Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Sid the songsmith goes south...

Sidney Nelson left Britain on 28 June 1852. He was accompanied by his wife, Sarah, and almost all of his surviving family – Alfred, Maria, Carry, Sarah, Bobby. Eldest daughter Eliza, who had recently married the actor-playwright known as H T Craven, and was successfully playing in the British theatre, stayed home.

The Nelsons travelled on the emigrant ship the Statesman, and their financial position was exposed by the fact that they are not listed among the cabin passengers, but seem to have travelled by ‘intermediate class’. Later writers would aver that they were ‘lured to Australia following the promise of quick wealth following the gold discoveries’. Certainly, this was the time, but Sidney and certainly not Alfred were not going to dig. The family was going to entertain the diggers.

What credentials did they have? Well, 22 year-old Alfred had already been on the stage as an actor for a couple of years. I see him playing Cassio to H T Craven’s Iago in Ryde, Guildford, Reading et al in 1850. So he was not a novice. 16 year-old Maria doesn’t seem to have begun to appear in public, but later biographies of Carry insist that she played in the Drury Lane panto aged 8. 12 year-old Sara(h) and little Bobby had yet to begin. But Sidney was working on it.

They arrived in Melbourne 25 September, and little more than a month later (1 November) the ‘Nelson Family’ appeared in concert at the local Protestant Hall. It was a veritable calling-card of an occasion. Sidney and the three children went through a programme largely composed of father’s songs: ‘The Vintagers’ Evening Hymn’ as a quartet, ‘Life is a River’ (Alfred), The Fairy Spell’ and ‘Let us be sisters’ (girls), ‘The Pilot’ and ‘Madoline’ (Sidney), ‘Happy the Maid’ and ‘Blame me, mother’ (Marie), the Gipsy glee, a comic duet ‘Mr and Mrs Bell’ (seemingly adapted from an old Moncrieff piece). Carry played a piano piece, Alfred did two comic turns and the whole affair was a grand success. Five days later, they repeated the programme at Geelong (where Carry added ‘Goodie Gay’). But Sidney, his credentials now established, had bigger things in mind than simple concerts. He was planning a series of 2-3 handed musical playlets or ’vaudevilles’, and, having obtained a ‘dramatic license’ for the Protestant Hall, he launched his new-style programme – part I concert, part 2 playlet – 10 December 1852, with a piece entitled The Sporting Gent. Love and Experience followed on 21 December, then a version of The Dumb Belle musicalized as The Ladies’ Prerogative (11 January 1853). This third piece included ‘Listen, dear Fanny’, and a song from The Cadi’s Daughter in its 8-number scorelet. Whether the other musical pieces were Sidney’s work, I am not sure, but some of titles fit neatly the rhythms of his old songs.

Don Leander, or Woman’s Wit (said to be written by Alfred) was produced 4 February, with Sidney’s popular ‘Guadaquivir’ duet included, as Nelson’s songs continued to rotate in the concert programmes (‘The Hunter of Tyrol’, ‘Little Kathleen’, Goodbye Sweete Heart’, a piece entitled ‘Manhood’ (?), ‘My Dream’, ‘The Flag that braved’, ‘Barney, the tight lad’, a quartet ‘The Banquet Hall’ et al), and on 23 March, on the occasion of Sidney’s Benefit, little Sara (sic) made her first appearance, singing father’s ‘Beautiful Night’.

On 19 April they gave a last performance at Geelong’s Masonic Hall, and headed south to Adelaide. They settled in at Mr Hart’s Family Hotel, Currie Street and, on 25 May, gave their first South Australian concert at the Exchange Rooms, King William Street. They played concerts at Port Adelaide as well as at the Exchange, and also produced a new vaudeville, written for them by a local gentleman. Quite Colonial was a decided hit, which was not surprising, for the neophyte author was William Mower Akhurst, who would go on to have his works played around the English-speaking world. The music, this time, for the four-piece score, was credited wholly to Sidney and included a ‘Dear Australy’ for Marie. On July 28 they produced a second ‘Australian’ piece, a ‘petite comedy’ by Akhurst, entitled Romance and Reality with music for its 5-number score ‘composed, selected and arranged’ by Sidney (‘Charming Romance’).

Now that they were staunchly established, less of the concert needed to be made up of Nelson’s works, and thus Marie and Carry gave the Norma duet, Sidney sang ‘The Death of Nelson’ and with Marie ‘La ci darem’, Alfred sang ‘Simon the Cellarer’ and the three children joined in Martini’s Laughing Trio.

The Adelaide season closed 15 August and on 24th the family returned to Melbourne for some performances of their new pieces at the Mechanics’ Hall, before setting off for Tasmania. The played their programmes at Launceston (3 October), Longford, George Englebert’s Rooms in Campbelltown and Hobart’s Mechanics’ Institution (8 November), at Brown’s River, the Lenox Arms in Richmond, the Tasmanian Hotel, Brighton, the Cornwall Assembly Rooms, Hobart (12 December), Wright’s Rooms, Evandale, the Blenheim Hotel, Longford, before more Launceston and more Hobart, up till 6 March, when they boarded the Iron Tasmania and headed back to Melbourne. There they produced the vaudevilles The Russians in Melbourne by Frank M Soutten, said to be a nephew of Morris Barnett, A Midnight Mystery (7 August 1854), The Rights of Women, A Brace of Ducks (30 September 1854) et al, but the formula now had some doubters: the growing girls were sometimes adjudged to be rather better than their material.

