Three in One – Part 3b – Harry Welchman – Career Years

This is your life

On February 5th 1960 the TV presenter Eamonn Andrews surprised Harry Welchman in a taxi outside  the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, London. This became Harry’s appearance later that week on the popular TV show of the time ‘This is Your Life’.  Unfortunately the recording of that show doesn’t exist any longer; it would have been interesting to see what, if anything, they had to say about Harry’s early family life and indeed some of the more tortuous parts of his own career.

Harry was mainly a stage performer but between 1915 and 1954 he made 19 films, some musical and others straight drama.

His obituary in The Stage in 1966 described him as:

“.… the most famous musical comedy hero of his time, with handsome stage presence and a fine voice, admirably suited to the melodious scores of the romantic shows of the ‘twenties and ‘thirties.”

His theatrical and film career is well-documented elsewhere and though I will mention in this section of the story various productions with which he was involved, I am more interested in exploring the social aspects of his life. Before starting though why not take a look at Harry Welchman in the flesh in this Youtube recording of Harry Welchman singing ‘A Bachelor Gay’ in the 1932 film ‘The Maid of the Mountains’.  Click here.

Harry Welchman 1907

At the end of the previous post we left Harry Welchman at the age of 15 living in Congresbury, Somerset, with Janet Coke and her two eldest daughters Janet Sarah and Edith.  He remained with them whilst he completed his schooling and then went straight onto the stage in 1904.  He joined a touring musical comedy company led by Ada Reeve (who also appeared in the ‘This is Your Life’ programme in 1960) and made his first appearance on stage at the Royal, Boscombe, in the chorus of Winnie Brooke, Widow.


In Princess Caprice

At the age of 20, whilst playing Dandini in Cinderella at the Marlborough, he was spotted by Robert Courtneidge, the theatrical manager-producer (also father of Cecily Courtneidge).  This led to him becoming a juvenile, and subsequently main, lead in such West End hit productions as Tom Jones (1907), The Arcadians (1909) and Princess Caprice (1912).  By this time he was living in London with his ‘foster-mother’ Janet Sarah and her sister Edith.

On 8th July 1913 Harry married his first wife, the actress Joan Challoner who was described by The Stage at the time as:

“.… a young acress who for the past eighteen months has been a member of Sir Herbert Tree’s company at His Majesty’s.  Miss Challoner became engaged to Mr Welchman during the run of ‘Drake’, in which piece she was understudy both to Miss Phyllis Neilson-Terry and Miss Amy Brandon Thomas.”

Her entry to the profession came through an interesting route, being a member of the Stock Exchange Dramatic and Operatic Society which seemed to be a philanthropic organisation aiming to promote aspiring actors.

Harry Welchman and Joan Challoner

In 1915 Harry made his first film playing the lead role in Mr Lyndon at Liberty. Then the war intervened.  It’s not clear whether Harry actually saw active service but he was commissioned in September 1916 into a Special Reserve of Officers in the Royal Field Artillery.  Harry’s theatrical career was put on hold for a while but Joan Challoner continued hers through the war, including performances in the War Relief Matinees (her matinee was under the patronage of Queen Alexandra in aid of the Women’s Emergency Corps).

Their marriage was not to last though and in 1922 Joan initiated divorce proceedings against Harry.  It’s hard to determine how scandalous this would have been at the time but it seems to have been widely reported in the press of the time and the story suggests that it was quite acrimonious.

According to the Pall Mall Gazette of 19 January 1922:

“In the Divorce Division today before Mr Justice Hill, Mrs Joan Dorothea Welchman petitioned for a decree of restitution of conjugal rights against Mr Harry Welchman, an actor.”

The article described the breakdown of their marriage and the fact that Harry had walked out in April the year before.  However, by July 1922 more details had emerged pointing to an affair that Harry was having.  The Nottingham Journal of 20 July continues the story:


Lord Buckmaster, in the Divorce Court, yesterday heard the petition of Mrs Welchman …. for a dissolution of her marriage on the ground of the adultery and non-compliance with an order for restitution of conjugal rights of her husband Mr Harry Arthur Welchman, the musical comedy actor.

Petitioner gave evidence that …. she never stayed with him at any time during 1921 at the Burford Bridge Hotel …. Edith Oliver, chambermaid at the Burford Bridge Hotel, who identified respondent by means of a photograph, gave evidence that in October, 1921, he occupied a bedroom at Burford Bridge Hotel with a woman not the petitioner.  A decree nisi with costs was granted.”

Harry’s lover seems to have been protected from the press at the time but The People of 3rd August 1924, when announcing Harry’s engagement to Sylvia Forde, chose to reveal those details:

“Harry Welchman was previously married to Joan Challoner; and after she divorced him he was expected to marry Margaret Cooper.  The two were very much attached; but, unfortunately, poor Miss Cooper died.”

Margaret Cooper

There is a superb biography of Margaret Cooper on the Kilburn and Willesden history blog site and I have chosen a few extracts here to explain some of the tragedy surrounding Harry’s divorce.  Described as the ‘Lady in the Long Silk Gloves’:

Margaret Cooper was a very popular music hall entertainer at the piano in the early part of the 20th Century  …..  Margaret was a very talented musician and composer, playing the piano, violin and organ.  After attending the Royal Academy of Music, she worked as an accompanist and sang at concerts and dinners  ….  Her lucky break came when she was spotted playing at a charity concert by theatre manager Sir Alfred Butt  …..  At first rather dubious about appearing on the variety stage, she took the plunge in October 1906 – and never looked back, she was an instant and overwhelming success.  When she appeared later that month in Bristol, she was billed as ‘The Latest London Sensation, in her Inimitable Songs at the Piano.  Her largest fee was £100 for a single performance, which is equivalent to about £8,000 today  …..  she was also in great demand for private parties, where she sang before King George V and Queen Mary and visiting royal dignitaries.

….. The death of her husband Arthur in 1918 was a severe blow to Margaret and her appearances in the London variety theatres became less frequent.  She died four years later from heart failure on 27 December 1922.  Although she’d not been in the best of health after suffering breakdown a few months earlier Margaret’s death was unexpected..  ….. Several obituaries agreed her death evoked a ‘peculiar pathos’ as Margaret was planning a new life, having agreed to marry actor and singer Harry Welchman in February 1923.  But the related scandal that could have damaged Margaret’s image was something the papers chose to ignore, presumably out of respect for the lady.

In Lady of the Rose

….. At the time of Margaret’s death Harry was appearing to good reviews in ‘The Lady of the Rose. Up to then, their engagement hadn’t been made public and there was a good reason for this.  Margaret’s obituaries fail to mention the fact Harry was going through a divorce.  In July 1922 his actress wife Joan … had been granted a decree nisi, on the grounds of Harry’s ‘statutory desertion and adultery’.  This was made final in January 1923, a month after Margaret’s death.  Her role is open to speculation, as she is never named in the newspaper reports as the ‘other woman.’

