2021 marks 100 years since the death of Australia-born Charles Haddon Chambers, a playwright who enjoyed considerable success on the stages of London and New York. His plays were turned into Hollywood films and he mixed with some of the most celebrated men and women of his day, but as ROGER NEILL points out, he is still largely unknown in the country of his birth.

Charles Haddon ChambersCharles Haddon Chambers; photograph by Alfred Ellis, London. National Library of Australia, Canberra.

Who would be your nomination as Australia's most successful playwright? Ray Lawler? Dymphna Cusack? Patrick White? David Williamson? Alex Buzo? Maybe Tim Winton?

How about an Australian who had some thirty plays produced over three decades with the finest actors and directors of the day? The great majority were staged in the West End of London at a time when Henrik Ibsen, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, J.M. Barrie, Arthur Pinero, J.M. Synge, John Galsworthy and Harley Granville Barker were in their prime. Most were admired hits on Broadway. Six were made into silent movies in Hollywood. And many were staged in Australia and New Zealand.

Would that be someone whose work might be performed on Australian stages, taught in Australian universities and schools, known to and discussed by theatre-loving Australians? Well, apparently not.

Haddon Chambers is best remembered now (if at all) not for his plays, but for his lengthy relationship with Nellie Melba. Even weighty tomes like The Oxford Literary History of Australia and Penguin’s New Literary History of Australia fail to mention him entirely.

Childhood to jackeroo

Haddon’s protestant Ulster-born father (Chambers referred to him as a ‘Scotchman’), John Ritchie Chambers, was descended on his mother’s side from William Ritchie, who was born in 1756 and was a shipbuilder at Saltcoats on the Ayrshire coast in Scotland before establishing in 1791 a pioneering shipyard in Belfast, where he became recognised as the ‘father of shipbuilding’ in Northern Ireland.

John was born in 1824 and came early to Sydney, where he worked in the Lands and Survey Offices for New South Wales. In 1855 he married Fanny Kellett, who was originally from Waterford in Munster in the south of Ireland. John was said within the family to be ‘very handsome although crippled’. What the source and extent of his disability was, I have yet to discover.

John and Fanny had six children, three of them—Charles Haddon Chambers, Agnes Chambers and Harry Kellett Chambers—surviving to write plays. In Sydney, Haddon’s older sister Agnes became a prominent pianist, organist and teacher (her play, The Love Affairs of Mr Boyd, was performed by an amateur company in 1909); his younger brother Harry Kellett, after an early career as a journalist in Australia (Daily Telegraph in Sydney) and America (San Francisco Examiner), went on to New York, where some half dozen of his plays were produced, none of them going on to have long runs.2 He was constantly referred to in the American press as the ‘brother of Haddon Chambers’.

Charles Haddon Spurgeon Chambers was born in the Sydney suburb of Stanmore on 22 April 1860. Named after the Baptist ‘Prince of Preachers’, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, he was educated at Petersham, Marrickville and then at the Fort Street School, alma mater of so many distinguished Sydneysiders, where at fourteen he won a prize for an essay on cruelty to animals. Leaving school at fifteen, he worked in the Lands Department, then as an insurance clerk and later in the Department of Mines, before seeking a more adventurous life as a stockrider, jackeroo and station hand, near Camden, southwest of Sydney.

In 1880 he visited his Chambers and Ritchie cousins in Ulster, before going on to London for the first time. He returned to Sydney on a ship which was carrying the Montague-Turner Opera Company and worked with them in Australia in the management of the company. This was one of the earliest touring troupes in Australia, run by two Americans, soprano Annis Montague and her tenor husband, Charles Turner. In July 1883, the company was in Mackay, Queensland, where a young and lonely Mrs Charles Armstrong befriended them and decided that a career in opera would be preferable to a life as housewife and mother. She was later to become both operatic prima donna and Haddon Chambers’ partner―Nellie Melba.

