 1950s were an exciting time to be an Australian actor in London, and there were plenty working there to benefit from being part of the greater British Commonwealth – close enough to the home country to be part of it, but also confident and at enough of a remove to be able to stand back and gently send it all up, from time to time. Australians could celebrate this period (a final coming of age perhaps) not just through the shared confidence brought about by victory in the recent war, but also with the excitement of the 1956 Olympics, and the many benefits brought on by a booming economy at home. A seasoned performer like Anona shared in the enthusiasm and was often invited to speak publicly of her perspective of Britain, as an Australian. “Be proud of Britain,” she urged one audience. But like many, she worried about some of the changes she saw in 1960s Britain – the increasingly poor use of language, and dramatic changes in fashion – “what with our kinky boots and tights, and such short, short, skirts…”

She returned to Australia at least once, in March 1957, where she appeared on Australia’s fledgling ABC TV, in a quiz show called Find the Link, did other things that went unreported, then flew home to Britain on QANTAS, a true child of the Commonwealth.

Anona married Fred Lamport, a theatrical agent, at the Marylebone Registry office in July 1933. Sadly, the marriage was very short-lived. Both Fred and Anona were suffering pneumonia in early 1935. Anona recovered, but Fred did not – he died on 1 February 1935. She never remarried. Anona’s mother Lillian had joined her in London in the late 1920s, and lived with her and acted as her secretary and dresser for many years. Having lived much of her adult London life in a mock-Tudor apartment in Maida Vale, in the late 1980s she moved to Bournemouth where she died in 1994.

Her British obituaries were heartfelt, a voice that had been with Britain for so long, had gone.


Note 1 – Her Writing.
Between late 1924 and mid 1925 Anona Wilkins wrote a few very witty short stories for Australian newspapers, including the Sydney Evening News. These can be read online at Trove. Only two deal directly with the stage – The Voice Trial and 25 Years After. They are worth reading as a testimony to her sophisticated skills as a writer. These seem to have given rise to the idea she was a journalist, but there is no doubt she stayed on stage at the same time.

Note 2 – The enigma of her Birth.
English-born Lillian May Woodgate had married Scottish-born bookkeeper Andrew Balfour Barron in Sydney on 5 April 1902. Soon after this, Andrew Barron travelled to the United States to become head book keeper for Buckingham and Hecht, a large San Francisco shoe-manufacturer. In August 1907 he was charged with embezzling and his affair with a typist was uncovered during court proceedings. By this time Lillian was also in the US and she stood by him until his infidelity was revealed. The San Francisco Call of 22 August 1907 noted that she was accompanied in court by “2 year old daughter Anona.” Barron was sentenced to three years in San Quentin Prison and Lillian sued for divorce, returning to Australia soon after.

Anona’s original Australian birth certificate for January 1904 does not list any father, nor refer to Lillian and Andrew’s marriage. Did Lillian return to Australia to have the child? Did she have Anona by someone else? In 1919, Anona’s step-father William Wilkins made a declaration listing himself as Anona’s foster-father. The document also incorrectly suggested Lillian May Woodgate/Barron/Wilkins was Anona’s foster-mother. The ambiguities of these documents hint at turmoil and great personal unhappiness across two continents, and help explain why Anona was characteristically vague about her birth.

Fortunately, Lily and William’s marriage (1909) appears to have been a happy one, until his sudden death in October 1924.

Relevant Birth, Deaths and Marriages NSW – certificates

  • Lillian Woodgate and Andrew Barron, NSW Marriage Certificate, 5 April 1902, #2732/1902
  • Anona Barron, NSW birth certificate, 5 January 1904, #153/1904
  • Lillian Barron and William Wilkins Marriage Certificate, 21 April 1909 #3392/1909
  • Registered declaration regarding Anona Wilkins birth, 5 May 1919, #1687/1919

Nick Murphy
September 2020


References

Thanks

Special thanks to Ms Marguerite Gillezeau, Archivist at Redlands school for her assistance.

