Kurt is one of the most important chroniclers of the world’s history of music and theatre. His numerous works on the subject include The Encyclopedia of the Musical Theatre (1994, 2001), The British Musical Theatre (1986), The Musical: a concise history (1997), Gänzl’s Book of the Musical Theatre (1988), Victorian Vocalists (2018) and biographies of such artists as Lydia Thompson (2002), Willie Gill (2002) and Emily Soldene (In Search of a Singer, 2007).
London-born Blanche Reives came from a theatrical family and her singing career, which began in 1865, saw her performing in Britain, America, South East Asia and Australia. No pictures of her survive and her death remains a mystery. Nevertheless, theatre historian Kurt Gänzl manages to follow her career as she travels around the globe, discovering the seemingly impossible as he delves into the life of another ‘forgotten’ Victorian vocalist.
REIVES, Blanche [ROBERTS, Leonora Blanche] (b. Fleet Street, London, 1846; d. unknown)
Surely, one of the more curious careers—on four continents—to be found amongst Victorian vocalists.
The lady who called herself, at first, Blanche Reeves and later, for reasons unexplained, but probably having something to do with the co-existence of a certain Mr Sims Reeves, Blanche Reives, was a member of a thoroughly theatrical family. Her father was Mr Valentine Roberts (b. North Street, Lambeth, January 1821; d. 47 Margaret Street, 6 June 1891), who, although listed, variously, in the censi of the British nation as ‘Collector 7th Surrey Rifles’ (1861) and ‘Housekeeper’ (1881), and on his daughter’s marriage certificate as ‘book-keeper’, had been, once upon a time, a concert singer and concert-giver (Peckham, 1842 ssq), then later ‘of the Theatre Royal, Liverpool’ (1847), the purveyor, with writer Henry Hersee, of an Entertainment, ‘Popular Songs of the Present Century’, and, in 1857, he had advertised himself as ‘baritone vocalist (solo and concerted)’ who ‘after a successful engagement of two years at D. Brown’s, Glasgow, Jude’s, Byrne’s (twice), Royal Rotundo Rooms, Portobello Gardens and White’s (twice), Dublin, also Evans’s Grand Hotel, Liverpool, opens at the Theatre Royal, Dover 12th January 1857 for a month ...’. He was also, from his early twenties a married man and a father.
Valentine Roberts was the son of Sarah Presbury (1796-1873), ‘the once celebrated juvenile actress and vocalist of the fashionable Paul’s Head Concerts, Cateaton Street, City, also of the Haymarket, Old Royalty, Sans Pareil, Pantheon and Berwick-Street’, and her husband William Walpole Roberts (1790-1847). This couple were also the parents of actress, Rose Roberts (1817-1890) who, in her turn, was the wife of the aforenamed Henry Hersee, and the mother of a major singing star in Rose Hersee. Roberts’ wife, Sarah Jane (née Liddon), known professionally as ‘Mrs Valentine Roberts’, was a writer who turned out songwords (‘On the glassy waters’, ‘Woodbirds’, ‘The Blacksmith’s Son’ with J.L. Hatton), poetry (‘In England I was born’, ‘Years Ago’, ‘The Tale of Polly Pottle and her Pig’) and even a couple of operettas, the two-act The Young Recruit (1860) with a score by Glasgow musician John Fulcher (1830-1893), produced at the Eastern Opera House with Florence Lancia starred, and a one-act piece called Mark the Blacksmith (1862), which doesn’t seem to have been produced anywhere, at any time.
Valentine and Sarah Jane Roberts produced three daughters—Leonora Blanche, Amie Nina (1848-1929) and Myra Eugenie (1855-1881)—and a son, Vincent Raby Roberts (1850-1888)—the first two of whom would both become performers, under the assumed names of ‘Blanche Reives’ and ‘Amie Forrest’ respectively.
Two of Blanche Reives’ esteemed relatives, the music critic and librettist Henry Hersee (1820-1896), from a photograph by Payne, Marine-parade, Margate, and the soprano Rose Hersee (1845-1921), photographed by Sarony, New York.
Blanche made her living from music from a very young age. In the 1861 census, at which time she is but 14 years of age, she is listed already as ‘teacher of music’. However, I have not spotted any evidence of her performing in public until 1865. Then, in the first week of June, she surfaces at the Temperance Hall in Leicester, replacing Bessie Aitken—alongside Fanny Edwards (contralto) and Frank Sadlier (tenor)—as the soprano in comic vocalist Harry Clifton’s highly successful little touring group. Clifton toured year in, year out, with an accent on the north, and Blanche (‘the new soprano’ ‘from the Philharmonic Hall, Islington’, ‘a soprano with a rich clear silvery voice’) remained with him and Miss Edwards for nearly a year. On Harry’s bills she gave ‘Tell me, my heart’, ‘Comin’ thru the rye’, ‘Music Charms’, ‘The Cousins’(with Fanny Edwards) and it appears that she sometimes included the ballad, ‘Sweet scenes’, composed by Fulcher, to her mother’s words, and originally a part of the score of The Young Recruit. Publisher-music seller-agent Joseph H. Jewell reprinted the song ‘as sung by Madame Florence Lancia and Miss Blanche Reeves …’ and advertised ‘Miss Blanche Reeves, Prima Donna of Clifton’s Star Concert Company will be at liberty to accept Engagements as Principal Soprano for Oratorios and concerts on or after 21st May 1866’, ‘engagements can now be arranged for this young artiste as principal soprano for oratorios and concerts’.
Mr Jewell can’t have done too well, for a few weeks later Blanche is advertising her engagement at the Mayfair Choral Society’s concert at the Queens Rooms (27 June). Mr Aspa’s matinee (6 July), Mr St Germain’s musical soiree at Willis’s Rooms (16 July) alongside the Pyne sisters, Susie Galton and Gustav Garcia, at the Assembly Rooms Epsom (17 July), then from 23 July–4 August at Margate Assembly Rooms with ventriloquist G.W. Jester and Mackney. But her agent is now R.W. Ollier.
