Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Canterbury's Women: HOKITIKA TO HOLLYWOOD!

I didn’t realise I was opening a can of fireworks. After starting my little series of ‘Canterbury's women’ with Lucy Saxton, I was cruising around looking for a second lady to ‘play with’ and … well, I found several nice looking ladies photographed by C19th Christchurch studios, but alas! always with no clue whatsoever as to their identity.


Sometimes there’s just a smidgin of a clue. I honed in on this one, because my mother’s maiden name was Welsh, but when I looked again, the item had been withdrawn. I wonder why.

(PS two days later she reappeared!)

So, I looked into the photographer, Nelson K Cherrill. Globe-trotting Mr Cherrill only pitched camp for five years (1876-1881) in Cashel Street, Christchurch, before scooting off back to England and Europe, so it is surprising that there are so many of his snaps around. And here was one with a name! Alice Rose Eyton. Should be easy enough to find. Oh! And look, her little brother, Cecil Robert, too.

Little did I know, when I started to investigate, that there were a good few other brothers and sisters (so, where are their photographs?), heaps of tales – from suicide to murder, to fraud, to – horror – rampant journalism and to showbiz – and I guess I had better start this from more or less the beginning. I’m sure I’m not the first person to do this: maybe someone else has done it before and better. But they haven’t got the baby snaps!

Robert Henry Eyton was born in Wrockwardine, Shropshire, and christened there 7 January 1845. He had at least five sisters, and a couple of brothers, but given the profusion of later Eytons, I’m not going there. Father was Thomas Campbell Eyton (b Willington, Shropshire 10 September 1809; d Eyton, 25 October 1880), banker, JP, and all that. Mother was Elizabeth née Slaney. And Robert and his brother attended Rugby school (see 1861 census) and Trinity Hall, Cambridge University … The family can be seen at Wellington, Shropshire in the 1851 census. They have a household with eight servants.

Thomas Campbell Eyton
Well, some time between what seems to have been a very brief 1865 venture at Cambridge and the first half of 1866, R H Eyton left England for New Zealand. One wonders why. And on 28 August 1866, he married another new immigrant, Eleanor [Josephine Maud] Fosbery, daughter of Francis George Fosbery, of Curraghbridge, Limerick, and his wife Sarah Eleanor Wilhemina née Smith, in Auckland… did they meet on board the outward-bound Mary Shepherd heading, with 114 souls, to found an ill-fated new colony at Kawakawa in the Bay of Islands ? … or later? Anyway, they wed, within months of arriving, in Auckland, and the breeding began. 

I have tried to sort the children out. I have noted Hugh Slaney (b Parnell 1869; d Melbourne 27 October 1926), Arthur Fosbery (b Parnell 2 April 1870; d Drummond St, Melbourne 16 June 1885), Charles Fosbery (b Parnell 24 June 1871; Los Angeles 2 July 1941), Vere Campbell (b 1872; d Hospital Street, Greymouth 31 January 1873), our Alice Rose (1874-1929) and Cecil Robert (1876-1923), Keith (d Armagh Street, Christchurch 25 December 1877) … and there was/were more yet to come. 

The Eytons moved frequently, either in function of Robert’s ‘work’ as a journalist, or something else, and he apparently gambled on his facile pen and on ‘investments in mining’ to make him a living. All the while producing more and more babies. But Robert seems to have been a bit of a clot. He got into financial straits, passed 9 or 10 bad cheques in Nelson, and ended up fleeing to Melbourne, where he was dragged to court and attempted (?) newsworthily to commit suicide. 

But he was drained of his laudanum and ended up back in New Zealand, for the nonce at Greymouth, then Hokitika. 

