The question of alliances between women of the stage and men of the peerage was already a very old one by the time the theatre entered its 'Golden Age', although for most of that time such alliances were rare and severely frowned upon. The first known instance of an actress marrying a peer was that of Miss Anastasia Robinson, a beautiful operatic singer, who was taken to wife by the Third Earl of Peterborough (Charles Mordaunt) around 1724 (sources disagree to the exact year). In deferrence to the mores of the time, this marriage was kept secret for some years, with Anastasia living apart from the Earl and generally regarded to be his mistress. Their marriage was only openly sanctified a few months before both their deaths in 1735.
In 1752 at Aix in Provence, another beautiful actress/singer, Lavinia Fenton, was married to the Third Duke of Bolton (Charles Powlett) after a long affair and bore him three sons. From then until 1880 (the beginning of the 'Golden Age') around ten other such marriages occured, but by far the greatest number of these alliances occurred in the period from 1880 to 1925, with the famous 'Gaiety Girls' leading the way.
The first chorus girl to marry into the peerage, and the first of the 'Gaiety Girls', was Rosie Boote. Around the beginning of the twentieth century George Edwardes began his career as a theatrical producer at the Gaiety Theatre, which he turned into a mecca for musical entertainment. His girls needed to be able to sing and dance a little, but the main requisite was that they must be pretty, and he put together a bevy of the most beautiful girls in England. Their fame quickly spread and soon eligible and fashionable young men, the "stage-door Johnnies", began to haunt the Gaiety with arms full of flowers and bottles of champagne in the hopes of meeting one of these beauties and escorting her to dinner. Soon the 'Gaiety Girls', most of whom came from simple backgrounds, became a regular sight at the very best London restaurants, enjoying meals that would have cost them a week's salary, paid for by the badly smitten scion of some rich or noble family. Rosie Boote was of that ilk, although she did at least come from a good middle-class family - but Society was still shocked when the Marquis of Headfort elected to marry her. Despite the difference in station however, the marriage was a good one and lasted until the Marquis death. Rosie's charming manner soon won over his family's objections to the match and she fitted into her new station with seeming ease. The couple had two sons and a daughter together.
A number of 'Gaiety Girls' would go on marry Peers, a few, like Rosie, would snare a noble husband before they had ever graduated beyond the chorus line, whilst others, like Gertie Millar, would do so after they had used that as a stepping stone to greater success.
Many of these marriages were greatly resisted by the families of the men in question. When Lord Dalmeny proposed to Phyllis Dare in March 1903 for example, his family intervened and had the young man rapidly shipped off to Scotland out of harms way. But when her sister Zena Dare became engaged to Maurice Brett, son of Lord Esther, a few years later she received altogether the opposite reaction; his Lordship describing her as a 'first-rate girl' and saying he was proud to have her join the family. But the former reaction was the more common one, with threat of disinheritance and other pressures being applied to cool the young man's ardour and prevent him going through with the proposed marriage. But to renege on a promise of marriage in itself was not without consequences. In those days, before emancipation when the average woman was largely dependant upon a man for financial security, a man's promise of marriage carried the weight of a legal contract. To retract upon a promise of marriage was to take away her future security, and for that, in the eyes of the law, a woman must be compensated. A number of nobles therefore were made to pay heavily for not fully thinking through their promises of marriage. A few notable cases are detailed below:
Many other similar cases were settled privately, with the girl in question being "bought off" without the scandal of a public hearing. It should be noted that England was at the time the most favourable place in the World for a girl to bring an action for Breach of Promise. English courts were far more sympathetic to the girls point of view than those on the continent where, in most cases, she would be required to prove actual pecuniary loss in order to succeed. Similarly in the USA, whilst a few states approached the English view, most were more conservative and a few did not recognise breach of promise as a cause of action at all.
Despite the fact that these marriages were generally frowned upon in High Society they became so commonplace that "The Throne", the semi-official journal of the English royal court felt it necessary to publish an article in its February 1913 issue abjuring them. The article was prompted by the recent marriage of Olive May to Lord Victor Paget and it had this to say:
..... Only a week or so ago there occurred the latest instance of this kind. No great general interest was shown In the marriage of Miss Olive Mary Meatyard, professionally known on the Gaiety stage as "Olive May," to Lord Victor Paget, brother of the Marquis of Anglesey. The public has unfortunately grown used to cases of the sort, and has come to look on such unions merely as a mild joke, deserving of little more than a smile, a raised eyebrow, or the shrug of a shoulder. But the matter is really a very serious one. In considering this matter of mesalliances of peers, chief prominence naturally falls to cases like this. In which the bride is a musical comedy actress. First, because they provide far the most frequent instances of such marriages, and, secondly, because the ladies of this particular calling are, of all classes, as a rule, the most unsuitable to be the wives of men of high position and great responsibilities which are to be automatically transmitted to their heirs.....
