On a visit to Bermondesy Antiques Market late last year, I discovered a box of old photographs and family records which later research revealed had belonged to a woman named Doris Eileen Chaplain (née Jones) of Ilford (see The Bermondsey Hoard). A few weeks ago I returned to see if the box was still there with the hope of purchasing another batch, but unfortunately this time the stallholder nowhere to be seen. I did however pick up a number of photographs which have been just as interesting to research, though some have been rather less forthcoming in giving up their secrets.
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One stall which immediately caught my eye was selling vintage carte de visite of Victorian and Edwardian Music Hall performers. I’d been interested in this subject ever since reading Dave Russell’s Popular Music in England 1840-1914: A Social History so decided to buy a small selection and see where my investigations led me.
Some performers were easy enough to identify as their names were conveniently included beneath their pictures. Such was the case with the two postcards below featuring “Miss Gabrielle Ray”.
Although her name was unfamiliar to me at the time, the “dancer, actress and picture postcard sensation” Gabrielle Ray was said to have been the most photographed woman in the world at the peak of her popularity in the first decade of the Twentieth Century. Her rise to fame and later struggles with alcoholism and mental health problems are described by H. Jaremko (1996) in the short biography below:
Gabrielle Ray was born in Stockport, near Manchester (UK) in 1883. She was quick to take to the stage first appearing in 1893, aged 10, in a production of “Miami” at the Princess’s Theatre in London. She continued touring and acting throughout the late 1800’s until she was spotted in 1903 by famous theatre manager and impresario, George Edwardes. From that point on she was catapulted into fame one major London show following another… In 1912 Gabrielle Ray announced she was retiring from the stage to marry Eric Loder. However, the marriage was unsuccessful and divorce followed. Attempting to return to the stage proved a less easy task in 1915 and while she continued to attempt to revive her career, in the early 1920s she finally lost interest. There then followed years of leading a more hedonistic lifestyle which eventually led to alcoholism and depression. In the late 1930s Gabrielle Ray was admitted to a mental home in Surrey, where she was to spend the rest of her life until 1973 when she died aged 90, to all intents and purposes, completely forgotten by the public that once so loved her.
After digitising these postcards I was able to find out more using Google’s reverse image search function, which enables you to search for identical or similar images to the one you upload. A search using the photograph on the right led me to another Gabrielle Ray fansite and a contemporary full-page advertisement for her 1907 play “The Lady Dandies” in The Illustrated London News.
The identities of some performers have proved more elusive however, such as that of of the woman in the photographs below.
She appears again in a series of posed photographs with an older male performer who was probably her partner in a comedy double act (to my eyes she looks like a distant Music Hall ancestor of Miranda Hart).
I checked a number of online Music Hall image archives such as StageBeauty.net and Vaudeville Postcards to see if I could put a name to either of their faces but found no matches. Even after digitising them a reverse image search yielded no results, suggesting that this may be the first time any of these photographs have appeared online. For a time I thought the man might have been Dan Leno but now I’m less convinced, and I’m still no closer to finding out the woman’s identity. At some point I’d like to get the opinion of someone with an expertise in this area, but for the time being I’m happy just to share these rare images with the world.
My final purchase was the superbly bleak and atmospheric family photograph below. There was no name or date on the back so I have absolutely no hope of identifying them (from their clothing I would guess it was taken in around the 1890s, but as the woman seems to be wearing fairly generic mourning wear it’s hard to say for sure), but I just liked the composition and the enigmatic expressions on the sitters’ faces. I’d love to know what was going through each of their minds when this was taken.