Tuesday, October 1, 2019

"The Welsh Nightingale": Miss Lucy Williams

WILLIAMS, Miss E[lizabeth] L[ucy] (b Merthyr, South Wales 10 May 1828; d Nightingale’s Nest, Carmarthen 1 October 1902)

‘The Welsh Nightingale’. The ‘celebrated Welsh Nightingale’. It’s a thoroughly corny title, of course, betraying a transparent longing to be thought of in the same blink of the brain as the equally commercially-christened ‘Swedish Nightingale’, Miss Jenny Lind. It’s a sobriquet, too, that’s been used on a number of occasions, by the less sophisticated newspapers, to refer to vocalists from Edith Wynne to Adelina Patti to someone named Lucy Clarke RAM, to Mary Davies to Charlotte Church but, thanks to her sheer simple-minded persistence, it has to go down in the musical history of the Victorian era as having been appropriated by the very much less known, Miss E L Williams.

Yes, Miss E L Williams. E L was the best anyone had ever been able to do. Even though Dwight’s magazine in Boston on one occasion referred to her as ‘Lucy’, there was no proof. She billed herself as ‘E L’ from her earliest days, she even refused her Christian names to the census takers of the British nation, and for all I know she probably got married with just a pair of initials to her name. But she did that in America, so I can’t prove it. So ‘Miss E L Williams’ she has always remained.

Her Christian names were not this lady’s only secret. Her background and her date of birth were pretty purposefully fogged as well. When she filled in the census return of 1861, she admitted to being 21 years of age and to being born in Merthyr. So, nightingale or not, she verifiably was Welsh. Her mother, travelling with her at that time, was listed as Mrs E A Williams aged 53 and born in Rochester, Kent. So the initials thing seems to have been hereditary.

I doubted very much if the 21 were true. For I have found the record of concerts at Monmouth Town Hall and in Cardiff in May 1850, at Tredegar Town Hall (6 June 1850) and the New Assembly Room, Brecon, on 20 June 1850, and another yet in Cardigan Town Hall, on 12 May 1851, where Miss E L Williams, already billed as ‘the Welsh Nightingale’ (with a long and gushing apologia for the title), is featured in a one-woman piano-vocal concert of national songs and ballads (but including ‘Trab trab’!). Nothing suggests that she was a child artist. In October she appeared in concert in Shrewsbury.
And the following year ‘the celebrated’ (sic!) Welsh Nightingale was featured on the bills at London’s Exeter Hall Wednesday Evenings, giving ‘Dermot Asthore’, and the like, on programmes with John Braham and a host of Britain’s best young vocalists. Alongside the Misses Messent, Stabbach, Baxter and the like, the Welsh balladeer was briefly noticed, but, again, no one intimated that she was a child, so I suspected that perhaps she was, in 1852, considerably more than 12 years old.
She continued to be ‘celebrated’ and now ‘from Exeter Hall’ around Wales, through Liverpool, Chester, Manchester and the west of England, where her singing was much appreciated (‘compass, sweetness and richness ... fascinating and charming manners’) but her accent was not (‘As she is not perfectly acquainted with the Cambrian accent, her attempt in that language was more a failure than otherwise’). Odd.

It appears that, around this time, Miss Williams went through a course of vocal study with Gesualdo Lanza, for – alongside a handful of London appearances, on St David’s Day ‘in national costume’, and the like – she can be seen during 1855-6 singing ‘a great number of songs’ in several of his concerts, both in London and the provinces.

However, the financial side of things apparently didn't work out very well. On 7 February 1856, Miss E L Williams 'formerly of Abergavenny, professor of music and vocalist, and afterwards and while engaged in this capacity travelling to various parts of England and Wales as hereunder, namely Newport, Cardiff, Merthyr, Tredegar, Brecon, Pontypool, Monmouth, Hereford, Kingston, Uske Heath, Swansea, Llanidloes, Carmarthen, Tenby, Pembroke, Pater, Milford Haven, Haverfordwest, Fishguard, Cardigan, Newcastle, Lampeter, Aberneron, Abersytwyth, Newton, Welshpool, Shrewsbury, Oxford, Reading, Northampton, Birmingham, Woolwich, Cardiff, Swansea, Neath, Chester, Holywell, Bangor, Bury, Manchester, Bury aforesaid, Oxford, Cheltenham, Oxford aforesaid, Abergavenny aforesaid, Liverpool aforesaid, afterwards of no 17 Granby St Hampstead Rd, next and now of 55 George St, both in Middlesex, professor of music and vocalist...’ was declared an ‘insolvent debtor'.

