Saturday, March 25, 2023

Shrimp Fish Net Girls St Leonards on Sea


Ebay is fun. I really enjoy going through the new postings with my morning Milo, and -- since, at my age, I no longer buy things -- pointing out to my specialist collector friends the little jewels which are posted there, for sale, on a quite regular basis. 

Some times, those little jewels, are well-and-truly dissimulated. In my particular 'area of expertise' -- the theatre - I would say 'often'. Vendor's descriptions are sometimes quite simply dishonest (FAMOUS ACTRESS .... name unknown ... but still 'famous'?), sometimes utterly ignorant, sometimes lazy (just google it, for heavens sake!). But, more often, its just a case of 'didn't know and didn't try'.

This morning's giggle was a case in question. I don't usually look at and into the offerings of the vendor known as andygüyük. His items are disfigured by distorting 'spoiler' stamps. But this picture, labelled SHRIMP FISH NET GIRLS, caught my eye. Interesting eyes ...?

I turned the card over. BOING!!!!!!

Edith and Violet Barnes.

This aged theatrical historian's antennae twitched furiously. Violet Augusta Mary Barnes. Sister Edith Helen Barnes. Know them ...

This is a childhood photo of a really 'famous actress'. Violet became Violet VANBRUGH, regarded as one of Britain's outstanding dramatic actresses of her era. Edith became Dame Edith BARNES.

Must have been holidaying at the seaside in the ?late 1870s. I wonder if this photo of the pretty sisters is generally know.

Friday, March 17, 2023


This is a book that should have been (and almost was) written decades ago. I remember being ‘in’ on an early tryout ... some twenty-plus years ago ... when the late and sadly-missed New Zealand music and theatre scholar, Adrienne Simpson, first began to tie together the pieces of the puzzle. I was working on my Emily Soldene biography at the time, and we helped each other with little discoveries and bits of research, from our respective sides of the world. So much did I admire Adrienne’s work, that I commissioned her to write a biography of Alice May, for my series ‘Forgotten Stars of the Musical Theatre’ (Routledge, NYC).

Alas, soon after that, cancer claimed Adrienne, my Soldene mega-two-volumes were published, and I moved definitively into the 19th century and, largely, out of the world of the Simonsen family. Particularly generations two and three.

But, little did I know that the project had not died. Now, two decades later, this fine multiple biography, from the pen of Roger Neill, has finally appeared. I have just read it, greedily, in one long sitting, with only a wee break for a nice Thai lunch (no booze). Splendid. Both book and lunch.

OK, my Soldene opus may be 1,500pp plus in length, but it is the life story of just one subject. This opus may be rather less exhaustingly vast in size (372pp), but it is a triple header. A Cerberus biography of the prime donne known to me as Fanny I (Fanny Simonsen), Fanny II (Frances Saville) and Fanny III (Frances Alda): mother, daughter and grand-daughter. Something like a century’s worth of celebrated soprano Simonsens, taking in the operatic world of the 19th-20th century from Australia to Austria to America, from Belgium to Britain; bristling with lashings of famous and less famous names and events ... no wonder it has taken a time to come to fruition. The work involved! Three generations of knowledge and background with which an author has had to imbue himself. But now, in 2023, it is here for us, and for this we must all be extremely grateful.

The book falls naturally into three parts. One for each lady. Life is not long enough, as I have myself discovered, to study in huge depth the whole history of the world and all who sang in it, so one segment is always going to be more convincing than another. It is not difficult to guess which third appealed to me the most. And I have a feeling that it appealed most to the author as well. Of course, it is the tranche—the third—Fanny III—about whom I know (or, now, I should say ‘knew’) the least. Alda wrote her own memoirs (as did Soldene) but I can assure you, that doesn’t make her any the easier to research and write about. Weeding out the disingenuous, the ‘improved’ and the just plain mendacious from a memoir can be harder than starting from scratch. But I felt, when I had finished reading the Alda story, here, that I now ‘knew’ her. The author has done a first-class job.

By far the most difficult tranche to write was, surely, the first. Fanny I. Françoise Dehaes (?). And our author hasn’t pretended otherwise. Instead of bluntly ‘stating’ ‘information’ from dubious or unknown sources, he has clearly said when a ‘fact’, hitherto accepted or hinted at, is possibly not factual at all. And there are, inevitably, a fair number of these. Including such basics as birth- and marriage-dates. But how does one find such things, in Denmark, for example, especially when the lady’s birth name is not confirmedly known? Yes, it’s a whole lot easier now than it was 20 years ago, but ... folk told and tell such lies. Fanny’s education? Allegedly at the Paris Conservatoire. When? Under an improbable mixture of buzzword professors? How come, then, that she is not listed in the minutious Conservatoire records? There is no Françoise anybody, born Feb 1835, in the registers. Next, so it is claimed, she sang the Opéra-Comique. When? Again, performances are carefully recorded. And the author has (as I have) obviously checked. Very peculiar. Very suspect. Fanny I’s early life is difficult to decipher.

We can see that husband Martin Simonsen was ‘the Sacramento violinist’ in the early 50s, in Hong Kong in 1858, and I see them both sailing from St. Lucia, in 1861, with a valet and Willem Coenen ...  but otherwise ... Well, I think there is a fair bit of mythology floating about in those waters. How to filter it out?

Anyway, here, in this delightful tripartite volume, we have pretty well all the so-far known Fanny-the-First facts gathered together. There are still many, many more to find! But, until and unless we have yet more documentation, there are still as many questions to be elucidated as there are proven facts. Fannies II & III are much more straightforward. But no less interesting.

