Billy Williams and the lost story of his little sister Madge

Above: Billy Williams – enlarged from a Song Book cover, via National Library of Australia’s Trove. Madge Williams, while performing for Pollards Lilliputian Opera Company. Photographed while in Hong Kong and on tour, c1901 – courtesy the Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

The Five Second Version
Melbourne born Madge Williams (sometimes also Madge Woodson, but born Banks)(1893-1977) was a star performer with two Pollards Lilliputian Opera Company tours in 1900-1902. Still aged under 10, she left the company while in the US, subsequently performing there and in Britain with her older sister Lily before marrying vaudevillian Bert Coleman. Her older brother Billy Williams (1878-1915) became a very popular music hall performer and an early recording artist in the UK, achieving great fame before his death in England at the height of his career, in 1915. After a final return tour of Australia in 1920-21, Madge retired from the stage. She died in Texas in 1977. 

The Banks Family

Above: Madge in Pollards production of The Belle of New York c1901. Madge’s brother Billy Williams was establishing himself in Britain at the same time. Photo courtesy the Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.

Madge Williams, sometimes Little Madge Woodson – real name Margaret Hilda Banks, was born in Melbourne on August 15, 1893, to Richard Shaw Banks, a draper, and Mary nee McIntosh. Unfortunately a certificate verifying her birth never seems to have been issued – nor one for her older sister Lillian, born in 1875. Based on public death notices for parents Mary and Richard, birth certificates for the family’s boys and on later US documents for Madge, we can see there were six Banks children who survived infancy, four of whom went on stage:

  • Lillian (Lily) born 1875,
  • Richard (Dick) born 1876,
  • William, Will or later Billy (but confusingly also named Richard Isaac on his birth certificate) born 1878, (See below and Note 1 below regarding his name)
  • Reginald (Reg) born 1880,
  • Rowland (Rowley) born 1885 and
  • Margaret (Madge) born 1893

There is no doubt the Banks family had an unorthodox approach to formalising the births of their children, even by standards of the time. All the births for the family’s male children were registered. However, births for the two surviving girls – Lily (b 1875) and Madge (b 1893) appear not to have been registered at all. The birth for another daughter – Margery Valentine (b 1888 – d 1888) wasn’t registered for 10 months, until about the time of the child’s death, and in that case it was reported by 13 year old Lily rather than one of the parents, which appears to be most unusual. Two other daughters’ births were registered, but both had died after only a few weeks. These unusual circumstances suggest a seriously dysfunctional dimension to family life.

Richard Shaw Banks and Mary McIntosh were married on October 23, 1877, at their home – May Cottage on Reilly Street, North Carlton, now called Princes Street, a major Melbourne thoroughfare. Richard Shaw Banks was illiterate and he signed the marriage papers with a mark. The two oldest children of the family – Lily and Richard, were thus born before their parents marriage.

The family rented and moved about, as was common for Melbourne’s urban poor. Jeff Brownrigg has traced some of their movements through inner Melbourne and suggests that the family progressed to more affluent suburbs over time. Electoral rolls show by 1910 Richard and Mary Banks lived at 15 Moffatt Street in South Yarra, further from the industrial inner suburbs but still in a very modest cottage.


“A doll-like child.” Madge on stage 1899

Above, Left: “Little Madge Woodson” featured in Pollard’s advertising in the Salt Lake Telegram, 15 Feb 1902. Right: Madge Woodson having left Pollards, in the San Francisco Examiner, 12 October 1902. Via Newspapers.com

While Madge’s exact pathway onto the stage is now lost to us, we know that amongst her earliest appearances was one when she was aged only about 6, in a performance in Fitzroy in May 1899, where she attracted attention for singing Maude Nugent‘s new song Sweet Rosie O’Grady. In September 1899 she appeared on stage with her brother Will Williams (later to become Billy Williams), who was then part of the Ettie Williams’ troupe. Also appearing with her was another performing brother, Reg. This is the only time members of the Banks family performed together, as far as this writer can determine.

Soon after this appearance, Madge joined Pollards Lilliputian Opera Company, to take a long overseas performance tour through the Far East – and then on to North America from September 1901- October 1902. Will meantime, left for England in late 1899.

As Madge Woodson, she became a popular Pollard Lilliputian Opera Company performer, often vying with Daphne Pollard for pride of place in newspaper reports. That contemporary audiences were so taken with juvenile performers in adult roles seems clear from reviews. The “cute,” “petite” Madge was an “unusual talent” who had a “wonderful French accent”, and was also a “graceful dancer”, while Daphne Pollard was the “sweetest thing that ever happened.” The Great Falls Tribune described Madge as “a doll like child.” (27 Jan 1902)

Above: Madge Woodson with Pollards – and other Australian child performers listed here, with a mix of real and stage names. This is the cast list for the week commencing November 11, 1901, for The Belle of New York, in San Francisco. Author’s collection

In July 1902, while in the US, Madge left the Pollard troupe. They had been performing away from home for 11 months on this tour, and were due to return to Australia. But Madge Woodson did not return, instead, she began a stage career in the US – although still not yet ten years old. Who looked after her interests at this time we do not know for certain, but the likely choice was her older sister Lily, with whom she would later collaborate. Perhaps anticipating the criticism of child stage performance then gaining ground in the US, a long article in the San Francisco Call of 3 August 1902, soon after her break from Pollards, extolled her virtues as an animal lover and an award she had reportedly been given by the Melbourne branch of the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

1903 saw Madge as part of mixed variety lineups in California with a “Lily Boyd”, perhaps her sister Lily, performing in the sketches or “character comedies” The Cook Lady and The Big and the Little of It. Her footsteps in the US for the remainder of this decade are harder to trace, although her sister Lily’s marriage to performer Ed Daly was recorded in Iowa in 1907. In the same year, Madge performed with Australian vaudevillian Leon Errol and his wife Stella Chatelaine as part of Jimmy Cooper’s Jersey Lilies in New York, with good reviews. As Frank Cullen et al note, “Errol was manager, director, sketch writer and chief comic” for the troupe. We can only speculate whether this association with Leon Errol sharpened Madge’s performance skills.

Madge and Lily 1910 -1922

Above: A very grainy photo of Madge and Lily performing as part of the variety lineup at The Lyric Theatre at Muskogee in Oklahoma. Muskogee Times Democrat, 21 March 1910. Via Newspapers.com

The period 1910 – 1922 saw Lily and Madge performing together in the US, South Africa, England and finally Australia again. In 1910, their older brother Billy was at the height of his popularity as a music hall entertainer and recording artist, and at times, they used his songs. Williams was now settled as a stage surname and occasionally their familial connection to Billy was noted, although the sisters appear never to have performed with him. Always a part of a variety lineup, the sisters act consisted of comedy patter and songs, not unlike the one Billy was developing, before his sudden death in 1915.


Above: Madge and Lillian in England, The Sunday Post, 13 August 1916, Via the British Newspaper Archive.

In May 1917, while in South Africa, Madge married Bert Coleman (Jacob Cohen), a fellow vaudevillian – who had a reputation as an amusing “impersonator” and “comic whistler“. Bert was often presented to audiences as English, but in reality he had been born in Savanah, Georgia and made his home in Texas. Following the marriage, Bert often appeared on the same vaudeville bill as Madge and Lily. Two children, Billy and Barney, were born of the union while they performed in England.

Above: Bert Coleman and Madge Williams on a 1917 US passport application. Source US National Archives via Family Search.

