Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Theatrical Lillies

Among the notes left by my father, John Blackwell, on the family history research he did in the 1980s, I was surprised to find photocopied pages from Who Was Who In The Theatre 1912-1976 (Gale Research, 1978). I didn’t remember ever hearing about a theatrical connection in the family. I thought the Lillies were strictly medical and seafaring types, the Blackwells businessmen. Two entries are circled: Chudleigh, Arthur (Lillies) and Lillies, Leonard. In the margin by the Leonard Lillies entry, my father has scribbled in pencil, “JHB’s great uncle.”

Leonard and Arthur, who took Chudleigh, his home town, as a nom de théatre (he was an actor first, a manager later), were the younger sons of George William and Charlotte Lillies, great great grandparents to baby-boom Blackwells and Breens. Their eldest son, Herbert, a physician, emigrated to Australia, where the Lillies and Blackwell lines intersected.

The younger Lillies sons had extensive careers in the late Victorian and Edwardian London theatre. Arthur, the more flamboyant and theatrical, studied medicine first, but either it didn’t suit him or he failed at it. His first appearance as a West End actor, at the Globe, came in 1883, when he was 25. He played Gilbert in The Flowers of the Forest, a long-forgotten 1847 play by the equally long-forgotten John Baldwin Buckstone.

It must have been a bit part. Extant reviews don’t mention him – not such a terrible thing as they were mostly unkind. According to one paper, “had it been written in the present day its anachronism, its lack of realism, and its inflated dialogue would scarcely have survived the ordeal of a first night.” The Scotsman’s reviewer described the experience this way: “…for the first quarter of an hour the audience smiles at the absurdities of the old-fashioned piece, and during the rest of the evening is profoundly bored.”

Arthur Chudleigh Lillies in later life, by Harry Furniss (National Portrait Gallery)

Arthur’s biography in Who Was Who In The Theatre mentions one other part played in 1883, but it appears he was not destined for a brilliant acting career. By 1888 – the year of Jack the Ripper – he had remade himself as a theatre manager. He was joint proprietor of the Court Theatre at Sloane Square, with Mrs. John Wood, an actress and manager who was born Matilda Charlotte Vining and had acted on Broadway as well as the West End. The Court survives today, in a 1950s reincarnation, as the Royal Court Theatre.

The new Court Theatre, opened 1888, the year Arthur Chudleigh took over as manager (courtesy of

Mrs. John Wood, Arthur Chudleigh's co-proprietor at the Court Theatre

Arthur went on from the Court to manage the Comedy Theatre on Panton Street. The theatre was declared a heritage site in 1972 and then renamed The Harold Pinter Theatre in 2011. Among the successful Comedy Theatre productions under Arthur’s management was the 1906 première of Raffles, a play based on E.W. Hornung’s stories about the roguish AJ Raffles. Gerald du Maurier, father of author Daphne du Maurier, played the title character for the 351-performance run. 

The Comedy Theatre (aka Royal Comedy Theatre)

Still from one of great great Uncle Arthur's most successful productions

Costumes for Raffles production at Comedy Theatre, 1906

According to Who Was Who, Arthur’s preferred recreation was “motoring,” his address, “Garrick Club, Garrick Street W.C.2.” The 1978 volume was compiled from various editions of Who’s Who In The Theatre.  It’s not clear in which year the Lillies biographies were written, but certainly pre-1920. The editors have  updated the original, adding a note that Arthur died on February 5, 1932, aged 73.

Leonard, the younger of the two theatrical Lillies, appears to have been more involved on the business side and rode on his brother’s coat tails. His biography says he was “previously engaged in the insurance business” but “has always been associated with his brother’s theatrical enterprises.” He was business manager at the Court, later at the Criterion and, from 1905 to the date of publication of the original biography, at the Comedy. He died August 2, 1923, aged 63.

A footnote to this theatrical episode in the family’s history. Anyone who knew my father would agree there was often something bombastic and theatrical about him – he loved to declaim. But we did not know, or I did not know, that he actually trod the boards himself, albeit while at school. Check out the cast picture from a 1938 production of A Safety Match, put on by the Dramatic Society of Melbourne Grammar School. It’s posted as part of an historical archive at the school’s website. John is in the front row, standing, ninth from left. You might have to click on the picture to enlarge it before you'll be able to see him in all his theatrical glory.

