Murray Matheson (1912-1985), the busy actor from Casterton

Above: Murray Matheson on a signed fan photo, Undated. Author’s Collection.

Murray enlargementThe 5 second version
Born near Casterton in Victoria, Australia in 1912, Sidney Murray Matheson established himself on stage in the 1930s. He moved to the UK in 1937. His first British film was a small part as an Australian in the RAF, (which he really was) in The Way to the Stars in 1945. In the early 1950s he had moved to the US where he built an extraordinarily successful career playing character roles – often eccentric authority figures – in films and on TV. On his passing, obituaries noted the extraordinary breadth of his screen work, but also acknowledged his lifelong passion for the stage, which is less well known. He died in Los Angeles in 1985. (This article only lists some of his many screen and stage performances)

Growing Up in Australia

Sidney Murray Matheson was born at “Maryville,” a sheep station (ranch) at Sandford, near Casterton, Victoria, Australia on 1 July, 1912. He had four older sisters – Mavis, Joan, Roma and Beryl, and a brother who had died in infancy. While sheep grazing in Victoria’s “Western District” was very lucrative, it was not for the faint hearted. His parents, Kenneth Murray Matheson and Ethel Sunderland nee Barrett had both been born in country Victoria and were prepared to make the effort on the land. But when Murray was twelve his mother Ethel died – as a result of an awful mix of diabetes, rheumatic fever and heart failure. When Kenneth remarried in 1926, his new wife spent half an hour on the property before leaving for the city again, flatly refusing to live on the land. The second marriage did not survive.

Above: Murray’s older sister Mavis posing on a reaper and binder at Sandford in about 1915. In the 1990s, Museums Victoria collected a large archive of photos from rural Victoria, including this one and several others from the Sandford area. Via Museums Victoria Collections

Years later, Murray said one of his earliest memories was droving (herding) sheep – riding along behind his father. “I can still see him, his back completely black, covered with flies, the scourge of Australia” (Ogden Standard 16 June 1973). For part of his schooling Murray attended Geelong Grammar, a famous Australian independent boarding school, long favoured by wealthy Western District pastoral families and modelled on the English boarding school model, that is well known for educating Charles, Prince of Wales, in 1966.

On the stage

Murray had no intention of following tradition and staying on the land, much to his father’s disappointment. By 1934 he was living in leafy East Melbourne, whilst working as a bank clerk. In later years he recounted that his inspiration for becoming an actor was seeing the musical Sally. Probably starting off as an amateur, in the early 1930s he began to be associated with the Melbourne Little Theatre, where British actress Ada Reeve gave tuition in “Musical Comedy, Drama, Monologue, Film and Broadcasting”. He always claimed to have appeared in the musical Roberta with Cyril Ritchard and Madge Elliott in early 1935, perhaps in the chorus of this JC Williamson production. By early 1936, he was definitely a professional, on the road performing at small country towns through rural New South Wales and Queensland with George Sorlie‘s “tent company” (that is, they put up a tent for performances at each stop). Sorlie rather grandly called this the “English Comedy Company” and advertised his tour with the slogan “always a good show at Sorlie’s,” but it was really all designed to coincide with country agricultural shows. Their repertoire included While Parent’s Sleep, Wandering Wives and Ten Minute Alibi, and amongst the performers was a young Peter Finch, who in time became a good friend. For years, Murray’s experiences on this tour became the subject of endless witty stories about performing in remote Australia. Newspapers also reported Murray was engaged to the company ingénue, Leslie Crane. In June 1936, he took a leading role in a season of the musical Billie at Melbourne’s Apollo Theatre. Almost certainly encouraged to try his luck in London by actor friends like Cyril Ritchard and Madge Elliott, Murray boarded the SS Orsova for England in August.

Above: A youthful Murray Matheson, looking very like his friend Cyril Ritchard, who became a friend in the mid 1930s. The Telegraph (Brisbane) 11 Jul 1936 P12 Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Not long after arriving, Murray found work with the Bournemouth Repertory Theatre company. In 1937 he was reported by a reviewer as demonstrating “adaptability and poise” in plays like If Four Walls Told and London Wall. (Bournemouth Graphic 19 Feb 1937). A year later he was performing with Edward Stirling’s English Players Company on an extended European tour, taking him to Paris, Vienna, Berlin and Warsaw, whilst performing Inferno and The End of the Beginning. He was “a find,” reported The Birmingham Mail (23 Oct 1940). However, with the outbreak of war he joined up, as did so many other young Australians living in Britain. By 1941 he was in the Royal Air Force (RAF). Leslie Crane, who had followed him to England in 1938 also left her repertory theatre company and joined the Women’s Land Army. But the couple did not marry. Years later, he claimed he had been briefly married, but did not say to whom or when (Sydney Morning Herald, 4 Feb 1968). He said he “did not like it.”

By 1939 Murray had been joined in London by his sister Roma, a restaurateur, and together they lived in Old Church St, Chelsea.

Above: Murray Matheson in his Royal Air Force uniform, c1941. Source; Cyril Ritchard album of theatrical performance and personal photographs, 1939-1944. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

The RAF and Murray’s early films

Many sources list Murray as a RAF Intelligence Officer, a title which might suggest many things – but what exactly, is today unclear. He was acting again by late 1944, or at least for some of the time. His early films date from this time – set in the RAF and written by Terence Rattigan. The first was a small supporting role in Anthony Asquith‘s The Way to the Stars – which featured John Mills and Michael Redgrave. Unfortunately the print currently in circulation appears to have been cut down for US release (under the title Johnny in the Clouds), and his role as Lawson, an Australian officer in the RAF, has all but disappeared – which is a pity, as contemporary reviews singled it out. Not so his role as Pete, the Australian radio operator in Journey Together, a tale of bomber command, directed by John and Roy Boulting, featuring Richard Attenborough.

There were also more real-life adventures before he was demobilised. He was reportedly in Moscow on some unspecified Admiralty mission at the end of the war, during which he broke his leg skating, or skiing. But it cannot have been all that bad an injury, as within a few months he was onstage at London’s Garrick Theatre in Better Late, with Beatrice Lillie.

Above: Screen grab of supporting players Hamish McNichol as Angus and Murray Matheson as Pete (the Lancaster bomber’s radio operator) in the final scene of Journey Together. The bomber’s crew are on a raft and have just been seen by a rescue aircraft because of the efforts of their excellent navigator (Richard Attenborough). Author’s collection. Following this he had a very small part in another war drama – Peter Ustinov’s Secret Flight, a story of the development of radar.

In 1948, the British Ministry of Information made a 25 minute docu-drama about the work of Dr George M’Gonigle, Chief Medical Officer in the 1920s and 30s for the northern English town of Stockton-on-Tees. Murray Matheson was cast to play M’Gonigle – one newspaper claimed he “was chosen for his sympathetic face and because, like Dr. M’Gonigle he has limp.” (Daily Herald, 10 Nov 1948, 3). McGonigle is hardly remembered in the 21st century, but he should be. A social pioneer – his reports on poverty and malnutrition impacted British social planning for years. For Murray, this role gave him valuable and lasting exposure as a capable performer, able to carry a successful film in a leading role.