In early 1920, Bert, with Madge and Lily, who were now billed as the “Williams Sisters,” came to Australia to appear around the country with Fuller’s theatres. Their vaudeville turn again appears to have been some clever humorous patter between popular songs. Adelaide’s Register reported “Bert Coleman again told humorous stories, sang funny songs, and whistled so musically that it was difficult to judge which section of his turn one admired the most. The Williams sisters continue to be great favourites with their audience, [with] their reputation for producing ‘miles of smiles…”

In April 1921, Adelaide’s The Advertiser commented on their touching rendition of one of Billy’s last songs (he had died in England suddenly in 1915) – Our Little Kiddie Sings the Best Song of All. You can hear an original recording of Billy singing it here.

Above: Bert, Lily and Madge in the Fullers lineup at Melbourne’s Bijou Theatre – appearing alongside Roy Rene and Nat Phillips as “Stiffy and Mo”. The Age (Melbourne) 26 July, 1920.

Madge and Bert returned to the US in November 1922 and moved back to Bert’s home state of Texas, where they lived in Waco, Forth Worth and finally Dallas. Already under siege from cinema, the days of mixed vaudeville programs was well and truly coming to an end by the 1920s and although there is some evidence Bert occasionally performed, Madge did not. Bert turned to running some small businesses.

Madge died in Dallas, on 9 July 1977. By then, she was listed as Margaret Hildegard Cole, daughter of “Jack” and “Maggie” Banks of “New Castle”, Australia, reminding us how wildly inaccurate death certificates can be. Only her date of birth and shared address with Bert, who had died in 1971, remain to confirm her identity. Unfortunately her sister Lily’s later fate remains unknown.


Billy Williams on the Stage c1897 – 1915

As Jeff Brownrigg has noted in his very detailed 1989 account, little is known with certainty of the early days of William Banks or “Billy Williams” (confusingly named Richard Isaac Banks on his 7 Feb 1878 birth certificate)(See Note 1). There were plenty of anecdotes about him given in later years, including stories of his early experiences as a strapper or groom for jockey Tommy Corrigan and his nickname being “Curly Banks.” There was also a tale that the name Billy Williams was borrowed from a successful Australian boxer of the time. Frank Van Straten‘s 1968 interview with Billy Williams’ widow Amy Jennings provides confirmation of his work as a strapper, but not much else of use as regards what happened in his early years. Amy was clearly wanting to protect Billy’s image with some of her answers – she claimed that he was born in Collins Street Melbourne (the most prestigious street in the city’s main business district) and that his father was secretary of the Albert Park Golf Club. But perhaps she just didn’t know. Her memories of Billy as a performer in England seem much more considered and were probably more reliable – the couple had met and married in London in September 1901. Billy had had limited schooling Amy said, and he had no formal musical training. But he had a beautiful voice.

Billy’s first publicly reported appearance as a comedian and singer was as “Will Williams” in late 1897, in Melbourne. He was soon touring regional Australian provincial venues as an “English vocalist” in vaudeville programs, when he was picked up by the Harry Cogill Musical Comedy Company.

Above: Billy Williams, The Edison Phonograph Monthly Jan-Dec 1912, P3. Via Lantern, the Media History Digital Library.

According to Amy Jennings, Melbourne entrepreneur George Adams saw him and sponsored him to try his luck in England. Possibly, or perhaps he just saved up. He is known to have departed Australia aboard the SS Afric in late 1899.

Will was fortunate and appeared at the London Hippodrome soon after arriving, billed as an “Australian comedian.” His memory of the early days was that it was a struggle, according to Amy’s 1968 interview. Early newspapers do not give a very clear idea of exactly what his act entailed, but humorous songs on sentimental, contemporary and popular topics (like The Taximeter Car in 1908 – then a relatively new phenomenon in London) were always a major part of the act. Frank Van Straten has described his style as “fresh, breezy” with a “rollicking repertoire.”

Above: Billy, still appearing as Will Williams, in early 1901. The Music Hall and Theatre Review, 11 Jan 1901. A few weeks later, he was listed as Billy. Via British Library Newspaper Archive

In early 1901 Will re-named himself Billy Williams for the stage. In September that year he married London actress Amy Robinson, but on the wedding certificate he now used the name William Holt Williams, and his father was listed as a draper called Richard Holt.

Billy’s songs – sometimes of his own composition – such as John, John, Put your Trousers on (1906), lent themselves well to gramophone recordings and there were soon plenty in circulation. Jeff Brownrigg suggests it was fellow Australian Florrie Forde who encouraged him to begin recording songs. Some of these remained popular for many years – such as When Father Papered the Parlour (1909). Indeed, Williams is rightly identified as “Australia’s first popular recording star” by Brownrigg. As early as 1907 he sang songs written by Fred Godfrey (born Llewellyn Williams), but after 1911 nearly all of the songs he sang were jointly credited with Godfrey, like The Kangaroo Hop (1912). From late 1906 he was billed on stage as “The man in the velvet suit”, and Amy Jennings confirmed that he usually wore one on stage. He would come offstage wringing wet with perspiration, she recalled.

On 4 March 1910, Billy, accompanied by Amy and his son Reg, returned to Australia for entrepreneur Harry Rickards, on the RMS Omrah. He shared the program with psychics, comedy sketch artists and acrobats but it was a very successful tour, especially when Australian audiences were reminded he was one of them. Valerie Abbey from the National Film and Sound Archive has given a summary of Billy’s 1910 tour, which appears as an appendix to Jeff Brownrigg’s 1989 article, here.

Above – left: Billy appears in Australia again “after an absence of 12 years”, part of Rickards Vaudeville lineup. The Age, 16 April 1910. Right: Billy Williams Song Book cover, National Library of Australia’s Trove.

By Christmas time 1910, he was back in England again, performing for enthusiastic audiences and making more gramophone records. In 1912 he performed at the first Royal Variety performance.

Following the death of his mother Mary in South Yarra in 1912, his father Richard joined him in England, but he also underwent a change of name, becoming “Richard Holt Williams”. He died at Billy’s home in 1914.

Billy Williams died only a few months later, on 15 March, 1915. There had been newspaper reports of his indisposition in October 1914, but by November he had returned to giving concerts in Scotland. On 24 November, The Edinburgh Evening News noted a large group of enthusiastic soldiers in the house, ” who welcomed Williams as an old favourite. They proclaimed their choice of songs, and he responded with a bright and breezy rendering of several popular numbers…” He was ill again by February 1915 and his death certificate clearly lists septic prostatitis, which must have been an exhausting condition for a performer where boundless good humour and energy was essential. His death occurred following an operation, but there is no evidence supporting the suggestion of syphilis – as appears in the current manifestation of Wikipedia’s page on Billy. (He had several children with Amy and she lived another 65 years, which renders this unlikely)


Note 1 – Billy Williams’ birth name

Billy Williams name is the source of understandable confusion among his biographers – partly because his 1878 birth certificate gives his name as Richard Isaac Banks. However, every other document attributable to the family (such as public memorial notices for the deaths of parents Mary and Richard, the birth and death certificates for his siblings), give his name as William Isaac Banks, or Billy. Most importantly, when the child who would become Billy Williams was born on 7 Feb 1878, as already noted the family already had a child named Richard, born on 2 August 1876, in addition to Richard being the father’s name.

The most obvious explanation was that this was human error made when William Isaac Banks’ birth was being registered – but perhaps there are other explanations. At any rate, there is no evidence of him being called anything other than William, Will or Billy during his lifetime, or “Curly” as a nickname. (William was also a grandfather’s name.)


