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:
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: http://www.liverpoololympia.com
The Argyle, Birkenhead where Daisy Dormer was performing was destroyed by fire in September 1940 during an air raid.