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Monday, 31 December 2012

“Go, Rest, Old Year! Thy Life is Ending…” Or: Happy New Year!

As 2013 beckons, I have selected a New Year’s poem with which to say not only a happy New Year to all, but also a monster thank-you to everyone who has read anything I’ve written this year; I remove my bowler hat and bow in humble thanks to you all, for without readers, I would not bother to clutter the internet by writing these pages.

And now, selected from the Leisure Hour New Year 1877 number, an anonymous poem with which to sweep away the old year and usher in the new:

Ah me! Ah me! The Year is dying;
When first he came in joyous state,
On youth and hope and strength relying,
We formed a hundred projects great, resolved and planned; but Time was flying,
And winter winds surprised us, sighing - 
"Too late! Too late!"

What lofty schemes employed our leisure,
The glad New Year should these unfold;
But Spring was surely made for pleasure,
And Summer's tale was quickly told;
Then Autumn filled his horned measure,
But while we revelled in his treasures
The Year grew old.

Oh, Spring, too soon thy zenith gaining,
Oh, Summer, of thy beauty shorn,
Oh, Autumn, for brief season reigning,
What fruit, what harvest, have ye borne?
The Year is grey, the Year is waning,
Few be the wintry hours remaining,
And we must mourn.

What, mourn when Christmas songs are sending
Their sweetest echoes o'er the earth?
What, mourn when rich and poor attending,
So gaily wait the New Year's birth?
Aye! Then must joy and sorrow blending
With retrospection, still be lending
Soft tinge to mirth.

So must we look, with gracious glances.
On deeds that rise to our distress;
So must we think of wasted chances,
For heavenly gain we did posses;
Of misspent hours, of foolish fancies,
Of broken vows, and small advances
In holiness.

Oh, it is well to pause and ponder - 
Shall every year thus lightly go?
Shall it be only ours to squander?
No, by the grace of heaven, no!
See, the dim future stretcheth yonder,
And thither, prayerless, shall we wander?
Not so, not so.

Go, rest, Old Year! Thy life is ending;
Thy strength is gone, thy glory fled.
Go, rest! While God our way defending,
We the new path before us tread.
Hark! As we listen, meekly bending,
The midnight bells proclaim, ascending.
The Year is dead.
                                            - Leisure Hour, New Year, 1877

Wishing everyone a prosperous, successful, and above all a happy new year!

Friday, 28 December 2012

”Streets of Dazzling Whiteness, Carpeted in Snow…” Or: A Post-Christmas Poem:

I hope everyone enjoyed Christmas day and have had a super festive period! I return with another Christmas poem which is again a rather downbeat and melancholy affair, but nevertheless beautiful and evocative. The image painted by the writer is quite vivid here:

A Contrast
By E.M. Maizey

Halls of costly brightness,
Splendour, pomp, and show
Streets of dazzling whiteness,
Carpeted in snow;
Petted lap-dogs sleeping,
Couched at beauty's feet;
Human beings weeping,
Houseless in the street.

Fires brightly blazing,
Couches made to bear
Forms of dainty moulding - 
Hearts that know no care;
Roofless sheds containing
Creatures stamped with woe -
Wearied with complaining
Dying as they go.

Happy children treading
Carpet-covered floors;
Wretched young ones shedding
Tears at workhouse doors;
Parents, some! too wealthy
For the charge they bear;
Some! Oh, God! sustain them,
Crushed by grief and care.
                                      - People's & Howitt's Journal, 1850    

I will be back with one final piece of Victorian poetry on New Years day, but in the meantime, enjoy the remainder of the season! 

Thursday, 20 December 2012

“My Christmas Fare a Scanty Meal of Dry and Stone-Like Bread…” Or Another Victorian Christmas Poem

One thing that always strikes me about Victorian Christmas poetry is the downcast and melancholy nature of it. Perhaps it’s just the particular efforts I have in my collection, but its quite rare that I come across happy and jolly Christmas poems, and this is no exception. The vivid imagery, though, is absolutely wonderful, and more than makes up for the gloomy subject. Maybe the Victorian poets liked to temper the festivities of the season by highlighting the predicaments of the less fortunate with their poetry? Who knows? But here is this weeks festive tear-jerker:

The Sempstresses Christmas Song
By Thomas Russell

Here's Christmas, but no holly-boughs on these lone walls are hung,
A gala time - but rind this hearth no carol rhymes are sung;

No merry greeting grateful comes to my neglected ear,
No footfall on the stair to tell of lov'd ones drawing near!

I'll deck my Robin's cage to day afresh with groundsel bloom,
He'll warble his accustom'd note until the shadows loom;
The busy needle while I ply, and gather thread on thread,
My "Christmas fare" a scanty meal of dry and stone-like bread.

The golden days of infancy, when berries red and white
were mingled on our walls at home, I'll dream of them at night;
I'll fancy that these icy limbs are frolicking again,
As then they gambolled, though I know the fancy will be vain.

The holly and the mistletoe, ah! What are they to me?
To see them waste their greenness here, a mockery would be;
Enough to know the freshness of my heart hath passed away,
It needs no forest-gathered things to tell me that today!

I've opened my casement window, that the warbling of my bird 
May mingle with the joyous strains that in the streets are heard;
And the pealing notes of countless chimes come softly stealing in,
As if to woo my darkened thoughts to gladness back again.

The laugh of merry childhood comes mingling with their strain,
Enough! I cannot hear that sound, I'll shut it out again;
It brings the tear-drop in mine eye, retards my feeble hand,
There, Robin, sing to only me thy carol soft and bland.
                          - People's and Howitt's Journal, 1850

This is to be my last post before Christmas day, so may I wish all readers a happy and joyous Christmas day, and here’s hoping Father Christmas brings you all that you desire!
'The Poor Sempstress' by Richard Redgrave, 1843

Thursday, 13 December 2012

“What Can I give Him, Poor as I am?” Or: Christina Rossetti & Our First Christmas Poem for 2012:

Christmas is almost upon us again, and I find myself in the familiar place of bringing you little-known Victorian Christmas poetry as has become my custom here for the last couple of years. However, for my first Christmas poem this year (last week’s was only a poem about winter) I have decided to opt for a piece of poetry by someone famous.

My usual source for Christmas poetry is Victorian periodicals, which published poems by members of the public, aspiring writers and little-known published writers alike. I must reiterate here that I am not into poetry, but I can appreciate a simple poem, and I find something a little more sincere and interesting about poetry written by non-famous Victorians.

That said, I have chosen to usher in the Christmas season this year with quite a famous poem by quite a famous Victorian poet.

Born in London in 1830, Christina Rossetti was, as you may have guessed, if you don’t already know, the sister of the great pre-Raphelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, as well as of the writer and founding member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood William Michael Rossetti and author Maria Francesca Rossetti. She was the youngest child in this great artistic family; and as well as her talented siblings, her father was an Italian poet, and her mother, whilst not herself of an artistic bent, was the sister of John William Polidori – the author of one of the first English vampire stories, The Vampyre, in 1819.

Christina, growing up in a household overflowing with artistic ideas, soon began to show promise as a poet. By the age of twelve she had written a book of poetry, and by eighteen she had published her first two poems (Death’s Chill Between and Heart’s Chill Between) in the literary magazine Athenaeum. Many of her early poems focused on death and loss and were somewhat melancholy. When she was nineteen Christina began contributing poems to the (ultimately unsuccessful) Pre-Raphaelite journal The Germ, under the pseudonym Ellen Alleyn.

