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Monday, 14 December 2020

Tracking the Babes in Time

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babes in time


Once upon a time pantomime was synonymous with Christmas with its female Principal Boys and male Dames. Plots were drawn from nursery rhymes and legends, such as Babes in the Wood, as JUDY LEECH discovers.

 FROM A NORFOLK FOLKTALE to Sydney’s George Street and Melbourne’s Elizabeth Street we trace the footsteps of two of the world’s most put-upon waifs and encounter a multitude of characters, ranging from babes to barons, robins to robbers, and dance or stumble through forests and fountains, caves and castles.

Once upon a time, as the old English ballad goes, there were two little children who lived at the edge of a forest. When their father died, they were entrusted to the care of their uncle and if the children died a fortune would be left to him, so of course he must find some willing assassin to ‘do the dastardly deed’ once the children had been abandoned deep in that wood. The original ballad was also known as The Norfolk Gentleman’s Last Will and Testament, and very naturally, and as the story goes, this wicked uncle eventually received his ‘just desserts’.

In 1793 The Children in the Wood was created by Dr Samuel Arnold and presented as an opera at London’s Haymarket Theatre. In this first version the children survived and were restored to their parents, neither of whom had died. Later versions decided to return to the ballad’s gloomy and tragic original ending.

Almost twenty years later the Surrey Theatre, having begun life as the Royal Circus and Equestrian Philharmonic Academy (Blackfriars Road, Southwark), presented the tale as an operatic Burletta—a musical farce or comic opera. And in 1827, entitled Harlequin and Cock Robin; or, The Babes in the Wood, the children succumb to the elements in what was the first pantomime version, at Drury Lane, and again in 1856 at the Haymarket.

In 1867, eleven years later, Robin Hood made an appearance within the plot. Was the character of Robin suggested by the fact that, in the original ballad, the children were discovered by the feathered variety, a Robin Redbreast? The legend has it that this tiny bird will cover bodies with leaves, robins will never suffer a dead body to remain unburied. Anything goes—anything went—this was pantomime and Robin Hood, even though two centuries out, always appealed greatly to the pantomime-going public. This time Robin rescues the babes from their fate, but not always was this the case. In 1874 Covent Garden’s panto restored the original unhappy ending and also brought about the death of the Wicked Uncle—or Wicked Baron. In modern versions the children always survive, their uncle is unmasked or vanquished.

There followed many versions and many additions and alterations to the title and to the list of characters. Maid Marion joined Robin Hood, the Merry Men made an appearance, sometimes the ‘Wicked’ Sheriff of Nottingham is the Babes’ uncle—and naturally a Fairy makes an entrance at some point in the plot. Young women play boys and men, men play women and children, the two assassins, or cronies or robbers, one or sometimes both, would find they could not carry out those grisly orders.

In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries pantomimes took the form of a harlequinade, which was related to commedia dell'arte and the invention of stock characters. Classical myths and later, folk tales, provided an Opening with a Narrative, after which the characters would transform into the classic harlequinade roles—Columbine, Pantaloon, Clown and Pierrot, and Harlequin himself.

In 1897 at Drury Lane two men appeared as the Babes and ten years later another version handed the Babes to the Old Woman who lived in a Shoe, who planned to poison them with deadly mushrooms. The children escape and encounter giants, rabbits and ferrets but finally manage to reach Lollypop Land where they are crowned King and Queen.

The last Babes in the Wood pantomime to be presented at Drury Lane was in 1938 and was produced by Tom Arnold, who was responsible, in 1939, for the production of The Dancing Years in London. I can't help but wonder if he was not a descendant of eighteenth century’s Dr Samuel Arnold, who was the originator of The Children in the Wood!

The first Australian Babes in the Wood to be presented was at Sydney's Prince of Wales Theatre in 1859, entitled Babes in the Wood and the Good Little Fairy Birds, and this occurred barely six months after its first appearance in London at the Theatre Royal, New Adelphi. The author, Henry James Byron, the son of a second cousin of Lord Alfred Byron, described the production as a Burlesque Drama in One Act. Here follows a list of the cast in that original London production, given on the 18 July 1859.