Note 2 – Other family members

Richard Shaw “Dick” Banks (1876-1930) The oldest of the Banks boys, he became a professional golfer in Australia. He died at the young age of 53. A National Library photo is here.

Rowland “Rowley” Banks (1885-1928) was also a professional golfer. Suffering ongoing ill health, he died in Newcastle, NSW whilst seeking a warmer climate.

Reginald Banks (1880 – ?) Reg also adopted the surname Williams and performed on stage with some success. However his later fate is unknown.

Above: Reg Williams performing in comedy in Adelaide, The Gadfly, 21 Aug 1907, via The National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Nick Murphy July 2021


References

  • Australian Performing Arts Collection,
    • Pollard Opera Companies Collection
    • Irene Smith (Goulding) interview by Sally Dawes.
  • State of Victoria: Births, Death and Marriages
    • Richard Banks Birth Certificate 9 August 1876 . 14675/1876 (This is Richard “Dick” Banks)
    • Banks Marriage. 4144/1877
    • Richard Isaac Banks Birth Certificate, 7 February 1878. 9017/1878 (This is Billy Williams)
    • Margery Valentine Banks Birth Certificate, 15 February 1888. 32706/1888
      (This sister died 10 months later)
    • Mary Banks Death Certificate, 5 November 1912. 15487/1912.
  • HM Passport Office, General Register Office.
    • William Holt Williams. Death Certificate. Died Hove, England, 13 March 1915
  • Texas Death Certificates
    • Barney Cohen, 16 June 1930. #31546
    • Jacob Bert Cole, 8 August 1971. # 55022
    • Margaret Hildegard Cole, 9 July 1977. #48767
  • US National Archives via Ancestry and Family Search
    • Passport Application for Jacob Cohen (Stage Name Bert Coleman). 2 May 1917
    • Passport Application for Jacob Cohen. 28 Feb 1918
    • Passport Application for Margaret H Cohen. 1 May 1920.
  • National Film and Sound Archive (Australia)
    A large collection of material relating to Billy Williams, including photos, audios and Peter Burgis’ 1972 with Amy Jennings (not read for this article)
  • Clay Djubal – The Australian Variety Theatre Archive
  • Music Hall MastersBilly Williams series All the songs Album 2 (CD) 2001
    • Frank Van Straten (Dec 1968) Interview with Amy Jennings (Billy’s former wife)
  • Text:
    • Jeff Brownrigg (1989) [Notes to accompany recording] Australia’s Billy Williams, A Selection from the Brownrigg-Williams Collection at Australia’s National Film and Sound Archive.
      Downloadable at Move Classic Music Label here.
    • Frank Cullen, Florence Hackman, Donald McNeilly (2007) Vaudeville, Old & New, An Encyclopedia of Variety Performers in America, Vol 1. Routledge.
    • Peter Downes (2002) The Pollards. Steele Roberts.
    • Frank Van Straten (2003) Tivoli. Thomas Lothian.
  • National Library of Australia’s Trove
    • North Melbourne Courier & West Melbourne Advertiser, (Vic). 24 Sept 1897 P9
    • North Melbourne Courier & West Melbourne Advertiser, (Vic). 8 Jan 1898 P10
    • Fitzroy City Press, (Vic). 4 Aug 1898, P3
    • Fitzroy City Press, (Vic). 4 May 1899, P3
    • Fitzroy City Press, (Vic). 21 Sept 1899, P3
    • Fitzroy City Press, (Vic). 5 Oct 1899, P2
    • Fitzroy City Press,(Vic). 28 Sept 1900, P3
    • The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW) 3 Sept 1901, P6
    • Brisbane Courier, (Qld). 13 Oct 1902, P6
    • The Argus, (Vic). 26 March 1903, P4
    • Sunday Times, (WA). 19 June 1910, P1
    • The Age, (Vic). 9 Nov 1912. P5
    • The Age, (Vic). 2 Oct 1914. P1
    • The Argus (Vic). 1 May 1915, P11
    • The Daily News, (WA). 18 June 1920, P6
    • Daily Herald (SA). 8 April 1921. P1
    • The Advertiser, (SA). 11 April 1921, P8
    • The Journal, (SA). 16 Ap 1921, P4
    • The Sun (NSW). 8 Aug 1928, P13
    • The Age, (Vic). 15 Oct 1938, P35
  • Newspapers.com
    • San Francisco Call. 30 June 1901, P18
    • The Honolulu Republican (Hawaii). 19 Sept 1901, P4
    • San Francisco Chronicle. 10 Nov 1901, P9
    • San Francisco Chronicle. 3 Aug 1902.
    • Vancouver Daily World (BC, Can). 19 Aug 1902, P2
    • The Honolulu Advertiser (Hawaii). 29 Sept, 1902, P10
    • The San Francisco Examiner, 12 October 1902, P40
    • Standard Union, (New York). 8 Oct 1907 P3
  • The British Newspaper Archive
    • The Era, 20 Oct, 1900
    • Surrey Comet 2 Jan, 1901, P3
    • Music Hall and Theatre Review, 11 Jan 1901, P4
    • Music Hall and Theatre Review, 1 March 1901, P4
    • Preston Herald, 17 March 1915, P2

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

On the road with Pollards Opera – Irene Goulding remembers.

Above: Alice Pollard (1885-1943) and Irene Goulding (1888-1987) photographed in Shanghai, China c 1901, dressed for the comic opera Dorothy. Photo – courtesy The Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

Sometime in 1985, Sally Dawes, a researcher with the Performing Arts Collection in Melbourne Australia, recorded an interview with 97 year old Irene Smith nee Goulding (1888-1987). Irene was the younger sibling of Alf Goulding (1885-1972) and Frank Goulding (c1882-1897) and is apparently the only member of Pollards Lilliputian Opera Company to be interviewed for posterity. Listening to this precious recording held by the Australian Performing Arts Collection, the listener cannot help but admire how much Irene recalled, 85 years on. I am grateful to Claudia Funder, APAC Research Centre and Acquisitions Coordinator, for drawing this interview to my attention – it tells us so much. But the interpretation of Irene’s words and meaning, as she leafed through many of the photos shown here, is my own.

Above: Left – Alf Goulding in the role of Lurcher for the opera Dorothy in 1896, long before his success as a Hollywood director. Right – Irene Goulding (left) with Ivy Trott in The Gaiety Girl;  Photos – courtesy The Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

Irene’s first remark when Sally Dawes turned on her tape recorder in 1985 was to exclaim that her older brother Frank had died (from smallpox while on the 1897 Pollard tour of India), and that she herself had been so sick (on a later tour of South Africa) that she became delirious. She recalled that at one stage she imagined the Prince of Wales was attending to her.

Above left – Frank Goulding as the Major-General in Pirates of Penzance, 1896, shortly before his death from smallpox in India. Above right – Many of the photos in this collection were acquired from the Goulding family. This inscription on the reverse of another photo was written by Alf, addressed to his father, a bootmaker in Fitzroy, and contains the words “rest Frank’s soul.” Photos – courtesy The Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

Despite the awful death of Frank, Irene had also signed up with the Nellie Chester – Charles Pollard troupe in about 1899. Her father had asked her if she also wanted to join, and although her favourite teacher at the Bell St State School (Fitzroy) strongly disapproved, she did. Later in life she apparently regretted her limited education, a consequence of a childhood spent on performance tours, but her comments when interviewed also reveal a strong sense of loyalty to “Aunty Chester” in particular, as the children called Nellie Chester. Irene’s first touring experience was in South Africa, probably departing Melbourne in early 1899. Learning parts for the company’s repertoire of musical comedies such as The Belle of New York and The Geisha, was very hard work, Irene recalled. Payment for her work was sent to her widowed father in Melbourne. She recalled being given pocket money while on tour, to buy sweets.