Christina Rossetti by Dante Rossetti, 1866
Goblin Market and Other Poems – by far her most famous collection – was first published in 1862, when Christina was thirty-one. This was her first work widely available to the public and proved to be very successful, receiving critical acclaim from, not only the press, but eminent and popular poets of the day, including Tennyson. In the year prior to the release of Goblin Market the great female poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning had died in Italy, leaving her place as Britain’s premier female poet vacant. The success of Goblin Market and Other Poems saw Christina take on that mantle, becoming the most popular female poet in the country, although she never quite reached the same heights of fame and popularity as Browning.

Christina sat as a model for her brother, Dante, for some of his best known paintings, including his first oil painting The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, for which, at the age of eighteen, she was the model for the Virgin Mary. This painting was was the first instance of a piece of work bearing the initials ‘PRB’, which signified the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood.

In the paintings it is quite plain to see that she was a handsome woman; despite this, as well as her great talent, Christina never married. She was engaged to James Collinson, a painter and founding member of the pre Raphaelite Brotherhood, but his converting back to Catholicism following a crisis of conscience (having reverted to Anglicanism in order to marry Christina) caused staunch Anglican Christina to end the relationship in 1850. She also turned down the hand of Charles Cayley – the linguist best known for his translations of the work of Dante Alighieri – on religious grounds, and also the offer of painter and agnostic John Brett.
'The Girlhood of Mary Virgin' by Dante Rossetti, 1848
From 1859 until 1870 she volunteered at the St Mary Magdelene House of Charity in Highgate, which was a refuge for former prostitutes. Her experiences here with the fallen women lead many to believe the idea for her poem Goblin Market – the protagonists of which are two sisters, and there being a distinct undercurrent of sexual imagery throughout – to have been born there.

In the early 1870’s Christina was diagnosed with Graves’ disease, a thyroid disorder that includes insomnia, palpitations and hair and weight loss amongst a long list of possible symptoms. By the 1880’s the bouts of the disease had become so severe that she was made an invalid, but she continued to write. The following decade saw further health complications when, in 1893 she developed breast cancer. The tumour was removed, but returned in September 1894. Three months later she died in London.

Christina is buried in the Rossetti family plot in Highgate Cemetery West.

In the Bleak Midwinter by Christina Rossetti, c. 1872

Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty,
Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him, whom cherubim
Worship night and day,
A breastful of milk
And a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
Which adore.

Angels and archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Thronged the air,
But only His mother
In her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the Beloved
With a kiss.

What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man
I would do my part,
Yet what I can I give Him,
Give my heart.

Christina never achieved the heady heights of success – in life or after – that her brother Dante did, but she did leave behind a body of work, which, unlike a lot of nineteenth century poetry, is quite accessible and enjoyable to read, particularly the fairy-tale-esque Goblin Market.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Pre Raphaelites, or seeing their work, the Tate is currently running an exhibition entitled ‘Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde’ but hurry, the exhibition ends on 13th January! See details here:

Friday, 7 December 2012

“The Touches of Winter are Round us; and Weather yet Wilder Draws Nigh…” Or: a Winter Poem:

It has become somewhat customary here to usher in Christmas with some Victorian festive poetry, and this year will be no different. There’s something about nineteenth century winter and Christmas-themed poems that really evoke – to me, anyway – the spirit of past Christmasses; and by that I don’t mean Victorian Christmas necessarily, but even festive periods as early as twenty or thirty years ago, when, to me, Christmas seemed a little more simple than it does now.

Perhaps it was just where I was living at the time, or maybe (more likely) that I was a child, but I’m sure there were more carol singers, snowy days and a shorter build-up to Christmas than now; but maybe I look upon the past with rosy spectacles.

Today’s poem is not one about Christmas, but rather, now that there is a chill upon the air and we’ve had a little snowfall here in Britain this week, one about winter.

If you find modern-day Christmas a little bit of a blur, then I hope you’ll enjoy the simple spirit of the poems featured here over the next couple of weeks.
'London in Winter' by William Walcot, 1909 
Here’s this year’s first:

An Old Body's Winter Song.

The touches of Winter are round us;
He is busy with wind and with rain,
The leaves are all swept from the branches,
The pools are brimful in the lane.
How sombre the noontide! how sullen
The lowlands, where snowflakes fly fast!
How plaintive the notes of the robin!
For Winter has reached us at last.

The touches of Winter are on us;
Our cheeks waning pallid and thin,
Our eyes fading slowly in colour,
Bespeak some sure fading within.
But if mind has grown larger and purer,
Its thoughts and its aims all more clear,
Its perceptions of truth all corrected,
We care not tho' Winter is here.

The touches of Winter are on us;
Our hands are now feeble and slow,
Our feet totter round the small garden -
Are chilly beside the hearth glow.
But if in the long past behind us
Our words and our works have been great
In number and kind, and refreshing,
We welcome our winter estate.

The touches of Winter are on us;
How dull beats the heart in the breast!
The breath comes and goes in long pauses,
We are fond of our room and our rest.
But if the soul's hope has been garnered,
The will trained to strike passion dumb,
Tho' bruises and blood linger on us,
We are thankful our winter has come.

The touches of Winter are round us;
And weather yet wilder draws nigh,
Stormy days with their weltering cloud rack,
Frigid nights with no star in the sky.
But if in the world beyond this world
Springs life free from cold or decay,
Oh, Winter, you herald His working
Whose will is as right as His way.
                                                              - Alfred Norris, from Leisure Hour, 1877

More festive poetry next week, and if you’ve enjoyed this, click on the ‘poetry’ label in the ‘looking for something specific?’ list of words on the right more. 

Thursday, 29 November 2012

“…To Rescue Ailing Little Children from “The Two Grim Nurses, Poverty and Sickness…” Or: The Birth of Great Ormond Street Hospital:

This year Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital in London celebrated its 160th birthday. If you watched the opening ceremony of the Olympics you may have noticed a little section devoted to it, in which its child’s-face logo and the letters GOSH were spelled out in light, paying tribute to this great institution that has been nursing sick children for over a century-and-a-half.

Victorian cities were no places for poor children. They were crowded and dirty, and poor neighbourhoods in particular were prone to outbreaks of disease. Many families struggled to provide their little ones with basic necessities such as proper clothing or food, so illness amongst weakly children was rife.

In London this was particularly true, as Augustus Mayhew noted in his excellent novel ‘Paved with Gold’:

The streets of London make, at the best, but a stony-hearted parent, the gutter forming but a sorry cradle for foundling babes to be reared in. The “back slums” of the metropolis are poor academies for youth, and moral philosophy is hardly to be picked up under “dry arches” and in “padding kens.” 

So under-privileged children had a hard time of it in the Victorian city, but what could be done?

An eventual saviour came in the shape of London-born Charles West. Born in 1816, as a young man Charles had studied as a physician in Germany and France between 1835 and 1837, and went on to qualify as a Doctor of Medicines before returning to London and setting up his own medical practice. This venture, however, was a failure. He left London for Ireland where he spent some time at Meath Hospital in Dublin, specializing in gynecology and midwifery.

Charles West
He was made a member of the Royal College of Physicians in 1842, and so returned to London where he took a post as Chief Physician at the Waterloo Road Dispensary for Sick and Indigent Children. Two years later he began teaching midwidery at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, and in 1847 started giving lectures on children’s diseases. By now Dr. West had made up his mind to specialize in the care of children, and attempted to turn the Waterloo Road Dispensary into a Children’s Hospital. However, all his attempts met with no success, but he was not to be deterred.

He was made a member of the Royal College of Physicians in 1842, and so returned to London where he took a post as Chief Physician at the Waterloo Road Dispensary for Sick and Indigent Children. Two years later he began teaching midwidery at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, and in 1847 started giving lectures on children’s diseases. By now Dr. West had made up his mind to specialize in the care of children, and attempted to turn the Waterloo Road Dispensary into a Children’s Hospital. However, all his attempts met with no success, but he was not to be deterred.

