Thursday, 26 March 2015

Riches to rags – the story of Leslie Crotty and Georgina Burns

The streets of West Hampstead and Kilburn were home to hundreds of performers and musicians in the late nineteenth century: from acrobats to actors, music hall turns and singers. Some lived with their family, others rented accommodation; some stayed for many years, others were transient. When they were out of work, they placed adverts in The Stage and the Era newspapers, informing the profession they were ‘disengaged’ and seeking a company to work for, or a tour to join.

This is the story of two performers, husband and wife Leslie Crotty and Georgina Burns. Leslie was born in Galway in 1852, the son of a Presbyterian minister; Georgina was born in 1859 at 17 Porteus Road Paddington, the daughter of George and Eliza Burns. He was a printer.

The Burns family lived in Paddington and Kilburn for more than forty years. Baptist Minister Jabez Burns was the first to arrive in 1835, when he accepted the post of minister at the Aenon Baptist Chapel in New Church Street (later Church Street) Marylebone. His son George was living at 17 Porteus Road Paddington by 1851. The property was occupied by either Jabez or George, until George died there in 1884.

The Golden Years
Georgina Burns and Leslie Crotty were superb singers; she was a soprano and he a baritone. A performance in 1877 prompted the comment, ‘he promises to be one of the best baritone singers of the day’, this was one of hundreds of superlative reviews he received. Georgina was nicknamed ‘the English Patti’, a reference to Adelina Patti, born in Spain to Italian parents and described by Verdi as possibly the finest opera singer who ever lived.

Both were discovered by Carl Rosa, (the founder of the successful Carla Rosa Opera Company). Leslie was working in Dublin as a bank clerk while making a reputation for himself as an amateur singer. Rosa liked his voice and advised he go to Italy to be tutored, which he did. Georgina’s talent was obvious to her friends and they too urged her to go abroad to study but she refused: ‘I have only had about a dozen lessons in my life’ she later told a reporter. Employed by Rosa after he heard her sing a duet with sister Caroline, whose professional name was Cora Stuart, Georgina was already a rising star in the Company by the time Leslie was signed up and arrived in London in 1878.

Both Leslie and Georgina’s careers blossomed as they became popular and important members of the troupe, enjoying successful tours and rave reviews. They were married in St Mary’s Church Paddington on 21 June 1882; Carl Rosa was one of the witnesses. Their daughter Norah Leslie was born the following year.

Georgina Burns, 1879

The Crottys didn’t have a permanent home, probably because they spent so much time on tour. So they arranged to use the addresses of relatives as a contact point and to receive mail. By 1890, Georgina’s brother Thomas was living at 57 Brondesbury Villas Kilburn with his family, while his sister Mary Jane and husband were only a few doors away at number 75. The Crottys used both addresses while Thomas and Mary Jane remained in Kilburn. It’s also likely they stayed with their relatives when they were to London. In the 1891 census their daughter Norah was living with her uncle Thomas at number 57 Brondesbury Villas.

Leslie Crotty
After enjoying more than a decade of adulation and success, Georgina and Leslie left Carl Rosa and set up their own opera company, known as the Georgina Burns Light Opera Company or the Burns-Crotty Opera Company.

The timings are complicated by an April 1891 report, saying they had signed for the Carla Rosa 1891-1892 season. The press had already leaked the couple’s intention to tour with their own troupe that summer in what Georgina and Leslie described as an ‘operatic aside’ that did not conflict with their contract. But by May 1891, Georgina and Leslie were appearing independently of Carla Rosa, indicating they’d already left the Company.

There was an agreement with Carl Rosa that the tours of his and the new company would not conflict, which extended to the repertoire on offer. A very young Henry Wood (later the famous conductor of the Proms for over 50 years), was hired as musical director (his parents were old friends of the Crottys). Georgina and Leslie took to the road with a ‘lavish production’ of Rossini's Cenerentola (Cinderella). This work had never featured in the Carla Rosa repertoire and had last appeared on tour in 1870. It took some time to prepare; music from another composer was incorporated and the whole performance was directed by Cora’s husband, the actor manager T.W. Robertson. He revised and condensed the libretto to bring the opera up-to-date for modern audiences. After a few trial performances, the first tour began in August 1892 at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle on Tyne. The review described it as ‘a fairy story poetically treated and free from vulgar excrescences, with the strongest claims as a musical production’. Henry Wood departed for an engagement in London and was replaced as conductor by Eugene Goossens, junior.

