Sir Harry Lauder (1870-1950), by Karen Marshalsay
"The little wee man with the twinkling eyes and the twinkling feet ......"
Harry Lauder was born on 4 August 1870 in Portobello. His father, John, was a potter by trade and an Edinburgh man, while his mother, Isabella Urquhart MacLeod MacLennan, was from the Black Isle. The family moved to Musselburgh to be nearer to John's work, and in 1881 made a brief but tragic move to Whittington Moor in Derbyshire. As John was settling in to his new job at Pearson's Pottery he caught a chill which developed into pneumonia and proved fatal. So Isabella and her eight children returned to Scotland, setting up home in Arbroath where she had relatives willing to help them.
The twelve-year old Harry was the eldest in the family, and took a half- timer's job at Gordon's flax mill. Half-timers worked one day and attended the mill's school the next, and the two shillings a week which Harry earned helped the family survive. It wasn't his first job: in his autobiography he recalls his short-lived career as a pig-feeder when he was eight years old, which came to an abrupt end when the pig choked to death on a piece of dumpling, and a three-day stint as a strawberry picker. The young Harry was once more sacked when the market gardener realised just how few of the strawberries were going into his basket! Caddying on the Musselburgh links proved to be more in his line, and also provided him with the means to buy the occasional twist of tobacco for himself and start a lifelong habit.
It was during the years in Arbroath that Harry started singing in public. He was encouraged to "staun' up and dae somethin" at a Band of Hope meeting, but found that his mind had gone blank of all the songs he knew except for I'm a Gentleman Still. He had a good reception and years later recalled the moment when he returned to his seat "with the hand-clapping and the shouting of my comrades singing in my ears." Only a few weeks later a travelling concert party came to town and announced a "grand amateur competition for ladies and gentlemen", and a couple of Harry's pals from the mill persuaded him to enter. There were about a dozen competitors but the young Harry Lauder's rendition of the song which he had sung to the Band of Hope won the prize of a gold watch, something which he would treasure for the rest of his life.
After two years in Arbroath the family moved to Hamilton, where Isabella's brother worked at Eddlewood Colliery. Harry soon got a job shifting waggons at the pit-head, and proudly recalls taking his first week's pay of nine shillings home to his mother. It wasn't long before he went underground as a trapper, opening and closing the shutters which controlled the mine's air supply, and after about a year he got the chance of a pony driver's job at nearby Cadzow Colliery, earning a pound a week. Harry was fond of the intelligent, hard-working animals, particularly Captain, the pony who saved his life by refusing to go on and then turning to flee just moments before a roof-fall. Years later when he was rich and famous he never forgot Captain, and when safety legislation was being put forward for the mines he successfully appealed on behalf of the pit ponies, and donated a substantial sum of money to the fund which was set up to improve their conditions.
Lauder moved onto Allenton Colliery to work as a water-drawer. It was a lonely, hard job in bleak, rat-infested surroundings and he used to sing to himself to keep his spirits up. He was encouraged by two fellow miners, Jamie McCulloch and Rab MacBeth, and he later wrote that it was to them that "I owe my determination to keep up my singing." His reputation as a singer began to grow and his first professional engagement was in Larkhall for a five-shilling fee. One of the other artistes at this concert advised Harry to enter the Glasgow Harmonic Society's "Great Comic Singing Contest." This society, like the Band of Hope, was a temperance organisation which gave Saturday evening soirees with tea and cakes, in the hope that they would keep people out of the pubs. Lauder won second prize at this competition in 1892, and more importantly was given the chance to appear in Glasgow at Society concerts for a one pound fee. He was proud of his success and spent one night's fee on an astrakhan collar for his coat, making him feel "a real artiste for the first time", despite the comments which it provoked in Hamilton!