This 1891 article from Strand Magazine explains what happened next, gives as insight into the history of the building, and takes us on a guided tour of the Hospital in the 1890’s:  

“We want to move Johnny to a place where there are none but children; a place set up on purpose for sick children; where the good doctors and nurses pass their lives with children, talk to none but children, touch none but children, comfort and cure none but children.”

Who does not remember that chapter in ‘Our Mutual Friend’ in which Charles Dickens described Johnny’s removal – with his Noah’s Ark and his noble wooden steed – from the care of poor old Betty to that of the Hospital for Sick Children in Great Ormond Street? Johnny is dead – he died after bequeathing all his dear possessions, the Noah’s Ark, the gallant horse, and the yellow bird, to his little sick neighbour – and his large hearted creator is dead too; but the Hospital in Great Ormond Street still exists – in a finer form than Dickens knew it – and still receives sick children to be comforted and cured by its gentle nurses and good doctors.

And this is how the very first hospital for children came to be founded. Some fifty years ago, Dr, Charles West, a physician extremely interested in children and their ailments, was walking with a companion along Great Ormond Street. He stopped opposite the stately old mansion known as No. 49, which was then “to let.” and said, “There! That is the future Children’s Hospital. It can be had cheap, I believe, and it is in the midst of a district teeming with poor.”
The house was known to the doctor as one with history. It had been the residence of a great and kindly man – the famous Dr. Richard Mead, Court Physician to Queen Anne and George the First, and it is described by a chronicler of the time as a “splendidly-fitted mansion, with spacious gardens looking out into the fields” of St. Pancras. Another notable tenant of the mansion was the rev. Zachary Macaulay, father of Lord Macaulay, and a co-worker with Clarkson and Wilberforce for the abolition of slavery.

Dr. Charles West pushed his project for turning the house into a hospital for sick children with such effect that a Provisional Committee was formed, which held its first recorded meeting on January 30, 1850, under the presidency of the philanthropic banker Joseph Hoare. As a practical outcome of these and other meetings, the mansion and grounds were bought, and the necessary alterations were made to adapt them for their purpose. A “constitution” also was drawn up – which obtains to this day – and in that it was set down that the object of the Hospital was threefold:-

(1) The Medical and Surgical treatment of poor Children;
(2) The Attainment and Diffusion of Knowledge regarding the Diseases of Children;
(3) The Training of Nurses for Children

So, in the February of 1852 – exactly nine-and-thirty years ago – the Hospital for Sick Children was opened, and visitors had displayed to them the curious sight of ailing children lying contentedly in little cots in the splendid apartments still decorated with flowing figures and scrolls of beautiful blue on the ceiling, and bright shepherds and shepherdesses in the panels of the walls – rooms where the beaux and belles of Queen Anne and King George, in wigs and buckle-shoes, in frills and furbelows, had been wont to assemble; where the kindly Dr. Mead had learnedly discussed with his brethren, and where Zachary Macaulay had presided at many an anti-slavery meeting. It was, indeed, a haunted house that the poor sick children had been carried into – haunted, however, not by hideous spirits of darkness and crime, but by gentle memories of Christian charity and loving-kindness.

For some time poor people were shy of the new hospital. In the first month only eight cots were occupied out of the ten provided, and only twenty-four out-patients were treated. The treatment of these, however, soon told upon the people, and by and by more little patients were brought to the door of the Hospital than could be received. the place steadily grew in usefulness and popularity, so that in five years 1,483 little people occupied its cots, and 39,300 passed through its out-patient department. But by 1858 the hearts of the founders and managers misgave them; for funds had fallen so low that it was feared that the doors of the hospital must be closed. No doubt the anxious and terrible events of the Crimean War and the Indian mutiny had done much to divert public attention from the claims of the little folk in 49, Great Ormond Street, but the general tendency of even kindly people to run after new things and then to neglect them had done more. It was then that Charles Dickens stood the true and practical friend of the Hospital. He was appealed to for the magic help of his pen and his voice. He wrote about the sick children, and he spoke for them at the annual dinner of 1858 in a speech so potent to move the heart and to untie the purse-strings that the Hospital managers smiled again; the number of cots was increased to 44, two additional physicians were appointed, and No. 48 was added to No. 49, Great Ormond Street.

From that date the institution prospered and grew, till, in 1869, Cromwell House, at the top of Highgate Hill (of which more anon) was opened as a Convalescent Branch of the Hospital, and in 1872 the first stone of the present building was laid by the Princess of Wales, in the spacious garden of Number Forty-Nine. The funds, however, were insufficient for the completion of the whole place, and until 1889 the Hospital stood with but one wing. Extraordinary efforts were made to collect money, with the result that last year the new wing was begun on the site of the two “stately mansions” which had been for years the home of the Hospital. With all this increase, and the temptation sometimes to borrow rather than slacken in a good work, the managers have never borrowed nor run into debt. They have steadily believed in the excellent advice which Mr. Micawber made a present of to his young friend Copperfield, “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six: result, happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six: result, misery”; and, as a consequence, they are annually dependent on the voluntary contributions of kind-hearted people who are willing to aid them to rescue ailing little children from “the two grim nurses, poverty and Sickness.” But, in order to be interested in the work of the Hospital and its little charges, there is nothing like a personal visit.

One bitterly cold afternoon a little while before Christmas, we kept an appointment with the courteous Secretary, and were by him led past the uniformed porter at the great door, and up the great staircase to the little snuggery of Miss Hicks, the Lady Superintendent. On our way we had glimpses through glass doors into clean, bright wards, which gave a first impression at once cheerful and soothing, heightened by contrast with the heavy black cold that oppressed all life out of doors. By the Secretary we were transferred to the guidance of Miss Hicks, who has done more than can here be told for the prosperity of the Hospital and the completion of the building. She led us again downstairs, to begin our tour of inspection at the very beginning – at the door of the out-patients department. That is opened at half-past eight every week-day morning, and in troop crowds of poor mothers with children of all ages up to twelve – babies in arms and toddlekins led by the hand. They pass through a kind of turnstile and take their seats in the order of their arrival on rows of benches in a large waiting room, provided with a stove, a lavatory, and a drinking fountain, with an attendant nurse and a woman to sell cheap, wholesome buns baked in the Hospital; for they may have to wait all the morning before their turn arrives to go in to the doctor, who sits from nine to twelve seeing and prescribing for child after child; and, if the matter is very serious, sending the poor thing on into the Hospital to occupy one of the cosy cots. All the morning this stream of sad and ailing mothers and children trickles on out of the waiting room into the presence of the keen-eyed, kindly doctor, out to the window of the great dispensary (which stretches the whole length of the building) to take up the medicine ordered, on past a little box on the wall which requests the mothers to “please spare a penny,” and so out onto the street again.

There are two such out-patient departments – one at either end of the great building – and there pass through them in a year between eighteen and nineteen thousand cases, which leave grateful casual pennies in the little wall-box to the respectable amount of £100 a year. It does not need much arithmetic to reckon that that means no less than 24,000 pence.
Leaving that lower region (which is, of course, deserted when we view it in the afternoon) we re-ascend to look at the little in-patients. From the first ward we seek to enter we are admonished by our own senses to turn back. We have barely looked in when the faint, sweet odour of chloroform hanging in the air, the hiss of the antiseptic spray machine, and the screens placed round a cot inform us that one of the surgeons is conducting an operation. The ward is all hushed in silence, for the children are quick to learn that, when the big, kind-eyed doctor is putting a little comrade to sleep in order to do some clever thing to him to make him well, all must be as quiet as mice. There is no more touching evidence of the trust and faith of childhood than the readiness with which these children yield themselves to the influence of chloroform, and surrender themselves without a pang of fear into the careful hands of the doctor.
Sometimes, when an examination or an operation is over, there is a little flash of resentment, as in the case of the poor boy who, after having submitted patiently to having his lungs examined, exclaimed to the doctor, “I’ll tell my mother you’ve been a-squeezing me!”