The Margate engagement actually produced a little bit of family rivalry. While Blanche was singing at the Assembly Rooms, cousin Rose Hersee was engaged at the brand new Hall by the Sea.
There didn’t seem to be many principal soprano parts in oratorio coming her way, but in November, Blanche secured an engagement at the Royal Polytechnic, providing the musical illustrations to F. Damer Cape’s latest entertainment, on a bill topped by ‘The wonderful optical illusion of the cherubs floating in the air’, and alongside Dugwar’s Indian feats and a lecture on Telegraphy. Then, when Professor Pepper produced a new illusion, ‘Ariel in a beautiful star, constructed by Messrs Defries’, Blanche appeared as Ariel ‘appearing to float in the air’.
She appeared at Edinburgh’s Music Hall with Helen Kirk, Inkersall and George Grossmith (‘The sun shines fair on Carlisle’s walk’, ‘I’m not the Queen’) and, in the new year, she visited Dublin and made her first appearance there in Harry Hardy’s concert at the Round Room alongside local talent. She ‘won the most decisive and enthusiastic encores in everything she gave’ reported The Era. Back in London, she did the round of the concert platforms. Not, like cousin Rose, the best and most fashionable concerts and venues, but usually something a little less glamorous. In the 1867 season she appeared at St James’s Hall (3 April 1867) when May Burney gave her concert there, and at the Beethoven Rooms for Horton Allison’s second piano recital (24 April), toting the inevitable ‘Shadow Song’ and a new song called ‘Woodbirds’. Once again the lyric of this number was the work of her mother, and the music was by one Richard J. Wilmot, a blind organist from Camden Town, once of 25 Eversholt Street, Oakley Square but certainly, a few months, earlier advertising from 28 Queens Rd, Norland Square, Notting Hill as a teacher of singing and piano. In the last months of 1866, 20 year-old Blanche had become Mrs Richard J. Wilmot. In the years that followed, Norland Square would be the Wilmot’s home.
She appeared at St George’s Hall for Cecile Fernandez (27 May), on a programme at the Great Hall, Arundel Street (4 June) with Louisa Pyne, Sainton-Dolby and a list of lesser lights, at St George’s Hall (18 June) at pianist Emily Tate’s concert with Alice Fairman and Annie Edmonds, and at Ellen Day’s (3 July) at the Beethoven Rooms with Mathilda Enequist and Florence De Courcy, and when the concert season ended she went back to the Polytech, where she took part in ‘the musical entertainments of W Brame’ and John Millard’s Lurley or the Bride of Belmont, delivering some ‘pretty and appropriate songs’. She also took part in the entertainment at a good ration of city dinners and festivals.
Blanche kept up a heavy schedule of performances in the next few years, and the oratorios did come. Even if they were not exactly at Exeter Hall. One of her advertisements from March 1868 gives us a fair idea of her activities: 22 March The Messiah at Bermondsey, 23 March Holborn Theatre concert 27 March Greenwich 30 March Waterford 1 April Kilkenny 5 April Sheerness 6 April Ampthill 15 April St Ives … 10 May Israel in Egypt at Store Street Concert Rooms …
But it wasn’t all Store Street and Greenwich. Blanche appeared at the Beethoven Rooms for Horton Allison (April), on the bulging bill for George Tedder’s Benefit (4 May), at the Hanover Square Rooms (13 May), for Annie Harris’s concert, at Willis’s Rooms as the solo vocalist at one of the concerts given by the piano-playing Misses Kingdon (31 May), and at St George’s Hall for Cecile Fernandez (4 June) on a bill including the Misses Poole, Fanny Holland, Liebhart, Drasdil, Fanny Armytage and other such habituées of the most fashionable of gatherings. And on 7 November 1868 she made an appearance alongside Drasdil and Alexander Angyalfi at the Crystal Palace Concerts.
But, mostly, her long list of engagements were of a less West-End kind: George Buckland’s Benefit at the Polytech singing ‘Tell me, my heart’ and the Sabre Song, concerts at Leyton, a visit to Dublin for Harry Hardy’s concert (‘the distinguished soprano from the Sydenham Palace at the Hanover Square Concert Rooms will sing Rossini’s ‘Una voce’ and Molloy’s new and favourite song ‘Thady O’Flynn’), at the Vestry Hall in Chelsea, at Bexley Heath where she took part in a production of the operetta The Rose of Salency (28 April 1869), at the Horns, Kennington where she sang in The Creation (29 April) with Mabel Brent, Arthur Thomas and Edward Murray, at the Beethoven Rooms for Alfred Baylis and at the Luxembourg Hall, Dalston, plugging first a ‘Lullaby’ by T. Gregory Smith, later Francesco Berger’s popular ‘The Syren’ and Edward Land’s valse cavatina ‘La gitana’. In December she was featured vocalist at Herr Lehmeyer’s concert (‘one of the most enlivening and enjoyable features of the evening ... captivating singing’ ‘Through the Wood’, ’She Wore a Wreath of Roses’, ‘The Siren’).
Her routine didn’t vary or slacken. In February 1870 she went from Walworth to Myddelton Hall, to the Horns in Kennington and back to Islington and Walworth, to the Cavendish Rooms and the Eyre Arms, to Hastings, Camberwell and Kennington again. On 2 March she sang at Laura Baxter’s vast concert at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, then it was back to Hackney, Canterbury and Richmond, Store Street Concert Rooms, three nights at the Royalty Theatre with George Buckland (‘clear and melodious voice in ‘Tell Me, My Heart’’), the College of Organists conversazione, and a visit to York to sing The Messiah with Elena Corani, Walter Baynham and Lewis Thomas, another to Southampton for Haydn’s Imperial Mass with Annie Meadows, Kerr Gedge and Robert Hilton, and to Nottingham for a concert with Fanny Poole, Mr Stedman and Chaplin Henry in which she joined the tenor in the ‘Miserere’ scene of Il Trovatore.
