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