So 1922-24 was evidently a very emotional and dramatic period in Harry’s life in a non-theatrical sense – an adulterous affair, a messy divorce from his first wife, the death of his lover and then only a year later his engagement to his future second wife, Sylvia Forde.  I have already covered that engagement in Part 2 of this tale dealing with Sylvia Forde but perhaps one last quotation is of interest from The People of 3rd August 1924:

“An Actor’s Romance.  When on the first night of ‘Head over Heels’ there was a new leading lady, Mary Ellis, it looks as though a new name had arrived definitely in the West End.  But no; the the poor young lady was replaced in a few weeks, and I have never heard of her again.  Put in the chorus that night was a young woman named Sylvia Forde, then unknown, who, last week, was announced to be engaged to Harry Welchman and who, therefore, in consequence, will, I have no doubt, be heard of again.”

Harry’s career continued full flight though as he made his first Broadway appearance in Princess Flavia in 1925 but was also performing then in London in Love’s Prisoner at the Adelphi which only had a brief run and was rated by The Times as an unsuccessful mixture of Gilbert and Sullivan, melodrama and musical comedy.

Perhaps one of his most famous theatrical roles came three years later as the Red Shadow in the stage version of the Desert Song which ran at Drury Lane for more than 400 performances.  He definitely set the standard for this role.  The Stage in May 1967 was still continuing the comparison:

“.…. when Harry Welchman captured the Town at Drury Lane forty years ago, with the enchanting Edith Day as the Margot of the story, the show had a spectacular production .   “

By 1929 Harry’s career was taking another dramatic shift but this time of the theatrical sort – he entered management, setting up a production company for The White Camellia at Daly’s Theatre.  Life as a manager was to have its challenges.  We’ve already seen in part 2 about Sylvia Forde that shortly before the opening night Harry lost one of his principal dancers and Sylvia was drafted in at very short notice.  However, the book Daly’s – A Biography of the Theatre describes the financial consequences of Harry’s change of direction:

“Harry Welchman had little luck in management at Daly’s. ‘It has cost me eight thousand pounds to learn that musical comedy of the old-fashioned sort has no chance today’ said Harry Welchman in a Press interview, discussing the losses he incurred in staging first ‘The White Camellia’ and secondly reviving ‘The Lady of the Rose’ at Daly’s Theatre.”

He went on to explain:

“.… one or two of the so-called musical comedy houses are no longer business propositions.  Rents are enormous, the seating is abominable, of comforts there are none.  My advice is ‘scrap the lot’ and build some new ones, or at least leave the shells of the present theatres and reconstruct the interiors.  My dream for the future is to have a theatre with seating capacity commensurate with the biggest cinema theatres.  This theatre will have all the amenities of a picture house.  There will be no charge for programmes and no charge at the cloakrooms.”

I wonder if it was this realisation that perhaps changed his focus towards films – he made more than a dozen in the thirties and early forties, including two 1943 films The Gentle Sex and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.  One performance in the thirties though is definitely worth mentioning since it was local.  As the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette of 6th August 1937 describes:

“BARNSTAPLE MAN’S DESERVED TRIUMPH.  Strong Supporting Bill of Talent.

Had Harry Welchman, the famous musical comedy star, who is a native of Barnstaple and heads the variety bill at the Theatre Royal, Exeter, this week, met the wishes of audiences he would have been a very very tired man.  At each performance he had to take several ‘curtains’, sing extra songs and even when he had smilingly taken his last ‘au revoir’, the applause continued.  It was not because he was ‘one of us’ that Devon audiences have been so enthusiastic, for to most of them it was news when he made the statement at the end of his turn.  It was simply a delighted mass appreciation of his singing, which included well-known numbers from such musical plays and comedies as ‘Desert Song’, ‘Maid of the Mountains’, ‘Southern Maid’, ‘Rose Marie’, etc.  With an excellent voice he combines a charm of manner and histrionic talent that makes his songs doubly enjoyable.  Each contribution is given the right atmosphere, and how audiences have enjoyed listening to them!  One of the most successful was ‘No More War’, with its telling and dramatic recitative.  To this audiences have listened in tense silence, their applause at the conclusion demonstrating their approval of the sentiments expressed.

The high standard set in his particular sphere by Harry Welchman is characteristic of the whole programme.”

He was definitely easing off by the end of the Second World War, though it’s probably a truism that actors never retire.  As we have already seen, he moved down to Cornwall with his family in 1947 where he bought a farm but soon became involved in amateur dramatics at the Penlee Park Theatre.  This had its origins in 1948 with a successful Cornwall Shakespeare .Festival in which Harry performed in Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  The theatre stage in its first year was simply made from borrowed beer crates covered in imitation grass from the greengrocers but the following year the Penzance Town Council commissioned a proper earth and granite stage.

Here is a picture including Harry Welchman (centre) behind the scene in 1957 with the Penzance Playgoers Theatre Club.

In 1950 Harry was interviewed by the Nottingham Journal of 1st June, exploring his views on success of productions on the stage.  Harry explained:

“The play’s the thing ….. If you have not got a good play, then even the engagement of well-known people to sing in it will not help you or make any real difference if they have bad material to deal with.  The Student Prince has been a great success ever since its original production because it is based on a good play ‘Old Heidelberg’ – a most beautiful love story.  …..  To be a real success a musical play must have one or two numbers that people can get hold of.  The success lies in the music but the music is inspired by the book.  …..  The ‘Maid of the Mountains’ into which ‘A Bachelor Gay’ a song written by J W Tate was interpolated had nothing to do with the play but everyone came away whistling it.”

With these views it is strange that Harry, the non-retired actor, got involved in his final performance in 1959 – John Osborne’s play The World of Paul Slickey, a musical intended as a satire on high-society gossip columnists.  The play was apparently a complete disaster with the audience booing at the end.  Among the booing members of the audience were John Gielgud and Noël Coward, who later wrote in his diary of the play, “never in all my theatrical experience have I seen anything so appalling, appalling from every point of view“.  As the Birmingham Daily Post of 6th May commented:

“One felt sorry for the cast, especially for such veterans as Mary Lohr and Harry Welchman.”

The play closed after six weeks, rather a sad end to Harry Welchman’s career.

Harry Welchman, 24 February 1886 – 3 January 1966.

Information Sources:

Kilburn & Willesden History Blog – Margaret Cooper

Daly’s – The Biography of a Theatre – Management

All Music – Biographical

Penlee Park Theatre – time in Penzance

Big Red Book – This is your life

Wikipedia – biographical


Three in One – Part 3a – Harry Welchman – His Origins

The final person in the Three in One tale is Harry Welchman, 24 February 1886 – 3 January 1966.  Although he made several non-musical plays he was really a star of musical theatre and, as the Times remembers him, “perhaps the most popular musical comedy hero on the London stage in the years between the wars.

Originally this was simply going to be Part 3 of the tale but I have decided to split it into two sections because the research into his family background has proved interesting and gives some insight into Harry’s own development.

There is also the mystery attached to him which we are trying to unravel – how his ashes came to be interred in the same grave as Janet Sarah Coke, whom he ostensibly described as his ‘foster-mother’.  The first part of this tale outlined the time-line of Janet Coke’s life.  So I am now going to do the same for Harry Welchman’s family from before he was born to the time he embarked on his acting career.  Maybe there are some indications of where the two family lines might have overlapped and, therefore, how Janet may have ended up as Harry’s foster-mother.

Harry’s mother, Alice Mary Pheysey

Alice was born on 17 July 1851 in Staines, Middlesex, although she wasn’t baptised until six years later when the family was recorded as living in Putney.  She was one of at least seven siblings five of whom died before they were 30.