We cross to the other side and enter the ward called after Queen Victoria. The ward is quiet, for it is one of those set apart for medical cases. Here the poor mites of patients are almost all lying weak and ill. On the left, not far from the door, we come upon a pretty and piteous sight. In a cot roofed and curtained with white, save on one side, lies a flaxen-haired girl – a mere baby of between two and three – named “Daisy.” Her eyes are open, but she does not move when we look at her; she only continues to cuddle to her bosom her brush and comb, from which, the nurse tells us, she resolutely refuses to be parted. She is ill of some kind of growths in the throat, and on the other side of her cot stands a bronchial kettle over a spirit lamp, thrusting its long nozzle through the white curtain of the cot to moisten and mollify the atmosphere breathed by the little patient. While our artist prepares to make a sketch, we note that the baby’s eyes are fixed on the vapours from the kettle, which are curling and writing, hovering and melting over her. What does she think of them? Do they suggest to her at all, child though she is, the dimness and evanescence of that human life which she is thus painfully beginning? Does she wonder what it all means – her illness, the curling vapour, and the people near her bed? Poor Daisy! There are scores of children like her here, and tens of thousands out of doors, who suffer thus for the sins of society and the sins of their parents. It is possible to pity her and them without reserve, for they have done nothing to bring these sufferings on themselves. Surely, then, their parents and society owe it to them that all things possible should be done to set them in the way of health.

And much is certainly one in this Hospital for Sick Children. We look round the ward – and what we say of this ward may be understood to apply to all – and note how architectural art and sanitary and medical skill have done their utmost to make this as perfect a place as can be contrived for the recovery of health. The ward is large and lofty, and contains twenty-one cots, half of which are for boys and half for girls. The walls have been built double, with an air space in the midst, for the sake of warming and ventilation. The inner face of the walls is made of glazed bricks of various colours, a pleasant shade of green being the chief. That not only has an agreeable effect, but also ensures that no infection or taint can be retained – and, to make that surety doubly sure, the walls are once a month washed down with disinfectants. Every ward has attached to it, but completely outside and isolated, a small kitchen, a clothes room, a bath-room, &c. These are against the several corners of the ward, and combine to form the towers which run up in the front and back of the building. Every ward also has a stove with double open fireplace, which serves, not only to warm the room in the ordinary way, but also to burn, so to say, and carry away the vitiated air, and, moreover, to send off warm through the iron-work surrounding it fresh air which comes through openings in the floor from ventilating shafts communicating with the outer atmosphere. That is what architectural and sanitary art has done for children.

And what does not medical and nursing skill do for them? And tender human kindness, which is as nourishing to the ailing little ones as mother’s milk? It is small reproach against poor parents to say seldom do their children know real childish happiness, and cleanliness, and comfort, till they are brought into one of these wards. It is in itself an invigoration to be gently waited upon and fed by sweet, comely young nurses, none of whom is allowed to enter fully upon their duties till she has proved herself fond of children and deft to manage them. And what a delight it must be to have constantly on your bed wonderful picture-books, and on the tray that slides along the top rails of your cot the whole animal creation trooping out of Noah’s Ark, armies of tin soldiers, and wonderfully woolly dogs with amazing barks concealed in their bowels, or – if you happen to be a girl – dolls, dressed and undressed, of all sorts and sizes! And, lastly, what a contrast is all this space, and light, and pure air – which is never hot and never cold – to the low ceilings and narrow walls, the stuffiness, and the impurity of the poor little homes fro which the children come. There, if they are unwell only, they cannot but toss and cry and suffer on their bed, exasperate their hard-worked mother, and drive their home-coming father forth to drown his sorrows in the flowing bowl: here they are wrapped safely in a heavenly calm, ministered to by skilful, tender hands, and spoken to by soft and kindly voices: so that they wonder, and insensibly are soothed and cease to suffer. Until he has been in a children’s hospital, no one would guess how thoughtful, and good-tempered, and contented a sick child can be amid his strange surroundings.

But we linger too long in this ward. With a glance at the chubby, convalescent boy, “Martin,” asleep in his arm-chair before the fire – whom we leave our artist companion to sketch – we pass upstairs to another medical ward, which promises to be the liveliest of all; for, as soon as we are ushered through the door, a cheery voice rings out from somewhere near the stove:-
            “Halloa, man! Ha, ha, ha!”
            We are instantly led with a laugh to the owner of the voice, who occupies a cot over against the fire. He is called “Freddy,” and he is a merry little chap, with dark hair, and bright twinkling eyes – so young and yet so active that he is tethered by the waist to one of the bars at the head of his bed lest he should fling himself out upon the floor – so young, and yet afflicted with so old a couple of ailments. He is being treated for “chronic asthma and bronchitis.” He is a child of the slums; he is by nature strong and merry, and – poor little chap! – he has been brought to this pass merely by a cold steadily and ignorantly neglected. Let us hope that “Freddy” will be cured, and that he will become a sturdy and useful citizen, and keep ever bright the memory of his childish experience of hospital care and tenderness.

Next to “Freddy” is another kind of boy altogether. He has evidently been the pet of his mother at home, and he is the pet of the nurses here. He is sitting up in his cot, playing in a serious, melancholy way with a set of tea-things. He is very pretty. He has large eyes and a mass of fair curls, and he looks up in a pensive way that makes the nurses call him “Bubbles,” after Sir John Millais’ well known picture-poster. He has a knack of saying droll things with an unconscious seriousness which makes them doubly amusing. He is shy, however, and it is difficult to engage him in conversation. We try to wake his friendliness by presenting him with a specimen of a common coin of the realm, but for some time without effect. For several seconds he will bend his powerful mind to nothing but the important matter of finding a receptacle for the coin that will be safe, and that will at the same time constantly exhibit it to his delighted eye. These conditions being at length fulfilled, he condescends to listen to our questions.
Does he like being in the Hospital?
            “Yes. But I’m goin’ ‘ome on Kismas Day. My mother’s comin’ for me.” 
            We express our pleasure at the news. He looks at us with his large, pensive eyes, and continues in the same low, slow, pensive tone:-
            “Will the doctor let me? Eh? Will he let me? I’ve nearly finished my medicine. Will I have to finish it all?”
            We reluctantly utter the opinion that very likely he will have to “finish it all” in order to get well enough to go home. And then after another remark or two we turn away to look at other little patients; but from afar we can see that the child is still deeply pondering the question. Presently, we hear his slow, pensive voice call:-
            “I say!”
            We go to him, and he enquires: “Is Kismas in the shops? Eh? Is there toys and fings?”
            We answer that the shops are simply overflowing with Christmas delights, and again we retire; but by and by the slow, pensive voice again calls;
            “I say!”
            Again we return, and he says: “Will the doctor come to me on Kismas morning and day ‘Cheer up, Tommy; you’re goin’ ‘ome to-day?’ Will he? Eh?”
            Poor little boy! Though the nurses love him, and though he loves his nurses, he longs for his mother, and the “Kismas” joys of home. And though he looks so healthy, and has only turned three years, he has insipient consumption, and his “Kismas” must be spent either here, or in the Convalescent Home on the top of Highgate Hill.

