Wednesday, 04 September 2019

Lydia Howarde: Australia’s Emily Soldene

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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

    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 002

    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.

Further Reading

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


Read 8883 times Last modified on Wednesday, 01 June 2022
Kurt Gänzl

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). Forthcoming works include Gilbert & Sullivan, the Players and the Plays (October 2021), and update of the 2007 University textbook, and a translation of the Rapsodies of Petrus Borel with his brother, poet John Gallas.