Tuesday, 20 December 2022

Walter Kirby

I am enjoying Frank Van Straten’s series on tenor Walter Kirby, my great-aunt, Allea Fleming Dunstan, having been one of his many pupils. She was present on several of the occasions mentioned and being part of Melbourne’s musical scene c.1925-1935 was on programs with many of the well-known identities of the period. I would be interested in making contact with any relatives of these—ie. those of the Castles, etc., etc.

While studying in London and on the Continent she included in a letter to a friend in Melbourne (The Herald, 27 May 1930), the compliment that, ‘Mr.Kirby’s method of voice production is the nearest method of any in her experience to the system followed by the maestro with whom she studied in Milan’.

Geraldine Starbrook

Published in Letters to the Editor
By 1931 Walter Kirby had settled in England, but as FRANK VAN STRATEN discovers in the final instalment of his biography of the NZ-born Australian tenor, he did not forget Australia, leaving numerous significant endowments in his will.

During the afternoon of 3 September 1931 Walter Kirby was arrested in the men’s toilet at Victoria Station, and charged with indecency in a public convenience, specifically ‘importuning males’. The incident and its aftermath were widely reported in Australia, but again it was the New Zealand press that gave more details, even though Kirby was always referred to as an Australian, not a New Zealander, and his age was given as 48, though he was 57.

Walter appeared in Westminster Police Court on 8 October. The police prosecutor, Vernon Gattle, said that Walter had been under surveillance for an hour. The arresting inspector testified that when the charge was read to him Walter had said, ‘I am sorry. I did not think I had been here an hour.’ He had spoken ‘in a very peculiar, husky voice, and was constantly making grimaces,’ and he had vehemently denied the charge. Walter listened to the police evidence ‘with his head buried in his hands’.

Walter described the throat operation that he had undergone earlier that day as ‘shockingly painful’. He said he had haemorrhaged in the bus on his way home, and had gone to the toilet ‘to attend to himself’. He claimed to have thought he had suffered a stroke and lost his memory, and that he felt that he had twenty heads. Sir James Dundas-Grant testified that the cocaine may have affected Walter ‘more than it would an ordinary person’ and that ‘his ordinary moral controls might have been temporarily suspended’. Walter’s counsel, the distinguished Edward Marjoribanks (thankfully pronounced ‘Marchbanks’), said that he would be able to ‘bring most distinguished evidence of good character’. Representatives of the Australian government were present during the hearing. Bail was refused, and Walter was remanded for a week in custody under medical supervision in Brixton Prison Hospital.

Walter was back in court on 15 October. Edward Marjoribanks was in fine form. He told the court that the alleged offence was ‘a sordid incident, so eccentric and extraordinary that I ask you to believe that, at the time, his moral control was suspended. People have been inspired and comforted by the beauty of his voice, and he still has a long career in front of him if it is not impeded by a term of imprisonment. Already his appearance in court has interfered with contracts, and it would be a real pity and a real shame if a man gifted in this way should have his career destroyed by a single incident of this nature. This was a sordid and unfortunate incident in a distinguished career. His ordinary moral controls were suspended, as Sir James Dundas-Grant had said in the earlier proceedings. Kirby was subject to the extreme apprehensions of men of his age—he was over 50—and was sometimes led into these actions through purely physical causes. He had already paid very dearly for his lapse. He had a long and artistic career before, him, if not given terms of imprisonment. Contracts already made would be affected. l feel sure that if you take a merciful course events will justify it. It would be a pity if a man of his artistic calibre had his career destroyed by one single instance of this nature which can be attributed to a temporary physical aberration, due to a physical cause.’

The Victorian Agent-General, Sir Walter Leitch, said that he had known the defendant for thirty years, and that he enjoyed a great reputation in Australia. He had never heard of him ‘being nasty or sordid in his ways’.

It was no use. In delivering his sentence, magistrate Harold McKenna said that he had considered the defendant’s previous good character and the fact that he had already spent a week in custody. Nevertheless, he sentenced him 21 days’ imprisonment in ‘the second division’, a system designed to handle first-time and short-term offenders.

Walter was said to have left the dock without uttering a word.

Most of the subsequent Australian press coverage was factual and non-judgmental but, given Water’s colourful reputation, it could have been expected that the country’s popular papers would have pilloried him. The fact that they did the opposite sheds a different light on what we have assumed were the times’ stern attitudes to ‘difference’. Two widely read weeklies, Hugh D. McIntosh’s Sydney broadsheet The Arrow and the Melbourne-based tabloid Smith’s Weekly, published moving stories in the weeks and months after his release.

The first to come to Water’s defence was The Arrow. An illustrated feature story in its 23 October 1931 edition was headed ‘Anti-Climax of Eventful Career’. It’s worth quoting at length:

‘It needs a sympathetic hand to write “Poor Walter” to the epilogue of the career of Australia’s most remarkable native-born [sic] tenor. For no-one knowing Walter’s sensitive complex, forever dreading, like a blow, the imminence of publicity attacking him on the moral side, would expect him to emerge from the ordeal through which he is passing, 21 days’ imprisonment for an act of indecency, except as a broken man.

‘The curtain that had seemed to lift for a moment on a new and pleasant career for Kirby in England in the autumn of his life, has come down upon a black-out. And with it go his dreams of dignified retirement at Hendon, where he had pictured himself passing the rest of his days upon the earnings of investments which lean years have since cut down to the merest fraction.

‘Kirby’s is not the nature to recover from such a blow. Most of his life has been a recoil from infamous suggestions which, in the judgment of those who knew him, or thought they knew him best, contained no germ of truth. To be a tenor, in the time of Walter Kirby’s youth, was to be set apart from one’s fellow men, in a sense, and given a special classification if, as was Kirby’s misfortune, he exhibited none of the expected vices of a successful singer, but displayed the inconsistencies and vanities of a prima donna. Constantly in the society of women, he was never a lover. They flattered him in droves, and he accepted their homage. He accompanied them to afternoon teas and was their guest. But the very fact that Walter’s relations with the fair sex seem never to have contained a trace of sex interest reacted to his detriment, and a legend grew about him that caused his name to be bandied about in music hall jests, and himself to be lampooned in terms suggesting moral perversion. All this Kirby accepted in silence, but he felt himself a marked man, shunned old acquaintances in the street, and expressed tearful gratitude on occasions when friends of better understanding sought him out in public places to demonstrate their faith in him.