Above: Screengrab of Murray in the lead role in One Man’s Story, a docu-drama made by the British Ministry of Information in 1948. Now in the public domain, it can be viewed online.

Move to North America

Sometime in late 1948 he travelled to Canada to appear for Brian Doherty – in The Drunkard, or the Fallen Saved an old temperance play, presented as “a stylised revue” now with music and played for comic effect. Although it was not to everyone’s taste, it appears to have been a reasonable success, and the play toured much of Canada before wrapping up in Chicago in March 1949. Murray must have enjoyed it because he was back in Canada doing another revue – There Goes Yesterday later that year.

Above: John Pratt, Charmion King and Murray in There Goes Yesterday. The Province (Vancouver), 17 March 1950, P6, via

Following this, in 1950 Murray appeared on tour in the US with old friends Cyril Ritchard and Madge Elliot in the 17th century comedy The Relapse, or Virtue in Danger. The play had recently been directed by Anthony Quayle at London’s Phoenix Theatre, before being brought to Broadway by Ritchard.

By the early 1950s, the US and soon California had become his home. But Murray’s connection to Australia remained surprisingly strong. Although he never returned to Australia (he said more than once that he would), Murray remained an active correspondent with his two surviving sisters and the Australian journalists he knew, more so than many other expat Australians.

A snapshot of a prolific US career

Murray’s letters home from the UK and later North America documented what must have been an exciting time in his career. His early US work was notable as a mix of “legitimate” stage, televised theatre (a common device used by TV networks in the early 1950s when they did not have enough material) and film. The film roles were at first a mix of menacing or alternatively affable authority figures – consider – the Communist brainwasher in The Bamboo Prison (1953) and Major MacAllister in King of Khyber Rifles (1953). He can also be found playing police inspectors, doctors, and even vicar roles, including a convicted reverend in Paramount’s formulaic 1952 colonial drama, Botany Bay, directed by Australian John Farrow, but mostly featuring British players.

Above: Leading players of Botany Bay (1952), James Mason, Patricia Medina and behind the frightened Koala (which briefly appears in the film) is Murray Matheson. The Times (Shreveport, Louisiana) 3 Feb 1952, P23, Via

Baby-boomers would recall Murray fondly as a guest in many popular TV series of the time. The very long list of appearances includes The Man from UNCLE (1965), Get Smart (1966), The Invaders (1967), McMillan and Wife (1973), McCloud (1970), Hawaii Five-0 (1973) and Battlestar Galactica (1978). On many occasions, he reappeared – in a different episode and as a different character. Not so his regular role as Felix Mulholland in Banacek (1972-4), a detective series with George Peppard as private investigator Thomas Banacek. Here Murray played an extremely well read bookseller – a fellow wit like Banacek, whose encyclopedic knowledge assists in solving cases. (The most comprehensive list of his TV appearances is in David Inman’s 2 volume survey of Performers’ TV credits, Vol 2.)

It was while working on Banacek that Murray told reporters he had appeared in all of Noel Coward’s stage productions, which, given his passion for the stage, may well be true. On his passing in 1985, it was claimed he had appeared on stage almost 500 times.

Above Left; Murray in Visit to a Small Planet, The Greenville News, 6 June 1962, P6. Centre; Murray with Jane Powell in Peter Pan, The Los Angeles Times, 19 Dec 1965, P93. Right, Murray with Pat Galloway in Lock Up Your Daughters, The Los Angeles Times, 2 Oct 1967, P47. Via

It is beyond the scope of this article to document all of Murray’s many appearances on the US stage, but a glance at US newspapers shows an impressively wide variety of roles played across the country. Reviews of his stage work were consistently positive, explaining why he was in such demand. In the musical Damn Yankees in 1965 he sang and danced skilfully as the Devil, “with a dry diabolical charm.” (San Francisco Examiner 5 Aug 1965, 30). When he appeared in Peter Pan later that year and again in 1968 he was “downright humorous and sometimes awesome” in the dual roles of the children’s father and Captain Hook (Independent, Long Beach, 21 Dec 1965, 8). He carried the leading role in Sleuth at the Little Theatre in Greenville, South Carolina, in 1972 with great skill – “an excellent portrayal of the snobbish, selfish but somehow likeable author…” (The Greenville News, South Carolina, 2 Feb 1975, 30). The stage clearly remained a passion and probably his preference.

Of Murray the man, his contemporaries had universally good things to say. Canadian born actor Beatrice “Bea” Lillie was a great friend in London – they had appeared together in revues like Better Late at the Garrick Theatre in 1946. In Hollywood, he was a close friend of Agnes Moorehead, sometimes escorting her to social events – as well as appearing with her in one episode of Bewitched.

In 1978 Murray was interviewed for Trader Faulkner‘s upcoming biography of Peter Finch. Murray recalled his occasional catch-ups with old friend “Finchie”, during which they would reminisce about George Sorlie’s tent shows in outback Australia. He said they would “both become terribly common, and Peter, despite the fact he was English, would become absolutely Australian and talk in ‘Strine’.* He was often more Australian in his outlook than I ever was.”

Murray Matheson died on 25 April 1985, following a stroke. He was only 72 and had been working almost to the end. His final film was a small role in Steven Spielberg‘s The Twilight Zone (1983).

However, for this writer, a favourite was his role as the Captain of the Queen Mary in Assault on a Queen.(1967). As a teenager, this writer made a decision to always be as urbane and cordial as the dapper and tanned Murray Matheson – playing the ship’s Captain, with officer’s cap just slightly askew, in the best ex-service tradition. You can watch the relevant clip at Turner Classic Movies here.

Above: Murray Matheson at the height of his TV activity, with his tanned face and distinguished white hair. Photo taken in about 1975. The Greenville News (South Carolina) 27 Jan 1975, P26. Via

*Strine – meaning a broad Australian accent, usually also interspersed with plenty of local and incomprehensible slang.

