Claude Flemming

  • Collits' Inn Revisited

    We celebrate another milestone with the republication of PETER PINNE’s 2007 On Stage article looking at the history of Varney Monk’s musical COLLITS’ INN, which was given its first professional production at Melbourne’s Princess Theatre in 1933 under the management of F.W. Thring. We are delighted to be able to include some evocative play scenes courtesy of the Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.

    When Collits’ Inn opened at Melbourne’s Princess Theatre two days before Christmas on 23 December 1933, it became the first home-grown hit musical theatre success running for a record-breaking 15 weeks. Billed as Australia’s first musical romance, it was produced by Frank Thring Snr, under his Efftee Players production company, and starred Australia’s reigning Queen of Operetta, Gladys Moncrieff. In those days 15 weeks was an incredible run for any musical let alone one of local origin. So how did that happen? Let’s go back to the beginning.

    Composer Varney Monk and her husband Cyril had spent part of their honeymoon in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, at an Inn near Mt. Victoria, dating back to 1837. On a subsequent visit they met a German-born naturalized Australian, named W.J. Berghofer who related the colourful story of Collits’ Inn, and Irishman and convict, Pierce Collits and his daughter Amelia. The Inn had originally been built in 1823 by Colitts, after he had earned his ticket-of-leave. It became a stop where coach horses were changed, when the road was being pushed through from Penrith to the Western Plains by convicts, who worked under military supervision.

    “Amelia Collits had fallen in love with a young Ensign in charge of a road gang building a new road through the mountains. Pierce, hating the Redcoats with all the vengeance of an ex-convict, forbids their marriage and drives the Ensign away. Amelia is so distraught she vows to marry the first man who enters the Inn and she does. Skene, a foreman on the new road, is the first man to enter and Amelia fulfils her vow. Later the Ensign, now a widower, returned to the valley and asks Amelia to redeem their love of the past in marriage, but she refuses, claiming it is too late for change.” This became the story on which Collits’ Inn was based.

    In 1932 Nathalie Rosenwax, a well-known Sydney singing teacher, announced a Light Opera and Revue Competition, for the Opportune Club. Monk wanted to enter and approached her journalist neighbour, Tom Stuart Gurr to write the book which he agreed to do.

    Although Collits’ Inn came second in the competition, it was the show picked up for production by Rosenwax. The wining entry The Island of Palms, by Arnold R. Mote and Margery Browne, appears to have remained on the shelf never seeing the light of day.

    Rosenwax later in the year organized a five-night pro-am season at the Savoy Theatre, Sydney, (5/12/32), with her star pupil, professional, Rene Maxwell as Mary Collits, Donald McNiven as Robert Keane, Ambrose Bourke as John Lake, Ann Stuart Gurr as Mistress Dale, and radio personality Jack Win as Dandy Dick. It was produced by E. Elliott Lloyd. Choreography was by Evelyn Parrett.

    The Sydney Morning Herald carried a review on 6 December 1932, which called it, “An Australian Opera”, and said that the show had “beautiful music” which “lifted the story to a height of romantic interest”. Maxwell was praised for her voice, and they liked her harmonized love duets with Ambrose Bourke, who played Captain John Lake. Monk’s husband, Cyril, a violinist, was the Leader of the Conservatorium Orchestra, which was conducted by Howard Carr who had also written the orchestrations.

    Gurr had adapted Monk’s story which now told the tale of Mary, torn between the love of Captain John Lake and a notorious bushranger, Robert Keene, who had helped her father change the route of the road to pass his Inn. Mary declares her love for Lake, but after a fight between him and Keane, in which Keane is killed, Lake is posted back to England. Mary suffers a memory loss but recovers in time for a happy ending when Lake returns.

    Songs to make an impression were, “This Year”, (reprised as “Last Year”), sung by Mary and Lake, and Keane’s “Some Distant Day”. The latter was a trunk song by Monk and had been published by Palings in 1929. “Aboriginal Chant” was written in the time signature of 7/8 and had been notated by Monk as it was sung and danced to her by Queen Rosie, one of the last remaining full-blooded Aboriginal members of the Illawarra Tribe, in a tea-shop in Kiama.

    The score at this time included: “Collits’ Inn”, “The Road”, “Drinking Song”, “Some Distant Day”, “Making Memories”, “Stay While the Stars Are Shining”, “Aboriginal Dance”, Outlaw’s Song”, “Duddawarra River”, “See What Love’s Done To Me”. “Sally at the Sliprails”, “My Desire”, “Sweet William”, “The Chaperone”, and “This Year”.

    The following year ABC radio decided to produce a radio version of the musical which went to air on 2FC, 2NC, 3LO, 2CO, 4QG and 4BK, on Wednesday 21 June 1933. It featured many performers who were in the Savoy Theatre premiere production, headed by Rene Maxwell (Mary), Norman Barnes (John Lake), Ann Stuart Gurr (Mistress Dale), with Eric Masters playing Robert Keane, and Dan Agar as Dandy Dick. Musical Direction was again by Howard Carr, with Production by George D. Parker.

    On 2 July 1933, ABC radio broadcast the musical again with one major cast change, Carlton Stuart played the bushranger, Robert Keene. All other credits remained the same.

    During this time Monk tried to interest J.C. Williamson’s, in mounting a production of the work but they declined, saying it was “no good”. Undaunted Monk travelled to Melbourne and did a backers audition with soprano, Phyllis Baker, baritone Alan Eddy, and orchestra for film producer, F.W. Thring, who had stated he was interested in theatrical production. Thring liked what he heard and agreed to produce the show and set about engaging a top flight cast for a premiere that would take place at the Princess Theatre, Melbourne, 23 December 1933.

    He immediately signed Australia’s top box-office draw, Gladys Moncrieff to a twelve-month contract, brought her frequent leading man, Robert Chisholm, back from London, and also signed audience favorite Claude Flemming, and comic George Wallace. It was to be Moncrieff’s first performance in an Australian Musical, and Wallace’s first legitimate theatre role after appearing in vaudeville and movies for Thring’s Efftee Productions (including His Royal Highness, Harmony Rowand A Ticket In Tatts). The production also featured a revolving stage (unique for its time), and the “Aboriginal Chant” was expanded and became a Corroboree.

    The show underwent numerous changes between the Savoy Theatre tryout season and the version that appeared on the Princess stage. Some songs had been repositioned, “My Desire”, and “See What Love’s Done To Me”, had been dropped, and three new songs had been added, but only one composed by Monk titled, “Australia”. Charles Zwar, who the following year would see his own musical Blue Mountain Melody, produced by J.C. Williamson’s, composed the music and lyrics to “They’re In Love”, and George Wallace did likewise with his comedy number “Dangerous Dandy Dick”. Additional music was provided by Harry Jacobs, who also did the orchestrations, and additional lyric credits went to book writer Tom Stuart Gurr and Jock McLeod. Monk was not happy with the changes and thought “the order of the songs as used in the tryout worked better”.

    As well as Moncrieff, Chisholm, Flemming and Wallace, the original cast included: Marshall Crosby, Phyllis Baker, Frank Bradley, Campbell Copelin, Edward O. Davis, John Dobbie, Ashton Jarry, D’Arcy Kelway, Garthe Meade, Phillip Peake, Ron Riley, Russell Scott, Norman Shepherd, Jock Thompson, and Byrl Walkley.

    Collits’ Inn opened with a fanfare of publicity and became an instant success. 3KZ gave a descriptive broadcast, (relayed to other states) of the audience and dignitaries arriving at the theatre, which was followed by a complete broadcast of Act One of the musical.

    The critics’ reviews were glowing. The Age (26/12/33) called it a “a splendid success” and said it should “enjoy a long run”. They liked Moncrieff and Chisholm, called “Stay While then Stars Are Shining”, the theme song, and thought “Australia” could be adopted as a national anthem.

    After playing for 15 weeks the show transferred to the Tivoli Theatre, Sydney (22/6/34) where it ran for a further nine. The Sydney Morning Herald (23/6/34) was equally as laudatory, calling it a “splendid production”. George Wallace in his first outing in legit on a Sydney stage, came in for his share of plaudits when they said he was an “extremely diverting and original comedian”, although qualified it with the thought that “he overstayed his welcome as times”. It’s also interesting to note they commented on the difference in the dramatic material between the tryout season and the commercial production, and “how important it is for Australian authors and composers to have their works produced on a professional stage if they are to develop and learn”.

    Following the Sydney run, the show returned to Melbourne where it played a further four weeks at the Princess (13/10/34). The Age this time said the show was a “musical romance of power and excellent atmosphere”, and that the audience “will carry away many lilting and tuneful refrains”. The Argus (26/10/34) called it a “success” and said it “satisfies as no ‘Rose Marie’ or ‘Lilac Time’ can”. They said one of the best songs was the rollicking “A Laugh and a Kiss”, and thought “Stay While the Stars are Shining” would be a hit. But the praise was qualified with, “The words of the song, “Australia”, which, unfortunately closes the show, are commonplace to the point of banality”. The same cast played in both seasons in Melbourne and Sydney, but on the return Melbourne engagement Robert Chisholm left after 26 October to fulfil commitments abroad.

    The following year F.W. Thring under his Efftee Attractions umbrella produced another Varney Monk historical romance musical, The Cedar Tree. Gladys Moncrieff was back to star, and this time her co-stars were Alfred Frith, Russell Scott, and Claude Flemming, who also handled direction. The behind-the-scenes team, were the same as Collits’ Inn, Jennie Brenan was choreographer, helped by Mollie Radcliffe, with Fred Quintrell as musical director.

    collits inn 21(left) The Cedar Tree broadcast - 29 December 1934. From Wireless Weekly, 28 December 1934. (right) Alfred Frith in The Cedar Tree - as seen by cartoonist Stanley Parker. From Table Talk, 31 January 1935, p.16

    This time Monk worked with Helen Barclay who wrote the lyrics, and Barclay’s husband, Edmund, a well-known ABC scriptwriter, who worked on the book. The story was set in Colonial days in the timber country around Parramatta and the Hawkesbury river. Once again the heroine, Daniella Weston (Moncrieff), is loved by two men, Lieutenant Verners (Russell Scott), a Captain of the Queen’s Regiments, and Roger Carstairs (Claude Flemming), a rich Sydney merchant. Drama was provided by Weston’s dissolute brother and comedy by the Flying Pieman (Frith), a role based on a real-life character at the time in the Hawskbury district.

    The Age (24/12/34) called it “delightful”, and The Argus (24/12/34), “pleasant entertainment” with praise for the score going to “Coo-ee” an echo song, “How I Love You”, a ballad, and the title tune. Although critical reaction was good, audiences were not. The show played a seven-week season at the Princess Theatre, before transferring to the Criterion Theatre, Sydney, where it opened at a matinee. Even with The Sydney Morning Herald (17/3/35) claiming it was a “fine Australian play” with “beautiful music and singing”, it could only manage a dismal two-week run.

    A “live” performance of The Cedar Tree was broadcast by the ABC direct from the Princess Theatre, Melbourne, seven days after the opening.

    In February 1936 Thring announced plans to film Collits’ Inn with production supposed to start in Sydney in early April 1936. Thring by that stage had become disillusioned with film production in Melbourne and was moving his headquarters to Sydney, joining forces with Mastercraft Film Corporation. He left Sydney on 4 March for Hollywood to engage a director and actors. He returned on 19 June and was immediately hospitalized in Melbourne where he died two weeks later on 1 July 1936.

    Thring’s death was a big blow for the Australian stage industry and film production. Although Varney Monk continued to compose and was published, she never again had a professional staging of either of these musicals.

    On Saturday 16 October 1943, ABC Radio, Sydney, produced Collits’ Inn with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, conducted by J. Farnsworth Hall, in a production by Lawrence H. Cecil, and on 29 April 1948, ABC Radio, Adelaide, produced a truncated version of the musical with the Adelaide Light Orchestra and Adelaide Singers conducted by William Cade. Mary Collitts was played by soprano, Kathleen Glasonbury, Captain Lake by Fred Williamson, Pierce Collits by bass-baritone, Boyd Dawkins, Robert Keane by baritone Ian McMutrie, and Dandy Dick was Alec Reagan. Norman Shephard , who was in the original Princess Theatre cast playing one of Keane’s followers, was the director.

