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In July 1923, Hugh J. Ward engaged British comedian, Charles Heslop in London to play the male lead in the Australian premiere of the British farce Tons of Money, to be staged at the Palace Theatre, Melbourne in November by Hugh J. Ward Theatres Ltd. in partnership with brothers, Sir Ben and John Fuller, as joint Governing Directors.  Embarking on the voyage to Australia with his actress wife, Maidie Field, son, Peter and fellow passenger, Dorothy Brunton (who had also been engaged by Ward to play the female lead) Heslop penned a series of articles for the London theatrical journal The Stage recounting his adventures Down Under, of which this is the first instalment.

R.M.S. “Orsova,” October.

Strictly speaking, the quotation should be “A Chiel Amang Ye” (I believe?), but I have deliberately spared you that, and in any case the original conclusion, “takkin’ fishers,” is so inappropriate to the present circumstances that I prefer to leave it abbreviated and intelligible, if it is all the same to you. [1]

Who that has once heard them can ever forget those words of old Geoff. Chaucer’s—those words of old—just a minute—here they are:

“When y-wis klepe dan Moder brae . . .”

and so on? And are they not singularly applicable to the present case, I ask you? That is to say, there is nobody who engages in foreign travel who does not at some time or another—sooner or later—later or sooner—yearn to write home about it to the more fortunate stay-at-homes. When Nim, the son of Shur, left the tent of his fathers for the dug-out of his in-laws way back in B.C. let-me-see, hieroglyphics hastily scribbled with chisel and hammer on granite tablets carried the glad tidings to the world. When Hetty the Hen adventured o’er the road the darkest races of Ethiopia bade their minstrels fashion from her journey a conundrum in vogue to this day. And so the good work goes on, e.g., “America Through the Eyes of a Tortoise,” “Seeing India with a Bandmann,” [2] and other imperishable volumes. These few notes are about Australia—Australia from the theatrical point of view, as it strikes the ordinary average touring English actor (fresh from Sunday night arrivals in Rochdale or Tunbridge Wells and Monday morning meetings at Jonas' corner and other characteristic spots.) With not one reference to the Back Blocks and entirely free from Beating about the Bush. And, first of all, we have to get there.

This is usually done by boat, in my case the “Orsova.” [3] This boat will go down to history as that unit of the Orient fleet which carried Charlie Austin and the Misses Pounds, to say nothing of George Tully and others, to their triumphs "down under.” Many are the anecdotes of these famous folk, related to me by the chief officer, by the purser, and by the skipper himself. This voyage must be very tame by comparison, I'm afraid. That universal look of high expectancy which used to greet me as I entered the smoking-room has now, I notice, died down to a mere glazed recognition. Entertainment is sought in other quarters, notably from the tall slim figure with the thin, keen face of an ascetic enthusiast, and withal a boyish, boisterous sense of fun, regarded, I imagine, with something of suspicion by the staider members of the ship’s company. In great demand, he is equally ready to referee the boxing, to auction the figures of the day's run, to present the prizes to the third-class, to voice the complaints of the passengers, to recite to me, privately, from Browning and Kipling in support of some political tenet, to emerge victorious from the final of the bolster-fighting championship, to rehearse with me a five-scene problem drama he has projected for one of our two distinguished actor-managers, interspersed with tales of touring days in England and South Africa, with Sass and Nelson. A varied and vivid personality. In sum, Mr. Pemberton-Billing. [4]

There is that about these sea voyages. One has regular meals and one has the opportunity—so painfully lacking at No. —, Railway Cottages, Chester-le-Street—of mixing with the Nobility, Clergy, and Gentry. That again is not to everybody’s taste. For instance, it didn't suit my friend Alfred, the Shy Comedian. That was not his bill-matter, it was his misfortune. He travelled to Melbourne on board a vessel which had the honour of conveying, in addition to Alf., a Very Great Personage, indeed. I think he was a Viceroy or a Governor-General or perhaps a Potentate. In any case, he was poor Alfred’s downfall. When he and this Magnifico met face to face on a lone expanse, of deck (as they frequently did in spite of all Alfred’s scheming) it taxed the comedian’s resource to the utmost to devise new methods of unconscious avoidance of the august eye. Paroxysms of sneezing and coughing gave way to the good old Refractory Bootlace. The Young Man suddenly arrested by Thrilling Sight Five Hundred Miles out at Sea stunt was much overworked. It was getting poor Alf down, which probably accounts for his entering for the Gents’ Doubles in the Deck Quoits competition, without reckoning up possible consequences. Realisation came later. The Very Great Personage, in genial mood had entered also. Supposing—cold shivers attacked the Shy Comedian's spine at the very thought. The imminence of the draws found Alfred a nervous wreck; to a lady “Committeeman” his repeated inquiries as to whether she had yet made them presented itself as the worst kind of joke shamelessly persisted in. And then, of course, it happened. Alfred and the Duke were drawn together. To be played off at 2.30 and any competitor failing to arrive losing the game. Alfred did not tell me how the episode ended, but I like to picture a grimy comedian emerging at midnight from the stokehold, happy and disqualified.