Occasionally one or other of the Pollard adults let slip how much money they made from their enterprise. In one unguarded moment in 1901, Charles Pollard revealed that he had netted £30,000 from the previous few years touring. This is the equivalent of about $AU 2,270,000 today. Another report on the operations of Tom Pollard in 1900 suggests similar success with his troupes travelling through Australia and New Zealand.

Interviewed in July 1899 by a correspondent for the Referee , the child performers were probably all instructed to not mention the downside of endless travel such as the inevitable homesickness. From Johannesburg, South Africa, the Sydney Referee correspondent wrote approvingly of the Pollard’s operation, and described Alf Goulding, as “the clever young comedian of the company, aged 12 years” and Irene Goulding“a bonny girl of 8 years.. who hadn’t been very well lately.” The Pollards had learned, years before, during their 1884 tour, that bad publicity could be fatal. This report from South Africa was all very positive.

A distant memory of Irene’s when interviewed in 1985 was of the South African tour being cut short, as the “Boer War” broke out in October 1899. The children were hurried back to Western Australia and then resumed a touring schedule in South East Asia.

Above: The Pollard troupe in Manila, posing with US soldiers. The presence of Teddie McNamara, sitting front left, dates this photo to mid 1903, not long after the Philippine-American War. Irene Goulding stands behind and to the left of the tall white-uniformed officer, and is flanked by Jack Cherry and Ivy Trott. Photo – courtesy The Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne .

The performance stops made by the Charles Pollard-Nellie Chester troupes might surprise readers today. On the way to North America, the tours usually included colonial outposts – Singapore, Manila, Hong Kong and Shanghai, cities which all provided enthusiastic expatriate audiences. The fact that these performance tours went to places that had been or would soon be risky colonial war zones (such as South Africa, China and the Philippines) also reminds us that the Pollards were running a business, not a school or a charity, and their decisions were always commercial ones. Fighting had only just ended in the Philippines when the photo above was taken. (An extraordinary photo taken on the next tour in 1904 seems to show many of the same child performers posing with Filipino prisoners at a Manila gaol. See University of Washington Special Collections image here).

Irene’s memory was of a wonderful time as a child on the Pollard tours – and of the young men who were so attentive, of the unusual buildings in the tropics with their wide verandas, of being served dinner in hotels. America was “so big” she recalled, and not surprisingly, many of the Pollard performers returned and made their homes in the US – there was so much more work there.

Above: Some of the female Pollard performers in Manila, c1901-3. Front row left to right: Florrie Sharpe, Ivy Trott, Mrs Nellie Chester (nee Pollard), Alice Bennetto and unidentified. Back row, left to right: May Topping, Nellie McNamara and Irene Goulding. Irene disliked this photo – she said she felt her parted hair made her look like a grandmother. Photo – courtesy The Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

Overwhelmingly comprised of girls, who usually also took on many of the male rolls, the members of Pollards troupes were drawn mostly from inner Melbourne suburbs. Indeed, of the children in the photo above, the Topping, Trott, Goulding and Bennetto families all lived in close proximity to each other in Fitzroy, suggesting they knew each other before joining up.

Irene was the daughter of Frank Goulding, a bootmaker and sometime performer, and Margaret nee Walsh, a performer. She was born in a house in Greenwood Street, Collingwood that no longer stands. As well as her older brothers, she had a step-sister Elsie, from her mother’s side, who later performed under the name Elsa Golding (sic). At the time of Margaret’s sudden death in April 1895, the Goulding family lived at 431 George Street, Fitzroy.

Interviewed by “Curious” for the Calcutta Englishman in mid 1901, Charles Pollard admitted that most of the children lived in a five mile radius of Melbourne. However, he insisted they came from “all classes”, and “selection, together with training” was the secret of Pollard’s success. He also pointed out that the child performers willingly learned from each other – he said Irene had taught Madge Woodson the role of Molly Seymour for The Geisha.

Above left: Some of the cast of The Geisha c 1901-2. Officers – Emma Thomas, Irene Goulding, Lily Thompson and Daphne Trott (aka Daphne Pollard); Girls – May Topping, unidentified, unidentified and possibly Merle Ferguson (aka Merle Pollard). Above right: Madge Woodson, (aka Madge Williams), born Margaret Banks in Richmond. Date of photo unknown. Photos – courtesy The Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

Caring they may have been, but the Pollard company played fast and loose reporting the children’s age, no doubt adjusting these as it suited their preferred public profile. On the shipping manifest for SS Sierra, bringing the troupe to the US in September 1901, Alf Goulding, now the Stage Manager, was represented as 19. Irene’s age was listed as 11. Their real ages on this trip were sixteen and thirteen. On the same trip, Daphne Trott (usually Daphne Pollard) was really ten, not 6 years old as reported.

Possibly unbeknownst to Irene and other children, Nellie Chester and Charles Pollard were quite prepared to use force to make some of their parents fulfil their contracts. In 1900 the Pollards issued a writ against Frank Goulding (amongst others) to discourage him from letting Irene perform with Harry Hall’s proposed juvenile company. They won, or Frank backed down, but Frank remained aggrieved with the company, even while they employed Alf and Irene. In 1904, when the company’s former conductor Ernest Wolffe attempted to start his own new juvenile troupe using many of the Pollard’s most popular players – including Alice and Teddie McNamara, Oscar Heintz, Daphne and Ivy Trott, the matter ended up in court again. Wolffe lost and the children stayed with Pollards, for the mammoth 32 month tour of 1904-1907.

Above: A Pollard program flyer (here the company is titled Pollard Juvenile Opera Company) from November 1, 1901, when they performed in San Francisco. No ages are given here, and there is a long list of real and stage names, mixed in with joke names. Fred Pollard was really Freddie Bindlass from Collingwood, but Irene remembered this boy with the sweet voice by an alternative stage name – Freddie Stewart. Irene Goulding herself used the stage name Irene Loftus. Author’s Collection.

There is compelling evidence a child’s size and physical development were critical to being a Pollard’s performer, rather than simply just their age. Children who were physically undersized – like Willie Thomas and Daphne Trott, enjoyed longer careers with Pollards than most. Irene said she was always “little” too – but she finished up with Pollards when the SS Miowera brought her home in early April 1904. She was 16.

After her time with the Pollards, Irene Goulding performed in some smaller roles on stage, apparently in pantomimes and perhaps in the chorus for shows on the Tivoli circuit – and she was able to recall some of these details for Sally Dawes in 1985. Irene married Albert Smith, a driver, in 1931. Of her famous brother Alf, she seems to have last seen him during World War 2, when he lived in Australia again. He was “a clever boy” Irene recalled, but foolish with money. She said “he went through three fortunes” during his lifetime, perhaps in saying so she was a little regretful of her own opportunities missed. Of the other children in Pollards, Irene Goulding could recall gossiping with them about their parents’ Fitzroy businesses. Her contemporary in age and Fitzroy neighbour Ivy Trott she remembered clearly, but as Ivy and her family had left Australia in 1907, she had apparently lost contact.

Irene died in Melbourne, Australia in 1987.