    In 1951 there was a flurry of activity again for the Commonwealth Jubilee Celebration. ABC Radio produced Collits’ Inn as one of a series of musical comedies played by the ABC Melbourne Augmented Dance Band and Wireless Singers, conducted by MacDuff Williams. Grace Penman was Mary Collits, Eric Michelson was Captain Lake, John [AKA Jon] Weaving was Robert Keane, Syd Hollister was Dandy Dick, with Margaret Mouchemore as Mistress Dale. Others in the cast included; William Laird, Douglas Kelly, Lorna Forbes, Herbert Browne, Cyril Gardiner, George Randall, and Stewart Ginn.

    This production generated many Letters to the Editor in The ABC Weekly, regarding Australian composition on radio, (the Government had recently decreed all Australian stations were compelled to broadcast Australian compositions amounting to 2 ½ per cent of their programming time. The ABC broadcasts about 3 ½ per cent), and Monk’s authorship of Collits’ Inn. Tom Stuart Gurr came to his co-author’s defence: “Only Pierce Collits was historical. Every other character in the play lived only in my imagination, although there are people in the Valley who still point to the cave where outlaw Robert Keane had his hideout.”

    Later on 20 July 1951, the Mosman Musical Society presented the show for 10 performances, with Rhonnda Baker, John Young, Lenn Leslie, Cec Mackensie and Gaynor Mitchell. Len Gotting was the producer, musical director was Herbert Wyall, and Desmonde Downey did the sets. The Sydney Morning Herald said it was “a remarkable lively and elaborate revival of Varney Monk’s Australian musical play… John Young, using his strong baritone to advantage is the best of the singers…Rhondda Baker is an attractive heroine…Cec. Mackenzie and Gaynor Mitchell handle the comedy with plenty of verve”.

    Monk added a new song to the score for Dandy Dick and Sally, “The Man With the Cabbage Tree Hat”, which replaced the George Wallace written “Dangerous Dandy Dick”, and “How I Love You”, the hit song from The Cedar Tree, replaced Charles Zwar’s “They’re In Love”. The production generated a radio commercial which contained a vocal version of “How I Love You”.

    There was another amateur production in 1951 at Sydney Boys’ High School, two in 1963 at St. Mary’s Memorial Hall, Epping, NSW, and two in 1970, one at Canowinda Community Centre, and Campbelltown High School.

    On 23 March 1957, the musical was produced at the original Collits’ Inn, at Hartley Vale, near Lithgow, NSW.

    The most recent production of the musical was on 25 March 2007, at the Army Drill Hall, Melbourne, Victoria, when Jonathan Harvey produced “Scenes from Collits’ Inn in a Concert Performance”. Jane O’Toole, stepped into the shoes of Gladys Moncrieff as Mary Collits, Matthew Davine became Captain John Lake, Ian Cousins was Robert Keane, and Sue Braatveldt was Mistress Dale. A selection of nine scenes skillfully told the story with linking material handled by veteran actor, Charles “Bud” Tingwell. Script was by Peter Wyllie Johnston, accompaniment by the Victorian Concert Orchestra, conducted by Joannes Roose.

    Collits’ Inn wasn’t the first Australian book musical, that honor goes to Ella Airlie’s, The Bunyip which was originally written in 1908 but not performed as a musical until 1916, but it was the first bonafide hit. It paved the way for a flurry of Australian musical theatre activity in the thirties, (Blue Mountain Melody, The Cedar Tree, The Beloved Vagabondand Flame of Desire), not matched until the end of the century when The Boy From Oz, Priscilla Queen of the Desertand Muriel’s Wedding, started the ball rolling again.

    Chappell & Co Ltd became publishers of both shows and published two songs from each, “Last Year” (1943) and “Australia” (1946), from Collits’ Inn, “Coo-ee” (1946) and the title song from The Cedar Tree (1946). W.H. Paling & Co. Ltd, had published Varney Monk’s original version of “Some Distant Day” in 1929.

    The first commercial recording from Collits’ Inn was a version of “Last Year” by The Melody Men with piano, (78rpm) recorded 14 May 1943 (RZ G-24752) and then later in 1988,a 2-LP record compilation set called, “Gladys Moncrieff Sings Musical Comedy and Operetta” (EMI EMC430062), was released with Moncrieff and Chisholm singing their duet, “Stay While the Stars Are Shining”. This was taken from an optical film recording of songs from the show made with the original cast. For years it was thought this recording was made for the film version, but as it contains the song, “My Desire” which never made it into the professional production, it was most likely recorded during rehearsals for the original professional production before the song was cut.

    The complete optical film recording included:

    1. “Collits’ Inn” – Claude Fleming & Gladys Moncrieff

    2. “Road Song” – Claude Flemming & Gladys Moncreiff & Unknown Bass

    3. “Drinking Song” – Unknown Bass

    4. “Making Memories” – Gladys Moncreiff

    5. “Next Year” – Gladys Moncrieff & Robert Chisholm

    6. “Outlaw’s Song” – Claude Flemming

    7. “Duddawarra River” – Gladys Moncrieff

    8. “Stay While the Stars Are Shining” – Gladys Moncrieff & Robert Chisholm

    9. “Sweet William” – Bryl Walkley

    10. “Australia” – Robert Chisholm & Gladys Moncreff

    11. “Some Distant Day”– Robert Chisholm (a song reassigned to Mary Collits – Gladys Moncrieff – in Act 3)

    12. “Last Year” – Gladys Moncrieff

    13. “Stay While the Stars Are Shining” (Reprise) – Robert Chisholm & Gladys Monfrieff

    14. “Collits’ Inn Orchestral Finale” (final cymbal crash)

    15. “Collits’ Inn Orchestra Finale” (final drum beat)

    Dance music

    My Desire - Robert Chisholm


    “Some Distant Day” (78rpm) Columbia DO 2946 (1929)

    “Scenes from Collits’ Inn” DVD Concert Cast (2007)


    In 1990 Currency Press published the playscript of the show with leadlines of all of the music that had been located at the time. Missing were the songs, “A Laugh and a Kiss”, “Dangerous Dandy Dick”, and “They’re In Love”, which have since been found in Monk’s papers at the National Library, Canberra. No music has been found for, “Some Distant Day.”

    In the 1970s Peter Burgis NFSA, conducted an oral history interview with Rene Maxwell, who played Mary Collits in Natalie Rosenwax’s 1932 production. The interview is held in the National Library in Canberra. No commercial recordings are known of this artist, but she was a guest artist on the radio program, The Show of Shows, Episode 11, recorded November 1941, published by AWA (16 inch disc). She sings “Lilac Domino” and Make Believe”. She starred in Australia in the original production of The Lilac Domino.

    “Last Year” was sung by Monda Lenz, in The Australia Show No. 4 (a Humphrey Bishop production, 16-inch AWA disc). Monda was a singer with an army entertainment unit. An oral history with her is held by the Australian War Memorial. It is available on the internet.

    Also available on the internet is a radio program called “Four Australian Musicals” produced in Perth in 1966, narrated by Glen Menzies. It discusses Collits’ Inn and includes the voice and piano playing of Varney Monk.



    Collits’ Inn: a romantic Australian operetta by T. Stuart Gurr; with lyrics and music by Varney Monk; edited with an intoduction by John West, Currency Press in association with Australasian Drama Studies, 1990

    Jean Devanny, Bird of Paradise, Frank Johnson, 1945

    Philip Parsons, Companion to Theatre in Australia, Currency Press/Cambridge University Press, 1995

    Peter Pinne & Peter Whyllie Johnston, The Australian Musical from the Beginning, Allen & Unwin, 2019

    Peter Pinne, Australian Performers, Australian Performances, Performing Arts Museum, Victorian Arts Centre, 1987

    Eric Read, History and Heartburn, Harper & Row, 1979

    John Thomson, “It’s Australian – and It’s Good”, National Library Australia Magazine, December 2003


    John West, Theatre In Australia, Cassell Australia Limited, 1978

    Original Theatre Programs, The Age, The Argus, The Sydney Morning Herald



    Special thanks to Peter Burgis and Rob Morrison for their help in this revision


    Further resources

    View programs on the THA Digital website


  • The Big Broadcast of 1924

    big broadcast banner 01

    To mark 100 years since the first live stage broadcast in Australia, we revisit an article by PETER BURGIS published in On Stage back in 2006. With updates by Peter and new picture research and audio links by Rob Morrison.

    ‘Wirelessenthusiasm is on the wane in Britain and America, and quite a number of small manufacturers are closing down,’ announced Mr. G. Watson, electrical engineer, in an interview with The Sydney Morning Herald on 10 November 1923, following his return to Australia on the good ship Mongolia, after an overseas business trip.

    A week earlier, a new Australian company called Broadcasters (Sydney) Ltd, advertised the start of the first local radio service from their studio in the Smith’s Weekly Building, Phillip Street, Sydney.

    Broadcasters boasted ‘bedtime stories for the children, talks on housekeeping hints and Parisian fashion for ladies, racing and business reports for men, jazz evenings for young folk.’ Best of all it promised that ‘listeners-in’ would hear the Dungowan Jazz Orchestra and live performances from the Tivoli Theatre.

    Radio 2SB (later 2BL) planned to be on air from 10am to 10pm, six days a week, available free to city, suburb and country. Set down for 15 November, this historic first Australian broadcast was delayed until 23 November 1923.

    big broadcast 01aGladys Moncrieff in A Southern Maid, with Mione Stewart (left) and Nellie Payne (right). Photographer unknown. National Library of Australia, Canberra.

    A bounder in the wings

    Broadcasters (Sydney) Ltd had competition in the form of Farmer & Company, major merchants occupying large premises fronting Pitt, Market and George Streets (now Myer), with studios in the Roof Garden atop their imposing building. A newspaper advertisement (The Sydney Morning Herald, 29 October 1923) heralded the arrival of Farmer’s Wireless Broadcasting Service, due to start radiating test transmissions from 5 December under the banner 2FC.

    Program highlights were to include weather predictions, race results, stockyard market reports, quotations from the Sydney Stock Exchange and updates on latest fashion decrees from Paris, London and New York (Farmer’s sold heaps of clothing and haberdashery).

    Most importantly, there would be entertainments from the theatre circuits of J.C.Williamson Ltd and J.& N.Tait.

    In the first week of 1924 it was reported that ‘experiments had been conducted from the stage of Sydney’s Her Majesty’s Theatre, involving the placement of microphones which collected the sound and conveyed it to an amplifying panel which “stepped-up” the volume before carrying the sound by landline to Farmer’s wireless studio in Pitt Street, whence it was conveyed by another special land line to the big station 2FC at Willoughby (inner North Shore), from whence it was radiated by wireless’ (The Sydney Morning Herald, 7 January 1924).

    On Saturday afternoon (5 January 1924) a complete matinée of A Southern Maid was transmitted experimentally, with every word being heard quite clearly. Laughter followed each joke was also heard as was the shrill call of ‘Ice cream blocks and chocolates’ during the interval.
    Without speeches and formalities, Farmer’s 2FC officially opened on the evening of Wednesday, 9 January, when a complete evening performance of A Southern Maid was broadcast from the stage of Her Majesty’s Theatre.

    big broadcast 02A tense moment at the Cafe del Santiago as Sebastian (Robert Chisholm) and Francesco Del Fuego (Claude Flemming) confront Sir Willoughby Rawdon (Howett Worster) with daggers drawn, while Doloes (Glady Moncrieff) looks on apprehensively. (Chisholm subsequently took over the role of Rawdon for the Sydney season.)

    The event was a great success, with listeners ‘enjoying the clear sound of voices and orchestra, often accompanied by the rustling of programs in the front stalls and the subdued hum of the audience during interval’.