Websites

Film clips

Radio clips

Music clips
There are a number of Winn’s songs to be found on social media. Here are a few:

Text

  • Simon Elmes (2009) And Now on Radio 4: A Celebration of the World’s Best Radio …Arrow Books.
  • John Hetherington (1967) Melba. F.W.Cheshire
  • David Hendy (2008) Life on Air. A History of Radio 4. Oxford University Press
  • Barbara MacKenzie & Findlay MacKenzie (1967) Singers of Australia, From Melba to Sutherland. Lansdowne Press
  • Seán Street (2009) The A to Z of British Radio. The Scarecrow Press
  • J. P. Wearing (2014) The London Stage 1920-1929 : A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel . Second edition. Lanham : Rowman & Littlefield Publishers
  • J. P. Wearing (2014) The London Stage 1930-1939 : A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel. Second edition. Lanham : Rowman & Littlefield Publishers

The Independent (UK) Obituaries

  • June Averill, Anona Winn Obituary, The Independent, 18 Feb 1994
  • Peter Cotes, Anona Winn Obituary, The Independent, 14 March 1994

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

Lantern – Digital Media Project

  • Variety, Tues 13 Feb 1934

National Library of Australia’s Trove

  • The Mail (SA) 4 August, 1923.
  • The Sun (Sydney) Sat 1 Sept, 1923
  • The Daily News (WA) 18 Sep 1925
  • Everyones. Vol. 5 No.330, 30 June 1926
  • The Bulletin.Vol. 57 No. 2920, 29 Jan 1936
  • The Wireless Weekly, 29 May 1938
  • ABC Weekly Vol. 2 No. 42, 19 October 1940
  • ABC Weekly, 6 April, 1957

Newspapers.com

  • The San Francisco Call, 22 Aug 1907.
  • The San Francisco Examiner, 7 Nov 1907
  • The Guardian, (UK) 8 June 1935.
  • Sydney Morning Herald, (Syd) 28 July 1938.
  • The Guardian, (UK) 8 Feb 1994.

British Library Newspaper Archive

  • The Stage, 25 Nov 1926
  • Nottingham Evening Post, 12 Feb 1927
  • The Stage, 31 March 1927
  • Daily Herald (London), 2 Feb 1935
  • Sheffield Independent, 22 April 1938
  • North Wales Weekly, 28 Jan 1960
  • Liverpool Echo 1 Nov 1962
  • Coventry Evening Telegraph 17 Mar 1966
  • Coventry Evening Telegraph 18 Mar 1966
  • The Stage, 24 Feb 1994

 

The strange story of Maie Saqui (1879-1907)

Maie Saqui as she appeared at the height of her fame on the London stage as a “Gaiety Girl,” c 1900. Postcard in the Author’s collection.

The 5 second version
Born May Vivian Saqui, Fitzroy, Victoria, Australia, 19 December 1879, she died in London, England, on 28 March 1907. She joined the cast of the visiting London Gaiety Company in Melbourne in 1892, after this appearing in other stage plays. She departed for London in 1897. She found work with George Edwardes at the Gaiety Theatre and was joined a year later by her sisters Gladys and Hazel, who also performed in London.

Gaietygirl1896May Vivian Saqui was born in Fitzroy, Melbourne Australia on December 19, 1879. (See Note 1 below) For a short period of time she was one of London’s celebrated “Gaiety Girls”, performing in musical comedies at George Edwardes Gaiety Theatre. Her father John Isaac Saqui (also known as John I or Jack) was a Melbourne bookmaker and property speculator, later to try his hand at cigar manufacturing. Her mother Esther nee Barnett (or Stella) was the daughter of the owner of a large central Melbourne grocery store. She and Jack had married in 1877. At the time of May’s birth, the family home was listed as being on the corner of Nicholson and Moor Streets, Fitzroy. Five years later, they lived next door. The two fine “boom era” buildings still stand at this spot, and today they speak of the opulence and confidence of the young colony following the gold rushes of the 1850s. The family were wealthy enough to be advertising for servants at the time of May’s birth.

