Sunday, August 2, 2020

Cartesians: The Great Nunnery Scandal at Hull


Yes, that is where my latest delve into Carte-land has led me. To the piteous nunsense that took place in a Yorkshire Convent in the 1860s, laid the 'profession' open to ridicule, and which in the end occupied the Lord Chief Justice and the learned gentleman of the Queens Bench Court for nineteen whole days (Saurin vs Starr and Kennedy) ... but let us start at the beginning.

Around 1842, an Irishman by name John Connolly, his wife Roseanna, and the yearling son, Peter, emigated to the mainland, to Kingston-upon-Hull, where John had a job on the docks. The following year, they had a daughter whom they named Bridget. Bridget was sent to a local convent school, where she became a pupil teacher ...
The convent itself, a little enclave off well-off Irishwomen, was, some years later, to be the centre of much legal discord when Sister Mary Scholastica, otherwise Susan Maria Saurin, sued the others for, basically, squeezing her out of the place. Many a slightly soiled wimple was aired in court as the senior nuns (two) tried to justify their conduct, relating the tiny misdemeanours and disobediences of la Scholastica. One of these accusations of alleged gross misbehaviour involved the school clock. It had apparently been altered by Susan Mary, to allow sufficient time to finish her chores. Unthinkable! But Bridget came into court and 'confessed' that it was she who had fiddled with the hands ... It was now 1869, and Bridget had left the school at the dawn of the 'sixities. 



and she was now no longer 'Bridget', she was

Bessie ARMYTAGE [CONNOLLY, Bridget [?Elizabeth]] (b Hull c1843; d Brentford 22 May 1918), contralto, popular singer on the music-hall stages of northern England.

There are a couple of versions of Bessie's beginnings as a singer, the most popular being that she 'ran away' from the convent to go singing with Annie Tonnellier (by which I assume the H C Cooper company aka the British Operatic Association is meant). Well, I don't reckon she 'ran away': there was a gap between her convent days and her first steps as a professional singer, but I do spot her for the first time in the company of Madame T. The occasion is a concert at the Tipperary Steeplechase Meeting Concert (29 May 1865) where Annie, Bessie and Mr O'Donaghue of Limerick were the vocalists. They continued on to Queenstown, Youghal and then Annie went back to her operas and Bessie ...? 
I next spot Bessie touring round Wales (1866) with pianist, Fanny Sebri before (1867) coming to rest at Day's Crystal Palace Music Hall in Birmingham ... 'a young debutante with a sweet and well-cultivated soprano voice of extensive compass and a pleasing manner'. She was to stay nine months at this most classy of midland music halls, singing ballads and joining in the operatic selections, of which I have picked up The Slave, Martha, and The Barber of Seville. Annie Tonnellier and Cooper spent time there, as did a young Irish tenor named Tom Carroll. He would later become 'Tom Karl' and have a fine international career.

Annie Milner 'Tonnellier'

I see her, thereafter at the London Music Hall, Sheffield ('enthusiastic reception'), the Alexandra Hall, Manchester ('sentimental vocalist'), the Shakespeare Hotel, Belfast, the Borough Music Hall, Longton, at Nottingham, the Burnley Concert Hall, the Wakefield Concert Hall, in Scotland (Adalgisa to the Norma of Pauline Vaneri in the selections), at the Grand Concert Hall, Birmingham supporting Harry Rickards, at Hanley, Colchester, Walsall et al, to invariably grand notices for her fine contralto voice. At Christmas 1872, she ventured on to the pantomime stage in Little Red Riding Hood at the Queen's Manchester, and seems to have stayed on to appear with the company in ... East Lynne!
But then it was back to the Halls -- the Temperance Hall at Rochdale, the Victoria Great Grimsby, the Argyle Birkenhead, Hanley, Gordon's Music Hall Southampton, the Bristol Foresters, the Birmingam Concert Hall, the Cardiff Victoria Rooms, the Northampton Alhambra, the Dublin Grafton...  


For a while, in 1875-6, she teamed with soprano Annie Adey, but it was soon back to business as usual ... Edinburgh with Annie Tonnellier, the Belfast New Coloseum, singing Irish songs at Barrow, the Preston George Concert Hall, Stockton and even an engagement at Stockton as part of 'Professor Grant's Funny Folk Concert Party, and a date at the Alexandra, Walsall, sharing a bill with 'Tiny Tim' and 'Little Sunshine. 


And then after some fifteen years as a music-hall vocalist, Bessie Armytage took to the comic opera stage , as principal contralto with the D'Oyly Carte touring company. Over the next five years she appeared in the theatres of the British provinces -- 'wonderfully successful' as Little Buttercup, as Mrs Partlett to the Sangazure of Madge Stavart, as Ruth, and as Lady Jane in Patience ...



But Bessie was not to stick exclusively to comic opera. At the end of her time with Carte she returned to the Halls (I see her at Warrington, the Folly Variety Theatre of Manchester), she visited Margate's Hall by the Sea in concert and operetta (Dr Porter with Augustus and Gladys Cramer), she did a stint with Ilma Norina's opera company (1889) and, after some more music-hall dates, with Richard Cummings's company, playing The Doctor of Alcantara (Paquita).

In 1896, she was seen, with old Carte colleague Mary Duggan, in J J Dallas's One of the Girls (Miss Taplow), in 1899 she played the Duchess in Alice in Wonderland, and in 1900 toured as Lady Caroline Pontefract in A Woman of No Importance. In 1902 she played for Frederick Mouillot in The Man from Blankley's, played Queen Henpeckina in panto at Hastings, and (1903) in Wilfred Cotton's production of Mice and Men. 
Could she be the Bessie Armitage who can be spotted playing The Honeymoon Baby in 1913 ...?

Tidy-up time. Miss Saurin won L500, the defendants being found guilty of libel and conspiracy to eject her. The charges of assault and false imprisonment were rejected. The former Sister Mary Scholastica, the 'heroine' of 'almost the only authenticated nunnery scandal on British soil since the Reformation', died in London in 1878 at the age of 46. Single, of course. She left a sizeable L21,000 ... and some very bad-tempered Roman Catholic papers who, nevertheless, rejoiced that 'nothing prurient had been proven'.

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