    The presentation started with a general call from the 2FC announcer, followed by a peal of chimes rung on tubular bells, to allow listeners to tune their station reception accurately. After the chimes the announcer gave an introductory talk about A Southern Maid, timed to conclude as the theatre overture commenced. At the end of the show 2FC closed for the night, staff turned off the lights and went home—an exacting task well done.

    The Maid

    A Southern Maid (the local press often called it ‘The...’) was an English musical play, sometimes called a stage musical, or a musical comedy, or an operetta. The book was by Dion Clayton Calthrop, most of the music was composed by Harold Fraser-Simson, with lyrics by Harry Graham, Douglas Furber and Adrian Ross.

    The show first tried out in Manchester on Christmas Eve, 1917, and had its London début on 15 May 1920 at Daly’s Theatre, where it ran for 306 performances. The Daly’s cast included José Collins, Ernest Bertram, Gwendoline Brogden, Mark Lester, Dorothy Monkman, Lionel Victor, Bertram Wallis, William Spray and Australia’s Claude Flemming (playing Sir Willoughby Rawdon).

    In Australian Performers—Australian Performances (1987) Peter Pinne gives the following summary of the plot: ‘The story is set in South America, about a young Englishman who inherits a plantation and falls in love with a Spanish beauty, to the rage of the Vendetta chief, who has sworn to kill him for oppressive measures alleged to have been practised by his father’.

    A Manchester press critic wrote: ‘A Southern Maid is a better piece than The Maid of the Mountains. She is a gorgeous creature, but as full of contradictions as the most provoking of her sex. She lures one into the belief that her end is to be as dramatic as Carmen’s—and suddenly decides to live “happily ever after”; she revels in a wealth of music which is strangely reminiscent; she has scenes and situations which, if one did not see last week, one saw the week before, and will probably see the week after next. And yet, while one realises that all this has been done before, it is impossible to do else but succumb to the wonderful glamour of the maid herself.’

    He was talking of José Collins, whereas a few years later, Australian critics would be heaping accolades on our own Southern Maid, Gladys Moncrieff.

    big broadcast 07aCast list from Sydney season, 1923/24

    J.C.Williamson’s premiered A Southern Maid at the Theatre Royal in Melbourne on 27 January 1923. It opened at Her Majesty’s in Sydney on 27 October 1923, with a cast including Gladys Moncrieff, Robert Chisholm, Arthur Stigant, Fred Coape, William Perryman, Clarice Hardwicke, John Forde and Reginald Purdell. Andrew MacCunn was musical director and Oscar Asche was producer; he had also produced the original London production.


    There were no facilities in Australia in 1924 to allow the recording of a stage show. However, Gladys Moncrieff did record two songs from A Southern Maid for the Vocalion label around 4 September 1924, during her first visit to London.The titles were ‘Love’s Cigarette’ and ‘Dark Grows The Sky’. Many copies were sold in Australia.

    Claude Flemming, one of our most distinguished actor-singers, recorded only three song titles during a 50 year career, and they were all from A Southern Maid. They were ‘I Want The Sun And The Moon,’ ‘The Call Of The Sea’ and ‘Here’s To Those We Love’. The recording session took place at London’s Columbia studios on about 3 July 1920.

    These discs were deleted from Columbia’s catalogue in 1924 and remain hard to find. The good news is that these five acoustically recorded 78s allow us, with a little imagination, to re-create some of the atmosphere of the historic 2FC broadcast.

    big broadcast 08bCast of A Southern Maid, Melbourne, 1923. Photo by Talma, Melbourne. National Library of Australia, Canberra.

    Public reaction

    At the time the 2FC broadcast took place (9 January 1924) there were only a few hundred listeners with licences. By the end of June 1924 only 1400 licences had been taken out across Australia. It seemed likely that the listening audience on 9 January would not have filled Her Majesty’s Theatre.

    Despite the small audience, however, press reports from land and sea were complimentary. One ship’s captain advised that he sat glued to his seat listening to the Her Majesty’s show while operating a trading vessel some 2800 miles from Sydney.

    Equally enthused was the skipper of Karoola, moored at a Fremantle wharf. A glowing report also came from Mr. E.P.Simpson, owner of the racing yacht Mistral II, who listened to the broadcast in his ‘cosy cabin’, while anchored at La Perouse. He told The Sydney Morning Herald on 15 February that, ‘The clearness with which the voices are thrown into the cabin (by a speaker) is absolutely uncanny; it fires one’s imagination, and prompts one to be less sceptical with regard to problems that now seem to be ridiculous—just as ridiculous as the present feats accomplished by wireless would have appeared thirty years ago.’

    Warming to his subject, the yachtsman added, ‘Man is really a wonderful animal, constantly probing the secrets of the universe and of those that so far have been discovered, wireless results seem to me to be the most fascinating and astonishing.’

    Pass me the rum!

    Not everyone was happy with the arrival of radio, however. The Sydney Morning Herald for 19 December 1924 carried a piece headlined ‘Too Much Wireless—Teacher’s Warning… Speaking at the annual prize distribution of St Aloysius’ College, the Rev. L. Murphy (Prefect of Studies) said that he wished to warn parents against the abuse of the radio by their boys. We are not blind to its advantages,’ he said, ‘but we have noticed a serious deterioration in the work of the boys who have wireless installations. The tendency is for these boys to leave the classrooms at the earliest possible moment, and to give no thought to their studies while away from school.’

    The Rev. Murphy made no mention if any of these young hooligans had been found with photos of Gladys Moncrieff in their lockers.

    Happy ending

    How should we remember this unique occasion? In my wild erratic fancy visions come to me of a city, bush and sea fold clustered around the new-fangled wireless, wide-eyed, bushy tailed and all ears.

    My dream includes the skipper of the schooner at La Perouse, the grazier from the Braidwood backblocks, the master mariner in Fremantle, a sundowner in remote Nyngan, and the ship’s captain ploughing through the Tasman Sea. Each tuned in to Our Glad and company, as musical history was made on the stage of Sydney’s Her Majesty’s Theatre on the evening of Wednesday, 9 January 1924.


    With its broadcast of A Southern MaidSydney’s 2FC scooped Melbourne’s new 3LO by nine months with a first live stage presentation. Live broadcasts of The Merry Widow and Sybil followed. 3LO came on air on 13 October 1924 with a blockbuster: Melba’s farewell performance of La Bohème, from the stage of His Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne.

    2FC followed up this historic broadcast with another stage musical broadcast the following month when on 12 February 1924 they broadcast several acts of Sybil from Sydney’s Her Majesty’s Theatre. The cast included Gladys Moncrieff and Claude Flemming. Press reports of a clear transmission came in from afar as Gosford and New Zealand.

    Claude Flemming (1884-1952) had a long and distinguished stage career with success on Broadway and the West End. His personality and distinct voice are preserved on a number of film clips which are available on Youtube. Check Cross Roads from 1931. Claude can also be heard narrating on a 1931 colour educational movie short entitled Peasants Paradise(‘Romantic Journeys’) on Youtube, a venture into German history and culture.His Australian stage appearances include Collits’ Inn (1933-1934) with Gladys Moncrieff and Annie Get Your Gun (1947-1950) with Evie Hayes.

    It should be noted that A Southern Maid included additional music by Ivor Novello and George Clutsam. Clutsam was an Australian, having been born in Sydney in 1866. He was arguably the first Australian born composer to gain international recognition.

    For further information on the history of Australian broadcasting and its pioneer actors, actresses, musicians, writers and producers I recommend the Australian Old Time Radio website.

    Prepared with help from, and thanks to, Frank Van Straten.


    A Southern Maid

             (with Daly’s Theatre Orchestra conducted by Merlin Morgan)

    (The original 1920 London cast recordings released on Columbia records have been reissued on CD by Dominic Combe, who may be This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. for further information.)

             (with The Aeolian Orchestra)


             (with The Aeolian Orchestra)


    The opening scenes of this newsreel show Gladys Moncrieff and Claude Flemming in their costumes for A Southern Maid in various “Spanish” locations around Sydney.


    PETER BURGIS: born Parkes, NSW,  1936. Performing arts historian,  author, and sound archivist, concentrating on activities of Australians on record prior to 1960.  Employed at the Centre for Advancement of Teaching,  Macquarie University, 1972-1974; founder and director of the National Library of Australia’s sound archive, 1974-1984 and the National Film & Sound Archive, 1984-1989.  Recipient of inaugural ARIA Jack Davey Pater Award for professional  excellence in the broadcasting arts and science  (1984). Founding chairman of Australian Country Music Foundation & Museum, Tamworth, 1989-1993. Starting in 1970 has conducted over 150 oral history interviews with Australian musicians, entertainers and composers. Vice-president of the International Association of Sound Archives, 1981-1987 and chairman of the Australian branch, 1979-1984. Has produced or contributed to over 500 sound recordings of reissues of historic Australian sounds. Co-author of “Peter Dawson (The World’s Most Popular Baritone)”, Currency Press, 2001, and “Tex Morton: From Australian Yodeler to International Showman”, The University of Tennessee Press,  2023. Currently preparing a discography of Australians who recorded in the acoustic period.

    PREVIOUS ARTICLES published in On Stage: include:

    • “Thanks For The Memory” (2GB Musical Comedy Theatre,  8/1 & 8/2)
    • “Welcome ‘Mr. C’ ”  (Finlay Currie in Australia,  13/2)
    • “Voices of the Past: Kathleen Lafla” ,  9/4)
    • “The Fabulous Friedmans” (Jake Friedman)  9/3
    • “Bless ‘Em All” (Fred Godfrey)   9/3
    • “Starring John Barrymore, Gregory Peck, and Roland Hogue”   11/3
    • “Probing the Proboscis” (Nosey tunes)   7/3
    • “I’ve Been Everywhere (Or Have I)”    6/2
  • The Memoirs of J. Alan Kenyon or Behind the Velvet Curtain (Part 11)


    During the 1950s, scenic artist J. ALAN KENYON was back at J.C. Williamson Ltd, working on sets for Annie Get Your Gun, Oklahoma! and other plays, as he recalls in the latest instalment of his memoirs.

    The Hole of the Truth …

    It is the unrehearsed comedy and drama of the theatre that the audience never sees that gives the job behind the scenes its fascination. One becomes absorbed to the exclusion of everything else in the rush and scramble of a scene change, especially during a blackout, for example, when the stage is in complete darkness.

    On the opening night of Annie Get Your Gun (1948), Claude Flemming, who starred as Buffalo Bill and had an exaggerated fear of heights, even at the slightly absurd height of six or seven feet, always wanted a helping hand. The finale of Annie was a cloth with two painted horses, one on each side. A hole was cut above each horse and reinforced to carry a saddle, etc. One side was for Buffalo Bill, the other was for Pawnee Bill. On the other side of the cut there was a platform and each Bill, when on his platform, cocked a leg over the saddle and put a foot into the stirrup. On the platform for Buffalo Bill was also another foothold, plus a hand-grip to be held by the hand not holding the reins. To make assurance double sure, one of the stagehands had hold of one of Flemming’s arms, off stage. Shades of Buffalo Bill …!

    This finale was set after a blackout of the previous scene. If you have never seen an 18 foot high by 6 foot wide flat handled by one man, you would be amazed to see one of these flats folded, then man-handled off the stage and thrown against the wall into what is known as a pack. On this particular night, one of these flats did not quite make the wall in the blackout. It overbalanced away from the wall and naturally, fell back onto the stage. A piece of scenery of such dimensions does not fall quickly but it falls quite sufficiently hard enough to do some damage when it makes contact. Very unhappily the contact turned out to be Pawnee Bill’s head, and he was knocked out. There was not time to bring him round—and it was too near the end to consider dropping the curtain. So the unlucky actor was carted up the steps onto his platform to take his place on his steed.

    His inert leg was manipulated over the saddle, his foot placed in the stirrup and his hands on the reins. Supported by stagehands this gave some semblance of being in the show, although he was still unconscious. Buffalo Bill was of course being held, because of his phobia about heights, on the horse across the way at the other side of the cloth.