‘The worst of these attacks was that they were all by innuendo. Nothing definite, in all the years that Kirby sang in Australia, was alleged against him concerning his moral behaviour. Mainly the curiosity of the vulgar expressed itself in relation to his sex, and it was reported some years ago that certain bold young ladies engaged in charity work at the Melbourne Town Hall, in connection with a Button Day Appeal, unbuttoned Walter in a spirit of mischief, and left him thus, but it was an episode that left no sting, and was never investigated. He probably gave his services to charity more freely than any other singer who has performed in Australia.

‘It must always be remembered to Walter Kirby’s credit that though he pursued the path of bachelorhood through life, and cherished no liaisons, he was a father to numerous nephews, whom he had educated at his expense, and was good to his relatives in other ways besides. His friends here knew him for a pampered tenor, whose only faults were his eccentricities—strange outbursts that were the expression of a high-strung temperament. His friends will refuse to believe that this escapade that drew upon him stern retribution at the hands of a London magistrate was a self-revelation of a moral pervert. Far more likely that a sinister reputation, unfortunately and unjustly acquired, has followed him to London, where an unsympathetic magistrate, with an Australian before him, has waved aside the accused man’s story of an utterly irrational act, committed in a state of irresponsibility following upon an operation performed that morning. Those who know Kirby feel that something wrong has occurred—they do not accept this as a final brand of his degradation. He deserved too well of his country for that.’

Then, on 20 November 1931, Smith’s Weekly published this piece from its London correspondent: ‘Australia has recently heard of the terrible plight that has overcome its great songster, Walter Kirby. Looking drawn and haggard, he told Smith’s that his imprisonment had plunged him into the deepest depths of despair. “I don’t know what to do,” he said, “nor where to turn. My career has been wrecked.” In disheartened tones, Kirby spoke of the bright prospects that had been his before his arrest. “I think it’s ruined my life,” he exclaimed passionately. “No more exclusive clientele was ever given to a human being than mine. There were three Royal command performances to be given, and contracts with the BBC and a leading gramophone company. What my future will be I cannot say. I don’t know whether I am not contemplating the river. Why should I be treated thus?” Kirby added in a burst of despairing passion, “I have devoted my whole life to charity. I have donated to every hospital in London, and I have helped every charity, here and in Australia”.’

Nevertheless, new research in the BBC archives has revealed that on 20 October 1931 Walter broadcast a song recital with contralto Mary Ogden, and that on 2 April 1932 he was soloist in a concert by the Wireless Military Band.

Smith’s kept its eye on Walter. On 16 April 1932, it announced that he had been given a ‘fresh start’ and was singing again in London, but under an assumed name: ‘Ever since the cabled report of Walter Kirby’s enforced three weeks’ holiday at His Majesty’s pleasure, speculation as to his whereabouts and doings has been rife in Australia. From time to time all kinds of rumors have been in circulation. One persistent story was that Kirby had entered a monastery in Italy. Another was that he had married a countess, who was an ardent supporter of artistic aims. All, however, are without the slightest foundation. Kirby is continuing the even tenor of his ways under the name of Keating. Recently, at the Albert Hall, Kirby was one of the artists on an important program that included other Australian musicians. The daily newspapers spoke favorably of the other artists, but did not even mention Kirby, although he was singing under his new appellation. It is extremely unlikely that Walter will ever return to Australia. In conversation recently with another Australian, he said: “My deepest regret is that I shall never return to Australia and all my dear friends there.” His future plans are indefinite, but he has expressed an intention of conducting a concert tour of the Continent.’ Instead, he went to Ireland.

On 2 July 1932 the Irish Independent reported that Walter had been among the vast crowd—said to be approximately 25% of the country’s population—at Phoenix Park in Dublin for the final public Pontifical Mass of the 31st International Eucharistic Congress. Walter had warm praise for the choir and for its conductor, the distinguished Irish composer and musician Vincent O’Brien, and for the singing of the great Count John McCormack. McCormack had begun his career with tuition from O’Brien, and he and Walter had become friends when Walter had visited Ireland in 1903.

On 12 July, according to a piece in The Cork Examiner: ‘A number of ladies made their vows at the Good Shepherd Convent in Limerick, and among them was Sister Mary of Our Lady of Lourdes, daughter of an Irish divine and cousin of Walter Kirby, the renowned Australian tenor. Mr. Kirby sang most delightfully some of his own compositions at the Mass.’ The Melbourne Herald reported that: ‘Mr. Kirby gave a song recital recently in the ballroom of Flesk Castle, Killarney, before a large and fashionable audience,’ and he sang at the Irish Industrial and Agricultural Fair in Cork and at Tipperary’s historic Rock of Cashel. He also spent time with his cousin, Rev. John Wallace PP, in the tiny village of Cratloe near Limerick.

On 2 September 1932 The Arrow brought welcome news of Walter’s ‘rehabilitation’. It was headed ‘A Cloud Lifted’ and concluded: ‘All who have heard his golden voice will read with pleasure the news that he has been accepted in the land of his ancestors.’

Back in London, Walter quietly resumed teaching, only to find that music hall star Randolph Sutton had introduced a saucy little number called ‘When Are You Going to Lead Me to the Altar, Walter?’ It’s been credited to several different composers and lyricists, but its sentiment is remarkably similar to Jack O’Hagan’s 1923 hit, ‘Walter’:

First verse:

Walter and me, we’ve been courtin’ for years,

But he’s never asked me to wed.

When Leap Year comes ’round I give three hearty cheers,

As I do the askin’ instead.