We can more or less follow Eyton’s unstable career by the birthplaces of his children, so we know that, about 1877, the family left Hokitika for Christchurch where Robert became sub-editor on the Christchurch Press;

By 1880 they had removed to Ashburton where he joined the respected Howard Charles Jacobson (1841-1910, Stories of Banks Peninsula) in leasing the Ashburton Guardian, and meddled in public affairs. Eleanor was singing in local concerts. But, typically, the business partnership didn’t last long: Mr Jacobson went on to head the Akaroa Mail and Mr Eyton scooted off to Australia. I sight him in Hobart, in Adelaide, in Melbourne … Eleanor and her four children seem to have traipsed with him. But her husband was up to his old tricks:

However, like the bad penny, he came back, and 20 March 1882 Eleanor gave birth to a little Veronica Fosbery Eyton at Macquarie Street, Hobart. And then we see Robert ‘of Bathurst Street’ buying 500 shares in a Tasmanian tin mining venture. And Eleanor singing, again, in the local concerts. Until, in March 1885, Robert had another shot at suicide. Hanging rather than poisoning himself, this time.

So, Mr Eyton (‘formerly sub-editor of the Mercury and editor of The Tasmanian News’), and his long-suffering family, left town for the umpteenth time. One child couldn’t take it. Sickly, fifteen year-old Arthur died. Four months later, Robert got his wish, and, after suffering an ‘apoplectic fit in Adelaide’, joined his son in his Melbourne grave. ‘After life’s trials and torments’. ‘He leaves two sons’ quoth the press. Three, actually: Hugh, Charles and Cedric. But also two daughters, Alice and little Vera.

And at the inquest, the dirty washing came out … epileptic, chronic alcoholic ..

In 1886, Eleanor remarried. Her new husband was the much younger Mr Robert Bentley Shires Nightingale (b Melbourne 5 June 1860), licensee of the Bohemian Club Hotel, Swanston Street. She took up running the Goulburn Valley Hotel, Bourke Street East, sold up her nine-room boarding house in Drummond Street, took on the Regatta Club Hotel, and in the meanwhile son Charles stepped (March 1887) into the limelight: ‘Victor’s Athletic Hall: An interesting item was the Graeco-Roman wrestling between Eyton and Barrows. The first named, who is a pupil of Prof Miller, is only a lightweight but ..’. ‘Young Charley Eyton’ was at the beginning of the first of his successful careers, as a wrestler, a club-swinger, a living statue, a sometime actor ...

The next to make the news was our baby, Cecil. Sixteen year-old Cecil (or Robert as he, for the moment, preferred) had gone off the rails at an early age. He seems to have been a very thick and loose cannon. He fancied himself a wide-west bushranger, but he wasn’t very good at it and ended up being arrested amid a storm of newspaper reports. He must have calmed down eventually, because I see him still living with mummy in 1910. Between one Robert and another, Eleanor seems to have been a pretty forgiving lady.

The law didn’t always forgive her. She had a few public house brushes with the licensing authorities, and seems to have given up on beer-selling.

The girls would gain their renown from saner activities. Alice followed in father’s footsteps and took up writing. Vera turned to singing and the theatre.

Alice started writing for the Sydney Mail in about 1897, and was part of Melbourne’s ‘Bohemian’ circle until, in March 1902, ‘the young Sydney journalist’ left for overseas. She ended up, after a stint in Britain, in California and, in 1909, the Los Angeles Examiner reported ‘Miss Alice Rose Eyton sister of Charlie Eyton, manager of the Burbank Theatre has written her first play and had it accepted by Sanger and Jordan'.

As for Vera, I see her in 1898-9, ‘pupil of Mr Louis Grist’, expending her ‘pleasant light soprano’ in Sydney concerts, before, in 1900, she went on the professional stage. In 1901 she announced her departure for Europe and a Farewell concert. ‘Her frock was more impressive than her voice’ opined the press. 

When next heard of she was reportedly in Edinburgh, allegedly engaged for the pantomime, The Invisible Prince, as Princess Ivy. And then, with rather more exposure, in 1903, as co-respondent in the divorce of Sydney-born Mr John Mackenzie-Fairfax. She married him in 1906. But it doesn’t seem to have lasted. By 1911 he is back with his parents, professing to be a 40 year-old author and ‘single’.

Charley’s career, hitched profitably to the Morosco organisation, first in theatre and then in films, ran smoothly and prosperously, his marriages to three (successive) silent film actresses – Anna Cole, Bessie Harrison and Kathlyn Williams -- rather less successfully. He gave a leg up to little sister Vera who seems to have turned up in Hollywood about 1912, calling herself ‘Vera Doria’, with a husband, Juan de la Cruz, and a heap of tales about her brilliant successes as a vocalist and actress in Europe.