Why were actresses the most unsuitable of women to marry men of high position? First of all they came from a profession that was still considered to be more than a little vulgar in polite society, despite the fact that these same people counted amongst theatre's best patrons. Secondly, most of these girls came from lowly backgrounds - because of the former reason, few women of good standing took to the stage - and so would be marrying far above their station. The article had more to say about the offsping of such unions:
If there is anything in heredity at all, what are those children likely to turn out? For one thing, the sense of responsibility to traditions can hardly be developed in them to a very full or satisfactory degree. For their father has shown himself to care little for the dignity of his class, and their mother has been unduly elevated from hers.Read Full Article
Article from "The Throne", circa February 1913.
Peers and Their Marriages: The First Preliminary to the Reform of the House of Lords Is to Prevent Hereditary Peers from Debasing Their Blood: This Important question Is the Subject of the Following Special Article.
Questions of constitutional reform are very much under discussion at the present, moment. Our political systems are undergoing a sort of greneral overhauling and sprang cleaning which may or may not result in substantial Improvement. Some of the schemes under consideration are likely in the end to do more harm than good if they come to fruition. But before unionists there lies one task which is open to no possibility of such objection, whicn is, in fact, an obvious and plain duty if the way is not to be opened to further encroachments by the enemies of the old regime of law and order, and if the supremacy of the best qualities of the English nation over dangerous opportunism and irresponsible demagogy is not to be extinguished forever.
The House of Lords has been shorn of many of its ancient powers. The task before us now is to see that it be not further weakened by internal influences; that our one great check upon reckless legislation be, instead, strengthened and consolidated to the utmost degree possible in its position as the body representing all that is best and purest in the high and honorable traditions of this country.
That such internal dangers do exist is unfortunately not to be denied. The one way in which the dignity of that house can be maintained is by the personal prestige and unquestionable fitness of its members for the exalted position that they hold. And that prestige — indeed, the very existence of the lords as anything but a mockery and a laughing stock — is threatened by a development of recent years which every day grows to greater and more menacing proportions. We refer to the increasing number of unions between hereditary peers and ladies of inferior station — mesalliances which strike at the very heart of the whole reason d'etre of the House of Lords.
Only a week or so ago there occurred the latest instance of this kind. No great general interest was shown In the marriage of Miss Olive Mary Meatyard, professionally known on the Gaiety stage as "Olive May," to Lord Victor Paget, brother of the Marquis of Anglesey. The public has unfortunately grown used to cases of the sort, and has come to look on such unions merely as a mild joke, deserving of little more than a smile, a raised eyebrow, or the shrug of a shoulder. But the matter is really a very serious one.
In considering this matter of mesalliances of peers, chief prominence naturally falls to cases like this. In which the bride is a musical comedy actress. First, because they provide far the most frequent instances of such marriages, and, secondly, because the ladies of this particular calling are, of all classes, as a rule, the most unsuitable to be the wives of men of high position and great responsibilities which are to be automatically transmitted to their heirs. We have nothing to say personally derogatory to any of these ladies. On the contrary, we congratulate them most heartily upon the enterprise and ability that has enabled them to rise above the status of life to which they were born. Nevertheless, the mere fact of such marriages is in itself regrettable, for social and other reasons, and the question of the children is vital and serious.
Apart from any matter of sentiment, there is the great and important issue of the qualities transmitted by heredity. That you cannot make a silk purse out of a sow's ear is a principle that has been admitted since the earliest times. We do not for a moment contend that merit without birth should not receive its proper recognition. That is quite a different matter. But the fact that there are men and women who rise to great things in spite of lowly birth is no excuse for throwing away the great advantages of generations of right breeding, and men who thus cheapen their hereditary privileges are guilty of a treachery to their traditions, for which nothing can really atone. We are most careful of the pedigrees of our animal aristocracy. Why should we be less jealous of the breeding of our human aristocracy?