It is impossible, and needless, to go round all the little beds; it is a constant tale of children innocently and cheerfully bearing the punishment of the neglect, the mistakes, or the sins of their parents, or of society. Here is a mere baby suffering from tuberculosis because it has been underfed; there, and there, and there are children, boys and girls – girls more frequently – afflicted with cholera, or St. Vitus’ dance, because their weak nerves have been overwrought, either with a fright at home or in the streets, or with overwork or punishment at school; and so on, and so on, runs the sad and weary tale. But, before we leave the ward, let us note one bright and fanciful picture, crowning evidence of the kindness of the nurses to the children, and even of their womanly delight in them. Near the cheerful glow of one of the faces of the double-faced stove, in a fairy-like bassinette – a special gift to the ward – sit “Robin” and “Carrie,” two babies decked out as an extraordinary treat in gala array of white frocks and ribbons. These gala dresses, it must be chronicled, are bought by the nurses’ own money and made in the nurses’ own time for the particular and Sunday decoration of their little charges. On the other side of the stove sits Charlie, a pretty little fellow, on his sofa bed.
And so we pass on to the surgical wards; but it is much the same tale as before. Only here the children are on the whole older, livelier, and hungrier. We do not wish to harrow the feelings of our readers, so we shall not take them round the cots to point out the strange and wonderful operations the surgeons have performed. We shall but note that the great proportion of these cases are scrofulous of some order or other – caries, or strumous disease of the bones, or something similar; and, finally, we shall point out that one little fellow, helpless as a dry twig, but bold as a lion, at least if his words are to be trusted. He has caries, or decay, of the backbone. He has been operated upon, and he is compelled to lie flat on his back always without stirring. He could not have tackled a black-beetle, and yet one visitors’ day the father of his neighbour having somehow offended him he threatened to throw him “out o’ winder,” and on another occasion he made his comrades quake by declaring he would “fetch a big gun, and shoot every man-jack of ‘em!” But, for all his Bombastes vein, he is a patient and stoical little chap.

There are here altogether 110 cases in five wards (there will be 200 cots when the new wing is finished) and a few infectious fever and diphtheria cases in an isolated building in the grounds; and the cases treated and nursed in the course of the year average 1,000. but the most obstinate cases, we are told, are now sent to Highgate, to keep company with the convalescents, because of the constant urgency of receiving new patients into Great Ormond Street. To the top of Highgate Hill, therefore, to Cromwell House, we make our way the following afternoon.
            - Strand Magazine, 1891

Charles West retired in 1876 at the age of 60, and spent a lot of time in the warmer French climate – especially in winter. He died in Paris at the age of eighty-two whilst travelling back to London.

It surprises me that he is not better known and has no memorial to commemorate his contribution and dedication to improving the health, and ultimately, the lives of children, although there is a room at the hospital named after him, and after asking the Great Ormond Street Hospital charity, they told me that they are “finding out about memorials.”

Perhaps the greater surprise is that the names of Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole have lived on, with the former being extremely well-known known and having a museum dedicated to her (rightly so) whilst a statue of Mary Seacole is due to be erected at St Thomas’ Hospital. West, however, not only opened Great Ormond Street, but also wrote a book entitled ‘How to Nurse Sick Children’ in 1854; five years before Nightingale published ‘Notes on Nursing’ suggesting that he perhaps deserves a share of Nightingale’s parent of modern nursing tag.

To this day the hospital still relies on public donations collected through its charity in order to raise the £50million that it requires annually to care for sick children. You can read more about this, or donate here and explore more history and photographs of the hospital here.

Saturday, 22 September 2012

“A Queen of Swell Society, Fond of Fun as Fond can be…” Or: Some Music Hall Stars:

For the past month here we have been delving into the incredible world of the Victorian music halls, and personally I have learned a great deal. The halls provide an entirely new world of the nineteenth century in which to peek and study, and it would be a lifetime’s work to unlock all the secrets and understand everything about this most jovial-seeming world of laughter and costume.

My guest bloggers have lifted the lid a little on that world, and what we have discovered consequently has changed my perspective on the Victorian halls. The following articles on various stars of the halls, which are my contribution to this month of music hall related articles, have confirmed that change in perspective.

Whilst reading the articles that have appeared here over the past four weeks I have noticed a tinge of sadness running through them like a silent undercurrent. Amongst the make-up and the gas lights the more I read about the music halls the stronger this sense becomes, but it was not crystallized until I completed writing about the four music hall stars who are the focus of this article.

All four of them enjoyed great success in various forms on the stage, be it singing, acting, or dancing, but their stories leave a melancholy echo in the ear. Whether this is true, I leave for other readers to form an opinion. Perhaps the sadness is on my part, and stems from the fact that these institutions are no longer there; and that on every site which used to house a music hall is now only faded echoes of laughter and applause.

Sylvia Grey: (1866 – 1958)

Like most nineteenth century stage stars, London-born Sylvia Grey began her career at an early age, appearing as a ten year old in Shakespeare plays at Sadler’s Wells. She continued acting on stage until the age of twelve, when she enrolled in Trinity College, London. The performing arts school was established in 1877, and so Sylvia would have been among the first attendees of the new establishment. Sylvia graduated with a degree in music, and used this to become a professional singer with a choir.

Whilst with the choir Sylvia continued to study music and singing, and took several small roles on stage, first at the Vaudeville Theatre, and then at the Gaiety. The Gaiety had opened in 1868 as a Music Hall and Burlesque house, replacing the Strand Musick Hall. At the Gaiety, Sylvia learned to dance with the burlesque performers under the tutelage of famous dancer, actor and choreographer John D’Auban. D’Auban had also been a child star before becoming ballet master at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and after that, had taken up the post of dance master at the Alhambra, before moving to the Gaiety. Sylvia made her stage debut as a dancer in 1884 at the age of nineteen, and the following year appeared in ‘The Vicar of Wide-Awake-Field’ for which she was paid the princely sum of £6 a week. Her performances lead to her being promoted to principal dancer at the Gaiety. In 1887 she was given her first speaking part in the play ‘Miss Esmerelda’. Her lines were:

Customer: “How much are your hyacinths?
Sylvia: “Two Shillings a bunch, sir.”
Customer: “Why, yesterday they were a shilling.”
Sylvia: “Yes, but they’re higher since.”

Following her success, she went on to play in many of the Gaiety’s burlesques, and between 1885 and 1889 in ‘Little Jack Sheppard’ (playing Polly Stanmore) and ‘Ruy Blas and the Blasé Roue’, (playing Donna Christina) she even embarked on an eighteen month world tour. But despite her success with the Gaiety, Sylvia actually made more money giving private dance lessons to anyone interested who could pay. Her clients ranged from actors to aristocracy, and counted the great Ellen Terry as one of her students.

Sylvia married in 1893, and made her final West End performance two years later in 1895 playing Countess Acacia in ‘Baron Golosh’. She was twenty-nine when she retired from the stage.
During the First World War she ran an Australian officers club in Piccadilly, London, and went on to appear in a few French motion pictures in the early 1920’s

Sylvia Grey died on 6th May 1958 at the grand age of ninety-two, and in a lovely obituary in The Times, it was told how:

“…In spite of her great age she resolutely refused to grow old and to the end she retained a wide circle of friends who delighted in her anecdotes of the halcyon days of Gaiety burlesque.”
            -The Times, May 7th 1958

* * *

Vesta Victoria: (1873 – 1951)

 Despite being born in Leeds, Vesta Victoria (born Victoria Lawrence) went on to become a great ‘cockney’ character in the music halls. Again, she started her career young, performing on stage with her Music Hall manager father as a child. She continued playing minor roles on stage until her career took off in 1892 thanks to a hit song.