In early 1871, Blanche found herself in more exalted company when she was engaged for some of John Boosey’s London Ballad concerts. Helen Lemmens Sherrington, Edith Wynne, Janet Patey, Eliza Enriques, Helen D’Alton, Sims Reeves, Charles Santley and the ilk were the regular singers at these concerts, and even if Blanche was in the small type and the bottom of the list, she was not ignored. The Era noticed that she sang ‘The Beating of my own heart’ ‘very charmingly’ and, later, mentioned ‘a favourable word for Miss Blanche Reeves who seems to be making her way and has a capital soprano voice’. She appeared, similarly, amongst the list of stars singing at Drury Lane on Ash Wednesday in the Royal Dramatic College Benefit, delivering no less an item than ‘Una voce poco fa’, and at St George’s Hall at a less ambitious ballad concert in which she sang a song, ‘’Twas in the golden sunset’, of her own writing, but she was swiftly back on her travels. Now, however, she was no longer Miss Reeves but Miss Reives.
March 20 morning ballad concert March 23 The Creation at Harrowgate, March 24 Mozart no. 12 and Mendelssohn’s ‘Hear my Prayer’ at Bradford, March 27 Batley, Yorks singing Land’s cavatina, March 28 Beaumont Institution, March 30 Westminster, 7 April (Good Friday) Hackney selections from Messiah, Creation &c, 8 April Ralph Percy’s Third Morning Concert at St George’s Hall (Shadow Song), 11 April College of Organists, 15 April Queen’s Rooms, Hanover Square, Saturday Orchestral Union (Loreley ‘efficiently rendered the very difficult music’), 17 April Her own concert at the Russell Institute (Francesco Berger’s ‘The Syren’ and ‘The Elf’, ‘Through the wood’), 18 April New Malden, 19 April Birkbeck, 20 April St Ives Acis and Galatea, April 26, Myddleton Hall, April 27 Camberwell, April 28 St Johns Wood 1 May Camberwell Hall, 2 May Beethoven Rooms, 9 May Carmarthen …
And so it continued, with regular appearances in the season at Margate, regular appearances in the curious promotions of Ralph Percy, which mixed one or two fine performers with a bundle of veritable amateurs, and a constant round of the provinces with ‘Una voce’ the Shadow Song, ‘She wore a wreath of roses’, Horn’s ‘Through the wood’, a bundle of Francesco Berger pieces, Louis Emanuel’s ‘Little Birdie’, Bishop’s ‘Tell me, my heart’, Rodwell’s ‘Beautiful blue violets’, and a variety of other ballads. Suitably frilled up. ‘She displayed a voice of extraordinary range both in the upper and lower register, and introduced the audience to a series of musical gymnastics which, of course, were not to be found in the original air. Besides transposing the air a third above its original key -- her voice was almost lost in aetherial altitudes’. ‘In ‘Tell me, my heart’ Miss Reives introduced a cadenza to F in alt and in the Shadow Song one extending to G flat …’.
Advertisements from The Era (London), 1872 and 1879.
In 1872, Blanche introduced Louis Emmanuel’s ‘National Thanksgiving’ song ‘Our noble Prince, thank Heav’n is spared’ at the Inauguration of the Literary and Lyre Club (17 January), she introduced several of her own compositions (‘The Three Evenings’, ‘’Twas in the golden sunset’), sang ‘Katie’s Letter’ to her own accompaniment, several duets and ‘The Shadow Song from Dinorah with cadenza extending to E flat in altissimo especially arranged for Miss Reives’ at Florence Wydford’s latest do at the Horns at Kennington (30 April), and, later in the year, she took to the stage when she mounted what she called “Miss Blanche Reives’s London Comic Opera Company’. Suchet Champion was her tenor, H.C. Sanders and Theodore Distin the baritone and bass, and Fanny Beryl (‘the new contralto’) picked up the female bits that Blanche didn’t want for herself. Mr R.J. Wilmot FCO was musical director and Mlle Marie d’Annetta RAM played piano. They played the two-handed Lischen and Fritzchen, a version of La Rose de Saint-Flour, which she called The Lily of the Auvergne, a piece composed by her husband called A Suitor at Sea, in which she played the part of one Emma Poppinjay, and another entitled Fadette’s Valentine for which Blanche herself claimed credit for words and music. The company (‘secretary: V. Roberts Esq jnr 244 Regent Street’) opened at Windsor on 22 July, and Blanche seemingly showed up all right (‘Miss Reives both by her singing and acting elicited warm and deserved applause’ Edinburgh) and the tour survived for two months, after which Blanche headed north for a ‘concert tour of Scotland’. On her last visit a Glasgow paper had described her as ‘an indifferent singer’, but Dumbarton went into raptures: ‘a greater success could not have been desired ... a delightfully fresh voice of extreme compass ...’.
The following year, Blanche got even more adventurous, and on 4 May 1873 came the announcement of her ‘American debut’. The venue was G.L. Fox’s Broadway Theatre, New York, and she was part of a vaudeville bill. ‘She has a melodious voice’, reported a critic ‘well cultivated and of considerable power and compass. But the music she sang was too difficult to be appreciated by a miscellaneous audience and, although her execution was excellent, she failed to arouse much enthusiasm. Should she substitute some of the popular ballads of the day, there is no doubt her success would be assured ...’. Unfortunately, she didn’t get the chance to swap her Shadow song for nigger melodies, for the show’s backers were at war with the theatre owners and, after 12 days, they closed down. Blanche was shunted off to Fox’s in Philadelphia where she ‘sang ballads in an effective manner’. But by September she was back home, doing the season in Margate. However, the other side of the ocean evidently had attractions, for in November, a surprising little paragraph found its way into the musical press. Miss Blanche Reives and Professor Richard Wilmot ‘just arrived from London’ had turned up in concert at the Opera House, Nebraska City and, according to local the press, they were intending to stay there, giving music lessons, for the entire winter. ‘It will ‘set us up’ considerably’, sighed the City News, ‘to be known as the chosen home of a genuine English prima donna’, pronouncing Blanche’s vocalism to be ‘the best ever heard in this city’.