    Another incident concerning flats happened during a scene change. These flats are held together, that is, one to another, by toggle and line. At the top of one flat is attached a length of sash cord and on the same place on the flat that is to be joined is a piece of 4 inch by 1 inch square timber with the top cut away, so that the sash-line when flicked into the mouth, is held and pulled tight, at the same time clamping up the two flats. The two flats are held approximately 6 to 8 inches apart. The sash-line is then flicked up and if luck is with you its loop falls into the mouth of the toggle. It is by no means easy to accomplish this and as a matter of fact it requires a sleight of hand only achieved after a lot of practice. On this particular night a man was being given instructions how to achieve this—but he was having no success at all and time was running out. The man in charge, made careless by impatience, put his head between the flats in an attempt to discover what was causing the holdup. Then of course the unexpected did happen. The new man threw again, and this time he made contact—the line was at last in the toggle. Having everything in line to close up, he happily pulled the line and the two flats came—or rather should have come—together.

    Full of pride in his accomplishment, he gazed upwards, quite unaware that the unfortunate mechanist’s head was still between the flats. He pulled harder, and the harder he pulled the nearer he came to choking the poor man. When the mechanist was finally set free, the stage hand had to listen to some very choice things about himself.

    The person who enjoys more importance and usually gets his way about most things on the stage is the producer.  Some have more suitability and ability than others. In Oklahoma (1949) there was a ballet scene consisting of a simple cut-cloth of trees. It was my opinion that this would certainly need framing after it had been cut out. The mechanist had objected ‘Aw, we don’t want to frame it—it’s such a ruddy nuisance when it has to travel.’ This was strictly true—all the 3-ply has to come off and be tacked on again before the next opening. I was sure, however, that the producer would not wish to see the trees waving about, as they certainly would, with the action of the dancers weaving in and out of them. Ted Hammerstein (cousin to Oscar Hammerstein II and Stage Manager on the original Broadway production) came to produce the show. We showed him all the scenery and we were very gratified when he told us it measured up to anything he had seen anywhere. ‘There is just one thing,’ he said. ‘I would like to have the tree cut-cloth framed.’ The mechanist said we never did such things—it wasn’t done! This was sheer pig-headedness. ‘Okay!’ agreed the director. So all through the week the cast rehearsed the scene.

    It has always been the custom to check all scenes and props on the Saturday morning of the opening at night. It is routine to go through everything backwards, as the set for the last scene is the opening scene ready for the show at night. On this particular Saturday the procedure was unvaried and the mechanist had just dismissed the stage staff, telling them they were free until they were due back at 7.30 pm. Just then a voice came from the stalls—‘Charlie, I want the cut-cloth framed.’ There was no argument—it was framed: but it took until late Saturday afternoon to do it.

    I had redesigned sets for a well-known imported actor. Because they were unlike those he had worked with overseas, he threw a tantrum and became very disagreeable indeed. The scenes were set up. Then Edward J. Tait and Harald Bowden, director and manager, along with myself, looked at the sets from the stalls. No one spoke. It was left to Mr. Tait to make the opening gambit. He took up the challenge and asked ‘Well, what about it?’ The actor, with quite a degree of petulance snapped that they were not the same as he had had in the London production. He was then asked what difference did that make? He made no reply. ‘Well,’ said E.J. Tait. ‘I think they are most attractive.’ Then the actor found his voice ‘They are too attractive—I couldn’t act in front of them.’ Actually, he really did have a point there—no scenery should be so intrusive as to draw attention away from the actors. It is a cardinal sin for it to assert itself. This is one of the hard and fast rules which a set designer must obey.

    I recall an instance where a certain actor was discovered to be seeking an excuse for a project of his own. It emerged after a few days when he brought one of Sydney’s women painters to check on my painting for a show whose title now totally eludes me. We did not see eye to eye on anything—we completely disagreed on technique—and the result led to something of an altercation. When people lose their temper with me I cannot resist the impulse to grin at them. It has never had much of a calming effect on anyone.

    This particular actor stamped his foot on the stage and shouted ‘I’m the boss and I’ll have things the way I want them!’ I told him he could most certainly have his own way, and at the same time take a ‘running jump in the lake’. Up to the office he rushed to make his complaint to management. I went back to the paint room and went on with the job. Some time later I heard a voice calling me from the stage. I looked down through the cut in the floor and saw E.J. Tait: his exact words were ‘You alright, George?’ ‘I’m fine,’ I answered, and I felt fine—hearing his voice and sensing the warmth in it. ‘Well, never mind … (naming the actor) he’s here today and gone tomorrow. We hope that you will be with us for a long time.’ That is the kind of attitude which inspires the people of the theatre to go all out to do their best in this strange industry. It is so unlike any other that an occasional boost to one’s ego is most welcome.

    My ego was not always uplifted by happenings in the theatre—sometimes entirely the opposite occurred and I was very badly deflated. On one occasion I had been called into consultation with the management of an Italian Opera Company about the forthcoming season. During discussions of matters pertaining to the scenery, I was always referred to as ‘il scena artista’—which seemed alright to me. So I designed and painted the sets for their two operas and they were duly performed. This was a private job. I sent in my account but after a few weeks had gone by and nothing had happened, I heard from somebody that a meeting was to be held at the Princess Theatre. Hoping that I could get some finality from the directors, I wandered up to the foyer just before the meeting was due to commence. Alas! The atmosphere had lost its warmth—there were no nods and becks and wreathed smiles and murmurs of ‘il scena artista’. Instead, I distinctly heard a ‘stage whisper’ from someone ‘Look out—here comes the bloody painter.’ However, eventually I was paid.

    Although there was a job for which I never did receive just payment. This happened when I did some work for a certain religious sect. I was approached concerning this job by a very well-known singer who had sung in opera overseas. I was asked if I would handle the production of a show, celebrating the centenary of this Order. I made my estimate of the cost, but was told that it was quite out of the question. Couldn’t I suggest a much cheaper way of doing things, thereby reducing the cost? At length after a lot of talk it was decided that instead of using expensive canvas we would make the ‘cloths’ out of brown paper. The two men I had with me got busy on the stage and glued lengths of brown paper together. There were at least six of them, plus a painted scrim. This was depicting a decorative frame of angels and cupids and so on. In regard to the financial aspect of the job it was arranged that my assistants were to be paid on a weekly basis, rent of the paint room was also to be charged and I was to receive a percentage of the takings on each of the three nights the show was to run. The show actually had its season extended to six nights, because the whole show was such a huge success!

    But the first night almost ended in tragedy. In those days lighting, in what is now the Metro Theatre in Collins Street, Melbourne (see note below) was not all that could be desired. Hanging, as part of the general lighting, was a naked 1000 Watt globe, a working-light for the stage. There were tiers of seating across the back wall of the stage, crammed with children. The screen, on which was a portrait of the Founder of the Order, was hanging there, until the concert was due to start. It was then rolled up like a verandah blind. Unfortunately the rolled-up screen came in contact with the 1000 Watt globe and the inevitable happened—it  caught fire. At first the two hundred children just made frightened noises—but these soon swelled to panicked screaming. They left their seats and milled around the stage in a yelling mob. All hell broke loose! I shouted instructions in a voice rivalling a sergeant major in the Irish Watch... They could not even hear me. In any case we had enough trouble getting the burning screen and the painted scrim down and off the stage. When they were halfway down the house curtains parted slightly and the audience saw the fire for the first time. I grabbed the fabric and pulled them closed. I got singed a little and lost some hair as the burning screens came level with me. Somehow we got a clear passage from the stage to the back and at last smothered the fire although the screens were completely ruined. After the show we worked all night painting a new show curtain and it was hung ready for the following performance. The offending lamp was removed. There had been no protests from the Fire Brigade and the six performances showed ‘House Full’ every night. The theatre was given free, and nothing was charged for the management— actually expenses were very few. Six shows must have shown a very handsome profit.  I received a cheque for 25 pounds. My estimate was 125 pounds. Well, one lives and occasionally learns.

    Evelyn Laye and her husband Frank Lawton first played in Melbourne in a show called September Tide (1951). In the play they lived above a boat-house and at the end of Act 1 Lawton was to go through a trap in the stage down to the boat-house below—the carpenters were busy cutting the trap set-up. Evelyn rang me, asking me over to see her. Her first words were that she would buy me two double whiskies because she simply ‘adored the set’. It was her favourite colour—but she said, ‘Do look at the frock my dresser is holding—I bought it specially and it cost me such a lot of money.’ It was the exact colour and tone of the scenery: we repainted the set!

    Evelyn Laye was beautiful, charming and the epitome of elegance and she spoke to all and sundry in her beautiful speaking voice. As she left the stage to go to her dressing-room, the boys having finished cutting the hole for the trap, it was a revelation, simply amazing, to hear a pure cockney voice saying ‘Blimey, what a bloody awful ’ole!’

    Apropos another hole, Dion Boucicault was producing The Admirable Crichton at the King’s Theatre in Melbourne in 1926. He was always immaculate in black coat, striped trousers and spats. The effects for a thunderstorm were made up in the flies by means of cannon balls rolling down steps and onto a sheet of tin. Boucicault wanted the thunder louder so he called up to the property operator—one Bill Richards—‘A little louder Billy—do it again.’ It was done again but of course there was no control over the method and it sounded exactly the same as before.

    ‘No Billy, a little louder!’ But it was of no use. Dion left the stage and climbed up the steel-runged ladder attached to the side wall of the stage, and up through the floor of the flies. As he arrived at this hole, he poked his head through. ‘My God! What a dirty hole…’ and he came back down again.

    A hole with a difference comes to mind.

    During the filming of a comedy which took place on location, a haystack was to catch fire when the fire-engine dashed through it. The structure was merely a frame shell with wire netting, covered with straw. A props man was to saturate the interior with petrol, then make a trail to a safe distance so that he could throw a match from his end. This of course should happen just as the fire-engine emerged.

    For some unknown reason this man lit the match whilst he was still in the ‘haystack’. Although he was making his trail through a hole left for that purpose, he was not prepared for the extra boost he got when the petrol exploded. He shot out so rapidly that he avoided being burnt but unfortunately, he also misjudged this timing. The fire-engine was too far away to give the desired effect and he was in the picture, being catapulted through the air!

    Of course it had to be done again but the stack was a tangled mass of ashes and wire netting. To add to our troubles the clouds had started to bank up and blot out the sun. Also—it was Saturday afternoon and all the shops were shut. We needed extra straw for another haystack.

    Going into town we discovered the owner of the hay and corn store was playing in the local cricket team and was batting. Hoping he would get out smartly, we just had to wait. He was caught out soon after and we persuaded him to open up his store to supply us with some bundles of straw. Back on location we rebuilt the haystack and the sun peeped through the clouds sufficiently enough for us to get the shot.

    It was to a fire in a barn that the fire-engine was driven through the haystack—the firing of the actual barn on location was to be faked. A very careful detailed model was constructed of this building, complete inside as well as outside. This model was taken on location and positioned on cantilevered arms about six feet away from the camera. It was on a base, surrounded by old carts, fencing, etc. This merged into the distant landscape several hundred yards away. It was set on fire and filmed in slow motion. As the walls collapsed, the interior with horse-stalls and so on were seen, until it burned to the ground and we finally got the result that we desired.

    I had become very friendly with Mr. and Mrs. C.T. Lorenz of Sydney. Carl Lorenz had a flourishing business with shops—he was an optician and optometrist—in practically every suburb in Sydney. I had designed and fitted out for him a three storey shop, after gutting the original premises. The lower ground floor was for general examinations, etc., the next floor was for offices and the next housed the workshops.

    Clarice Lorenz had bought a very large house at Bathurst. This rambling blue-stone mansion required some renovations—which I planned and had done for them. Wallpapers and carpets had been selected, with no emphasis on cost. Unfortunately an accident had happened to the wallpaper at one top corner in the master bedroom—water had entered from a blocked gutter and spoilt it completely. I got rid of the segment which had been ruined and patched up the blank space, not with the same costly wallpaper but by painting matching colours into the missing patch. It was remarkable how successful this was.

