Goody Two Shoes – Part 1

When I started this blog, I thought I would write far more about my paternal great great aunt, Daisy Dormer. She was the biggest ‘star’ in the family history and information about her is easy to come by. Instead, I got carried away with uncovering the mystery of some of the less famous turns, and found their lives more satisfying to research. However, a research award from The Society for Theatre Research sent me back down the path of Daisy; to that end I found myself at the Bristol University Theatre Collection in the beautiful old Vandyck Building on Park Row. Almost opposite that building (now an unprepossessing petrol station with a Costa coffee outlet) there once was a theatre – the Prince’s, a beautiful Victorian treasure designed by well-known theatre architect, CJ Phipps in 1867. And there in December 1915, Daisy Dormer played the Principal Girl, Goody, in a production of the pantomime, Goody Two Shoes.

For those of my generation, mention Goody Two Shoes and the lyrics ‘Don’t drink, don’t smoke, what do you do?…’ spring to mind, along with an image of Adam Ant posing and gyrating in his New Romantic splendour. For another, older generation, Goody Two Shoes was a familiar pantomime. It is little performed these days but in the late Victorian and early Edwardian period it was a staple of the pantomime scene, based on the nursery tale published in 1765 by John Newbery. Goody Two Shoes is a variation of the Cinderella story. Virtuous Goody works hard to better herself and comes into money – either through marriage or a surprise inheritance – proof that her virtuousness has been rewarded.

The original tale was given a pantomime twist and all the usual panto characters incorporated into the ever-evolving plot-line – Dame, Fairy, Demon, wicked Duke, wealthy would-be lover, love-lorn yokels and comedy double-act. Goody in this Bristol re-telling (written by RC Oldham, a scenic artist trying his hand at writing) is the winsome daughter of the widowed and poverty-stricken Mrs Tutt – cue the Dame. Goody is in love with the orphaned, penniless village carpenter, Alan – ‘the cleverest man with his hands the village has got’. However, Clarence, the hapless son of the wicked Duke of Improvidentia has her in his sights. Mrs Tutt comes into money by magic and lo! and behold it turns out that Alan is the rightful heir to the Duke, having been stolen by fairies and another infant (Clarence) put in his place. All is well that ends well!

The production opened at the Prince’s on 23rd December 1915 and ran for 10 weeks, with the final performances on Saturday 4th March 1916. The Stage review declared it ‘one of the best productions that it has of late years been our pleasure to notice’.

At this point in her career, Daisy Dormer was well-established and had been playing Principal Girl in pantomime since the turn of the century. By the time she came to Bristol, she had played the role of Goody five times. In fact, she had been playing Goody for the past two pantomime seasons in this very production. Those previous productions had been a great success at the Grand Theatre, Leeds and the Theatre Royal, Manchester. The Manchester Courier had gone as far as describing the production ‘as near to the ideal pantomime as most of us are ever likely to see’ . The leading characters had all been played by the same troupe of performers, with the exception of the Principal Boy (played by a woman as per convention), who had been portrayed by both Daisy Wood (sister of Marie Lloyd) and Ella Retford in Leeds and Manchester respectively. In this production, ‘legitimate’ actress Sybil Arundale (veteran of Shakespeare and Ibsen) took the breeches and thigh-slapping honours:

Sybil Arundale
Sybil Arundale, courtesy of Margaret Monod (

Horace Mills, a panto Dame veteran played the widowed Mrs Tutt. Sam Walsh and Doris Lind reprised their Duke and Duchess of Improvidentia roles. And Clarence, the hapless Duke’s son was portrayed for the third year running by 23 year old Lupino Lane. Lane was born into a long-standing family of theatricals and had been honing his dancing and ‘indiarubber’ acrobatic skills onstage since the age of four:

Lupino Lane

Lupino Lane, courtesy of the British Music Hall Society archive (

Goody Two Shoes had not been seen at the Prince’s before so the time was ripe for John Hart’s production to move lock, stock and barrel to Bristol with a few topical and local references and updated songs thrown in for good measure.