I don’t want to die an old maid,

So I sing him this serenade:

First chorus:

Walter-er, Walter, lead me to the altar,

I'll make a better man of you.

Walter, Walter, buy the bricks and mortar,

And we’ll build a love nest for two.

My bottom drawer’s all packed and ready,

My bridal gown’s as good as new.

Walter, Walter, lead me to the altar.

And make all me nightmares come true!

Second chorus:

Walter, Walter, lead me to the altar,

I don’t cost much to keep in food.

Walter-er, Walter, mother says you oughta,

So take me while she’s in the mood.

You know I’m very fond of chickens.

We'll raise a lovely little brood.

Walter, Walter, lead me to the altar,

And I'll show you where I'm tattooed.

Third chorus:

Walter, Walter, lead me to the altar,

Don’t say I’ve met me Waterloo.

Walter, Walter, tears are tasting salter,

And I’ve lost me handkerchief too.

Don’t muck the goods about no longer,

My old age pension’s nearly due.

Walter, Walter, lead me to the altar,

It’s either the workhouse or you.

Sutton’s interpretation of the song was released on the budget Panachord label in November 1932, but it did not truly become popular until Gracie Fields sang it in the 1938 film We’re Going to be Rich. Her studio recording of it remains a classic. While the song’s creation may have had nothing to do with Walter’s reputation, it remains an intriguing possibility.

On 6 November 1934 Walter led a party of Australian singers in an entertainment for nearly 100 blind ex-servicemen at St. Dunstan’s, the Regents Park headquarters of the Blinded Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Care Committee. It was to form a fitting finale to his long, illustrious career.

Smith’s Weekly had confided to its readers that Walter was living in grand style in a flat in Bedford Square—an elegant Georgian garden enclave that housed many of the city’s artistic elite—and that he had found ‘an ultimate haven of calm in the retirement of English hostesses on a backwater of the Thames.’ Sadly, it was not to last.

Towards the end of November he suffered a heart seizure at his flat. Four doctors were called, nurses were in constant attendance, but pneumonia ensued. He died in St. Dunstan’s Nursing Home on 5 December 1934. He was 61. Smith’s Weekly told its readers: ‘The patient, resigned to the inevitable, met the end calmly. So died untimely one who, in the opinion of his staunchest friends, had been dealt with by fate not according to his deserts.’

After a Requiem Mass at St. Francis of Assisi Church, Notting Hill, Walter Joseph Regis Kirby was buried at St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Cemetery in Kensal Green.

On 9 February 1935 Smith’s Weekly published a follow-up piece:

‘Two months have passed since the death of Walter Kirby in London, yet the mails have brought letters that tell of the enduring devotion of his friends in Britain to the greatest of Australia’s lyric tenors.

‘Walter Kirby, most discussed of Australian singers, left the world guessing of how much money he possessed when he died. Some people, taking too literally his jocular remarks about ‘the poor artist’, were inclined to believe that he was perpetually on his uppers and were disposed either to patronise or to ignore him. Others went to the other extreme and credited him with miserliness and almost fabulous wealth. The truth probably lay between the two extremes.

‘Unappreciated, if not misunderstood, he responded to friendly gestures almost gratefully, and held his own as an entertainer. The key of his sideboard was outside the door of his three-guinea flat at the top of Collins Street—a signal to callers to go in and help themselves—and no tightwad ever took such a risk.

‘It was no secret that Walter had paid for the education of several young relatives who had not been favoured with the same opportunities as he had. He was ‘discovered’ by two ladies of quality in London—Lady Wantage and her aunt—who provided him with a sound training. When ultimately he returned to Australia in 1912 his reputation was made, and he was able to command good tuition fees and to refuse a performance at less than 25 guineas [$2600], except when he organised one of his numerous concerts for charity. It is denied that when he visited Australia on a concert trip from England many years ago, it was necessary for anyone to finance the tour; but he used to complain that in this profit-sharing venture the usher who showed patrons to their seats did better than he, his share amounting to only 18 shillings [$90] for four concerts. When the then Chief Justice of Victoria (the late Sir John Madden) heard of this he arranged another concert for Kirby, and the prestige attached to the sponsor resulted in a financial success, Walter of the golden voice receiving £200 [$20,000] this time.

‘Kirby, who had known poverty, having once worked in a country post office and later sold articles from door to door, put his later earnings into investments, some of which he used to say turned out badly. On the stage it was computed that his invested money totalled about £15,000 [$1,500,000] but it has been explained that this figure, which might have been his total during the depression, increased subsequently. Among his investments was money in tobacco, and in Kandos Cement.

‘The rumour that he allowed lady friends to pay for his afternoon tea parties is hotly denied by one of his closest friends, who used to meet him daily, while his hotel acquaintances could not complain that Walter’s throat dried up when it was his turn to “shout”. At any rate, he kept an eye on the future, and in conversations with the writer about three years ago, he had apparently acquired a modest competence, for he spoke of his desire to return to England and live quietly in retirement at Croydon. Instead of which the brighter lights of London lured him.

‘Idle curiosity is speculating on the terms of his will. It Is believed that he made one will 12 years ago, by which certain charities of his former benefactresses will derive advantage. But if these provisions existed, they may be discounted by one or more subsequent dispositions.

‘A woman who, by the rule of long association, might reasonably have expectations, declined to offer any surmise, and deprecated discussion with the remark, “Very soon we will all know.” But until that moment arrives there will be many who will continue to assess the worth of this remarkable man in strictly cash terms, and remain unsatisfied until Walter “cuts up” for probate purposes in cold, hard figures.’

The cold, hard figures, when they came, revealed a substantial personal estate totalling more than £19,000 [$1,896,000]—£15,893 [$1,586,000] in Victoria and £3138 [$313,123] in New South Wales. And they raised many questions.