Daddy Wouldn’t Buy me a Bow Wow’ was performed by Vesta for the first time at South London Palace – a music hall in Lambeth, whilst holding a kitten. The song was the most successful in the sixty-year songwriting career of James Tabrar, and it made Vesta a star. It was also released on phonograph in America to much success in the same year.

Two years after the performance that gave her her big break, Vesta gave an interview to the Daily Mail:

Special Interview

It is not often (writes a representative of the MaiI) that one has the opportunity of having a talk with “Vesta Victoria,” or, to give her her baptismal name, Victoria Lawrence. As I neared Mrs Matcham’s house — with whom Miss Lawrence and her mother are staying — l felt a pang of remorse; for I knew that Miss Vesta had had a trying time of it at the Alhambra the night previous; she gave no less than seven songs. Still, interviewing hardens one's heart and steels one's nerves.
It was early in the day. I was comfortably seated in a luxurious chair, when in walked Miss Lawrence. She was tastefully dressed in a morning gown of red trimmed with lace. “Now, Miss Vesta, I have been sent to gain some information about yourself. It is sure to be interesting reading for people, because you know they regard you almost as one of themselves.”
“I am afraid I have not very much to tell you. My life off the stage has been most uneventful. However, I will do my best.”
“We might as well begin as the beginning,” I said. “Tell me when first you took to the stage?”
“Oh," with a roguish smile, “that is so long ago, you know, that I can scarcely remember. Let me see. I should not be quite five years old when I was first before the footlights. It was at my father's Hall at Gloucester. I used to go on the boards every Friday night to get accustomed the audience. Soon after that I got my first real engagement at Dublin at Dan Lowry's Star Music Hall. Ever since I have been very successful and never once looked back.”
“Are you fond of the profession?”
“Ah; I knew would ask me that question; all interviewers do. Yes, I am; but you know I was disappointed the first night of my present appearance in Hull. I had three new songs, and the audience did not catch the choruses. You know we sing a lot better if the choruses ‘go.'
I did not venture to smile for fear of the “wrath to come,” so on the other hand I sympathised, and agreed that the audience was dull one.
“Have you had any strange experiences?” I asked.
Poster for 'Bow Bow'
“Yes, I remember one at Middlesbrough particularly well. For some time I was billed as ‘Baby Victoria,' but I soon threw the infantile name away, and blossomed into full ‘Miss Victoria.’ Under that name I was engaged at Middlesbrough. My father — Mr Joe Lawrence — was with me, and when the manager saw my father he asked where ‘Miss Victoria' was. When he found out that I was 'Miss Victoria’ he refused to allow me to perform, I was such a little dot. He said, ‘that little kid is too young to do anything!' My father asked him if he expected an old woman with wrinkles. Oh; we had an awful time! My father and the Manager were about two hours arguing, and at last it was decided that I should do my turn, and if not satisfactory would receive no money. When I heard that, I made up my mind to do the thing properly, and was very determined about it. Well, I went on and was a wonderful success. After my turn the manager came and took me up in his arms and wanted to kiss me, but father interfered and would not let him. He was awfully nice then, and apologised for his bad behaviour. That sort thing — not the kissing, but the misunderstanding — happened at three other halls, where I had been engaged as Miss Victoria.”
“What a brute the fellow must have been. But have you had any local experiences worth recording?”
“No, nothing particular, except once, when I was at Beverley with Alice Featherstone —one of the Verne sisters, and sister to Mrs Matcham. It was about eight years ago. I would be 12 or 13. We had been to a concert, and we missed the last train back to Hull. We were in a dreadful way, and didn't know what to do. I remember was awfully tired and frightened, but we managed to obtain a trap. I don't think I should have been frightened if I had my ' bow-ow-ow' with me,” said Miss Lawrence, with a merry laugh.
“Ah, that reminds me. Do you mind telling me something about that famous song?”
“Oh, I had almost forgotten to mention it to you, and it has an interesting history. I was doing turns at the Pavilion, South London, and the Standard; and one Friday night Mr Joseph Tabrar mentioned that had an idea for a song, and he wrote it for me. From the outset it went ‘like all that,’ and on the first night a sister artiste — Miss Alice Conway — handed me a bouquet, in the middle of which I found a little black kitten. That was just before I went to America, and I decided to take Pussy with me. As you know, I always sang the song after that with the cat in my arms.”
I murmured “happy kitten,” and then asked if “the trip across the Atlantic was enjoyed?” “I enjoyed myself at the far end. I had a lovely time. The Americans are so nice; but still I like the English quite, or nearly, as well. In New York 'Bow-wow' took a great hold, and in less than two months more than 5,000 copies were sold. I received all sorts of presents. See, this marquise ring I had given me; and, wait a minute, I will show you some others.”
Vesta Victoria returned with armful of boxes. One contained a handsome large gold medal, the gift Mr Paster; a pendant watch, encrusted with diamonds; a fine diamond bracelet, and other “costly trifles,” all of which had been presented her by American friends. There was also a neat workbox given by the chorus at the Alexandra Theatre, Sheffield, where Miss Lawrence was a great success in the character of the Princess in “Alladdin.”
“Now, just another question, Miss Vesta. Are you pestered with love letters and that sort of thing?”
“Oh, yes. I have had a very fair share. There is one I have upstairs. It is great fun. It is from the son of a proprietor of a London Hall. The poor boy is about sixteen and when he heard that inaccurate report about my being engaged he wrote me a loving letter and told me that ‘he envied my old man.’ I have had lots of others asking for appointments and that sort of thing, but they write in vain.”
            - Daily Mail, 1st March 1894

In the same year she gave the above interview, Vesta married music hall manager Frederick Wallace McAvoy. They had a daughter together, but McAvoy was a cruel, abusive and adulterous husband, and so they divorced after a ten year marriage in May 1904.

Following her divorce she began seeing William Edward Herbert Terry, and whilst in New York in 1912 they announced that they were married. A year later they had a daughter named Iris Lavender Terry, but their 1912 marriage seems to have been made up, as English records show that Vesta and William were married in Wandsworth in 1920. (The ‘lie’ about their being married in America was possibly because they knew she was pregnant and wanted to avoid the ignominy of a child out of wedlock, or maybe so that they would be allowed on the boat back to England - in 1913 another Music Hall star, Marie Lloyd was refused entry from England into America on the grounds of ‘Moral Turpitude’ for having undertaken the journey there with a man to whom she said she was married, but under questioning from American authorities, admitted she was not.)

The marriage to William ended in 1926, Vesta having filed for divorce on the grounds of “Ill-usage and association with other women” So far, so unlucky in love.

Vesta proved a comedy hit not only in the UK, but also in America, where she embarked on a lucrative tour of USA vaudeville theatres in 1907. She retired from the stage just after the First World War, but during the 1930’s appeared in a few films and at a couple of Royal Variety Shows. Vesta, who, judging by the interview she gave to the Mail, owned many expensive gifts, was twice the victim of robbery; the first instance being in 1926. She had made a return to the stage in Bristol, and whilst she was away her fifty six year old housekeeper Florence Smith stole 181 uncut diamonds worth £174. Smith tried to sell the diamonds to a pawnbroker on the Edgware Road for £60. This raised the suspicions of the pawn shop owner who called for the Police. Smith, giving a false name, insisted that Vesta had asked her to pawn the objects. Vesta was telephoned by the police, who confirmed that this was not the case, and the housekeeper was arrested.