In an interesting juxtaposition, at the same time Daisy was appearing on stage in panto, a silent film she had made earlier that year for Vaudefilms, Potted Pantomimes (directed by WP Kellino), was on general release and being shown at Picture Houses throughout the country. Daisy wasn’t alone amongst the cast in trying their skills in this new world of moving pictures. Lupino Lane had made his first foray into film earlier that year and the script of Goody Two Shoes made frequent reference to this coming craze. When Daisy’s and Lupino’s characters first meet (in The Village of Blossomville, where else?):

Clarence: I say, this is a rotten hole! Why, you haven’t even a picture-house! How ever do you manage to exist?
Goody: A picture-house! What’s that?
Clarence: Never seen a picture-house? It’s where they have the moving pictures. Oh, I love them! – all cowboys and Red Indians, and burning houses, and dogs rescuing little girls from express trains. And there’s always a motor car, and then a lot of people chase it, and a detective finds out the man who looks like an actor has been lured to a big castle, with hundreds of rooms in it, by the Black Spot gang.
Goody: It must be very exciting.
Clarence: “Rather! I say”

In that exchange the future was set: the excitement and fascination with the moving image would eventually kill off their kind of live performance.

The craze was just beginning. In Bristol in December 1915, Picture Houses were on the rise providing stiff competition for live theatre. Advertising in the local press for December were the Zetland Picture House, Triangle Picture Hall, Coliseum Picture Theatre and the Cheltenham Road cinema. Clarence’s summary of moving pictures is nicely drawn: the fare on show in Bristol reflected that list: The Ticket of Leave Man, ‘the well-known drama of prison life’; The Swell Marksmen, ‘a drama of crime mystery and narrow escapes’; Human Hound’s Triumph, The Husband Who Showed Up and Lizzie Breaks into the Harem need no further tagline. Charlie Chaplin comedies were showing at the Coliseum Picture Theatre – Chaplin had signed a cinema contract in 1913, left his music hall days behind and was well on the way to becoming the greatest star on earth. Goody Two Shoes featured a popular hit song, ‘That Charlie Chaplin Walk,’ a foxtrot performed by Lupino Lane, with the chorus:

It doesn’t matter everywhere you go
Watch ’em coming out of any cinema show
Shuffling along, they’re acting like a rabbit
When you’ve seen Charlie Chaplin, you can’t help but get the habit
First they stumble over both their feet
Swing their sticks and look up and down the street
Fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers
All your wife’s relations and half a dozen others
In London, Paris and New York
Everybody does that Charlie Chaplin walk.

Lupino Lane’s imitation of Chaplin was described as ‘certainly by far the best that has been done in Bristol’.  It is more than likely that the young Lupino Lane had been on the same stages as Chaplin in his earlier music hall days.

Moving pictures could be seen for as little as 3d (around £1.35 in today’s money) and often included a cup of tea, whereas panto tickets at the Prince’s started at 4d, with the best seats at 3s (around £16.50). From their introduction in the late 1890s, films had been regularly appearing on music hall bills as an end of evening novelty.  Gradually they were moving into their own domain and providing a cheaper and what seemed a more innovative form of entertainment for the masses. The days of the music hall artiste were numbered.

Written with the support of a research award from the Society for Theatre Researchers – see here for details:

STR logo

The Prince’s Theatre, Park Row, Bristol was originally called the Theatre Royal. Frank Matcham made alterations to the CJ Phipps design in 1884 and 1902, and a name change was made. It was destroyed during a bombing raid in 1940.

The John Hart/RC Oldham production lived another season – the following year it was back to the Grand Theatre Leeds, for the ‘revival’ show, with Daisy playing Goody once again with Lupino Lane and Horace Mills.

Lupino Lane continued life in pantomime, revue and film. He became a household name in the 1930s when he took the part of Bill Snibson first in Twenty to One (a musical farce) and then in the Noel Gay musical, Me and My Girl, which featured the catchy dance tune, ‘The Lambeth Walk’.



Harry, Larry and Violet: Safe Bind, Safe Find

My great grandfather, Larry Lewis, carried a leather bound autograph book on his travels. I have this battered and well-loved book containing over 100 autographs of performers of the period – from Marie Lloyd and Harry Lauder to the lesser known bottom of the bill artiste.

It was common for music hall performers to carry autograph books, passing them around dressing rooms and boarding houses during their week’s residency. Some of the entries are beautifully illustrated and would have taken some time — a means to while away the hours before the evening performances. Often a photograph was included, bringing those signatures to life.

As a child, I gingerly turned the aged pages and at one particular entry, I was always awestruck — it was the autograph of Harry Houdini.


The autograph, with a muscle man style photograph, is dated 11 March 1909 and signed Harry Handcuff Houdini. There is a very careful pen and ink handcuff and chain illustration. During the week of 8 March, Violet, Larry and Houdini were performing at The Empire in Old Market Street, Bristol. Harry Day (sometime British agent to Houdini) was also Larry and Violet’s agent and this may explain the booking.