The scenes included the courtyard of Sir Arthur Rowland Macassar’s ‘noble pile’, a schoolroom, an arched chamber within, and, inevitably, a wood in which one of the ‘very dreadful children’ makes himself very ill gorging on blackberries.

Known enigmatically as Mr Guy, the Australian designer was also involved in two other very early local productions—the first in 1856, working alongside a Mr Thomas, Eva, or Leaves from Uncle Tom's Cabin (presumably not a pantomime) and the second in the year following The Good Little Fairy BirdsThe Pilgrim of Love; or, Harlequin Prince Ahmed, the Talking Cockatoo and the Enchanted Horse. The mind boggles! The source was likely to be H.J. Byron's Fairy Romance Pilgrim of Love. Here Mr Guy collaborated with Alexander Habbe, the 31 year old Danish scenic artist.

In 1860 the Prince of Wales Theatre was destroyed, as so often happened, by fire, only to be rebuilt—with the same name—in 1863.

In 1879 Babes in the Wood was presented at Melbourne’s Theatre Royal (and at Sydney’s Theatre Royal it was entitled Babes in the Wood; or, Who Killed Cock Robin) and locally adapted by Garnet Walch, from the original pantomime by Englishman John Strachan, who was responsible, between 1879 and 1881, for another three pantomimes. Bland Holt not only played the part of Roberto, the Baron’s Henchman, he also was Our Clown in the Harlequinade Finale. The Babes were both played by girls, Rose and Lily Dampier, daughters of a famous theatrical family, and the scenic designers were the Dane John Hennings, Dublin-born Joseph (John) Little and Harry Grist from England.

The year 1885 saw the Babes presented at St Georges Hall, located on the western side of the Theatre Royal, opposite the Bijou Theatre, in Melbourne’s Bourke Street. And six years on, in 1891, Bold Robin Hood and his Foresters Good joined The Babes in the Wood at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Sydney, on Christmas Eve. Frank Ayrton wrote and directed, Frank Eugarde composed and directed the original music and London-born Alfred Clint was responsible for the scenic art. Here the director, Ayrton, and the choreographer Madge Seymour, played the Babes, Maggie Moore, J.C. Williamson's ex-wife, was Robin Hood and the English dancer Bella Bashall was Maid Marion. Bessie Rignold, niece of the producer George Rignold, was Fairy Goodheart.

The production opened in the Home of Pantomime, a cave full of glittering stalactites, and present were the Gnome King, the Spirit of Pantomime and Father Christmas—‘what is to be the subject of this pantomime?’ They settle on The Babes in the Wood. Act One is set in Sherwood Forest and the two babes are introduced, their wicked uncle Sir Rupert de Guile, his two ruffians, Roger Ruthless and Timothy Trembline, followed by, inevitably, Robin Hood and Maid Marion. The babes are lost, there are situations both very comical and pathetically sad.

In the Second Act there is a series of Dances of All Nations, a Toy Review [sic], accompanied by a cascading fountain of water flowing beneath coloured lights. Act Three is presented in Sir Rupert's baronial hall—a gavotte is enacted, also the Leslie Brothers’ ‘grotesque musical interlude’. The stage was a blaze of colour, with a dazzling frame-work of flowers and fruit, as it transformed itself and led into the traditional Harlequinade.

By this time, in the early 1890s, quite a number of those participating in ‘local’ pantos were sitting for H. Walter Barnett at his Falk Studios in Sydney’s Royal Arcade. To mention briefly a few, apart from those above, Pattie Browne, Jennie Lee, Violet Varley, Florence Young, Nellie Stewart and Aggie Kelton.