We go ashore at Toulon. The dramatic possibilities of Toulon appear to be undeveloped. At any rate, judging by the display of bills which recall the theatrical priming of, say, Chislehurst in the sixties. Why should the taste of Toulon be so far behind Paris? Toulon may be the Portsmouth of France, but Mr. Peter Davey would not like the parallel to be extended to its theatrical catering. Naples—where we next stopped—seemed in a worse plight. That is, unless the printing was very, very misleading. We in England are perhaps a little too much influenced by “the poster on the walls.”

The ship is very full, and I think 75 per cent, of its first-class passengers are Australians and New Zealanders returning from holiday at “home.” They appear, most of them, to have spent the bulk of this holiday in London—in West-End theatres. They criticise us very candidly and very intelligently. London acting is more polished than Australian, they tell me—and I thank them most politely, but where are our singers, they ask? They heard very little singing worth calling singing in our revues and musical comedies. In this direction Australia will astonish me (they assure me). I had to explain that our revues and musical comedies are breathless affairs. There is no time for singing in the best of them. Dear souls; I wonder whether the theatre will hold one half of the people who have so eagerly promised to attend our first night. Bless them! and it makes no difference at all that so many of them don't know or won't remember even our names.

We are fortunate in having Dorothy Brunton with us. She is a great favourite “down under”; the demeanour of our fellow-passengers made the telling unnecessary. [5]

Colombo. Here is the East, with a Maidenhead and musical comedy setting. My “rickshaw-driver” (I don't suppose this is what they call him) stays his servile trot to pluck the sahib a scarlet flower from the hedgerow. My taxi-driver never did so much for me on the heights of Haverstock Hill. Extending this pretty idea (duly charged for, I suppose, but I got in such a muddle with cents and rupees that I don’t know whether I set him up for life or cast him down to death), would it not add to the amenities of travel if George, taking advantage of a stoppage in the traffic, were to hop off his driver’s seat into a near-by “Lyons,” and bear forth, all steaming, a fragrant cup of tea for his sahib? Even, with the traffic problem growing acuter still, a luncheon at Ludgate, with dinner to follow outside Liverpool Street? Inside a Cingalese interior (into which I shamelessly rubber-necked) I beheld framed upon the wall two highly coloured chromo-lithos of good King Edward in Coronation robes and George Robey in full regalia as the Mayor of Muckemdyke. No doubt the loyal coolie reverently and impartially removes his shoes before daring to contemplate either. The Sahib’s roving eye furthermore noted that in the Public Hall for one week only “Daisy Harcourt, the original singer of ‘Blighty,’ would be supported by those famous all-English artists, the Dandies.” Henry J. Corner, please note.

Colombo— with its officers’ mess of the Ceylon Police, its Galle Face Hotel, its Prince’s Club—was a particularly green oasis in a rather arid voyage, and we started on our ten days’ run to Fremantle with real regret. 

October 18.—A low-lying dark blur on the port—or is it the starboard bow? The elegantly gowned ladies of the haut monde around me murmur excitedly. A hum of patriotism swelling as the dark blur on the horizon swells, and made articulate at length by the fashion-plate beside me:


I believe it is.

THE STAGE (London), 29 November 1923, p.19

* * * * * * * * * * * *


Compiled by Robert Morrison

[1] The quotation comes from Scots poet, Robert Burns’ 1789 verse On The Late Captain Grose’s Peregrinations Thro’ Scotland (Collecting The Antiquities of That Kingdom) and occurs in the opening stanza:

Frae Maidenkirk to Johnie Groat’s;-

If there’s a hole in a’ your coats,

I rede you tent it:

A chield’s amang you takin notes,

And, faith, he’ll prent it:

(Ref: )

[2] A pun on the surname of New York-born theatrical impresario, Maurice E. Bandmann (1872–1922) who toured English musical comedy and dramatic companies throughout India and the Far East between 1905 and 1922 from his home-base in Calcutta.  Following his death his companies continued to operate and it was not until the late 1930s that the Bandmann Eastern Circuit and its attendant companies finally closed down. (Ref: )

[3] The Orient liner, RMS Orsova departed from London on 15 September 1923, and arrived in Toulon on 21 September and Naples on 23 September en route to Australia via the Suez Canal.

11 Orient Line adFrom The Illustrated London News, 8 September 1923, p.1

A pictorial video of the Orsova and its luxurious on-board appointments may be viewed on YouTube at

[4] Noel Pemberton Billing (1881–1948) was a British aviator, inventor, publisher and politician. He emigrated to Australia in 1923 to establish an acoustic recording studio and record production plant in Melbourne, but ultimately returned to Britain after the failure of the business in 1926, when the new electrical recording systems had supplanted the now out-moded acoustic system.