London and Captain Swift

In 1882 the twenty-two years old Haddon Chambers came back to London, determined to make a career as a writer. To make ends meet, he took odd jobs and wrote stories and sketches, mostly about Australian life, for Australian and British publications. He wrote ‘London Letters’ for The Bulletin in Sydney and helped its proprietor, WH Traill, to recruit the young English cartoonist, Phil May. In May 1886, a Chambers article, ‘Franz Liszt’, appeared in The Argosy. The elderly pianist-composer had just come on his last visit to England.

Chambers’ first play to be performed was the two-act farce One of Them, which was given out of town at the Theatre Royal in Margate, Kent, by Sarah Thorne’s local company, opening on 10 September 1886. According to The Era, the piece ‘evoked considerable laughter, was generally well received, the author being loudly called for.’

His second, also a farce, but this time in one act, was The Open Gate, which had its première at the Comedy Theatre in London on 28 March 1887. It ‘gives promise of considerable things,’ the Sporting Life decided:

The author, Mr C. Haddon Chambers, is almost a boy, and if in the fulness of time he does not develop into a prominent dramatic author, he ought. He has talent, ability, much poetic feeling …

The Open Gate was repeated at the Broadway Theater in New York in December 1890, Haddon Chambers already having his eye on the American market. According to The Sun, it was ‘acted with a perfection of natural, unexaggerated manner that made it delightful.’

The two farces were followed by a now forgotten adaptation (with J. Stanley Little) of Rider Haggard’s novel, Dawn, under the title Devil Caresfoot. This played at the Vaudeville Theatre in London, opening on 12 July 1887 with the gifted young Janet Achurch and her husband Charles Charrington in the lead roles. It was the play that brought Janet Achurch to public attention. The Charringtons took it to Australia as part of their repertoire when they introduced Ibsen’s The Doll’s House there in 1889, stirring up intense controversy around Achurch’s portrayal of the ‘New Woman’, Nora. Devil Caresfoot opened in February 1891, first at the Theatre Royal in Brisbane, followed by the Bijou Theatre in Melbourne.

For Haddon Chambers the tide turned decisively in 1888 with his fourth offering, Captain Swift. Chambers was quite casually recruited by one of the leading actor-managers of his day, Herbert Beerbohm Tree. Tree had created a new company at the Haymarket Theatre and was in search of a hit. In his memoir, ‘Thirty Years of Playwriting’, published in the New York Times on 13 October 1918, Chambers described the courtship thus:

One day, when walking in the neighbourhood of the Haymarket Theatre, I encountered Beerbohm Tree. We were slightly acquainted and we stopped to speak. After a short discussion on the weather, he fixed me with his pale blue eye and asked me why I didn’t write him a play … Although I had never written or attempted to write a four-act play, I hastened to assure him that I would provide him with one within the next few months … I hurried home to my rooms over a milk-shop in the suburb of Bayswater and started to work out a play that very night. I am looked on, I understand, as being a rather lazy person; but in my opinion a man who builds and writes a four-act play in four months, and turns out half a dozen magazine articles meanwhile to keep the pot boiling, must be looked on as not wholly without industry … I duly sent in a manuscript to Mr Tree at the Haymarket Theatre … I awaited the result with a lively interest, but many weeks passed without any developments. Then I began to haunt the stage door of the Haymarket, and, to cut a long story short, I ran Tree to ground one day and secured an appointment the following day for a reading the following afternoon. I kept my appointment, but the elusive Tree did not. He had gone to the Leicester Square Turkish Baths. Thither I followed him, and in the hot room and the cooling room I read him my play.

Some twenty years after Chambers’ memoir, Beerbohm Tree’s biographer, Hesketh Pearson, concluded: ‘Chambers had not rounded up refractory cattle in the Australian prairies [sic] merely to be defeated by the whims of a London actor … The manager consented to do the play.’ According to Pearson, there were problems in rehearsal springing from Chambers’ salty dialogue:

[An] old actor, Pateman, wanted something changed in his part: ‘Excuse me. Mr Tree, but must I say that line?’ ‘What line is that?’ ‘The line “After all he was only a common bastard!”. Isn’t it a bit thick?’ ‘What would you rather say?’ ‘I think ‘a common love-child’ would sound better.’

