Untold lives blog

120 posts categorized "Leisure"

01 October 2020

‘Can you sign this for me?’ Collecting the autographs of famous 17th century figures

As part of our major digitisation programme, Heritage Made Digital, the British Library have recently digitised and made available a collection of our world-class Tudor and Stuart manuscripts.  For an introduction to this valuable resource, see our blog post Heritage Made Digital: Tudor and Stuart manuscripts go online.  To view these manuscripts, visit our Digitised Manuscripts webpage.

 
There are many treasures in among these new digital acquisitions, but in particular we would like to introduce two curious albums full of signatures.  Their shelfmarks are Add MS 15736 and Add MS 17083.  These manuscripts may not appear at first to be the most illuminating of manuscripts as their pages contain sparse annotations rather than full, descriptive text.  They serve a completely different purpose to those manuscript formats that we are accustomed to, those of letters, diaries, transcripts, drafts and official accounts, but regardless, they offer a fascinating insight into 17th century society, fame and friendship.

Cover  of friendship album or ‘stammbuch’ of George Andrew- red leather with gold fleur de lys decorations Folio showing owner of friendship book was George Andrew
Friendship album or ‘stammbuch’ of George Andrew - Add MS 15736, front and f.1. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

This is the friendship album or ‘stammbuch’ of George Andrew.  In this book, George Andrew collected the autographs and drawings of the arms of well-known individuals during the years 1612 – 1623.  These autographs were principally collected at Strasbourg and Stier.   Autograph albums such as this one emerged in the German and Dutch linguistic regions and were used by students as a form of memorabilia and a way of recording contacts one had made.  Their initial purpose was decidedly sentimental and they would function in a similar way to the high school yearbook does today.  However, the tradition of collecting signatures grew in popularity and moved out from the immediate vicinity of early modern universities into wider life.  People would carry them on their person during their travels and during their academic life, using them to record dedications from friends, but likewise as a compendium of significant contacts.
 

George Andrew’s book contains some very famous signatures which he would have been proud to hold and show off to his friends.

Autograph of Charles, Prince of Wales)  Autograph of Elizabeth, Queen of Bohemia.
Add MS 15736, ff.4-5. The autographs of Charles I (then Prince of Wales) and Elizabeth, Queen of Bohemia. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

These manuscripts can show us who was of importance in the 17th century. Aside from the autographs of princes, kings and queens that these books contain, there are also many bishops, scholars and other members of the aristocracy.

The tradition of collecting autographs and dedications also involved collecting visual representations of significant figures.  The friendship album of Sir Thomas Cuming (Add MS 17083) includes a large number of coats of arms that have been painted onto the pages.  These beautiful and delicate paintings would often have been commissioned by the new acquaintance by an artist on their behalf.   One can see how these volumes full of tens of careful paintings would have become quite precious items to their owners.

The Arms of Frederick V,  Elector Palatine of the Rhine  Coat of arms of George William Margrave.
Add MS 17083, f.3v. The Arms of Frederick V, Elector Palatine of the Rhine and f.7v. coat of arms of George William Margrave. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

These volumes are also illustrative of a particular power structure in place in the 17th century.  The volumes belonged to men because these were part of the traditions of the university arena to which women were not admitted.  They were supposed to present an image of their owners as well-known, connected and cosmopolitan men.  The signatures in these books shows us a network of powerful individuals as only the privileged would have been able to write in this era.  The books are a who’s who of 17th century Europe, an index of the influential, and an equivalent contemporary autograph collection like this would be hard to come by.

Jessica Gregory
Curatorial Support Officer, Modern Archives and Manuscripts

 

31 August 2020

Music hall entertainment for Bank Holiday Monday

In August 1882 the New Star Music Hall in Liverpool advertised a varied bill for Bank Holiday Monday – magic, singing, comedy, dancing, opera.  The venue sought to attract customers not only through the quality of performers booked but also by its claim to be the coolest and best ventilated hall in England.