We cannot debar the man who holds a high and honored name from bestowing a share in that name upon any lady who may gain his affections. But we can exercising the great and important privileges which attach to a hereditary member of the House of Lords. Pure blood Is always a most salient factor in the selection of leaders of men, and has been so recognized all through history. And in the case of hereditary peerages which entitle the holders to a seat in the House of Lords, it is not merely a valuable qualification, but the sole valid one. Therefore the peer who has sullied the blood of his family and of his descendants should be ipso facto debarred, him and his heirs, from sitting in the Lords.
Hereditary peers should be compelled in fact to produce their pedigrees and armorial bearings for scrutiny before being admitted to have a right to sit in the House of Lords. A peer who marries, say, a vaudeville actress or a barmaid, would under this system have a "bar sinister" placed upon his escutcheon by the official scrutineers. Whether he should or should not be allowed to legislate himself is a moot question, but descendants in the direct line should lose their hereditary qualification and recover it only If the claimant could prove that he had earned the right to reenter the privileged class by his own consplcious merits.
If aristocracy means anything it means "the rule of the best men," both in birth and breeding, and all the qualities that go with them, otherwise there is no aristocracy. Can any one for a moment say that such alliances are consistent with the maintenance of the true strain of ancient and honorable nobility? If there is anything in heredity at all, what are those children likely to turn out? For one thing, the sense of responsibility to traditions can hardly be developed in them to a very full or satisfactory degree. For their father has shown himself to care little for the dignity of his class, and their mother has been unduly elevated from hers. Such talent or other attributes as they will gain from the admixture of blood will in all probability not be of the kind suitable to their rank and station. They may acquire an outlook and attitude to life which is actually inimical to their proper traditions. At best it Is probable that they will be neither aristocrats in the proper sense of the word nor sturdy middleclass - their tradition of noblesse oblige will be cracked and sullied, with nothing to take its place.
The case of Lord Victor Paget Is still quite fresh in every one's memory. The husband of Miss Meatyard, a possible Marquis of Anglesey in the future, belongs to an illustrious house, whose ancestor, Lord Paget de Beaudesert, was summoned to parliament under that title in 1552. His sisters are future Countesses of Pembroke and Shrewsbury, respectively, and a daughter of the Duke of Rutland is his sister-in-law.
Another very old title allied with the musical comedy stage is that of Lord de Clifford, which ranks fourth on the roll of baronies, having been created by Edward I in 1299. The late Lord de Clifford, who died three years ago, married Miss Eva Chandler ("Eva Carrington"), one of Mr. Seymour Hicks' "Gibson Girls" and daughter of an orderly clerk, the present 5-year-old peer being the offspring of that marriage. Another "Gibson Girl" in the peerage is Mrs. Lyndhurst Bruce, who was known as "Camille Clifford" before she became the wife of the future Lord Aberdare. Earl Poulett, whose title dates back to a royalist ancestor ennobled in 1627, took his wife from the Gaiety stage, the daughter of Mr. Fred Storey, the comedian.
The Marquis of Headfort married Miss Bessie Boote, also from musical comedy, and their eldest son will in due course claim his seat in the Lords. Viscount Torrington, at one time page of honor to Queen Victoria and King Edward, and a descendant of the famous Admiral Byng, married Miss Eleanor Souray, a former member of one of Mr. George Edwardes' companies — the chief guest at the wedding being, we believe, Tod Sloan, the jockey.
In all the cases mentioned — which by no means exhaust the list — the title is a representative one, and the heir of such a marriage is by law entitled to sit in the House of Lords.
The House of Lords has weighty functions and an honorable place in English life. For unionists, especially. It is of the utmost moment that the one body which stands between the country and its demagogues, between the England of high traditions and the iconoclasts with none, should consist of. those who are, without exception, aristocrats in the fullest sense of the term — men whose birth and breeding and untainted blood make them real representatives of the old nobility, which, whatever its faults, has the merit of being above the pettier considerations and the lighter ambitions which cloud the atmosphere of the political arena.Hide Full Article
This point was further illustrated with a rough diagram:
A. Peer of historic family with unblemished lineage.
B. Lady with unknown ancestry which may be tainted.
C. Their son, who by reason of his father's blood alone inherits inherits the rights of an hereditory legislator, although he may also have inherited the moral, mental and physical blemishes of his mother's unknown ancestry.