The programme at the Bristol Empire that week was described as ‘an attractive one’ and along with the top-billing star Houdini, Larry and Violet were also on the bill with the Dacey & Lewis Duo, a somersault and song combo; The Milliards, a parallel bar act; The Showells, duettists; Leo Merode, looping-the-loop on a bicycle; and Lottie Leighton, a dancer. Violet was reviewed favourably,

‘more pleasing than ever and her song, “She Sailed Away,” will be responded to with no little fervour before it is a night older, judging by the way the refrain was “caught up” by the gallery’.

The audience certainly was in good spirits! Houdini’s presence may well have had something to do with that.

Houdini, ‘The World’s Greatest Mysteriarch,’ was back in Europe to promote his new act, the Milk Can Escape. He was keen to move away from the handcuff act with which he had made his name, as he could not keep up with the ever-growing number of imitators and rivals. He needed something new to maintain his sensational reputation. Houdini had last been in Bristol in 1904. Advertisements had been running in the local press in the run up to this engagement encouraging punters to book seats ‘to avoid disappointment’. The capacity of the Empire was around 2,500; it was described as having ‘big house[s]’ every night as audiences flocked to see him.

Houdini’s dramatic and visually arresting posters for the Milk Can Escape proclaiming “Failure Means a Drowning Death” would have been showcased outside the Empire. Houdini’s tour of the United Kingdom had been accompanied by an endless series of publicity-seeking bridge jumps, jail breaks and escape challenges. These challenges were actively invited from members of the public. During his week in Bristol Houdini accepted two such challenges. The first on Wednesday evening (and reported in the Western Daily Press on Thursday 11 March) was presented by three local harness makers. Their challenge was that Houdini should free himself from a restraint, more frequently found in padded cells, in full view of the audience. The restraint itself was described as a sailcloth bag with collar and closed sleeves, fitted with straps and buckles. The escape challenge was met and Houdini freed himself in just over ten minutes, to the loud cheers of the audience. As per the motto Houdini set out in Larry’s autograph book – “Safe Bind, Safe Find Does Not Apply to the Undersigned”.

The second challenge was publicised in the Friday edition of the Western Daily Press (to take place at the second house that night) as follows:

Western Daily Press Bristol Houdin Challenge ad

Proposed by three asylum attendants (William Malcolm, Frederick Pohlman and Walter Green), their challenge was to strap Houdini to a ‘crazy crib’ (an asylum hospital bed) with a leather neck collar and straps to secure every part of his body. After they had strapped him down, they stipulated that none of the Empire staff or Houdini’s assistants were to interfere with the apparatus in any way. And as with the first challenge, the escape was to take place in full view of the audience.

“Will He Get Out?” screamed the challenge advert. Would Houdini be “Defied”? Houdini wriggled, gyrated and strained his way out, although it took him an agonising 17 minutes and 35 seconds. All of this and then the Milk Can Escape yet to come. The audience must have been at a fever pitch of excitement and anticipation.

The Western Daily Press described the Milk Can Escape:

‘The new mystery consists of an air-tight and water-tight galvanised can, with cover provided with clasps for six padlocks. After the can is filled with water and Houdini is locked inside, and the whole placed in a cabinet, and in a few minutes the apparently impossible feat of escape is accomplished. The performance was accorded in Bristol, as elsewhere, a great reception.’

You can imagine the throbbing mass of the audience, all captivated by Houdini’s apparent daring and bravery – would he do it ? How did he do it? The tantalising possibility of failure and death. But what of Larry and Violet and the other support acts backstage? What was it like for them? Unlike plays and other dramatic forms there was no sense of a final bow for the acts on a music hall stage. You did your turn and usually left the theatre. As the closing act Houdini would have been the only one to receive the final deafening applause of the audience. I wonder if Larry and Violet hung around to witness the spectacle, lurked in the wings to get a glimpse of Houdini at work? Or sat in their dressing room and felt the impact of the tension and then thunderous applause when the escape was done. Or had they headed back to their theatrical digs? There is always the possibility that Houdini was staying at the same digs. Was Houdini viewed as anything above the ordinary in terms of fellow artistes? After all, the music halls were teeming with conjurors, escape artists and muscle men and Houdini to them might not have been the semi-mythical figure he is viewed as today.

At the end of that week, Houdini was off to the Alhambra in Brussels to showcase the Milk Can Escape there, then heading onto Paris. However, he was soon back in the British Isles and for the week of 5 July 1909 he was at the Hippodrome, Brighton. And he was reunited once again with Larry and Violet who too shared the bill. Almost friends by now, I like to think!