Bank Holiday Monday programme for the New Star Music Hall in Liverpool August 1882

Bank Holiday Monday programme for the New Star Music Hall in Liverpool - Caernarvon and Denbigh Herald 5 August 1882. British Newspaper Archive

The acts for the evening of 5 August 1882 were listed as-

    Bryant’s Great Marionette

George Bryant operated marionette performances from the 1870s.  Here is a picture of his Marionette Minstrels from a bill for the Winchester Music Hall in Southwark –a ‘Novel, Wonderful and Amusing Speciality’, ‘the Best Mechanical Entertainment in Europe, consisting of Songs, Dances, Jokes, Choruses etc’.

Picture of Bryant's Marionette Minstrels playing instruments from a bill for the Winchester Music Hall in SouthwarkBryant's Marionette Minstrels from a bill for the Winchester Music Hall in Southwark - British Library Evanion Collection 752

    Don Esparto, the Mystagogue, and Miss Lilian Haydn, the Enchantress

Don Esparto was the stage name of illusionist William Smith from Barrow Upon Humber, Lincolnshire.  He combined conjuring with mesmerism.  In one show, he made a man eat a candle in the belief that it was a string of sausages.  Miss Lilian Hadyn acted as his assistant and was described in newspapers as vivacious and a very good serio-comic.

    Sisters and Brother Phillips, the Burlesque Trio, The Three Comical Cards

This ‘Witty, Whimsical and Pantomimical’ act was formed in 1870 by W H Phillips who wrote the songs and material performed.  In 1886 he complained of ‘unprincipled copyists’ malignant vindictiveness and jealousy’.

    Brady and Johnson, the Inimitable Comic Duettists

Albert Brady and Marion Johnson were the stage names of married couple John and Mary Brady.  They performed sketches.

    Mr Harry Steele, Comic Vocalist and Eccentric Skater

Steele’s catchphrase was ‘By Jove! I was nearly down again’.

    Miss Milnes, Soprano Vocalist

The repertoire of Agnes Milnes, ‘the queen of song’, included opera and sentimental ballads.

    Mr George Vokes, Grotesque Comedian

Vokes was said to excite ‘the risible faculties of the audience by his comicalities’.

George-VokesGeorge Vokes by Alfred Concanen, circa 1870s © National Portrait Gallery, London National Portrait Gallery Creative Commons Licence

    Mr Harry Starr, American , Dutch, and Irish Character Comedian

Starr enjoyed considerable success as a variety artist and then became an actor and dramatist.

    Sisters De Laine, Fascinating Duettists and Champion Skipping Rope Dancers

In 1894, Alice De Laine opened a dance academy in London for music hall aspirants which specialised in tuition for skipping rope dancing.

Sisters De LaineAdvert for Alice De Laine's dance academy - Music Hall and Theatre Review 31 August 1894 British Newspaper Archive

       The Band - Grand Selection from Donizetti’s opera Anna Bolena

The performance started at 7.30pm. Tickets for the front stalls cost 1s 6d, stalls and promenade 1s, and the body of the hall 6d.  The Liverpool Mercury described the evening’s programme as ‘unusually interesting’.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
British Newspaper Archive e.g. London and Provincial Entr’Acte 26 July 1873; Caernarvon and Denbigh Herald 5 August 1882; Liverpool Mercury 8 August 1882; The Era 22 August 1880, 3 October 1885, and 8 May 1886; Midland Counties Advertiser 1 November 1888; Music Hall and Theatre Review 31 August 1894.


28 May 2020

The mysterious Captain Gladstone, RN - a bookbinding James Bond?

Beautifully tooled bookbindings signed with the initials C.E.G. appear on printed books dating from the early 20th century.  These are the initials of Charles Elsden Gladstone (1855-1919) of the Royal Navy. 

Extract from record of service for Charles Elsden Gladstone The National Archives ADM 196-19-266Extract from record of service for Charles Elsden Gladstone - image courtesy of  The National Archives, ADM 196/19/266 ©Crown Copyright

The National Archives chart his somewhat unusual career.  Like his later fictional counterpart James Bond, he attained the rank of commander.  Also like Bond, he used cutting edge tech.  There is even a suggestion of covert intelligence gathering activities!  Admiralty service papers refer to an early specialism in torpedos, submarine weaponry and skill in photography which aided research on the subject of armaments.  He saw action in 1873 when he was landed with the Naval Brigade in the Ashanti War, while serving on the corvette H.M.S. Druid.