Her mother, Sarah Vicary, was born in May 1820 in Dawlish which may be the first indication of a connection with the Coke family line.  Sarah married Henry Pheysey in 1843 in Dawlish but they obviously moved up to London subsequently, their first son, Frederick being born in Islington in 1844.  The family is still shown in the 1861 census as living in Putney.

Henry was a wine and brandy merchant but he too died at the relatively young age of 49 in 1866, by which time they were living in Prince’s Square, Bayswater.  Sarah took on the business, trading still as Henry Pheysey & Co., but by 1871 was forced into bankruptcy which was finally liquidated in 1878.  She re-married in November 1884 to a William Smith at St Andrews, Walcott, Bath.

There is no evidence that Alice returned to Devon but she would probably have maintained contact with relatives there.  Could there have been some crossing of family paths in London as well?  Remember that Janet Coke was born in 1854 in Hammersmith, not that far from Putney.

Alice married Harry Welchman’s father, Arthur John Tregonwell Welchman, on October 13th 1870 at All Saints Church, Leamington.

Harry’s father, Arthur John Tregonwell Welchman

Arthur John Tregonwell Welchman was born on 10 November 1843 in Almorah, Bengal, India.  Goodness knows where the middle name ‘Tregonwell’ came from since neither of his parents bore that as a family name – his father was John Whately Welchman (1800-1870) and his mother Harriet Alzilea Martin (1820-1885).

John Whately Welchman at the time was a captain in the 10th Native Infantry (N.I.) in Bengal and rose to the rank of Major-General by 1865.  It appears that he was seriously wounded in the battle of Budlee-Ka-Sarai in 1857 as described in the History of the Bengal European Regiment:

“To the 1st Bengal Europeans it was painfully memorable; for although the enemy failed to make the slightest impression on our defences, they succeeded in severely wounding our Commanding Officer, Colonel Welchman, whilst gallantly leading his Regiment to the front.  Falling from his horse he was carried to the rear, when it was found that the elbow joint of his right arm was completely shattered …..”

Major W S R Hodson, who fought in the same campaign, expressed great concern in his letters:

Colonel Welchman with a very bad hit in the arm, in addition to his sickness when he came to Delhi from Dugshai ….. Colonel Welchman suffers severely from his wound, but bears it bravely ….. Colonel Welchman is very ill indeed. The doctors dread erysipelas, which at his age would be serious ….. Colonel Welchman dangerously ill and in great agony. I grieve deeply for the brave old man, for I fear we shall lose him

Flags of Bengal European Regiment

Colonel Welchman was awarded the Order of the Bath in 1858, probably as a result of that battle.  His obituary in the Naval & Military Gazette and Weekly Chronicle of the United Service, Wednesday 17 August 1870, is quite revealing:

“.…. He was every inch a soldier, and acquired by his manliness, his bonhomie, and his professional savoir faire, the respect and affection of all who came within the sphere of his social virtues, or of his Military command.  Like most other Officers in the Bengal Army, he saw little field service during the earlier period of his career, but he was actively employed in later years, and no one more thoroughly justified confidence in his ability than did Major-General John Welchman.”

The obituary is interesting because I wonder if those attributes of ‘bonhomie’ and ‘professional savoir faire’ reached down the family chain to his grandson Harry Welchman.

Whilst we are exploring the background of Harry’s family background it is also worth mentioning his aunt, Edith Welchman, who was a sister in the Indian Medical Service.  She was present at the Hazara campaign of 1888 and was awarded a Royal Red Cross, 1st Class, VR, for her work on the Black Mountain expedition.

Edith Welchman and her medal

Returning to Arthur John Tregonwell Welchman ….. it was inevitable that Arthur too would enter the military as was the tradition of the time.  He is already in boarding school in Leamington in 1851, according to the census of the time, and entered the military as a cadet at the age of 16 in 1859.  He went overland to Bengal the following year.  He was a lieutenant three years later, captain by June 1869, major by 1882 and Lt colonel in 1885.

His military career though appears nowhere nearly as illustrious as his father’s  In 1886 he was put onto the temporary half-pay list, probably to allow the family time out for Harry’s birth in Barnstaple, North Devon, and retired only six years later in 1892 at the age of 49.  This seems quite young for an army officer so I wonder whether he had some medical problem as well.

We will return to Harry’s birth but one thing this event shows is that army officers would periodically return to the UK and we have one piece of evidence which shows not only that Harry’s parents returned earlier in 1877 but that they were living in Shaldon on that visit.  The evidence is a curious story that appeared in the Western Morning News of 5th June 1877.  I include it here verbatim to give the story its correct sense of period:


At the Teignmouth Petty Sessions yesterday, before Mr R R Marsh-Dunn, Major Brown and Mr J G Templer, William Henry Hugo, a medical man, practising at St Nicholas, near Shaldon, was summoned for assaulting Selina Brewer, his housekeeper.  Mr Flood, of Exeter, appeared for the complainant, and Mr Creed, of Newton Abbot, for the defendant.

It was stated that the defendant lets a part of his house to a Captain and Mrs Welchman, and that on May 25th last, when he came home the worse for liquor, he commenced a quarrel with the housekeeper, who was frying fish for Captain Welchman, remarking that he (defendant) ought to have his own meals before the lodgers.  A dispute ensued as to whether the fish belonged to him or to Captain Welchman, and defendant used disgusting and threatening language to the inmates of the house, including Mary Towell, a dressmaker, who was working for Mrs Welchman.  His conduct was so strange that the whole party retreated to Mrs Welchman’s bedroom and locked the door.

Defendant, who had previously threatened to kick Miss Towel and her sewing machine out of the house, attempted to force open the door several times, and on going to the kitchen and finding the housekeeper there he caught hold of her and tried to push her out of the house, and this was the assault complained of.

Mr Creed, on behalf of his client, admitted the offence, but pleaded aggravation on the part of the housekeeper, who had neglected to get the defendant’s meals ready on the day in question.  He called William Woolway, a shopkeeper, of Shaldon, who stated that on the day named he was at the house form seven o’clock to half-past, and there saw defendant, who was perfectly sober, and who told him that he had had a quarrel with Mrs Brewer because she had not given her any food for the day.

In cross-examination Woolway said that he did not hear the quarrel, and that before he went to defendant’s house he paid for two glasses of beer for the doctor at a public-house near his house.  The Bench fined the defendant 10s, including costs.

Captain Arthur John Welchman was then charged with assaulting Mr Hugo on May 25th.  Complainant deposed that just after the disturbance, as stated in the previous case, had terminated, he met the defendant at the door of his house.  He was very excited at the time, and after using threatening language, said ‘I’ll thrash you, you hound’.  He then struck him a violent blow near the heart, from the effects of which he was still suffering.  He also slapped his face twice and then kicked him off the ground about five or six feet, and he fell at a distance of twelve feet from where he had been standing. (Laughter).

The defendant, later in the evening, adjourned to the drawing-room with his wife, and there had great rejoicings over what he had done.  They were singing duets and playing the piano until a late hour in the morning. (Loud laughter).  One of the females then asked Mrs Welchman to polish him off and scratch his eyes out.