Pearson claims that Captain Swift ‘put the new [Haymarket] management on its feet’. Tree, he writes, ‘liked the author as much as the play’, and Pearson gives a pithy character sketch of Haddon Chambers at that time, ‘a light-hearted, devil-may-care fellow, with a breezy attitude to life which gave a tang to his work.’

Captain Swift opened triumphantly in a matinée at the Haymarket on 20 June 1888, listened to with ‘rapt stillness’, said the Pictorial Review. As the bushranger, Herbert Beerbohm Tree became, for the first time in his career, a matinée idol, with ‘mobs of women waiting at the stage door,’ wrote Pearson. ‘All London came to the matinée,’ said Chambers. ‘By all London, of course, I mean the large section of well-established and well-known persons who were interested in artistic events.’ It was added to the evening bill on 1 September 1888. Beerbohm Tree brought Swift back to the Haymarket stage in November 1893, then in May 1899, this time at Her Majesty’s with the American star Genevieve Ward as Mrs Seabrook.

What kind of play is Captain Swift? At one level, it is a conventional drawing-room melodrama. At another, the arrival of the Australian bushranger is used by Chambers to puncture the narrow assumptions of polite English society at that time.

Wilding, a retired, now-closet bushranger ‘with the manners of a gentleman’, has come to London escaping from his disreputable, but exciting life in Queensland. Also from that part of the world comes Gardiner, a wealthy squatter (the voice of reason in the drama), who was once bailed-up there by a masked Captain Swift, but was allowed to escape. A third Australian, the detective Ryan, has come to London in order to find and apprehend the bushranger. The scene is set in the home of Mrs Seabrook, whose niece-ward, Stella, finds herself falling in love with Wilding. Stella’s aunt had had a ‘love-child’ earlier in her life, the result of an affair with a man who died. The baby was fostered out and as a boy ran away to Australia. This boy, of course, became Captain Swift, the notorious bushranger, and, in due course, Wilding. A vivid contrast is drawn by Chambers between the gentleman-bushranger, Wilding/Swift, and the prissy, jealous young Englishman, Harry, who is in love with Stella, but rapidly losing her to this intriguing intruder. The butler, Marshall, recognises Wilding and betrays him to Detective Ryan. Confronted with the imminent revelation to the world of his own past and that of his now-discovered mother, Mrs Seabrook, Wilding does the decent thing and shoots himself.

Complicated? Certainly—but with one very memorable line: ‘Probably in the quotation books of the twenty-first century will be found “The long arm of coincidence”,’ predicted the Westminster Gazette in 1899.

Constant reference is made to the tough life of outback Australia. As Wilding says to Mrs Seabrook: ‘The terrible part of it was that we had no water. The rivers and creeks were all dried up—the heat was fearful—the ground was hard and dusty. Very soon our faces were scorched, our tongues were parched and swollen, our lips were cracked—we could scarcely drag one foot after the other.’

Just before his suicide, Wilding assesses his situation: ‘That’s the essential thing to happiness—respectability. I tasted it once for a week—I lived in it—it breathed around me—I worshipped at its shrine. But I was never of it ... I’m a robber to the last, you see.’

By 1889 Chambers was living at Notting Hill in London (48 Clanricarde Gardens) with his partner Marie (they married three years later), and by the census of 1891 there was also a baby daughter, Margery, a cook and a nurse.

Following its success in London, Captain Swift opened at the Madison Square Theatre in New York. ‘I was fortunate in being represented by a splendid cast,’ wrote Chambers. ‘Maurice Barrymore —father of three dear friends of mine, and conspicuous ornaments on the American stage, Ethel, Lionel and Jack [John]—was Captain Swift, and, although it is so long ago, there must be some thousands of New Yorkers who remember what a magnificent Swift he was.’ The play’s success in New York led eventually, in 1914 and again in 1920, to silent movies in Hollywood.

