Adventures Down Under

In my last blog post I wrote about the marriage of my great grandmother Violet Stockelle to Larry Lewis in the Gorbals district of Glasgow. Since then I have been investigating their Australian adventure in August 1906.

During 1906, Harry Rickards, a former English music hall performer but now established in Australia as a theatre owner and agent, was touring the British Isles on the look out for new turns to engage for his Australian enterprises.   At some point Violet and Larry were booked as they both started touting the fact that they were “booked by H Rickards, depart for Australia August” in their theatrical card published in The Era. This was a means by which performers of the day kept theatre managers and agents updated as to their movements.

They set sail from Tilbury on 10 August 1906 on the RMS Ormuz, the Glasgow built pride of the Orient Line. The cost of their return passage was paid by Mr Rickards as part of their contract.

Graces Guide - RMS Ormuz

RMS Ormuz – image courtesy of Grace’s Guide

Their voyage to Australia took six weeks, via the Suez Canal stopping over at Gibraltar, Marseilles, Naples, Port Said in Egypt, and Colombo in Sri Lanka (formerly called Ceylon). From there the route continued across the Indian Ocean to the Port of Freemantle in Western Australia, then onto Adelaide, Melbourne and finally arriving at their destination Sydney on 21 September.

So what was life on board like, and how would Larry and Violet have occupied themselves for that six-week voyage? A report from The Times in January 1887 at the time of the Ormuz’s launch commented that:

The comfort of the residents in the ship has been studied to the point of luxury. The dining saloon, or coffee room as it is called, is a work of art. The panels are of rosewood inlaid with satinwood, and a large square window alternates with a mirror the whole length of the saloon.

There was also a library, a drawing room, smoking rooms, a theatre (one wonders whether Violet and Larry were invited to do a “turn”), an on- board orchestra, marble baths capable of being filled with hot or cold water in five minutes, a barber’s shop, a magnificent promenade on the uppermost deck wide enough for six to walk abreast where passengers could walk in mild weather and play deck games such as quoits and badminton. There was also the bar presided over by an expert in American drinks. Family reputation has it that it was probable that Larry spent some quality time here! The sights that Larry and Violet witnessed from the ship deck seem incredible to me – the beauty of the Mediterranean, the vistas and sounds of Egypt, Sri Lanka and yet this is a journey of which no one in the family was aware. There must have been postcards and letters yet none survive. All we suspect we have is an unusual carved bamboo pot!

Mr Rickards wasted no time in getting his new artistes from England before his audience and two days after their arrival, Violet and Larry made their Australian debut at the 2pm matinee at the New Opera House, Bourke Street, Melbourne on Saturday 22nd September. They were very well received by the Melbourne Press and continued to perform at the New Opera House throughout October and November, moving onto Rickard’s Sydney Tivoli (in Castlereagh Street) for a matinee performance on Saturday 17th November where they stayed for a further six weeks. They were joined on the “Rickards Tour” by Alf Chester, another comedian, Miss Florrie Henderson with her troupe of performing dogs and monkeys and the Harry Tate Company who were performing their sketches Motoring and Fishing.

I noticed when I was reviewing the Australian newspapers online that throughout December Violet began to disappear from reviews. It only seemed to be Larry and the other usual billed artistes that were getting a mention. And then I found the following in The Newsletter, a Sydney publication:

Mrs Larry Lewis (Violet Stockelle) was singing gaily at the Tivoli on Friday night and on Saturday morning a little stranger arrived – two months before it was expected. Both doing well.

But then on the same date as The Newsletter piece, the Sydney Morning Herald in Deaths reported the following:

Levy, December 7, 1906, at Paddington Ada Ray Sydney, daughter of Mr and Mrs Levy, professionally known as Larry Lewis and Violet Stockwell, age 6 days.

Having been born unexpectedly on Saturday 1 December, Ada Ray Sydney Levy had died within the week, the cause of death given as “premature”.  In amongst the tangle of papers and photographs I have inherited from my Dad was a black-edged photo I had always thought ghoulish and couldn’t bear to look at. I pulled it out and took a magnifying glass to read the coffin inscription – it was Ada. No one had understood before who she was. In those early days of photography, families were known to take a photograph of the deceased as a momento mori.

Ada R S Levy Deceased Dec 1906

Ada was buried on Saturday 8th December at Waverley cemetery in Sydney, one of the most beautiful spots in the world, located on top of the cliffs at Bronte in the eastern suburbs of Sydney. It is also the final resting place of Harry Rickards, the man who had brought Ada’s parents to Sydney in the first place.