In gist, the article proposed barring Peers who married actresses from continuing to occupy their seats in the House of Lords, or at least of removing from their children the hereditary privilege of following them in that esteemed position. That these arguments were spurious hardly needs enunciating. In fact many of these actresses fitted extremely well into high society when they were given the chance. To 'make it' on stage was not an easy task. Those that did, by force, possessed or learned confidence, self-assurance, wit and charm. They were, by and large, women of some character and in a number of instances proved the making of their foppish husbands.
The table below lists known actresses who married Peers or sons of Peers (many of whom succeeded to their fathers titles during their marriages) between 1880 and 1925 - the period whan the greatest number of these marriages took place.
|Actress' Marriages to Nobility 1880 - 1925|
|1884||Dolly Tester (Dorothy Haseley)||Marquis of Ailesbury (George W.T. Brudenell-Bruce)|
|1887||Jane Louisa Reynolds||Baron Brampton (Henry Hawkins)|
|1889||Belle Bilton (Isabel Maude Penrice Bilton)||Lord Dunlo (later Earl Clancarty)|
|1892||Connie Gilchrist||Earl of Orkney (Edmond FitzMaurice)|
|1893||Lidiana Maichle||Baron Haldon (Sir Lawrence William Palk)|
|1894||May Yohe (Mary Augusta Yohe)||Duke of Newcastle (Henry F.H. Pelham-Clinton-Hope)|
|1894||Ellis Jeffreys||Hon. Frederick Curzon, 3rd son Earl Howe|
|1901||Rosie Boote||Marquis of Headfort (Thomas Taylor)|
|1901||Rachel Estelle Berridge||Earl of Clonmel (Rupert Charles Scott)|
|1904||Kitty Gordon (Constance M. Blades)||Hon. William Walter Horsley-Beresford|
|1905||Anna Robinson||Earl of Rosslyn (James St Clair-Erskine)|
|1906||Camille Clifford||Hon. Henry Lyndhurst, heir to Lord Aberdare (Died WW1)|
|1906||Eva Carrington||Baron de Clifford (John Southwell Russell)|
|1906||Frances Donnelly (nee Belmont?)||Lord Ashburton (Francis Denzil Baring)|
|1906||Carrie Coote||Sir William Pearce, Baronet|
|1906||Clara Elizabeth Taylor||Laird of Kippendavie (Jackie Darling Stirling)|
|1907||Denise Orme (Jessie Smither)||Baron Churston (John Reginald Lopes Yard-Buller)|
|1908||Eileen Orme (sister of Denise Orme)||Hon. Henry Nelson Hood, heir to Viscount Bridgport|
|1908||Sylvia Lillian Storey||Earl Poulett (William John Lydston Poulett)|
|1910||Eleanor Souray||Viscount Torrington (George Master Byng)|
|1910||Irene Desmond||Sir Richard Levinge|
|1911||Zena Dare (Florence Hariette Zena Dones)||Maurice Brett, 2nd son of Lord Esher|
|1911||Clara Elizabeth Taylor||Lord George Cholmondeley|
|1913||Olive May (Olive Mary Meatyard)||Lord Victor Paget, heir to Marquis of Anglesey|
|1913||May Etheridge||Duke of Leinster (Lord Edward Fitzgerald)|
|1913||Peggy Rush||Viscount Dunsford|
|1914||Mae Pickard||Earl of Cowley (Christian Arthur Wellesley)|
|1915||Evie Carew||R.G. Winn, heir to Lord St Oswald|
|1916||Leonora Parker||Baron Cheylesmore (Francis Ormond Henry Eaton)|
|1917||Irene Richards||Marquis of Queensbury (Francis Archibald Kelhead Douglas)|
|1920||Jose Collins||Lord Robert Innes Kerr, 3rd son Duke of Roxburghe|
|1922||Olive May||Earl of Drogheda (Henry Charles Ponsonby Moore)|
|1924||Gertie Millar||Earl of Dudley (William Humble Ward)|
|1924||Joyce Kerr||Baron Talbot of Malahide|
|1925||Linda Marshall||Baron Lyveden|
Three actresses married twice into the peerage, Olive May, Clara Taylor and Denise Orme (second marriage was to Duke of Leinster in 1946).|
One peer twice married an actress, the afore mentioned Duke of Leinster.
Viscount Torrington's second wife, Norah Ferens, was a society woman who became an actress (as Norah Byng).