Nick Murphy
September 2021


  • Text
    • Amalgamated Press (1942) Picture Show Annual 1942
    • Lotta Dempsey (1976) No Life for a Lady. Musson Books
    • Trader Faulkner (1979) Peter Finch, a biography. Taplinger Pub. Co.
    • David Inman (2001) Performers’ Television Credits Vol 2, G-M. McFarland
    • Brian McFarlane (2003) The Encyclopedia of British film. BFI – Methuen
    • Alex Nissan (2017) Agnes Moorehead on Radio, Stage and Television McFarland.
    • J.P. Wearing (Ed)(2014) The London Stage 1930-1939 : a calendar of productions, performers, and personnel. Rowman and Littlefield
  • State of Victoria: Births, Death and Marriages
    • Sidney Murray Matheson, Birth certificate 1912. Doc 24110/1912
    • Ethel Matheson, Death certificate, 1924. Doc 4749/1924
  • Public Records Office, Victoria.
    • Divorce Case Files, 1860-1940. VPRS 283. Kenneth Murray Matheson v Hannah Margaret Matheson, 1933/387
  • National Library of Australia’s Trove
    • The Maitland Daily Mercury (NSW) 15 Feb 1936, P6
    • The Scone Advocate (NSW) 18 Feb 1936, P1
    • The Warwick Daily News (Qld) 11 Mar 1936, P2
    • Telegraph (Qld) 11 July 1936, P12
    • The Herald (Melb) 8 Aug 1936, P21
    • Table Talk (Melb) 8 Oct 1936, P18
    • Telegraph (Qld) 27 March 1937, P14
    • Telegraph (Qld) 12 June 1937, P14
    • The Herald (Melb) 7 May 1940, P15
    • The Home (Aust) Vol 22, No 1, 1 Jan 1941, P18
    • The Herald (Melb) 10 Mar 1949, P19
  • British Library Newspaper Archive
    • Bournemouth Graphic 29 Jan 1937, P10
    • Bournemouth Graphic 19 Feb 1937, P12
    • The Stage 16 June 1938, P9
    • Blyth News 12 Nov 1945 P3
    • The Sketch, 15 May 1946
    • Daily Herald, 10 November 1948 P3
    • The Age (Melb) 8 June 1934, P10
    • The Province (Vancouver) 17 March, 1950 P6
    • The Times (Louisiana) 3 Feb 1952, P23
    • The Greenville News (South Carolina) 6 June 1962, P6
    • The San Francisco Examiner, 5 Aug 1965 P30
    • The Los Angeles Times 19 Dec 1965, P93
    • The Los Angeles Times 2 Oct 1967, P47
    • The Sydney Morning Herald (Syd) 4 Feb 1968, P40
    • The Ogden Standard-Examiner (Utah) 16 June 1973, P23
    • The Greenville Times (South Carolina) 27 Jan 1975, P26
    • The Los Angeles Times, 26 April 1985, P30

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

Dorothy Alison (1925 – 1992) – Broken Hill’s award winning actor

Above: Dorothy Alison, then modelling as Perk Alison, on the cover of Pix magazine, 12 April, 1947. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove. This photo was connected to a lightweight article on “fear.” Pix was the type of magazine one read while waiting at the hairdresser.

Above: Dorothy Alison in the Australian Women’s Weekly, 25 Jan, 1956, P36

The 5 second version.
Dorothy Alison was active on the Australian stage, also appearing on radio and in several films. She joined the great post war exodus of Australian actors seeking opportunities overseas, and after two years working in an office, finally gained a role in the British film Mandy, after which she had roles steadily on TV and in film and sometimes on stage. She enjoyed something of a renaissance in the 1980s – working in Australia, appearing in a number of acclaimed TV miniseries. She is arguably one of Australia’s most successful actor exports. She was twice nominated for a BAFTA award in the 1950s, and won an Australian Logie award in 1981. She was married to actor and agent Leslie Linder from 1952-1971 and the couple had several children. In 2020, Mandy Miller, the child star of the film Mandy (1952) recalled her co-star fondly as “the lovely Dorothy Alison”.
Her younger sister Wendy Dickson was a highly regarded stage, set and costume designer in Australia. Her father William Dickson had been an important politician in New South Wales.

Dorothy Alison Dickson was born in Broken Hill, a booming mining town of 25,000 people in far western New South Wales on 4 March, 1925. She was the oldest of four sisters, all of whom would have some connection with the performing arts over time. Her father, William Dickson, a Lancashire born accountant, was to become an important figure in the Union movement and Australian Labor Party politics. He married Alice nee Cogan, a local woman, in 1922, and in time entered State Parliament. Their modest family home at 290 Oxide Street still stands today. (see Note 1)

Above: Possibly a union parade in Broken Hill about the time the Dickson family lived there. This is a public domain photo from the collections of the State Library of South Australia and has been cropped slightly. The original can be viewed here. The original title reads “Parade along Argent Street, Broken Hill, c 1920. A large crowd is gathered along each side of the road.”

The Dickson girls – Dorothy, Beth, Wendy and Marion, were all encouraged in the performing arts from a young age. Broken Hill drama teacher and director Miss Lena Atkinson included Dorothy and sister Beth in a performance called The Man in the Moon in 1934, and Dorothy and her sister Wendy in her 1936 production Let’s Pretend . Dorothy was 11 years old when she took the role of Captain Hook in Atkinson’s Peter Pan panto in June 1936. Apparently one of Ms Atkinson’s star pupils, Dorothy was often singled out for her acting. “It is remarkable to see a child put such force into a role…” reported one newspaper correspondent. After the family moved to the comfortable Sydney suburb of Vaucluse in the late 1930s and while she was still a student at Sydney Girls High School, Dorothy joined the Independent Theatre, under the dynamic direction of Doris Fitton. She appeared in Fitton’s production of Christa Winsloe‘s Children in Uniform in September 1942. (Several writers, including her obituarist at The Guardian claim that she was a successful dancer as a child. However, this writer can find no evidence to support this)

But something else important had already happened by this time. In mid 1942, pioneering Australian director Charles Chauvel used her in his propaganda short about the coal mining industry Power to Win. Chauvel turned out four of these shorts for the Ministry of Information. Elsa Chauvel recalled that the film utilised real union figures both in the planning and the filming and it is very likely that William Dickson’s union connections helped connect the filmmaker to his daughter. She was 17. (See Note 2)

Above: Power to Win, 1942, directed by Charles Chauvel. Click to watch a film clip at the NFSA Australian Screen website. Dorothy in her first film, as Ruth the coal miner’s daughter. Charles Chauvel made this for the Department of Information. (see also Note 2)

In later years Dorothy explained that she had dutifully spent much of the war as a typist, before stepping back into acting again, after it was all over. As the title photo above shows, she can be seen modelling, using the name “Perk Alison” an activity she undertook to raise her profile again in 1946. In April that year she also attracted some publicity when she and other Independent Theatre members tried to stage Lillian Hellman‘s The Children’s Hour as a charity fundraiser. Two theatres felt the play’s suggestion of same sex love would not appeal to “nice people” and it was dropped. However working with Yvonne Fifi Banvard (by then a producer) she appeared in some radio dramas and later in 1947 – a breakthrough – she was cast in Harry Watt‘s Eureka Stockade, an Ealing Studios version of the Miner’s rebellion at Ballarat in 1854. Dorothy’s role as publican Catherine Bentley was small but important in retelling the events leading to the rebellion. She subsequently dropped “Perk Alison” as a stage name and used “Dorothy Alison” – or sometimes Allison, based on her first and middle names. (It was a good idea – there was already another Dorothy Dickson acting in London).

Above: Screen grab of the opening credits of Charles Chauvel’s Sons of Matthew (1949). The titles are narrated, and open like an ornate 19th photo album. Both Dorothy Alison and her real sister Marion Dickson play Rose O’Riordan at different times of life. The DVD is part of the Charles Chauvel Collection, widely available through Umbrella Entertainment, Author’s copy.