Above – the stereotypical Edwardes chorus girl from the play A Gaiety Girl.” Public domain image by Dudley Hardy, Paris, 1896 via Wikipedia Commons.

120 and 122 Nicholson St

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

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

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

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

Zabulon Terrace

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Maie’s only child, Inez Hope Travers (later Pringle) lived a long life and was acknowledged in 1982 with the Venerable Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem, and then an MBE in 1986, for services to ex-servicemen in Dublin. It is safe to assume Maie would have been very proud.


When Maie’s mother Stella died in England in 1946, she left an estate of £9345 to her surviving daughter, Hazel. Hazel had married British actor Nelson Keys in 1908, after her own brief experience on stage. Hazel and Nelson raised a family of five boys, most of whom entered the British film industry with great success. Hazel died in 1975. In his biography of Nelson Keys (nicknamed “Bunch”), John Keys (who went by the name John Paddy Carstairs) states that his mother’s name was Hazel Eileen nee Fuller and that she was of Irish stock. This is such a significant “error” one must assume it was done deliberately to disguise Hazel’s Jewish roots.

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

Special Thanks

To John Shrimski, a second cousin of Maie Saqui, for his assistance and encouragement.

Nick Murphy
May 2019, updated January 2020.


Notes:

  1. Her name?
    May or Mary? Her 1879 birth certificate is quite clear. She was born May and she also appears as May in the birth certificates of her siblings. She chose “Maie” as a stage name.

    May Vivian Saqui BC

    Above: Part of Maie’s birth certificate, via Victoria Births Deaths and Marriages.

    Barnett was the family name of Esther (Stella) Saqui. Esther’s father, owner of a well known Russell Street grocery was named Barnett Barnett. He can be found in numerous mid C19th Melbourne newspaper accounts. When Barnett died in 1887, he left the bulk of his estate, including a significant property portfolio, to daughter Esther (Stella).

  2. Sarah Saqui, The Psyche
    Sarah Saqui, a sister of Maie’s grandfather, was the courtesan who entertained Alfred, the Duke of Edinburgh on the first royal visit to Australia in 1867. Writer Steve Harris specifically names Saqui as the Duke’s main Australian consort – she was also known as “the Psyche,” which was apparently a play on the name Saqui. Contemporary papers like “The Truth” also identified her. The Duke’s detective John Christie alluded to the Duke’s many amorous pursuits in Melbourne’s red light district in his notes, although he did not identify Saqui by name. Sarah Saqui was apparently also a bartender and a well known singer, who married three times and may have lived out her days in the United States. We have no way of knowing whether Maie had ever met or even knew about her notorious relative.

Further Reading

  • John Paddy Carstairs (1941) Bunch, a Biography of Nelson Keys. Hurst and Blackett 
  • Ian Dicker (1974) J.C.W. A Short Biography of James Cassius Williamson.  The Elizabeth Tudor Press
  • Black & White Illustrated Budget Magazine (1899). London, Black and White Pub. Co. Digitized by Smithsonian Libraries.
  • Steve Harris (2018) The Prince and the Assassin: Australia’s First Royal Tour and Portent of World Terror. Melbourne Books.
  • John Lahey (1993) Damn you, John Christie! State Library of Victoria.
  • J. P. Wearing (2013) The London Stage 1890-1899: A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel. Scarecrow Press.
  • J. P. Wearing (2013) The London Stage 1900-1909: A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel. Scarecrow Press.
  • Victorian Heritage Register 122 NICHOLSON STREET FITZROY, Yarra City WORLD HERITAGE ENVIRONS AREA
  • Footlights Notes 1994+ wordpress – Gladys Saqui
  • Winners of the Melbourne Cup at Races.com.au
  • Public Record Office Victoria. Mental Health Records

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