The Bristol Empire was demolished in the early 1960s to make way for a new ring road. Cary Grant had his first job there as a lime-lighter.

Houdini continues to capture our imaginations – whether via children’s books or TV series. He was most recently televised in ITV’s Houdini & Doyle. For all things Houdini, I recommend John Cox’s website Wild About Harry.

Thanks as always to The British Newspaper Archive.

Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs Worthington!

Whilst my great grandmother Violet was visiting Liverpool in 1912 and was subject to a “deplorable error” by the Liverpool City police (see my last blog post), she was the mother of a four year old daughter – my grandmother, Norah.

Norah was born on 22 January 1908 in Kennington Park Road, Lambeth. Where was Norah when all of the Liverpool commotion was going on? How did theatricals constantly on the move and with no fixed abode manage their children?

As to where Norah was – she was more than likely with her maternal grandmother in Ash Vale, a village in Surrey. Her grandmother brought her up, so time spent with her parents between theatrical engagements was rare and precious. Violet and Larry’s traversing of the British Isles (and Empire) to perform showed no signs of slowing down after Norah’s birth. Violet’s photo album contains this dog-eared photograph of Norah, with the words, “ My darling baby” written across the front:

Young Norah Lewis

One gets the feeling that this photo was frequently handled and wistfully gazed upon by Violet, as she travelled from one venue to the next.
Norah attended the local school in Ash Vale and at the age of 8, in 1916, was sent away to Godwin Girls’ College in Cliftonville (at that time an exclusive area to the east of Margate, Kent). An unusual choice, given at that time the Kent coast was under bombardment by Zeppelins.

The theatrical press were full of advertisements for educational establishments, mainly small private boarding schools, promoting their services for “Daughters of Artistes and Members of the Profession”. These home schools were more often than not run by a Clergyman’s Daughter (married) and offering a “Mother’s Loving Care and thorough education”. Or run by an unmarried Miss. Such schools were often located on the South Coast – Margate, Herne Bay, Brighton – fresh air and a sea breeze being deemed essential to a healthy and good education.

The Stage Apr 1925 Educational ads

The Stage, 25 April 1912

An advert from the Sheffield Daily Telegraph of 6 March 1913 advertises Godwin Girls’ College thus:

Advert Godwin Girls' College 1913

Although Larry and Violet prospered financially in their early years ‘on the Halls’, it has always been understood that it was extremely successful Aunt Daisy Dormer who paid the school fees. Aunt Daisy supposedly supported both Norah and her cousin, Michael Gardner (son of Norah Stockelle, the third of the performing Stockwell sisters) who attended Cliftonville College for Boys, a similar set up to that of Godwin Girls College.

So what did the “good modern education” promised to Norah comprise of? In traditional boarding school cliche, there seemed to be a lot of “Games” – hockey and cricket played on the school sports field. There was also lawn tennis, with tournaments at the nearby Westgate-on-Sea tennis club. With Palm Bay right opposite the school, presumably much was made of the coastal setting. Below is a photograph of Norah (centre) on the beach with some friends, Doris and Marjorie, school regulation gym slips on:

Doris, Norah and Marjorie

I like to think that Norah and friends might have run into the path of TS Elliot, staying at the next door Albermarle Hotel in the autumn of 1921 to convalesce and scribbling away at The Waste Land. Maybe Norah, Doris and Marjorie skipped off to ride the scenic railway at Dreamland, to a concert at the Winter Gardens or a play at the Theatre Royal. Margate was certainly not short of diversions and distractions for young gals at boarding school.

There was also much school drama and music at Godwin Girls’ College and in a later advert from the 1930s, music was described as ‘a speciality’. Norah became an accomplished pianist whilst there. During the school holidays, she would act as accompanist to a rehearsing Aunt Daisy. T. S. Elliot influenced or not, Norah loved literature and was awarded the school 1924-25 English Prize, a collection of Tennyson’s Poems.

Here is a photo of Norah and friends (possibly Doris and Marjorie again) engaging in some school girl dramatics:

School girl dramatics

In being sent away to school, Norah fared better than many theatrical offspring and had an atypical experience. Many were toured around the country with parents, changing schools as often as their parents changed venues, spending most of their waking hours backstage at the theatre and often being incorporated into the family act as juvenile performers. Prior to an element of compulsion being introduced to school attendance (it was not until 1918 that full-time education to the age of 14 became the general rule in England and Wales), many never made it to school. Hetty King, a male impersonator, best remembered for the song, All the Nice Girls Love a Sailor, tells in her Desert Island Discs of concealing herself under her mother’s crinoline skirts to hide from the school board man, known to tour theatres looking for pupils in order to enforce attendance rules. Mary Pickford, the American silent movie star, who was from a Vaudeville family, recounted learning to read from the hoardings on the side of rail road trucks.