In 1947 she was also cast in Charles Chauvel‘s pioneer story Sons of Matthew, to play Rose, one of the daughters, with real life 11 year old sister Marion Dickson playing the same character but in younger years. While the experience of making this film seems to have turned Marion off acting for good, it clearly inspired Dorothy. After more radio work, a season of Measure for Measure with John Alden‘s Shakespearean players, in early 1949 she departed for London on the SS Orion. She had booked herself into low cost accommodation at Helen Graham House, opposite the British Museum while she searched for work. Years later she recalled that the £200 she had saved up went quickly, and she found little acting work in London. Despite arriving with numerous letters of introduction, she ended up doing office work again. “For three years I had little acting, just one part in a BBC radio play, and any amount of typing.” Back in Australia, her younger sister Beth was performing with John Alden’s Shakespearean troupe.

Above: Dorothy’s younger sister Beth Dickson, while performing Shakespeare, in the Adelaide News 31 March 1952 P11. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove

It may have been a long time coming and her big break just “sheer luck”– as she was to observe herself , but Dorothy was also fortunate in her first British film – Mandy. No other Australians wanting work in England found themselves debuting in a film directed by the likes of Alexander Mackendrick, one of the most creative directors of the time. Her role was a small but crucial one – a teacher who works with the congenitally deaf child Mandy. The breakthrough scene where Mandy makes her first sound is filmed in such extreme closeup that one can see the pores on Dorothy’s skin. It is all the more powerful because of the grim intensity that has built slowly through the previous 50 minutes.

Above: Screen grab of Dorothy Alison as the teacher of the deaf, in a critical scene in Mandy (1952) A restored version of the film is available from Studio Canal. The child star Mandy Miller recently gave her memories of the film and her career (here), and the Studio Canal interview includes this key scene between Dorothy and Miller.

One might think that the effusive reviews of her performance, and there were plenty – in addition to a BAFTA nomination in 1953, also led to lots of new opportunities. But as she dryly noted herself, “there wasn’t a single decent offer, just a frightening silence.” It was most disheartening. There was some joy however – in late 1952 she married British actor Leslie Linder and in late 1953, after a few roles including a perfunctory one in Turn the Key Softly, she returned to Australia for a family visit, privately uncertain whether she wanted to keep on trying. Others had noticed the problem. Sydney Sun journalist Jack Pollard complained that Dorothy was getting a rough deal. Acting work seemed much easier for “the glamour girls with ample curves and no acting talent” he wrote.

However, the challenges for actresses in 1950s England were certainly more complex than just how they looked. Sweeping changes in society saw cinema attendance dramatically decline, while at the same time there were fewer film roles for women (one Australian journalist estimated only one in ten roles were for women). In the background there was the dramatic growth of television, changing how actors worked. Like her contemporary Betty McDowall, Dorothy did her share of acting in the new medium, although only a few of her early performances survive today.

Above Left: Screen grab of Dorothy Alison in an episode of the TV series The Adventures of Robin Hood. This episode, Ambush,(c1957) was directed by Lindsay Anderson and also guest starred Donald Pleasance. At right: Dorothy Alison with fellow Australian Charles Tingwell in Life in Emergency Ward 10 (1959), a film spin off of a popular TV show.

As we review her 1950s British feature films today, we can identify another problem she seemed to face. After Mandy, and probably because of it, she was often typecast as the wholesome, selfless woman. Consider her role as the ill-fated friend of Sister Luke (Audrey Hepburn) of the Congo in The Nun’s Story (1959); as the kindly Mrs Barnes who helps the disturbed Mr Wilson (Richard Attenborough) in The Man Upstairs (1958); as Joan – the good friend to an female ex-con Monica (Yvonne Mitchell) in Turn the Key Softly (1953); as the dedicated doctor-wife who helps save Tod (Colin Peterson) in The Scamp (1957); as Nurse Brace in Reach for the Sky, providing a stoic female equivalent to Kenneth More‘s Douglas Bader (1956). Film historian Brian McFarlane has accurately described her as “one of the most reliable character actors in 50s British cinema” and indeed she was, but it might also be argued that many of the characters she played were variations on a theme.

Above: Screengrabs of Dorothy in two films from 1956. Left – As Mary Halliday the policeman’s wife, in The Long Arm (Internet Archive). Right – As Nurse Brace, giving Douglas Bader (Kenneth More) a good talking to, in Reach for the Sky (Author’s Collection)

It is surprising that unlike so many of her Australian contemporaries, (Betty McDowall, Sara Gregory and others) it was a decade before she had a significant role on the English stage. In October 1961, Dorothy took a leading part in The Affair, an adaption by Ronald Miller of a C P Snow novel. Her performance as Laura Howard, the key female role in the play, was well received and the play enjoyed an 11 month run at The Strand.

Above: Dorothy Alison in her first important British stage role as Laura in C.P. Snow’s The Affair, running at the Strand Theatre from late 1961. Program in the author’s collection.

In the early 1970s Dorothy’s marriage to Leslie Linder failed. Now with three children, she continued to appear on stage, and in occasional TV appearances – plus a few films, including several thrillers. She had a memorable supporting role in Lionel Jefferies’ sentimental film vision of England’s past, The Amazing Mr Blunden, in 1972. She was 47 by this time, but carried the role of the widowed mother with two teenagers and a baby well. She had also successfully turned to script writing – authoring episodes of TV programs for ITV and the BBC- Dead of Night, The Man Outside and ITV Playhouse, and possibly others that have not been recorded.

Above: Dorothy Alison in later life. Photo accompanying her obituary for The Guardian, 29 Jan 1992, P35.

In 1981 she returned to Australia. The Australian arts were enjoying a renaissance, and for the next eight years this was generally where she worked – perhaps finding meatier roles, or at least fresh opportunities for an actor now aged in her mid 50s. She appeared for five months as the “battle-axe Ward Sister” in the touring play Whose Life is it Anyway? which included another ex-pat Australian, Annette Andre. She also performed as the stoic Mrs Firth, in A Town Like Alice, a mini-series based on Neville Shute’s novel. Skilfully filmed and well performed, A Town Like Alice won an Emmy for best international drama in November 1981, and in Australia it dominated the 1982 Logie Awards. Dorothy Alison, the Australian who had left 30 years before, won best supporting actor, alongside British actor Gordon Jackson and leading actors Bryan Brown and Helen Morse.

Over the next few years, Dorothy’s work included several Australian films, some TV dramas and narrations for documentaries (including a docu-drama on New South Wales’ first female lawyer Marie Byles), and three more mini-series on Australian themes – A Fortunate Life, Melba and Tusitala. In 1988 she had a supporting role in Evil Angels (aka A Cry in the Dark), the contemporary story of the awful death of baby Azaria Chamberlain – that so divided Australian society, directed by Fred Schepisi. In early 1986 she joined another play on an Australian tour, this one being Tennessee William’s Sweet Bird of Youth, headed by Lauren Bacall and Colin Friels. Hers was a smaller part, but a reviewer in the Melbourne Age was delighted that “Australian performers” like Dorothy could match “the amplitude of Miss Bacall.”