In cross-examination he said the blow near his heart was a very severe one, and he had not attended any of his patients since, but he had been out.  Bessie Northam, a little girl, who was opposite to Mr Hugo’s house, stated that she heard the quarrel between Captain Welchman and Mr Hugo, and saw the former lift his foot, but would not swear that Captain Welchman kicked Mr Hugo.  In defence, Mr Flood denied the evidence given by Mr Hugo, and called several witnesses, who positively swore that no assault whatever had been committed, nor did Captain Welchman even attempt to strike complainant.  The Bench dismissed the case.

Mr Hugo was then charged with assaulting Mrs Welchman, but the magistrates dismissed the case.”

Apart from being a fascinating story (I love the parenthesised “Laughter” in the courtroom) it does place the Welchmans in Shaldon in 1877.  But why had they gone to live in Shaldon?  We know that Alice Welchman had family on her mother’s side in Dawlish but also, from the Coke family line, Janet Sarah Coke (i.e. Harry’s future foster-mother) might still have been living in Stoke-in Teignhead with her family at that time.  If Alice had known Janet in London then that might be another reason for the stay in Shaldon.  Alternatively, the two families may have actually met up there in 1877 and kept in contact subsequently.

Now let’s return to Harry Welchman himself.

We know that his father retired in 1892 so it is likely that Harry returned with his parents back to Bengal until that time which explains the lack of reference in the 1891 census.  Then, with his parents back in England, we know that Harry went to school in Weston-super-Mare.  Is it reasonable to assume that he wasn’t boarding there and that therefore his parents had retired to that area?  Coincidentally, perhaps, the Coke family were by this time living in Bristol (about 20 miles north) and in 1901 in Congresbury (about 11 miles east).

According to his obituary in the Times he was a sporting boy, playing, as he said, all the games, including hockey at county level.  We know little more about his life at school but we do know that big changes occurred when he was thirteen and in the subsequent couple of years.

His mother died then, in December 1899; curiously her death is registered in St Olave’s parish in Southwark.  Why though didn’t Harry just continue living with his father?  We know from the 1901 census that his father was now living in Dawlish, whilst Harry was now with the Coke family in Congresbury.  His father had also been declared bankrupt in January of that year, despite receiving an army pension of £420 and employing a housekeeper!  The 1911 Census shows him in St Helier, Jersey, with two visitors from London – Beatrice Sanders (40) and Gordon Sanders (15).  He marries her in 1915 and dies two years later.  It is almost as though he had abandoned Harry and was just interested in his own life.

So, in summary, what do we make of Harry’s origins and early life?

He came from a strong military background but chose to turn his back on that (although he did join the reserves during WW1).

His grandfather in particular seemed to have had a fairly illustrious career.  Did the qualities identified in his obituary pass through to Harry – ‘bonhomie’ and ‘professional savoir faire’?

Did he feel abandoned by his father after his mother’s death and, if so, how did that affect him?

There seem to have been a number of opportunities for the Welchman and Coke family paths to have crossed but no definite evidence of when or how it might have happened.

However the relationship with the Coke family formed it is obvious that Harry regarded it as overridingly special – why else would his ashes be interred in the grave of Janet Sarah Coke whom he regarded as his foster-mother?  Perhaps living with the Cokes was the first time he felt some real love, warmth and caring.

Information Sources:

History of Bengal European Regiment

Twelve years of a Soldier’s Life in India

Edith Welchman medals

Three in One – Part 2 – Sylvia Forde

Leaving behind the mystery of Janet Sarah Coke we now add a little glamour and intrigue to the Three in One tale.  Sylvia Forde was Harry Welchman’s second wife.  She too worked in the theatre, almost married a Prince and, importantly for Harry, she provided him with massive support when he toured the country.

Early Years

Sylvia Forde 1924

Sylvia Charlotte Helen Welchman (nee Forde) was born in Germany in 1902.  She was the elder daughter of Henry Bligh Forde and Hedwig von Dieskau.  Henry was an Irish naval engineer.  Hedwig is described as “of noble background” and was a lady-in-waiting to Queen Victoria’s grand-daughter, Princess Charlotte (sister of Kaiser Wilhelm II).

Henry died in 1910 shortly after the birth of his second daughter, Feodora, who later changed her name to become the famous actress Jane Baxter.  Henry was buried in St Mary Church Cemetery in Merton.  It’s not certain when the family moved to England, settling in Wimbledon, but there is evidence of Hedwig moving in the social circles in 1913 and also, perhaps, of how both her daughters eventually became involved with the stage..

The Pall Mall Gazette of 12 July 1913 reports:

“The vocal recital given by Mrs Henry Bligh Forde in the Aeolian Hall, yesterday afternoon, was full of agreeable artistic features.  In the first place the programme had been skilfully put together, never lacking in the proper variety and interest, and also the singer herself showed she knew what to do with it.  Her voice is classed as contralto but whatever it may be in range its timbre is of a light soprano quality.  Thoroughly efficient in the manner of production Mrs Forde ….. happily suggested the moods of such songs as Schubert’s ‘Haiden Röslein’ ……”

Stage Career

So, however it came about, Sylvia embarked upon a career on the stage, followed a few years after by her sister Feodora.  The earliest reference I can find to Sylvia’s acting career is from an article in The Stage of 18 December 1919.  The article was about a production at The Ambassadors theatre – a light opera by Bernard Rolt, appropriately titled “Sylvia’s Lovers”!

The story was summarised in The Graphic of 20 December 1919:

“The Ambassador’s Theatre has got a perfect artistic gem in the little opera called ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’, written by Mr Cosmo Gordon Lennox from the French of Marivaux to music by Mr Bernard Rolt.  The story revolves around the fascination of Stanislas, the Prince of Luneville, for a country wench, Sylvia, while his cousin, the Princess Clementine shows equally plebeian tastes, by falling in love with Sylvia’s bumpkin lover.  The whole atmosphere of the thing has been caught admirably by the players …

The Stage though specifically mentions Sylvia’s role:

“Mention should be made also of ….. the delightful old world Pastoral Ballet, the typical eighteenth century strains of which are illustrated in miming by Misses Bryonie Wake and Sylvia Forde as rustic lovers.”

Acting is, and probably was then too, a fickle profession.  If Sylvia had star potential it was never realised, yet her younger sister Feodora went on to make it in Hollywood.

Extravagance – the Boccaccio scene


The next reference I can find to Sylvia on the stage is having a role in an apparently innovative, extravagant revue at the New Oxford Theatre, “Mayfair and Montmartre”.  After a stuttering start on its first night the papers were full of praise for this show – “The most discussed revue in London” as The Graphic described it on 15 April 1922.  “Magnificent”, “spectacular” were how other reviews described it.



Yet in all the reviews there was no mention of Sylvia. The sole reference is a picture of her which appeared in The Illustrated and Sporting Dramatic News of 22 April 1922 in which she is shown disporting one of the famous costume dresses for which, together with the extravagant scenery, the flamboyant revue became known.


There is sporadic reference to her stage career after that so here is a brief summary of what I have been able to discover:

In November 1923 at The Alhambra was a mixed revue of a marimba band, singers and, according to The Era of 21 November:

“Mr Seymour Hicks, with Miss Sylvia Forde, raised the audience to a high pitch of enthusiasm with the intensity of his acting.”