Larry and Violet were keen to educate Norah and to ensure a life away from the insecurity of the theatre, they knew “the profession is overcrowded and the struggle’s pretty tough” as outlined by Noel Coward in his song, Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage Mrs Worthington. Like many a theatrical parent then and since, they had hopes that Norah would prosper in a different world. However, the allure of the stage was too much and ‘showbiz’ was already in the bloodstream as by 1928 Norah was already treading the boards having successfully auditioned for the Palladium pantomime as a chorus girl. Had her good, modern education been wasted or had it given her the confidence to take on the challenge and the relentless demands of a theatrical life?

Violet and the Deplorable Error

Violet Stockwell

My Great Grandmother Violet

In October 1912, my great grandparents, Larry and Violet were in Liverpool. The previous three weeks had seen them performing in Glasgow, Belfast and Dublin under contract to Moss Tours Ltd. Although they often managed to appear on the bill at the same theatre, they were never a double act, their turns being very different. Now Larry alone had a week at the Olympia on West Derby Road; Violet is not recorded in theatrical ‘Calls’ for that week but she certainly accompanied Larry for his week in Liverpool. Topping the bill at the Olympia was ‘lovely, lively Lily Langtry’, not the more famous actress known as ‘The Jersey Lily’ rumoured to be a mistress of Edward VII, but another by the same name. She was a serio-comedienne (a performer with a mix of comic and serious songs interspersed with a bit of patter) with an act not dissimilar to that of Violet. Lily was the bigger ‘name’ and the managers of the theatrical circuits were ruthless as to the composition of their bill; they didn’t need two women touting the same sort of turn, so this might be why Larry and Violet were not both employed for that week.

There was another reason to be in Lancashire that week – Violet’s sister, ‘Dainty Daisy Dormer’ was performing at the Argyle Theatre, just across the Mersey in Birkenhead. A chance to catch up with her older sister perhaps? But also a chance to catch up with some other performers and theatricals and for Violet to see what else was on offer in the world of entertainment. In that week of 21 October, Liverpool and Birkenhead were abuzz with theatrical diversity: La Boheme was at the Royal Hippodrome; “Hamlet” at the Shakespeare Theatre; the musical comedy “Miss Hook of Holland” at the new Theatre Royal, Birkenhead. And at the Birkenhead Hippodrome, Mr Charles Harrington’s No. 1 Company were presenting Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”. Variety fare was available at the Empire and the Pavilion. Violet would have been spoilt for choice, the Liverpool Evening Express described the week as ‘A Star Week in Liverpool’.

On the night of Tuesday 22nd October, Violet was making her way along London Road, the main City thoroughfare. I like to think she had been to see one of the above performances and was on her way back to her theatrical digs. En route she was stopped and questioned by two police constables from Liverpool City Police, Harry Greenwood and Arthur Northwick. They mistook her for a prostitute. I cannot be certain how far the “mistake” went and whether Violet accompanied them to the police station but I do know that Violet was outraged. Solicitors were instructed forthwith to clear her name.

By Friday of that week Robert Quilliam of Quilliam & Son solicitors had procured an apology by way of letter from Liverpool City Police. Here is that letter, addressed to Mrs Larry Lewis (Violet was keen to establish the fact of her married status) at the Empire Theatre, Liverpool:

Liverpool City Police let 25 Oct 1912
You will note the apology for the ‘mistake we made with regard to yourself on Tuesday night last in London Road’ and the acknowledgement that ‘our action was the result of a deplorable error and quite unjustified’. The apology was to be published in The Liverpool Express, The Era and The Encore. I have spent many hours poring over microfiches at the British Library as well as in the British Newspaper Library online, in pursuit of those apologies. I have not been able to trace them. I feel certain they must be there somewhere as the Violet I am getting to know through my research would not let this slip. An arrest could have spelt the end of her career, particularly at a time when music hall syndicate managers were desperate to encourage the middle classes to their ‘respectable’ halls. In July of 1912 the first Royal Command Performance had been held at the Palace Theatre in London before King George V and Queen Mary – respectability for the music halls was within touching distance. It is no surprise that Violet wanted the apology broadcast far and wide, before the theatrical gossip mill got working.

