The late 1920s and early 1930s were not happy years for Walter Kirby, as FRANK VAN STRATEN discovers in Part 4 of his biography of the New Zealand-born Australian tenor.
Kirby SLNSWWalter Kirby in a 1920s advertisement for Beale Player Pianos. State Library of New South Wales, Sydney.

On 20 january 1928, at the Columbia Graphophone Company’s recently opened factory and studio in the Sydney suburb of Homebush, Walter Kirby cut his first recordings. These are among the earliest Australian recordings made by the recently introduced electrical process, and some of the first to be made by a serious vocalist. He recorded four of his most popular ballads: ‘From the Land of the Sky Blue Water’, ‘Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal’, ‘A Hundred Moonlit Miles Away’ and ‘Ben Bolt’. The later had been featured in a recent Sydney production of the play Trilby. Walter’s accompanist was Columbia’s musical director Gil Dech (real name Gilbert Pinfield, and formally known as Gilbert Dechelette). Probably for technical reasons, the first two sides were discarded, but the latter two were released in May 1927 on a 10-inch Columbia shellac disc, price 4 shillings [$16.60]. Though it is now exceedingly rare, it must have sold sufficiently well for Walter to be invited back in September to cut 17 more sides. These included re-recordings of the discarded titles, which were duly released in February 1928. The other 15 were never issued, and test pressings are not known to exist. Both published discs were deleted by the end of 1931 but now, nearly a century after they were recorded, you can hear Walter’s recordings via the National Film and Sound Archive’s website, and ‘Ben Bolt’ is included in Decca’s 4-CD set From Melba to Sutherland.

In contrast, Columbia recordings by two other Australian tenors, Walter Kingsley and Alfred O’Shea, remained on sale for much longer. O’Shea, whose repertoire of Irish ballads and operatic arias was similar to Walter’s, had sung with the Melba-Williamson Grand Opera Company in 1924. He spent his later years in the United States and Canada.

After his debut as a recording artist, Walter returned to Melbourne to participate in a strange event at the Theatre Royal. It was not reviewed in the press, so we must rely on newspaper advertisements to give us some idea of what was involved. It was to be an ‘Educational Lecture on the New Science of Analysing Character’ on Sunday 23 January 1927 at 8 o’clock, ‘after Church Services’. The presenter was a well-known local character, Walter S. Binks, who described himself as an ‘Author, Lecturer, Vocational Counsellor, and Employers’ Adviser’. Attendees would see ‘Numerous types of character powerfully portrayed by Lightning Sketching, Lantern Slides and Moving Pictures. Mr. Binks will teach you how to know yourself and know others, and then profit by your knowledge. Two persons will be publicly analysed at the conclusion of the lecture. Musical items by Walter Kirby. Admission Free. Collection at doors.’

After this, Walter reverted to more conventional appearances. The concerts for charity continued, and he made what had become his traditional annual visit to Tasmania. He sang in country centres and in April 1927 he was engaged by Renmark-based entrepreneur M.C. Symonds to give concerts in the Sunraysia district: at Renmark in South Australia and at Merbein, Red Cliffs and Mildura in Victoria. Attendances were disappointing and Walter, asked to comment, blamed ‘the age of jazz and listening in’.

Listen to Walter’s 1927 recording of ‘Ben Bolt’

On 11 June 1927 Walter celebrated his birthday with another ‘At Home’. The venue was the grand Toorak mansion ‘Illawarra’, which was lent by its owner, Mrs. Norman Churton. ‘The guests were welcomed by Mr. Kirby in the ballroom,’ reported Table Talk, and here most enjoyable musical items were given. Mr. Kirby himself contributed to the program.’ Proceeds from the event benefitted the Melbourne Hospital.

The year brought two important civic engagements: On 18 May he sang ‘for 2000 ratepayers’ at the official opening of the new Williamstown Town Hall, and on 15 December he participated in a concert launching the new Melbourne Town Hall, rebuilt after a disastrous fire in 1925. He was complimented by Table Talk: ‘His art was proved not only in his rendering of his items, but in the way he at once gauged the acoustics of the hall.’

Early in 1928 Walter made his usual trip to Tasmania. In Launceston, on 12 March, he was part of what was touted as a ‘milestone’ in the history of the city and the state: the laying of the foundation stone of the British Rapson Tyre and Rubber Company’s a huge new tyre factory. There were interminable speeches, the Railway Band, a luncheon, tree plantings, afternoon tea, and songs from Walter and Cecily Kelly, a ‘promising’ young local contralto. The proceedings were filmed by Paramount Pictures and described on radio. The enterprise was sadly short-lived. Rapson folded in 1932.