In the following seasons Blanche became less ubiquitous, her advertising became less aggressive, and her London concert appearances quite rare. She went on the road with Alfred Young’s company and visited Dublin in opera (1875), in ‘the Gaiety opéra-bouffe and comedy company’, playing initially supporting roles and later Clairette in La Fille de Madame Angot and Geneviève in Geneviève de Brabant. She played panto at the Prince of Wales, Glasgow (Humpty Dumpty, 1875), she revisited America in 1877-8 where she went touring (Mme Reive Wilmot) with English bass William Hamilton, she spent lengthy periods in Scotland, and in 1879 she went on the road in a concert company with Lydia Howard ‘the fairy actress’, taking supporting billing to the infant. Then, later in the same year, she put out an entertainment of her own, under the title Mirth and Melody. The piece was launched at the Finsbury Institute, Moorgate Street, a building oft times used as a chapel, and provoked The Era to remark: ‘We have attended services in a theatre but we have never before witnessed a miscellaneous entertainment comprising a concert, character impersonations by a lady who appears in half a dozen different costumes – one being that of a dancing girl—and a comedietta in a building supposed to be sacred’. For some reason, Blanche’s would-be humorous publicity claimed that she had been an infant prodigy, and the same critic mused ‘She seemed possessed of a certain amount of versatility, had a fair voice, her dramatic powers reached mediocrity, and there her prodigiousness ended’. The performance was apparently a disaster. The supporting amateurs were of schoolgirl and country rep level, and Blanche herself showed proof in spades of the peculiarities which had been glimpsed in her performances down the years, as she ran through a sketch called Mrs Mag’s Legacy, playing an Irish girl at the level of ‘any second rate provincial theatre’, a recitation of ‘Excelsior’ which was ‘marred by her admonishing the accompanist, at the end of every verse, for not striking in at the exact moment’, and an eccentric sketch written by herself and called Who’s master? Apparently her partner in this piece was so nervous he was inaudible and the thing developed into a monologue: ‘what, however, we did catch failed to impress us with any very exalted notion of Miss Reives’s powers as an authoress, nor does her acting call for any special mention’. Even her singing was not liked—‘Miss Blanche Reives sang ‘Annie Laurie’ but embellished it with so many flourishes and vocal eccentricities that we scarcely recognised the familiar Scots ballad ...'
In the same week, at St James’s Hall, those same Boosey Ballad concerts in which she had taken part a few years back were again pulling the town. The young singers Ellen Orridge, Mary Davies and Emma Thursby were given the same supporting chance that Blanche had been given in her time. All three of them would go on to greater things. Blanche hadn’t. Her Boosey Ballad engagement was probably the best one she had in her career.
She surfaces intermittently over the years that follow. On 7 October 1880 she puts in an appearance at the Church and Stage Guild reading her paper ‘Is Burlesque art?’ She argued that it was. And published the piece for posterity. And at Christmas time, there she is proving her point, by playing the title-role in the burlesque Po-co-han-tas alongside Edward St Albyn and one Edmund Gurney at the Theatre Royal, York. In 1881 she announced her entertainment for a tour, but I’m not sure whether it happened. On census day, L.B. Wilmot ‘author’, claiming to be 25 years of age (instead of 35), is at 4 Bishopsgate Street Within, London, with her parents. But there’s no sign of Mr Wilmot. And in July of the year she is billed as honorary secretary to Henry Vaughan’s Children’s Fund.
It seems that around this time she lost not only her diabetic sister, Myra, but also her mother, because her father turns up in the (re-)wedding lists later in the year and on 28 November 1882 he and his new wife, Charlotte Mary, celebrated the birth of a son. But Blanche was gone.
Advertisement from The Stage (London), 5 January 1883.
In October 1882, Blanche joined Daniel Bandmann for a tour through India, Australia, and the Cape.
Photograph by Elliott & Fry, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
In July 1882 she surfaces at the Neumayer Hall, Bloomsbury reading a new paper on ‘A Protective Society for the Theatrical Profession’. The singing seems to have gone by the board. But then in October 1882 comes the announcement that she is to join Maurice Bandmann’s company for a new tour in India, Australia, and the Cape. And so she did. ‘Miss Blanche Reives, the champion of the Church and Stage League, has gone to Calcutta to join the Bandmann troupe’. On 15 March 1883 she is at Singapore Town Hall (’from Rangoon’) in East Lynne and Caste, and in June and July she can be seen appearing on the Australian stage, at the Theatre Royal, Brisbane and at the Gaiety, Sydney, billed as ‘of Her Majesty’s Opera House, London’, alongside—or rather behind—Bandmann and Louise Beaudet in Proof (Madame Duprets), Caste (‘a vivacious Polly Eccles’), David Garrick (the Nurse), The Merchant of Venice (Nerissa) , The Lady of Lyons (Mme Deschapelles), The Colleen Bawn (Ann Chute), Bleak House (Lady Dedlock) and in the title role of Byron’s burlesque of Fra Diavolo (‘the singing of Miss Reives was greatly admired and regret was felt that more frequent opportunities have not been afforded the public to hear her’). She apparently stayed on a while, for, in 1884, I spot her again at the Sydney Gaiety playing in Imprudence with Wybert Reeve, and at Cottier’s People’s Concerts at the Protestant Hall, Castlereagh Street singing ‘Tell me, my heart’, ’I dreamt I dwelt in marble halls’, ‘Edinboro Town’ and reciting ‘A Prize for Elocution’, and in 1885 singing at Bendigo with the ‘Lawton Speciality Union’ and touring with something called ‘The Mammoth Dramatic Company’.