Special thanks
to Claudia Funder at the Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne, and Dr Kate Rice, the collection’s inaugural Frank Van Straten Fellow.

Nick Murphy
June 2021


References

  • Australian Performing Arts Collection,
    • Pollard Opera Companies Collection
    • Irene Smith (Goulding) interview by Sally Dawes.
  • State of Victoria: Births, Death and Marriages
    • Irene Goulding 28436/1888
    • Alfred John Goulding 5583/1885
  • Public Record Office, Victoria
    • Civil Case Files Supreme Court of Victoria
      • VPRS 267/ P7  unit 1280,  item 1900/195
        1900/199
        Charles Pollard Nellie Chester Pollards Lilliputian Opera Company v Alexander Sheddon
      • VPRS 267/ P7  unit 1280,  item 1900/199
        1901/562
        Charles Pollard Nellie Chester Pollards Lilliputian Opera Company v Frank Goulding Irene Goulding
      • VPRS 267/ P7 unit 1280, item 1900/200
        1900/187
        Charles Pollard Nellie Chester Pollards Lilliputian Opera Company v Harry Hall Alice Landershute Marie Sheddon Neillie Sheddon May Victoria Topping Nellie Finlay
      • VPRS 267/ P7  unit 1307,  item 1901/562
        1900/188
        Charles Pollard Nellie Chester Pollards Lilliputian Opera Company v Alexander Sheddon M E Sheddon Marie Sheddon Nellie Sheddon
      • VPRS 267/ P7  unit 1280,  item 1900/188
        1904/329
        Charles Albert Pollard Nellie Chester Pollards Lillipution Opera Company v Ernest Augustus Wolf
        fe
      • VPRS 267/ P7  unit 1360,  item 1904/329
        1900/200
        Charles Pollard Nellie Chester Pollards Lilliputian Opera Company v Millie Finlay
  • 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.
    • Dagmar Kift (1996) The Victorian Music Hall. Culture, Class and Conflict. Cambridge University Press.
    • 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
  • National Library of Australia’s Trove
    • Argus (Melb) 19 June 1884, P6
    • The Age (Melb) 6 April 1895, P3
    • Referee (Sydney) 5 July 1899, P10
    • The British Australasian, 17 May 1900
    • The Ballarat Star, 14 July 1900, P2
    • The Ballarat Star, 7 Feb 1901, P4
    • The Age (Melb) 7 May 1903, P9
    • Daily News (WA) 9 March 1910, P7
  • Newspapers.com
    • The Honolulu Advertiser 14 Sept 1901, P10

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

Of Elsie Morris, ‘Male impersonator’ & Jolly John Larkins

Above: Elsie Levine Morris in male attire, c1915. Photo courtesy Elsie’s great grand-niece Brenda Young.

Elsie Lavinia (or Levine) Morris was born in South Melbourne in June 1896, to Charles Morris, a bootmaker, and Mary nee Howard. Two years later, Mary then aged 44, had another daughter – her sixteenth, making hers a very large family, even for the time.

Above: Elsie Morris and her mother Mary Morris nee Howard. Photo undated but probably taken about the time she appeared on stage in male attire. Courtesy Elsie’s great grand-niece Brenda Young.

In the early twentieth century, the life and career options for the children of Australian working class families living in cities were limited. Even if they found some work in their teens, girls were expected to end up working in the home, boys to take an apprenticeship or work in a factory. With only private schools offering a pathway to university, a career on the stage could be an attractive and possibly lucrative option for a working class girl or boy who showed some performance skills. Elsie Morris was therefore typical of the children who were signed up with Pollards Lilliputian Opera Company in the period 1898-1909. 

Pollards advertises for new children to audition at Ford’s Hall, Brunswick St, in the heart of working class Fitzroy. Elsie or her family probably saw a similar advert sometime in 1909. The Age, 16 Feb, 1907. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Elsie goes to India with Pollards

Elsie departed Australia as a member of the Pollard troupe of about 30 children, on the SS Gracchus in July 1909, bound for South East Asia and India, to be followed by a long tour through North America.

Above: Elsie Morris as a child performer, as shown in Table Talk, 7 December 1916, P8. Via The National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Gillian Arrighi’s article on the Pollard 1909 tour of India cites one newspaper account where manager Arthur Hayden Pollard described the parents of his child actors as “people in very humble positions who could not afford to keep [their children].” Overwhelmingly girls, the child performers were 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 in several cases. The Pollard repertoire included popular musicals – The Belle of New York, A Gaiety Girl and HMS Pinafore and the child performers took multiple roles, girls often playing male roles. It was a format that had been refined over the previous twenty years.

Despite the company’s successful track record, Arthur Hayden Pollard‘s 1909 tour of India was a disaster. Pollard was inexperienced as a manager and temperamentally quite unsuited to be a supervisor of children. The tour fell apart and the child performers returned home in early 1910, with considerable press attention. The Pollard reputation was ruined and new Federal legislation followed soon after that restricted the employment of children overseas.

Above: Elsie is in this photo of the Pollard 1909 tour of India, but where? She is possibly in black in the second row, seated, fourth from left. The Leader 2 April, 1910. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove,

Finding her place on stage in Australia

Three years after the Pollard tour, Elsie appeared on stage at Melbourne’s Temperance Hall, singing and performing comedy sketches using skills she had learned, in part, with the Pollard troupe. She took the soubrette role in her choice of song – the voice of a sometimes wistful and slightly flirtatious young female. Although only 17 she was popular enough to be one of the headline acts wherever she went. But in addition to this, by mid 1915 she had also perfected a male impersonation act and was performing it on the Fuller’s circuit. In March 1916 she took the act to Sydney.

Above left: Photo of Elsie Morris courtesy Brenda Young. Above right: Other former Pollard players – like May Martyn (as Maie Vine) also performed as male impersonators – Source Prompt Scrapbook of the performance career of John Martyn Young. National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Elsie had experience as a male impersonator from the Pollard troupe, where many male parts were played by young women, for comic effect. The male impersonator was also an established comic routine in variety, and popular characters presented included the pretentious upper class “swell” or “toff”. This send-up of men and masculinity sometimes bordered on the scandalous, but audiences loved it. Vesta Tilley (1864-1952), Hetty King (1883-1972) and Ella Shields (1879-1952) were amongst the best known British male impersonators, the latter two visiting Australia to perform. Another English actress, Nellie Kolle (1892-1971) moved to Australia and became the most famous of local male impersonators.

Above: Vesta Tilley, popular English male impersonator. Undated post card in the author’s collection.
Above: Nellie Kolle, with The Bunyip Panto Company. Critic (Adelaide), 30 May 1917 P11. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

In December 1916, Adelaide’s The Mail, left this report on Elsie’s act;Elsie Morris, who appears at the Majestic Theatre, is a male impersonator of excellent appearance and fine wardrobe. She looks sufficiently a boy without carrying the deception to extremes. As a matter of fact, Miss Morris makes a charming boy because she is so essentially a charming girl. She has a variety of songs sung in a voice of some power. Among her best numbers are— Never a Girl Inside, You Were the First One to Teach Me to Love, and A Little Loving Every Day.”