The next important step was a trial run at the Scotia music-hall in Glasgow's Stockwell Street. Harry used a half-day holiday to travel to Glasgow and persuade Mrs Baylis to give him a chance. He describes what happened in his autobiography:
shaking in every limb. The trial turns preceding mine had all got short shrift. Most of them were "off" in less than a minute, and
those who didn't willingly retire of their own accord were promptly hauled off by the stage-manager by the aid of a long crooked stick
which he unceremoniously hooked round their necks. The oaths and blasphemy employed by some of the disappointed would-be
stars in the wings were only equalled by the riotous mirth of the audience in front ... As it happened, I "got over" pretty well, being
allowed to sing two songs with the minimum of interruption and caustic comment ... Before I left Mrs Baylis came round and
congratulated me. "Gang hame an' practise, Harry" she said.
It was advice well taken, even though Mrs Baylis was commonly thought to be English and unlikely to have used those exact words! Lauder worked hard at his act, and appreciated the value of good make-up and costume. He recalls the hours he spent practicing his make-up in his mother's parlour, and arranging with the local pawnbroker to keep interesting items such as old shawls, weird trousers and elasticated boots until he could afford them. Gradually the number of paid engagements increased, and the recently married young miner decided to try and make a professional career out of his singing.
He answered an advert for a comedian with a Scottish concert party tour, and soon found himself in Beith acting as baggage-man, bill-poster, stage- carpenter and ticket collector as well as doing his own three turns on the programme. The pay was thirty-five shillings a week and the tour covered Ayrshire, Dumfriesshire, the Borders and central Scotland. After the tour however, there were few offers of work and Lauder was forced to return to the mine until he was given the chance of New Year week at Greenock Town Hall, deputising for J C MacDonald. After another month at the mine, he was offered, through MacDonald's influence, a tour of the Moss and Thornton halls in the north of England, ending up with two weeks at the Scotia and the Gaiety in Glasgow. Lauder took the contract and left the pit for good. He later wrote that his first music-hall tour "knocked the rough corners off my acting."
Lauder continued touring for several years. In 1896 he joined Donald Munro's Northern Concert Party, on the same bill as Mackenzie Murdoch, the well-known violinist. The tour was successful and the next year Murdoch and Lauder decided that it would be more profitable for them to run their own tour, and the Lauder-Murdoch Concert Party took to the road. That first year however was not as successful as they had imagined it would be and they lost a hundred pounds each. The importance of publicity was thus learned the hard way and the next year they trebled their spending on bill-posting. They were also becoming increasingly well-known and the tours became quite profitable. Harry's brother-in- law, Tom Valiance, joined the tour as manager and book-keeper: he was to spend many years working for Lauder.
Numerous English engagements kept Lauder busy in between the Scottish tours, and his appearance at the Argyle Theatre, Birkenhead, in June 1 898 was an important moment in his career. His act consisted of Irish songs, very popular with the Argyle audience which had itself many Irish connections. Lauder was so well received at the Argyle that Denis Clarke, the manager, told him to go back on. He had used up all his Irish songs and went on with the songs he sang on his Scottish dates, to great success. He began to realise that audiences were very much the same no matter where they were. He had already decided, after his first music-hall tour, that there was no point in using Scottish dialect words in his songs as his audience wouldn't understand them: even in Scotland an Aberdonian phrase wouldn't mean much in Glasgow and vice-versa. The way forward, he believed, was to sing his songs in English, with a Scottish accent. Lauder kept to this throughout his career, using the occasional Scots word for spice, and plenty morethat were easily understandable such as "weel", "laddie" and "braw." His recordings testify to his exceedingly clear diction, and his immense popularity in England and abroad, as well as in Scotland, proves just how much his decision paid off.