For some years, that was the last that I knew, professionally, of Leonora Roberts, Mrs Wilmot otherwise Blanche Reeves or latterly Reives. But there was plenty more to come.
A decade down the line, I winkled an item out of the pages of the past. On 7 May 1891, a sad little notice appeared in the San Francisco Call. ‘Professor Richard J. Wilmot, a blind music teacher, 51 years old, committed suicide yesterday at the St David’s House on Howard Street. Wilmot resided with his wife at 43 Geary Street and for some time had been in ill health. Yesterday the musician and his wife visited the Lick Baths with the intention of patronising that institution. She entered the female department and her husband went into the male quarters, but went out without taking a bath and left the place. Half an hour later he engaged a room at the St David’s House and last evening about 8.30 o’clock the odor of illuminating gas in the building led to an investigation and … Sickness and the recent violent death of his only son are supposed to have been the reasons for Wilmot suicide. A few months ago his son was fatally stabbed by a waiter in Oakland’.
And wait! What is this in Lloyd’s London Weekly of 29 November 1891?
‘POWER, Mrs Austin (‘Miss Blanche Reives’) was last heard of at Melbourne. Her sister-in law (Emily) anxiously asks. (Her father is dead).’
Advertisements from Blanche’s New Zealand visit: New Zealand, 1872 and 1890.
Mrs Austin Power? She must have moved quickly in the months following Wilmot’s death. Or ... could the ‘wife’ of Wilmot’s death notice be another lady. Yes. The San Francisco press registers a marriage between a Richard J. Wilmot and Miss O.T. Shephard in 1890. Divorce? Abandonment? Bigamy? How long, then, has ‘Miss Reives’ been passing as ‘Mrs Power’? Is it she who is referred to in this piece from the New Zealand Otago Witness of 8 May 1890?: ‘Mr and Mrs Austin Power, who have just arrived after a four years' tour in India, China, &c, are expected to give their ‘Wanderers’ entertainment here, as soon as the theatre is vacant. Mr Power is an old Dunedin favourite, indeed his first bow was made to a Dunedin audience when a mere stripling, nearly 20 years back, and many of his former friends and admirers are still here, and will doubtless rally round him. While awaiting a date at the Princess Theatre, the Powers will play a night at Mosgiel, where Mrs Power's faculty for singing Scottish airs ought to prove an attraction.’
Not only Scottish songs, apparently. A Japanese paper wrote (1889): ‘In the course of the evening Mrs Austin Power sang a topical song, ‘I can't get a good night's rest’, the allusions in which were not entirely in good taste, the physical infirmities of a gentleman, mentioned by name, being taken as the subject ...’.
Certainly, she is in Australia in 1892. In the company of Mr Power, even if not billed as ‘Mrs Power’. But the ‘Scottish songs’ did make me wonder. I fact, they made me almost certain. And, finally it surfaced: Leonora Blanche Roberts ‘spinster, aged 28’ married Austin Bernard Power at Gore Street Church, Fitzroy, Melbourne, Australia 9 July 1885. Blanche had evidently quit her husband many years before his death. She was not the lady at the baths. And, of course, not free to marry.
Back to 1892: ‘Miss Bella Sutherland has secured the following well-known speciality artists for her tour for West Australia; The Leslie Bros, Sam Keenan, the twin sisters Anderson, Priscilla Verne, Blanche Reives and Austin Power. The company show in Albany 22 June and will open in Perth on Monday July 11th’. And here, it seems, she stayed. For I have found other snippets. One has her playing in East Lynne in Dunedin. And another is rather less grandiose. ‘The south Melbourne court was highly entertained on a recent morning during the hearing of a case in which Leonora Blanche Power sought to recover from Mr H. Weston, alias John Weston Burton, theatrical manager, the sum of 2 pounds for professional services rendered at Bendigo during Easter Week. The plaintiff stated that she was a professional artiste and an operatic prima donna and she had engaged to visit Bendigo to play for the defendant at the rate of 1 pound a day. Her husband was also engaged at the same price… ‘she said she was not a mountebank and refused to ‘line up’ on the lorry before the play began. They played in a sort of a compromise between a tent and a corrugated iron building …’ (May 1892)
It was a long way from the West End.
Austin Power (or Power Lepoer or vice versa, as he liked to be called) died in New South Wales in 1921. In spite of the fact that he had, seemingly, been connected with several ladies, and I notice a ‘Mrs Austin Power’—which I suppose must be Blanche—playing Ophelia in Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Melbourne in 1885, and ‘Mr and Mrs Austin Power’ touring New Zealand in 1890, and Mr and Mrs Power-Lepoer (Mme Londra) in Auckland in 1895, his death certificate assured that he was ‘unmarried’. So what was that Melbourne wedding all about.
Well, I have succeeded in following Blanche just a little further. For yes, ‘Madam Londra’ was indeed the former Blanche Roberts. She wasn’t ‘Madame Londra’ for very long, and half of the time she was something else—either Miss or Madame Power-Lepoer … or sometimes Lepoer-Power—and on one occasion, when writing to the Sydney press with her opinions on capital punishment, ‘Bianca Power Lepoer’. Which means she is very likely to be the ‘Bianca Power’ who played Mrs Shepperd in the burlesque Little Jack Sheppard at the Melbourne Theatre Royal in February 1892.
Advertisement for Little Jack Sheppard at the Theatre Royal, Melbourne, February 1892.