Cinderella Programme, Hull, 9 January 1893 (The Arthur Lloyd website)
On Christmas Eve 1892, the Burns-Crotty Opera Company’s autumn tour closed in Cardiff, the 100th night they had performed. Georgina was given ‘lovely presents, including a handsome sliver slipper, a case of toilet requisites and more than a dozen beautiful bouquets.  There was only a short break before the spring tour began with a performance in Hull on 9 January 1893, a punishing regime. Georgina gave an interview to a Blackburn reporter the following month. She told him that she was familiar with numerous minor and at least 55 principal roles: ‘if a part were put in her hands one day she would be almost ready to play it the next.’  They had played to packed houses, reluctantly turning away disappointed customers and the Company was fully booked until May; ‘then they may rest awhile and in August, when they start again, the public may expect to see some novelties produced by them. 

Unfortunately the Crotty’s success was short lived and the company closed inside the space of two years. Touring was expensive (theatre hire, train tickets, publicity, salaries and accommodation to name but a few expenses), and despite positive reviews, perhaps the piece was not as popular as anticipated; a report of the first night in Birmingham said, ‘the attendance was not so good as the production merited, but is sure to improve during the week.’  

At their peak with the Carla Rosa Company, Leslie and Georgina had shared a substantial salary of £100 a week, equivalent to about £9,000 today. But they lost it all trying to make a success of their company, condemned by one reporter for attempting, ‘a wild scheme to popularise Rossini’s ‘Cenerentola’ in the provinces.’

The Beginning of the End
By April 1894 Georgina was ‘disengaged for concerts and operas.’ The couple were advertising their availability in the trade papers, giving 75 Brondesbury Villas (her sister Mary Jane’s home) as their postal address. It’s likely they were almost bankrupt. Added to issues of the possibly unwise choice of opera to tour, Georgina’s health was poor and there were hints that it had been failing for some time; a report of the Dundee performance of Cenerentola in August 1892 noted she had only recently recovered from a severe illness. She was eventually diagnosed as suffering from ataxia, which manifests as a lack of muscle co-ordination which can affect speech and walking. It can be inherited and is incurable. As one report put it when their company failed, ‘Madame Burns fell seriously ill and Mr Crotty’s voice lost its freshness.’

We can’t know if they were offered any work, but their names (plus the Kilburn address) appear in the columns of The Stage in August 1894 and again June 1895: in previous years there had been no need to advertise. Now, aside from a few performances, their singing careers were over.

The marriage broke down and Leslie and Georgina went their separate ways: he to Newcastle where he worked as a teacher and she to Liverpool. We think their daughter remained with relatives until she was old enough to lead an independent life, as no mention is ever made of Norah in the various press reports that chronicle the couple’s later years. By January of 1896 Georgina was living in Liverpool, still unable to perform but her health had improved. Her illness seems to have experienced periods of remission sufficient to give her and friends hope that Georgina might once again assume her role of a Prima Donna.

Leslie was also in a bad way. In November 1898, under the headline: ‘The Famous Baritone, Sad Position of Mr Leslie Crotty’, he appeared before Newcastle magistrates on a charge of insanity. Clearly lacking sufficient funds to be treated privately, and thought to be in danger of committing suicide, he’d been taken to the Workhouse to receive medical care. His state of mind was put down to heavy drinking. Leslie told the court he was ‘perfectly sane at the moment’ and asked to be released into the care of a friend, but the magistrate took the advice of a doctor who said Leslie must return to the Workhouse to be treated for at least another week.