The following Christmas, in 1892, George Coppin, possibly inspired by Rignold’s 1891 success, secured Bland Holt as director, along with the entertainer/comedian John Gourley, who stepped in when Holt was taken ill with an unidentifiable illness a mere week before the opening night at Melbourne's Theatre Royal. John Brunton was brought in as the designer and the Sydney Morning Herald reported that for The Babes in the Wood; or, Robin Hood and his Foresters Good ‘the scenery forms a striking feature’ and ‘the transformation scene was a triumph of stagecraft’. Table Talk’s critic was not as complimentary and wrote of the ‘weak dialogue and the incomprehensible jokes’. The music comprised original material plus popular songs from both Australia and abroad; including ‘Finiculi, Finicula’ and ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay’. (John Brunton’s prodigious amount of work and his contribution to this particular production will be the subject of a later article.)

The Opening revealed the home of Father Christmas and a vision of a Christmas tree, surrounded by a circle of expectant children—much to the disgust of Herne the Hunter who plans to slay the precious babes whom he so loathes. The scene changes to an English village near Sherwood Forest, and we meet Dame Tabitha Durden and her scholars, the two babes (both female this time), and presently, Robin Hood and his Foresters. An archery contest takes place, where Robin (played by Ada Bemister) proves his skill. Acquaintance has also been made with the Wicked Uncle, Baron Bullyrag and his two bold, bad ruffians, Burglar Bill and Joe Ugly. They are observed plotting against the babes. Miss Bella Bashall, as Maid Marion again, executes, with fantastic skirt whirlings, her Serpentine Dance.

Windsor Castle, viewed from the Baron's pavilion, presents the opportunity for a spectacular regal pageant—the crowned heads of England, from the time of King William the Conqueror to the present monarch, Queen Victoria, complete with juvenile Life Guards on ponies, banner bearers, pages and heralds, and a band. The National Anthem is very appropriately played, before the curtain falls on Act One.

Act Two begins in the Baron’s picture gallery where the plotters bundle the two babes over to the ruffians, to take ‘a walk in the forest’. There follows a forest scene inhabited by the Foresters Good, who are joined by the children and their murderous companions. The babes manage to escape whilst the ruffians wrangle over how the murders are to be carried out—ultimately there is a duel and presumably they move off stage as the exhausted babes return to lie down upon a leafy couch and fall asleep. Robin Redbreasts and woodpeckers entertain the audience, in ‘high carnival’ fashion. What was described as a ‘Watteau retreat of light and love’ then introduced a children’s ballet and we are returned to the Baron’s Castle of Many Towers, which is now held by our hero Robin Hood, his Foresters Good and the rescued babes. The traditional Harlequinade followed, with Dame Tabitha as Clown, and two of the ‘Bad Ones’ as Pantaloon and Harlequin. Columbine was portrayed by Miss Rosalie Phillipini.

At precisely the same time, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves was playing at Melbourne’s Princess’s Theatre, with more of Walter Barnett’s subjects participating—Katie Barrie, Alice Lethbridge and Leila Roze. The troupe included the London Gaiety Burlesque Company and the prolific Faust Family. George Gordon and son John were responsible for the scenic art.

A rather different approach to those pitiful babes followed a year later with Sydney’s Theatre Royal production The Babes; or, Whines from the Wood. This was a localized adaptation by Cyril Sandham (with music by George F. Pack) from the previously adapted version by the Englishman Harry Paulton. The Australian rights had been secured from Willie Edouin by John Gourley, who had stepped in to co-direct George Coppin’s Babes’ panto the year before. In this 1893 production he had the role of Dolly—‘Poor little Dolly’—and alternated each evening with George Walton, playing Pierrot in the harlequinade. The scenic design was shared by Sydney-born William Kinchela, George Campbell, Joseph Little and John Hennings—a formidable foursome. Once again kings and queens made an appearance, there was a grand transformation scene incorporating a water-nymph and, described as the ‘rage of Paris’, the Ballet d’Action Comique á la L’Enfant Prodigue’s Harlequinade.

Although I have concentrated so far on the pantomimes featuring those ubiquitous babes, I mention others where the cast lists featured actresses and dancers who chose to be photographed by H.W. Barnett, or who were chosen.