However, change was coming. Henry Craven and Eliza arrived in Australia on the Lady Ann (Sydney, October). And Sidney became mine host of the Caledonia Hotel, North Melbourne. Still, the ‘Family’ continued to give their concerts. They visited Sydney, ‘Little Bobby’ (‘the infant Grimaldi’) was added to the team, Sidney composed an Australian Anthem, ‘O God, we hail the blest decree’, to play alongside Quite Colonial, now billed as Australia’s first homegrown musical, and then they set out for Parramatta, Maitland, Windsor, Singleton, Newcastle, Kiama, Goulburn (where the girls had a lucky escape from a runaway coach), Berrima, Wollongong … with the repertoire occasionally varied which such as the timeworn Perfection. And Marie had a child.

You can read all about that particular event in my Lydia Thompson book, because the father was Alexander Henderson, who would later be Lydia’s husband. He wasn’t Marie’s, although they claimed that they had been wed in Hobart, because Henderson had an abandoned wife and child back in England. Marie seems to have been the only one of his women whom he didn’t faze. They had a second child and they remained partners on both sides of the world, for a number of years before she left him.

Eliza, too, would have a child in Australia – legitimate, in her case.

The family act became a sporadic thing, through 1856 and 1857 (they played The Grenadier for Carry’s Benefit!), but in 1858 the three girls and Alfred took to the goldfields, with great success. I see a production of Guy Mannering, at the Victoria Theatre, Adelaide, during 1858, where Carry played Julia, Sara played Lucy, and Marie, now clearly established as the best actress of the family, played Meg Merrilees. In fact, Marie seemed to now have gone her own – or Henderson’s – way and some of the notices I have seen show that Alfred, Carry and Sara now made up the team.
As for Sidney, he had settled in Melbourne, where he conducted, accompanied and generally made for himself a place in the city’s musical community. Including the local synagogue. Yes …

Unless he composed, rather than arranged, much of the music for the family vaudevilles, Sidney’s quota of new songs, in his Australian years, seems to have been limited. He had a shot at a ‘Benedictus’ sung at an Anna Bishop concert on 9 July 1856, he remusicked Massé’s Les Noces de Jeannette (11 October 1858) for Australia (why?), he attempted to write an Australian National anthem (the Germans beat him), and he published a ‘The Light from the mountains’ to words by ‘an Australian Lady’. ‘The World within and the World without’ (‘words James Simmonds’) was sung by Lady Bishop in Australian concert. Then there’s something called ‘Alone and neglected in my sorrow’ and a ‘What a fearful night’ said to be from his unproduced opera … and, doubtless, more …

At the end of the 1850s, the family left Australia. Not all together, though. First, Carry, Sara and Alfred went to try their luck – with medium success – in America. Then Sidney and Marie headed for home and merry England on board the lush liner Marco Polo. Alas, Marco Polo, ‘carrying 200 passengers and 6,000 ounces of gold dust, had an altercation with an iceberg, but it survived to struggle into port in Valparaiso, dismasted and part-destroyed. Marie joined up with the family for a while, performing in provincial America and in Canada, but fairly soon headed on to Liverpool and Henderson. I wonder where the little girls were. I would have said ‘of Sidney there is no sign’, save that there is a curious minstrel song ‘The Patchwork Song’ from this period published under his name in Boston. So I suppose that the elders stayed for a bit ... until they sailed, in January 1862, on the Bohemian for England ..

So, in 1862, they were home. Marie was starring (as ‘Marie Sidney’) at Henderson’s Prince of Wales Theatre, Liverpool, Carry and Sara guesting here, there and everywhere in burlesque as ‘the Nelson sisters’, Alfred and his new wife (we won’t get into her) playing in spoken theatre, oh! there’s a whole other story (which I may get round to eventually) in what became of the Nelsons. Although I lose track of ‘Master Bobby’ after Canada.Unless he's the Mr R Nelson in Lydia Thompson's company in 1879.

But Sidney wasn’t around to see what happened next. He died 7 April 1862, at 4 Russell Place, Fitzroy Square.

Sara Nelson photographed in Dublin

An American paper wrote a typically colonial description of his family:

‘Carrie was young, pretty, clever and piquant with a resonant mezzo-soprano voice, while Sara’s only claim to professional consideration comprised a remarkably agile coloratura soprano. The girls were handicapped by a massive and voluble English mother and by a brother Alfred who affected the lah-de-dah donchernow London type of juvenile actors, who sport florally decorated coat lapels and decry this ‘blawsted’ country..’. Poor Alfred. They called him ‘Olfred’ because of his pedantic speech. And he ended up as, guess what, Professor of Elocution at London’s Guildhall School.

I won’t go further. Carry (1871, Mrs McFadyen) and Sara (1881, Mrs Beavis) married, and their futures are as clear as Olfred’s. Mother died in 1880. Eliza continued her career and died, having passed her Golden Wedding, aged 81, in 1908. But the one I care about the most, Marie, vanishes. In the 1881 census she is calling herself Marie Sadlier, widow of an Irish officer. Possible. But ‘Marie [Moore] Sadlier/Sadleir’ was the name of a lady novelist … Maybe one of them is the Marie Sadleir who died, aged 79, in Marylebone in 1913 ..?

But all that is another story. This story is about Sid. Interesting man. And he left us some charming music.

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