While Walter continued to teach and to support innumerable charitable causes, his paid singing engagements were dwindling and invitations to first nights were fewer. He was certainly not a ‘presence’ at the 1928 Melba–Williamson opera season. He was 54, portly, ubiquitously flamboyant, and increasingly the subject of public mockery. Songwriter Jack O’Hagan, whose ‘Along the Road to Gundagai’ had thrust him to fame in 1922, recalled: ‘In Melbourne the colloquial expression around town when talking about bi-sexual or gay men became “did you hear the latest about Walter?”’ This had inspired Jack to write his 1923 ‘comedy one-step’ ‘Walter’. It was introduced at the Bijou Theatre by Jim Gerald, published by Allan’s, and sold well:

First verse:

Walter was an operatic singer—a real humdinger.

He loved the girls and the boys.

But one day he met a honey with lots of money

To share his cares and joys.

He courted her a little while, but then, it’s sad to tell,

One day he disappeared and then his love began to yell:

First chorus:

Walter, where have you gone?

What have I done?

Where have you gone?

You took all my money to purchase a ring,

You’ve kept the wedding waiting now and everything.

Walter, I’m so forlorn—I can’t afford to let you go.

You’re the only man that’s ever loved me in my life.

You’re the only chance I’ve ever had to be a wife.

Walter, where have you gone—that’s what I want to know

Second verse:

Walter’s honey said that she would get him, and maybe pet him,

And get him tied up for life.

But he was a regular heart-breaker, a trouble-maker

Who caused her lots of strife.

To find this Valentino she searched everywhere about,

And as she went from place to place, now this is what she’d shout:

Second Chorus:

Walter, where have you gone?

What have I done?

Where have you gone?

You’re just like a cave man, you never get meek,

And when you roll your eyes at me, you’re like The Sheik.

Walter, where have you gone; I can’t afford to let you go.

For once we get married, you’ll have family ties,

And you won’t be singing op’ra, you’ll sing lullabies.

Walter, where have you gone—that’s what I want to know.

O’Hagan’s song was featured at the Tivoli by rotund funnyman Oliver Peacock. In fact, Walter had long been the butt of music hall jokes. Jack Cannot had impersonated him in the 1916 Tivoli Follies, and in 1928 Smith’s Weekly complimented comic George Wallace: ‘A Wallace revue is always clean, and he never has to refer to Walter Kirby or Killarney Kate [another Melbourne ‘character’] to drag a laugh.’

And it wasn’t only the performers; sometimes it was the audience. In a letter published in the November 1970 issue of People magazine, a reader remembered: ‘His greatest triumph was his appearance at one of the many bushfire relief fund entertainments at the old Tivoli in Bourke Street [in 1926]. Rather effeminate, he was undeterred by the catcalls and ribald remarks of some of the audience. He opened with “I Hear You Calling Me”, and the clamour for “more” was terrific. After five numbers, he approached the footlights and said, “Thank you so much, but I cannot sing again. There are other artists to follow.” He had to take more bows than Nellie Melba.’

In its issue of 29 December 1928, Smith’s Weekly published an extraordinary full-page article based on an interview with Walter. It was headed: ‘The Lifelong Tragedy of Walter Kirby’. After covering Walter’s career, it concluded: ‘With his undoubted gifts it has always seemed a matter for regret that by his return to Australia Kirby got out of the stream of world singers. Others, no better endowed, have stayed in England and won reputations—Horace Stevens, Malcolm McEachern, and the rest of them. The local market for Kirby’s talents has been limited. Now touching fifty [he was 54], he talks of retiring. There is a note of bitterness when he recalls his services to charity that have earned him life governorships all over Australia. During the war, and after, as he points out, he worked night and day collecting up to £1000 [$83,000] in a week for patriotic funds, and realising in all about £30,000 [$2,490,000]. “Then,” he adds, “I suddenly awoke to find myself the most maligned man in Australia—a byword for every ribald comedian on the comic opera stage—for what reason I know not. The only one I can suggest is professional jealousy”.’

In 1929 Walter temporarily lifted his ban on broadcasting. On 22 July he was booked as one of the featured artists in the inaugural program on the ‘new’ 3LO, relaunched as part of the national Australian Broadcasting Company network. His participation was somewhat misleadingly promoted as his ‘first appearance in broadcasting’. A sudden cold was given as the reason for his last-minute withdrawal, however, said a press release, ‘He assured listeners he would appear as soon as possible’. He made good his promise, becoming a ‘surprise guest’ in the program that relaunched 3AR on 7 August.

In August 1929 Walter visited Canberra for the first time. His well-attended concert at the recently opened Albert Hall on 8 October raised funds for Manuka’s St Christopher’s Church and Convent.