In 1856, however, she fixed upon the way that she was going to follow. And it was precisely the same way she had started. Although, over the years to come, she appeared, from time to time, in standard London concerts (St David’s Day, Ancient Britons, Beaumont Institute, Store Street Music Hall &c), it was as a solo performer, a one-woman show, that Miss Williams would make her way.

Her first entertainment, entitled A Welsh Girl’s Stratagem, or Songs of Many Nations was brought out on 29 November 1855, at Store Street, then at Willis’s Rooms in April 1856. The young lady appeared in twelve different characters, and gave a full programme of vocal numbers, including two new songs by Charles Swain and Carlo Minasi which would become her regulars -- ‘Tapping on the window’ and ‘Wait till I put on my bonnet’. In the character of Miss Gwynnith Gwynn she sang ‘Hunting the hare’, as Miss Marion Ross, a Scotch lady with ambition to become a prima donna, she gave ‘Bordersman of Liddersdale’ and ‘John Anderson, my jo’, as a Bavarian broom girl she did Abt’s ‘Wenn die Schwalbenn’ and as Miss Kate O’More (Ireland) she gave ‘Kitty Tyrrell’ and ‘You’ll soon forget Kathleen’. Mary, who is in love with postman, gave ‘The Postman’s Knock’ and Wapping Old Stairs’ and high-toned Miss Ellen Percy, who only likes fashionable foreign music, ended the first half of the programme with ‘Casta diva’ and ‘Una voce poco fa’. Part two was launched by Mdlle de l’Orme from the Paris Opera (‘Robert, toi que j’aime’), a beggar girl (‘If I’d a fairy power’), a Florence Nightingale cantinière (Balfe’s ‘La Cantinière’), then Zara, a gypsy, gave Lanza’s song of the same title and a piece of his opera Hamet and Zelena, and the performance was rounded off by the return of the Welsh girl with the inevitable ‘The Bells of Aberdovy’ and a ‘Cambria’s Prayer ‘composed especially for’. The evening seems to have been a most agreeable one, and Miss Williams and Signor Lanza duly took it round the country. 

The following year, The Welsh Girl was replaced by the cumbrously titled The Minstrel’s Wreath Entwined With Flowers of Poesy which was again launched in London, at the Regent’s Park Colosseum, at the turn of the year (3 January) and was much liked: ‘her voice is beautifully clear, and at the same time powerful mezzo-soprano…’, at the Marylebone Institute (26 January 1857), before being similarly taken on a round of Corn Exchanges and Mechanics Institutes and other Institutions and concert rooms. In April 1857, she appeared at Sadler’s Wells Theatre as an adjunct to a magician. It has to be said that one entertainment differed not wholly from another, for the programme for The Minstrel’s Wreath featured ‘The Watchword of Life’ ‘The Blind Girl’, ‘Sweet Bells of Aberdovy’, ‘Kathleen Mavourneen’, ‘The Cantinière,’ ‘The Caller O U’, ‘Shall I never again have a beau?’, ’Tapping at the Window’, ‘The Wild Harp of Erin’, ‘I will not give my heart away’, ‘The merry sounding horn’, ‘The Spirit of the glen’, ‘The Emigrant’, ‘The Happy Days of Youth’, ‘Wait till I put on my bonnet’, ‘The Orphan Boy’, ‘Spanish Maidens’ and ‘God Save the Queen’. Quite a few nightingalish regulars.