When a performer was down on their luck, their colleagues often rallied round by holding a ‘benefit concert’ where the venue made no charge and performers gave their services for free. The takings were donated to a named recipient. In March 1899, a successful benefit was held for Georgina in Liverpool. She’d now been ill for nearly five years, ‘the victim of prolonged sickness, sorrow and unmerited trouble.’ She attended the concert, even mounting the stage where a colleague spoke for her: ‘I appear before you this afternoon as the mouthpiece of Madame Georgina Burns, who, unfortunately, is not yet strong enough to address you and say all she would so dearly love to say on her own account.’ Another benefit was held in September; but this time Georgina was absent.

Leslie was given his benefit concert in Newcastle in May 1900; it raised £145. He sang a couple of songs and was well received. A reporter noted Leslie hadn’t performed publically for some years due to ill health, but the event must have encouraged him to plan a come-back. He placed what was probably his last advertisement that July: Late Principal Baritone, Carla Rosa Opera Company. Mr Crotty is desirous of joining a good Light or Grand Opera Company going out in the Autumn.

The 1901 census finds him still giving his profession as that of an ‘operatic singer’ and occupying two rooms in a lodging house in Newcastle, while Georgina was now a patient at the National Hospital for Incurables in Finchley. Her illness was progressive but a year later, in May, when she was planning to give two concerts in Dublin, it was publicised that ‘her glorious voice retains its brilliance.’ We haven’t been able to find a review, just an advert for the night of the 27th.

Advert 1902
Sadly, there was no recovery for Leslie and he died suddenly on 18 April, 1903 at 31 Grantham Road, Newcastle. His drinking problems must have been known in the opera world, so it’s unlikely he received any serious offers of employment in response to his advertisement. At the inquest, his landlady said;
He had been in the habit of drinking, and had suffered pains at the heart. On Saturday morning he was recovering from the effects of intemperance, (a drinking bout that had begun on Thursday), and she left him for a time, but he called her and said he had fallen. She found that he had slipped on the floor with his legs doubled under him. He was conscious for a few minutes, and tried to pull himself up by the bed, but failed.

By the time a doctor arrived, Leslie was dead. A verdict of ‘death from heart failure, accelerated by drinking’ was given. His funeral was conducted by his brother Albert, who was a rector in Ireland. Sadly, there’s no report of any other family member attending.

Poor Georgina suffered continuing ill health and persistent poverty: given his circumstances, it’s fairly certain she didn’t benefit from Leslie’s death. Things were looking very bleak and there was a good chance she too would also be sent to the Workhouse, when in February 1907, Dora Bagot took up her cause. Dora was married to an ex-MP and lived at Levens Hall, Westmoreland. Dora wrote about Georgina to the Daily Chronicle and her ‘pathetic appeal’ was reprinted by several other papers. At the time Georgina was living in Milnthorpe just a few miles from Dora’s home, ‘forsaken, forgotten and destitute.’ Dora further describes Georgina as a ‘widow with not a single relative in a position to support her’, yet she had relatives financially able to help her. Perhaps her nursing requirements were overwhelming.

Why Georgina had left Liverpool for Milnthorpe isn’t mentioned, but Dora wanted to raise enough money to send her back, ‘to where she is known and much respected.’ After a couple of weeks the fund stood at £250, headed by two donations of £5 each from the Prince and Princess of Wales. That July Georgina made what was probably her first appearance on a music hall stage, a far cry from her Carla Rosa opera days. The 1911 census finds her back in London at a boarding house on Brixton Hill. She probably stayed in the neighbourhood, as in 1914 she was admitted to the British Home for Incurables at Streatham. Yet another appeal for help was launched, this time by Major William Houghton Gastrell, the MP for North Lambeth. Georgina may have been one of his constituents. But she died at the Home on 24 May 1932; her death certificate indicates she died of heart disease.

James Joyce, a keen opera fan, who may have seen her perform was aware of Georgina's decline. A character in 'The Dead', his last story in 'The Dubliners' (1914), says that she remembers 'poor Georgina Burns'.

This is a sad story of two talented singers who achieved great adulation and praise before illness, depression and drink, brought them crashing down.