In the following month Sylvia appeared again with Seymour Hicks at the Theatre Royal, Dublin, in Sacha Guitry’s ‘famous’ one-act play “Waiting for a Lady”.  Associated with such names you would think that Sylvia’s career would have taken off …. but it didn’t.  Sacha Guitry was a famous French playwright and film producer, awarded the Legion d’ Honneur in 1931.  Seymour Hicks (later Sir Seymour Hicks) was a British actor, music-hall performer, playwright, screenwriter, actor-manager and producer.  The Dublin Evening Telegraph wrote:

“The enterprise of the Hippodrome management in bringing over Seymour Hicks had its reward last night.  All seats were booked out and many were turned away.  The famous actor-manager, so familiar with Dublin audiences for his successes of the past, was seen in a one-act play entitled ‘Waiting for a Lady’, cleverly adapted by Seymour Hicks from Sacha Guitry’s ‘Sleeping Partners’.  The little comedy gave Hicks opportunity for the full play of his wondrous artistry.  He was assisted by Miss Sylvia Forde, who filled her little part in an accomplished manner”.

In January 1924 she played Lady Margaret Lindlay at the Royal Court, Liverpool, in Sir Jackanapes, a romantic costume play by A W Gattie and incidental music by Hermann Lohr.  Also in the cast was Harry Welchman, who was actor-manager for the production.  Sylvia was praised by The Stage (31 January 1924) for making a success of her role ‘by her ease, simplicity and charm’.  The play was on tour and next featured at the Prince of Wales theatre, Birmingham.  The Birmingham Daily Gazette of 15 March explained that:

“The hero is a smuggler and the heroine, played by Sylvia Forde, is the daughter of a man bent on capturing him.  By all accounts it should be really well worth seeing”

I wonder if the journalist was perhaps prophetic ….. (see later).

In June 1925 Sylvia appeared again in a small part with Harry Welchman at the Alhambra for a fortnight in a three-act musical play, The Bamboula, by H M Vernon and Guy Bolton.  The lyrics were by Douglas Furber and Irving Caesar, whilst the music was composed by Albert Sirmay and Harry Rosenthal.  It appears that this followed a two-month run at His Majesty’s Theatre.  For anyone interested in the plot, according to The Guide to Musical Theatre:

The Bamboula is a Ruritanian piece built to showcase the comical prince of a mid-European country known as Corona. Whilst pursuing the rich Donna Juanita across Europe he becomes involved in a mixup of identities with a young dance instructor and simultaneously catches rumblings of rebellion from home. He solves both problems by despatching the dance teacher to Corona as ‘Deputy Bamboula’ only to find that the lad becomes popular enough with the princess and the populace to become both husband and ruler whilst he himself is spurned by the Brazilian lady in favour of a German hotelier.

In September 1926 the same Birmingham Daily Gazette commented on ‘the winsome grace of Miss Sylvia Forde’ as the Princess Margaret in the touring production of The Student Prince.  Harry Welchman was described as “the handsomest, most debonair, and most fascinating Prince that could possibly be wished for” and of the production itself they said:

“This must be surely the most sumptuous production on tour today.  The mounting and dressing are on a scale of positive magnificence – ‘no expense spared’ as they say …..”

September 1927 saw her at The Apollo in a production of The Music Master, a three act play by Charles Klein.  She played Octavia, one of the sisters, whom she ‘represented acceptably’ according to The Stage of 8th September.  However The Sporting Times slated the production:

“The rest of the acting was undistinguished, nearly as undistinguished as the writing.  However, the players did what they could with poor parts.  I was most amused by Moya Nugent and Sylvia Forde as a couple of giggling girls.  They certainly giggled fine!”

In March 1929 Sylvia came to the rescue of Harry Welchman.  As The Era of 6 March 1929 explained:

“It was a shock for Mr Harry Welchman, recently to make a costly incursion into actor-management with The White Camellia, when shortly before the first night at Daly’s, Julia Suedo, one of the principal dancers, hurt her knee.  There was no understudy, and the difficulty was to find an understudy.  Then Mr Welchman remembered that his wife, Sylvia Forde, could dance although she had not appeared on stage for eight years (sic).  She began practising the principal dance at four o’clock on the afternoon of production and continued until just before the rise of the curtain.  Although tired, naturally, she came through the performance with flying colours ……

Miss Sylvia Forde danced and played without any trace of unpreparedness.  A very praiseworthy performance indeed, which thoroughly deserved the applause bestowed upon it.”

The Sphere of 30th March explained the plot which was simple but ‘thickens’:

“Miss Sylvia Forde as the dancing girl and M. Klit-Gaarde as the sinister major in The White Camellia conspire, one through love of the prince, the other through ambition, to assassinate the king of the inevitable Central European State.”

The adjacent photograph shows Sylvia, as Sonda, attempting the assassination with Harry Welchman, as Lt Paul Carret, standing between her and the target king.

The White Camellia appears to mark a long break in Sylvia’s stage career though she made a single comeback in a revival of The Student Prince in 1939, reprising her role from thirteen years earlier of Princess Margaret.  The adjacent photograph is from the Daily Record of 14 April that year portraying her at the Glasgow Alhambra.  In one of those spooky coincidences the Evening Despatch of 11 April 1939 published a review of the Student Prince, mentioning Sylvia, and on the same page also had a picture of her sister Jane Baxter who starred in the recently finished film version of ‘The Ware Case’.

The Burmese Prince

Sylvia Forde may not have made it as a star of stage and screen but she did have one moment of fame that she perhaps lived to regret.  Romance.  It happened at the end of July/ beginning of August of 1922.

On 5th August 1922 the Straits Times of Singapore carried a small announcement on page 8 of its edition that day:

“The engagement is announced of His Highness Maha Minhla Thugyaw of Mandalay and Miss Sylvia Forde of Wimbledon.”

America was a week behind.  The Washington Herald of 12 August reported:

“English weddings with princes in attendance are quite the fashion. The next one on society’s calendar will be the wedding of Miss Sylvia Helen Forde and the prince this time will be the groom.  He is Prince Maung Maung Gyi of Mandalay, grandson of King Mindon of Burma. His father, Theebaw, last king of Burma, was deposed by the British in 1885. The prince was photographed recently while visiting Miss Forde in England.”

A month later the news reached North Dakota!

Unfortunately communication in the 1920s was obviously not as swift as today so even by the time the Straits Times made that simple announcement the story had already moved on in the British press.

The name of the Prince is reported differently in the various articles you read but in a sense that is unimportant.  He was reported as being the great-grandson of King Mindon of Burma who was the father of the last king of Burma deposed in 1885.  Having decided to study engineering in London the prince wanted to live the life of any other student and for that reason referred to himself as Mr Gyi.  It was under that name that he first met Sylvia Forde and later became engaged to her.  It was only after two or three months of ‘courtship’ that he revealed his real name and rank.

