The search for Marie Henderson
I'm on a quest to re-discover a Victorian actress. She was born in 1841 at Daventry and called Mary Henderson. Twenty years later she married in Liverpool and became Mary Geogheghan. Closing the chapter on her life, Marie Aubrey died in 1882 at Bethlem Hospital, London.
The woman that I'm bringing to life is Marie Henderson, the name she adopted for the stage. She can be fleetingly observed in numerous archive records, most notably the Era newspaper. I must be careful not to idolise or idealise.
Marie Henderson would have been familiar with adulation from stage struck girls in East End and Surrey: perhaps sensing in the actress, the potential for freedom of expression lacking in their lives. Also subject to the male Victorian gaze. One that often assumed an actress was grafted from the loin of the prostitute.
So what does our Marie Henderson look like? This is my overriding research aim. I naively believe that unearthing her photo will allow me to gauge her existential being. That the chemicals on the surface of paper will atomise her soul. Allow her to speak (without words) and contradict all that has hitherto been published about her: not much, disjointed, man talk. Surely she must have posed for a carte de visit, during the 1860s or more likely 1870s, when based in London and at the peak of her powers?
The photograph in the slideshow above was purchased from a collector and had me temporarily excited. Foolish boy! It soon transpired the photo was not my (excuse my possessivess) Marie Henderson. It is a contemporary actress with the exact stage name. The V&A Museum Collections identified the photo as Mrs George Rignold. Further research would reveal confusing correspondence in the Victorian press about the two ladies. Can the editor please tell me how Miss Marie Henderson can appear in two different theatre productions on the same night? Ode to social media. Marie Henderson would be forced to take out a notice in 1875: "Miss Henderson (the popular Surrey favourite, and late of Britannia, Princessâs, Adelphi, Astleyâs, Surrey, &c.) begs to state that she appears only at the above theatre nightly."
At the moment I am relatively free to imagine what Marie Henderson looks, thinks and sounds like. I can construct an image of an attractive lady perhaps powdered to hide a birth mark on her left cheek. Born into a working-class and itinerant background that revolved around the rapidly expanding world of Victorian theatre. Through talent, hard graft and networking skills, she would become one of the leading exponents of expressive acting that represented the best of melodrama; an equal of any actress to be found in fashionable West End. Her powerhouse performances would reduce audiences to tears. Even stiff-collared, middle class theatre critics were enraptured. Being of Irish or Scottish ethnic origin, our English rose has a thistle or shamrock at heart.
Let me describe her life in five acts. Distinct biographical phases that compress thousands of theatrical roles, first observed in childhood, later performed on the stage. Her life tells us much about Victorian society: the world of theatre, the role of women, commerce, ethnicity and politics. The key text for study is Tracy C Davis: Actresses as Working Women: Their Social Identity in Victorian Culture, 2002.
Act 1: The curtain rises to reveal a girl waiting in the wings. 1840's-1860s.
Although her early years are shrouded in mystery, we can trace her backwards from the 1861 census. Mary Henderson was born of Irish or Scottish parentage in 1841 at Daventry, Northamptonshire. Her parents or grandparents would have migrated to England, one or two generations before the impact of the Irish potato famine in the 1840s. I suspect her father was Thomas W. Henderson; comedian, actor and possibly theatre costume supplier. We might be observing him in legal transcripts from 1846, accused of stealing Â£50 during an amateur production of Julius Caesar at the Bower Saloon in London. Found not guilty, he would be dashing off to Dover for his next job. Mary would have followed her parents as they roamed England from one theatre engagement to another. Mary would start acting on the stage from early years; no Victorian qualms about using children as labour in the marketplace and a pattern Mary would later repeat with her two daughters. The financial insecurity of working in the profession might have made for a difficult childhood, but exposed her to a myriad of experiences that could be stored in the memory bank. Theatre engendered a lifestyle that was a little rough round the Christian edges of society. Above all, It offered space for an imaginative girl to play act.
Act 2: The apprentice years at the Royal Colosseum Theatre, Liverpool. 1861-1866.
Liverpool was at the height of its imperial and trading power. It was a magnet in the North for Irish and Scottish migrants, looking for work and better opportunities in the industrial cities; a port of call before further emigration to Australia or America. One can see the Henderson's arriving here for work; there is no mention of Mary's mother in the archives and one assumes separation or death.
