Sunday, April 18, 2021

Lydia Howard: a starlet at two years, a has-been at twenty

 

After the marathonian chase after 'Madame Savelli' and 'Signor Brennelli', I was hoping for an exercise a tad less effortful today. Just a tad. Well, a tad was what I got ...

Ebay turned up this charming bit of ephemera, and I realised that, although I had been familiar with this little lady's exploits since forever, I had never really investigated her story. 



Tales of talented tots aren't really my thing, but years ago, à propos of the most wonderful of them all, Louisa Vinning, I wrote:

'The nineteenth century world, even more than the twentieth, had a curious fascination with (extremely) juvenile prodigies of one kind or another, and the musical and theatrical world was probably the most visible – not to say the most peculiar -- shop window of that fascination. 

There were child actors and actresses – from such as the mini-Shakespearian Master Betty and Master Burke or The Young Roscius to such later and slightly less pretentious examples as Percy Roselle and the babyish Lydia Howard, ‘the fairy actress’. There was, through the years, a huge list of more or less virtuoso child performers, on all sorts of musical instruments, presented before the public, from which the ill-fated boy pianist George Aspull was a famous example. Another example was the ‘Infant Lyra’, an allegedly four year-old harpist from Cork who flourished (twice daily at the Apollo Saloon, 94 Pall Mall in 1825) in the mid- and later 1820s, until she was no longer an Infant. In retrospect, a record was claimed for the organist, William Crotch, for ‘having played the National Anthem in public at the age of two years’. Given the limits of the human voice and its development, ‘baby’ vocalists of any real quality were and are a less common species than actors and instrumentalists, but it was nevertheless precisely one such who must go down in history as the most remarkable super-juvenile performer of the nineteenth century, if not, indeed, of all time: ‘The Infant Sappho’.'


Well I have covered the story of 'The Infant Sappho' (Louisa Vinning) in detail in my book Victorian Vocalists. She went on from 'prodigy' to adult success in a remarkable fashion. Most (as today) didn't.

Lydia Howard (and it appears to have been her real name) lasted till adulthood ... but that was a career of nearly 20 years. 


At her earliest appearances, in mid 1865, she was advertised as 'the baby actress' 'one year and ten months old' ... likely? possible? precise? Not quite precise, if my researches are correct. Lydia was the daughter of a small-time performer named Alfred Howard and his wife, who seems to have followed the same trade. It seems the Alfred (from Brighton) had been a carpenter before taking to performing. As for the wife ... if such she were ...  Anyway, Lydia gave her birthdate, many years later, as 29 June 1862.  Which would make her three at the time of her 'debut'. Father made great efforts to prove his child's 'babyness' and no-one, except a handful of rubbishers of all performing tots, seems to have questioned it.


What was originally his Entertainment, very quickly became HER Entertainment








What did the infant do? Well, as you may read, a bit of everything. Probably not enormously well, as Miss Vinning did, but with an evident joyfulness and personality. Her notices were splendid.


Now creeps in the first query. In 1867 a Mr and Mrs Alfred Howard took their entertainment to Guernsey, and Mrs Howard got seasick and died. Now, by that stage little Lydia was a starlet. But her name is not mentioned ...  


For the next few years, Lydia and father appeared all over the country, including a visit to London's Weston's Music Hall, and in 1869 plugging papa wrote to the press ... 




Mlle Beatrice didn't make much of an impresion as the titular Marie, Lydia was noticed as 'playing prettily' but the critics of the drama had dismissive words: 'She speaks the words set down for her carefully, but labours under the disadvantage of all serious children on the stage -- that of exhibiting a ludicrous disparity bewteen the gravity of language placed in her mouth and the insignificance of the speaker'. Quite so. But she got more column space than anyone except Vining and Beatrice! After the show was done, Alfred was quick to capitalise


And then ...




Tiens! 'Mrs Alfred Howard'. Another one? A temporary one ..?


You will note also that, like father Vinning, Mr Howard is touring merchandise. A shilling for a carte de visite. And plugging the charitable key, ensuring the mayoral presence, with all his councillors, on first night ...


Following the troupe gives one a headache. 'Mrs Howard' vanishes. Then 'Mr Howard' is replaced by 'Alfred Stirling', who I believe is simply papa with a new name. Then comes the 1871 census and I catch them in Edinburgh. Alas, the beastly Scots archives are open only to the wealthy, but the transcription tells us that Alfred Howard (45 wot!, b Brighton) and Hannah Howard (33, b Swansea) and little Lydia 'aged 7' are in town. No mention of Mr Stirling or Miss Power. Who might have been Hannah, and who was certainly at least de facto Mrs Howard ...


I sha'n't go into detail of the next decade. It was basically more of the same, with a few visits to the courts of the nation, although little Lydia did go back on the stage in 1877 to play a boy in The Lyons Mail at the Lyceum. I last spot the three of them in March 1880 at Ryde ...  and by 1881 census Lydia's (?step)mother is calling herself Lydia, and a widow. So I guess Alfred was gone. His last appearance on a bill seems to be at Ryde 21 March 1880. I would have thought the trade press might have noted the fact!


Lydia did the odd job thereafter. Pantomimes. Well, she was in her twenties now ... no more novelty value. And she walked away. Mother had become a registered medical nurse. Lydia took up the same job. They can be seen living together in their longtime home in Landport in 1911 ... both 'nurses'. (Step)mamma seems to have died in 1916. Lydia (who never married) lived on and on .. if I'm right, she died aged 93 on Christmas Day 1956 ...


But no one seems to have noticed. Maybe the fairies did ....



PS I read somewhere that in 1872 she was introduced to 'Lewis Carroll' as an ideal stage Alice ... I seriously wonder why it didn't happen. 


Yayyyy! Steve Bray turned up a photograph!!!!!





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