The engagement seems to have been officially announced on or about the 24th July, as the Hull Daily Mail of that date reported:

“The engagement is announced between Maung Maung Gyi his Highness the Maha Min Hla Thugyaw, son of Maung Maung U and Khin Khin, their Highnesses the Maha Min Hla Thugaung of Mandalay, the great grandson of His Majesty the late King Mindon of Burma, and Miss Sylvia Charlotte Helen Forde, daughter of the late Mr Harry Bligh Forde, A.M.I.C.E., A.M.I.E.E., late of St Brendons , Wimbledon, and Mrs H B Forde, of 57 Merton Hall Road, Wimbledon, and grand-daughter of the late Mr and Mrs Henry Charles Forde and Baron and Baroness Von Dieskau.  The marriage will take place shortly in London.”

Wrap your brains around that!!

According to the Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail of 29 July:

“The Prince has been in England a little over a year studying engineering in London, and celebrated his twentieth birthday in June.  Miss Forde is about two months younger, and they became acquainted six months ago through a friend and fellow student.  He was known to Mrs and Miss Forde as Maung Gyi, the name he has adopted since he has been in England, and not until after the engagement did they discover his real identity.”

How wonderful, you might imagine.  But protocol intervened.

Only a week after their first report the Hull Daily Mail conveyed the bad news:

“News of the projected marriage between Prince Maung Gyi of Burma and Miss Sylvia Forde of Wimbledon having been cabled to India, the young Prince’s relatives have intervened to postpone it ….. Mrs Forde believes that his former guardian has incorrectly informed the father that the marriage was to take place immediately ….. ‘That was not their intention nor was it my wish,’ the mother declares, ‘for my daughter is only 19 and I should prefer that she did not marry for another year or two.’ ….. Prince Gyi sails for Burma almost immediately, and says he is convinced that when his father knows all the facts, and they have talked it over together, he will raise no objection to the match.”

Unfortunately Prince Gyi’s faith in his conviction proved to be misplaced.  The machinery of royal protocol and bureaucracy was already in motion as the Dundee Courier of the same day explained:

“The progress of the romance of Prince Maung Chi of Burmah and Miss Sylvia Forde, of Wimbledon, has received a check which must be very annoying to the young couple.  Their engagement was announced only a week ago, and now the unromantic Registrar General’s Office has banned any prospective wedding by refusing a licence.  His minions all over the kingdom have been notified, and a civil marriage south of Gretna Green is thus impossible.  Presumably the machinery has been set in motion from far off Mandalay.  At least Prince Chi thinks so ….”

The Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail of the same date gave more information and a view from the Prince himself:

“This step has, says the Times, been taken on telegraphed instructions of the Prince’s father Maung Maung U ….. As the Prince is under age his parents’ consent is necessary before a licence can be obtained ….. The Prince explained yesterday that the objection had evidently been made under the impression that the marriage was to take place immediately.  ‘It was never our intention to marry before I was 21,’ he said, ‘but we were anxious to announce the engagement.  I understand that objection has been lodged by a gentleman who was recently acting as my guardian over here ….. I had already written to my father but think that he can not have received my letter yet and has telegraphed under a complete misapprehension as to the social status of my fiancee’.”

Poor Sylvia.  Prince Gyi never returned.

Life with Harry Welchman

Whether Sylia ever truly recovered from the forced breakdown of her relationship with Prince Gyi we shall probably never know.  18 months later though she was now taking part in the production of Sir Jackanapes in which Harry Welchman was the actor-manager of the production.  Romance blossomed once again and in July that year the couple announced their engagement which appeared in the papers in various guises.  The Dundee Evening Telegraph of 30 July chose an interesting (salacious?) slant to the story:

“DIVORCED ACTOR SINGER TO WED AGAIN.  The engagement is announced of Mr Harry Welchman, the actor singer, to Miss Sylvia Bligh Forde, daughter of the late Henry Bligh Forde.

Mr Harry Welchman is the son of the late Colonel Arthur Welchman, 12th Bengal Cavalry, and is at present appearing in The Street Singer at the Lyric Theatre.  His fine stage presence and flashing eyes make him the idol of the devotees of romantic drama with music.

Miss Forde was in the chorus of the musical play ‘Head Over Heels’ at the Adelphi Theatre last year until Seymour Hicks chose her to be his leading lady in the music hall playlet ‘Waiting for a Lady’, in succession to Miss Barbara Hoffe.

Miss Forde, who is a pretty girl, lives with her mother in Wimbledon.  Mr Welchman was formerly married to Miss Joan Challoner, a young actress from His Majesty’s Theatre.  She obtained a decree of divorce against him in 1922.”

The Birmingham Daily Gazette of 31 July referred to it rather more kindly as ‘Romance of the Theatre’ and printed the accompanying photograph.


They married on 9 April 1925 although the ceremony was kept secret as subsequently reported by the Belfast Telegraph of 10 April:

“HARRY WELCHMAN’S WEDDING.  Mr Harry Welchman, the actor-singer, was on Thursday afternoon, the Evening News learns, married to Miss Sylvia Bligh Forde, of Wimbledon.  The civil ceremony took place at Kingston-on-Thames register office.  A religious ceremony was afterwards held in the Savoy Chapel.  The date of the wedding had been kept secret although the engagement of Mr Welchman and Miss Forde was announced in July last..”

In February 1927 the Sketch carried a photograph of the couple in the South of France with the caption:


Mr Harry Welchman, the well-known stage favourite and vocalist, has been on the Riviera with Mrs Welchman (formerly Miss Sylvia Forde).  Our snapshot show the delights of picking oranges in the South.”



The following year their daughter Pamela was born and in 1931 a picture of the family appeared in the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic news of 31 October.

Apart from her reprise in the Student Prince in 1939 Sylvia seems to drop out of the media spotlight from then onwards.



Pamela & Lochinvar

We know the family, including 20 year old Pamela and her horse Lochinvar, moved down to Ludgvan in Cornwall in 1948 but the next, and last, mention of her that I can find is her attendance on 26 July 1992 at the London Palladium.  The occasion was a tribute to Evelyn Laye, a contemporary of Sylvia, in aid of the Multiple Sclerosis Society and the Theatrical Ladies Guild.  Her sister, Jane Baxter, also attended.

Sylvia Charlotte Bligh Forde died a year later, having survived Harry by 27 years.  Their daughter Pamela died in 2017.  Her memorial service was held at St Erth Church in Hayle, Cornwall.  She was not interred with her parents.

Sylvia Forde 1902-1993











Other Information Sources:

Le Minh Khai’s seasian history blog – Prince Gyi

Guide to musical theatre – the Bamboula

London Musicals 1925-29 – the Bamboula

New York Times – Jane Baxter

Picturegoer Weekly – Jane Baxter




Three in One

The credit for the discovery of this story must go to one of our keen volunteers, Jean Gitsham.  It is a tribute to the almost archaeological tenacity required to locate and uncover the burial sites of people who have an historic attachment with Teignmouth.  Like many such discoveries serendipity places a part.  In Jean’s own words:

I was looking at section SS grid given to me by Dave T, probably when I should have been sorting my own house and garden.  Anyway I started googling unusual names and amazingly all the Harry Welchman info appeared .. cemetery record of death date made it likely we had Harry.  So Geoff and I at next FOTC work session tried to work out where grave was likely to be.  It was in area where graves covered under dense ivy and brambles .. foliage so thick definitely no sign of either headstone or kerb.  However at following work session I told Selina about the possibility of us having famous music hall star; she was determined and we both set to clearing the grave with Selina doing majority of clearance work.  When I pulled back the brambles covering the horizontal inscription stone we had a bit of a giggle when the first words seen were he gave pleasure to many’.