The theatre listings for Liverpool provide an outline of Mary Henderson's early career on the stage; she would only adopt the name Marie when establishing herself in London. She has joined the Royal Colosseum repertory company in a building that was formerly a Unitarian chapel and ringed by a graveyard. Mary made an immediate impact in "sensation" dramas as the heroine who might be thrown by the villain from a rock into a pool of water; cue extras wriggling like waves under a blue tarpaulin sheet. She would be working at the theatre with her husband, Frederick Geogheghan. He was a violinist who composed and orchestrated music for several of her melodramas.
Irish melodrama, often with a political subtext, were extremely popular at this time. Mary would play the lead roles in many of these plays: Kathleen Mavourneen; Ireland As It Was; Norah Creina; The Whiteboys, Na Bouchaleen Bawn or Ireland in 98. To get a flavour, here is a link to a recent production of Colleen Bawn.
Mary Henderson's most celebrated role was as the ghost in the hit play from 1863 called The Widow and Orphans: Faith, Hope and Charity. This was the first of several spectral dramas that used mirrors to create haunting optical illusions. It was also named after its inventor, Professor Pepper's Ghost.
Here is a memorable summary of The Widow and Orphans from The Mercury Newspaper, 21st July, 1863:
"It is a domestic drama, with three murders, one suicide, two conflagrations, four robberies, one virtuous lawyer, 23 angels, and a ghost. There are three heroines in the piece, Faith, Hope and Charity - the first, an elderly lady, widow of a clergyman, and in straitened circumstances; and the other two, her daughters, pretty and poor, and of course models of perfection, as indicated by the label. The plot turns upon the possession of the lease of a house which Sir Gilbert Northlaw, a proud and scheming baronet, class representative of the bloated aristocracy, has acquired by fraud from the clerical widow."
Act 3: Leading member of Britannia theatre and freelance star, 1867-1874.
Mary Henderson moved down to London with her family in 1867 and joined the repertory company of the Britannia Theatre in Hotxon. The Sunday Times in Dec 1867 noticed the new kid on the block: âPossessed of a pleasing appearance, some command of passion and clear pronounciation, this lady is likely to become a very great favourite.â Sarah Lane, actress and proprietor of the Britannia was an important role model for the ambitious Mary (or should we now call her, Marie Henderson). There is a vivid portrait of the theatre in The Britannia Diaries: Selections from the Diaries of Frederick C. Wilton, 1863-75, Society for Theatre Research, 1992.
Health and family commitments permitting, Marie would be appearing in a new production every week; only rarely did a play run for several weeks. She was cast as the young heroine experiencing moral and emotional dilemmas. Occasionally she would flex her muscles and play Shakespeare. There was also scope for cross-dressing into male roles.
Here's a brief sample of character parts she performed at the Britannia during this period:
1. Ellen Morton in The Dark Side of the Metropolis; written by William Travers. The plot revolves around a country orphan who is lured to London for sex trafficking. "Miss Hendersonâs acting, which is always good, was in this case all the more striking and gratifying, as she had to depict maidenly purity remaining unsullied in the midst of hateful vice." Era newspaper, 17th May 1868.
2. Florence Ashton in The Pace That Kills, (or Fast Life and Noble Life), written by C H Hazelwood. On her wedding day, a former lover turns up and wrecks havoc. "Great praise is due to Miss Henderson for the able manner in which she represents both the affectionate gentleness and surprising energy of the young, lovely and tired wife. It seemed astonishing that one so apparently delicate should act with the power and impressiveness which she exhibited when representing Florence as excited with a determination to foil and punish the man who had wronged her." Era, 13th March, 1870.
In the archives we have a revealing account of the sacred and profane in Miss Marie Henderson.