His experience at the Argyle, and his visit to see Dan Leno at the Glasgow Empire encouraged him to go to London and try his Scotch act there, believing that if Leno could get a hundred pounds a week singing Cockney songs in Glasgow then he could get at least twenty pounds a week singing comic Scotch songs in London. So, on 19 March 1900, gloriously attired in tartan trousers, yellow spats, a coloured waistcoat, black frock coat and an ill-fitting tile hat, he bought a third-class single ticket to London. After days spent trudging round the offices of the London variety agents, he received a telegram from Tom Tinsley asking if he could deputise that night for one of his turns who was ill. So Lauder made his first London appearance at Gatti's-in-the-Road, a popular music hall at Westminster Bridge Road, and was a definite success. He was booked for the rest of the week at a salary of three pounds and ten shillings, and the next day he was inundated with offers. At the time his main thought was of getting work and he signed many of these contracts at terms which he regretted later on. After a trip to Nottingham to fulfill an earlier contract, he returned to London and set up home in Tooting. He was soon established as one of the favourites of the London halls, often playing three or four venues in one night, sometimes with only a quarter of an hour between appearances in theatres a couple of miles away, and the programme of course had to run exactly to time!
Lauder's name was now well known. He had plenty of engagements, including pantomime seasons back in Glasgow where he could earn about £200 a week, and he began to make gramophone records of his songs. In 1907 he sailed to America and was met at New York by a pipe band and a tartan-draped motor car. His first American performance was at a matinee in the New York Theatre in Times Square, and he recollects that it was Tobermory that "did the trick." He ended up singing six songs instead of three, and both the audience and the critics loved him. Sime Silverman reviewed his act in the 9 November issue of Variety and described him as "distinct, unique and a revelation in vaudeville." Silverman tells how Lauder held the audience for twenty-four minutes during The Saftest o'the Family, "as a woebegone youngster, looking over the mutilated toys removed from several pockets", and declared that this was "nothing short of remarkable character acting." This was the start of his immense popularity in America, and he went on to make twenty-two tours of the States, one of which lasted for a year. He was earning four to five thousand dollars a week, and indeed by 1911 could command a thousand dollars a night. He travelled tremendous distances by train, and had his own luxurious 'Harry Lauder Specials', usually three coaches including a Pullman sleeping-car for the company and a 'parlour-car' for himself, his wife and his American agent William Morris. In the early tours he was even given the use of Theodore Roosevelt's own Riva Saloon.
Lauder was to meet and become friends with several American presidents, including Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Warren Harding, and Calvin Coolidge. Lauder, in fact, could list many famous people among his friends and acquaintances, people such as Winston Churchill, Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford, Jack Dempsey, Charlie Chaplin,DouglasFairbanks, Mary Pickford and Gloria Swanson. He also met King George V and Queen Mary and various members of the Royal Family. Lauder described himself as being "quite good friends" with the Prince of Wales, later to become the Duke of Windsor, and relates how the Prince came to the Hippodrome Theatre one night and, when Harry asked the audience for requests, the cry of "I Love a Lassie, Harry" came from the Prince's box. Always ready with a humorous reply Lauder called back. "Yes, I know you do, but we all want to know who she is!" The Prince also added to Lauder's collection of twisted sticks, bringing one back from Japan especially for him. These knobbly sticks became one of the most famous features of Lauder's act, and he was presented with them wherever he went, especially on his American and Australian tours. He also visited South Africa and the Far East.
Lauder's first visit to Australia was in February 1914, where he opened at the Theatre Royal, Sydney and played to capacity houses for a month. This was repeated in Melbourne before he moved on to other Australian cities and over to New Zealand for a six-week tour.He was in Australia when the First World War was announced and his only son John, who had come out to meet his parents, was recalled to his regiment, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. Thus began several anxious years, known to all loving parents with sons on active service. Lauder himself spent the war years doing what he could for his country, whether it was entertaining soldiers, cheering a nation with his songs, exhorting young men to enlist, visiting hospitals, or giving fund-raising concerts. He was starring with Ethel Levey in the patriotic revue Three Cheers at the Shaftesbury Theatre, London, when on New Year's Day 1917 he received the dreaded telegram fromtheWarOffice, stating simply Captain JohnLauder, killed in action. Despite his tremendous grief, he re-opened the revue and carried on. Later that same year he went out to France and entertained the troops in the trenches. His war work was acknowledged in 1919 when he became the first popular entertainer to receive a knighthood.