Just three days after the premiere of Whines from the Wood, at Sydney’s Lyceum Theatre, J.C. Williamson and George Musgrove presented Beauty and the Beast, for which Bella Bashall created the choreography. Nellie Stewart was, of course, Beauty, and Florence Young played Prince Lionel. Polly Emery was one of Beauty’s sisters and Catherine Bartho, the first Russian ballerina to visit Australia, led the troupe of dancers. The following year, 1894, Melbourne's Princess’s Theatre saw a rather revised version with quite a different cast of characters. This classic fairy-tale, as a pantomime, employed several indigenous themes and topics within its narrative. Spiders and mosquitoes do battle with butterflies and bats, that is—bad versus good. There was, inevitably, a boxing kangaroo, an ‘electric’ snake dance, and a fabulous transformation scene disclosing George Gordon’s Beauty’s Bower.

Other actresses and dancers to find themselves on the pages of the Falk Studios’ Album were Hetty Patey, Marietta Nash, Alice Lemar, Billie Barlow, Jennie Opie and Enrichetta D'Argo, billed as the Prima Ballerina of Naples’ Teatro San Carlo. No doubt there are others.

Before the close of the nineteenth century other significant versions of the Babes were presented—in 1897 Babes in the Wood; or, Bold Robin Hood and his Merry Men was presented initially at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Sydney and the following year in Melbourne as an Easter attraction at the Princess, entitled simply Babes in the Wood, but still featuring Robin Hood (Millie Young) and Maid Marion (Ada Reeve). In fact by 1895 Walter Barnett had opened a studio in Melbourne, in Elizabeth Street, close to the Block Arcade, but run by his brother Charles and his sister Phoebe, and by 1898 Barnett was well and truly established in London where his clientele included subjects prominent in society and members of royalty.

Early in the twentieth century the Babes reappeared at the King’s Theatre in Melbourne, and again at Sydney's Adelphi at the start of the First World War, and exactly four years later at the conclusion of the war, at Sydney’s Grand Opera House. From then on, in every state of Australia, and on an irregular basis, someone would be presenting one version or another of this classic tale. Within the last one hundred years, at the last count, there have been at least twenty fully professional productions.

The Babes will continue to be lost, continue to be rescued, wicked uncles, sheriffs and barons to be unmasked, jailed, foiled, vanquished. The Babes have endured for almost two centuries, and here in the Falk Album we can catch glimpses of some who fled through forests, sung along with kings, queens and the merriest of men, and danced with dogs, demons and princesses.


Open the Album and see if you can spot them in costume! Theatre Heritage Australia Digital Collection


