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?

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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.