In March 1935 the Union Trustee Company of Australia Ltd applied for probate on his will, which he had made in Melbourne on 8 November 1923. There were many carefully thought through bequests. Mount St. Evins Private Hospital in East Melbourne, the Little Sisters of the Poor, Northcote, and the St. Vincent de Paul’s Girls' Orphanage in South Melbourne were each to receive £100 [$10,000]; the Sisters of Mercy, Fitzroy, and the reverend mother of the Faithful Companions of Jesus Convent in Richmond were each to receive £150 [$15,000]; while Auckland’s Sacred Heart College and the Auckland Marist Brothers College would each receive £100 [$10,000] to establish an annual ‘Walter Kirby Prize for Singing’. Walter’s two treasured pictures of King Edward’s visit to Chatsworth were bequeathed to Xavier College in Melbourne and to the ‘Melbourne Art Gallery’, and his books to Xavier and the Marist Brothers College in Sydney. He stipulated that ‘my diamond rings, together with my silver cigar and cigarette case presented to me by Princess Christian and the fob presented to me by the King of Sweden to go to Miss E.J. Sheehan.’ It is believed that this refers to Estelle Sheehan, a Melbourne pianist who had accompanied Walter on several occasions. The rest of his personal effects were to go to his niece, Madge Kirby, in the Melbourne suburb of Hawthorn. This was the only provision for his family. The will’s most notable provisions were amounts of £1000 [$100,000] each to the Universities of Melbourne and Auckland to establish annual singing scholarships to be known as ‘The Walter Kirby Singing Scholarships’, and a stipulation that the residue of the estate—estimated to be around £14,000 [$1,398,000]—was to be divided equally among certain public hospitals and charities in Wantage a little Berkshire village which, at the time, was home to 4000 people. Its pride and joy was a statue commemorating the birth there of England’s first king, Alfred the Great, in 849 AD.

It appears that on refection Walter had decided that his much-loved nieces and nephews should be provided for. His plans were confirmed for Smith’s Weekly by several of his ‘most intimate Victorian friends’: ‘He told them he was very dissatisfied with his first will and intended to alter it in favour of his relations. He hated having anything to do with wills—considering them to be the “death warrant” of the testator—and so he continually kept putting off the task of altering the terms of his original testament.’

Eventually, in London in November 1932, Walter had drafted a codicil virtually negating the original will and, instead, stipulating that his nephews and nieces should have ‘an equal share each in the values of the estate, to be paid to them every half year from the profits of the said estate.’ The codicil was witnessed by two friends and sent to his solicitors in Melbourne.

Early in May 1933, on letterhead from the Pierpont Hotel, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, Walter wrote to his Melbourne niece, Madge: ‘I have been ill for many months, and I am afraid I will never be strong again. But don’t worry, I am leaving you and your sisters and [a cousin in Sydney] all I have left during your lifetime, and to go to charity at death.’ It was signed: ‘Your affectionate uncle, Walter’.

The codicil was sent to Melbourne, but because it was signed ‘Walter Kirby’ rather than ‘Walter Joseph Regis Kirby’, it was disallowed, and the original 1923 will was granted probate.

This was challenged by Walter’s brother, John Thomas Kirby, a volatile Melbourne jack-of-all-trades. He called for an investigation into the circumstances under which the original will was made. He claimed that the town of Wantage had only two small hospitals housing seven patients between them, and that the New Zealand university to which Walter had bequeathed money for a singing scholarship did not exist. He was partly right: Auckland University did not teach singing, but the donation prompted it to hastily establish a school of music. Melbourne University was said to be mystified about its bequest. A spokesperson for the University’s Conservatorium of Music said that as Kirby was a friend of the former director, Professor William Laver, he might have remembered the school for that reason.

There was similar uncertainty in London. On 2 May 1935 the Christchurch Star reported that the Matron of Wantage Hospital had said: ‘We should like to share in the money left by Walter Kirby, but I am afraid there has been some mistake. I cannot trace any Kirby treated here in the last thirty-two years except Walter Kirby, an aged farmer, who dislocated his shoulder in 1905. He had no connection with Australia.’

In London, a gentleman described as ‘a close friend’ told The Evening News, ‘I am surprised that Walter was so wealthy. He earned big money but spent it readily. It was a bigger surprise that he left the money to Wantage, which, so far as I know, he has never seen. And it is even more astonishing that Walter left the money to England, which he did not love. He considered that England had not appreciated him as well as Australia.’

On 29 April 1935 Brisbane’s Courier Mail brought news from London that Walter’s cousin, Mrs. McCourt, had said that he had left his money to Wantage, ‘because he repeatedly visited the town, and sang in the Roman Catholic Church there. Tragically enough, he caught the fatal chill there.’

Of course, it was not quite so simple. Eventually Walter’s connection with Wantage was explained by two of his Melbourne friends, Esmond Lawrence Kiernan, a Member of the Victorian Legislative Council, and Thorold Waters, his former housemate in London, and now music critic for the city’s Sun News Pictorial. They revealed that this was Walter’s way of showing his appreciation for the help and encouragement of his benefactress, Lady Wantage, who had died in 1920.

Thanks to the recordings that he had made in Sydney in 1927, Walter was heard occasionally on radio in the years following his death. After the Second World War many old traditions of music making—and of life itself—were swept away. As new generations of Australian singers came to the fore, Walter was all but forgotten. Though John Hetherington included snide references to him in his 1967 biography of Dame Nellie Melba, there was no mention of him in Barbara and Findlay’s seminal work Singers of Australia (1967), nor in Adrienne Simpson’s two books on New Zealand singers, Southern Voices (with Peter Downes, 1992) and Opera’s Farthest Frontier (1996). He is also missing from James Glennon’s Australian Music and Musicians (1968) and The Oxford Companion to Australian Music (1997). 

In recent years his four surviving recordings have been digitized, and they can now be heard via the internet and, as noted earlier, his recording of ‘Ben Bolt’ is included in the important 4-CD set From Melba to Sutherland: Australian Singers on Record.

Perhaps most significantly, Walter’s name lives on in the musical awards he provided for in his will. His old Auckland school, Sacred Heart College, still awards Walter Kirby prizes, but now they cover instrumental and group work as well as voice. Future rock icons Tim and Neil Finn were winners in 1971.