In February 1889 Swift opened at the Theatre Royal in Sydney. Of its subsequent opening at the Princess Theatre in Melbourne in August, Table Talk concluded: ‘There can be but one opinion of the literary merits of Captain Swift, which is that it is beautifully written, dramatically consistent, and constructed with the keenest regard to both effect and probability.’ However, as The Theatre of Australia observed: ‘Australians refuse to believe that Captain Swift was ever a bushranger.’ They expected him to be altogether rougher, tougher, not the gentleman-highwayman of romantic tradition. Perhaps it was not helpful that the part of Swift was taken in Australia by the English actor-manager, Charles Warner.

In October Charles Warner took Captain Swift touring in New Zealand, where it was better received, opening at the Princess Theatre in Dunedin, followed by the Theatre Royal in Christchurch, the Opera House in Wellington, the Theatre Royal in Napier and finishing at the Opera House in Auckland.

Hesketh Pearson summarises the ‘moral’ of Captain Swift as ‘the bushranger who is converted from evil to good, from irresponsibility to duty, from heartlessness to love, by staying in a nice English home.’ My own understanding of it is quite contrary to that reading: I feel that Chambers’ Swift is an outsider, able to follow his own path in life without the constraints of polite society, who, forced to run, chooses to end it all rather than succumb. Variants on this very Australian theme were to run through Haddons’ work over a thirty-year period.

In her Sydney University thesis of 2009, Maisie Dubosarsky concluded, regarding the dramatic power of Chambers’ depiction of his flawed colonial outsider in America:

Swift was the tragic hero of his day and on Broadway—in a country famous for its large-scale immigration and particularly sensitive to the outsider/insider opposition—marked a ‘Pyrrhic victory’ for [Maurice] Barrymore who had been on the cusp of retirement.

‘One would have imagined that after this felicitous event [the success of Swift] the placing of my second play with a good management would have been an easy task,’ wrote Chambers, ‘but it did not prove so by any means.’

Following Swift

His next, The Idler, started out as a play for Lillie Langtry entitled The Bouquet, but she rejected it and Haddon sued her. In arbitration, he was awarded damages. Next it was turned down by Beerbohm Tree and another leading actor-manager, John Hare. ‘I was beginning to think that playwriting was not all it was set up to be as a career,’ wrote Chambers, ‘when one day a brilliant and charming lady from America, Miss Elizabeth Marbury, requested a sight of the manuscript, and within a few weeks I was making the first of my thirty visits to New York.’

So The Idler was premièred not in London, but in New York―at the Lyceum Theatre on 11 November 1890―under the management of impresario Charles Frohman. Frohman assembled a first-rate cast of American actors―with Herbert Kelcey in the title role―and Chambers directed the piece himself. It was his second major success, opening four months later at the St James’s Theatre in London, where it ran for 176 performances, the first new play produced by George Alexander at the start of his long tenure at that theatre. It starred Alexander and Marion Terry (younger sister of Ellen).

The Idler was given in Sydney at the New Garrick by Charles Cartwright and Olga Nethersole in 1891 and was toured in Australia and New Zealand in 1893-94 by the Brough-Boucicault company (with both Broughs and Dot Boucicault). A friend of Haddon, Cartwright successfully toured The Idler in Britain and Ireland on his return from Australia.

‘Throughout the play there is no parade of false sentimentality,’ wrote Punch’s critic in London, ‘no tawdry virtue, no copy-book morality, no vicious silliness.’ The New York Times thought it ‘cannot fail to interest anyone who is interested in the art of playmaking.’ Certainly, it is more tautly plotted, without all the superfluous complications or coincidences of Captain Swift.

In The Idler a respected English baronet, Sir John Harding, has spent time as a young man in the American West as ‘Gentleman Jack’, a goldminer and gambler who accidentally shot a man. He has returned to England, burying his past and marrying, only to be tracked down by the dead man’s brother, Simeon Strong. The idler of the play’s title, Mark Cross, covets and blackmails Harding’s wife who attempts to resolve the situation, but leaves behind an incriminating fan (a device used by Oscar Wilde the following year in his first successful play, Lady Windermere’s Fan, a fact gleefully leapt upon by the critics). Harding challenges Cross to a duel but becomes persuaded of his wife’s innocence.