This later period of her work may tend to colour our understanding of her career – so much of it is available to collectors today. However, it is remarkable that she apparently made such an easy transition back to working in Australian film and theatre late in life – as only a handful of Australian women did this. She had returned to England again by 1990 and died at her home in Hampstead in early 1992. She was only 66.

Wendy Dickson (b 1932), Dorothy’s youngest sister, has enjoyed a long career as a successful designer for theatre, TV and film in Britain and Australia. Her film work has included Antony and Cleopatra (1972), Break of Day (1976) with her husband Ken Hannam and two films for Fred SchepisiThe Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith (1978) and Evil Angels (1988), with Dorothy. Her theatre work in Australia has taken her all over the country and included work as diverse as contemporary theatre, ballet and Opera. For a number of years she was associated with the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust. Interviewed by The Age newspaper in 1967, she recalled that as a young girl, she “desperately wanted to work in the theatre,” but becoming convinced she couldn’t act, turned to design.

Above left : Wendy Dickson in The Bulletin, April 16, 1977, P42. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Note 1. Her family

Aged 20 in 1913, Lancashire-born William Edward Dickson moved to Broken Hill, a mining town about 1100 kilometres west of Sydney. It would have been the sort of dramatic change that might have daunted many, but Dickson thrived and became active in the very strong union movement. He moved to Sydney in the mid 1930s although he had been a member of the Legislative Council (the State Upper House of Parliament) from the mid 1920s. At various times he served as a State Minister, and at the time of his death in 1966, was President of the Council (Speaker of the Upper House). He was given a state funeral.

Dorothy’s younger sisters were Elizabeth (“Beth”) born 1927, Wendy born 1932 and Marion born 1936.

Above left, Dickson on his first appointment to Parliament. The Sydney Morning Herald Sat 26 Dec 1925, Page 10, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Dorothy Alison’s date of birth is often incorrectly listed on the internet as April. But as both her death certificate and this US travel document from late 1962 show, she was born on 4 March 1925.

Note 2. An earlier film?
The NSFA website suggests Dorothy Dickson also appeared in Chauvel’s MOI short While There Is Still Time (1941) , however this writer believes the actress is a different person. Smiths Weekly, and The Sydney Morning Herald also reported that the lead was played by Nola Warren.

Note 3. Awards.
Most sources incorrectly claim Dorothy Alison won BAFTA awards for Mandy (1952) and Reach for the Stars (1956), cross referencing each other as a source, in the usual Internet fashion. The truth is that she was nominated both times, a great honour in itself, but did not win. She was nominated in 1953 as Most Promising Newcomer for Mandy, but lost to Claire Bloom for Limelight. In 1957 she was nominated as best British Actress for Reach for the Stars, but lost to Virginia McKenna for A Town Like Alice. All of this can be easily verified on BAFTA’s own website.

Nick Murphy
March 2021


  • Text
    • Elsa Chauvel (1973) My Life with Charles. Shakespeare Head Press, Sydney
    • Brian McFarlane (Ed) (2003) The Encyclopedia of British Film. BFI-Methuen
    • J.P. Wearing (2014) The London stage 1950-1959 : a calendar of productions, performers, and personnel. Rowman and Littlefield
    • Picture Show and Film Pictorial (Magazine) Nov 16, 1957. Author’s collection.
  • British Library Newspaper Archive
    • The Stage, Sept 28, 1961, P13
    • The Illustrated London News, Oct 7, 1961, P598
  • National Library of Australia’s Trove
    • Barrier Miner (Bkn Hill) 14 Nov 1934, P 3
    • Barrier Miner (Bkn Hill) 21 Nov 1935, P2
    • Sydney Morning Herald, 5 Sept 1942, P11
    • Herald (Melb) 29 April 1946, P9
    • Pix, 12 April 1947.
    • Age (Melb) 28 Jan 1949, P1
    • ABC Weekly 19 Feb 1949, P14
    • The Mail (Adel) 31 Mar 1952, P11
    • The Age (Melb) 4 Aug 1952, P2
    • Sydney Morning Herald, 4 Aug 1952, P3
    • Sunday Herald (Syd) 7 Sept 1952, P16
    • The Sun (Syd) 12 March 1953, P37
    • Barrier Miner (Bkn Hill) 17 Sept 1953, P13
    • Barrier Miner (Bkn Hill) 23 Nov 1953, P9
    • The Australian Women’s Weekly 25 Jan, 1956, P36
    • The Australian Women’s Weekly, 26 June 1957, P41
    • The Australian Women’s Weekly 1 Oct, 1958, P66
    • ABC Weekly, 7 Jan 1959, P7
    • The Canberra Times (ACT) Sat 24 Apr 1965, P9
    • The Canberra Times (ACT) 23 May 1966, P3
    • The Age (Melb) 27 Jun 1967, P15
    • The Australian Women’s Weekly 1 May 1974
    • The Bulletin April 16, 1977
    • The Canberra Times (ACT) 19 April 1981, P8
    • Sydney Morning Herald, 27 Jan 1986, P52
    • The Age (Melb) 1 Feb 1986 P 125
    • Sydney Morning Herald 20 Jan 1992
    • The Age (Melb) 22 Feb 1986, P149
    • The Guardian (UK) 29 Jan 1992, P29

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

Betty McDowall (1924 – 1993) -London was “Tough as Hell”

Above: Enlargement of Betty on a fan card c 1955-65. Author’s collection.
Above: Betty McDowall, aged 21, on the cover of the Australian Broacasting Commission’s ABC Weekly, on December 8, 1945. Note her surname is misspelled McDowell here. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

The 5 second version
Betty McDowall had an extraordinarily active career on stage and radio – commencing in Australia in 1942. She moved to England in 1951, developing a performance persona that film historian Brian McFarlane has described as “quietly appealing.” Although appearing in some leading roles in film, she had more success in supporting roles of domestic life on British TV, becoming a familiar face on numerous programs into the early 1970s. Between 1977 and 1985 she had a regular role on the BBC radio series The Archers. Married three times, she died in England in 1993. Her surname was regularly misspelled McDowell.

Unlike many of her contemporaries, Betty McDowall never became an enthusiastic self-promoter and little can be found to inform us of her Sydney childhood or her reflections on her own career over time. But in 1965, in one of her rare public comments, Betty McDowall gave the opinion that an actor’s life in London was “tough as hell.” This comment appeared in a Canberra Times article by Tom Lake, making a refreshing change from the usual celebratory reporting about the doings of Australians acting overseas. For once, a reporter wrote frankly about just how hard it was to break in and to maintain a career. Lake’s survey of Australian actors included Alan White, Lloyd Lamble, Dorothy Alison, Shirley Cameron and others. Dorothy Alison, who had just temporarily retired, claimed that on arrival she had been armed with “all sorts of introductions, none of which did any good.” Lake also highlighted an added problem for women – there was much less work available for them than for men; perhaps only 1 in 10 jobs were for actresses.