    A very long and high corridor ran right through the house. Carl had arranged for a painter from Bathurst to come in and paint the ceiling. Leaving my room one morning on my way to breakfast, I came face to face with two very high trestles, topped with a narrow plank. An odd character who could have modelled for Fred in the ‘Right, said Fred’ comedy routine, was standing by the trestles surveying, in a contemplative fashion, a full four-gallon petrol-tin of paint. Wishing this character ‘Good morning’ I inquired if he really intended to take the tin up onto the plank—and a 9 inch plank at that. Regarding me sourly, he assured me that he had had many years of experience. ‘I know me job,’ he said, with an air of ‘And you can mind your own bloody business’. Shrugging aside my misgivings I continued on my way to breakfast. Several ghastly events came in quick sequence—as I sat down at the table the seat of the antique chair slipped and the end of my vertebrae, where the tail was once joined, scraped down the wood of the seat.

    Shutting my eyes and shuddering while electric thrills were rushing round my body, I was subconsciously prepared for the unholy clatter and din which suddenly shattered the early morning silence. Clarice and I dashed out into the passage, to be confronted with a most horrifying (if not all that surprising) sight. Fred had maneuvered his full pot of paint up onto the plank, only for disaster to overtake him. He overbalanced, knocking over the tin, and four gallons of paint splashed onto the walls, forming a river of paint which crossed the fantastically expensive carpet and flowed to the door of the billiard room and into one of the bedrooms. It seemed incredible that a mere four gallons could cover so much space. There was only one redeeming feature to this stupid, stupid incident. It was a water-based paint and after many days and much labour, and with dozens of buckets of clean water, most of the paint was washed out of the carpet and off the walls.

    It should be of interest to note here that Clarice Lorenz was the power and guiding force behind the forming and financing of the opera company in Sydney. She spent huge sums of money keeping opera going in Sydney, and was possibly the most persistent advocate responsible for the building of the Sydney Opera House. It is rather sad to have to state that nowhere will anyone be able to discover any evidence that her tremendous output of money and energy were in any way appreciated. Both Carl and Clarice Lorenz were musicians of concert standard and I felt highly privileged to attend a performance by Carl on his grand piano, accompanied by his wife on her harp. Together they made music of an enthralling quality.


    NOTE: Melbourne’s first concert hall, the Auditorium, located at 171 Collins Street, opened in 1913. Built and managed by J. & N. Tait, the complex comprised an eight-story office building with a three-tiered performance space on the ground level. Though principally a venue for live concerts, it was also used for the screening of silent movies. By the 1934, under the management of MGM, the venue was remodelled into a ‘modern’ cinema and renamed the Metro Collins. In 1975, Greater Union took over the cinema and it became known as the Mayfair Theatre. This closed in 1982 and the space was remodelled as Figgins’ Diorama, an exclusive department store. This venture lasted only 19 months and another short-lived retail venture took over. In 2010, the building was demolished and the facade was incorportated into a new 17-story office development.

  • Varney Monk—Ours for Us

    varney monk 01

    The following profile and interview with Varney Monk was first published in Jean Devanny’s book Bird of Paradise in 1945.

    “I COULD have such a pleasant happy life with my husband and family if I did not possess this urge to fight for justice for Australian compositions.”

    varney monk 02Varney Monk in 1951. Photo by Eric Francis. National Library of Australia, Canberra.So spoke Varney Monk as she threw open a window encasement at her delightful home at Mosman, and gestured towards the dusky harbour view. I, however, found the interiors behind me much more interesting than the conventional forested slopes of the low foreground, the steel shield of the bay, the jewel-studded bow of Sydney’s Eastern suburbs beyond it. So, with a perfunctory glance downwards over the red-tipped gums climbing down to Little Sirius Cove, I turned back into the lounge rooms behind me.

    The house seemed to be nearly all lounge. And indubitably Varney Monk’s home. The home of a composer, with its soft richness of colour, its dimness, and quiet in which the vibrations of the music she had been playing when I interrupted her, still lingered.

    The red wood panelling of the walls was hung with paintings and etchings and old prints, framed in mahogany and bird’s-eye maple. Nothing anywhere was new. The long, fabric-covered sofa, with its sinuous, flowery, curved supports, cried shame on modern “divans.” The chairs, the occasional tables, the built-in and cupboard-like bookcases, all were old-Australia farmhouse or were brought out to Australia by the first pioneering families. 

    One corner was filled with a long, lovely, red mahogany harpsichord. “I’ve always had an instinct for real Australian things about me,” said Varney, as she lifted the lid of the instrument to show me its dusty inside. “This came from the South Coast, from Jamberoo. It was brought out from Scotland by the Waugh family, Scottish pioneers, who were among the first settlers. I’ve got old Miss Waugh's bed, too.

    “The harpsichord must be at least 150 years old. I dug up some old documents about the Waugh family in Edinburgh and the time of their departure for the colony.”

    The soul of the instrument had departed. It had died of old age, its tinkling treble gone to join the spirits of the frail old ladies whose fingers had danced modestly upon its keys. Varney’s piano was old, too. A Lipp. She would like a Bechstein, now. A piano was something a pianist and composer could not afford to be sentimental about.

    “For years I have been collecting,” she continued. “See. This is a gentleman's piece, as they call it.” She pulled out a drop table and opened it out. “But most of the things are old farmhouse. If Cyril had been as interested as I we could have got a fine collection together. He calls it junk.” She laughed.

    Yes, she was part of it herself. Part of the Australian tradition; homely, practical, unspectacular and persistent. Quietly building around herself a frame-work of Australia-made, Australia-worn, as a background for the music of Australia she spun from the mystery of her mind.

    * * * * * * * * * *

    I was not surprised to hear that Varney Monk was born in Victoria, at Bacchus Marsh, near Melbourne.1 She looks much more “Melbourne” than “Sydney” even now, though most of her life has been spent in the N.S.W. metropolis.2 Her heritage of talent for music she got from both her parents.

    At twelve years of age she composed her first song. A dreadful bit of work, she confided. Paling’s published it under the name When Roses Fall.A glorified little girl took home a bundle of the printed sheets clasped to her breast, her mind filled with ecstatic dreams of a future apotheosised. Varney clasped her hands.

    “I seem to have spent all my life bounding along to Paling’s in the hope of achieving fame, but nothing ever happened. From time to time I had things published with the publishers hoping for success, but not until I did Collits’ Innand The Cedar Treewas I well known to the ordinary public.

    “Twenty years ago I won a competition prize of a hundred pounds with The Old Bush Track.But in the end I had to publish it myself. It was recorded only the other day.3 I won the Broken Hill Jubilee song competition with the song Broken Hill,which is not printed yet. I won the first radio Eisteddfod song competition, also writing my own lyric.

    “My volume called Songs of the Southwas rejected by the publishers on the ground that Australia lacked romance. No one would buy it, they thought. My book of Baby Ballads,however, is used in the State schools.”

    In her teens she had been filled with radiant enthusiasm and did a lot of work. One or two things she did then just missed out on being a real success. After her marriage, at twenty-one years of age, to Cyril Monk, the violinist,4 she set music to some of Adam Lindsay Gordon’s poems. These were first sung in public as an accompaniment to a lecture on Gordon delivered by the late A.G. Stephens.

    “I first heard the name of Adam Lindsay Gordon,” she told me, “when as a child of eight I was taken by my godfather, Dr. Wisewold, and my mother to the spot where Gordon shot himself. My elders were quite unaware of the deep impression that visit made upon me.5 My mother’s wedding gift to my father was a copy of Gordon’s poems. I treasure it most of all my first edition copies of the Australian poets. ‘To my beloved’ is inscribed upon the flyleaf.”

    Later, Varney set music to many Kendall and Lawson lyrics, among them being Kendall’s Rose Lorraine, Bell Birds, September in Australia, The Muse of Australia, Names Upon a Stoneand The Song of the Cattle Hunters.

    From Lawson's lyrics she selected The Sliprails and the Spur, On the Night Train, Kiss in the Ringand When the World is Wide.In 1943, the first-named of the Lawson group was broadcast by the B.B.C.6

    “Lawson,” said Varney, “was a great admirer of Henry Kendall. Once, when visiting Kendall’s Rock, he told a friend not to mention him in the same breath as Kendall for he was not fitted to tie his shoelaces. Lawson also expressed a wish to be buried near Kendall.”

    Varney lists her Kendall songs among her best work. “I feel that no one could have under-lined Kendall better than I did,” she said simply. “I made no attempt to gild the lily. The melodies I wrote to his lyrics but widened the poet’s horizons. My favourite Kendall song is Names Upon a Stone.On the sixtieth anniversary of the death of the poet when a pilgrimage was made to his grave and the children laid wattle upon it, Roderick Quinn read that lyric to the company. He also considers it to be Kendall’s finest poem.

    “I don’t suppose many Australians are aware of the impulse that stirred Kendall to write it. It was the outcome of an excursion with George Fagan, one of the family that befriended him so conspicuously.

    varney monk 05George Fagan’s home “Cooranbeen” where Kendall stayed, now known as Henry Kendall Cottage. National Trust.

    “In 1870, Kendall walked from Sydney to Newcastle, arriving there destitute and ill. George Fagan met him in an hotel and took him to his home and cared for him. For many years thereafter Kendall lived with the Fagans. On Christmas Day, 1874, George Fagan and Kendall walked out from Gosford and upon the rock now known as Kendall’s Rock, the poet carved their initials. There followed the poem, which was dedicated to George Fagan.

    “It was George Fagan that Kendall sent for when he was dying. George brought him in from the country to Sydney and arranged to have him admitted to the St. Vincent’s Hospital. Kendall was unhappy there, however, so George took him to Redfern, where the Fagan family then resided. Kendall died there on August 1st, 1882.

    “When I heard that John Joseph Fagan, the last of the family, was on his death-bed at Gosford I went up to see him. On the Pacific Highway I passed the Rock and the obelisk that was subsequently erected nearby and saw that the verses carved upon the latter were the very ones from the poem Names Upon a Stonewhich I had selected for my song.

    “When I introduced myself to Joseph Fagan and told him I had come to take the hand of a man who had known Kendall he was terribly pleased. He told me he had loved Kendall like a brother and spoke at length about his fine character and sweet disposition.”

    In that period Varney conceived the idea of writing an operetta around the life of Kendall and to that end she visited the Mitchell Library to gather any available material about him. Maybe, she thought, some of his contemporaries were still living. She found two books on Kendall, both written by Mrs. Hamilton-Grey.7 One was inscribed with the author’s address. Circumstances decided her to relinquish the idea of the play, but there remained with her an indeterminate desire to contact Mrs. Hamilton-Grey, should she be still alive. Then it happened that she received a letter from a former acquaintance, a Miss Black, and the address upon the letter was that written in the biography of Kendall, care of Mrs. Hamilton-Grey.

    Varney immediately called upon Mrs. Hamilton-Grey and made herself known to her. The old lady received her with pleasure, told her a great deal about herself and her interest in Kendall and gave her copies of her books. Varney placed the books beside her bed and at intervals, before going to sleep, would dip into them.

    One night she read Mrs. Hamilton-Grey's account of how Sir Henry Parkes had followed “the remains” of Kendall's mother to the grave. “One of the few.” The following morning, while breakfasting, she read in the paper the notice of Mrs. Hamilton-Grey’s death and of her interment that very morning, within an hour or two.8

    It was a dreadful day. The rain poured down. Varney hurriedly slipped into a mackintosh, pulled an armful of purple flowers from the garden, hurried to the mortuary and asked to see a relative. Mrs. Hamilton-Grey’s agent came forward and informed her that there were no relatives present. He himself and the clergyman were the only people in attendance. Varney followed the hearse with them in their car, one solitary car. It drew up close beside the grave. The agent held an umbrella over the clergyman's head while he read the burial service. Varney’s were the only flowers and she dropped them upon the coffin as it was lowered, a tribute to the lonely forgotten woman who had given such loving service to the recording of Kendall’s life.

    * * * * * * * * * *

    Most of Varney Monk’s Kendall, Lawson and Gordon songs remain unpublished.