In the autumn of 1857, Miss Williams left Britain and headed for America. In September, she was introduced to New York audiences at Barnum’s museum (twice daily, with the equilibrists the Carlo Family), in a programme which promised her twelve characters but also, most un-Welshly, seventeen songs by Samuel Lover, amongst which ‘Mary of Tipperary’. The Clipper reported, ‘The entire room was well-filled and the lady received a fair share of approbation. Her style is pleasing and her singing well-suited for a small room’. Miss Williams carried on to engagements in St Louis, Philadelphia and beyond – and I spot her at a charity concert in New York (18 January 1858) singing not only ‘Hunting Tower’ but ‘Una voce poco fa’ and in her ‘last grand concert in America’ at the Mozart Hall (27 May 1858) with Gassier and amateurs, but by the end of the year she was back in Britain. Dwight’s magazine told the tale: ‘This poor girl (who rejoices in the rather absurd title of the ‘Welsh Nightingale’) was inveigled to this country by an agent of Barnum’s Museum, with the representation that she was to appear under the same circumstance and enjoy a similar career as Jenny Lind and Catherine Hayes, or whoever else it was that Barnum brought out. Very inexperienced she must, or particularly her advisers, have been to believe this story; enough, it was believed and Miss Williams came over here to find she was engaged to sing at Barnum’s Museum (as it is still called, though it has long passed out of Barnum’s hands) a place which, though by no means disreputable, is far from refined or genteel. I believe she got rid of her engagement as soon as possible and has, since, been travelling about the country, and gives one concert here, endeavouring to gain the money to regain home. She has an uncommonly fine, clear, strong voice which is also quite flexible and well trained...’
She had, however, had one success in America: she had found herself a husband: one George Edwin (or Evan) Williams of New York City. So, on 17 May 1858 she went from being Miss E L Williams to being Mrs E L Williams. But she remained, doggedly, ‘The Welsh Nightingale’.

She appeared in concert around Britain – the Welsh Nightingale will sing ‘Una voce poco fa’ and ‘The Swiss girl’ at E L Hime’s People’s Concerts December 4 1858’, ‘Miss Williams the Welsh Nightingale made her first appearance in Isleworth … she was encored in every song she sang (21 February 1860) -- , and her name appeared from time to time on new songs … one, confusingly, ‘the ladies’ new echo song, ‘The Boatmen, or Caller Oyster’’ was advertised as being sung by the Welsh Nightingale and the Scotch Nightingale, which cognomen was apparently meant to apply to Lizzy Stuart … before she brought out her newest Entertainment, The Lady’s Dream. This time she had thirteen characters, thirteen costume changes and performed, according to the Dublin press ‘with an amount of skill and ability perfectly astonishing’. She tried a double-headed Entertainment with the appalling Henry Smith (‘Madame Williams’ admirable vocalisation and acting in her clever entertainment are attractions sufficient in themselves…’), took a twelve months’ contract for the provinces with a Liverpool manager, and then on 12 May 1862 she brought out a new double act show entitled Capers and Counterfeits, this time performing in tandem with her husband. Mr Williams seems to have appeared intermittently with his wife in the years that followed, but in between times the lady returned to the one-woman show format. A Carmarthen critic gave some idea of her format, in a programme including 13 characters and 20 songs, a number of them new and specially written: ‘Mrs Williams accompanies herself. She is possessed of a fine soprano voice over which she has perfect command, she is also a good actress. These qualifications enable her to keep the audience well pleased for more than two hours.’
In 1865 she began billing herself under what was accepted as Edith Wynne’s appellation controlée of ‘Eos Cymru’ as well as, and finally instead of, the Welsh Nightingale, but by now her tours were taking in largely Welsh venues and in spite of notices agreeing that she was ‘an original and excellent entertainment’ and ‘a great favourite’ from Exeter to Aberystwyth, her career as a performer was touching at and end.

My last sighting of Mrs E L Williams, ‘formerly Welsh Nightingale’, was, for a long time, in the 1881 census rolls. She was living at Fairy Glen, Brimfield, in Herefordshire. She said she was 43 years old, and she was a widow, and her companion was a 24 year-old nephew from Hay, Breconshire by name Hugh Powell ‘professor of music’. Strange: ten years earlier, living at Portland Street in Leominster, a widow ‘aged 33’ she admits to Master Hugh E Williams aged 13 (born Llanigar, Glam) as being her son. Maybe, maybe not. After that ..?

But then I found just one clue, and even suspected it of being a false one. A newspaper in Brisbane, Australia reported on 13 May 1892 that ‘Miss E L Williams author of the song ‘The Bells of Aberdovy’ is in very poor circumstances and efforts are being made to raise a fund of 1000pds to purchase an annuity for her...’
Why should Brisbane be interested? Was she there? But Brisbane, in the 1880s, had its own ‘Welsh Nightingale’, a certain Mrs James, who was not very highly rated by the press, when she gave concerts in the town in 1884.  And, of course, Miss Williams didn’t write the very popular ‘The Bells of Aberdovy’, she merely sang it.
But, one thing leads to another. This paragraph lead to a larger one in the Liverpool Mercury of March 10 previous. It acknowledges receipt of a circular ‘numerously and influentially signed’, which talks of putting the thousand pounds (!) in the Post Office Annuity fund.  The vicar of Llanstephan, Camarthenshire, and Alderman [Richard] Cory of Oscar House, Cardiff are the collectors of the cash. But, alas, the nonsense about the ‘Bells of Aberdovy’ is still there, and it doesn’t say where the lady who has ‘lately suffered very sad pecuniary losses’ is.
However, later in the year, she surfaces. She writes to the press ‘to publicly acknowledge the generosity of the Marquess of Bute, through Sir W T Lewis, in presenting her with the comfortable little residence in which she now resides at Llanstephan and making her the owner of it for life’. And she asks for more money!