Throughout this period Larry continued performing nightly with two matinees (Wednesday and Saturday 2.30pm). In theatrical parlance – the show must go on. The Sydney Morning Herald tells us that Violet made her return to performing on Boxing Day:

                Miss Violet Stockelle reappeared [at the Tivoli, Sydney] after her recent indisposition, and was warmly welcomed

Tivoli Theatre Sydney 1906

Image of Tivoli, Sydney with boards advertising Larry Lewis and Violet Stockelle

So great grandmother Violet was back on stage two and a half weeks after the sudden birth and death of her daughter but had also travelled half way round the world whilst preganant. What resilience and stamina she must have shown! She also managed to successfully hide her pregnancy bulge as all reviews refer to her daintiness and elegance. It may be that with Ada being so premature this had not fully manifested itself but it must have been a struggle to get her stage costumes on as the Australian tour continued. There was a happy outcome however – by the time of Larry and Violet’s return to England in March 1907, another baby was on its way. My grandmother Norah Ada Beatrice Levy was born in Kennington Park Road, Lambeth on 22 January 1908.

A January Wedding – Larry and Violet

Larry and Violet Oval

Mr Larry Lewis and Miss Violet Stockelle

In January 1906, one hundred and ten years ago, my great grandmother Violet Stockelle married Larry Lewis in the Gorbals district of Glasgow.  The marriage took place on 3rd January, just five minutes away from the Royal Princess’s Theatre (now the Citizen’s Theatre) where Larry was appearing as the Mysterious Stranger in the pantomime Simple Simon. That panto ran until the end of January 1906 so it is more than likely Larry and Violet popped along to the Sheriff’s office on Nicholson Street, taking two witnesses with them, adjourned to a local pub to celebrate and Larry returned to the theatre for the 7.30pm performance that night.

Souvenir programme cover Simple Simon Glasgow 1905-06 (2)

“Simple Simon” Royal Princess’s Theatre 1905-06 Glasgow

Larry was 25 and Violet 20. I had a romantic notion that Violet and Larry may have met and fallen in love in Glasgow that pantomime season, but I can find no trace as to where Violet was performing that Winter.  Although I have discovered that Larry appeared in pantomime in previous seasons with future sister-in-law Daisy Dormer, and it seems more than likely that it was Daisy who introduced her sister to this mysterious stranger.

The two witnesses to the marriage were Harry Taylor, described as a ‘comedian’ on the marriage certificate, and Jane Riddell (who I can’t identify). Harry Taylor was also in Simple Simon and together with Mr James Ross were “an energetic pair of knockabouts, who are always in the thick of the fun”. Harry Taylor had been in one of the Fred Karno companies (a training ground for Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel) so he was well-schooled in the art of knockabout. Another significant name in the cast, described as a new recruit to panto at the Princess’s, was Jack Lorimar, the father of Max Wall. He played the bell boy Saunders M’Rory and received excellent notices in The Era:

He was one of the decided successes of the first night, and his various eccentric songs and dances and the pawky humour of his catchwords he uses took the fancy of the audience right away

Although we don’t have footage of Jack Lorimar in his eccentric songs and dances we know that Max Wall continued the eccentric dancing tradition with his Professor Wallofski character, a huge influence later to the Pythons and their Ministry of Silly Walks.

Larry too was well-received by The Era:

Mr Larry Lewis as the Mysterious Stranger, played with much mock dramatic emphasis, and was also of much value to the cast. He gave a clever song, Monotony, with much point.

Later in 1906, Violet and Larry travelled by steamer for Australia to fulfil a series of engagements there for the impresario Harry Rickards. In their first year of marriage they travelled to Sydney, Melbourne and mining towns in Western Australia and were away for nearly a year. I know that they called in at the Talma Photographic Studios in Melbourne (119 Swanston Street) as I have a number of photographs taken there, some of which are shown below. In 1907 Talma was a leading Australian photographic portrait studio for theatricals and wealthier patrons.

 

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.

Welcome to Music Hall Alice!

Silver Jubilee Music Hall with friends

Silver Jubilee Music Hall with friends

My Grandma had been an actress and dancer.  Her mother, father, aunts and uncles had all been on the Music Hall stage. Visits to Grandma as a child always involved some element of sing-a- long or musical recital – whether it be Grandma on the piano, my sister on the violin or Uncle Paul on his guitar.  Grandma would bash out the old tunes – My Old Man, Daisy Bell, I’m Henry VIII I am I am.  I was bewitched and would happily sing along. She died when I was 10 years old but the memories and the melodies linger on.  This blog is an exploration of that now largely forgotten era – an era before the advent of television and the TV talent contest; an era when a Portsmouth docker’s daughter with daydreams of theatrical stardom could – with a good song or comic lines, some talent and a fancy costume – travel the length and breadth of the UK performing that turn, and even to the far out reaches of the British Empire, South Africa and Australia.  This blog is an exploration of the people and places on that journey from Portsmouth and beyond.