The first verse of Elsie’s song Never a Girl Inside gives us a taste of the stage “swell” character:

Now Algenon Brown was a Clerk in the town,
And when he was through for the day,
He’d wander up west, where the windows are dressed,
And make himself dizzy where drapers are busy.
He’d gaze at the wonderful fashions
And marvels of feminine wear…

Above: Source of Lyrics – Maurice Scott, and Clifford Grey. Never a Girl Inside. Star Music Pub. Co., London, 1915. Notated Music. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

A good example of how close male impersonators came to overstepping the bounds of acceptability can be heard here. This is a link to a clip of Nellie Kolle singing In the Woodshed in December 1929. (Click here), with its suggestive refrain “In the woodshed she said she would.”

Elsie seems to have offered a more innocent version of the male impersonation act. In September 1916, New Zealand’s Observer reported Elsie Morris was “too sweet a boy to deceive a recruiting sergeant.”


Enter “Jolly” John Larkins

In September 1920, Elsie married John Larkins (also known as “Jolly” John Larkins and John Larkin Smith), an African-American comedian and singer who had been performing in Australia and New Zealand since his arrival from the US in May 1917. Larkins and Elsie were both appearing together for Harry Clay at the time of the marriage in Sydney but may have known each other since 1917.

Above: Larkins on the cover of sheet music. Authors: James Reese Europe, and Jolly John Larkins. A Royal Coon. Will Rossiter, Chicago, 1907. Notated Music. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

Historian Bill Egan‘s recent study of African American performers in Australia provides a precis of Larkin’s successful career in the US before he arrived. Egan has described Larkins’ act as singing and dancing “interspersed with humorous anecdotes known as ‘patter’. This was delivered in the continuous laughing style that had earned him the title ‘Jolly’ .” The content of his shows regularly changed; in 1918 the Sydney Sun commented on the “ludicrous sight” of the 16 stone Larkins playing a messenger boy in his act. Despite the deeply entrenched racial prejudice in Australia at the time, Larkins was very popular with Australian and New Zealand audiences and the reviews were enthusiastic, although patronising and still racist by the standards of today.

Above: Elsie and Jolly John Larkins performing for Harry Clay in Sydney in September 1920, ten days after their marriage. The Sun (Sydney) 27 Sept 1920. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Contrary to some claims, it was not illegal for Larkins to enter Australia or to marry Elsie. The discriminatory Immigration Restriction Act that existed was designed to exclude non-europeans (particularly Chinese, Indians and Japanese) from entry to Australia as migrants. The shameful “dictation test” that was sometimes used as a tool to do this, would not have been applied to Larkins, who was travelling on a US passport with a contract to perform as an entertainer on the Fuller circuit. Similarly, the state laws that restricted marriages between European Australians and Indigenous Australians would not have applied to Larkins, as he was neither.

The couple were married at St Peter’s Church Darlinghurst on Wednesday 15 September, 1920 by Reverend F W Tugwell with Elsie’s mother Mary as one of the witnesses.

Above: “John Larkin Smith” on his 1917 passport application. Despite claims he was born in 1883, his three available passport applications and the 1880 US Census make it clear he was born in 1877. (US) National Archives via Family Search.

Unfortunately, Larkins was a poor choice of husband. Perhaps unbeknown to Elsie he had already fathered two children by two different women in Australia – a daughter to Rachel “Ray” Anderson, born in Sydney in February 1919 and a son to another woman in Melbourne born in November 1920. (See note 1 below)

Well intended or not, the marriage didn’t last very long and neither did their appearances in the same shows on stage. By February 1921, Nellie Kolle had replaced Elsie as the Fuller’s male impersonator, appearing on the same bill as Larkins. Elsie’s last featured performance on stage in Sydney was in April 1921. Larkins moved on to Queensland and later that year, to perform in New Zealand again. It appears he abandoned Elsie as readily as he did his other Australian female companions. Larkins spent much of the next four years performing in small town venues in New Zealand, although he returned to Australia for short tours several times and to father another child with Ray Anderson in 1924. In July 1925, after eight years in Australia and New Zealand, he left for the US, and never returned.

Elsie’s later life

Why Elsie left the stage is unclear. Her 1928 divorce papers from Larkins suggest that he had abandoned her after three years. Gambling and money troubles were mentioned, but there was no mention of Larkin’s Australian children. However, Elsie herself was named in a different divorce action between Marguerite and Leo Trew in 1922. She was living with Leo Trew in Fitzroy in Melbourne by this time, demonstrating that Larkins had ceased to be a part of her life quite soon after their marriage.

Elsie married Leo Trew in Melbourne in 1929, with her loyal mother Mary again a witness at the ceremony. She later lived and worked with Leo in regional New South Wales and finally in Bondi, where she died in 1966. Of her life on stage she left no commentary at all – a reminder that while for some, a start with the Pollard troupe led to great things on stage and sometimes in film, for most it was, at best an interlude in life.

Above: Elsie later in life. Courtesy Brenda Young.

Note 1
“Jolly” John Larkins

John Larkins is rightly regarded as something of a pioneer amongst African-American performers – on the US and world stage and in Hollywood. The IMDB lists more than 40 film appearances made before his death in 1936, a remarkable success considering the circumstances of the time and the obstacles he would have faced. But there was another side to him that seems much harder to comprehend.

As both Bill Egan and US writer Steve Goldstein have noted, while in Australia, in February 1919 Larkins had fathered a child to a “Ray” Anderson, who is often described as a “dress maker” (but the child was not born in 1921 as the writers mistakenly claim). Ray (or Rae) Anderson was surely Rachael Anderson, a stage performer of the 1910s and a daughter of Laura Wiseman – one of the well known Wiseman sisters who had performed on the Australian stage in the late nineteenth century. Ray Anderson and Larkins had met by the end of 1917, when they were performing together on the same bill in New Zealand.

This writer finds it difficult to believe that in the hot-house world of Australian variety performers, where actors travelled and lived together, and regularly watched each other to “borrow ideas”, Elsie Morris and Rachael Anderson did not know each other. They had both appeared on the Fuller’s and Harry Clay circuits, lived in the same city and were of the same age. In Auckland New Zealand, their acts followed each other by only a few weeks – in late 1917. Their soubrette acts were similar – but in view of that, not surprisingly, they had never appeared on stage at the same time.

Of course, this is speculation, and it hardly explains for the modern reader why Larkins repeatedly took up with women only to leave them soon after. The 1924 divorce case Westbury v Westbury describes the rather sad state of affairs that ensued following Larkin’s five month relationship with a married woman in Melbourne in 1920 and the fate of their child. Just two months later Larkins married Elsie in Sydney. As noted, in 1924, he returned to Ray Anderson and fathered another child, a woman who only at the end of her life, finally discovered Larkins was her father.


Nick Murphy
May 2021


  • Special Thanks
    To Brenda Young, Elsie Morris’s great grand-niece, who wrote to me and encouraged me to return to Elsie’s story. She has kindly given me permission to reproduce several of her precious photos.