Interviewing Haddon Chambers ahead of opening night, the New York Times described him: ‘The author is a slim and particularly youthful-looking man. He appears to be about twenty years of age, while, as a matter of fact, he is ten years older.’ Chambers heaped praise on American actors and their stock-company system. ‘I could get a finer performance of a play in London if I had a free choice of artists in casting it,’ says Chambers. ‘Imagine Mr Irving, Mr Terry, Mr and Mrs Kendal, Mr Beerbohm Tree, Mr Willard, Mr Alexander, Mr Forbes-Robertson, and—but, of course, such a thing is absurdly impossible.’

A previously unnoticed play by Chambers, Love and War, an adaptation from a French original, was given at the Garden Theatre in New York in March 1891. ‘Malignantly virtuous,’ was how the New York Times described it. ‘It will not excite enthusiasm in the neighbourhood of Broadway.’

In 1891 Chambers brought together several of his Australian magazine pieces, publishing them as Thumbnail Sketches of Australian Life. This was followed by a series of relatively unsuccessful plays—The Pipe of Peace (1891), The Honourable Herbert (1891), The Collaborators (1892, a one-act ‘dramatic joke’ at the Vaudeville, nine performances), The Old Lady (1892) and a comedy he wrote (with Outram Tristram) specifically for the Prince of Wales’ former mistress, Lillie Langtry, The Queen of Manoa (1892). Whether any of these are worth re-surfacing, I have yet to discover.

A return to form (and to box office success) came with The Fatal Card (five acts). Chambers wrote this with the English dramatist-lyricist, B.C. Stephenson, the first of several plays written with various partners in the late 1890s. Asked how they worked together, Stephenson responded: ‘We divide the labour. I write all the vowels and Mr. Chambers all the consonants.’    

The Fatal Card opened at the Adelphi Theatre in London on 6 September 1894, running for seven months there, young Austen played by William Terriss. Chambers’ reputation as a writer was clearly on the up and up. The Sketch of 5 September wrote:

Everybody wants him just now, actors, managers, and all sorts and conditions of men, for he is bringing out a new play at the Adelphi tomorrow, and is busy every moment of the day.

At that period, when in London, Haddon would stay at the Bath Club in Dover Street, Mayfair, but much of the time he was living away from the bright lights of the West End at the St Mildred’s Hotel at Westgate-on-Sea in Kent (of ‘no fixed abode’, as he wrote), divulging in the interview that he habitually wrote at night and that The Fatal Card was …

… the first play that I have written in the daytime. I have never written before except at night, when the world is dead … I find it very difficult to write while others are riding, swimming, or walking about.

The production of The Fatal Card in New York, again under the management of Charles Frohman, opened on New Year’s Eve, with the veteran American actor, J.H. Stoddart, as a much-admired Austen père. A silent movie was made of The Fatal Card in Hollywood in 1915.

It was staged in Australia at the Theatre Royal in Sydney by Bland Holt’s company in March 1895 with (among others) the twenty-year-old Hilda Spong as the affectionate daughter, Margaret. Born in England, Spong had had her childhood in Melbourne. The scenery was created by her father, the artist W.B. Spong.

The Fatal Card opens in a mining camp in Colorado at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, later re-locating to London. George Forrester has been caught cheating at cards and is about to be lynched when Gerald Austen appears and rescues him. The ace of clubs is torn in two, with each taking half, so that they may know each other in the future. Many years later, in London, Forrester, posing as the respectable Marrable, leads a gang of professional bond robbers. They target a stockbroker, Austen’s father. Austen junior meanwhile is in love with Marrable’s daughter, Margaret. The gang are at work when they are interrupted by Austen senior, who is promptly murdered. Warned by Margaret, young Austen eavesdrops on the gang, is discovered and is next in line for liquidation. He is bound and gagged and left with a ticking time-bomb, when … the two halves of the playing card are produced and Marrable discovers that he is about to despatch the man who saved his life.