If I had a £1 for every time I have told someone of my music hall relatives, and they have made a retort about prostitution, I would be a wealthy woman. I would smile through the slur although admit to feeling slighted on behalf of those ancestors. So it was something of a surprise to see evidence amongst the family papers that my great grandmother had in fact had this accusation made against her. Combined with (more often than not) their working class background, the assumption that a woman who is onstage must be “up for it”, and looking to make an extra wage from something other than her performance is age old, but particularly amongst females in the music hall world.

In the Ripper Street TV series we witnessed the progression of Rose Erskine from life as one of Long Susan’s ladies to the music hall stage. That series is well-researched and it is probably true that the Halls were a realistic escape route from a darker world of prostitution. It has been said that Hannah Chaplin, the mother of Charlie, supplemented her stage income through prostitution. It is not as if society at that time was favourably disposed to supporting and promoting opportunities for women. The development of women’s rights and emancipation still felt a long way off. Whatever Violet was doing on London Road on that fateful night was soon forgotten – it was onto the Salford Regent for the next week’s engagement.

The Olympia designed by renowned theatre architect Frank Matcham, where Larry was performing that week is still an active venue. See their website here:

The Argyle, Birkenhead where Daisy Dormer was performing was destroyed by fire in September 1940 during an air raid.


Panic at the Newport Empire

After her childhood success in the role of Little Lord Fauntleroy, Ray Maskell (my great grand aunt) remained in the UK to try her hand on the music halls. By the mid 1890s she was touring her ‘turn’ – a song and acrobatic dance routine.
For the month of August 1896 she was engaged by Oswald Stoll to perform at his South Wales Empires; in Cardiff, Swansea and Newport. Since his move from the management of the Parthenon Music Hall in Liverpool, Stoll had been consolidating his business empire in South Wales. He lured artistes with the appealing offer of three weeks employment, one week at each of his halls. Ray Maskell’s Welsh sojourn began at the Cardiff Empire for the week of the 10th August 1896.
The following week of 17th August saw Ray, “a charming songstress and remarkable dancer” on the bill at Newport in company with the following acts;


South Wales Echo, 18 August 1896.

The Three Polos were a “gymnastic novelty”; the Sisters de Castro and Maud Stoneham presented a farcical sketch, J H Hurst, a vocal comedian; Lily Adair was a serio-comic vocalist; the McConnell Trio and the the Three Sisters Slater were yet more vocalists and magician Paul Valadon bestowed “legerdemain and thought transmission” (legerdemain refers to sleight of hand).

The South Wales Daily News observed, “Notwithstanding the season, Mr Stoll keeps up splendid programmes at all his houses. At Newport this week the show is quite up to the high standard that is always maintained…There should be large houses at Newport throughout the week.” Stoll was bolstering his success in Newport after the destruction by fire of a rival business, the Victoria Hall in May of that year. Fire was a very real hazard becuase of the old wooden building structures, the inflammable nature of stage scenery, curtains and other furnishings. Stage lighting was also by limelight – quick lime heated by an open gas jet – undoubtedly a serious fire risk, as proved by the incident that took place to Ray Maskell on the night of Tuesday 18th August, recounted here by the South Wales Echo:


“About ten o’clock last evening an exciting scene occurred at the Newport Empire. Miss Ray Maskell, comedienne and dancer, was just finishing her second turn, and was pirouetting on one foot in the front part of the stage, when she suddenly fell over the wire guard and onto the footlights. The leader of the orchestra, seeing her in such a perilous position, rose and pushed her back from the footlights, but in an instant it was seen that her skirts had taken fire and were blazing. She quickly regained her feet and endeavoured to crush the blazing skirts between her knees. Mr J Pople, the stage manager, rushed to her aid and smothered the fire with his hands. Just then the back of her dress was seen to be on fire, and reaching to her long hair. The assistant stage manager (Mr C. Wellington) ran across to where the lady and her mother and Mr Pople then were, near the opposite wing, and threw himself literally against the fire, thus smothering it. The audience got excited, and some shouted, “Take off your coat,” “Get a blanket,” and so on. Something like a panic too, began to set in, but then the audience were reassured by Mr Hurst, a comic singer, who went around and begged the audience to keep their seats. A few minutes later Miss Maskell, happily none the worse for the fiery ordeal she had been through, appeared before the audience in her burnt dress, and did three somersaults – “wheels” in the technical parlance – to show that she had come out unharmed. The stage manager has burnt hands and arms as a token of his courageous part in the incident, and praise cannot be withheld from Mr Wallington, his assistant, for his tussle at close quarters with the fire fiend.”

