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.

Notes
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.

 

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:
i-shall-strike-you-with-a-banana

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.

From The Guardian, Family life: Grandma’s theatrical calling card

Snapshot: Grandma in her theatrical glamour

Molly O'Day

This photograph shows my grandmother’s theatrical calling card from the 1920s, when Norah Ada Beatrice Levy became the cheerfully named Molly O’Day. With fashionable, flapper finger-waves in her hair and a fur collar framing her face, she was a coy soubrette. Born in Camberwell, south London, in 1908, she was the only surviving daughter of two music hall artistes.

At 18, Norah ignored the plaintive cry of many a theatrical parent not to follow a career on the stage. She had benefited from the largesse of my very successful music hall great aunt, Miss Daisy Dormer, and been privately educated. Norah succeeded academically and was an accomplished pianist and singer. She was due to study at Girton college, Cambridge – an unusual story of social mobility for a girl whose own mother had been a Portsmouth docker’s daughter.

In the summer before she was due to “go up”, so family legend has it, she took a holiday job at Harrods. One lunchtime, flicking though her parents’ copy of The Stage, she saw a call for chorus girls at the Palladium. The roar of the crowd and the smell of the greasepaint was too strong – she skipped off to the audition and it was goodbye to Girton.

Her parents’ fears of the precarious nature of a life on the stage were well founded. They had struggled to make ends meet in an exhausting touring schedule that took them all over the UK and abroad, never quite making their way to the top of the bill. Norah dreamed big, yet after the euphoria of the Palladium she was soon to be found playing panto in Merthyr Tydfil.

By 1937 she was married to an engineer and living in West Sussex, in a house provided by Daisy’s estate. She had three sons, yet her marriage was unhappy, her husband so scarred by his second world war experiences that he took his own life in 1955. I often wonder how she managed in 1950s Britain, where attitudes to both suicide and single parenthood were unforgiving.

As a child, visits to Grandma always involved a musical singalong and she would sit at her piano wrapped in a beautiful embroidered shawl, bashing out the old favourites: My Old Man, Daisy Bell, I’m Henry VIII I Am. My sister and I would sit entranced as her nimble fingers tore across the piano. She died when I was 10 years old but the memories and the melodies linger.

Alison Young

This was published in The Guardian, Saturday 4 June 2016

Link here: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/jun/04/family-life-grandma-theatre-england-dan-john-ford-coley-scone-pudding

Pantomime Gals!

Daisy Dormer and sisters in panto

December is here and in theatrical terms it can only mean one thing – the panto season is upon us!  I have been trawling through the many  press clippings haphazardly kept by my Great Grandmother Violet, trying to piece together the pantomime years.  It is clear a stint in panto was when a music hall performer could be guaranteed a steady income for at least a month and a home from home in theatrical digs for a longer period than the usual week.

In the 1890s it became popular to cast a music hall star in a leading role in pantomime  – in much the same way that today’s soap and reality TV stars pop up in panto.  Popular music hall songs would feature just as pop hits do today. The top of the panto tree were the spectaculars staged at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane – but as today – pantos were taking place all over the country and my grandmother, great-grandmother and great aunts appeared at various points in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Birmingham, Leeds, Cardiff, Liverpool, Huddersfield, Stoke Newington, Portsmouth, Aberdeen, Eastbourne and Abergavenny.

Daisy Dormer had two younger sisters, Violet and Norah, who also caught the theatrical bug.  Like Daisy they were born with the surname Stockwell but this was transformed to the more musical “Stockelle” for their stage personas.  Violet Stockelle was my great-grandmother. I shall be writing about them in future but it would be fair to say that their careers never took off in the way that big sister Daisy’s did. They represent the thousands of female music hall turns trying to eek out a living from performing in the Edwardian period.

Whereas Daisy Dormer scaled the dizzy heights of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane panto, Violet had consistent success in principal boy roles particularly in Cardiff (two seasons at the New Theatre including Puss in Boots, 1912) and Portsmouth, her home town. My last record of Violet in pantomime was in 1933, at the age of 48, playing Aladdin “the Bad Lad of the Family” in Abergavenny.

Earlier in her career a reviewer wrote:

Violet Stockelle is a singer of chorus songs, and she owes not a little to her popularity with her audiences to her physical qualities, which would make her an ideal principal boy in a pantomime.