Three in one grave

The story became even more fascinating though on reading the rest of the stone which revealed that the remains of three people were interred in the plot – Janet Sarah Coke, Henry Arthur Welchman and Sylvia Forde.  The immediate intriguing question was how three lives became intertwined so closely that their epitaph remains on a single grave in Teignmouth Old Cemetery.



This is what this tale attempts to unravel, in three parts starting with Janet Sarah Coke.

Thanks to Dave Tovey and Geoff Wood for their industrious research into official records which was of immense value in putting a time-line together.



Part 1 – Janet Sarah Coke

Janet Sarah Coke died in October 1945, aged 92.  She left £4438 in her will “all of which she bequeathed to Harry Welchman, the actor, desiring him to dispose of the same in accordance with any memorandum left by her”.

According to the Newcastle Evening Chronicle of 26 March 1946 Harry Welchman told a reporter that his real mother had died when he was quite young and Janet Coke had been his foster mother.  He said “I lived with her and her sister until I was 16 years old when I went on the stage ….. during the last year or so Miss Coke has lived with my wife and me”.

Little has been discovered about Janet Coke’s own life other than that it seems to have been shaped by the ups and downs of her father’s occupation as a photographer.  They travelled around the country and at some point must have become acquainted with the Welchman family for the fostering arrangement to have happened.  So the rest of this part of the story sets the scene and time-line of the Coke family movements.

Janet’s parents were Archibald Lewis Coke (also spelt as Cocke in various references) and Janet MacKay.  He was the youngest son of a surgeon, Arthur Coke, whilst she was the daughter of a Captain MacKay RM and they married at St James, Picadilly, in December 1852.  Janet, their youngest daughter, was born two years later in Hammersmith followed by sisters Edith in 1856 and Alice in 1858.

Archibald Coke (from Princeton University collection)

Photography was in its infancy in the mid-19th century and Archibald Coke was one of its pioneers.  Judging by the references to him, he was also one of the leading exponents in this exciting new artistic medium.  He was certainly one of the earliest British photographers to make a living from his art.  The photograph here is apparently what we would now call a selfie of Archibald Coke.

He opened his first photographic studio with his brother Arthur in 1847 at 44 Regent Street.  At that time it would have been known as a “daguerrotype” studio because of the original technology invented by Louis Daguerre that resulted in photographic images being produced on silvered copper plates.  Archibald soon adapted to a new medium though – the calotype, which involved the production of an image on paper coated with silver iodide.

It is in this medium that Archibald gained his reputation.  He submitted fifteen calotypes to the “Exhibition of Recent Specimens of Photography” which is regarded as the first exhibition in the world dedicated to photography and ran in the House of the Society of Arts in London from December 22 1852 to January 29 1853.  The University of Princeton has a collection of his works and writes:

Of many highlights in Princeton’s album of early photography compiled by Richard Willats (ca.1820-after 1881), the calotypes by Archibald Lewis Cocke (1824-1896) are among the most important.

He was also lauded in the 1854 Arts Journal:

“one of the oldest photographers whose landscape subjects on paper are unsurpassed for truth and beautiful detail,”

Devonshire (from Princeton University collection)

In 1850 his brother left the business but by 1854 Archibald had teamed up with another photographer, Thomas Nashum Kirkham, to form the Institute of Photography at 179 Regent Street.  His interests were also moving towards architecture and historic buildings, pictures of which he exhibited in the 1855 exhibition at the Photographic Institution in London.  He also took part in the 1861 Architectural Photographic Exhibition with a series on Exeter Cathedral.

All of the above sets the scene for Janet’s family early background – daughter of a successful commercial photographer who appeared to have been well regarded in London and by professionals in the arts world.  But 1861, or thereabouts, seems to have marked a turning point in the family’s fortunes.

The 1861 census records Archibald and his family (wife, three daughters and a servant Jane Merrifield) as living at East Wonford Cottage, Heavitree, Exeter.  Archibald’s parents came from the West Country, his father from Cornwall and his mother from Bradford in the district of Torridge, Devon.  His uncle through his mother’s side was Lewis Risdon Heysett so he himself was a descendant of the renowned Devon historian Tristram Risdon.  But what now caused Archibald to give up an apparently successful commercial enterprise in London and move down to Exeter is a mystery.  Maybe he had been commissioned to produce his series of photographs of Exeter Cathedral and had decided to stay.

Within a year though Archibald had filed for bankruptcy.  According to the Exeter Flying Post of 16 April 1862:

“Mr Commissioner Andrews granted an order of discharge to A L Cook, a photographer of Wonford.  The bankrupt owes his creditors £769 1s 9d, to meet which there are assets amounting to £115 12s 2d.”

Whatever the outcome of that bankruptcy it is clear that Archibald was still able to support his family.  The 1871 census shows the family as living at Endfield Cottage, Stokeinteignhead and they now had a fourth daughter, Amy Harriet, who was either born in 1864 in Heavitree, Exeter, or in 1865 in Newton Abbot depending on which census transcript you choose to believe.

Archibald was still in the photography business but had obviously left the London life behind and there appear to be no further references to his works in London exhibitions etc.  But in the North Devon Gazette of 24 August 1869 we read that:

“A large number of photographers have competed for the £5 prize offered for the best photographs of Westward Ho! and consequently a large number have been sent in for approval.  Those of Mr Archibald Coke, of Newton, however, stand out from all the rest as being superior in every respect.  We inspected the photographs yesterday , and quite agree with the judges in their decision; they, together with the scientific committee in connection with the British Association Excursion having unanimously awarded the prize to Mr Coke.  They are really splendid pictures, and compared with them many of the others are mere daubs.”

By 1881 the family had moved to 19 Goldney Road, Clifton, Bristol and were still in Clifton in 1891.  All four daughters were living there, none had married and by this time Janet Sarah Coke was 36.

Archibald continued to be mentioned in despatches.  The following advertisement of Heard and Sons comes from The Cornish Telegraph of 26 May 1880:

Triumphal Arch, Truro, 1880

“Royal Visit to Truro.  Preliminary Announcement.  Very successful negatives of the Triumphal Arches have been taken in two sizes by Mr Archibald Coke of Clifton, the well known landscape and architectural photographer under the special direction of Mr Trevail, the architect.  As soon as they can be properly printed proofs will be exhibited in our windows and orders taken.  Each arch has been photographed on both sides with flags and mottoes complete and the entire series will comprise ten views in each size.”

Archibald died on 26th February 1896 but curiously his address in the probate register was given as Barton Regis workhouse (St Thomas, Eastville, Stapleton, Gloucestershire).  The probate showed him as leaving an estate of £343 14s so why was he living in the workhouse?  Had something happened to break up the family between 1891 and 1896?

Certainly by the time of the 1901 census the family had split.  The mother, Janet, was now living in Congresbury, Somerset, with her two eldest daughters Janet Sarah and Edith.  Living with them now was Harry Welchman, age 15.  Meanwhile it appears that the youngest daughter, Amy, had married but by the time of the 1911 census she was a widow living in Horfield, Bristol, with her sister Alice.  At the same time, 1911, Janet Sarah and her sister Edith had moved back to Maida Vale, London, and Harry Welchman was still living with them, now aged 25.  On the census they were described as Harry’s aunts although there is no evidence of a family connection.