One month later, there was a presentation of gold medals to Mr Pople, the stage manager and Mr Wellington, his assistant, for “having so gallantly aided Miss Ray Maskell, the danseuse, when in peril from fire at the Empire performance…”. A local Newport jeweller, Mr Abrahamson, supplied the medals to the order of Miss Maskell, each with the inscription:

“For bravery, 1896. From Ray Maskell”.

What a contrast to today, where the Health & Safety Executive would undoubtedly investigate, insurers would be informed and the Manager with burnt arms and hands would receive something more than a gold medal – legal proceedings would undoubtedly ensue and compensation would be paid. Two years later the Empire Newport was re-built for Oswald Stoll by renowned theatre architect Frank Matcham. Newspaper reports championed his introduction of an asbestos safety curtain and a water sprinkler system across the stage. This was all to no avail – in 1942 the Empire was destroyed by fire (thought to have been started by an electrical fault) and subsequently demolished.

Later in September 1896 at the Palace Theatre of Varieties in Aberdeen (later The People’s Palace), another fire was started during the evening performance when some scenery came into contact with the gas jets. The theatre was destroyed, six lost their lives and there were many more casualties. Ray and the audience at the Newport Empire that night had a lucky escape.




No one loves a Principal Boy over Forty…

For the pantomime season of December 1926 to January 1927 my Great Grandmother, Violet, was contracted to play the part of the Principal Boy in a production of Dick Whittington at the Royal County Theatre in Reading. At this stage of her career Violet was using the stage name ‘Violet Levy’ – in fact it was her legally correct married name (Larry’s birth name having been Louis Levy). She had been playing Principal Boy for some years, her figure being, the press told us, ideally suited to the part. What they meant of course, was that she looked good in tights and breeches.

Violette Stockelle Principal Boy Cardiff 1912

Violet, aged 41, was engaged by Will Parkin, a small-time theatrical producer. On 9 December 1926, Will Parkin placed an advertisement in The Stage listing the Calls for the four pantos he had in production that season:


Violet attended an interview with Parkin’s agent at Dellacey, a London theatrical costumiers. She was awarded the part of Principal Boy and then ordered some of her dresses and tights for the part for the sum of £2 10s 6d. It is interesting to see that in some cases, performers were expected to provide their own costumes. A contract was subsequently entered into on 26 October 1926 between Parkin’s agent and Violet for a six week run at the County Theatre, Reading and thereafter a regional tour, at £10 per week. Time spent in rehearsals was unpaid. Using the Bank of England inflation calculator this translates to around £550 per week today. In an age when the average weekly wage was around £2.50 per week, Violet was clearly doing well.

It is not clear from the sources if Will Parkin had a face to face meeting with Violet. From what happened next, it seems unlikely. After signing the contract and the Calls appearing in The Stage, Violet received a telegram from Parkin advising that she was no longer required as Principal Boy as she was “unsuitable” for the part. The telegram was described by Violet as “quite insulting” and one can only imagine the tone of the rejection.

Violet’s first port of call was the Variety Artiste’s Federation, her trade union, of which she was a keen supporter. They advised her to present herself in Reading as per the contract. Violet turned up on the first morning of rehearsals and was dismissed by Frank Terry, Parkin’s manager, “in front of the whole company”. Her pride was dented and she rejected the offer of an alternative role as the Second Boy in Parkin’s The Forty Thieves at the Theatre Royal, St Helen’s, Merseyside.

Violet wasted no time in issuing a claim against Parkin for breach of contract and loss of wages and expenses. The case was heard in April 1927 at Lambeth County Court and warranted a spot in The Stage’s Cases in Court column.

In his defence, Will Parkin alleged that Violet Levy had misrepresented herself and that she was in fact Violet Stockelle, “in which name she had for many years past performed at music halls and theatres”. Had he known who she was he would not have engaged her because “she was not suitable for his production as Principal Boy in a provincial touring production”. What he meant was – she was too old. He had apparently told his agent that he “wanted a girl between nineteen to twenty years of age” to take the part. An actress by the name of Eileen Fowler subsequently took the Principal Boy part, “as sparkling as champagne” and who may also be the same Eileen Fowler that went onto become Britain’s first keep-fit guru. If it was her, then Parkin got what he wanted – she would have been 19 years old at the time.