Leslie Rees, in his The Making of Australian Drama of 1973, wrote:

Chambers did not write for Australian audiences nor was he concerned with interpreting Australian aspects or values (other than in a minor way in Captain Swift) to English audiences. One has therefore no obligation to discuss him further.

I believe that Rees’s reading of Chambers is profoundly wrong. Indeed, the reverse is much closer to the mark. The fact that Chambers constantly satirised English attitudes from a fundamentally Australian stance seems to have been completely overlooked by Rees.

In an essay (‘A tale of two Australians’ in Playing Australia: Australian Theatre and the International Stage, 2003), Elizabeth Schafer has argued persuasively that ‘[Chambers] created … substitutes for Australianness, most notably in his use of American characters and settings. Chambers’ use of American material may have been simply judicious, given the great commercial success he was enjoying in the United States.’ Intriguingly, Schafer draws close parallels between the plays of two Australian playwrights working in London at the same time—Chambers and Gilbert Murray. Murray’s work was primarily in translating Greek tragedies (particularly Euripides) into performable English, becoming the standard in this area for a generation.3 However, Schafer concludes:

… both these playwrights not only identified as Australian but in their playwriting continued to discuss Australia, empire and colonial life, even though they did this indirectly, obliquely, sometimes even in disguise.

Chambers’ follow up to The Fatal Card, opening on 8 November 1894, was John-a-Dreams, directed by Beerbohm Tree at his Haymarket Theatre. The main parts were taken by Tree himself, Charles Cartwright and the legendary Mrs Patrick Campbell. The play gets its title from Hamlet’s ‘like John-a-dreams unpregnant for my cause’ (from his ‘O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!’ soliloquy in Act 2). The National Observer wrote of Mrs Pat’s performance:

Mrs Campbell brings to it all the subtle undefinable charm, the intensity of subdued emotion, the absolute spontaneity and avoidance of conscious effect, that promise to make her the Eleonora Duse of the English stage.

Successful in London (71 performances), John-a-Dreams then opened at the Empire Theatre in New York on 18 March 1895, produced by Charles Frohman, with Henry Miller and Viola Allen in the leading roles. It opened in July at the Princess Theatre in Melbourne, given by the Brough-Boucicault company, then touring in Australia and New Zealand before arriving at the Lyceum in Sydney the following January, the cast including George Titheradge, Dot Boucicault and Beryl Faber as Kate Cloud.

The grouchy critic of the New York Times complained: ‘[Chambers] upholds the abnormally false idea that a courtesan who repents has just as much right to a conspicuous place in social life as any other woman.’ If that judgement proves anything, it must be that American society could be as narrowly moralistic then as now.

The outsider, Kate, this time female, lives amongst a wealthy yachting crowd. She has been a genteel prostitute, a profession undertaken to support her ailing mother, but has retired from that occupation and settled down with an opium addict, the John-a-Dreams of the title.

In addressing the social issues arising for women ‘with a past’, John-a-Dreams was preceded by Arthur Pinero’s The Second Mrs Tanqueray and followed by George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession. Having seen John-a-Dreams on its opening night, Oscar Wilde wrote to his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas: ‘It was not bad, but oh! so badly written … How strange to live in a land where the worship of beauty and the passion of love are considered infamous.’ The worship of beauty was not at all one of Chambers’ artistic aims. Perhaps Wilde was still smarting from the mauling he had received fro m critics over his alleged plagiarism from The Idler in Lady Windermere’s Fan. It was a matter of months before Wilde was imprisoned for ‘gross indecency’.

Chambers himself clearly felt that his control of style and dialogue had grown and developed over the years, and in his New York Times memoir of 1918, he cites an example from John-a-Dreams as evidence of this: ‘Think of leaping into fame before a delighted world,’ says the heroine to the hero, to which the hero replies: ‘Think of leaping out again before an equally delighted world.’ It is quite a notion for our celebrity-obsessed times.