From The Lorgnette, 2 February 1892, p. 7, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/212816238
Billie Barlow, who played the title role in the burlesque, seen here as Dick Whittington, 1892. Photo by Falk, Sydney.
State Library of New South Wales, P1/102, https://archival.sl.nsw.gov.au/Details/archive/110327297
In 1894, she is in Sydney, giving her ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’ and ‘Tell me, my heart’ at the Bondi Aquarium, where the other attraction is two newly arrived tiger sharks, and ‘giving a novel kind of entertainment’ at the Hall of Progress, Castlereagh Street (26 June) with ‘Madge Mostyn the Queensland contralto’. In 1895, she and her husband announced their residence in Auckland, New Zealand, where, under the name of ‘Miss Blanche Power’, Madame appeared with the Gourlay and Stokes musical comedy company. ‘She is, of course, speaking and singing as an old woman on the stage in a quite artificial voice, bearing no resemblance to her own—a high soprano. She is sometimes to be heard in solos at St. Benedict's Church, Auckland, and it is a pity her voice should be wasted here on a topical ditty. We may yet hear her in concerts’, wrote the local press.
But they didn’t. She played in a Dick Whittington burlesque, and by October they were back in Sydney where she starred momentarily in a family-written piece entitled Is He Guilty? (19 October), the title of which seemed to refer to the author.
In April 1896, ‘Londra from the St James’s Theatre, London’ was announced to star in the title-role of a burlesque Trill-Bee and turned up at the Sydney City Mission (26 August) giving ‘Songs and Song Stories, or The Mission of Music’.
Finally, in 1897 I spy: ‘Mr. and Mrs. Austin Lepoer Power are staying for a short time (for Mrs Power's health) in Brisbane, en route to the North and India, where they are well known, and where they intend producing dramatic copyrights secured during the last few years. The lady is also a trained vocalist, and may be heard in Brisbane before leaving, as according to plans she and her husband will be here for a few weeks, the climate being found beneficial …’
Quite how long they stayed, I do not know. I see Mrs Lepoer Power featured in a Brisbane Caledonian Society concert and at the Londoners Club ‘a Londoner and actress and vocalist, she sang ‘Tell me, my heart’ ‘ and announced a future ‘The Lays and Legends of London’. She also announced ‘lessons on the Marchesi system’. She played with local amateurs in Rockhampton in an East Lynn Up-to-Date and appeared in the local law courts, to give evidence at her husband’s conviction for drunken affray. The court case brought out a hapless tale of drunkenness and mental deficiency, allegedly brought on by a garrotting in Calcutta. And lastly, in December of the same year, from Normanton, ‘Mr and Mrs Lepoer-Power the ‘Society’ entertainers are leaving for Burketown, the former to assume to position of cook on the Water Lily steamer. This should pay better than the ‘entertainment’ business.’
And there I stop. Did they go back to India? Did she never return? He did, and he died in Rookwood Asylum in 1921. And she ... surely she didn’t stick him that long … but she was, it seems, dead by 1914. For a curious paragraph appeared in the Perth press. Austin Power (who had returned, alone, from India in December 1913) is looking for details on his ‘wife’. ‘Complications have arisen regarding her identity’ and he asks for ‘anyone who know her private name’ to contact him!, Well, I know he was insane ... but not know your wife’s real name?
Well, maybe one day I shall discover what happened to Leonora Blanche Roberts. But maybe I won’t. For now, I leave her on the Water Lily steamer … or somewhere in Asia …
One of the Emanuel songs sung by Blanche (still Reeves) at the brief peak of her London career, published by B. Williams, London, 1871.
Sheet music for ‘The Glory of a Scar’, published by Oliver Ditson, Boston, 1878.
For a professed ‘author’, Blanche left little behind her. Less, even, than her mother. A copy of the 17-page pamphlet on burlesque published by J. Jeffery, survives in the British Library. A copy of a song ‘The Glory of a Scar’, published by Oliver Ditson, during her stay in Boston in 1878, and billed as having been sung by Myron Whitney, survives in an American music collection. I also see mention of ‘Fritz and Spitz or a March for the Daughters of the Revolution’ ‘by Blanche Reives Wieandt’. Evidently a typo for Wilmot. But, as far as I can discover, that is all.
Theatre historian Kurt Gänzl has been delving into the lives of nineteenth century vocalists for more than twenty-five years. Of the thousand or more people he has researched, opéra-bouffe and burlesque prima donna Lydia Howarde—like so many on the stage—kept her public and private lives well apart. With picture research by Allister Hardiman, the ‘true’ story of Lydia Howarde and her two husbands, Signor Vitelli and Charles Thatcher, can finally be revealed.
VITELLI, Giovanni [WHITTLE, John] (b Market, Spitalfields x 14 August 1825; d in the street, Richmond, Victoria 20 April 1859)
VITELLI, Annie (née DAY) (aka HOWARDE, Lydia) (b 114 Curtain Rd, Shoreditch x 7 May 1837; d Moonee Ponds, Victoria 18 June 1917)
Charles Robert Thatcher (1831-1878), songwriter and musician.
Engraving ‘taken from the cover of a songbook in the possession of Mr. Stephen Murray-Smith’, frontispiece, The Colonial Minstrel by Hugh Anderson.
Charles’ younger brother, Richmond Thatcher (1841 -1891), journalist and theatrical agent.
Etching from The Bulletin (Sydney), June 7 1888.
John Whittle was not much of a singer. And not much of a man, either. He was born in Spitalfields in 1825 to Henry Richard Whittle (1790-1838), a small tradesman, and his wife Sophia Caroline Glessing (1898-1851), and had accomplished nothing in life before deciding to turn himself into a singing pundit, with rooms at 40 Cheapside. He took on his Italianate pseudonym, grew Italianate moustachios and, 7 October 1850, launched himself in ‘Signor Vitelli’s Grand Musical Entertainment’ at the Hall of Commerce, Threadneedle Street, with Mrs Alexander Newton topping the bill. The second half of the concert comprised a lecture by ‘the author of the popular treatise on the cultivation of the voice’. The concert proving not a disaster, he mounted another a week later, and then announced a whole series. They didn’t happen.