Just four days after Walter’s concert, Canberra was thrown into uproar. After 13 years in opposition, the Labor Party, led by James Scullin, soundly defeated Stanley Bruce’s Nationalist/Country Party coalition. In Melbourne, the ALP revelled in its win with a ‘Monster Labor Victory Celebration’ in the Town Hall on 4 November. Amidst the barrage of speeches were musical items by the Labor Choral Society, Walter, and several other soloists, accompanied, it was noted, on a Wertheim piano manufactured in the new Prime Minister’s own electorate, Yarra.

Walter sang at three interesting concerts early in 1930. The first, in the Melbourne Town Hall on 18 March, was a Farewell to the brilliant 15-year-old pianist Nancy Weir, who was heading to Europe for further study and, eventually, fame, and on Good Friday he featured in two programs of sacred songs at the Plaza, the luxurious Spanish-themed cinema nestled beneath the grand Regent Theatre in Collins Street. These served to introduce Melbourne audiences to contralto Cecily Kelly, who had sung with him at the launch of the ill-fated Rapson factory in Launceston. She went on to a busy career embracing concerts, broadcasting, teaching and composing.

By mid-1930 the Great Depression had started to erode the Australian economy. Unemployment soared and businesses struggled. The live entertainment industry suffered, too, reeling from the recent introduction of radio, technically improved ‘electrical’ recordings and the ‘talkies’. Walter was scathing. On 5 June 1931 he told The Herald: ‘Reproduced music from the talkies seems to have obviated the necessity of engaged artists, and the result is that the people have lost their taste. A talkie orchestra is lacking in timbre. The colour is all wrong, thin and streaky. Vocal renderings from the screen are mechanical, and left a void. The elevating quality from the human voice was lacking.’

On 12 August 1930 Walter announced that he intended to head to London, and that he would give a Farewell concert in the Auditorium on 11 September. It was packed. Said The Argus: ‘Mr. Walter Kirby, who has so frequently helped all manner of good causes, gave last night in the Auditorium what was announced as a Farewell recital. A large and friendly audience received with every sign of approval and delight Mr. Kirby’s renderings of a large number of items. These ranged from a ballad by Easthope Martin to such things as the “Dream” from Massenet’s Manon. The sympathetic accompaniments of Miss Edith Harrhy (who also figures as a composer of taking ballads) were a particularly attractive feature of the proceedings.’ Miss Harrhy, British born but of Welsh heritage, made a valuable contribution to Melbourne musical life; her operettas Alaya and The Jolly Friar were frequently staged, she directed innumerable amateur musicals and published countless songs.

After his Farewell concert, Walter continued much as before: the charity concerts, the teaching, and the occasional ‘At Home’. He was back at the Tivoli on 20 November 1930 to participate in the unveiling of William Beckwith McIness’s portrait of the beloved actress Nellie Stewart. Miss Stewart made a gracious speech and Walter sang ‘I Was Dreaming’, the song that he had introduced at the Bijou in 1894. It had been a huge hit for Nellie when she included it in the operetta Ma Mie Rosette, one of her many great successes. The portrait is now in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria.

Sometimes things got out of hand. In a piece published in 1931, a writer in The Arrow reminisced: ‘An episode that occurred not long before he left this country finally, indicates that the method direct had no appeal to Walter. He was present at a gathering at the Oriental Hotel in Collins Street in aid of a charitable appeal for the Alfred Hospital. There was a long musical program, but Kirby did not sing. He was asked to sing but declined. Pressed to sing, he refused. Pressed still harder, he became firmer and dignified in his refusals. At last, towards four in the morning, one of those interested in the program, advancing towards the recalcitrant songster, said: “I'll make you sing!” and punched him on the nose Walter burst into tears, and cried for some time. There was some talk of subsequent proceedings, but nothing came of the matter.’

On 23 February 1931 Melba died in Sydney. Her remains were taken to Melbourne for a memorial service on 26 February in Scots’ Church, which had been built by her father. She was buried in the cemetery at Lilydale, near her home, Coombe Cottage. It was the largest funeral the city had seen, and Walter was among the vast assembly of official mourners. One of Melba’s biographers, John Hetherington, claims that Walter, ‘Told Blanche Marchesi a fantastic story which she apparently believed: that he went to Melba’s grave, stamped his foot on the ground as though to catch attention, and cried, “Well, Nellie, now you’ve got to listen to me! Even you can’t stop me now”, and to a passive audience of one and to the heavens, he sang his loveliest songs, his topmost notes, his trills, his melodies … the songs she had forbidden him to sing. At last he stopped and asked triumphantly, “Well, Nellie, what do you think of that?”’ Hetherington adds: ‘The story is interesting, if implausible.’ Nevertheless, it has been repeated as fact by several subsequent authors.

