Friday, May 18, 2018

Cartesian couples: no2 the baritone and the contralto

Day two of Cartesian couples. This time the baritone and the contralto. And a complete contrast with yesterday’s tale of the prima donna and her tenor. This couple (well, they were for a few years) certainly did not have the joyous careers, the happy married lives, children … nobody wrote, when they died, the sort of splendid obituary that was the lot of ‘Ethel McAlpine’.

The pair have resisted nearly all my efforts at tidy packaging, my efforts at rendering up their real names and family background, but I have nevertheless managed to extrude some of their story, together and separately, from the fables and fibs of their past. So here goes.

Oh, thanks to David Stone, I do – however – whatever else I lack, have photographs of both of them: ‘Miss Elsie Cameron’

And Mr George Byron Brown or maybe ‘George Byron Browne’

Yes, I know they are playing character roles in these shots, I know they are ac-tors, but do they seem just a little .. um …

The two met when appearing in D’Oyly Carte’s touring company of Patience. George was playing Colonel Calverly, Elsie was cast as Lady Angela. This was just after the 1881 census, so the two can be seen, separately, making their only known appearances in any census: George in Torquay with the Carte company, and Elsie up north, touring with Alfred Hemming’s company in Crutch and Toothpick and the burlesques Cruel Carmen and Corsican Brothers Babes in the Wood. Back in New Zealand, I have a programme from that tour which might tell me what she played. Oh, she tells the census taker that she is nineteen, which may very well be true. She tells him her name is ‘Elsie Cameron’, which is not true. George admitted to 28, and declared that he was born in America. Maybe he was. Maybe he wasn’t. I’ve no idea, anymore than I have any idea whether the name under which he worked for twenty years was anything but a stage name.

Of George, in fact, I know nothing, prior to his becoming the Pirate King with Carte when already in hid later twenties. Of Elsie, I know a tad more. Some proven, some not. But in 1890, Elsie gave a large interview to the Australian paper Table Talk, in which she said that she was born in Leeds on Christmas Day 1862, and that her father was a Superintendant on the railways. She said she was heard as a child by Sims Reeves (oh! not again) who said… she then had lessons from Dr Spark (highly probable) after which at the age of sixteen Reeves got her into the Royal Academy of Music. She stayed, she said, for two years and mentions an odd list of fellow-pupils including Miss Etherington (‘Marie Tempest’), Marion Hood (Miss Isaacs), Ben Davis, Orlando Harley, Hilda Wilson and Ellen Orridge. Well, Ellen Orridge was a star pupil at the RAM in 1876-7, at which time the Academy also housed Mary Davies, James Sauvage … and Leonora Braham! Orlando Harley didn’t arrive from America till several years later, and I think the Miss Etherington date is out too. Anyhow, I see no sign of Elsie in any of the Academy concerts, under whatever name …

Oh yes, the name? It seems as if her correct name was Elizabeth Fowler. So I’m opening a bottle of French rosé, putting this ‘on hold’, and going to look for Miss Fowler born Leeds 1862 … no luck! And no railwayman to be found, either. Why do I insist on Fowler? Because when ‘Elsie’ wed Browne in Dublin in 1882 she was listed as ‘Elsie Elizabeth Fowler’. When their daughter was baptized, the mother was listed as ‘Elizabeth Browne’. I wonder if that Irish wedcert has parent’s names on it. Or the RAM archives … they used to, in Bridget’s day, answer queries from me in the vein of ‘any Miss Fowler from Leeds admitted c 1877?’.

Well, the next bit of Elsie’s story, guess what!, has her going off to Milan to study with Lamperti for six months. So be it. After which she came home and got a job with daddy’s friend Wilson Barrett (who was running the Leeds Grand) who got her that job the Hemming-Walton troupe…

But hang on. Did you forget something? Who is the Miss Elsie Cameron (already) singing in the Hull pantomime Little Red Riding Hood, at Christmas 1880,with Richard and Theresa Cummings (already!), Rose Lee, Carry Nelson .. oh, it is she, all right …

So then she joined the Waltons, got censused, got into the Patience troupe, which at Eastertime 1882 played Dublin, where Miss Fowler and Mr Browne were married. Baby (Mary Nonie Gladys 14 March 1883) and baby death, aged 18 months, to follow.

Here, I leave you in David’s hands, to detail their fine work schedule of the next years, a schedule which peaked in their voyage to New York for Carte’s Mikado. Mr and Mrs G B Browne were advertised as cast for Pooh Bah and Katisha… so, what happened? When the show opened in New York, ‘Elsie Cameron’ was Katisha and Fred Billington was Pooh Bah. George took over later as Pish Tush .. what? Why? And then he departed … personal reasons? Professional reasons? After all, he had been six years a praised baritone lead player in Carte companies … there has to be a story here. But all I know is that George went steadily down from here. Oh, he worked, but in less and less reputable companies. I have a list. In 1898 he is trouping with the 5th-grade Marie Bell ‘opera company’.

I don’t suppose he and Elsie were ever divorced, but right there in New York their marriage seems to have fallen apart. I think I know who was to blame, but it’s a guess!

So, George gone off into the one-night stands, Elsie … back to David Stone , for the summary of her following years .. She played in London and on tour for Carte until 1890, before crossing to Australia. She was now ‘Mrs Harold Russell’, or so she and the papers said. I think that was Harold Russell the actor rather than Harold Russell the singer, but it doesn’t really matter because Mr Russell went home to England after a couple of years, and Mrs Russell didn’t. She became ‘Mrs Cowell’ and, until 1896, continued to perform lead contralto roles in comic opera on the Australian stage.

She was referred to as ‘massive’ in 1895, which, at 34, doesn’t sound very healthy.
Mr James R Cowell was a well-known Victorian (as in Melbournian) sportsman. Heavily into cricket, hunting and racing, so undoubtedly a bit rich. And with, clearly, special tastes in ladies. So he became the new, rather older, Mr Cameron. Elsie and he zoomed off to San Francisco, where that impeccable authority, Emily Soldene, reports helpfully on her soirées …

In 1907, Mr Cowell was found on the beach at Boulogne, his throat cut …

I wonder where ‘Mrs Cowell’ was ..

So, as I said, no tops and tails in this tale. But we’ve started, and if I don’t find the answers, I’m sure one of you will!

PS in 2022: David Lowell has come up with a birthday for 'Elsie', by whatever name.  And yes, it is 25 December 1861!

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