The tale of the Simonsens of St Kilda (and a lot of other places!) make up into an extremely worthwhile book. And an enjoyable book, too. With invaluable appendices of performances and recordings. All I can say is: Opera fans, Australian theatre fans, devotees of biography the way it should be writ: Buy it.

Grumbles? Picky as I am, I really can find nothing to get querulous over. I, personally, have grown to loathe footnotes and don’t read them. I feel they reek of an undergraduate’s homework. But they seem to have become a sine qua non in certain circles. There is the usual ration of typos and misspellings, but given the breadth and width of the subject, surprisingly few. So, ‘nothing whatever to grumble at!’.

Here we have another mighty step in the chronicling of Australia’s musical history. The bared bones of this fascinating family history have been definitively assembled for you here. So, who will pick up an ancient review of a concert in Brussels featuring Mdlle Dehaes? Or Mme Dehaes ... or a wed cert, or a birth cert ...from ... where? Roll on the next generation of Roger Neills and Adrienne Simpsons.

But the Simonsens, who they were and what they achieved, are now much better known than they have ever been, thanks to Mr. Neill ... and it’s a big YES from me!

Thursday, March 16, 2023

MY SHIP, or 75 years on ..


She was launched at Christmas 1949, my ship. A few days before the birth of my little brother, John. I don't think she ever had a name: she was just 'The Boat'. But she resembled remarkably, even to the colours, the steamers which passed by our windows, in Wellington Harbour ... was it daily? Probably not.

She was a favourite toy built not of tin, but a good solid New Zealand native wood, and made not by a fashionable toymaker, but by our father ... father could do anything ...

Here is Kurt, just a couple of months short of his fifth birthday, and John (not yet one), constructing harbourworks for The Boat in one of the Wellington bays (Worser Bay, I think) in 1950.

Of course, The Boat, latterly gave way to other toys ... such a list of toys ... quite a few of them from the workshop of Dr Frederick Gallas (né Fritz Ganzl) PhD, B Sc, MA etc etc. Like the Jungle Gym (oh, how we loved that!) and the Sandpit in the top garden ...

I wonder. Do fathers build their children's playthings anymore? They meant all the more to us because 'Daddy made them'. Did we want a Disney dolly? Plastic and tulle? No way. 

I had a 'teddy' bear (hard to get in post-war NZ, and I suspect Austrian), a friend of the family sent a big red and yellow rabbit from England, I think mother sewed the white flannel duck of which I was so fond ...

But At two I was already a sporty boy

That was the rubber kayak in which our father had paddled down the Danube from Vienna to Prague ...
50 years later, the rubber finally perished ...

Teddy and Ducky and Rabbit have gone (mother you HAVEN'T given them away!!!!!? Some other child will love them ...). But one thing hasn't perished. On my study window sill, three-quarters of a century on is ...

The Boat ....  <3

Sunday, March 12, 2023

Launceston, Tasmania 1870, or dolly came too


So much information. I wonder who inscribed all that ... to send it back to Ireland? In 1870, aged 12, Mary Grace was a fatherless child of a well-established (maternal) Tasmanian family ...

Her father was William Shaw Madden the son of Dr William Ryves Madden of Celbridge, near Dublin. The Dr was a medical, not churchified, label. Father Madden had studied medicine in Edinburgh, had an LRCS after his name, and rooms in London. Young William (born 1831) was educated at Dungannon College, Rugby School and passed a year (and his exams) at Caius College ... and then ... I don't know what caused him, in 1850 or soon after, to change course. My next sighting of the lad is in 1854, in Melbourne, then in Launceston, in barracks. 1857 (6 June) he married Eliza Atkinson (b Launceston 14 December 1834), daughter of John Atkinson, a local worthy, and 17 April 1858, in Upper Charles Street, Mary Grace was born. On 28 July, W S Madden died, at the age of 27. 
Widowed Eliza apparently moved in with her brother in High Street. I see in 1863 them being named in a letter by a dismissed servant, and the following year Eliza advertising for another. 'Mrs Madden and child' appear regularly taking ship from Tasmania to Victoria or New South Wales. 

Mary Grace was eventually, however, to have a stepfather. Eliza's sister, Charlotte Hope Atkinson had married John Francis Hobkirk (b Rio de Janiero 2 August 1829) and spent most of her life thereafter pregnant until, at the age of 35 (25 November 1871), she cried enough, leaving her husband with the remnants of their large brood. On 2 May 1877, Eliza married her sister's widower. She took up where poor Charlotte had left off and, 15 August 1879, produced a son, Neville. Mary Grace's half-brother, however,  died at the age of five. Hobkirk (d 11 September 1912) and Eliza (d 9 May 1918) both survived into the new century.

And Mary Grace herself? Where did she spend the next 20 years? I don't know. But in 1892 she married. Her husband was a grazier in Queensland, by name Herbert Charles Richardson and there they lived until 1920 when they bought a property at 11 Airlie Avenue, Armadale, near Melbourne. Herbert 'of Wunnadoo Downs, Longreach' died there in 1925, intestate, and Mary Grace was removed to a hospital for the insane. She died 9 February 1932.

Their one surviving child, Eileen Mary (23 April 1898-30 October 1944), wife of Alan Herschell Geddes (d 1956), can be seen living at Airlie Avenue after her parents' death.

Well, I wanted to know. I wonder what became of Dolly.