References

  • Library of Congress
    • Never a Girl Inside (1915) Scott, Maurice, and Clifford Grey. Star Music Pub. Co., London. Notated Music.
    • A Royal Coon. (1907) James Reese Europe, and Jolly John Larkins. Will Rossiter, Chicago, Notated Music.
  • State of Victoria: Births, Death and Marriages
    • Elsie Lavinia Morris, Birth cert 1896. Doc 21723/1896
    • Alan Westbury, Birth cert 1920. Doc 29373/1920
    • Thomas Leopold Trew & Elsie Larkins, Marriage cert. Doc 8604/1929
  • State of New South Wales: Births, Deaths and Marriages
    • John Larkins & Elsie Morris, Marriage cert 1920. Doc 14941/1920 
    • Olga Larkins, Birth cert 1919. Doc 1563/1919
  • Public Record Office, Victoria
    • Frederick Lancelot Westbury, Divorce Case No. 1924/84
  • New South Wales Archives
    • Marguerite Brereton Trew & Thomas Leopold Trew, Divorce case 1922/74
    • Elsie Levine Larkins John Larkins, Divorce papers, 24-02-1928 to 28-06-1929. 272/1928
  • National Archives of Australia
    • John Larkins Smith. Alien Registration Certificate No 7349
  • Family Search (US National Archives)
    • John Larkins Smith, Passport applications 1917, 1919 & 1920
  • 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) John Hopkins University Press.
    • Bill Egan (2019) African American Entertainers in Australia and New Zealand. A History 1788-1941. McFarland.
    • Dagmar Kift (1996) The Victorian Music Hall. Culture, Class and Conflict. Cambridge University Press.
    • 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]
  • National Library of Australia’s Trove
    • Daily News (WA) 9 March 1910, P7
    • Truth (WA) 2 April 1910, P8
    • Referee (Syd) 13 April 1910, P16
    • Truth (WA) 23 April 1910 P2
    • West Australian, 6 May 1910, P3
    • Herald (Melb) 17 May 1910, P5
    • Sunday Times (Syd) 2 Mar, 1913, P2
    • Riverina Herald (Echuca, Vic) 26 May 1913, P3
    • The Age (Melb Vic) 15 Sept 1913, P7
    • Truth (Qld) 8 March 1914, P6
    • Queensland Times 17 April 1914, P6
    • Sun (Syd) 14 Feb, 1915, P2
    • Labor Call (Melb) 25 Nov 1915, P8
    • Everyone’s 9 July 1924, P34
    • Sun (Syd) 17 Ap 1928. P18
    • Sydney Morning Herald 3 Nov 1918. P14
  • National Library of New Zealand, Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa, Paper’s Past
    • Evening Star (Dunedin), 6 Sept 1915, P5
    • Evening Star (Dunedin), 31 July 1916, P5
    • Evening Star (Dunedin), 1 Aug, 1916, P3
    • The Observer (Auckland), 23 Sept 1916
    • The Observer (Auckland), 3 Nov 1916, P6
    • Evening Star (Dunedin), 17 April 1917, P7
    • Evening Star (Dunedin), 21 Aug 1917, P5
    • The Observer (Auckland), 15 Dec 1917 P6
    • New Zealand Herald (Auckland), 3 May 1918, P8
    • New Zealand Police Gazette 8 Nov 1922, P654
    • Nelson Evening Mail (Nelson), 25 June 1925, P10

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.

Pollard’s performers in Vancouver 1903. Left to right: Ivy and Daphne Trott (Pollard), Irene Finlay, Leah Leichner, Willie Thomas all from inner Melbourne. The photo of Leah is enlarged from the Australian Performing Arts Collection and used with permission. Other photos are from a group photo via Vancouver As It Was: A Photo-Historical Journey (click to follow the link) reproduced with permission.

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

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


Oscar, Freddie & Johnnie Heintz

Oscar Heintz was born in 1891, twins Freddie and Johnnie Heintz in 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

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

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

Alice and Ethel Bennetto

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

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

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

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

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

Ethel Naylor

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

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

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

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


Minnie, Nellie and May Topping

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

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

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

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

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

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


Nick Murphy
December 2020


Special Thanks

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

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

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

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

General Reading

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

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

Regarding Oscar, Freddie and Johnnie Heintz

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

Regarding Alice and Ethel Bennetto

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

Regarding May, Nellie and Minnie Topping

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

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

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

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

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

Queenie Williams SLVTin Can Band022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Pollards Spokane Chronicle Dec 23 1913

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

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

Wisconsin State Journal 30 Jan 1919

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ina in 1943

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

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

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

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

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

Nick Murphy
April 2020

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


Further Reading

Text

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

Federal Register of Legislation (Australia)

National Library of Australia Trove.

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

Newspapers.com

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

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

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

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

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

Pollards in Manilla poss 1905 full screen

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

Institutionalized Children?

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

Charles pollard 1906   Nellie Chester 1906   Arthur Hayden Pollard 1906

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

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

Pollards call for kids

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

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

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


Leah’s birth and childhood in Melbourne

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


Leah and two Pollards tours of North America

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

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

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

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

The Geisha

Fibs by Pollards Montreal 1905

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

Leah and her secret, 1907 – 1908

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

SMH 17 OCT 1908

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

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


Leah and the 1909 – 1910 Pollard Tour of India

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

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

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

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

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

The Leader 2 April 1910

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

The Outcomes

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

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

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

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

   Belle Leichner c 1920

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

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

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

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

Gracchus enlargement 16 December 1909

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

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


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

22 July 1912

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

Special Thanks

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

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

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

To Claudia Funder, Research Service Coordinator,  Arts Centre Melbourne


References

Collections

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

Text

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

National Library of Australia’s Trove

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

Newspapers.com

  • The Honolulu Advertiser 11 March 1908, 22 July 1912

Singapore Government Digitised newspapers project – Newspaper SG

Federal Register of Legislation (Australia)

Vancouver As It Was: A Photo-Historical Journey

Nick Murphy
March 2021

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

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

The 5 second version
Born Alfred John Goulding in Richmond, Victoria, Australia, 26 January 1885. Died Hollywood, California, USA, 25 April, 1972. He began his career as a comedian with brother Frank, then joined Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company in 1896. He took part in a number of extended Pollard’s tours, increasingly acting as stage manager. After the last tour wrapped up in 1909 he and some other performers stayed in the US. He was directing films in Hollywood by 1917, sometimes with comedians like Laurel and Hardy and some of the old Pollard players. He spent most of 1940-45 in Australia, and directed his last film in 1959.

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

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

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

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


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

Triumphs, Tragedies and child labour

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

The Goulding family in Pollard's

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

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

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

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

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

Dr Barnes VACCINATIONS SIGN, GERTRUDE ST

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the Pollards

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

We should also remember that the Pollard’s performers were playing adult roles on stage, a fact that some commentators found confronting, given the adult content of the musicals they performed. One correspondent for the Hong Kong Daily Press on December 27, 1907 reminded readers “Pollard’s Lilliputians are children, but their performance is anything but childish… That shrimp of a maiden …who portrays a woman many times divorced, how are we to regard her?” (in reference to a leading character in The Belle of New York). Yet at the end of their review, the writer felt the need to abandon their concerns and recommended all readers should see it. The Pollard’s performance was “beyond praise” the writer concluded.

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


A life of touring

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

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

Pollard's in Canada and the US 1905-1907

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

Meanwhile in Australia…

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

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


Alf’s final tour to the US, 1909+

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

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

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

LA Times 28 May 1914

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

Alf Goulding appears to have maintained a personal and professional friendship with former Pollard Company performers for much of his life. In 1911, Alf was married to Gladys Watson, with Daphne (Mrs Ellington Bunch) and her husband as witnesses. They were married in Seattle by the same official as Daphne and her husband had used, exactly three months before.

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

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


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

There was perhaps a real camaraderie amongst the old Pollard players. For Alf, the performers he knew had probably been the closest he had to family. When former Pollard alumni Teddy McNamara died of pneumonia in early February 1928, on the eve of great success, all the Hollywood based former Pollard players attended his funeral – Goulding, Daphne Pollard, Snub Pollard and Billy Bevan. 