Lauder continued singing his songs to an enthusiastic public until he retired in the thirties. During the Second World War however, he was again willing to do what he could, giving concerts to the troops and helping war charities, even though he was now in his seventies and no longer quite the singer that he had once been. His last stage appearance was in 1947, an unpublicised spot in a concert celebrating twenty-five years of the Scout Group Rover Crew in the Gorbals. The old entertainer looked very frail until he stood in the middle of the stage, and sang about eight songs in a clear and strona voice, finishing with Keep Right on to the End of the Road. A member of the scout group recalled that, after the cheering had died down, there was "one note of pathos ... the grand old man stood there for a moment and then began to repeat his opening chuckle and patter." Greta, his niece who had become his secretary, personal assistant and constant companion after the death of his wife in 1927, was standing in the wings and pleaded for someone to bring him off stage. The Scoutmaster rushed on and presented him with a small statue of a Boy Scout. Lauder was seventy-seven years old, and died just under three years later.
He had been known and loved by audiences all over the world, and established an easy rapport with his audiences wherever he went. He was a good singer and chose his material well, being a shrewd and clever man who knew the value of publicity and carefully cultivated the many stories about his own meanness. Harry Lauder was in many ways an ambassador for Scotland, an easily identifiable Scottish figure in his kilt and abundant tartan, but he was also a versatile performer, well capable of portraying an old woman or a young boy or playing in pantomime. In Jimmy Logan's one-man show Lauder, it is stated that a "comedian is remembered not for his jokes and stories but for his songs." The Lauder songs are sentimental in a direct and simple way, matched to catchy tunes, and accompanied by Harry's famous chuckle. Songs such as I Love a Lassie, Roamin'in the Gloamin', Stop yer Ticklin'Jock, Just a Wee Deoch an'Doris, and Keep Right on to the End of the Road, will not easily be forgotten. Neither will Harry Lauder.
War: "The Rev Harry Lauder MP Tour"
By 1917 Lauder was involved in war work in various ways. He visited many hospitals, singing to the wounded and telling stories to cheer them up, and was also active in recruiting men for the forces. Lauder organised his own recruiting band, made up of fourteen pipers and drummers, and kitted them out in full pipe band regalia. The band travelled throughout Britain, at Lauder's expense, playing wherever crowds might gather, perhaps at a railway station or in the town square. When interest was aroused the band would march to the recruiting station, where as Lauder described it:
were just plain slackers, willing to let better men die for them, found it mighty hard to keep from going on the wee bit o' the way
that the pipers had left them to make alone!
Lauder did not travel with the band, but used his own position to encourage men to enlist, making speeches at every possible opportunity. He started making speeches from the stage at the close of his act, asking the young men in the audience how they would one day answer their future grandchildren's question, "What did you do in the Great War, Grandpa? What did you do?" Lauder was proud of the fact that over 12,000 men enlisted because of his efforts. He also cared about what happened to those men, and travelled to America to raise money for the 'Harry Lauder Million Pound Fund for Maimed Men, Scottish Soldiers and Sailors'. He had a great deal of sympathy and support for those who had been severely injured in the war, meeting with veterans at Stobhill Hospital for example. In a letter he wrote in a fund-raising attempt he declared that he never wanted to see a disabled ex-serviceman having to beg in the streets for a living.
Lauder was proud of what he called "the spirit of the British soldier", and celebrated that spirit in his songs. In 1916/17 he was in a revue called Three Cheers at the Shaftesbury Theatre in London, one of the shows with ''lots of pretty girls and jolly tunes" that were popular with off-duty servicemen. The big finale was a song called The Laddies Who Fought and Won, and a company of the Scots Guards would march on behind Lauder, who was himself dressed in the uniform of a Highland soldier. A different Guards company was used every night, and the money they earned went into the company funds to buy luxuries for the soldiers.