On the 12th July, 1869 she has travelled with 400 people and the preacher Alfred Gliddon (running a temporary chapel service at the Britannia theatre on Sundays), on a train from Moorgate-street station to an orchard in Hayes. A procession of hymns, sermons, music, tea, cake, hams, bread and butter would follow. Marie Henderson was the icing. She made a speech to the assembled folk about the virtues of appreciation, comprehension and imitation; singing the praise of Mr Gliddon and the Christian ethic. She concluded by making a prophetic statement (and more of that prophecy later):
"We have a proverb which says that from a little mending cometh great ease. Many poor cast-down creatures may apply this to their morals as well as to their clothes. But I fear I am trespassing upon your time, and you will accuse me of making too great an elongation of my speech. My sex is reputed for fondness of talking, but you must forgive me. If ladies ever get into Parliament, whatever will the poor men do to keep pace with our tongues?"
This is the only time in the archive that Marie Henderson speaks in her own words, admittedly performing a theatrically inclined spiritual service.
Two weeks later we have accounts of rebellion, sexual shenanigans and inebriation. Frederick C Wilton notes in his diary for July 29th 1869, that Marie Henderson is refusing to play the role of Juliet (in Shakespeare) when a fellow actor (possibly a lover) is threatened with dismissal. On the following day, the diarist notes how Marie was performing on stage while under the influence and fell off a platform, blaming the carpenters for their shoddy work.
Marie Henderson as diva? Why not! By 1871 she is able to pull in a packed house in an abridged version of Hamlet (playing the role of the Prince of Denmark). I suspect she was getting itchy feet and wanting to play bigger (not necessarily better) parts. A desire to transcend the Britannia rep and launch herself as a freelance actress.
The re-opening of the Astley Amphitheatre (home to equestrian drama) in 1871 provided the opportunity for blockbuster roles, better pay and elevated status. In the space of a season she showcased her athleticism and physical charms. Marie was selected to play the Amazon Queen in The Last of the Race (or Warrior Women), fronting an army of 100 Amazon fighters dressed in feminised armour, or should that read amour. This was followed by the role of St. George in the big budget pantomime of Lady Godiva and no doubt testing the limits of censorship. Her concluding role at Astley's was in a revival of Mazeppa (or The Wild Horse of Tartary). An equestrian spectacle with real cataracts of water and a troupe of warring Arabs on a battle field. Centre stage we have Marie Henderson as Mazeppa. In Byron's original poem, Mazeppa is a male lover punished by being tied naked to a wild horse that gallops across the countryside. Sadly no photos of Marie, but check out the risquÃ© Ada Isaacs Menken as Mazeppa in 1864.
"Miss Henderson is an actress of considerable spirit, and possesses admirable elocutionary powers. Added to these qualifications we have the fact that she has a handsome figure, and we have said enough to assure our readers that in her they will find a very attractive, a very daring, and a very accomplished hero, who is likely to make the perilous journey and to brace the dangers of the plains of Tartary for many weeks to come in presence of thousands of ardent and applauding admirers."
Era: 10th March 1872.
Act 4: Boom, bust and ashes at the Elephant and Castle Theatre, 1875-1880.
The freelance years had given Marie the confidence and experience to call her own shots. The lease to the Elephant and Castle Theatre was taken in 1875 and she established herself as lead actress and directress. John Aubrey, her second husband, would run the business. Marie used her extensive contacts and build a top-notch repertory company with a rolling programme of star actors.
"The E&C Theatre appears to thrive under the direction of Miss Marie Henderson, who, in addition to talents, which are enthusiastically recognised on the Surrey side of the water, has evidently good ideas on the subject of management, and succeeds in attracting good audiences by giving them the dramatic fare suited to their taste." Era, 22/08/75.
Marie would mount several Irish melodramas: The Shinghawn (1875), Moyna-a-Roon (1875), The Banshee, Spirit of the Borcen (1876), Gra-Gal-Machree (1876) and Home Rule (1880). Critics would note the "pathetic" power of her acting and the close bond established with a predominantly working-class audience: "Here comes Eveleen (in The Banshee), as one walking in her sleep and soliloquising, the audience becoming almost literally spellbound. The vociferous cheers which rewarded the artist were thoroughly well deserved." Era, 12/03/76.
Marie Henderson would also make bold decisions about casting actors from ethnically diverse backgrounds. The Mexican and Afro-American tragedians, Don Edgardo and Samuel Morgan Smith, had successful runs at the Elephant and Castle playing in a range of classical and melodramatic roles.