    “We Australian composers and musicians cannot be entirely absolved from responsibility for the general indifference on the part of the public to our compositions,” she stated.

    “We have lacked the dynamic to organise competition with overseas productions.

    “At the same time we have received little encouragement from the theatrical producers and broadcasting stations. And this despite that there has never been a failure with an Australia-written production! Possum Paddock, On Our Selection,and others, have all been successful, yet the producers will not put on our shows. I know there are several good musicals in existence to-day, written by Australians, and they cannot get the chance to make good.

    “The whole outlook of our commercial producers has been wrong in the past. They have under-rated Australia, they have under-estimated the patriotism of the people, they have failed to understand the needs of the great mass of the common people, who in the long run are the life-blood of the theatre. They complain of having lost money on their shows and so long as they persist in thrusting upon us entertainment that appeals only to a section they should expect to continue to lose money. They catered for the small minority whose roots are not embedded in the land and the fundamental life of the people, and then grumbled because they were let down. Taken as a whole, I think the judgement of the mass of our people is very good. Australians have always been ready to acclaim anything really good.

    “The Australian audience are descendants of the old pioneers. They are interested in the life of their ancestors and the present events that sprung from it. If they are not consciously interested they are potentially so. We need entrepreneurs and producers out of the people, men who will combine education with national pride and culture with entertainment. And they in their turn should have Government support.

    “Our present playwrights of importance are awake to the needs of our people; just as our present novelists are. They are producing plays with their roots in the soil. All that is required is a chance of good presentation in well-equipped theatres, the kind of production that would bring in an income to the playwrights and composers and enable them to devote their full time to their art.

    “And if ever there was an opportunity to boost our productions it is now! The theatres are over-crowded. The towns are full of Americans anxious to realise Australia. I say it is a crime to neglect such a chance.

    “The Labor Government gave our producers a lead when they decreed, in 1941, that two and a half per cent of all music that goes over the air must be written by Australians. My musical plays Collits’ Innand The Cedar Treewere broadcast at the time of their production but nothing more of mine was accepted by the broadcasting stations till after that measure was passed. The result of the Government’s action proved that all we need is a chance, for immediately there came a steady outflow of work from our composers. The music that had lain by for so long is now being played. I find now a continuous demand for my songs from our singers. The Australian Broadcasting Commission has recently performed my Kendall, Lawson and Gordon songs. They have also done Collits’ Innagain.9

    * * * * * * * * * *

    Both Varney and Cyril Monk spoke feelingly and appreciatively of their country’s most distinguished composer, Alfred Hill. “Hill is not only high-brow,” said Cyril. “His chamber music gives him a distinction far beyond and above all other Australian composers, but in addition his output includes work that makes him one with the people.”

    Carefully and thoughtfully Cyril essayed an estimate of his wife's distinctive place in the register of Australia-created music.

    “No other composer,” he said, "expressed so clearly and so long ago, the crying need for a peculiarly national musical expression. Varney’s music has been unswervingly and successfully Australian. She may claim to be the most Australian composer, though others may be more gifted. Just as Moussorgsky is more truly Russian than Tschaikowsky, whose appeal is more universal. Varney may define herself as an amateur, perhaps, but she is an amateur with something to say of significance and importance in the life of the people. She has given wholesale attention to our poets, as against the slightness of her colleagues’ contribution in that field.... At any rate, in the past.”

    * * * * * * * * * *

    Varney Monk believes that she was inspired to the production of Collits’ Innby some subtle spiritual imperative. She regards it, as one might say, as her star of the southern cross. The seeds of the idea were dropped into her mind during her honeymoon days, though years went by before they broke ground, flourished and bore fruit. The seeds were the play of her mind around a story she heard from the lips of a venerable old man, a story that links with old colonial days.

    varney monk 10J.W. Berghofer (1843–1927)—Mt. York obelisk. Blue Mountains Library.

    The old man, a unique, a wonderful old man, to Varney’s way of it, was a German-born, naturalised Australian named J.W. Berghofer, featured in early twentieth-century literature as the Father of the Centenary Movement. Berghofer organised the centenary of the first crossing of the Blue Mountains by Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth. His was the initiative in raising the obelisk at Mt. York, commemorating the work of the explorers. His own spirited contributions to community-welfare are perpetuated in the giving of his name to the pass running from Mt. Victoria to Little Hartley.

    To allow pioneers like Berghofer to fade into oblivion would be, in Varney’s opinion, unforgivable. She feels terribly ashamed to think that during World War I, the old man, who had arrived in Australia at the age of sixteen, was persecuted for the accident of his birth. Few native-born Australians are as interested in Australian history as he was. He came to love the land of his adoption.

    Berghofer was for fifty years manager of the Kinimbla Station in the Hartley Valley. In 1905 he retired from that position and established himself and his wife in an inn near Mt Victoria, an inn dating back to 1837. Its name, Vittoria Inn, he changed to Rosenthal, in later years to be modified to Rosedale.

    To that inn went Varney and Cyril Monk to spend a part of their honeymoon, which was concluded at Norfolk Island. And so enamoured did they become of the splendid old couple who kept it and the gracious and lovely surroundings that they returned there to holiday again and again. It was during one of those trips, seated one night round the fire, that Berghofer told them the story of Collits’ Inn. 

    “He was full of tales of early Australian history,” Varney told me. “He had a wealth of local colour stories. He made Hartley Valley come alive before one.”

    On this particular night he led up to the Collits from reminiscing about the original road made over the mountains, the road made by William Cox with convict labour in six months. That road ran past Collits’ Inn. But its steepness had decided Sir William Thomas Mitchell, in 1832, to build another road, one that deviated from Collits’. Pierce Collits had been a convict. Varney believes that probably he was one of the four convicts who accompanied Blaxland and his companions on their original Crossing. The names of those four were never recorded. But a Mrs. George Nash, at the time of writing still living with her husband at the back of Collits’ Inn, told Varney that during the Centenary of the Crossing she had seen a bracelet inscribed with a legend linking the name Collits with Blaxland.

    However that may be, Collits was assigned to his wife on her farm on the Nepean River. Later he received a grant of land west of the mountains, at the foot of Mt. York, and there he built his inn.

    In a shack on the Kinimbla property, Berghofer’s story ran, a widowed, aged woman named Mrs. Skene had lived. One day she had visited the Berghofer home and asked for the loan of some foodstuffs to make provision for an unexpected visitor. Knowing her for a recluse Berghofer had expressed surprise and in explanation the old lady had told him her story.

    She was Amelia, daughter of Pierce Collits, and had grown from childhood to womanhood at Collits’ Inn. She had fallen in love with a young Ensign in charge of a road gang and Pierce, hating the Redcoats with all the vehemence of an ex-convict, had forbidden their marriage and driven the Ensign away. In the fury of frustration Amelia had sworn to marry the first man who entered the inn after that. One Skene, a foreman on Mitchell’s new road, had been the first man to enter and Amelia had fulfilled her vow.

    Her visitor was the one-time Ensign, now a widower. He had returned to the valley to ask Amelia to redeem their love of the past by marriage in their old age. She refused to marry him, however. She told Berghofer that she felt it was now too late for her to change her mode of living.

    That story stuck in Varney Monk’s mind.

    varney monk 11Vittoria Inn, Hartley (1887) later known as Rosenthal and then Rosedale. Blue Mountains Library.

    Berghofer eventually disposed of Rosedale and went to live at Mt. Victoria, so the Monks had to seek some other place in which to holiday. And the place they decided upon was the old Collits’ Inn, for many years past known as Mt. York Farm, but still a guesthouse and wayside teashop.

    There in the old inn, Varney’s mind was filled anew with the young Amelia’s tragedy. She felt as though a wind blew up from the valley to stir the strings of the harp of her talent. Roaming about the valley she got the feel of it. She felt as though she were linked with the pines, beneath which, in a tiny graveyard, lay the crumbling headstone of Amelia Collits’ grave. She became hyper-sensitive to the pathos of the sighing and the rustling of the pines, to the drifting down of their needles. She felt herself part of the symbolism of the place, of the hush of the valley, the pathos and the sighing and the drifting. The valley became for her like a voice from the past urging her to do something about it, to bring the past before the present, the love and the sorrow and the beauty of her country’s colonial days.

    * * * * * * * * * * 

    Some years later, Nathalie Rosenwax, a teacher of singing who conducted a Music Club at Post Office Chambers, George St., Sydney, instituted a competition for an Australian musical play and Varney saw in it the invitation to bring her dream to life. Stuart Gurr, her neighbour, agreed to write the play. Varney herself wrote most of the lyrics. Howard Carr, judge of the competition, awarded it second prize. He saw its possibilities and offered himself to orchestrate the music and conduct it when presented. A cast and orchestra were assembled from volunteers who gave their services freely. It was performed in the Savoy Theatre in Bligh Street and so deep was the impression made on the public that Carr went down to Melbourne for the purpose of interesting the entrepreneur, F.W. Thring, in the possibilities of professional production. Thring, a wealthy man who was devoting himself to furthering Australian talent, gave the music an audition and decided to produce the play.

    “My friend Phillipa Alston sang the numbers,” said Varney. “She sang them gloriously. She really sold the play to Thring. When she had finished he walked over to me with his face all smiles, took both my hands and said he would do the show at all costs.

    “I felt absolutely sure of success, but the cast themselves were at first pessimistic. Then one day I interviewed a certain paper and revealed that the play was based on Australian history. It was something right out of the manure heap at home.

    “That changed the whole outlook, stimulated the interest of players, press and public. Stuart Gurr had written an original play but he had been as interested as I was in the historical colour, and that could not help but orientate it.

    Collits’ Innplayed to packed houses for seven months, the longest run of any musical show in Australia since the advent of the Talkies. With White Horse Innit holds the record. Gladys Moncrieff, George Wallace and the rest of the cast gave it their best. One of the numbers, Australia,sung by Robert Chisholm, was put forward by the press as fitting for a national anthem.10

    “As a tribute to the success of the operetta the name of the inn, Mt. York Farm, was discarded in favour of the old name, Collits’.

    “If things had gone well from that time on, the play’s success would have meant the beginning of a new era in Australian theatrical enterprise,” continued Varney.

    “Our musical composers were roused to an immediate response. But Thring died and after that nothing was done to help Australian composers and playwrights till the Labor Government moved in the matter.

    “We went through ten years in the doldrums.

    “Thring’s loss to Australian music was inestimable. He recognised that we Australians only need encouragement and opportunity to produce original plays and operas equal to the best the world has to offer. He believed in the national integrity of our people.

    “He spared no expense in the presentation of Collits’ Inn....A revolving stage was used, especially constructed for the operetta. He intended to film the play but his death disposed of that project. And also of the dreams of the Australian composers who had seen in his enterprise the fulfilment of their theatrical aspirations.”

    However, as I write, a request has come from Howard Carr, now in England, for a copy of the script to be forwarded to him with a view to presentation there.

    * * * * * * * * * *

    A whole chain of coincidences has linked Varney Monk’s life with Collits’ Inn. As a girl, en route to Kelso, near Bathurst, her grandmother stayed at Rosedale, then Vittoria Inn. She sang in the choir of the little church at Kelso, the church in which Amelia Collits was married to Skene, the first marriage to be solemnised there.

    Governor Darling once stayed at Collits’. The Darlings were friends of Varney’s great-great aunt, Mrs. Richard Jones, who named her home at the top of William Street, Sydney, “Darlinghurst,” after them. Later the name was bestowed upon that whole area.

    Varney’s life-long friend, Mrs. Henderson, on whose advice she and Cyril Monk had first chosen to visit Rosedale, when residing at Manly found that she had as neighbour a man named Skene, who proved to be one of Amelia Collits’ ten children.

    Again, Nathalie Rosenwax’s Music Club, in which she had made her decision to hold the competition, had been part of the old Sydney Barracks, from which the young Ensign must have gone to take charge of the road gang and thus meet Amelia Collits.

    Nathalie told Varney that she pondered long on the advisability of running that competition. Again and again she thrust it out of her mind, to have it continually recur. She said the idea was like a gong note struck here, then another struck there, till finally one note sounded so loudly that she felt impelled to take the plunge, though at the time she had no idea where the prize money would come from.