Betty was born Elizabeth Margarita McDowall in Sydney on 14 August, 1924, to John Lloyd McDowall, a clerk connected with the racing industry and Florence nee Warren. Her father John had been born in Chongqing, China in 1894, to John (senior), an expatriate postal commissioner for the Qing Dynasty and his Chinese wife, unnamed in official documents. But Betty’s father seems to have lived in Australia from his youth, marrying Florence in Sydney in June 1917. Betty was the third of the couple’s three daughters. (See Note 1)

Sadly, John and Florence divorced in the early 1930s. By this time John’s profession was listed as a hairdresser, although he was doing well enough in the height of the Depression. In 1932 he had inherited a brother’s estate and was able to support Betty as a boarder at Mount St Bernard’s Convent School in Pymble (a northern suburb of Sydney). She left the school aged only 15, having developed an early love for the theatre and almost certainly having received training from one of Sydney’s many private drama tutors. In time, she also turned her hand to fashion design like her older sister Ursula, and she wrote scripts for radio. A 1948 account of Betty’s early life also suggested she was an “outdoors girl,” who sailed her own VJ dinghy (a fast, light skiff developed in the early 1930s) on Sydney harbour, and who liked cycling, poetry and philosophy. Maybe, but this latter description sounds suspiciously like familiar newspaper padding, designed to conform to popular notions of the “typical Australian girl.”

Above: Betty McDowall was a regular in the pages of ABC Weekly, between 1945 and 1951 reflecting how busy the young actor was on radio. Left, on the cover on June 12, 1948, with her name again misspelled. Right, posing to advertise the radio comedy George and Margaret June 11, 1949. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Betty McDowall’s earliest performance experiences were in radio serials for the Australian Broadcasting Commission (still known to Australians today as the ABC), and on the Macquarie radio Network. One of her first was in Dr Mac, a comedy-drama based around the doings of a small town doctor. Her first appearance on stage professionally was possibly in mid-1943 at Sydney’s Minerva Theatre, in the play Janie, directed by Alec Coppel. Melbourne born Coppel already had experience as a writer in England and had come back home in 1940. He later went on to a Hollywood career – writing numerous screenplays, including Vertigo (1958). Unfortunately, we do not know how the 19 year old Betty came to Coppel’s attention, but he cast her as one of the friends of Janie, an American high school girl (played by Gwenda Wilson) who holds a disastrous party for US servicemen while her parents are away. Reviews of the comedy were generally positive – the idea of girls having a tearaway party in their parents’ absence was quite novel for war-weary Australians. In February 1944, after several more plays, Betty appeared in a leading role in Patrick Hamilton’s thriller Rope, again directed by Coppel for the Minerva Theatre.

On May 1, 1942, at the age of only 17, Betty married James Joseph White, a musician. She was so young she needed her mother’s permission to marry. Unfortunately, the couple’s relationship did not last beyond the end of the war. Within a few years White had become inattentive, announcing that he “didn’t want to be tied down”, and he increasingly stayed out late. In divorce court in 1946 Judge Edwards expressed his confusion about the excuse that White had stayed out late at “jam sessions”, a term the judge had never heard. Well and truly channeling archaic attitudes of nineteenth century Australia he announced “I don’t understand…what such activities would have to do with jam”. Truth newspaper joined in with frivolous reporting of the unhappy event, under the heading “Marriage was all Jammed up”.

At the same time all this was unfolding, Betty thought she had a chance of performing on Broadway in the play Flying Fox, written by visiting US serviceman Warren Cheney. Cheney’s intentions were honourable – he wanted to present a contemporary vision of Australia for US audiences, using real Australian actors, including Betty and Ron Randell. But nothing came of the scheme or the play. However, Betty did find more work in local theatre and in an endless stream of radio comedy and drama. And in early 1947, she had another breakthrough – she was cast in her first film role. Always another Dawn was a feature film made by Sydney’s McCreadie brothers, who already had some experience with making short films. It was a war drama, partly filmed on board the Australian destroyer Bataan. In addition to Betty, it starred capable actors in Guy Dolman, Queenie Ashton and Charles Tingwell. Unfortunately, despite the ability of the cast, the film did not fare well. The lighting was criticised as poor, the dialogue dull, and the plot, which included the death in combat of the key protagonist (Tingwell) was heavy handed. Betty never gave an opinion of the film herself, but interviewed in 2002, Tingwell recalled her as one Sydney’s fine young actresses.

Above: Betty performed alongside Michael Pate in the 3UZ radio serial Forrester’s Wharf shortly before leaving for England. Pate had departed for the US in November 1950. The Age, Thu 22 Mar 1951, P1, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Despite the film’s lack of success, there continued to be a stream of stage opportunities that reflected recognition of her ability. In mid 1948, The Sydney Morning Herald noted her good humoured and vivid portrayal of Lydia in Pride and Prejudice at the Minerva. When British actor Robert Morley brought his play Edward, My Son to Australia in October 1949, Betty won the role of the girl Edward marries, requiring her to be on stage just twice – but long enough to attract the positive attention of reviewers. Meanwhile radio performances continued to be her “bread and butter”. 1951 saw her perform on radio with two up and coming Australians – Michael Pate in Forrester’s Wharf and Rod Taylor in My Friend Irma.

The late 1940s and early 1950s saw many young actors leave to try their luck internationally – there was simply not enough work in Australia. Betty’s contemporaries Gwenda Wilson and Dorothy Alison had both departed for London in 1949 and their letters home sometimes appeared in newspapers – it is fair to assume those who were friends also wrote encouragingly to each other. Betty left for England in 1951 – a brave move despite her record of success at home – as she had no connections there. Her first theatre work in London was not as an actor, but as an Assistant Stage Manager for the Tennent Productions play – Indian Summer in late 1951. She played her first role on the London stage in Tennent’s The Same Sky in early 1952.

Coinciding with Betty’s arrival in Britain were dramatic shifts in cinema attendance and the growth of a new phenomenon – the rapid rise of British Television, with a dramatic increase in numbers of household sets spurred on by events such as the 1953 Coronation, and after 1955, the addition of ITV as an alternative to the BBC. As a consequence, there was greater demand for programming, and new work for actors. All the same, her first television outing in April 1953 was hardly very profound fare – it was a videoed promotional version of the play Half Seas Over, a comedy about a female US Channel swimmer that was soon to open at the Q Theatre. (Betty played the swimmer’s sister).

It may have been hellishly hard work as she was later to claim, but her career took off quickly and diverse performances across stage, TV and cinema became her trademark. By December 1956 it was reported that Betty had already appeared in 68 TV roles, and the Lancashire Evening Post’s TV reviewer could describe her as one of his “favourite Television actresses”. For Tatler magazine, at about the same time, the young Australian was a “television personality” worthy of including in a photospread. Her TV performances were in a mix of filmed plays – usually current at theatres, guest parts in serials and one off stories of the “armchair theatre” type, then so popular.