On 5 June 1931 Walter told a Herald interviewer that he would be leaving for London in the P. & O. liner Mongolia on 16 June, and that he intended to resume his professional career abroad: ‘If my health will let me, I will remain indefinitely—the matter is in the lap of the gods. Melbourne is famished artistically, and conditions for concert artists are worse than in the days that followed the bursting of the boom. Even then there were municipal and suburban concerts for the relief of artists who now were supposed to give their services free. The late Lady Madden organised a committee of Toorak hostesses, who held a series of “At Homes” in various mansions, and at those local artists were paid to entertain. The idea caught on, and the scheme was continued for several winters. Today the desire for it does not seem to exist, for one encounters nothing but bridge parties every night in the larger homes.’ The report concluded: ‘The tenor intends to make phonograph records on his arrival in London, and give recitals in England and Paris, besides accepting concert engagements.’

Kirby 4.4 Dundas GrantWalter’s throat surgeon, Sir James Dundas-Grant. Photo by Dover Street Studios, London. The Wellcome Collection, London. The night before he was due to sail, 200 of his friends gave him a great ‘goodbye’ party at the Hotel Windsor. There were tributes from several prominent Melburnians, including Arthur H. Hassell, a businessman active in musical circles. He spoke of his early discovery of ‘a new tenor in town’, recalling that he had arranged a musical function when the principal tenor fell sick. ‘Luckily, a youth named Walter Kirby, then 18 years of age with a reputation as a singer gained in Ballarat or elsewhere, was recommended to me, and on the evening of the performance Walter received a great ovation. The young singer was lauded by the critics, and his feet were thus placed firmly on the artistic ladder.’

Finally, on the foggy morning of 16 June, many of Walter’s friends gathered on Station Pier. Clutching streamers, they sang ‘Auld Lang Syne’, and gave him three cheers. ‘Then,’ said The Herald, ‘his voice came back like the distant echo of the refrain, and the big crowd was temporarily hushed as the tenor repeated the song with a significant gesture at its finish. When the song was ended the listeners applauded, and there were loud cries for another song, but it was in silence that the streamers broke one by one until the ship was out on her way.’

Walter arrived in London on 24 July. He took rooms at fashionable St George’s Square in Pimlico, and was accorded a welcoming tea party at Australia House on 4 August with ‘many musical people among the guests’.

He was soon back in the best society. His first foray was to sing at a house party in aid of the International Council of Women at Cromar Hall, the country seat of Lord and Lady Aberdeen in Tarland, Scotland. The press reported that he was vociferously applauded, and afterwards presented to Her Majesty the Queen (Queen Mary) and the Duchess of York (the future Queen, later known as the Queen Mother) who were in residence at nearby Balmoral Castle. A few days later he was the guest of the former Governor-General of Australia, Lord Stonehaven, and Lady Stonehaven at their Scottish mansion, Rickarton House in Kincardineshire.

A cousin, a Mrs. McCourt, recalled his generosity: ‘During his Bohemian life in London he made macaroni his staple diet, and hardly spent a penny on himself in order to pay for the training of potential singers and assist the families of improvident friends.’

But all was not well with his throat. He sought advice from one of the country’s most eminent ear, nose and throat specialists, Sir James Dundas-Grant. An ardent music lover, Dundas-Grant was surgeon to the Royal Academy of Music, consulting laryngologist to the Royal College of Music and aural surgeon to the Royal Society of Musicians, and in his spare time he delighted in conducting his own private orchestra. He decided that surgery was needed. On the morning of 3 September Walter arrived for the operation in a highly nervous state, so nervous that Dundas-Grant had to calm him with a dose of cocaine.

And then it all went horribly wrong.


To be continued


Special thanks to:

Christine Buck, Margaret Jarvis, and the extended Kirby Family; Peter Burgis; Brian Castles-Onion AM; Dr Mimi Colligan AM; Jo Gilbert; Miranda Rountree; Loris Synan OAM; Jason Thomson; Claudia Funder, Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne; Xavier College, Melbourne; National Library of Australia; State Library Victoria; AusStage; Trove

Principal references:

Jeff Brownrigg, A New Melba? The Tragedy of Amy Castles, Crossing Press, Darlinghurst, 2006

Mimi Colligan, Canvas Documentaries, Melbourne University Press, Carlton South, 2002

Peter Game, The Music Sellers, The Hawthorn Press, Melbourne, 1976

Alison Gyger, Opera for the Antipodes, Currency Press, 1990

John Hetherington, Melba, F.W. Cheshire, Melbourne, 1967

Roger Neill & Tony Locantro, From Melba to Sutherland, Universal Music, Australia Pty Ltd, 2016

Fred Page, ‘The Auditorium—Birth of a Showcase’, CinemaRecord, Winter 2001

John Ross, The Sound of Melbourne, ABC Books, Sydney, 1999

Thorold Waters, Much Besides Music, Georgian House, Melbourne, 1951