The second theft occurred in 1934 when thieves broke into her home in Roydon, Essex, and stole jewellery that had previously belonged to the Russian Royal Family worth between £5,000 and £10,000. Vesta had worn the jewels whilst performing at a charity concert in London, and whilst the majority had been returned to a safety deposit box, she had taken two of the pieces home, and they were promptly stolen during the night.

Vesta Victoria died on April 7th 1951 in Hampstead, London, aged 78. At Golders Green Crematorium a lilac tree was planted in her memory, but this is no longer there.

* * *

Letty Lind: (1861 – 1923)

Letty Lind (Born Letitia Rudge in Birmingham) first appeared on stage at the tender age of five when she secured the role of Eva in a stage adaptation of ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin.’ Her mother was an actress who worked on stage in the Birmingham area during a very short acting career, but Letty and her siblings would go onto far greater success.

Letty, along with her siblings Sarah, (stage name Millie Hylton) Elizabeth, (Adelaide Astor) Fanny (Fanny Dango) and Lydia (Lydia Flopp) all had some kind of career on the stage, first as dancers, then as singers and performers in pantomime and comedy and previously mentioned theatres the Gaiety and Daly’s.

At the age of ten, Letty went on tour with American writer Howard Paul and his wife. She enjoyed a successful time on stage, but in private this was not to be an enjoyable period. Howard Paul had an affair with her which resulted in Letty becoming pregnant in 1878. Howard was forty-eight and Letty only seventeen. For this to happen once was perhaps careless to put it mildly, but in 1880 Letty again fell pregnant by Howard; both babies died in infancy. Between the two pregnancies Letty made her London stage debut at the Princess’s Theatre in Howard’s farce ‘Locked Out’ in 1879. Other than being the first time she performed in London, this occasion was notable for being the first time she used the name of ‘Letty Lind’ (Howard had always billed her as ‘La Petite Letitia). This review from the same year suggests that her abilities in singing and dancing were already starting to please crowds:

Not little of the success of the entertainment is due to the efforts of Miss Letty Lind, piquante little vocalist, who was encored after she sang…her execution of the rope dance calling forth hearty applause
        Western Daily Press, January 1879

In 1881 she left Paul Howard’s company, which comes as little surprise, and spent most of the 1880’s performing in various London theatres, including The Gaiety, (in ‘The Nine Days’ Queen’) The Olympic, (in ‘Exiles of Erin’) and The Criterion, (in ‘Little Miss Muffet’) as well as going on a UK tour with several shows.

She returned to The Gaiety to perform burlesque in 1887, and it was at this time that her fame began to rise. She starred in ‘Monte Cristo, Junior’ in which she replaced the hugely popular, but America-bound Lottie Collins (she who made the song ‘Ta ra-ra Boom de-ay’ a huge hit, and about whom we will learn more later) by now Letty’s star was well-and-truly on the rise.

Letty Lind's famous 'Skirt Dancing'
After performing in a few more shows at The Gaiety Letty was ‘loaned’ to The Theatre Royal on Drury Lane for the 1887 Christmas pantomime ‘Puss in Boots’ in which she played the princess. The next eighteen months were spent touring Australia and America, before returning to London in 1889 to star in ‘Ruy Blas and the Blasé Roue’ (alongside Sylvia Grey, whom we met earlier). By this time, Letty’s dancing, and her ‘skirt dancing’ in particular (a type of dancing involving the flinging about of your skirts, made popular by the likes of Kate Vaughn and the aforementioned Lottie Collins) had made her extremely popular. By the mid 1890’s, 
however, burlesque had begun to lose its popularity, and so Letty turned her hand to musical comedies which focused more on singing than dancing.

Before she could get to grips with her new direction on stage, Letty gave birth to a baby boy.

The father of the child was the third Earl of Durham (John George Lambton.) Lambton had been married to his wife, Ethel, since 1882, however illness had confined her to an asylum for most of that time, and Lambton – understandably lonely – had started seeing Letty. The Earl wished to divorce his wife so that he could marry his sweetheart, but his wife’s condition prevented this from being possible as divorce law forbade the legal separation of a married couple in which one partner was ill. As a result, baby John Rudge was born out of wedlock in 1892. The Earl stayed with Letty until her death.

Career-wise, she secured her first role in a musical comedy in 1893, playing Maude Sportington in ‘Morocco Bound’ at the Shaftesbury Theatre. The Show was a huge success and ran for more than three hundred performances. Away from the stage, in their Christmas Number ‘The Pelican’ (a periodical) published short stories written by people connected to the theatre, to which Letty contributed. Other big-names who wrote stories were Albert Chevalier, Sylvia Grey, Augustus Harris and Lilly Langtry. Letty’s story concerned a dancer who had to deal with the nightmare of a petticoat string breaking during a performance.

She also tried her hand at writing a song when, in 1894 she penned ‘Dorothy Flop’ for the show ‘The Lady Slavey’. Letty’s sister, Adelaide Astor, performed in the production.

For the rest of the 1890’s Letty stared at Daly’s Theatre in a string of successful West End productions for which she won much praise and many fans, particularly for her graceful dancing. In The summer of 1899 she returned to the world of Music Hall for the first time in seven years when she appeared at the Alhambra:

Miss Letty Lind is the latest recruit to the variety halls, and has this week made her first appearance at the Alhambra, singing “Di Di” from “Go Bang,” the “Gay Tom Tit” from the “Artists Model,” and similar things. The lady has entered into an elaborate explanation why she has accepted Mr. Slater's offer to appear at a music hall. The apology is, of course, wholly superfluous. Very small, indeed, nowadays is the dividing line between the music halls and the after-dinner theatres, and if Miss Letty Lind chooses to accept ten pounds or so a night for singing at the Alhambra the self-same songs as those she is accustomed to sing over the way at Daly's, nobody would be prepared to deny that she is a woman of sense, particularly as just now the theatres in the hot weather are to a certain extent under a cloud. In the autumn, when Mr. Edwardes produces his new Japanese musical play, Miss Letty Lind will be seen singing and dancing again at Daly's.
            - Evening Telegraph, June 1899

Bill for the Last Night at the Gaiety
This would not be the last time in her career that Letty returned to the halls. In 1903 the Gaiety theatre was to be demolished, and put on a final night performance which was made up of many of their current and former stars singing their best loved songs. Letty, then aged forty-one, sang ‘Listen to my Tale of Woe’ from ‘Ruy Blas and the Blasé Roue’. After this performance she retired from the stage.

After retiring from the stage she lived a quiet life at her home in Slough. Her house, Brookside, had been built for her in 1897 on the site of an old inn, and she had lived there ever since, in the peace and quiet away from smoky London. In 1923, at the age of sixty-one, Letty became suddenly ill, and never recovered. After a funeral in St Mary’s church in Slough, she was buried in Windsor cemetery. Her partner, and father to her son, John George Lambton died in 1928.

* * *

Lottie Collins: (1865 – 1910)

An East End girl, Lottie Collins certainly does not buck the trend for music hall performers starting their careers early; she began her career at the age of ten as part of a skipping rope act with her two sisters Lizzie and Marie. They imaginatively called themselves ‘The Three Sisters Collins.

By 1886 Lottie had become a solo music hall act, making her debut in the burlesque ‘Monte Cristo Jr.’ at the Gaiety Theatre – the theatre’s influence on the music hall scene has by now become apparent – but it was whilst touring the vaudevilles in America in 1889 that Lottie’s life was to change forever; Not only did she marry her American beau Stephen Cooney whilst in St. Louis, but it was in the USA that she first heard the song ‘Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay’.