An Australian sojourn

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

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

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

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


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

Nick Murphy, May 2018, August 2020, April 2021


Special thanks

To Claudia Funder at The Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne, for introducing me to the Pollard Collection.

To Catherine Crocker for sharing the information from Midas Martyn’s diary of the 1904-7 Pollard’s tour and Jamie L Bird, one of Alf’s grandchildren, for her comments.


Further reading

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

From National Library of Australia, Trove, Digitised Newspaper Collection

National Film and Sound Archive Collection

Hong Kong Public Libraries Multi Media Information Systems

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

Newspapers.com

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

Stars of Old Fitzroy

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

Fitzroy stars 4

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


A: Mary Maguire (1919-1974)

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

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

Maguire-enrolment-1

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

B: Maie Saqui (1879-1907)

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

120 and 122 Nicholson St

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


C: Saharet (1878-1964)

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

Boarding House Nicholson St Fitzroy

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


D: Harry Allen (1877-1951)

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

Possibly No 2 Barkley St Carlton

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


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

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

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

54-56 Kerr St Fitzroy

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


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

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

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

431-george-st

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

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


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

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

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

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

IMG_6740

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


H: Florrie Forde (1876-1940)

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

IMG_0229

Above: The former United Service Club Hotel.


Nick Murphy
Updated April 2021

Willie Thomas’ great adventure with Pollard’s Lilliputians

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pollards c 1903

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

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

Sioux_City_Journal_Wed__May_28__1902_     San Francisco Chronicle 6 Sept 1903 cropped

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

willie Thomas4

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

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

Pollard's in Canada and the US 1905-1907

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emma Thomas 1950s

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

Note:

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

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

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

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

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


Nick Murphy, Updated March 2020

Special Thanks

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


Further Reading

Collections

  • Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.


Websites

National Library of Australia – Trove

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daphne Pollard, c 1920. Author’s Collection

Daphne Pollard UK003
The 5 second version
Born Daphne Trott in Fitzroy, Victoria, Australia, 19 October 1891, she died in Los Angeles, California, USA on 22 February 1978. A child performer with the Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company from 1897 to 1907, she travelled through South East Asia, Canada and the United States on at least four extended tours before becoming a very popular comedy performer on stage in the US and Britain in her own right. She was busy appearing in films in Hollywood, late in her career – 1927-36. Most of her family moved to the US with her in 1908.

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

Daphne photographed in Shanghai Daphne_Pollard_and_Leah_Lirchner_in__The_Geisha__(SAYRE_13291)

Two photos attributed to Ying Cheong, a photographer and painter in Canton Road Shanghai,
Left – Daphne Pollard Source -National library of Australia.
Right –
Daphne Pollard and Leah Leichner re-creating a scene from The Geisha. Courtesy University of Washington, Special Collections, JWS24603. Used with permission.

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

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

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

In Melbourne, Daphne Trott’s father Walter and an uncle ran a large furniture upholstery and French polishing business, although the Melbourne depression of the 1890s hit the family’s fortunes hard. We don’t know what attracted Daphne to the stage – perhaps as a child she saw that other well-known Fitzroy girl, Florrie Forde perform at the Melbourne Opera House or the Theatre Royal. Daphne joined Pollard’s troupe in about 1897, with older sisters Ivy and Myrtle. The family lived in nearby Young Street, later moving to a larger 5 room dwelling at 96 King William Street, Fitzroy.

King William St and Brunswick St
About the time of Daphne’s departure for the US, the Trott family business operated on the corner of King William St and Brunswick St, Fitzroy (site now occupied by the orange and white supermarket in the distance). Their shop and probably a home behind may have looked like the building on the right. Author’s Collection. 

54-56 Kerr St Fitzroy

56 Kerr St, Fitzroy, was listed as Daphne Trott’s October 1891 birthplace and the family home for most of the 1890s. It is hard to believe this very modest single story terrace house had room for a baby and five older siblings! Only 10 houses away in this street lived the Heintz family, whose twin boys Freddie and Johnnie also travelled on tour with Daphne.

In early September 1901 the Pollard Lilliputian Opera Company sailed for an extended tour of South East Asia, Canada and the United States, under the management of Charles Pollard and his sister Nellie Chester.

Daphne and Ivy Trott Nov 1901

Above: Pollard’s Lilliputians performing at the San Francisco Tivoli in November 1901. Daphne (Pollard), Myrtle Trott (Pollard) and Ivy Trott all performed. Nine years later, some of this cast would be performing on Pollard’s ill fated tour of India, but not Daphne and her sisters. Author’s Collection.

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

Wally Trott

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ivy and Daphne c 1905

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

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

filmstars041
Part of a Pollard program from Montreal during their marathon 1904-07 North American tour. The ages are obviously wrong. Author’s Collection.

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

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

Daphe Pollard cropped

Above: Daphne in about 1907, at the time she joined Frank Healey’s San Francisco Opera. Author’s collection.

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

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

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


Pollard                Zig Zag France023

Above left: Program for Albert De Courville’s “Zig-Zag!” 1917. Author’s Collection.
Right: Program for De Courville’s 1917 Folies Bergere production, showing Shirley Kellogg on the cover. It also starred Daphne. The Australian war memorial holds an identical program, except with Daphne Pollard on the cover. (You can read it online) Author’s collection.

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

Filmstars002

Above: London Sunday Pictorial. 25 February 1917. Daphne Pollard is in the centre. Author’s collection
Above: Daphne Pollard sings “The Ragtime Germ” for De Courville’s “Zig-Zag!” in 1917. She is credited with composing this with Cass Downing and John T. Murray. (Not to be confused with a 1911 song with the same name). Her voice seems typical of British musical hall performers of the time. Author’s Collection.

Below: Daphne in costume for  the song “The Ragtime Germ”. Source – “The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News,” March 24, 1917. Via British Library Newspaper Archive Project

Rag time germ

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

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

DP1916Daphne Pollard’s first film for Sennett was The Girl from Everywhere (1927), a 20 minute comedy with Carole Lombard. She appeared in several more with Lombard, including Run Girl, Run and The Campus Carmen, both made in 1928. Several of these were directed by her friend and one time neighbour from inner Melbourne, and an old Pollard Lilliputian Opera associate, Alf Goulding.

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

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

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

his first flame

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nick Murphy,
Updated June 2021


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

hong kong daily press daphne pollard story 1905 05 27

Hong Kong Daily Press, May 27, 1905. Via Hong Kong Public Library Multimedia System

References:

Collections

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

Publications

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

Websites

Original US archival documents sourced from

National Library of Australia – Trove Newspaper Collection

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

Newspapers.com

  • The San Francisco Call, 4 March 1906, )23. “Australian children…”
  • Los Angeles Herald, 30 March 1906, P9 “Little actress has ambition to become an operatic star”
  • Calgary Herald (Canada) 5 Aug 1907, P5 “Daphne and Ivy back”
  • Los Angeles Herald, 2 Sept 1907. P3 “Quintette of Principals from the San Francisco Opera Co…”
  • The Seattle Star, 29 April, 1910. P14 Marion Lowe has a heart to heart talk with tiny Daphne Pollard”.
  • The Lincoln Sunday Star, 11 July 1915. P7. “In the New York Theatres”
  • The Seattle Star, 6 June 1916, P.1
  • Pittsburg Courier, 3 Nov 1923. “White actress jealous of success of Florence Mills at Village Follies”

Hong Kong Public Library Multimedia System

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

California Digital Newspaper Collection

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

British Library Newspaper Archive

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