The Signor’s next appearance was in 1851, in the bankruptcy courts, and this time he got nationwide press coverage. ‘How the Public is Gulled’ headlined a paragraph, revealing that ‘Signor Vitelli’ was plain John. ‘To aid him in obtaining celebrity in his professional pursuits, he had published a [16 page] treatise on the voice. The printer sent him the books when printed, and he sold them. He paid 14s for the first thousand, and after that 5s for the following thousand. He had only 2,000 printed, and had sold 800 copies in all. He had sold them at a profit, but his object was by no means to gain a livelihood. He bought some copies at 1s a hundred, and sold them at the rate of 4s a hundred. He meant to make as large a profit as he could to enable him to advertise. He had sold 1,200 to booksellers, music-sellers, and his pupils’. 1,200 more dupes.
Plain John, having lost his parents, leeched onto his sister (although the 1851 census sees him ‘visiting’ at Mann’s City Dining Rooms ‘seven doors from Cheapside’) and then on to his aunt by marriage, the widowed Harriet Henrietta Glessing, née Cox, who had taken over her husband’s Bell Lane business of making and selling harp and violin strings. Whittle persuaded her to let him sell the strings on commission, and then took advantage of her absence to pilfer 375 bundles. He ended up being convicted for fraud. Some years previously, the same Harriet Glessing had been robbed of a five-shilling necklace. The thief was transported for ten years. Plain John had a ‘gentlemanly’ appearance and, though he had stolen 100 times more, only got six months with hard labour.
By 12 January 1853 he was back on the platform, at the Crosby Hall, giving a sparsely attended concert (it rained) with the Distins, the Draytons, Mrs Newton and Esther Jacobs. He sang a couple of ambitious operatic arias ‘labouring under a rather undue amount of nervousness’.
He pressed on, advertising singing lessons from various addresses from Berner’s Street to the Commercial Road, and his pamphlet ‘with anatomical engravings’ for sale … but it could not last. The Signor soon packed his bag(s) and took ship for Australia. If the courts hadn’t sent him, he went on his own bat. I imagine Aunt Harriet was mightily relieved.
The Signor selected Melbourne for his attentions. He announced himself mendaciously as ‘of the Royal Academy of Music’ and ‘Choirmaster of the Queen’s Chapel’ and persuaded a local music teacher, by the name of Allen, to go into partnership with him. The press referred nebulously to ‘the standing which he occupied in the mother country’. The only ‘standing’ he’d done was in the dock. Allen quickly disappeared.
And then he did something good. Something honest. He married the teenaged singer, Ann Day. Miss Day’s family had recently arrived in the colony, and father (d 9 Lorne Terrace, Carlton 2 May 1885) made a point of being ‘of West Hill Grove, Wandsworth’. There he had been a grocer, now he became a publican (Yarra Hotel, Emerald Hill), and Ann became Mrs ‘Vitelli’. And a singer. An increasingly prominent and popular singer. Plain John opted for being a concert impresario and a teacher. It seemed to go fairly—Annie was a trump card—as they went from the Melbourne Mechanic Institute to Hocking’s Grand Concert Hall to the Criterion Hall. He staged cheap price concerts with some success, and then, to cut a repetitive story to its bones, one day, after some months’ absence from the scene, he fell down dead in the street, near the Star and Garter Hotel. He was thirty-four.
Lydia Howarde, c.1875, from a carte-de-visite by Bardwell’s Royal Studio (Ballarat, Vic.).
State Library of New South Wales, P1/782.
Charles Thatcher, c.1869, from a carte-de-visite by W.J. Harding.
State Library of New South Wales, P1/1744.
And now, with Plain John buried, the tale turns to success. ‘Madame Vitelli’ had become a genuinely popular soprano, all around the colonies. And one of her fellow artists was one Charles Thatcher. I am not going to tell the tale of Charles Thatcher (1831-1878), as he is largely documented as an Australian folksy character of the Victorian era and has had his life written on more than one occasion. I have in front of me Goldfields Balladeer by Robert Hoskins, which is a bit off in some of its details, but collects together many of the lyrics which make Thatcher so memorable. There’s also a The Colonial Minstrel by H. Anderson, but I didn’t need two. Anyway, Annie became Mrs Thatcher and the two toured Australia and New Zealand for a decade, of which you can read all the details in Mr Hoskins’ book. It is a fascinating picture of Australasian goldfields music.
But then, around 1870, everyone goes wrong. Thatcher went back to England and Mr Hoskins’s book says ‘Annie was also willing to settle into household duties after a long and distinguished career’. But she wasn’t. Not by a long chalk. The best was yet to come. While Thatcher wandered the world, wheeler-dealing and socialising richly in a second ‘career’, Annie stayed in Australasia. And she continued to work. Very visibly. But she did it under a new name. No longer was she ‘Madame Vitelli’ or ‘Mrs Charles Thatcher’ (I imagine the marriage was effectively over), she was ‘Lydia Howarde’, opéra-bouffe and burlesque prima donna!
The papers of the time did not publicise Annie’s remake, and writers on the Australian Theatre have just accepted that Annie went home, and Lydia sprung up, a fully-armed leading lady with no history, to lead Australian burlesque through the 1870s. But there’s always one little provincial journo to spoil the scheme, and once I found that wee paragraph … well, I looked. And sure enough, today, when I looked, I came upon the obituary of ‘Lydia Howarde (Mrs Charles Thatcher) …’, and then a whole pile of reminiscences confirming the lady’s identity.