    Even yet Varney feels that she has not seen the last of her work for Collits’ Inn.The late George Reeve sent her a sheaf of letters bearing upon the history of the Collits. She envisages a book around the family, a book that would follow the links in the chain connecting them with Blaxland and his fellow explorers.

    * * * * * * * * * *

    varney monk 18“Stay While the Stars Are Shining”—Robert Chisholm and Gladys Moncrieff in mid-song—John Frith caricature for The Bulletin,4 July 1934, p.18.

    Collits’ Inndid well for everybody concerned with its production. It gave Varney new I hope and enthusiasm. She felt full of ideas, her mind was prolific. But then came a setback. 

    In collaboration with Edmund Barclay and Helene Barclay she got to work on another operetta, The Cedar Tree.F.W. Thring produced it. It did not go so well as Collits’ Innin Melbourne, but in Sydney it was even more popular and was playing to crowded houses when some personal circumstance compelled Thring to disband his company.11

    The Cedar Tree,” said Varney, “has yet to come into its own.”

    Both Collits’ Innand The Cedar Treeremained unpublished. In 1943 Chapell and Co. printed some of the numbers of the first-named. In 1942 Columbia recorded a song from Collits’. 12 The songs Varney wrote during the year succeeding the production of the plays also lie unpublished.

    Then came the war! Her strong patriotic desire to link her work with her country inspired her to write When the War is Over,both words and music. It was published on completion and did very well.13 When the enemy were coming very close to Australian shores and people were looking anxious and “blue,” Varney wrote music to the words: There's Going to be Good News,which was also a success, and collaborated in We’re So Glad to be Homeand Homeward. 

    * * * * * * * * * *

    “Of course I can only speak authoritatively from the angle of good light music,” she told me finally. “I am only competent to speak about that. But, no matter how it came about, or whether it should be, good light music is closest of all music to the heart of my people; it is woven most closely into our traditions.

    “In the post-war period I think it should be the duty of our leaders to educate the people in the appreciation of ever better music. Particularly by means of the radio. Not to dodge their responsibilities behind the shibboleth: ‘the people get what they want.’ The task of leadership is to guide the people ever upwards, in all spheres.

    “I think a lot of fine poetry will come out of this war, which will doubtless inspire our song-writers and composers to do better work. Most music is invoked by the stirring of the emotions by great deeds, by sorrows and tribulations. The horrors and sorrows of this war should stimulate all our creative work, to their weaving into music and song.

    “In relation to music we should not argue from the angle: Is Australian music as good or better than the music we get from overseas? The point is: Our country must produce its own fair and just proportion of the world's music. The value of our music lies in its difference to that of other countries.

    “I frankly admit that I desire personal success. Why not? Personal success is a weapon that gives one authority to further one's ideals for the good of humanity. 

    “I was born a fighter. I have never laid down my arms. I never will lay them down. I will fight for Australian compositions till I die and I look to the post-war era to give them a break in a national way.

    “Collective effort is what we composers and musicians have neglected in the past. That is the dynamic we have lacked. It is the group that gives power and strength to advance, that is able to compel recognition of just claims. I feel that the new era for which our boys are dying in this war will enable collective effort in music as in every other sphere. Not ‘me for mine’ but ‘ours for us!’ That is the slogan, I feel sure, that we musicians and composers must inscribe upon our banners.”

    Published in BIRD OF PARADISEby Jean Devanny [Frank Johnson; Sydney & Melbourne: 1945] as Chapter XXVIII(pp.256-267)



    Compiled by Robert Morrison

    1. The Victorian Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages notes that Isabel Varney Desmond Peterson was born to parents Miriam Jane and Ernest Jonathon Peterson in 1892, and that her place of birth was recorded as the inner-city Melbourne suburb of Brunswick. (Registration no. 373/1892)

    However Varney Monk’s belief that she had been born in Bacchus Marsh is evident from the following letter giving details of her life published in the Bacchus Marsh Expresson Saturday, 10 March 1934, p.3:


    Writing to “The Express” from her home, 37 Raglan street, Mosman, Sydney, Mrs. Varney Monk, composer of the musical score for the successful all-Australian play, “Collits’ Inn,” states:

    varney monk 19Varney Monk in 1934. Photo by Broothorn.“My name was Peterson before my marriage, and my father was a solicitor in Bacchus Marsh. The doctor who attended my mother at my birth was Dr. Wisewold, who was my Godfather. We left in 1892 when I was 10 days old and went to Tasmania. My mother died when I was 11 years old; and my father, five years ago. My mother was a woman of character and sweet disposition. What I remember of her and all my childhood memories are ones of her being very unhappy. I have not thought much about her (as children forget so quickly) until the past few years, and, strangely, she has been constantly in my thoughts. If I have accomplished anything it is to her I owe most, as she left me (under great sacrifice) sufficient money, for my musical education, and if I have justified in part all she went through, that is the greatest happiness that the success of ‘Collit's Inn’ has brought to me.”

    “If there is anyone in Bacchus Marsh who remembers my mother I should love to get in touch with them. When I was in Melbourne I was so busy, and then when my family arrived they always seemed to have some outing planned, and although many times we intended going to Bacchus Marsh, it never eventuated.”

    “The poem by ‘Den’ in ‘The Express’ has made me long to see it all for myself. As I expect to be in Melbourne again before long I shall never leave without a visit to Bacchus Marsh.”

    “My husband Is Mr, Cyril Monk, violinist, of the N.S.W. Conservatorium. We have a son 18 years old, and a daughter, 16 years. The former commences his medical course this month. He has a strong literary and musical gift, and has written several plays.”

    “I hope I may accomplish next time something better than what I’ve done, and the interest Bacchus Marsh people have taken is most stimulating and creates the desire to do something in gratitude for ‘Bacchus Marsh Concentrated Milk’—for saving my life, I’m told. I am sure Bacchus Marsh has the spirit and atmosphere to produce much talent and ability.”

    “I am asked for details of my career. I won the £100 competition some years ago for an Australian song, ‘Down The Old Bush Track;’ and later the best song in the Australian Radio Competition; and last year the Broken Hill Jubilee Song Competition. With Lady Bavin I collaborated in a book of children’s songs, ‘Baby Ballads,’ now used in New South Wales schools.  ‘Collits’ Inn’ was also a prize-winner in a competition.

    2. A profile of Varney Monk published in Smith’s Weekly on Saturday, 22 December 1945 (p.13) noted that: Owing to the death of her mother while she was still only a girl. she lived with Mrs. Violet Henderson, of Manly, becoming in fact a member of the Henderson family, an association of pleasant memories and musical result, since it was Mrs. Henderson who first introduced her to the beautiful valley of Hartley, on the Western side of the Blue Mountains. (Ref.:

    3.Having performed the song in his concert repertoire for a number of years, the Australian bass-baritone Raymond Beatty recorded Varney Monk’s The Old Bush Track for Columbia at the Sydney studios at Homebush on 3 June 1943, with piano accompaniment by Idwal Jenkins. It was issued with catalogue number: Columbia DO-2591

    4.Isabel Varney Peterson (who had been a piano-accompanist to her husband-to-be on the concert platform for a number of years previously) married Cyril Monk at St. Phillip’s Anglican Church, Sydney on Monday, 22 December 1913. (Ref: )

    5.Poet, Adam Lindsay Gordon (who was born in the small English village of Charlton Kings near Cheltenham in 1833) committed suicide with a rifle shot to the head on Brighton Beach, Victoria on 24 June 1870 at age 38; an action motivated by his depression resulting from mounting debts. He was buried in Brighton General Cemetery (see

    6.Australian baritone, Harold Williams sang Varney Monk’s musical settings of The Sliprails and the Spur, On the Night Trainand Kiss in the Ringas part of a program marking the 75th anniversary of Henry Lawson’s birth broadcast by the ABC on Wednesday, 17 June 1942 from 8 p.m.

    7.Mrs. A.M. Hamilton-Grey’s books on the life of Kendall included: Facts and fancies about our “son of the woods” Henry Clarence Kendall and his poetry[John Sands, Sydney:1920], Poet Kendall, his romantic history (from the cradle to the Hymeneal altar) [John Sands, Sydney:1926], and Kendall, our “God-made chief”, “a singer of the dawn”: a continuation of Poet Kendall, making a complete history from cradle to grave[John Sands, Sydney:1929].

    These became the subject of a court case in March of 1938 wherein the Chief Judge in Equity was asked to determine whether a direction contained in the will of Mrs. Hamilton-Grey, in which she left the sum of £2,490 for the republication and distribution of her books on Henry Kendall following her death, constituted a valid charitable trust. Various parties (including the poet’s surviving son, librarians and a biographer) testified that her books were full of inaccuracies, both biographical and topographical, and in parts gave purely inferential narratives of Kendall’s life and work. It was further claimed that errors and unwarranted assertions were numerous and, from a purely literary point of view, the books were practically negligible, and as criticism were of no value. The judge, during argument, said that he was inclined to think that Mrs. Hamilton-Grey’s will was intended to gratify her own vanity rather than to do service to literature. (Ref: In the event, only her first book was republished by the Sydney firm of Publicity Press in 1940.

    8.The Funeral Notices on page 9 of the Sydney Morning Herald for Friday, 12 February 1937 noted that:HAMILTON-GREY.—The Remains of the late Mrs. AGNES MARIA HAMILTON-GREY will leave our Funeral Home, corner Miller and Falcon streets, North Sydney. THIS (Friday) MORNING. at 10 o'clock for the Presbyterian Cemetery. Northern Suburbs. WOOD COFFILL LIMITED.”

    9.The ABC broadcast a 45 minute radio adaptation of Collits’ Inn on Saturday, 16 October 1943 via the National Network on relay from 2FC Sydney with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, conducted by J. Farnsworth Hall, in a production by Lawrence H. Cecil. No cast details for the performance were listed in radio guides and newspaper program listings of the period.

    10. The professional premiere of Collits’ Innwas staged at the Princess Theatre, Melbourne on 23 December 1933, where it played for a 15 week season, concluding on Saturday, 7 April 1934. Its subsequent Sydney season opened at the Tivoli Theatre on 22 June 1934, where it ran for a further 9 weeks (see Collits’ Inn Revisited by Peter Pinne at )

    11.The Australian premiere of The Cedar Tree was given at the Princess Theatre, Melbourne on Saturday, 22 December 1934, where it had a run of 8 weeks concluding on Saturday, 16 February 1935. F.W. Thring then leased the Criterion Theatre in Sydney from J.C. Williamson Ltd. for six weeks and opened his season of productions there with the English comic opera Jolly Roger (by V.C. Clinton-Baddeley, with music by Walter Leigh) on 23 February 1935, starring Gladys Moncrieff, Scott Russell, Alan Priora, Alfred Frith, Bryl Walkley and Claude Flemming (who also directed the show). This was followed by The Cedar Tree with the same principal cast (and director), which opened at the Criterion with the matinee on Saturday, 16 March for a two week season concluding on Saturday, 30 March 1935. Despite a favourable reception by the newspaper critics and “crowded houses” during its run, its brief season was attributed in newspaper adverts at the time to Gladys Moncrieff’s “early departure for London.”

    12. “Last Year” from the score of Collits’ Inn was recorded by The Melody Men at the Homebush, Sydney studios of Columbia on 14 May 1943 and was issued on the Regal-Zonophone label with catalogue number: G24752.

    13. “When the War is Over” was recorded by Harold Williams (with piano accompaniment by Horace Keats) at the Homebush studios of Columbia on 20 April 1942 and was issued with catalogue number: Columbia DO-2414. It may be heard on YouTube at 



    varney monk 20a

    The Cedar Tree

     Forthcoming Australian Musical Romance

    MR. F.W. THRING’S forthcoming production 'The Cedar Tree' (an Australian musical romance by Edmund Barclay, for which Helene Barclay has written the lyrics and Varney Monk has composed the music), takes one back to the Windsor of 1840. This setting was chosen for the play as being richer in early historical association than almost any other part of the colony.