Photograph of starboard side of H.M.S Druid, a corvette at sea with sails down, 1880Photograph of starboard side of H.M.S Druid, a corvette at sea with sails down, 1880 - image courtesy of Royal Collection Trust 

As for hobbies, Gladstone’s name is included in the annals of specialist societies relating to microscopy and optical magic lanterns, interests which suggest he had a keen eye and feeling for accuracy.  His family house was based in Thanet where he lived with his wife, a son, a governess and enough domestic help to make his situation comfortable.  Gladstone’s life, therefore, is quite well documented, but, annoyingly for the fans of bookbinding, not his connection to the craft!

Apparently Gladstone family lore confirms that Gladstone bound books but what does this mean?  Traditionally, binding was a two stage process, making the structure (called ‘forwarding’) and applying the decoration (‘finishing’).  Practitioners did not usually teach themselves.  Apprentices spent seven years training with an accredited bookbinder.  Did Gladstone master both techniques and who taught him?  I have found no evidence either way.

People outside the craft did learn to bind but were usually guided by professionals in some way.  A contemporary of Gladstone’s, Irish barrister Sir Edward Sullivan (1852-1928), ‘finished’ ready-bound books to a high standard.  Today, these bindings fetch high prices, as do Captain Gladstone’s though to a lesser extent.  Was this a pastime for Gladstone or the means of raising income?  The latter seems unlikely as his navy salary was good and his retirement pay (from 1904) was £400 a year.  In 1919, the Liverpool Probate Registry listed the gross value of his estate as £27030 2s 5d.

Gladstone’s well bound colourful goatskin book covers, displaying a range of finishing skills, are attractive additions to sales catalogues.  Antiquarian book sellers have included images on their websites, notably David Brass Rare Books, Temple Rare Books (see Temple Rare Books online Book of the Month January 2014), and Nudelman Rare Books.  The bindings usually (though not exclusively) include all-over designs comprising small flower and leaf motifs, have smooth spines and elaborately decorated turn-ins.  Here is the British Library’s example, Alfred de Musset's On ne badine pas avec l’amour.

Gladstone's binding of Alfred de Musset's 'On ne badine pas avec l’amour' with small flower and leaf motifs Alfred de Musset, On ne badine pas avec l’amour (Paris, 1904) British Library shelf mark C.188.114 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

 

 Tooling on the turn in of Gladstone's binding showing the initials C.E.G.

Tooling on the turn in showing the initials C.E.G.  - Alfred de Musset, On ne badine pas avec l’amour (Paris, 1904) British Library shelf mark C.188.114 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

For a naval officer Gladstone was a quite remarkable bookbinder!

P.J.M. Marks
Curator, Bookbindings

Further Reading:
The National Archives Admiralty records ADM 196/19/266; ADM 196/38/621; ADM 196/40/207
Dreadnought Project
Commander Charles Elsden Gladstone

 

16 April 2020

The London social season of 1863

‘Easter comes to interrupt the opening season, but London is all alive again with excitement.’

This was the opening line to an article in The Era on 29 March 1863 looking forward to the start of the London social season.  Sport, opera, art, music and the weather were all matters up for discussion.

Article in The Era 29 March 1863Article in The Era 29 March 1863 British Newspaper Archive

The first anticipated event was the annual University Rowing Match, with the favourite to win being described as ‘the great mother of Churchmen and Tories’, otherwise known as Oxford.

The opera season was due to commence the following week and is described in great detail with the highlights of that year being remarked on as Patti at Covent Garden, Titiens at the Haymarket and Verdi being ‘a double star’ with both his last work and his most recent being shown in London.  The author is a little critical of the music of the season remarking that, although music is always ‘eloquent everywhere’, there had been a ‘recent affliction of concerts of an awful length’.