"Mr Morgan Smith was called before the curtain and greeted with unstinted applause. We put aside the questions of race and training. What is good is good, whether we find it in a Hindoo, a Chinese of a native of Fiji. Happily such narrow prejudices have passed away, and we were glad to perceive the audience listening with attention and giving the performer fair play. There were no more interruptions than there would have been if a white man had appeared as Othello. We must not admit to compliment Mr Morgan Smith upon the tenderness and warmth of feeling displayed in the scenes with Desdemona, a part which, as played by Miss Marie Henderson received its due importance throughout the play." Era, 24/10/75.
British society and theatre in the 1870s would have a complex relationship with issues of race and ethnic identity. Racist stereotyping would be an accepted norm. This is illustrated by a wonderful write-up, cum send-up of The Wild Flower of the Prairie produced by Marie Henderson and Mr Frank Fuller in 1877:
"If cheers, and tears, and laughter are to be taken as indications of success, it was in every respect successful. What better elements of success we should like to know could be supplied for melodrama than the doings of a pretty Indian girl; a couple of villains who are ever ready to âdoâ if not to die; a lonely spot where a catatact comes bubbling and foaming; a hero who is bound hand and foot, and, after a terrible combat is left to die; a heroine who comes in the nick of time to rescue him; pistol shots; oaths; appeals to heaven; thunder and lighting; limelight; a war dance; Ha Haââs in abunance; a legacy of vengence; hate; revenge; curdling Indian blood; Spanish vengence; threats of visits from the grave; beetling brows; daggers; gunpowder; coloured faces; big boots; hoarse vehemence; a comical Negress; an Irishman who is persuaded to turn âNiggerâ in order to watch over the interests of his master; bludgeons; bleedings; blightings; blows and brooms; âCanons of Deathâ (that is the name found for one of the scenes); blood stained pages; noble sacrifices; fights for life; moments of peril; and striking denouments. All these are to be found in The Wild Flower of the Prairie." "Miss Marie Henderson, looking bewitchingly picturesque, created a profound impression as Lupah, the wild flower of the prairie. Everything this lady attempts is marked by great intelligence, much grace, and more than ordinary histrionic ability." Era, 16/09/77.
In March 1876, Mr and Mrs Aubrey, on a roll, took over the Royal Victoria Theatre (Old Vic). She was once again director and would rotate her appearances at both venues. The Royal Victoria initially started with Shakespeare, but would also add variety to the programme before homing in on the box-office pull of melodrama; but running both theatres was financially unsustainable.
A fire that completely destroyed the Elephant and Castle Theatre on March 26th, 1878 would downgrade the aspirational fortunes of the Aubreys. No lives were lost, but the scenery, dresses and fixtures were uninsured. The Royal Victoria had to be given up, A charitable relief fund was set up to support the Elephant repertory company. Marie Aubrey would return to productions at her old stomping ground, the Britannia. It would take more than a year, with escalating costs, to rebuild the Elephant and Castle Theatre. It opened on 31st May 1879 with a melodrama called Raised From The Ashes.
Several critics at the time saw the disastrous fire as the cause of Marie's mental health problems. During the following seasons, Marie Henderson would become an infrequent performer on the stage. Business was never the same. John Aubrey would appear in the London Bankruptcy Court in 1880 filing for a petition of liquidation. His liabilities were estimated at Â£2,600 and assets Â£300.
The Aubrey reign at the Elephant and Castle Theatre came to an end. On 22nd August 1880, Mr Aubrey fired his last salvo in the press. "I have to inform you that I am still in possession of the premises, and that a motion for an injunction to restrain Mr Hosford, the landlord, from interfering with my proprietorship is now pending in the Chancery Division of the High Court of Justice." The court order was overturned on appeal and the theatre was opened by new management on 3rd October 1880.
Act 5: Paralysis of the Insane and last performance at Bethlem Hospital, 1881-1882.
The reputation and identity of Marie Henderson would now be fought out in the press and medical establishment.
Rev. F. Statham of St. Peter's Church, Walworth published a letter inviting charitable funds to support the actress.