And here are those physical qualities on display:

Violet Levy 1912 Hana Studios

Violet, 1912

Violet Stockelle, Corn , Metropole Studios Cardiff 1

Cardiff, Metropole Studios

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In 1922 she appeared at the Theatre Royal, Huddersfield in Humpty Dumpty (at this stage of her career using her husband’s surname Levy):

Theatre Royal Huddersfield 1922

1922 Humpty Dumpty, Theatre Royal, Huddersfield. Note “In the Interest of Public Health this Theatre is disinfected with JEYES FLUID”

The Era, December 28 1922 reviewed her performance:

 Violet Levy as Rudolph, the principal boy, is the possessor of a magnetic personality, which endears her to all hearts. She has what is commonly termed a “way with her” and her singing of “Whoops-a-Daisy” is one of the hits of the piece”.

Where Violet played the principal boy, big sister Daisy played the principal girl.

Daisy Dormer Glasgow Grand Theatre Goody Two Shoes

Daisy appeared in many Glasgow pantomimes having played her first principal girl role there at the The Royal Princess’s (now the Citizens Theatre) in Goody Two Shoes in 1902. The last record I can find of Daisy in panto is Cinderella at the Royal Court Theatre in Liverpool for the 1918/19 season.

The youngest Stockwell sister, Norah, appeared as a “serio comedienne” and toured the provinces, but as far as I can tell never made it to principal roles in pantomime. Big sister Daisy, the star of  the 1917/18 Howard & Wyndham’s “Cinderella” production at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow was able to secure Norah a role alongside her.

Norah Stockelle photo

Norah Stockelle

For anyone interested in further information about pantomime now or from the past then I recommend the excellent It’s Behind You hosted by Dame extraordinaire Nigel Ellacott.

Daisy Dormer

“…the dainty little lady with the bewitching ways, who is here with all her latest songs”

Having inherited no discernable theatrical talent of my own, I have been dining out on tales of my music hall family for some years. I have been basking in the reflected glory of having a great grand aunt who once trod the boards of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Her name was Daisy Dormer and in her day she was Portsmouth’s equivalent of a 21st century Cheryl Cole, and by far the most successful member of my music hall family troupe.

She was a great beauty as can be seen in these photos, and at the time of her death in 1947 her funeral cortege brought Streatham High Road to a standstill. Her name lives on today by a housing development in Brixton – Daisy Dormer Court on the Trinity Gardens estate (not far from Morley’s Department Store). Like many music hall stars she spent her final years in Clapham and Brixton, drawn to the area by the quick and easy access tram travel provided to the theatres of the West End.

“Dainty” Daisy was born Kezia Beatrice Stockwell on 16 January 1883 in Southsea, Portsmouth and died at her home in Clapham, London on 13 September 1947, aged 67. I often wondered how she got her stage name until I read that Daisy Dormer is old English slang for a bottle warmer! Her rise from working class poverty in Portsmouth, where her father was a riveter in the Dockyard, was common to many young girls who saw the music hall stage as a way to get out and on in the early years of the Twentieth Century. Sarah Water’s character Nancy “Nan” Astley in Tipping the Velvet makes a similar escape from her life as an oyster girl in Whitstable.  And what a life Daisy had. From a pantomime debut at the Theatre Royal, Portsmouth in 1894 she was soon appearing at all of the leading London music halls and those in Birmingham, Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds. In 1912 she was the Principal Girl in the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane pantomime, under Augustus Harris, whose lavish productions were trailblazers for what we now think of as modern pantomime.

Daisy had many hit songs (I have traced over 40) but the song that is reported to have launched her career was “I Wouldn’t Leave My Little Wooden Hut For You” by Charles Collins and Tom Mellor (1905). It is a tale of a ‘pretty Southern Maid’ seeing off a suitor, with a rousing chorus:

I wouldn’t leave my little wooden hut for you-oo

I’ve got one lover and I don’t want two-oo

What might happen there is no knowing

If he comes around so you’d better be going

Cause I wouldn’t leave my little wooden hut for you

Unfortunately Daisy didn’t make many recordings of her songs and the quality of those that survive is poor. She also made a couple of films, neither of which survive. In the absence of sound and vision I can only conjure up her stage persona from the many glowing reviews she garnered, here are a couple of examples:

“Miss Daisy Dormer, a comedienne who is full of real ability and artistic intelligence”

“a charming artist who not only has a most captivating way but is a really magnificent dancer”

My Dad and his brother often visited Daisy in Clapham and recalled her cart-wheeling around her sitting room when well into her mid-50s, voluminous undergarments flowing, much to the embarrassment of a couple of eight and nine year old boys.

Kenneth Williams talked of his beloved mother Lou’s admiration for Daisy – he wrote to my Grandmother to say as much and he recounted a story in this 1985 article where he claimed Daisy asked his mother to be her dresser.

In 1908 Daisy married Albert Jee, better known by his stage name Albert Egbert of the Brothers Egbert (“The Happy Dustmen”).  Now that is a story for another day.