    In 1789 Governor Phillip sailed up the Hawkesbury as far as Green Hills (Windsor), and the first settlers in the district arrived in 1794. As the ‘Granary of Young Australia’ the Hawkesbury furnished for years the raw material needed for the main settlement, and on the banks of the river shipbuilding was extensively carried out, and trading done with places as far away as New Zealand and Tasmania. In those days the cedar forests flourished and the sawyers felled and floated the timber down the numerous creeks. The onslaughts made on the cedar may be gauged by the fact that Macquarie in 1814 issued a proclamation forbidding its destruction without permission.

    Now only a few isolated trees are to be found, and the accompanying photograph was taken in the grounds of Claremont when the writer had the pleasure of calling there. Claremont is the oldest house in Windsor, and is now the home of J.M. Macnally, the well-known artist. Beneath these trees many famous personages of early history may have had confidential chats, for among the occupiers of Claremont one finds such well known personages as Andrew Thompson (the so-called ‘Founder of Windsor’), Governor Bligh, and William Cox. Governor Macquarie (who had a partiality for Windsor) often visited his friend Cox to discuss his great project, the building of the road to the west.

    varney monk 21

    IN ‘The Cedar Tree’ the character of ‘the Flying Pieman’ has been drawn from life. He was a well-known figure in and around Sydney, and was famous for his remarkable pedestrian feats, Carrying a boy. sheep, or goat on his back he would undertake to beat the coach from Windsor to Sydney—and win his wager! This eccentric of the eccentrics came of a respectable family, his father being Francis King, paymaster at the Treasury, Whitehall. As a youth his absorbing love of field sports unfitted him for any sedate occupation. In 1839 King sailed for New South Wales, bringing excellent testimonials which obtained for him a schoolmastership at Sutton Forest, and afterwards a tutorship in a private family; but his restless spirit finding this monotonous, he hired himself as a barman at the Hope and Anchor, at the corner of Pitt and King streets. Finally he threw up this job, too, to follow the ‘profession’ of a hot pieman. With his tall hat decorated with ribbons, streamers, and business signs, and wheeling his bright tin cans and glowing furnace of charcoal, he was a well-known sight on the streets of Sydney, Parramatta, and Windsor. He died in the Liverpool asylum for the destitute in 1874.

    IT was Archibald Bell of Windsor who found an alternative route over the Blue Mountains, known as Bell’s Line. The first two Australian-born poets came from Windsor, and Barrington, the famous pick-pocket, died at his farm here. Another link with the play is the Royal Hotel of to-day, once the home of the Fitzgeralds and later used as mess-rooms for the military officers. Windsor, as a garrison town, must have presented a lively and a very social air in those days.

    —Varney Monk.

    The Sydney Mail (NSW), Wednesday 13 March 1935, p.28,

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

    varney monk 22

    He Wrote the Cedar Tree

    A New Australian Music-Comedy

    CEDAR TREE, the new Australian musical comedy, began at the Melbourne Princess Theatre on Saturday, December 22, and is to be broadcast next Saturday, December 29. The stars are Gladys Moncrieff, Alan Priora, Claude Flemming, and Alfred Frith. The comedy part was written for George Wallace, but he is making films, so they got Mr. Frith to make a come-back.

    The author of the book-of-words is Mr. Edmund Barclay, well known to all listeners for his innumerable radio sketches and revues broadcast from the Sydney stations and Mr. Barclay said: “Following the success of ‘Colitts’ Inn,’ Mrs. Varney Monk asked if I would collaborate with her in writing a second show. Mrs. Monk had a melody which for some inexplicable reason suggested to her an old and friendly cedar tree.  From this melody, now the theme of the production, we conceived the idea of a cedar tree playing a benevolent part in the lives of a family of pioneers. The first step was to change this melody into a song. My wife and Varney Monk got at the piano together, and while Varney Monk played Mrs. Barclay took down the melody on the typewriter in a musical shorthand of her own invention. Once the musical balance had been attained the actual lyric was written. Then we looked around for a background. I considered the bare outlines, and finally decided on Windsor, because it had been the centre of the cedar-cutting industry in the old days.

    “So up we went to Windsor. We saw the oldest inhabitant, Mr. J. Masters, aged 92; a son of Sir William Cox’s butler. We found him sitting on the back verandah of his son’s house, and went boldly forward to question him. At the first word of greeting we discovered he was practically stone deaf.

    “I retired to the background, and Mrs. Monk did the shouting.


    “He told us that the only voice he had heard distinctly for some years was Charles Moses describing the Test cricket. Then he gave us very many amusing stories of the early days at Windsor. Most were about convicts. Also he told some very good anecdotes concerning ‘The Flying Pieman,’ whom he remembered only dimly, but whose reputation for eccentricity lingered in the district for many years.

    “Having by this time got the feel of the thing, we set to work. My task was comparatively simple. I went right ahead with the play, and when a certain situation called for a certain type of song the composer and lyric writer went to work and got them written. I found the experience I had gained in pulling about ten musical comedies to pieces and reassembling them for the [Australian Broadcasting] Commission to broadcast very useful when it came to writing a book of my own.

    “As to the story: It is set in Windsor, about 1830, and deals with the cedar and shipbuilding industry. Gladys Moncrieff’s part is of a woman carrying on her deceased father’s belief in ships built of Australian cedar. The story is not historical, but original, and worked out against a historical background. The ‘Australian atmosphere’ is not thrust at the audience in large chunks, and there are no kangaroos hopping across the stage, and, unless the producer decides otherwise, there will not be one single solitary pair of whiskers. The comedy part is of ‘The Flying Pieman’, a well-known identity of the Hawkesbury Road, who caused a great deal of comment. He used to think nothing of carrying a live goat on his shoulders frorn Parramatta to Windsor for a trifling wager. We have endeavored to make the comedy an integral part of the plot, and not just put in as an afterthought. The ‘Flying Pieman’ is woven into the general pattern of the play, and Mr. Frith should do very well with it.

    “The action concerns two men and a girl. The only novelty is that there is no villain. The young brother of the heroine is spoiled and dissipated. He bails up one of his sister’s lovers on the highway to get money to pay debts. The young lover seeks to save him from prison, and returns the money while disguised as a notorious bushranger. But just at the wrong moment the ‘Flying Pieman’ arrives, thinks him a real bushranger, and there is a scuffle, during which he is unmasked. He has to get out of the district in a hurry to avoid being drummed out of his regiment and executed. The young brother, in a fit of remorse, writes a confession of his part in the business, and puts it in a hole in the old cedar tree, where he and his sister used to play when they were children. But the confession remains there undiscovered, and the discovery, years later, forms the climax of the piece.”

    Wireless Weekly (Sydney), 28 December 1934, p.11

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

    Helene and Edmund Barclay with their son, Peter and dog, Dah

    Varney Monk Discography

    (10”, 78 rpm)

    Night ‘Neath The Stars—Gil Dech and His Syncopators (5 June 1930)

    Columbia DO-110

    Bridge Of Our Dreams Come True—Len Maurice (25 August 1930)

    Columbia DO-166

    The Old Bush Track—Newton Goodson (Late 1937)

    Macquarie 588

    When The War Is Over—Harold Williams (20 April 1942)

    Columbia DO-2414

    There’s Going To Be Good News—Eileen Boyd (21 May 1942)

    Regal Zonophone—G-24598

    Last Year—The Melody Men (from Collits’ Inn) (14 May 1943)

    Regal Zonophone—G-24752

    The Old Bush Track—Raymond Beatty (3 June 1943)

    Columbia – DO-2591

    Some Distant Day—Clement Q. Williams (8 November 1946)

    Columbia DO-2946    

    Homeward—Barbara & Reg: (Barbara James, vocal; Reg Lewis, piano) (25 September 1945)

    Regal Zonophone—G24975

    Macquarie Place / The Man In The Cabbage Tree Hat—Norman Barnes, with Varney Monk at the piano (1952)

    Columbia Process Recording PR-1570 [custom pressing by EMI (Australia) Pty. Ltd.]

    Stay While The Stars Are Shining (from Collits’ Inn)

    Gladys Moncrieff—Sings Musical Comedy and Operetta

    (2×LP, Compilation, Mono, Gatefold)—issued 1987

    EMI—EME 430062


    Radio discs

    During the second world war (and into the 1950s) Humphrey Bishop produced many musical shows for radio. These were recorded in the Sydney studios of AWA on 16-inch transcription discs. The following Varney Monk compositions were included in these musical broadcasts:

    There’s Going To Be Good News—Walter Kingsley

    We Are Glad To Be Home—Joyce West & Varney Monk

    Last Year (from Collits’ Inn)—Monda Lenz

    I’d Like To Be A Statue In The Park (from The Cedar Tree)—George Brown

    The Cedar Cutter (from The Cedar Tree)—Male chorus

    There’s Going To Be Good News—Noel Easton

    When The World Was Wide—Walter Kingsley

    The ABC also recorded a number of Varney Monk’s compositions on 78 rpm discs for use in its broadcasts of Australian composers. These included:

    In Martin Place—Rosina Raisbeck (1946)

    “Australian Composition” record reference number: AC 6

    The Sliprails And The Spur—Frank Lisle (1952)

    AC 148

    When The World Was Wide—Frank Lisle (1953)

    Kiss In The Ring – Frank Lisle (1953)

    AC 160

    What Look Hath She—Clement Q. Williams (1955)

    AC 231

    12-inch LP disc, ABC catalogue number PRX-4197, described as “An Australian Song Cycle” includes three songs by Varney Monk:

    Coo-Ee; Names Upon A Stone; and The Cedar Tree. The singers are Stewart Harvey, Joyce Simmons, and Noel Melvin

    The National Film and Sound Archive collection also includes the following Varney Monk recordings:

    Prestophone (16-inch acetate) Australian Singers At Home With Australian Composers—3 November 1944

    Side 1 Varney Monk Compositions interpreted by Eric and Marion Gormley, with the composer at the piano.

    one track, Cedar Tree. Drinking

    Side 2  No 2  Henry Lawson’s Lyrics, Set to music by Varney Monk.

    Blank label (7-inch 78rpm acetate) All I Ask (both sides)  written and composed by Varney Monk. No artist credit.

    Prestophone (12-inch 78rpm acetate) I Had A Dream  (words & music Varney Monk) — Newton Goodson, with Strings (dubbed from disc made in 1938)

    Prestophone (12-inch 78rpm acetate) Coo-Ee (Varney Monk) from The Cedar Tree / Australia  (How I Love You) (Varney Monk) No artist credit either side.  Both sides  “Dub from 16-inch disc”.

    Prestophone (7-inch  33rpm  acetate) He’s Here  / The Bells of Bathurst (words & music by Varney Monk )—Eric Gormley, with piano

    (Additional Discographical information provided by Peter Burgis)


    Picture Sources

    • Les Dixon caricature from Smith's Weekly, Saturday, 22 December 1945, p.13 
    • Cyril Monk and Alfred Hill photos by Harold Cazneaux included in a 1920s advertisement for the Beale “Maestro” Player Piano digitised by the State Library of New South Wales 
    • Nathalie Rosenwax photo from The Sydney Morning Herald, Thursday, 7 June 1934, p.9 
    • Stuart Gurr photo from the Melbourne Princess Theatre Collits’ Inn souvenir theatre program. 
    • Gladys Moncrieff, George Wallace, Claude Flemming and Robert Chisholm portraits from the Princess Theatre Collits’ Inn 100th Performance souvenir folder (presented to “every lady in the audience” on Tuesday, 20 March 1934), courtesy of Marriner Theatre Archive. 
    • Robert Chisholm and Gladys Moncrieff performance photo reproduced in Collits’ Inn playscript [Currency Press in association with Australasian Drama Studies, Sydney: 1990] 
    • Varney Monk 1934 portrait by Broothorn published in The Bulletin for 10 January 1934, p.37 
    •  TheCedar Tree photos (by Dickinson-Monteath) published in The Australasian on 19 January 1935 p. iii from State Library Victoria, Melbourne