Catherine Bartho lead dancer in Beauty and the Beast - Lyceum, Sydney, 1893/1894
Billie Barlow as Dick in Dick Whittington - Theatre Royal, Melbourne, 1891/1892
Billie Barlow as Dick in Dick Whittington - Her Majesty’s Theatre, Sydney, April 1892
Katie Barry as Ganem in Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves - Princess Theatre, Melbourne, 1892/1893
Bella Bashall as Maid Marion in Babes in the Wood - Her Majesty’s Theatre, Sydney, 1891/1892
Bella Bashall as Maid Marion in Babes in the Wood -Theatre Royal, Melbourne, 1892/1893
Laura Bernard as Perserverance in Little Red Riding Hood - Lyceum Theatre, Sydney, 1892/1893
Pattie Browne as Ganem in The Forty Thieves - Theatre Royal, Sydney, 1891/1892
Addie Conyers as Boy Blue in Little Red Riding Hood - Lyceum Theatre, Sydney, 1892/1893
Enrichetta D'Argo dancer in Little Red Riding Hood - Lyceum Theatre, Sydney, 1892/1893
Rose Dearing as Morgiana in The Forty Thieves - Theatre Royal, Sydney, 1891/1892
Florence Esdaile as Fairy of Yuletide in Babes in the Wood -Theatre Royal, Melbourne, 1892/1893
Florence Esdaile as Jack in Little Red Riding Hood - Princess Theatre, Sydney, 1893/1894
Ethel Haydon as Queen Rose in Little Red Riding Hood - Princess Theatre, Sydney, 1893/1894
Aggie Kelton as Cinderella in Cinderella, Gold and Silver and the Little Glass Slipper – Theatre Royal, Sydney, 1890/1891
Aggie Kelton as Jack in Jack the Giant Killer - Alexandra Theatre, Melbourne, 1891/1892
Aggie Kelton as Bo Peep in Jack the Giant Killer - Her Majesty’s Theatre, Sydney, 1893/1894
Alice Lethbridge as Morgiana in Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves - Princess Theatre, Melbourne, 1892/1893
Alice Leamar as Little Red Riding Hood in Little Red Riding Hood - Lyceum Theatre, Sydney, 1892/1893
Maggie Moore as Dick in Dick Whittington and His Cat - Her Majesty’s Theatre, Sydney, 1890/1891
Maggie Moore as Robin Hood in Babes in the Wood - Her Majesty's Theatre, Sydney, 1891/1892
Maggie Moore as Selim in Bluebeard – Her Majesty's Theatre, Sydney, 1892/1893
Maggie Moore as Sinbad in Sinbad the Sailor - Theatre Royal, Melbourne, 1893/1894
Marietta Nash as Jack in Jack the Giant Killer - Her Majesty's Theatre, Sydney, 1893/1894
Jennie Opie as Abdallah in The Forty Thieves - Theatre Royal, Sydney, 1891/1892
Hettie Patey as Zephyr in Beauty and the Beast - Lyceum, Sydney, 1893/1894
Bessie Rignold as Fairy Silvertone in Dick Whittington and His Cat - Her Majesty’s Theatre, Sydney, 1890/1891
Bessie Rignold as Fairy Goodheart in Babes in the Wood - Her Majesty’s Theatre, Sydney, 1891/1892
Bessie Rignold as Queen Felicity in Bluebeard – Her Majesty's Theatre, Sydney, 1892/1893
Leila Roze as Abdallah in Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves - Princess Theatre, Melbourne, 1892/1893
Maie Saqui as Miss Muffet in Little Red Riding Hood - Princess Theatre, Sydney, 1893/1894
Nellie Stewart as Beauty in Beauty and the Beast - Lyceum, Sydney, 1893/1894
Cora Tinnie as Jack Horner in Little Red Riding Hood - Lyceum Theatre, Sydney, 1892/1893
Violet Varley as Princess Badroulbadour in Aladdin, Being a New Version of an Old Lamp - Theatre Royal, Melbourne, 1890/1891
Violet Varley as Little Red Riding Hood in Little Red Riding Hood - Princess Theatre, Sydney, 1893/1894
Isabel Webster as Princess Sazzlina in Sinbad the Sailor - Theatre Royal, Melbourne, 1893/1894
Lilla Wilde as Progress in Little Red Riding Hood - Lyceum Theatre, Sydney, 1892/1893
Florence Young as Pekoe in Aladdin, Being a New Version of an Old Lamp - Theatre Royal, Melbourne, 1890/1891
Florence Young as Prince Lionel in Beauty and the Beast - Lyceum, Sydney, 1893/1894



I am indebted to the following: Australian Variety Theatre Archives; AusStage—Australian Live Performance Database; Victoria and Albert Museum; State Library Victoria; Wikipedia; National Portrait Gallery; Tait Collection; Plays by H.J. Byron, Cambridge University Press, 1984; Project Gutenberg; It's Behind You - Babes in the Wood; and last but far from least, Elisabeth Kumm and Simon Piening.

Last modified on Friday, 18 December 2020
Judy Leech

Judy has had a twenty-two year career at the ABC Television Studios as a graphic designer, with occasional forays into children's book illustrations. This was followed by ten years working with the Rex Reid Dance Company on costume, set and props design. Since the late 1990s Judy has been closely involved, in a design capacity, with many of the annual musicals presented by Melbourne High and Mac.Robertson's Schools.