Johanna Therese Carolina Tietjens or TitiensOpera singer (Johanna) Therese Carolina Tietjens (Titiens)by Adolphe Paul Auguste Beau 1860s NPG x74495 © National Portrait Gallery, London  National Portrait Gallery Creative Commons Licence

Then it is the turn of art, with the painters all preparing to show off their latest works at the Royal Academy.

There is also an observation that there would normally be remarks and pleasantries about the weather as it was the start of spring, but as they had heard that even the Crystal Palace could not be ascended owing to ‘winds of seventy miles an hour’, pleasantries no longer seemed appropriate.

The article ends with mention of the social calendar of the Prime Minister, Viscount Palmerston, who is on his way to Scotland for a visit to Glasgow.  His inauguration as the Rector of Glasgow University took place on 30 March 1863.

The social season of 1863 certainly sounded like a busy and exciting one in London.  Hopefully the 70 mile an hour winds didn’t deter the public from attending their social engagements and enjoying the delights of culture and entertainment that were on offer that year.

Karen Stapley
Curator, India Office Records

Further reading:
The Era, 29 March 1863 - British Newspaper Archive also available via findmypast

 

11 April 2020

Colossal characters of the first Spring Holiday

'The season of Easter is a "commonwealth" of festivity', said Aris's Birmingham Gazette on Monday 21 April 1851. 'It is particularly interesting at this season of the year to notice the various preparations for public recreation and amusement.  Hoardings are placarded with immense posters, calling attention in colossal characters, to excursion trains, steam vessels, concerts, theatres, fairs, and numerous other sources of enjoyment, and wherever we look we can discover indications of the "first Spring holiday".'

Historical printed playbills are a fascinating resource for examining how generations past were entertained.   They have great visual appeal, designed to catch attention.  Perhaps the Birmingham newspaper reporter saw this very playbill advertising grand entertainments for the Easter Holidays at the Theatre Royal in April 1851?

Playbill for Birmingham Theatre Royal, 22 April, 1851

Playbill for Birmingham Theatre Royal, 22 April, 1851, British Library shelfmark: Playbills 199 (Image sources with thanks to Sakib Supple) Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The bill’s 'colossal characters', its large bold type, quite literally evokes the host of performers lined up in a series of novelties for the local stage.

A great and surprising variety of entertainments appeared on Victorian stages across the country.  ‘Traditional’ theatre is certainly represented here with the great eastern romance of Sinbad from The Arabian Nights and the historical drama, Shakespeare’s Early Days (Shakespeare pageants and tribute plays were common around the country especially near his birthday at the end of April).  But the novelty and variety of the mixed bill is noteworthy.  Performing animals were a big hit and this bill announces the treats in store from Monsieur Desarais’ 'Troupe of Histrionic Dogs and Monkeys'!

Desarais’ Extraordinary Troupe of Histrionic Dogs And Monkeys from a playbill on 29 April 1851.  Mons. Desarais’ Extraordinary Troupe of Histrionic Dogs And Monkeys. From a playbill on 29 April 1851.  Theatre-goers could see dogs walking on their forelegs; climbing up and down ladders; monkey ‘carousals’(?!), dogs playing dead and wounded (?!); and monkeys on backs of dogs in a grand steeple-chase! “the singing dog” will 'perform an original solo' (?!!!) and a dog called 'Cupid' performs amidst a display of fireworks (?!). British Library shelfmark Playbills 199 (Image sourced from Trove, National Library of Australia)

In addition to large, bold and playful type fonts, playbills often used illustrations to draw in peoples’ attention.  This playbill shows the acrobatics of the funambulist ‘Young Hengler’, a rope dancer who thrilled audiences 'by discharging a brace of pistols whilst accomplishing a lofty aerial somersault'.  In calmer moments he would entertain with a drum polka and buffo dance with his feet in bushel baskets.

The Henglers were a large family of skilled circus performers, they became a huge company with a presence in many regional cities and in the centre of London in Argyll Street (on the site of the Palladium today).  Later in the century, Music Hall culture diminished the audiences’ taste for this type of circus act and despite more far-fetched and extreme acts at Hengler’s like 'water theatre' and human cannonballs, they went to the wall in the late 19th century.