Over the years the prestigious Walter Kirby Singing Scholarships in Auckland and Melbourne have helped start the careers of innumerable aspiring young singers. ‘Receiving the Walter Kirby Singing Scholarship in 1951 gave me confidence and a sense of the continuity of musical training and, of course, access to the best teachers and vocal coaches,’ says distinguished Melbourne soprano Loris Synan OAM. Her subsequent career in Australia and Great Britain has included grand opera on stage and on television, oratorio, concerts, radio and recordings, culminating in a seven-year tenure as Head of the Voice Department at the Sir Zelman Cowen School of Music at Monash University.

A later recipient, soprano Miranda Rountree, has performed in concert, opera, operetta and musicals in Australia and overseas. She also studied piano, stagecraft and the role of modern technology in vocal performance. She is passing on her knowledge—and her enthusiasm—to new generations of aspiring youngsters through her Queensland-based chain of Rising Stars music studios.

An early pupil of Miranda’s was soprano Margaret Jarvis. Although her subsequent professional career was limited, she represents a unique link to Walter Kirby: her great-great-grandfather, Daniel David Kirby was Walter’s brother. She and a now vast network of Kirby family members respect and admire their forebear’s artistry and treasure his significant contribution to fine music in Australia, Great Britain and Ireland.

Walter Joseph Regis Kirby would have been delighted!

‘He the sweetest of musicians

Sang his songs of love and longing …

That the feast may be more joyous,

That the time may pass more gaily…

… Sang in accents sweet and tender,

Sang in tones of deep emotion,

Songs of love and songs of longing …’

Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor



Walter Kirby’s Melbourne relatives have recently identified his unmarked grave, and are hoping to arrange for an appropriate maker to be installed.


Listen to Walter Kirby singing ‘A Hundred Moonlit Miles’ (Columbia 0605)

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 of Victoria



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

Published in Profiles
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

Published in Profiles
Having returned home in 1910 after success abroad, the third instalment of FRANK VAN STRATEN’s biography of tenor Walter Kirby focuses on the years 1912 to 1926.

A position of genuine eminence

Walter continued to sing frequently for charity, but major professional engagements were elusive. His principal income was from teaching and from the countless social set ‘At Homes’ at which he entertained.

On 24 October 1912 he turned the tables and presented his very own ‘At Home’. It was spectacular. He staged it at the Grand Hotel (now the Windsor) in Spring Street and invited dozens of the city’s most celebrated citizens. Punch covered the event in detail: ‘The gifted tenor made an admirable host. He welcomed his guests in the wide corridor leading to the large reception room. This handsome room, made still more artistic with a number of rich foliaged palms and delicate pink roses, was soon crowded to overflowing, and many of the guests lingered in the corridor, listening to the program with intense enjoyment. It was a delightful program. Everyone was in good voice and the items were well selected. Mr. Kirby filled a dual role with marked success. He never sang better or with more effect; and he was an untiring host in seeing to the comfort of his guests. He was most enthusiastically encored for every number.’ Punch went on to detail the musical program and list dozens of guests, including ‘a party from Government House’. The report concluded: ‘Signor Di Gilio’s band played a charming program of music during the reception. Refreshing tea, coffee and wine cups and dainty refreshments were deftly served both in the reception room and in the corridor.’

In 1913 Walter sang for the first time in Tasmania. Promoted as ‘Australia’s Caruso’, he gave well-attended concerts in the Hobart Town Hall and at the Mechanics’ Institute in Launceston. From Tasmania Walter sailed to New Zealand. He spent seven months touring his homeland. He was well received, but The New Zealand Observer had reservations: ‘Time seems to hang very heavily upon the hands of Walter Kirby, the noted tenor. His foot is upon the native asphalt, but he sighs for the broader ways of imperial cities. He raises a few highly skilled notes now and then as he remembers his happy days of exile, but most times he looks sad and depressed, for the good people of Auckland cannot seem quite good enough to fondle the man who has sung to queens and been the darling of princes. He has threatened two or three times to go away back to Russia or Berlin or somewhere where they have some blue blood. Now that the Prince of Wales threatens to come to New Zealand, why can’t he wait?’

Walter’s final weeks in New Zealand coincided with the visit of the great American dramatic soprano Lillian Nordica, who was as renowned for her glorious voice as she was for her three failed marriages, her extravagant Parisian wardrobe, and her hearty commercial endorsement of a wide range of products including Coco-Cola and her own line of beauty preparations. As Walter told it, he was singing in his room at the Grand Hotel in Auckland when someone knocked on his door. It proved to be Madame Nordica, who expressed surprise at the quality of his voice and asked him to join her tour, replacing Canadian baritone Paul Dufault. In Melbourne in November 1913 they gave several enthusiastically received concerts at the Taits’ recently opened concert hall, the 2400-seat Auditorium in Collins Street. Tragically these were to mark the end of Nordica’s stellar career. On the way back to America, her ship, the steamer Tasman, was stranded on a coral reef for several days, and she suffered hypothermia. She was transferred to Batavia (now Jakarta) and died there of pneumonia in May 1914.

Walter’s 1914 diary was filled with innumerable charity concerts, engagements to sing at society ‘At Homes’ and wedding ceremonies, and regular appearances at the Taits’ Saturday ‘Pops’ concerts at the Auditorium. He sang at the gala opening of the Plaza Ballroom, an elaborate update of the well-worn 1887 Victoria roller-skating rink adjacent to South Yarra railway station. He sang, too, at the Austral Salon’s ‘Welcome Home’ to Dame Nellie Melba on 20 August, and organized a ‘Grand Patriotic Festival and Sacred Concert’ at the Princess Theatre on 30 August to raise funds for the Red Cross. War had been declared on 28 July, and this was the first of Walter’s countless contributions to the nation’s war effort. As well as Walter, the participants included baritone Frederic (real name Frederick) Collier and his wife, soprano Elsie Treweek, flautist John Amadio, and the ground-breaking Magpie Ladies’ Orchestra.