Betty’s first feature film role was in Ealing films The Shiralee, made in late 1956 and set in outback Australia. Featuring numerous Australians then working in England – Peter Finch, Charles Tingwell, Frank Leighton, Reg Lye, Ed Devereaux, Bill Kerr and others, it was filmed partly at the MGM studios in London, as well as on location in New South Wales. Betty had just one scene – as a kindly English-sounding nurse, taking a telegram for Macauley (Finch) the swagman (or itinerant worker). This single appearance in an indoor scene was almost certainly filmed in London. (See Note 2)

Above: Screen grab from Ealing Films The Shiralee. Betty as a kindly nurse in her one scene, with Peter Finch. The film is widely available for purchase – this copy from Network’s Ealing Studios Rarities Collection.

Soon after she took her first leading role in another film – Timelock, playing the mother of a child who accidentally gets locked in an airtight bank vault, protected by a timelock. It is a clever plot for a B film, but largely famous now for the appearance of a very young Sean Connery as one of the workmen assigned to cut into the vault. Betty’s performance playing a now familiar role – the slightly exotic, good looking, but sensible mother, was reviewed positively.

Above: Screen grabs from Timelock (1957). Left – Betty as the child’s increasingly strained mother. At right, Sean Connery as one of the workmen. The 70 minute film is set in Toronto, Canada, although filmed in England.

After a few more supporting roles in films, including Jack the Ripper, in 1960 she took another leading role in the British B film Dead Lucky, coincidentally opposite another young Australian, Vincent Ball, both of them playing London reporters investigating a gambling ring. Interviewed by film historian Brian McFarlane in the late 1990s, Ball recalled that while the 1950s was a good time to be working in British film – “if you’d done a stint in rep and had a decent agent, you could get work” – he only ever felt really secure when he had an ATV contract for an ongoing television series. He seemed to suggest insecurity came with an acting career. Betty appeared again with Vincent Ball in Echo of Diana in 1963, another 60 minute B film.

Surviving and easily accessible for today’s enthusiasts are some of Betty’s performances in 50s and 60s TV series, now on DVD, that give us some insight into her work. For example, in 1964 she appeared in an episode of The Saint called “The Loving Brothers”. Set in “Outback Australia” but clearly filmed on a cheap set and in a stark English quarry, it again featured many of the familiar Australian faces then working in London – like Ray Barrett, Reg Lye, Dick Bentley and Ed Devereaux, who ham things up ridiculously, well and truly conforming to the established postwar stereotype of Australians. In this episode she played a thoroughly unlikeable social-climbing wife of one of the very unpleasant brothers. Sydney-born Annette Andre played the episode’s passive romantic interest opposite Roger Moore.

While television and film is always a lasting legacy, it tends to colour our understanding of an actor’s career. This may also be the case with Betty McDowall, as it is in fact stage work that seems to have sustained her reputation in the 1960s. For example, she earned praise for her performance in Tennessee Williams’ Period of Adjustment at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 1962, The Stage noting that she provided one of the funniest closing lines in the West End. Reviewers of Rule of Three, which ran at The Duchess Theatre in late 1962, also praised her performance, although some found the three short Agatha Christie plays dated and predictable. She managed all of these at the same time she had a recurring role in the TV series Outbreak of Murder. In 1968 she returned to Tennessee Williams again, performing in Sweet Bird of Youth.

Above: Betty, now aged in her late 30s, appeared in Rule of Three, at the Duchess Theatre in December 1962. Photo from a program in the author’s collection.

Betty McDowall did not fade away. She continued on stage and in supporting roles on screen, although there was clearly less work. In 1977, following the sudden death of her old friend from Sydney, Gwenda Wilson, she took over the role of Aunt Laura, in The Archers. She played the role in this immensely popular BBC radio series until the character’s demise in 1985. In a way, it seems fitting that 40 years after her first appearances on radio, this was also how she finished her career.

She was married twice in England – to electronics engineer Leslie Cody from 1953 – 1962 and then to Michael Leader in 1967. Leader, who worked for the BBC, was also a well known genealogist.

Betty McDowall died in December 1993. There were no children from any of her marriages and her Australian sisters had predeceased her. Sadly, this writer has found no obituaries or notices concerning her passing.

Screengrab from the B-film Echo of Diana (1963) – Betty in a blonde wig performing in a second film with, at left, fellow Australian Vincent Ball (b1923). Copy on Youtube

Note 1
Betty’s father John McDowall‘s (1894-1973) birth in China is alluded to in his 1933 – 35 divorce papers, and on her sister Ursula McDowall‘s birth certificate from 1918. John senior’s (1864-1923) position as a Postal Commissioner in Nanning, and his sudden death there in October 1923, is mentioned in The North- China Herald and Supreme Court and Consular Gazette, 24 Nov 1923, p520.

John senior’s various awards for service from the Emperor were also publicly recorded in China and Britain. Betty’s aunt Juanita’s (“Nita”) great success as a student at Shanghai’s Thomas Hanbury School also gained some acknowledgement in The North – China Herald, see Feb 2, 1905, p240.

Note 2
The astute viewer of The Shiralee, wishing to confirm actors’ names, will notice that the closing credits are a mess. In the usual way, the leading actors’ names match the characters’ names – which are bold, larger and in Capital letters. Then suddenly, there is a switch and some supporting actors‘ names are in Caps while others are not – and presented as though Mark Daly was played by Betty McDowall , or Guy Doleman was played by Lou Vernon. Clearly this was put together by someone who hadn’t seen the film and didn’t know the actors. It’s unusual to see such sloppy work in a Michael Balcon film.

Above: Screen grab of closing titles from the author’s copy of The Shiralee. Available from Network’s Ealing Studios Rarities Collection