Melbourne Grammar School Dramatic Society cast photo for production of A Safety Match (1938)

My old man the drag queen!

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Lillies of Armadale

Herbert and Charlotte Lillies settled into what must have been a comfortable existence in Melbourne. Armadale, where they lived and he practiced medicine, was then as now an affluent suburb, not far from Port Phillip Bay, but away from the hurly-burly of the city centre and port.

His first surgery was likely on Sutherland Road. Herbert is listed as practicing there as a surgeon/physician” in Victoria And Its Metropolis, Past And Present (1888), an encyclopedia published to mark the centennary of European settlement in Australia. 

By 1904, according to the Cyclopedia of Victoria, his practice had moved to "Longcroft," High St., then Armadale’s main drag and still a principal commercial thoroughfare. A 1903 electoral list gives his residence address as 878 High St. It's a safe assumption the property was both surgery and home. A card catalogue entry held at the Stonington History Centre indicates that Herbert had it built for him in 1888.

The house at that address today, just visible behind high hedges and trees in Google Street View, certainly looks big enough to have accommodated both clinic and family. It’s the right vintage too: a Victorian pile. It likely wasn't far from his first surgery. Sutherland intersects High St. less than a block away. 

878 High St., Armadale today

Herbert's rise to upper middle class ease and prominence was remarkably rapid. Little more than a year after arriving, in 1886, he landed a probably lucrative position as “honorary physician,” treating outpatients at the Alfred Hospital. The Alfred, a relatively new facility (opened in 1870), was less than four kilometres down the High street. And then two years later, he could afford to build an opulent new home and surgery.

He and Charlotte were quick off the mark in another department as well. George Leonard was born in 1885, Herbert Esmond (who would carry on the family medical tradition) in 1888, Charlotte Madge in 1890, and the baby, Vera Isobel Marion, grandmother to baby-boom Blackwells and Breens, in 1891. (A handwritten family tree found among my father John Henry Blackwell’s papers identifies his grandfather Lillies’ four children as “Mum,” “A[unt] Meg” (presumably Charlotte Madge), “U[ncle] Len” and “U[ncle] Es.”)

Not everything went swimmingly for the good doctor in those early years in Melbourne. On February 9, 1887, less than two years after arriving, he suffered, according to The Australasian Medical Gazette, “a very serious accident.”

“While…riding on horseback along High-street, Prahran, and passing the Orrong Hotel, the animal [that Dr. Lillies] was riding shied and threw him under the wheels of a heavily laden dray, which passed over him. He was removed as quickly as possible to the Alfred Hospital… On being examined, Dr. Lillies was found to have sustained serious injuries, his right thigh and arm having been fractured, and suffering from severe shock.”

Prahran was then a separate city, of which Armadale was part. (Prahran, pronounced ‘Pran’ apparently, is now part of the newly created municipality of Stonington – it’s confusing.) The Orrong Hotel was on the section of High St. that passed through Armadale, only a few blocks from the Lillies residence in fact. The picture above, from 1910 (courtesy of the Stonington History Centre), shows a view of the street, including the hotel as it presumably was in 1908. (It was rebuilt as an art deco palace in the 1930s and survives today.) A dray? A heavy wagon used for haulage.

Then in 1900, another blow, Herbert had to give up his position at the Alfred. The Thirtieth Annual Report of The Alfred Hospital For the Year 1900, notes that Dr. Lillies applied for a leave of absence “owing to [his] leaving the colony.” He clearly planned to return, but because he would not be back in time for the renewal or reassignment of “honorary physician” appointments, he ended up resigning.

We don’t know why Herbert left Melbourne in 1900, but it’s a good bet he went home to England to help wind up his father’s affairs. George William had died in Fulham (London) in late 1899 at age 76.  

Herbert did come back to Melbourne, and eventually reached the top of his profession. By 1908, we find him treating the patrician state governor, Thomas Gibson-Carmichael, 1st Baron Carmichael. The Argus reported on October 1 that “His Excellency the Governor is still confined to his bed, and a consultation was held yesterday morning by Dr. Stawell and Dr. Herbert Lillies, who stated that His Excellency was suffering from acute influenza with extensive bronchitis, and ordered complete bed rest for the next two or three weeks.”