The War Office were quite happy with this arrangement because it too was "a great song to stimulate recruiting." However they weren't quite so happy when the forty-seven year old Harry Lauder himself tried to enlist. As he expected, he was told that he was too old to play an active part in the war. So he persuaded the War Office to let him go and do what he was best at, entertaining people. Lauder did not want just to do some big concerts at the bases in France, he wanted to "to go up to the battle lines themselves and to sing for the boys who were in the thick of the struggle." This was not quite what the War Office had envisaged but eventually they agreed and the arrangements were made. A small five octave piano, later to become known as "Wee Tinkle Tom" was made for him, a hundred pounds worth of cigarettes were bought to distribute to the soldiers, and Lauder soon found himself in France. A convalescing serviceman was found to act as his accompanist and his first concert took place in what had been the baccarat room of the Boulogne casino, but was now the largest ward in a military hospital. After a second Boulogne concert in a YMCA hut where 2,000 men were squeezed in, Lauder prepared to head out to Vimy Ridge.
Lauder was not the only person 'on tour'. The show would open with a speech by James Hogge MP on pensions, the Reverend George Adam would talk on the progress of the war, and then Harry would sing. It was not long before the soldiers had christened it "he Rev Harry Lauder MP Tour" and the name stuck. In his book, Minstrel in France, Lauder recalls many incidents and impressions from the tour. They were only thirty miles out of Boulogne when a puncture forced them to stop, and Lauder decided he might as well make use of the delay to have an open- air rehearsal. As he was about to finish, a company of tired and grimy men appeared, on their way back from the front, and Lauder asked their lieutenant if they would like to hear some songs. Just as he was about to start a Cockney voice rang out "Lor' love us! If it ain't old 'Arry Lauder! Go it, 'Arry! Many's a time hive 'eard you at the old Shoreditch!" Thereafter, throughout his time in France, whenever he could Lauder would stop his car and sing to the soldiers he met on the road.
Although he had specifically wanted to go to France to sing for the Highland Brigade, Lauder looked kindly upon anyone in an Allied uniform. When he came across an Australian company Lauder sang a song he'd written while in their home country, Australia is the Land.for Me, with the troops soon picking up the tune and joining in the chorus. Their officer however was a Scot who had heard Harry before, both in Sydney and "in Motherwell Toon Hall"! During his visit to a Canadian artillery battery at Vimy Ridge he performed in "The Hole-in-the-Ground Theatre, a shell crater which had been made the day before. He had to sing unaccompanied as they could not manage to get the piano into this "natural amphitheatre", as it was first described to Lauder, and he found it a bit disconcerting to have to sing over the noise of the guns. Gradually though he began to realise that there was a definite rhythm to the artillery fire, which quietened down for the verses and let rip during the choruses, demonstrating the gunners' sense of humour! The tour moved on to Tramecourt, Arras, Ovilliers, where Lauder visited his son's grave, Amiens and back to Boulogne. Some of the organised concerts were given to thousands of men, and sometimes only to a company in its dug-out, but on every occasion the direct and simple sentiments of Lauder's songs appealed to the soldiers who were far from home.
Harry Lauder was not, of course, the only entertainer who went to France to perform for the troops. W F Frame, for example, went out in 1914 with 'The National Theatre at "The Front"', when the bill included Gladys Cooper, Seymour Hicks, and a cinematograph. The Lauder tour, however, does give an impression of the conditions facing both the soldiers and those who went out to entertain them. When the Second World War came around the stars of the day once more rallied to the cause and ENSA became a well-known part of army life. Will Fyffe was awarded the CBE for his contribution, and once more Sir Harry Lauder, the man who had been knighted for his war work over twenty years earlier, was singing to soldiers, sailors and airmen, not forgetting the many women who were also in uniform or working in munitions factories.