 Funny, I can’t find a single mention of her in Europe, though I do see her in the stage production of The Tik-Tok Man of Oz in America. Anyway, Charley put her in the pictures, where for six or seven years she vamped her way successfully into international ‘fame’ in supporting roles, before disappearing from filmic view. She also appeared in the Morosco musical So Long, Letty. I see her sailing from Shanghai in 1920 with a dramatic company as Vera Doria or Eyton (tiens! So she never became Vera de la Cruz! Shame.) and yes! And, what? There she is in Kiangsu, China 15 December 1921 becoming Mrs John Snodgrass. In 1930 she seems to be ‘Mrs Richard Black’. And there, I think, I will leave her. Oh, when she died 22 June 1957 in Los Angeles county, it was as ‘Eyton’. 

I’m saving our two ‘babies’ for last, so I’ll tidy up Eleanor first. At some stage, Eleanor and followed the family to Los Angeles. I see her there in the 1910 census, with Alice and Cecil. I see her referred to as ‘of the Panama Apartments’, I see her tripping to Europe in 1912 and returning, bringing Vera. And I see her death notice the following year (28 March 1913). So she never saw Vera become a success at last. But she saw Charley, and she saw Alice. Her obituary read:

Sidney? Who is Sidney? Cedric in disguise? Madame de la Cruz we know about. Hugh I’d rather forgotten about. Robert the husband is still alive? Yes. But he’s gone back to Australia (or never left it), where he died in 1925. And what is Alice doing in Costa Rica?

Alice Eyton von Saxmar
Alice, after some years in England, had become a successful part of the Hollywooden industry, turning out scenarios, film-scripts, adaptations … an altogether more successful writer, indeed, than her much noisier father. You can read a list of some of her projects in the works of such historians as David Haliwell. She married a fellow film-writer, Alabama-born Robert von Saxmar (8 September 1911), and apparently lived happily at Hollywood’s 6353 Yucca Street, up to her death 3 November 1929, from burns received in a party-costume accident.

And poor, dumb Cecil Robert, the baby bushranger? He’d run home to mother. And yes, he called himself ‘Sidney’ now. ‘I was an accountant in Australia and now I’m working as a hotel clerk’, he said in court. A doorman, so the registers say. Oh yes, in court: he couldn’t keep straight. He apparently married an actress named Edith Burke, and next thing was up for attempting (it ran in the family!) a miserable, can’t-cope suicide. Ineffectually, of course. Then he married the cashier at the local cinema, and ended up a few months later back in court charged with bigamy. So he probably did run to Mexico. He died in San Francisco 19 November 1923. Presumably of naturalish causes. Oh dear, what a failure: and he was such a cute baby.

A little PS abut Hugh, the Eyton who didn’t go to Hollywood. Educated at Christ’s College, Christchurch, he spent some years in Devonport, Tasmania, where he practiced as an accountant, and he grew up to be a seemingly solid member of the Yarra and Prahran business community and society. Starr-Bowkett Permanent Land and Building Society. In 1892 he married Miss Florence Tempest Nightingale and fathered a Constance, a Florence, and an Elizabeth Mary.

Oh, he didn’t wholly escape the family demons. In 1906 he was described in the press as ‘a mining speculator’. Why was he in the press? Because a married woman from Devonport who was ‘residing with’ him at temporary lodgings at 40 Grattan Street, Carlton, committed suicide. Shot herself. She wasn’t an Eyton, so she succeeded.

When Florence died 15 July 1934 at 31 Cromwell Rd Hawksburn she was listed as sister of William (NZ), Robert, George and Richard (dead) and John Septimus (USA). Surely Hugh didn’t marry his mother’s husband’s sister! My gosh, he did!

Enough. Who would have thought two wee baby pictures from Cashel Street would have led me to all this!

Oh! These items have been withdrawn too. There must be a Nelson K Cherrill fan on the prowl. Never mind, they're preserved here for posterity.

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