Almost from the start, the Lillies were active socially. The picture below shows Charlotte (second from left, sitting) in her role as an "associate" at the Royal Melbourne Golf Club at Caulfield in 1892. A lady golfer. Did the doctor also play, I wonder?

In later years, Herbert and/or “Mrs. Lillies” were mentioned from time to time in The Argus in connection with social and charity events. But it was a different Mrs. Lillies by the late teens. We don’t know when Charlotte died, but in 1917, Herbert married again, to Violet Thornley, daughter of the late Nathan Thornley, a long-time member of the state Parliament of Victoria. High society indeed.

The wedding “was quietly celebrated,” The Argus reported, on August 15, at St. John’s Church of England on Latrobe St. in Melbourne. “The bride, who was given away by her brother, Mr. Geoffrey Thornley, wore a chic tailored coat and skirt of cream cloth, and a hat in the same tone. An Early Victorian posy of violets and daphne were carried.” The bride’s sister stood up with her. No mention of Herbert’s grown children being in the wedding party.

P&O company postcard for S.S. Narkunda

Herbert was by then 60. His bride was 20 years his junior. We know this from the last mention of Herbert we can find in the official record. On April 27, 1927, he and Violet arrived in London from Sydney on the P&O ship S.S. Narkunda. Under “Profession, Occupation or Calling” in the ship’s passenger manifest, he is listed as a “medical practitioner,” she simply as married.” Herbert was 69, Violet 49. They travelled first class, of course.

Music lounge on S.S. Narkunda

Why did they travel to England? We don’t know. It’s not clear either if Herbert ever made it back to Australia. I can find no mention of him there any later than this. Perhaps he died in England, although searches in the usual places do not yield a death record. Perhaps he was going there for medical care he couldn’t get in Australia, or because he knew he was dying and wanted to see the old sod one more time.

We do hear of Violet again. She evidently returned to Australia. She continues to show up in The Argus as a society lady and then, a little surprisingly, we have a record of her visiting the United States on the eve of the second war at age 60. On April 5, 1938, a Violet Lillies from Toorak, Victoria (near Armadale), a widow, arrived in San Francisco on the Empress of Britain. It must be her.

But Violet is not really our concern. She wasn’t even a blood relative, just a mildly interesting footnote. The important thing in all this is that Vera Isobel Marion, whose third given name survives in my sister Pat’s name (Patricia Frances Marion), has made her entry on life's stage. 

It’s almost time to flip over to the Blackwell side and bring Vera and Matthew together, but before we leave the Lillies, we’ll take a quick detour and meet some theatrical great great uncles. Next post. 

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Herbert Down Under

Why did our great grandfather Herbert Lillies emigrate to Australia in 1885? Why did anyone? (No offence, Australia.)

The 1880s were a time of relative prosperity in most of the western world, including England. Herbert was a well-qualified professional with every prospect, one would think, of being able to earn a good living at home. And he was the first born in his family, principal heir to his doctor father’s estate.

It’s hard to see how the impetus could have been economic or employment related. So what was it? An itch to see the world? A craving for adventure? Wanting to get out from under the old man’s thumb?

We do know a little of Herbert’s early career in England and his departure for Australia. A potted biography in the Cyclopedia ofVictoria [Australia] for 1904 mentions his time at Honiton Grammar School (see previous post), and says he started his medical training at St. Bartholomew's Hospital, London. He finished the four-year program there, earning his MRCS (Member Royal College of Surgeons) accreditation, in 1879.

Herbert, like George William before him, had started his medical career at a very young age by modern standards. Born in 1857, he could have been no older than 18, and possibly still only 17, when he entered St. Bartholomew’s.

He served two 12-month residencies, first at the Tiverton (Devon) Infirmary, then at the Devon and Exeter Hospital. In 1882, he received his LRCS (License, Royal College of Physicians) credentials – nominally from  Edinburgh Univiversity, although there is no indication he actually attended classes in Edinburgh. And there he was, at 24, a full-fledged doctor.

“After assisting his father for about a year,” the Cyclopedia of Victoria tells us, “Dr. Lillies came out to Victoria in 1884, and in February of the following year settled down in his present practice at Armadale [a Melbourne suburb]. The doctor married, in 1884, Charlotte, daughter of the late H.N. Abbot, Esq., of Torquay, England.”