Nick Murphy
February 2021


  • New South Wales Births, Death and Marriages
    • Marriage Cert 15906/1942
    • Birth Cert 18251/1918
  • New South Wales State Archives
    • NRS-13495-14-298-859/1934, Divorce papers Florence Ursula McDowall – John Lloyd McDowall 05-10-1933 to 24-07-1935
  • Text
    • Brian McFarlane (Ed) (2003) The Encyclopedia of British Film. BFI-Methuen
    • Brian McFarlane (1997) An Autobiography of British Cinema. Methuen
    • Stephen Vagg. Australasian Drama Studies, 56, April 2010. Alec Coppel Australian playwright and survivor. P 219-232
    • J P Wearing ( 2014) The London Stage 1950-1959. A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel.  Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
      [Note – this source erroneously lists Betty McDowall twice – once as Betty McDowell]
    • Vanessa Whitburn (1997) The Archers : the official inside story : the changing face of radio’s longest running drama. Virgin, London.
  • Other Websites
    • OzMovies.comAlways another Dawn – Review and resources.
  • National Library of Australia’s Trove
    • The Sydney Morning Herald, 4 Dec 1934, P6
    • Daily Telegraph (Syd), 6 Oct 1940, P23
    • The Sydney Morning Herald, 6 May 1943, P7
    • The Sun (Syd) 9 May 1943, P4
    • Truth (Syd) 12 Mar 1944, P25
    • Truth (Syd) 17 June 1945, P27
    • ABC Weekly, 8 Dec 1945,
    • Truth (Syd) 21 April 1946, P24
    • The Sun (Syd) 14 Feb 1947, P5
    • The Sydney Morning Herald 24 Nov 1947, P5
    • The News (Adel) 18 Dec 1947, P3
    • West Australian (Perth) 19 Dec 1947, P22
    • The Sydney Morning Herald 18 May 1948, P3
    • The ABC Weekly, 12 June 1948
    • Australian Women’s Weekly, 9 Oct 1948, P19
    • The Sydney Morning Herald, 18 May 1948, P3
    • Daily Telegraph (Syd) 8 Mar 1949, P4
    • ABC Weekly 11 June 1949
    • ABC Weekly 12 March 1949
    • Sunday Herald (Syd) 23 Oct 1949, P6
    • The Courier Mail (Bris) 31 May 1950, P8
    • The ABC Weekly, 12 Aug, 1950,
    • The Sunday Mail (Bris) 23 May 1954, P26
    • The Sydney Morning Herald, 12 Jan 1961, P17
    • The Sydney Morning Herald, 13 May 1963, P14
    • Canberra Times, 24 April 1965, P9

  • British Library Newspaper Project
    • The Stage 7 May 1953, P9
    • The Stage, 12 July 1956, P12
    • Lancashire Evening Post – Wed 1 August 1956, P5
    • The Tatler Wed 22 August 1956, P24
    • Daily Herald – Thurs 6 December 1956, P3
    • The Stage, 31 Jan 1957, P12
    • The Tatler, 27 June 1962.
    • The Stage, 12 July 1962, P16
    • The Daily Mirror, 6 Nov 1962, P9
    • The Observer, 14 Jul 1968, Sun · P 26
    • The Stage, 21 Nov, 1968, P9

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

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

Above: Sara Gregory c1950-55 – 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.


  • 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
    • The Ottawa Journal 11 Jan 1975, P35

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

Sketches of Pollard’s Performers

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

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

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

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

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

Oscar, Freddie & Johnnie Heintz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alice and Ethel Bennetto

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

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

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

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

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

Ethel Naylor

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

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

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

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

Minnie, Nellie and May Topping

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

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

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

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

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

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

Minnie Topping with a daughter, c1923. Private Collection

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.

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

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

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

General Reading

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

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

Regarding Oscar, Freddie and Johnnie Heintz

  • Via
    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
    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 contemporary 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.

Jane E Southcott has written of concern amongst politicians and the efforts made in South Australian schools to improve Australian speech. She cites School Inspector Maughan reporting in 1912 that “a few minutes spent daily in the practice of pure enunciation would to much to eliminate what is known as ‘the Australian twang.'” Similar sentiments were undoubtedly felt throughout the rest of Australia.

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.

  • Bill Kerr’s (1922-2014) exaggerated Australian accent and stories featured in his popular British act, the “Man from Wagga Wagga”. Here is an example from 1951. Below, however, is an example of Kerr without the broad accent, singing with Joy Nichols.

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, the only schools that could provide a pathway to universities and better careers. Today 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. In the early twentieth century, for these middle class Australians, there was probably a self consciousness about accents, and therefore a desire to speak without any hint of a colonial upbringing. 

Two expat-Australians doing a very good job of sounding like they belonged in the old West. Finis Barton (1911-1979) from Perth appeared with J.P McGowan (1880-1952) in Stampede (1936)


  • 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 of all Australians, those who had been to private schools probably already had a “drawing room accent”  – meaning they 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 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

  • 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). One wonders whether her accent might have some American pronunciations?

    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

6. Blended US-Australian accents

Much harder to find are examples of the blended accents of North Americans who now live in Australia, but here are a few:

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

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

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

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

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

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. This claim is 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

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
    • 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

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

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


Above left: John D’Arcy and Lorraine Smith in Strike Me Lucky. “Everyone’s” 19 Sept 1934, (Vol.14 No.760). Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove. Right: Barbara Smith in Melbourne in 1938. Photo by Jack Cato, courtesy Libby White.

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).

Taking an interest in the stage after finishing school in 1928, Barbara Smith also attended RADA in 1933-34, and appeared on repertory company tours in England. However she left London in 1935 and returned to a career on radio and the stage in Australia – performing to the mid 1940s. 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



  • Patsy Trench, Nancy O’Neil’s daughter, for her assistance and encouragement. Her website is here.
  • Libby White, daughter of Barbara Smith and Lloyd Lamble, for her assistance and encouragement.
  • Prue Heath, Archivist, SCEGGS Darlinghurst.


  • 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


  • 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

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

Lucille Lisle (1908 – 2004)

Above; Lucille Lisle. The Australian Women’s Weekly, 4 June, 1938. Via 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.

A very young Lucille being used to advertise the services of a children’s nursery in Sydney. The Theatre Magazine, 1 October 1914, P10. Via State Library of Victoria

“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 with Fred Conyngham and Molly Fisher. 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. In her 18 months in New York she also took roles in A Widow in Green and A Night of Barrie. 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 Molly Fisher, Fred Conyngham, 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



  • 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.

State Library of Victoria

  • The Theatre Magazine, 1 October 1914, P10

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

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

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

Main: A photo of part of outer 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 from Theatre Magazine (US), Vol 33, P333, 1921. Photo credited to Nickolas Muray. Via the Hathitrust.

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 (now part of Karratha) 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. To the casual observer today, this area appears to be unproductive dry scrub country. However, it continues to be an area of great mineral wealth, pastoral interests 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, 1500 kilometres to the south. It was run by a Miss Ethel Simpson and despite its grand title, 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 a 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 their 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 while in The Girls of Gottenburg, in Melbourne Australia. The Theatre Magazine 2 Jan 1908. Via State Library of Victoria.

An English stage career, 1912-1915

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

Performing in the US, 1915+

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: Lionel Atwill, The Theatre Magazine, 1 December 1910. Via State Library of Victoria. Right Daily Register, New Jersey, 12 June 1918. Via

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

Enter Lionel Atwill, 1918

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

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. It might be that they were never suited.

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 estate matters, 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 or Mary Fowler.

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

Sojourn in France and England, 1926 – 1933

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, 1933 +

Above: Elsie and Max after their return to Australia. Left – The Wireless Weekly, 20 November 1936. Right – Max in costume, The Wireless Weekly 13 November 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 (a very long way from the Pilbarra) when she died in 1963, aged 70. She had apparently remarried in the 1950s, and was called Elsie Smith at the time of her death.

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.
(Note: Since this was written both Wikipedia and the IMDB have been updated, apparently using some of this material)

Further Reading


  • 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

State Library of Victoria

  • The Theatre Magazine

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

  • 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

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