Well, thanks to the good old Marquess of Bute, I finally found her. There she is, in the 1891 census, at Number 2 Stratford Villas, Llanstephan. Elsie L Williams 49 widow, professor of music, born Merthyr, with Hugh Powell, nephew aged 24 born … Utica, USA!  And again, in 1901, where she is ‘aged 52’ and Hugh, still single, is 44 and a drawing master.
In 1911, curiously, the house, now named Bute Cottage (yes!), is occupied by ‘the Reverend D E Williams’ and ‘two females’.

Elsie? Well, that doesn’t help me an iota in finding her birth or her death or the truth about who, or what, was Hugh … Of course, it doesn't help an iota. Because, naturally, she wasn't born Elsie. And I'm not going to rewrite this whole article. So I'll just say, by dint of perseverance I found her and her family in the 1851 census. 
Number One Prince's Street, Pembroke Dock, Pembrokeshire.
Elizabeth L Williams, professional singer, aged 18, with father Francis Williams, born King's Bridge, Devon and aged 73, whose profession is 'Formerly player. Travelling with daughter', his wife Elizabeth A 60, and a sister, Gillian L, born Carmarthen.
Elizabeth Lucy!  Dwight was right!
And here they are in 1841 (it helps, when there's a Gillian in the family!) in Mysidfield, Swansea: Francis 'writer', Elizabeth 'flowermaker', Virginia (?) 20, milliner, Gillian 15, and Elizabeth 13. The last time she would give her real age.

‘The Welsh Nightingale’ otherwise Elizabeth Lucy Williams shows up in the death registers of 1902, in Carmarthen...? Aged 66. And there she is, the subject of a long obituary in the local press. Hum. It chops eight years off her age and makes her the daughter of ‘private secretary to Admiral Sotheby of the Royal Navy’ and ‘the daughter of a wealthy Glasgow gentleman’. The obituary runs to three full columns, in three episodes, and tells that in 1865 she was officially divested of the title of Eos Cymru, in favour of Edith Wynne and granted that of ‘Seren Cymru’ (the Star of Wales). A briefer and more enlightened notice confides that she was ‘over 70’ and that ‘amongst her works [was] a re-writing of ‘Clychau Aberdyfi’.

The Carmarthen obituary can be found at https://newspapers.library.wales/view/3677405/3677413/50/
the lengthier article at https://newspapers.library.wales/view/3677468/3677473/31/ and following.

And here is a reference for the wikipedia story of the song https://newspapers.library.wales/view/3429332/3429338/168/Clychau%20Aberdyfi
a song which has given rise to many a learned discussion as to its origins, English or Welsh, but, of course, not originally by Lucy Williams. This from 1900 ...

But whether the song had, as claimed by some, its origins with Charles Dibdin in 1786, or somewhere in a Welsh vale, 'The Bells of Aberdov[e]y' has become as much a 'Welsh song' as 'Bonnie Mary of Argyll' has become a Scots one. Helped, of course, by Lucy and Edith Wynne and their contemporaries in the 1850s. For, yes, whether it be trad, or composed by Dibdin in the 18th century, I don't find reference to its being sung in concert till then. Odd, isn't it? Why did it get 'lost' for half a century?

Idle thought: I wonder if the melody of the 'beautiful old Scottish song' 'The Birks of Aberfeldy' (1787, lyric: R Burns) has any similarity with this ... and, then, I see Amelia George singing 'The Bells of Aberfeldy' in 1840 ...

Haha! I see the Musical Times of April 1911 asked the same question ...  Not the same song?
Well, I sha'n't go there. But perhaps Grove or Wikipedia might ...

Here's a modern version of the song in question ... not TOO Welshified-folkyfied -- perhaps this may have been what Lucy sounded like?  

Idle thought: I wonder if the melody of the 'old Scottish song' 'The Birks of Aberfeldy' (1787, lyric: R Burns) has any similarity with this ... and I see Amelia George singing 'The Bells of Aberfeldy' in 1840 ...

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