How Oedipal – his Mum was Charlotte too. The marriage was registered in July 1884 in Newton Abbot, Devon, equidistant from Chudleigh (his home town) and Torquay (where her family lived), all within a ten mile radius, and not much further from the Lillies ancestral home of Kenton. Five months later, though, they were on a ship bound for the other side of the world.

Herbert may, like his father and grandfather, have gone to sea as a medical man and made that first trip to Australia in 1884 as a member of the crew of an immigrant ship. Or he might have gone out expressly to see if Victoria was a place he and Charlotte could make a life. We know in any case that when they finally emigrated, Herbert served as medical officer on the ship that took them, the S.S. Nurjahan. 

The Argus (Melbourne) for Monday, January 25, 1885, in its “Shipping Intelligence” column, makes brief note of the Nurjahan’s arrival on the 24th, and lists “Dr. Herbert Lillies and Mrs. Lillies” among the first class passengers. The ship had left London on November 26, 1884 and sailed via Plymouth, Teneriffe (Canary Islands), Cape Town (South Africa) and Hobart (Tasmania).

The bulk of the passengers had apparently been dropped off in Tasmania. A more detailed story on the same page explains that, “the Nurjahan was selected by the agent of the Tasmanian Government in London for the conveyance of immigrants to Hobart.” Government assisted immigration was still part of Australia's settlement pattern. The article goes on to add that, “the medical officer of the Nurjahan is Dr. Herbert Lillies, who has come out with a view of settling in Victoria.”

The Nurjahan, launched in 1884, was a new class of immigrant ship, with more room below decks for steerage passengers, who in the past had often been crammed in in unhealthy conditions for weeks on end. The Argus article, sometimes sounding as if it was written by publicists for the steamship company, noted that the Nurjahan was chosen by the Tasmanian government because of “her special fitness for the work. The ‘tweendecks of the steamers are unusually lofty and the system of ventilation is perfect. This was proved to a demonstration on the way out.”

S.S. Nurjahan
An article in the “Shipping News” in The Mercury (Hobart) a few days earlier had been similarly glowing. It noted that the ‘tween decks were eight and a half feet high. “In no other immigrant ship that has visited Tasmania has so much space been afforded below the ‘tween decks.” The article goes on to say that “the captain and his officers did their utmost to promote the comfort and enjoyment of the immigrants and passengers, and their efforts in this respect met with due appreciation.” 

Why all the puffery?

Perhaps the state governments and/or the steamship company hoped readers would write to their friends and relatives back in the old country and tell them the good things they’d heard about the Nurjahan and other new immigrant ships like it. Nothing easier than to offer the shipping reporter a few drinks, maybe a meal from the first-class kitchen, and fill his ear with ready-made copy.

The company, the Asiatic Steam Navigation Company, didn’t have many years to profit from the Nurjahan. It was wrecked on November 21, 1890, near Cape Comorin on a voyage from Bombay to Calcutta.

Herbert and Charlotte were, according to The Argus, booked through to Sydney on the Nurjahan on that inaugural voyage – probably to fulfill the terms of his contract with Asiatic. They must have made their way back to Melbourne directly, though, because by the next month, according to The Cyclopedia of Victoria, he was open for business in Armadale.

Did Herbert find a practice to buy there when he came out the first time, or did he simply hang out his shingle once they’d settled? Probably the latter. Armadale was a fairly new community. The train station opened in 1879, according to Australian Places: A Gazetteer of Australian Cities, Towns and Suburbs. The coming of the train created the first commercial district around the station. Before that, it had apparently been just a residential suburb. The first state primary school and post office had opened the year before.

The Australian Handbook, 1893, described Armadale this way: “It is 141 feet above the sea-level, and prettily situated; the streets are wide and well-laid out, with trees planted in most of the leading thoroughfares, the views from some points are enchanting, and it is one of the favourite resorts of wealthy Melbourne men, and a great number of fine mansions and villa residences [are] in the locality.” Sounds like a good place to open a medical practice.

Herbert must have made a good first impression in the local medical community, or perhaps his father’s reputation opened doors for him. Less than a year after arriving, he was in the running for the position of “honorary physician for outpatients” at The Alfred Hospital, a few kilometers from his practice in Armadale. “There were eight candidates for the vacant position,” The Argus reported. “Dr. Herbert Lillies was elected.”

The Alfred Hospital, Melbourne

He had arrived.