Hengler's Circus: 'Onra the man projectile'Hengler's Circus: 'Onra the man projectile'Mons. Desarais’ Extraordinary Troupe of Histrionic Dogs And Monkeys. From a playbill on 29 April 1851. . MacKenzie & Co. Litho Studio [1890].  The job of the playbill was to 'fire' excitement – after all they were competing with a 'commonwealth of festivity', excursions, concerts, fairs and other entertainments. British Library shelfmark Evan.338 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Playbills provided detailed descriptions of plots, depicted lavish sets, scenery, costumes, machinery and special effects.  These helped build anticipation, listing the names and roles of the cast, often colourful and suggestively bawdy.  Even lesser characters' roles and names helped portray the carnival surrounding plays, like ‘Yelcobrac’ a genie from Sinbad, 'gifted with the power of assuming various Forms'.

Descriptions of the set, plot and cast of Sinbad the SailorA variant Playbill from 22 April 1851 with lavish descriptions of the set, plot and cast of Sinbad the Sailor. British Library shelfmark Playbills 199 (Image sources with thanks to Sakib Supple) Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

There is a mass of useful incidental information for historians buried within the sensation and puff of these playbills.  Details about ticket prices; who could attend ('no babes in arms' admitted); notes on comforts such as warmth ('good fires kept'); hygiene ('thoroughly cleansed'; safety ('constables in attendance at all times') and transport – see on this bill in 1851 how people were conveyed by special trains from suburbs and outlying towns like Walsall and Dudley – a relative novelty in itself!

Theatre Royal in Birmingham around 1851How The Theatre Royal in Birmingham would have looked around 1851, British Library Digital Store 1763.a.5 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Christian Algar
Curator, Printed Heritage Collections

 

The British Library has a vast collection of historical playbills (nearly a quarter of a million) and about 100,000 of them (dating from the late 18th century to the 1860s) were digitised some years back (you can find the by tapping ‘playbills’ into Explore the British Library, clicking ‘Online’ and selecting one of the volumes with the ‘I Want This’ button to look at examples).

In an effort to make these individual bills more findable, the British Library has an ongoing project called In the Spotlight which aims to identify and record crucial details like performance titles.   The variety of font size and design means they cannot be machine read.  The playbills project is a great way for members of the public to get their noses into interesting and entertaining historical print and help identify and transcribe information that will provide access points for future research.  The results are integrated into the Library’s online viewer and all data is available for anyone to use in their own work as it’s completed.

The interactive project can also generate thoughtful discussion on social media (@Libcrowds and @blprintheritage) and on the project discussion board. For us, this popular engagement with historical contexts is as valuable and exciting as the data generated.

 

10 April 2020

Easter Furnishing Bargains from the India Office?

A search through the British Newspaper Archive recently for interesting articles relating to India for Easter did not turn up any exciting stories, but did instead provide some entertaining distractions owing to misconstrued search results.

Here are two of my favourite ‘stories’ found in the results.

‘India Office Lists Easter Furnishing Bargains’
This was a result returned from the Hertford Mercury and Reformer 22 April 1916, suggesting that the India Office was having a furniture clear out and sale. Unsurprisingly this did not turn out to be the case, as these were actually two unrelated advertisements with their titles merged together.  The first for the India Office Lists was an advert for the publication of the latest edition, now available for sale.  The second was an advertisement for Bedroom Furniture Suites being sold by Ward’s Stores, Seven Sisters Corner, Tottenham.

Advert for Wards Stores Hertford Mercury April 1916

Advertisement for Ward's Stores from Hertford Mercury and Reformer 22 April 1916 British Newspaper Archive

‘British Officers Stories of India Gardening for Easter 2d’
This was a result returned from the Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer 13 April 1922 suggesting that a British officer had published his stories of adventures whilst Easter gardening in India.
It transpires however that this is an advert for the latest edition of the Yorkshire Weekly Post in April 1922. These are sadly two separate articles ‘British Officers' stories of India’ and ‘Gardening for Easter’ which appeared alongside each other in the same edition of the journal.

