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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Finlay family

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nellie Finlay takes charge of the family 1907+

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

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

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

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


The Disaster in India 1909-1910

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harry and Nellie working together 1910 +

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

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

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

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

Irene and Arthur’s later life 1910+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Nick Murphy
July 2021


References

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

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