"I take the liberty, through you of soliciting for the sufferer the sympathies of the Dramatic Profession generally. It is that of Miss Marie Henderson, the wife of Mr J. Aubrey, late lessee and manager of the E&C theatre. Through the loss of her wardrobe, etc, in the total destruction of that theatre by fire in the spring of 1878, and through more recent reverses, her mind received so severe a shock that she gradually lost her reason, and at the present time she is totally unable to resume her professional duties, and, in accordance with the doctorâs certificate, which, I append, there seems little chance of her ever being able to do so." Era, 26/03/81.
This would spark off a vicious correspondence in the press. A former actor at the Elephant and Castle, Walter Grisdale, who had a falling out with the Aubrey's, published a counter-response. Marie Henderson was not deserving of charity. He claimed that during the recent fire, money raised by public subscription wasn't adequately distributed to the actors and technicians, but lined the pockets of the Aubreys.
There was limited scientific understanding of the neurological complications of Marie's condition. The stigma of "madness" would frame discussion about mental health and brain disease.
H. H. B. Wilkinson: "Her view of ordinary things was defective and uncertain, owing to impairment of the reasoning faculty. She was, even at the period of which I speak, nothing more than a cipher in society." Era, 23/04/81.
Marie Henderson who once had complete mastery of hundreds of characters and voices in British melodrama, was now reduced to monosyllabic utterances: "yes" and "jolly" and "oh dear." We can poignantly recall that prophetic speech made to a crowd assembled in Hayes. The one concerning "morals" and "clothes" and a "fondness for talking." Her husband describes the delusions of his wife, thinking she was a great lady (possibly a character from one of her plays) and constantly dressing herself over and over. Instinctively, Marie held close to the theatrical costumes that once gave shape to her power of communication.
Money was eventually raised and she was sent to Bethlem (Bedlam) Hospital.
The medial records for Marie Henderson's stay at Bethlem tell the true story. She is finally diagnosed: Paralysis of the Insane. Full understanding and treatment of this disease, one caused by a sexually transmitted infection, syphilis, would only become available from 1910 and with advances in antibiotics.
Marie Aubrey died on 10th of April 1882. She is buried in an unmarked grave at Brompton Cemetery, grid reference AE/245.3/39.
On the 4th March 1877, onstage at the Elephant and Castle Theatre, an oil portrait was presented to Marie Henderson. The portrait of herself was inscribed with the following: "Presented to Miss Marie Henderson by a few friends and admirers of histrionic art.â Does that portrait still exist as a family heirloom? Perhaps gathering dust in an attic.
The Geoghegan's are rightfully proud of their family folk tree, but only reference their link with Henderson in passing.
I wonder if Marie Henderson once sang the ditties penned by her father-in-law, Joseph Bryan Geoghegan:
"Ye haven't an arm, ye haven't a leg, hurroo, hurroo
Ye haven't an arm, ye haven't a leg, hurroo, hurroo
Ye haven't an arm, ye haven't a leg
Ye're an armless, boneless, chickenless egg
Ye'll have to be put with a bowl out to beg
Oh Johnny I hardly knew ye."
Marie Henderson. I re-invoke you in word and oil pastel and film.
Who would I cast to play you? You would have to be an unknown.
Humour me, as I imagine presenting a script to the magisterial Max Ophuls, my all-time fave film maker. He would do justice to a biopic based on Marie's life. I see his endlessly tracking camera following a lady in the fog as she crosses the busy roundabout at the Elephant and Castle, dodging, perilously, trams and horses. Gathering her pace. Tracking past iron railings and lamp posts. The shouting of costermongers selling fruit or oysters. She drops a programme sheet. Does not care. Breathlessly reaching the front door of the theatre. It is locked. There is a CLOSED TILL FURTHER NOTICE sign.
This could be 1927, 1935 or 1974. Previous blog entries have outlined how theatre becomes cinema and melodrama morphs into horror at the Elephant and Castle. The actor, Tod Slaughter, playing the stage and screen roles of Sweeney Todd has a blood line to Marie Henderson's heart of melodrama. Sheila Keith in British horror flicks has a related vein of passion.
The concept of "horror" may seem connected with world wars and cinema of the twentieth century. However, ladies and gentlemen. Before horror, let us feast on melodrama: with sensational plots, exciting scenic devices, brazen displays of flesh and emotion - all embodied in the life and times of our heroine, Marie Henderson.