Violet had had a solid reputation as a pantomime Principal Boy and she was booked from 1922 to 1925 in this part, although she advertised herself as being “Vacant for Pantomime” in The Stage in October 1925:


It doesn’t appear that she was successful in finding a role for the December 1925 season as she was appearing in a variety bill at the Exeter Hippodrome over Christmas 1925. So the chance to return to the role in Dick Whittington must have been a blessing for Violet – the income boost and a chance to stay in one place for a six week stretch.

Fortunately for Violet, Judge Parry at Lambeth County Court found in her favour. He was satisfied that she was billed to appear in the role and was party to a legally binding contract.  Violet was awarded £60 for breach of contract and £3 8s 6d for travel and clothing expenses, around £3,595 in today’s money. Violet’s days as a Principal Boy were not over yet, she was still playing the role in 1933.

Larry Lewis – the turn

Cartoon - Larry Lewis - colour

Cartoon of Larry Lewis, June 1911

I have written before about the mystery of the early life of Larry Lewis, my great-grandfather.  I have been exploring his performing life as a music hall comic who plied his trade “on the Halls” for twenty years before exhaustion and excessive alcohol consumption caught up with him.  Like many a music hall performer, he died in his early forties.

Music hall performers worked extremely long and unsociable hours, under weekly contracts.  What were known as “Calls” were published in the theatrical press, listing both the artistes expected to perform for the following week and the time the artistes were expected to appear for the first rehearsal and band call.

Performers were required to work two performances a night (“twice nightly”) plus matinees.  The last performance of the week’s booking would be on Saturday night, then it would be back to theatrical digs and Sunday would be spent travelling to the next town or city.  Performers would have to present themselves at the new venue for Monday band rehearsal.  In those days every theatre had their own resident orchestra; each turn would run through their act, watched over by the theatre manager who would finalise the billing order and resolve squabbles between the artists vying for top billing.  Then, more often than not, they would all adjourn to a local hostelry to prepare for the first performance of the day – usually at 6.10pm to an audience full of local theatre landladies.

Many performers appeared at several theatres on the same night.  In the week of 10 December 1904, Larry appeared in London at the Cambridge Theatre of Varieties (Commercial Street, Bishopgate) at 6.30pm and then at the Middlesex, Drury Lane (now the site of the New London Theatre) for the 7.15pm performance.  You did your turn and left the stage. It was then back to the Cambridge for the 9pm show.  That was an extremely tight schedule but not unusual for music hall performers.  No wonder they were exhausted and physically drained by middle age.

‘Stand up’ comedy as we know it did not exist in the music halls.  Comics presented a mixture of songs, patter and gags and the reviews of Larry’s “turn” refer to his use of all three.  This format was still influential during my 1970s childhood – the Morecambe & Wise Show, The Two Ronnies, The Mike Yarwood Show, The Ken Dodd Show all played with this version of comedy.

Larry’s songs included “Meet Me Charlie at the Corner of the Street”, “You’re the One” (by music hall song writing legend Fred Godfrey), “What a Remark to make” and the catchily titled, “I Shall Strike you with a Banana” by Harry Castling and C W Murphy.  Castling & Murphy were the song writing duo behind the famous “Let’s All Go Down the Strand” which anyone familiar with a good old fashioned sing-a-long will know is usually interspersed with the cry of “’ave a banana!”  They liked their banana themed tunes. Although I have the words to the song I do not have the accompanying music so can only ponder how this chorus would have been sung:

Earlier in his career, at the newly refurbished New Islington Empire in March 1902, The Era commented:

“Larry Lewis, a capital comedian sings “What a Remark to Make” in an exceedingly clever style and quite fetches the audience.”

The words that are used time and again to describe Larry’s turn/act are “droll” and “eccentric” and one gets a flavour of that from these photographs:


The Nottingham Evening Post on Tuesday 25 June 1907 reviewed Larry at the Empire that week:

“Unstinted approval was showered upon Larry Lewis, a comedian of the imperturbable type, and lucky enough to hold of some undeniably funny songs.”

His “quietly comic” style is also referenced. It leads me to imagine him as an understated performer,  subtle and ironic in delivery: a counter to the popular image of music hall as simply raucous singing.

The Era, Saturday 20th March 1909 writes of his performance at The Granville, Walham Green (Fulham Broadway):

“Mr Larry Lewis is a comedian with an exceedingly dry style peculiarly his own, which appeals to any class of audience”.

In the years leading up to the First World War, Larry appeared at all of the major palaces of variety in England, Wales, Scotland and Eire and also in Australia and South Africa. The arrival of war made life a little harder for theatricals and I will investigate that in a future post.