List of contents for Yorkshire Weekly Post in April 1922

List of contents for Yorkshire Weekly Post in April 1922 British Newspaper Archive

 

There were also a number of search results where the text recognition software used to make newspapers searchable had misread words as Easter.  One of my favourites in this category was:
‘Baths proprieters of well India Easter’
This was another advertisement, this time in the Star (London) 16 April 1803. The publication being advertised was a Treatise, written by the Earl of Dundonald, and showing ‘the intimate connection that subsists between Agriculture and Chemistry’.  The advertisement went on to suggest a number of organisations which may be interested in such a treatise, including ‘to the Proprietors of West India Estates’.

So, while there were no interesting stories about Easter in India to be turned into a blog this time, I do hope that Untold Lives readers had a chuckle at these search results.

Karen Stapley
Curator, India Office Records

Further reading:
British Newspaper Archive - also available via findmypast

 

03 April 2020

Expired through eating some unwholesome food

‘Expired ...through eating some unwholesome food’ - this is how the death of Colonel Alexander Bagot, Commandant of the 38th Native Infantry was reported in the British and Indian newspapers following his death on 20 October 1874. The Colonel was on a tiger hunting expedition and had set up camp near Buxar when the accident occurred.  His cook had apparently mistaken taken arsenic used to cure the animal skins instead of baking powder and had included it in the breakfast chapatis.  The Colonel’s death is officially recorded as accidental poisoning.

Death of Col Bagot Homeward Mail 24 Nov 1874

Obituary of Colonel Alexander Bagot: Homeward Mail from India, China and the East, Monday 9 November 1874 - British Newspaper Archive which can also be accessed via findmypast

Colonel Bagot was known for his love of big game hunting and was considered to be one of the best shots and finest hunters of his day.  He had however previously had some near misses whilst hunting.  The Shrewsbury Chronicle of 17 April 1868 gives an account of one of such accident which occurred while tiger hunting on 28 March:
‘Colonel Alexander Bagot and Lord Downe were hunting a tigress in jungle near Nagode.  Colonel Bagot had been taking aim when the tigress sprang at them knocking them both and a Shikarrie over.  The tigress seized the colonel by the leg below the knee, tearing his trousers with her claws and he received a severe blow to the head from contact with a stone. A Ghurka sepoy with a spare gun, shot the tigress who released the Colonel and was preparing to spring again when she died.  No-one was seriously hurt in the incident’.

Big game hunting wasn’t the only sport Bagot was fond of.  The Weekly Chronicle (London) contains a report of his arrest on 6 June 1848, along with several other military officers, at the Cocoa Tree Club in St James’s, a known gambling house.  The case was dismissed owing to lack of evidence as it could not be proved the officers were at the Club to gamble.

Alexander BagotPortrait of Major Alexander Bagot by Camille Silvy, 27 February 1862 © National Portrait Gallery, London National Portrait Gallery Creative Commons Licence
  NPG Ax57008 


Alexander Bagot was born on 10 June 1822, son of Sir Charles Bagot, G.C.B. and Lady Mary Charlotte Anne Wellesley, eldest daughter of William, 4th Earl of Mornington.  He was educated at Westminster School and Charterhouse School and entered the East India Company’s service as a Bengal Cadet in 1840.  He was posted to the 15th Bengal Native Infantry on 9 January 1841, rising to Brevet Lieutenant-Colonel and serving with them until 1865.   His time serving in the 15th Native Infantry was alongside Harry Larkins, who features in another Untold Lives blog post.

In 1850 the Nusseree Rifle Battalion was raised and Bagot was served as its Commandant until May 1861 when it was disbanded.  In June 1865 he was appointed Commandant of the 38th Bengal Native Infantry and remained so until his death in 1874, rising to the rank of Colonel.  He was a member of the Masonic Lodge Himalayan Brotherhood, No. 459.

In 1852 he married Gertrude Letitia Hallifax (1835-1901), daughter of Brigadier-General Robert Dampier Hallifax, and the couple had three sons: Charles Fitzroy Alexander Hallifax (1853-1901), Arthur Henry Louis (1856-1906), and Francis Robert William (1858-1861).