But perhaps the year’s highpoint came in New Zealand. Walter had briefly returned to his homeland for a series of recitals, but at the Wellington Town Hall on 18 September he took the tenor role in the Royal Wellington Choral Society’s concert presentation of Saint-Saëns’ Samson and Delilah—the opera’s New Zealand premiere. His Delilah was local contralto Mina Caldow who, like Walter, had studied and found success overseas. The performance was judged a triumph for the singers, but it seems the work was a little beyond the capabilities of the 250-strong orchestra and chorus.

Early in 1915 Walter revisited Tasmania, offering singing lessons as well as five concerts. During his stay he was frequently the guest of the state governor, Sir William Ellison-Macartney, and Lady Macartney. Both were keen musicians, and Her Ladyship accompanied Walter in many private recitals at government house. Also in attendance was Her Ladyship’s mother, Mrs. Hannah Scott. She presented Walter with several books detailing the adventures of her ill-fated son, the late Robert Falcon Scott, ‘Scott of the Antarctic’.

For Walter, most of 1915 was devoted to activities designed to support the war effort, and he developed an unusual way to raise money. Often unannounced, he would visit a popular restaurant or social gathering, and ‘auction’ performances of his most popular songs. Table Talk reported that on ‘Belgian Flag Day’, 26 March, he sang at the Oriental, Menzies and Savoy hotels, at the Café Francatelli and at the Vienna Café, his efforts raising a splendid £121 [$12,800].

On 11 August Walter joined soprano Amy Castles and flautist John Amadio in an outstanding concert at the Melbourne Town Hall to help the Australian Sick and Wounded Soldiers’ Fund. They were accompanied by an orchestra of 82 and a choir of more than 200. The Argus was impressed: ‘Very flattering attentions were paid to the gifted Australian, Mr. Walter Kirby, who has, by natural talent and arduous study, raised himself to a position of genuine eminence. As he has so often shown, Mr. Kirby proclaimed himself not merely a fine tenor, but (what is not always the case with tenors), a fine artist as well. In sheer beauty of tone his voice was a delight to hear, and similarly attractive were his technical finish and excellent feeling for atmosphere.’

 Walter’s activities were widely covered in the local press, but in New Zealand on 3 December 1915 the Wellington weekly Free Lance published this odd piece: ‘The matrimonial affairs of Melbourne’s principal tenor, Walter Kirby, occupy much attention—so a Melbourne correspondent writes. Mr. Kirby is not married, but it is said he may be soon. Rumour hath it that he is at present paying much attention to the daughter of a deceased doctor. The girl is musical, and very well dowered. Walter Kirby first lifted up his sweet tenor—probably it was not tenor in those days—in Auckland. As to the above the only thing surprising to The Free Lance is that Mr. Kirby has not taken the matrimonial plunge much sooner.’

For Walter, the highlight of 1916 was the visit of the Italian Gonzales Grand Opera Company. He was, of course, in the audience for its Australian debut at the Princess Theatre on 17 June, but behind the scenes he acted as a host, guide, advisor and translator for the company, few of whom had any knowledge of English. He became particularly close to the leading tenor, Bettino Cappelli, so close, in fact, that on the last night of the season, when Cappelli was not scheduled to sing, he insisted that Walter join him and the Italian consul in a decorated box, and to take a bow for himself. And, reported Punch, when the company departed for Sydney, ‘he found their throbbing gratitude almost too much to be borne. Seeing them off by train at Spencer Street, he was talking to Signor Cappelli through the open carriage window, when suddenly the departing Italian jumped up from his seat, exclaiming that “he must go out on to the platform for a minute”. He swept out in a whirl, rushed up to Mr. Kirby, and before our astonished tenor could defend himself, kissed him resoundingly on each cheek, a fervent expression of “a little gratitude for his many kindnesses”. Mr. Kirby blushed purple with embarrassment.’

The Gonzales company returned to Melbourne for a second season in 1917. In June, Walter was one of the guests of honour when Cappelli’s four-day-old son was baptized Melbourne Vittorio Carlo Cappelli in St Patrick’s Cathedral. Walter also spearheaded a series of remarkably successful Saturday evening concerts at the 1700-seat Lyric Theatre on St Kilda Esplanade. In more recent years the Lyric was transformed into the now demolished Earls Court dance palais.

For his January 1917 concerts in Hobart, Walter was accompanied by a brilliant 31-year-old Melbourne pianist, Doris Madden. A niece of Sir John Madden, she had been Melba’s accompanist on her 1914 Australian tour. From 1939 she enjoyed a successful career in the United States as a soloist, teacher and music columnist for The New York Times. She died in 1976.

As we have already seen, the New Zealand press often had news of Walter that did not appear in the local papers. On 15 February 1918, for instance, the following intriguing item appeared in The Free Lance: ‘From the Victorian capital comes a little narrative of a silvery-voiced tenor whose reputation clings to the concert platform, the Melbourne “Block” and vice-regal drawing-rooms. He is reported recently to have had an offer to appear on the music-hall stage, but, as the descent from social engagements and a certain standing involved some sacrifice, the offer was rejected. The remuneration offered, it is said, was quite attractive from a lay point of view. Can it be that the silvery-voiced one referred to is our own Walter Kirby?’

Walter celebrated the last day of the war, 11 November 1918, in the Edmonton Private Hospital in Brisbane. His health had not been good, and his holiday trip north ended with a severe bout of pneumonia. He was well enough to return to Melbourne to attend, via a window in the nearby Grand Hotel, the State Memorial Service on the steps of Parliament House on 17 November.