The Adelphi Theatre staged Haddon Chambers’ next two plays in London (both written with Joseph Comyns Carr and commissioned by the Gatti brothers): Boys Together opened on 26 August 1896—a run of 91 performances, an ‘enormous success’ wrote Clement Scott in the Illustrated London News—and In the Days of the Duke (the duke being Wellington) the following year (9 September 1897, 70 performances). Both featured the celebrated William Terriss in the lead. Three weeks after In the Days of the Duke closed, Terriss was brutally murdered at the stage door by a deranged young actor, Richard Archer Prince, whom he had helped to find work and supported financially. The ghost of Terriss is said to haunt both the Adelphi Theatre and Covent Garden’s nearby underground station.

A curious moment in Haddon’s life came on 17 March 1898 at a benefit for the fiftieth birthday of the celebrated English actor-singer, Nellie Farren, at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. The whole event was some six hours long, starting with Gilbert and Sullivan’s Trial by Jury, with a star-studded cast including W.S. Gilbert himself, Comyns Carr, Dot Boucicault, Charles Wyndham, Nellie Stewart, Grace Palotta, Ellen Terry, Mary Moore, Florence Young, Irene Vanbrugh and many others—and with Haddon Chambers as one of the Counsels.

With Melba

At roughly the mid-point of his working life, it is evident how little is known about Haddon Chambers personal life thus far. One witness is Elizabeth Marbury, who wrote in her memoirs:

A more delightful companion than Chambers could not be found. He was universally popular. No matter what his income might be he always lived beyond it. When he was down on his luck only those who enjoyed lending him money ever guessed it. His clothes were perfect … Trips to the Riviera and to St Moritz he took as a matter of course.

However, there is one relationship we know a good deal about, our knowledge enhanced by Ann Blainey’s research for her biography of Nellie Melba (I am Melba, 2008). It was in 1896 that Haddon Chambers first met the woman who was to become for the next ten years or more very significant in his life. Their meeting is described by opera impresario and singing teacher, Henry Russell:

One afternoon he came to read me one of his plays and asked me whether it would make a good subject for an opera … I remember we discussed the singers of the day. He was a great admirer of Melba, who had just conquered London, but had never met her. He had noticed with regret her lack of dramatic power. ‘What a pity,’ he remarked, ‘that she is so cold. Her voice is the most divine thing in the world, and if someone would only teach her to act, she would be perfect.’ I had asked her to supper and begged him to stay and meet her. He accepted with joy, and it proved to be a most amusing evening.

‘Few people knew more about the stage at that time than Haddon, and Melba realised at once how much she could learn from her talented compatriot,’ wrote Russell. ‘The friendship grew and the diva undoubtedly benefited from the care that Haddon bestowed on each new role she learnt, teaching her gradually to be an intelligent actress.’ She was thirty-five, he a year older.

The first significant fruit of Melba’s coaching by Chambers was Rosina in The Barber of Seville. She made her debut in the role in 1897 in Philadelphia, ‘perhaps the biggest triumph of my career.’ By the summer of 1898, Haddon was a guest at the house she rented that year, Fernley, near Marlow by the River Thames. ‘He fitted easily into her life,’ writes Ann Blainey, ‘was welcomed by her friends and family, and yet still managed to maintain a charming unpredictability … at her Thames-side house they were often seen together, strolling in the garden, taking tea under the cedars or boating on the river’.5 And ‘in London, he was present at fashionable luncheons she gave at the Savoy,’ and at the Hotel Cecil. Both of them were careful not to flaunt their relationship too openly – and this may account for its longevity. Blainey continues: ‘While in private he called her Nellie, in public he referred to her as Madame Melba.’

Melba’s affair with Philippe, Duc d’Orléans and son of the pretender to the French throne, had ended, and the duke’s engagement to the Archduchess Maria Dorothea of Austria had been announced. Haddon Chambers was to fill that gap in her life, but without all the press brouhaha that had attended her affair with Philippe. Although Nellie and Haddon were effectively ‘partners’ for several years, they seem not to have actually lived together, maintaining separate homes, even when they were in Marlow. 

