Harry, Larry and Violet: Safe Bind, Safe Find

My great grandfather, Larry Lewis, carried a leather bound autograph book on his travels. I have this battered and well-loved book containing over 100 autographs of performers of the period – from Marie Lloyd and Harry Lauder to the lesser known bottom of the bill artiste.

It was common for music hall performers to carry autograph books, passing them around dressing rooms and boarding houses during their week’s residency. Some of the entries are beautifully illustrated and would have taken some time — a means to while away the hours before the evening performances. Often a photograph was included, bringing those signatures to life.

As a child, I gingerly turned the aged pages and at one particular entry, I was always awestruck — it was the autograph of Harry Houdini.

Houdini

The autograph, with a muscle man style photograph, is dated 11 March 1909 and signed Harry Handcuff Houdini. There is a very careful pen and ink handcuff and chain illustration. During the week of 8 March, Violet, Larry and Houdini were performing at The Empire in Old Market Street, Bristol. Harry Day (sometime British agent to Houdini) was also Larry and Violet’s agent and this may explain the booking.

The programme at the Bristol Empire that week was described as ‘an attractive one’ and along with the top-billing star Houdini, Larry and Violet were also on the bill with the Dacey & Lewis Duo, a somersault and song combo; The Milliards, a parallel bar act; The Showells, duettists; Leo Merode, looping-the-loop on a bicycle; and Lottie Leighton, a dancer. Violet was reviewed favourably,

‘more pleasing than ever and her song, “She Sailed Away,” will be responded to with no little fervour before it is a night older, judging by the way the refrain was “caught up” by the gallery’.

The audience certainly was in good spirits! Houdini’s presence may well have had something to do with that.

Houdini, ‘The World’s Greatest Mysteriarch,’ was back in Europe to promote his new act, the Milk Can Escape. He was keen to move away from the handcuff act with which he had made his name, as he could not keep up with the ever-growing number of imitators and rivals. He needed something new to maintain his sensational reputation. Houdini had last been in Bristol in 1904. Advertisements had been running in the local press in the run up to this engagement encouraging punters to book seats ‘to avoid disappointment’. The capacity of the Empire was around 2,500; it was described as having ‘big house[s]’ every night as audiences flocked to see him.

Houdini’s dramatic and visually arresting posters for the Milk Can Escape proclaiming “Failure Means a Drowning Death” would have been showcased outside the Empire. Houdini’s tour of the United Kingdom had been accompanied by an endless series of publicity-seeking bridge jumps, jail breaks and escape challenges. These challenges were actively invited from members of the public. During his week in Bristol Houdini accepted two such challenges. The first on Wednesday evening (and reported in the Western Daily Press on Thursday 11 March) was presented by three local harness makers. Their challenge was that Houdini should free himself from a restraint, more frequently found in padded cells, in full view of the audience. The restraint itself was described as a sailcloth bag with collar and closed sleeves, fitted with straps and buckles. The escape challenge was met and Houdini freed himself in just over ten minutes, to the loud cheers of the audience. As per the motto Houdini set out in Larry’s autograph book – “Safe Bind, Safe Find Does Not Apply to the Undersigned”.

The second challenge was publicised in the Friday edition of the Western Daily Press (to take place at the second house that night) as follows:

Western Daily Press Bristol Houdin Challenge ad

Proposed by three asylum attendants (William Malcolm, Frederick Pohlman and Walter Green), their challenge was to strap Houdini to a ‘crazy crib’ (an asylum hospital bed) with a leather neck collar and straps to secure every part of his body. After they had strapped him down, they stipulated that none of the Empire staff or Houdini’s assistants were to interfere with the apparatus in any way. And as with the first challenge, the escape was to take place in full view of the audience.

“Will He Get Out?” screamed the challenge advert. Would Houdini be “Defied”? Houdini wriggled, gyrated and strained his way out, although it took him an agonising 17 minutes and 35 seconds. All of this and then the Milk Can Escape yet to come. The audience must have been at a fever pitch of excitement and anticipation.

The Western Daily Press described the Milk Can Escape:

‘The new mystery consists of an air-tight and water-tight galvanised can, with cover provided with clasps for six padlocks. After the can is filled with water and Houdini is locked inside, and the whole placed in a cabinet, and in a few minutes the apparently impossible feat of escape is accomplished. The performance was accorded in Bristol, as elsewhere, a great reception.’

You can imagine the throbbing mass of the audience, all captivated by Houdini’s apparent daring and bravery – would he do it ? How did he do it? The tantalising possibility of failure and death. But what of Larry and Violet and the other support acts backstage? What was it like for them? Unlike plays and other dramatic forms there was no sense of a final bow for the acts on a music hall stage. You did your turn and usually left the theatre. As the closing act Houdini would have been the only one to receive the final deafening applause of the audience. I wonder if Larry and Violet hung around to witness the spectacle, lurked in the wings to get a glimpse of Houdini at work? Or sat in their dressing room and felt the impact of the tension and then thunderous applause when the escape was done. Or had they headed back to their theatrical digs? There is always the possibility that Houdini was staying at the same digs. Was Houdini viewed as anything above the ordinary in terms of fellow artistes? After all, the music halls were teeming with conjurors, escape artists and muscle men and Houdini to them might not have been the semi-mythical figure he is viewed as today.

At the end of that week, Houdini was off to the Alhambra in Brussels to showcase the Milk Can Escape there, then heading onto Paris. However, he was soon back in the British Isles and for the week of 5 July 1909 he was at the Hippodrome, Brighton. And he was reunited once again with Larry and Violet who too shared the bill. Almost friends by now, I like to think!

Notes
The Bristol Empire was demolished in the early 1960s to make way for a new ring road. Cary Grant had his first job there as a lime-lighter.

Houdini continues to capture our imaginations – whether via children’s books or TV series. He was most recently televised in ITV’s Houdini & Doyle. For all things Houdini, I recommend John Cox’s website Wild About Harry.

Thanks as always to The British Newspaper Archive.

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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?

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.

 

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.

 

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.