I looked into ‘Lydia’ years ago, as she seemed the best Down Under answer to the spectacular Emily Soldene (see In Search of a Singer by me) and Lydia Thompson (see biog by me), and the first mention I see of her name is in 1871 (26 December), at Sydney’s Royal Victoria Theatre, ‘the celebrated soprano prima donna’ as Placida, the fairy queen, in the pantomime Trookulentos, alongside Alicia Mandeville, sister to the touring Agatha States. The press assures us that she is ‘a debutante’ and ‘a very sweet fairy in muslin’. Another says ‘Miss Howard, an old friend with a new name’. Ha!
At Easter 1872, she played alongside the grand comic Charles Young, as Eurydice to Miss Mandeville’s Orpheus and Fra Diavolo to her burlesque Zerlina, as Sir Rudolph the Reckless in [The Nymph of the] Lurleyburg, in La Vivandière singing the music from La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein and as Count Coqueluche in Prince Dorus.
She moved on to Newcastle, to Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane (‘the charming ballad and serio-comic vocalist’) and at Christmas 1873 played alongside Charles Lascelles and the Leopolds as ‘Mirth’ in the Melbourne panto Australia Felix. They also played Farnie’s Nemesis, Lyster produced L’Oeil crevé (Fleur de Noblesse), she joined the Rickards company for more variety and appeared as Nicodemus, as Cynisca in Pygmalion and Galatea, up till mid 1874. At Ballarat, with Lascelles, she gave La Grande-Duchesse, The Bohemian Girl, Maritana, Il Trovatore (she sang both Leonora and Azucena), Un Ballo in maschera, The Barber of Seville and Chilpéric selections, The Rose of the Auvergne and The Waterman in an extended stay of nearly three months.
At Christmas 1874, she was principal boy in The White Cat at Sydney’s Victoria, with the Novaro sisters, after which the theatre produced a version of Chilpéric with Lydia—like Soldene—in the title-role. It was ‘a version’, for much of the original score had gone, replaced by ‘selections’ including an aria from Balfe’s Matilda of Hungary. But it was hailed as ‘an excellent interpretation’.
While the Theatre resumed its dramatic programme, Lydia and the Novaros headed off to Bathurst, Orange et al with Chilpéric, The Waterman … and then ‘The Lydia Howard[e] Burlesque and opera di Camera troupe’ set out to Queensland with Chilpéric, La Chatte blanche, La Fille de Madame Angot, La Grande-Duchesse, Barbe-bleue, Kenilworth … and in early 1876 ended up in New Zealand for what was supposed to be four months. It stretched to some ten.
Lydia continued to tour her company around Australia with further burlesque programmes—leaning now more to the Lydia Thompson repertoire than the Soldene one, with Oxygen, Ivanhoe, Nemesis, Once Upon a Time there were Two Kings—At her Benefit in Adelaide she played Polly in The Beggar’s Opera, elsewhere she repeated The Waterman, in Melbourne in 1878 she sang Hecate to the Macbeth of Creswick. Then, at Christmas time, she returned to the Sydney Victoria, to play Lydia Thompson’s famous role of Robinson Crusoe in pantomime. She followed up with the London Gaiety Theatre’s successful Aladdin II, this time taking Nellie Farren’s original part, and started round the country again with her newest burlesques (William in Black-Eyed Susan, The Child of the Regiment, Pygmalion). She was now appearing in plays and vaudevilles as well as musical vehicles, and at Christmas returned once more to the Victoria to appear as Count Calimanco in a local pantomime version of The Nymph of the Lurleyburg credited to F.C. Burnand.
1880 saw the Lydia Howarde troupe covering the country once more (‘a tremendous hit as Robinson Crusoe’) as Trial by Jury, HMS Pinafore, Chilpéric, Nemesis, The Beggar’s Opera, the burlesque of Il Trovatore ‘with all the musical gems from the opera’ were announced in turn, and presumably played. In October she took a troupe of four to New Zealand once more.
But it was coming, at length, to an end. And soon up went the notice: ‘Miss Lydia Howard[e]. ‘Teacher of singing and pianoforte, 270 Victoria Street, Darlinghurst’. Latterly, she made her home in Victoria’s Moonee Ponds and there she died in 1917. She had survived ‘Signor Vitelli’ by well over half a century, and achieved more in one week of her grand career than he had ever done in all of his.
Annie bore a daughter to Vitelli, in 1857, who died at the age of one. Of the four (?) children born to Thatcher, including one in Dunedin, in 1862, I know less: Helen (Mrs William John Mackay Woodruff m 23 December 1884, d Mosman 1943), Maud (d Olinda 12 September 1953), Cecile Florence Miriam (Mrs Woodhouse d 17 Poplar Rd, Carnegie 15 August 1930). Helen made the headlines in 1913, when her husband attacked her and their son, with murderous intent and an axe at their home in Crow’s Nest.
Note on Images
Three portraits exist of Charles Thatcher, one carte-de-visite in the State Library of New South Wales, one engraving, and one ink pen drawing, both frontispieces for books on Thatcher. Charles’ brother appears in an etching in the Sydney Bulletin (June 7 1888). Annie’s picture is in the NSW catalogue as Lydia Howarde. No pictures of John Whittle have been found.
Hugh Anderson, The Colonial Minstrel, F.W. Cheshire, Melbourne, 1960
Kurt Gänzl, Emily Soldene: in search of a singer, Steele Roberts, Wellington, NZ, 2007
Kurt Gänzl, Lydia Thompson, queen of burlesque, Routledge, New York & London, 2002
Kurt Gänzl, Victorian Vocalists, Routledge, New York & Abingdon, Oxon, 2018
Robert Hoskins, Goldfields Balladeer: the life and times of the celebrated Charles R. Thatcher, Collins, Auckland, 1977