The next few months were difficult for Walter. The Spanish flu pandemic meant social events and charity concerts were fewer, and paid appearances were scarce. Perhaps in desperation he announced that he would give a ‘Farewell Recital’ in the Princess Theatre on 26 November 1919—though there was no indication of where or when he intended to go. He was treated to a packed house and the patronage of the Governor-General of Australia. According to Table Talk: ‘After his recital Mr. Kirby entertained some friends at supper at the Grand Hotel, where they spent the remainder of the evening dancing the jazz. Among those who accepted invitations were Sir David and Lady Hennessy, Sir Robert and Lady Best, Mr. and Mrs. Harry Emmerton, Senator and Mrs. Keating, Miss Verah Madden and Dr Harold Smith, plus Mr. John O'Hara and Miss Diana Wilson [stars of the play Lightnin’ then at the Theatre Royal].’ Just over a year later, on 4 December 1920, Walter gave a second ‘Farewell’ recital in the Melbourne Town Hall.

Princess 1921Advertisement for the Good Friday Concert at the Princess Theatre, 25 March 1921. From The Herald, 19 March 1921, p.6.Before this, though, on 13 May 1920, he sang before a gathering of 10,000 at the Exhibition Building. The occasion was another farewell, this time to Archbishop Mannix, who was about to depart for a visit to Rome. Walter’s fellow artists were soprano Maggie Sherlock, contralto Ella Caspers and baritone Ambrose McMahon, backed by the 1000-strong Christian Brothers’ Boys’ Choir and several bands. The Age noted that: ’the hall was decorated with 100 red and green electric lights picking out a huge cross and a shamrock, and Sinn Fein flags were everywhere.

In April 1921 Walter paid a rare visit to Sydney to sing at the Town Hall in a major St Patrick’s Day concert. The reviews were ecstatic. Said the arts journal The Triad: ‘To many people in this state Walter Kirby is but a name; others of us have not even heard of him. But to lovers of vocalism in Italy, Ireland and England, Mr. Kirby is well known as a tenor who has the three essential qualities of a real singer—the voice, the right method, and the gift of interpretation.’ The journal’s reviewer helpfully hinted that the city should import a comparable talent, ‘because, generally speaking, our tenors are a wretched lot.’

Early in 1922, when Walter returned to Sydney for a holiday, Truth similarly extolled him in a column headed ‘The Doings of Mr. Kirby’: ‘This heading is likely to mislead Truth readers; but it had better stand. It is not so much what Mr. Walter Kirby does as what he does not do that concerns us. Mr. Kirby is said to be in Sydney; in fact, to have been in Sydney for some time. This should mean more than it does, for Mr. Kirby is the only really fine tenor singer in Australia. He has a voice, a style, and a repertory of music of sufficiently high grade to make him a distinguished singer in any company or in any quarter. Yet we never hear him. Nor is he heard in Melbourne, his place of residence, except on rare occasions. Certainly, the frequent appearances of an artist so well-graced vocally would be of immense advantage to many of our students, who rarely hear a good tenor voice and a good singing method combined in a local singer. Those who know Mr. Kirby and admit the excellence of his singing are sometimes disposed to be hyper-critical of this fine artist. Mr. Kirby certainly has some eccentricities of deportment and even some affectations of manner which have become second nature to him. But these offend only the dull and conventional-minded. To the more tolerant, they serve only to make of Mr. Kirby a picturesque figure in our art life as well as an extremely well-equipped singer. The Melbourne tenor sets a high value on his art and talents and is right in so doing. His fees are high; he is not at the beck and call of every bounding patroness of our “charity” shows. He knows, as we know, that a voice like his and a beautiful Italian singing style such as he commands are qualifications rarely met with in this part of the world. And so, when is Mr. Kirby going to be heard in Sydney?’

Walter took the hint. Towards the end of the year he announced that he would be giving concerts in Sydney and Brisbane. Brisbane came first. His two concerts at Her Majesty’s Theatre were received rapturously, but what was described as a ‘slight operation’ meant that the Sydney concerts were postponed.

The rapidly increasing popularity of movies was reflected in the use of Melbourne’s main concert venue, the Auditorium in Collins Street, for film screenings—it was later recycled as the Metro, then the Mayfair—and the building of smart new suburban cinemas. In 1921 Walter had sung at the gala openings of two of them, the Rivoli in Camberwell and the Rialto in Kew, as well as at the Victory in Malvern and at the Palais in St Kilda. Another unusual venue was the Tivoli Theatre in Bourke Street, Melbourne’s most popular vaudeville house. There, on Sunday 23 October 1921, he presented a ‘Grand Festival of Sacred Song’. The state Governor and Lady Stradbroke and the Lord and Lady Mayoress were in the audience. The well-attended event raised £220 [$18,050] for Lady Stradbroke’s Hospital Day Appeal for the Sick and Homeless.

In 1923 Walter did two things that were then considered quite revolutionary. Firstly, during his season in Brisbane, he participated in an Australia-wide radio broadcast. Fully professional radio would not start until November, but around the country there were many enthusiastic amateur broadcasters paving the way. One of the most prominent was a Brisbane radiologist, Dr. Val McDowall, who had set up his 4CM studio and transmitter at what was then one of the city’s tallest buildings, eight-storey Preston House in Queen Street. On 1 October the Brisbane Daily Mail enthused about the previous night’s broadcast of a studio concert: ‘The bright particular star of the occasion was Walter Kirby who, in an adventurous spirit, had cast aside all preconceived ideas respecting radio, and consented to lift up his voice in that glorious song for which he is justly famed. He was almost lamb-like in his readiness to sing into the quaint contraption—an instrument resembling the old-fashioned type of telephone—that was held before his face. With what effortless ease he produced the liquid notes! Voice and artistry combined to produce an effect which it was an unalloyed pleasure to hear at 4CM’—albeit via earphones and a cat’s whisker. Thus Walter became the first artist of any stature to broadcast in Australia. Interestingly, a little over two years earlier, Dame Nellie Melba had pioneered broadcasting in Britain by singing for an experimental broadcast—but she got £1000 [$82,000] for her trouble.

Walter’s second surprise was his appointment of a woman to manage his concert appearances and publicity. Though The Herald said that Kathleen Malone was ‘following a new occupation for women’, Miss Malone was already experienced in concert presentation, and a familiar figure at first nights and social gatherings. Her first assignment for Walter was to organize further concerts for him in Brisbane and—at last—in Sydney. These were successful, but his return to Melbourne was not.