It was in Australia that he patented a recording system intended to produce laterally-cut disc records with ten times the capacity of existing systems. Billing’s “World Record Controller” fitted onto a standard springwound gramophone, using a progressive gearing system to initially slow the turntable speed from 78 rpm to 33 rpm and then gradually increase rotational speed of the record as it played, so that the linear speed at which the recorded groove passed the needle remained constant. That allowed over ten minutes playing time per 12-inch side of the records, but the high cost of the long-playing discs (10 shillings apiece), the fact that the speed varied, and the complexity of the playback attachment, prevented popular acceptance.

In 1923, Billing set up a disc recording plant under the name World Record (Australia) Limited. The plant was in Bay Street in the Melbourne suburb of Brighton, from where he produced his 78 rpm to 33 rpm discs.

The plant was also the base for radio station 3PB, which he established in August 1925, for the purpose of broadcasting the company’s recordings. It was a limited “manufacturers’ licence”, a type which was only available during the first few years of wireless broadcasting in Australia. 3PB was only on the air for four months.

The first recording made by World Record (Australia) was released in July 1925, and featured Bert Ralton’s Havana Band, then performing at the Esplanade Hotel in the Melbourne suburb of St Kilda.

(Ref: Ralph Powell, Magician or Mountebank—The Mecurial Noel Pemberton Billing—Pioneer of Commercially recorded Sound in Australia; Vjazz, issue 67, August 2015, pp.14–15 [Australian Jazz Museum, Wantirna, Victoria]: )

[5]  Melbourne-born actress, Dorothy Brunton (1890–1977) was returning to Australia after an absence of almost two years. She had made her London debut in 1918 appearing as ‘Fan Tan’ in Shanghai at Drury Lane, and in December, took over the female lead in Soldier Boy at the Apollo Theatre, followed by lead roles in The Bantam, V.C. and Baby Bunting in 1919–20. Dot then returned to Australia to star for J.C. Williamson Ltd. in the local premieres of the musical comedies Yes, Uncle! (in June 1920) Baby Bunting (in December 1920) and Oh, Lady! Lady!! (in June 1921), as well as revivals of her earlier successes High Jinks and So Long Letty, plus Going Up and Irene.

12 Baby BuntingField Fisher, Dorothy Brunton, William Greene and Alfred Frith in a scene from Baby Bunting (1920). Photo by Monte Luke–Falk studios.

At the conclusion of her Australian tour, Dot left with her mother in early November 1921 to return to London via America, where they visited her brother, Jack in Los Angeles, who was working as a manager at their stepbrother, Robert Brunton’s Studios in Hollywood. 

Robert Brunton was a son of their Scottish father John Brunton’s first marriage in Edinburgh, who had initially followed his father’s profession as a scenic artist in London for some years before being sent to New York with an English theatrical company around 1914. When his engagement was completed he did not return to London, and later found scope for his ability in moving picture studios. His real opportunity came when a coterie of investors financed a film-making venture known as Paralta Plays Inc. and built a studio at Los Angeles, California in 1917. Robert Brunton was appointed manager of it, but due chiefly to a spirit of mutual distrust that developed among the partners, the company did not make a success of the venture. Eventually it was decided to put the plant up at auction in 1918, and Brunton made an offer to buy it at a price in excess of what it was likely to fetch under the hammer, for a small cash payment, and bills for the remainder of the purchase money. This was accepted, and in a few months he turned the proposition into a profitable concern. Brunton did at times interest himself in the production of pictures, but his chief business was to accommodate independent companies and hire out anything necessary to make their films. (Mary Pickford was amongst the Hollywood stars who made films at the Brunton Studios.) In January 1922, Robert Brunton disposed of the business to a syndicate which included T.J. Selznick and Joseph Schenck (the studios later became the site of Paramount Pictures) and left for England with Dorothy intending to establish a similar plant there.

Dot had intended returning to the London stage, but was persuaded by Robert to take a rest with him on the Continent. They set off from Paris, and toured by car from one country to another taking in Amsterdam, Rotterdam and then down to Italy, where Dot revelled in the beautiful theatres in Rome, and saw musical comedy in Venice. The period of rest and comradeship came to an end, however, with the sudden death of her stepbrother in London on 7 March 1923 and, grief-stricken, Dot turned her back on Europe and found refuge for a time in Florida with her brother, Jack (who now managed the Miami Studios built by the Curtiss Airplane Co.), where she was eventually persuaded to return to the stage again. She thus played for a time in Tons of Money in London, where she was subsequently engaged by Hugh J. Ward for his Australian production.

Although Dot had previously appeared under Hugh J. Ward’s auspices during his tenure as joint Managing Director for JCW from 1911, Tons of Money marked her first appearance for Ward after his resignation from The Firm (following its take over by the Tait Brothers in 1920) to form Hugh J. Ward Theatres Ltd. in partnership with Sir Ben and John Fuller in 1922. 

(Refs.: Australian Dictionary of Biography ; AusStage ; Table Talk (Melbourne), Thursday, 15 September 1921, p.41— ; The Herald (Melbourne) Saturday, 7 January 1922, p.16— ; Wikimapia & The Age (Melbourne), Tuesday, 23 October 1923, p.9—


To be continued