Photographs testify to the circle of family and friends that joined Melba and Haddon at Marlow, amongst them Bertram Mackennal, the Australian sculptor, who was engaged on a marble bust of the diva for Melbourne.

In 1900 she was finally divorced by her estranged husband, Charles Armstrong. Melba was reported in the American press as saying: ‘It is what I have longed for ... As for me, I will soon marry Haddon Chambers ... I have already bought a house at Great Cumberland Place, London, where I expect to be very happy as Mr Chambers’ wife.’ This she soon denied and in a letter to her sister Belle, she sought to scotch the whole idea: ‘I shall never marry again, I could never put up with a man bossing me—I should kill him.’

A minor detail not revealed by the above is that Chambers was in fact married throughout the time of his relationship with Melba. He had wedded the widowed Marie Duggan (born Mary Dewar in London in 1851) on 6 September 1892. He was 32, Marie 41 (though the marriage certificate says she was 31). She had two children from her first marriage (to Joseph Francis Duggan) and with Haddon a girl, Margery, born in 1890. Margery was therefore a ‘love-child’, a theme central to both Captain Swift and the later Passers-By. She was to become an artist in adult life. It seems that Haddon’s mother Fanny came to London from Sydney for the wedding, her husband John having died in Sydney ten years earlier.

In the census of 1901, his wife Marie Haddon Chambers was living (without Haddon) at 18 Sunderland Terrace in Bayswater with their now eleven-year-old daughter Margery and a single servant. Elizabeth Marbury – it was she who was his New York agent and had facilitated the première of The Idler in New York—wrote in her memoirs (My Crystal Ball Reminiscences, 1932):

His first marriage was a mistake, but Chambers never consented to any divorce. I have always thought that this fact was due more to self-preservation than to principle. His freedom might have proved very embarrassing. The consciousness that there was a legal Mrs Chambers in the background gave him a great sense of security … He was always a devoted father to his one child, a daughter.

In 1901/02 the Paris-based Australian artist, Rupert Bunny, painted a sumptuous portrait of Melba. It seems likely that his lively sketch portrait of Chambers was accomplished at the same time and may well have been conceived as a possible ‘pair’ with the one of Melba in anticipation of their marriage. Together in April 1902 Melba and Chambers visited another of her Australian artist protégés in Paris, Hugh Ramsay.

Around that time there were mentions in the British press of a new one-act play by Haddon Chambers, Blue Roses—a three-hander ‘of delicate texture’ dealing with the familiar story of the neglected wife. A new play by Chambers entitled Grace Mary was given a copyright performance at Her Majesty’s in London in June 1899, and this seems to have mutated into Blue Roses. While there is no evidence that it was ever performed publicly, a later report said that there had been ‘a tentative but extremely interesting performance from a band of amateurs organised by Madame Melba at her up-river residence [at Marlow] some time ago.’  

Among the ways that Melba’s and Chambers’ lives were intertwined was the fact that it was he who negotiated Melba’s remarkably generous contract in 1904 with The Gramophone Company, including within it a share of her royalties to go to Chambers himself.




1. These omissions might be thought comparable to writing a History of English Literature and failing to mention the plays of Shakespeare or Wilde or Shaw

2. Plays by Harry Kellett Chambers: Abigail (1905); A Case of Frenzied Finance (1905); The Butterfly (1906); Dan’l Peggotty (1907, London); An American Widow (1909); Betsy (1911); The Right to be Happy (1912)

3. Leslie Rees ignores the existence of Gilbert Murray in his The Making of Australian Drama

4. The following summers (1899-1904), Melba took Quarry Wood Cottage on the south bank of the Thames opposite Marlow

5. C. Haddon Chambers plays in print (2021): The Open Gate, Captain Swift, The Idler, The Tyranny of Tears, The Awakening, Sir Anthony, Passers-By, The Saving Grace


This is an expanded, revised text, now with illustrations, of an essay originally published in Quadrant magazine, July-August 2008 (with kind permission),