The song was part of a revue (an entertainment show containing many different types of acts from music and dance to sketches satirizing popular culture) called Tuxedo, staged in America in 1891. Her husband, Stephen, first heard the song, and immediately set about securing the rights to play it in England. Once this was achieved, Lottie developed a suitably ‘burlesque’ (and also exhausting) dance to accompany it, comprising of energetic Can-Can style leg-kicks that titillated audiences by exposing stockings, sparkling suspenders and bare thighs.

The 1938 book, ‘Ring up the Curtain’ gives a brief description of how the performance went:

“Lottie began with diffidence, her trembling voice being emphasized by nervous little gestures with her handkerchief. Then she put her hands on her hips, below the waspish waist of the period, and went crazy, along with an intoxicated orchestra, the music mingling, as it were, with the swirl of maddened petticoats and the nip of that scarlet-clad limb. The furore which “Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay” created depended upon the conjunction of song and singer. Either was of small value apart; together they were irresistible.”

If you close your eyes and imagine hard enough you can almost see her on the stage.

It is worth pointing out here that the song was not a big hit until Lottie sang it, such was the vigour with which she attacked it; and as the last sentence of the extract above alludes; the song was worth little without her; and she little without the song. After she performed it at the Tivoli Theatre on the Strand, it exploded.

One Edwardian newspaper looked back on the song and commented on its popularity:

“…It was an epidemic, and its secret and cause was Miss Lottie Collins, the lady who ‘kicked’ the song and herself into worldwide fame…In London, babies lisped it, school children sang it, tottering old men and staid old ladies hummed it, and street boys whistled and shrieked it. Costers, of both sexes, and it each other’s hats, stamped, kicked and yelled it until they were hoarse and feeble from sheer exhaustion. Street organs and German bands played nothing else, it was taken up and echoed from town to village, and the cry throughout the land from cockcrow till midnight was “Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay.”

 As with any craze – or mania as the Victorians would have called it – the song, and Lottie, were in high demand. She performed it at theatres and music halls right across London throughout 1891 and 1892, and at the song’s zenith, it is believed she was performing it five times a night at various venues. Given the exuberance and energy required in the dance routine, I imagine this was excruciatingly tiring.

In late 1892 she returned to America to perform the song in New York, but received rather waspish reviews. One critic described her as a ‘mature woman’ – she was twenty-seven.

Throughout the 1890’s she continued to perform at variety shows and music halls around Britain, and she even had a hit with Vesta Victoria’s signature song ‘Daddy Wouldn’t Buy me a Bow-Wow’ less than half a decade after Vesta’s version catapulted her to fame and fortune. ‘Bow-wow’ seems an interesting choice of song for Lottie to cover; given that her rise to superstardom was thanks to a super-hit song of her own.

In 1897 – Diamond Jubilee year – the newspaper Society published an article which made accusations of indecency at her, and claimed that the songs she sang were vulgar. Lottie took legal action and won £25 in damages, though the episode probably did her image a deal of good, and helped her to become one of the icons of the so called ‘Naughty Nineties’. Its true, her routines were ‘saucy’ in their time, but that is what the music halls were all about. Risqué was their business.
In November of Jubilee year Lottie returned to New York and sang three new songs, (it seems theatre performers did not rest!) ‘The Little Widow’ ‘The Girl on the Ran Dan’ and ‘A Leader of Society

By the end of the century her nine-year marriage to Stephen Cooney appeared to be becoming an unhappy one. In 1898 Lottie tried to commit suicide by cutting her wrists and neck with a penknife, though she was discharged from hospital on the same day she was admitted (no counseling back then!) so the injuries could not have been too severe – the physical ones, at least.


Miss Lottie Collins, known in private life as Mrs. Coonev, and to the public for many years past as the I exponent of “Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay” and a very popular form of skirt dancing, was yesterday morning admitted to the Great Northern Hospital suffering from wounds in her throat and wrist, said to have been self inflicted.
The facts are stated to be that the lady in question, who occupies rooms at 16, Highbury crescent, close to the Highbury Station of the North London Railway, went to her bathroom yesterday morning in order to take her usual bath. Shortly after she had entered that apartment piercing screams were heard, and on the servant entering the room to ascertain the cause she found her mistress lying on the floor, covered with blood, which was flowing from her neck and throat. A small penknife was also seen close at hand. The servant at once sent for assistance, and a doctor and the police soon arrived.
Miss Collins was at once taken into her bedroom and laid upon her bed, where her wounds were temporarily attended to. A conveyance was soon afterwards procured, and in it the patient, who appeared in a somewhat dazed condition, was driven to the Great Northern Central Hospital, where she was examined and her injuries dressed by the house surgeon. The latter gentleman later informed a representative of the Press that the wounds, which were not serious, had been made with a penknife and were apparently self inflicted. There were two or three cuts on the neck and one on the left wrist.
Later, Mrs. Cooney, having recovered somewhat, was allowed to leave the hospital and go home. As might be expected under the circumstances, the police and hospital authorities are very reticent as to any knowledge they may possess of the matter.
            - London Daily News, 10th November, 1898

Cooney died in 1901 in Saratoga, California. I have read reports that he and Lottie had three children together, but the only information I can find for any of them is for their most famous offspring, the musical star Jose Collins, who, despite Lottie’s wish that she learn French, how to play the piano and all the requirements of a life of domesticity, defied her mother and became the famous stage actress that she did.

In 1902 Lottie married for a second time when she wed producer and composer James W Tate, who was ten years her junior. The marriage was not to last long, as Lottie died on 1st May 1910 of heart disease.
I’ve seen a lot of reports claiming that she suffered with a weak heart all her life, leading to many various opinions that her untimely death at the age of just forty-five, was brought on by her many years of robust and vigorous dancing the exhausting dance that accompanied her hit song. In a poetic way, many opinions say that the song that made her, also killed her.

Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay
A sweet tuxedo girl you see
A queen of swell society
Fond of fun as fond can be
When it's on the strict Q.T.
I'm not too young, I'm not too old
Not too timid, not too bold
Just the kind you'd like to hold
Just the kind for sport I'm told

Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-re! (sung eight times)
I'm a blushing bud of innocence
Papa says at big expense
Old maids say I have no sense
Boys declare, I'm just immense
Before my song I do conclude
I want it strictly understood
Though fond of fun, I'm never rude
Though not too bad I'm not too good


A sweet tuxedo girl you see
A queen of swell society
Fond of fun as fond can be
When it's on the strict Q.T.
I'm not too young, I'm not too old
Not too timid, not too bold
Just the kind you'd like to hold
Just the kind for sport I'm told


* * *

Having written about these women, common threads seem to run through all their stories, connecting them. Most of them found their way into the world of entertainment at a very young age, often through one or both parents and many of them also experienced unhappiness or lack of luck in love, or being ill-used by men in general. I’ve written about actresses before, and the life of Ellen Terry – perhaps the nineteenth century’s greatest actress – also followed this same path. Marie Lloyd, that most effervescent music hall star was certainly not blessed with a smooth and uneventful love life.

One wonders if a lifetime on the stage singing, dancing and acting makes it impossible to do anything other than pretend, and that although the photographs, interviews and performances show happy people, was the actor masking the person beneath the character? Had life allowed art to imitate it so much that it became the very thing it was mimicking? Who knows, but many child stars of the twentieth century followed similar paths in their personal lives, with celebrated young actors, actresses and musicians going on to become involved in drugs, bankruptcy and suicide. This seems to suggest that a balance of the fact and fiction is difficult when the line has been blurred for your whole life.

My thanks are most humbly extended for the final time to Nancy Bruseker, Fern Riddell and Peter Stubley for the fantastic work they have put into their guest posts over the last month, in which I have learned so much about a world I was not particularly au fait with.