Karen Stapley
Curator, India Office Records

The Weekly Chronicle (London) 18 June 1848 and Shrewsbury Chronicle, 17 April 1868 -  British Newspaper Archive which can also be accessed via findmypast.

More on arsenic poisoning - Arsenic, Cyanide and Strychnine - the Golden Age of Victorian Poisoners

 

03 February 2020

La Freya – 'artistic visions and superb poses'

On 3 February 1908 the Swansea Empire was offering a varied bill of entertainment – music, magic, comedy, ventriloquism, the American Bioscope, and La Freya ‘The Parisian Beauty, in a Novel Speciality’.

Theatre bill for Swansea February 1908South Wales Daily Post 3 February 1908 British Newspaper Archive

 

La Freya was a French vaudeville performer whose act consisted of ‘artistic visions and superb poses’.  She appeared at theatres the length and breadth of Britain between the years 1907 and 1915.  In 1909 she was on the bill at the Euston Theatre of Varieties which stood opposite St Pancras Station, a stone’s throw from the British Library’s present site.  

 
 
Euston Theatre of VarietiesEuston Theatre of Varieties from The Era 16 June 1900 British Newspaper Archive 

Advert for Euston Theatre of Varieties April 1909Advert for Euston Theatre of Varieties from Music Hall And Theatre Review 2 April 1909 British Newspaper Archive 

Taking the stage, La Freya stood on a podium in front of a black velvet curtain, dressed in a thin white silk body suit.  Her body was used as a screen.  She adopted a variety of poses as her husband projected lantern slides he had painted to ‘clothe’ her.  The ‘Decors Lumineux of Mr La Freya’ transformed her into visions such as a fairy, a butterfly, a mermaid, a gondolier, and a Scottish Highlander in full warpaint. 
  Full-length portrait photograph of La Freya

Portrait photograph of La Freya by Antoni Esplugas - Government of Catalonia, National Archive of Catalonia courtesy of  Europeana

La Freya and her husband had developed the act when they were working at the Folies Bergère in Paris.  The act lasted for ten minutes and the strain of standing still made La Freya sick when she first performed it.  She overcame this, although the lights continued to hurt her eyes.

The couple went to England intending to stay for just one season but ended up staying for several years, apparently because their management would not let them leave.  However La Freya and her husband did travel abroad for short seasons.  For example, from September to December 1910 they were in the United States, captivating audiences in New York, Cincinnati, and Philadelphia.

Review of La Freya's act from Cincinnati Commercial Tribune 10 November 1910 Review of La Freya's act from Cincinnati Commercial Tribune 10 November 1910 via findmypast Copyright: 'Fair Use' allowed (NewspaperARCHIVE.com)

They sailed to South Africa in June 1911 with other performers to fulfil engagements with Sydney Hyman at the Empire in Johannesburg.  By September La Freya was back on the London stage.

In June 1912 ‘Mr and Mrs La Freya’ were passengers on SS Medina to Australia.  They appeared in Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, and Brisbane and the act was well-received.  A special tableau was created – the personification of Australia with Sydney Town Hall in the background.

The Australian press was keen to interview the couple.  La Freya spoke to journalists in English with her husband acting as interpreter.  She came from the south of France and her husband, identified as Monsieur La Mort, from Paris.  The Sydney Sunday Times  published a special illustrated feature on La Freya’s fitness regime, with advice on how to achieve a corsetless figure through ten or fifteen minutes’ exercise every day.

‘Mr and Mrs La Freya’ were bound by contracts for two more years and were aiming to make as much money as possible.  Then they planned to retire whilst La Freya was still a big name in vaudeville.  She wanted to concentrate on setting up a house and garden in the south of France, whilst her husband intended to shoot and fish.

It seems that La Freya disappears from the newspapers in early 1915.  So did she retire to lead a quiet life far away from the public gaze?  Can anyone tell me what happened to ‘the most perfectly formed woman in the universe’?

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
British Newspaper Archive
Trove newspapers from Australia
Anita Callaway, Visual ephemera – Theatrical art in nineteenth-century Australia (2000)

 

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