Tuesday, May 15, 2018

'Duglas Gordon': another prima donna 'outed'!

Nothing’s perfect. Today I solved one of the biggest ‘who was…’ mysteries in the Gilbert and Sullivan canon. Yes, it really was as big a mystery as Fred Clifton, and it’s been puzzling me for  many decades, just as Fred did.

Who just exactly was that little lady who scored so wonderfully, all round Britain, right at the beginning of the musico-theatrical era of Cartesian domination, as Aline and Josephine …? Who was Miss Duglas Gordon?

Well, now I know. And it has led me into another mighty muddle. But I’ll get the bit that I have worked out down in print, and then try to get up enough steam to work out the rest.

Obviously the lady wasn’t any kind of a Duglas Gordon. It was just another of those silly pseudo-aristocratic stage names so popular at the time. Lord Duglas Gordon was a well-known inhabitant of Burke’s peerage.

Her birth name was Ellen Louise Thomas, and she was the eldest of what seem to have been six children of Edward Henry Thomas (b 13 November 1815; d 1878) of the Wellington Iron and Coal Company, and his wife Mary or Minnie from Barrnstaple. Mr Thomas was the son of Moy Thomas, son of Moy Thomas, solicitor, so I think they were ‘comfortable’.

Anyway, Edward and ‘Minnie’ bred Ellen Louise, Edward Moy, Herbert Moy, Amy Blanche, Rhoda Mary, Walter M and Florence E – you can see the up-to-date family in 1871 at Clifton Villa, Acre Lane, Brixton -- before Edward's death in 1878 …

And at the same time, daughter Ellen, with the lovely soprano voice, put on her new name and went on the stage, seemingly without any public preparation, playing Brigitte in Charlie Head’s misguided attempt to bring back the Philharmonic Theatre's huge hit, Geneviève de Brabant, under the aegis of Mr D’Oyly Carte. Alice May, star of The Sorcerer had the unenviable task of trying to ‘be’ Emily Soldene, with Alice Burville in the title-role, and 19 year-old Miss Gordon in the third female role.

Mr Carte was evidently pleased and little Miss Gordon was plunged straight into his first provincial touring company as seconda dama, singing Constance to the Aline of a confirmed star in Pauline Rita (otherwise Mrs Maggie Phillips) and the plaintiff in Trial by Jury. When Madame Rita decided, pretty soon, to move on, Nellie was quite simply promoted to prima donna. And she remained thus. When HMS Pinafore set out for its first provincial tour, Nellie was outer England’s first Josephine (‘captivatingly represented by ‘,‘looks acts and sings the part well nigh perfectly’).

Between Pinafores, she visited Nottingham to play Maid Marian in Tom Charles’s Babes in the Wood (‘I know that my love loves me’) for the festive season.

She gave her Josephine at the Standard Theatre (‘a pleasing appearance on the stage and an excellent voice’) and finally, in early 1880, at the Opera-Comique …

And now things get tricky. Nellie, amazingly, seems to be out of work. Had she offended the Carte club? Had enough for a bit? Out of work purposely? My next sighting of her is in the 1881 census at 87 Ferndale Road – Mama Minnie Thomas, Edward, Rhoda, Martin, Walter … Herbert is ‘visiting’… oh! where is 16 year-old Amy?

But the curious thing is that Nellie is listed as Nellie Morgan, 22, widow. Really? There is no sign of a marriage in the British records.

Amy. It seems as if 14 year-old Amy went out on the Carte tours with Nellie. Maybe she was also the child actress ‘little Amy Gordon’ of circa 1873? While father was alive? Maybe not. But Amy is a nuisance. It’s my theory that she stayed at home and had a tiny career until, in 1907, she became Mrs George Chaplin, mining engineer. But there is an Amy Gordon who pops up in the USA theatre at the end of the '70s. She appeared with Willie Gill in his hit show Our Goblins, and went on to run the Amy Gordon opera company round mostly no3 dates for a number of years. She also apparently married. A Mr William A Morgan.

Confusion! So, is the fat, sweet-voiced Amy Gordon of the American stage our Duglas? Our Nellie Morgan? You see what I mean about out of the stewpot into the flames! It would explain to where she vanished! But I think it’s a pink herring with blue spots. William A Morgan, actor, of Philadelphia, didn’t die till 1888. ‘Amy’ promptly remarried Arthur G Miller, as ‘Emma Morgan’. He divorced her as being a perpetual drunkard round about the time little sister Amy was, strangely, apparently back under the Carte management.

But Nellie? I’m pretty sure she isn’t American Amy either. But who was her Mr Morgan, why did he die or ‘die’ so quickly, leaving no trace. And where is she after 1881? Well, she turns up in Dublin in September 1881, at the Queen’s Theatre, playing in drama (with ‘Come back to Erin’ or the like interpolated) and burlesque (‘left nothing to be desired in her singing’), then went on the road in La Mascotte, Geneviève de Brabant and La Fille de Madame Angot (as Lange rather than Clairette) in a less than top notch company, and ended up at the Liverpool Rotunda at Christmas playing Cinderella for eight weeks. 13 February 1883 was her Benefit. She and Constance Moxon (née Smith) played the Balcony Scene and the Gens d’armes duet from Geneviève … and …

In 1891 Minnie is still living with Martin (‘stockbrokers clerk’), Walter and Rhoda; in 1901 she is housing Walter (‘hay merchant’), Amy (‘actress’) and Florence … Edward (d 1927) got into advertising; Herbert (d 2 October 1950) became a kitchen engineer, Martin (d 1923), Amy (d 1925), Walter (d 1937), Rhoda (Mrs Graddon d 1932), they all stay in view. But where died Nellie – ‘Miss Duglas Gordon’ – go?

I’ve cracked the nut, but I can’t get the kernel out. Help, somebody!

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