Kathleen Malone had announced that Walter would give three concerts in the Melbourne Town Hall. The first went reasonably well, but the second, on 25 October 1923, was a disaster. The Herald said that barely 200 people were in the body of the hall, mostly occupying the cheaper seats at the back; there were fewer than a dozen in the gallery. At the end of the concert Walter thanked the audience then launched into a bitter tirade: ‘One goes to Europe for years of training to make a name and to make oneself worthy of one’s hires, but because one is an Australian, one is not appreciated. Had I come back with a Russian or an Italian name, this place would have been packed tonight. I can assure you that this series of concerts is the last I shall give in Melbourne for many years. I thank you.’

Walter began 1924 with a series of concerts in Sydney and in several Tasmanian centres. He was back in Melbourne for the brilliant debut of the second Melba-Williamson Grand Opera Company on 29 March in the lavishly redecorated and renamed His Majesty’s Theatre. Table Talk described it as, ‘What in London used to be known as a diamond night—truly a most brilliant sight. Everywhere the eye glanced a sea of faces of beautifully dressed women—everywhere, for the gallery was but a second dress circle in effect—and diamonds lending their gleams enhanced the effect. Many men wore their decorations, which tell so much—also women who had distinguished themselves.’

Walter made sure he was in the audience for the gala first performance of every new opera in the season. He was keen to assess the success of Alfred O’Shea, a 35-year-old Sydney tenor of Irish heritage, who was cast in several major tenor roles, most notably as Rodolpho opposite Melba’s Mimi in La Bohème.

Around this time Walter moved from his rooms at 32 Collins Street to number 5, almost opposite. These were at the Spring Street or ‘top end’ of the gracious street, and a haunt of the city’s artistic community. Many of the era’s great painters had studios at number 9. It was a short stroll to the Austral Salon and the Auditorium, and a jaunty cable car ride to the fashionable heart of Collins Street, ‘The Block’ where, at Allan’s music store, Walter taught his pupils. He was a familiar figure at Allan’s. In his book The Music Sellers, Peter Game quotes Allan’s secretarial stalwart Rai Feil: ‘He was a “difficult” personality and often very irritable and petulant. He liked to get a new song before anyone else in Melbourne had sung it. When he was ready for [us] to hear it, he would come in, kneel down, close his eyes, and sway around a bit. Gravity was a bit hard to come by on those occasions, but when he sang the voice had the quality of the angels.’

Australia’s first professional radio stations, 2SB and 2FC had begun broadcasting in Sydney towards the end of 1923. Walter made a quick trip to Sydney to sing on 2FC on 8 May 1924. ‘Live’ broadcasts were a frequent feature of early programming, and Melbourne’s 3LO—founded by a consortium including theatrical entrepreneurs J.C. Williamson and J. & N. Tait—was launched on 13 October 1924 with a ‘live’ broadcast from Her Majesty’s Theatre of Melba in a charity performance of La Bohème. Walter made his Melbourne radio debut on 24 April 1925 when he was the soloist in a concert at the Auditorium by the Victorian Postal Institute Choir, which was transmitted ‘live’ by 3LO. He made a few more appearances on 3LO but, though ‘the wireless’ had the potential to provide him with a useful extra source of income, he was reluctant to embrace the new medium. In February 1928 he told an interviewer that he had ‘the gravest apprehensions as to the effect of wireless on musical art’, and in August Wireless Weekly announced that ‘he would not be broadcast for any money’.

Though the demand for Walter’s participation in ‘At Homes’ and other social events began to dwindle, he was kept busy with innumerable concerts supporting a wide range of charitable causes—many of which he organized himself. Particularly affecting was a concert at Mont Park Mental Asylum on 15 May 1925 to raise the spirits of 1000 mentally affected soldiers. The Argus reported that ‘cigarettes, sweets and fruit were distributed, and the artists were conveyed to the hospital in cars provided by Sidney Myer’. On 15 December 1925 Walter sang at a benefit for the City Newsboys’ Society at the Palace Theatre, and a few days later at the Royal Victorian Institute for the Blind’s Christmas Concert at Ormond Hall, St Kilda Road.

Walter was invited to appear in several unusual theatrical galas, such as a tribute to the much-loved veteran actress Maggie Moore at His Majesty’s on 13 October 1925, and a fund-raiser at the Princess on 13 July 1926 to help the indefatigable Shakespearean actor and producer Allan Wilkie, who had lost his entire stock of scenery, props and costumes in a fire at Geelong.

Walter continued to teach and coach aspiring and—occasionally—professional singers. Entrepreneurial giant J.C. Williamson Ltd engaged him to help musical comedy favourite Dorothy Brunton prepare for her role as a nervous operatic soprano in the play The Climax. ‘She took her voice to Walter Kirby,’ said Table Talk, ‘and had it shingled and manicured, with a permanent wave thrown in.’ ‘The Firm’ employed him to coach Robert Chisholm, Marie Burke and Warde Morgan of the Katja company, and Harriet Bennet and Reginald Dandy, the stars of Rose-Marie. So successful was Walter’s teaching that in 1926 a Madame Marion Rowse was advertising in The Argus, offering voice production lessons at her home at 4 Coppin Grove, Hawthorn, using ‘the Walter Kirby Method’.

In December 1926 Walter headed north. After a concert with the Newcastle Symphony Orchestra in Central Hall and a Christmas concert in the city’s Theatre Royal, he went on to Sydney to prepare for yet another new adventure: recording.


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

Published in Profiles
Monday, 01 May 2017

KIRBY, Walter (1877-1934)

New Zealand operatic vocalist (tenor). Né Walter Joseph Regis Kirby. Born 1877, Auckland, New Zealand. Died 5 December 1934, London, England.

Noted concert performer in Australia and England. Trained under Pietro Cecchi. Left sizable estate and numerous bequests to charity.

Riley/Hailes Scrapbook, page 279.

Published in Biographies