By 1939 all four sisters had returned to Devon and were living within several miles of each other.  Amy and Alice were living in Devon Square, Newton Abbot whilst Janet Sarah and Edith were in Barton Crescent in Dawlish.  Edith died in June 1941 and was buried in Teignmouth Old Cemetery.  It would appear that Janet Sarah subsequently returned to London.  The probate registry gives her address as 39 Marryat Road Wimbledon at the time of her own death in 1945.  We can only imagine that it was her wish to be buried close to her sister from whom she had not been separated throughout their family life, hence her appearance in Teignmouth Cemetery.

From this time-line and background to Janet Sarah Coke’s life we still do not have a definitive explanation for the link with Harry Welchman.  We do know though (as we’ll see later) that Harry Welchman was born in Barnstaple which is about 25 miles north of Bradford where Janet’s mother came from.  And we also know that Harry came to live with the family some time between 1896 and 1901.

The story continues in Part 2 with Sylvia Forde, Harry Welchman’s second wife.

Information Sources:

Princeton University ….

Exhibition of Recent Specimens of Photography – article

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York – approved biography

The History of Photography, Helmut Gernsheim, Thames & Hudson, London

The Athenaeum (Journal of Literature, Science and the Fine Arts), 1855 – advertisement



Then and Now

William Rock

William Frederick Rock was a British publisher and philanthropist.  Having worked with the printer and inventor Thomas de la Rue he started his own printing business with help from his brothers.  They specialised in publishing topographical steel-engraved prints, one of which was the 1864 etching (No 5067) of Teignmouth Cemetery.

Thanks to local historian Viv Wilson MBE, who has kindly given us access to an old photograph from her archive, and Geoff Wood, an FOTC volunteer who has taken an equivalent up-to-date picture we now have a unique comparison of almost the same cemetery scene over 150 years.

The three pictures are shown below as thumbprints.  Click on any picture to get a larger view.  It’s fantastic to see both chapels in a photograph, looking so similar to the original etching.  All the more sad that the second of those chapels is now just a ruin.

Below the individual pictures are some close-up comparisons of all three pictures together.

Current View

Date unknown – from Viv Wilson MBE archive

Teignmouth Cemetery 1864







The angles and distances are obviously slightly different but cropping what appears to be roughly the same area from each picture and scaling so that the main chapel is approximately the same size in each gives the following montage:

The “P” on the right-hand etching represents roughly where it would seem that the middle photograph was taken.  Note the path on the etching which still appears to be a stone path in the photograph.  That is now long gone.  The key marker for the modern photograph is the central grave in the middle photograph which is surrounded by low iron fencing, now untidy and slightly overgrown.

There is one constant in all three pictures though – the white cross standing below the left-hand window of the main chapel:

150 years …. a long time in the life of the cemetery.

Bombing Casualties – Henry and Elizabeth Williams

The Wonder of the Web!

It would be nice to think that news of Teignmouth Cemetery has gone global.  We’re not quite there but we have had another international contact recently, this time from Tom Williams of Anaheim, California.

Kerb inscription 2015

Tom had visited the cemetery in 2015 and, amongst the overgrowth and brambles, had managed to find the grave of his great-grandparents – Henry John and Elizabeth Mary Williams.

Two of the FOTC volunteers, Jean Gitsham and Geoff Wood, went in search of their grave and described what they found:

“We were expecting the Williams grave to be covered in dense brambles however when we located the grave it was completely hidden under dense tangled ivy plus had a large anthill on it as well …

Cleared grave, ready for planting

Around 8 large tubs of ivy pulled off the grave with lots of stubborn roots removed with mattocks …around 10.30am Mal joined us helping with our mammoth ivy clearance task…lots of heavy work resulting in muddy conditions … “

According to the 1939 register Henry was a private gardener.  They both died on 2nd September 1942 in a bombing raid on Teignmouth in which their house, 11 Higher Brook Street, was hit. Henry was 82 and Elizabeth 79.  Two other residents there, Alice Jemima James and Rosa Victoria Turpin, were also killed along with neighbours nextdoor in number 10.

On Teignmouth Seafront 1935

This was just one incident in ten raids that Teignmouth suffered between 1941 and 1943.  More details of these and a full list of those who died in the bombings and are buried in the Cemetery are given on the Bombing Casualties page.

Tom sent us this wonderful picture of his great-grandparents promenading along Teignmouth seafront before the war.

The Curious Case of the Shifting Shrub

Something slightly light-hearted for Xmas Eve …..

Tales from the Grave so far have focussed on stories surrounding those who are buried in the Cemetery.  But the Cemetery itself has its own tales to tell such as this one from the Western Morning News of Friday 5th March 1880 – a tale of apparent mystery, intrigue and skulduggery which prompted rumours to be spread throughout the town.  I have left the story verbatim as reported in the paper to give it the appropriate ‘period’ feel of a Victorian melodrama but I have broken the single paragraph item up into several for ease of reading.

Curious Proceedings in Teignmouth Cemetery

“At the monthly meeting of the Teignmouth Burial Board yesterday, Mr C H Stooke presiding, Messrs J Tothill and N Hudson also being present, a letter was read by the clerk (Mr Jordan) from Mr G A Hole, gardener, of Fore Street, in which the writer complained that he had found on visiting the cemetery, that a shrub had been taken from his mother’s grave, and on enquiry where the shrub was he discovered that it had been planted on another grave.

The lodge-keeper (Mills) said he knew nothing about it.

The Chairman proposed that, taking all the facts of the case into consideration, the monthly visitor (Mr G Jarvis) be written to, requesting him to have Mills replace the shrub at once.  He (the chairman) heard Mr Jarvis give Mills particular orders not to touch any shrub belonging to any private individual, and Mills should have obeyed those orders.

Mr Tothill thought it possible that Mills might not have been present at all when the shrub was transplanted.  The Chairman thought Mills must have been there the whole of the time.  Mr Hudson inquired whether anyone could plant shrubs on the graves of their relatives.  The Clerk said they could with a “pass” which Mr Hole evidently had.

The Chairman said it appeared that a rumour had gone through the town about this particular shrub, altogether a false rumour, which was got up for a purpose; there was no doubt about that.  He had heard Mills suggest, in Mr Jarvis’s presence, that some of the shrubs in the cemetery should be transplanted, as they were too thick, and were injuring each other, and Mr Jarvis told Mills he must do nothing of the kind with the shrubs planted by private individuals.

Mr Tothill said that might be all very well, but the shrub was removed from a private grave, and placed upon his (Mr Jarvis’s) father’s grave.  It was a thing which he (Mr Tothill) would not have allowed to be done.  Mr Hudson thought it would have been far more satisfactory if both the visitor and the lodgekeeper had been present.  Mr Hudson did not believe that Mills would have allowed the shrub to be removed without Mr Jarvis’s sanction.

It was resolved to order the restoration of the shrub, and to further investigate the matter.

Was Jarvis, the appointed ‘visitor’, the mastermind villain behind this heinous act? Was Mills, the trusted lodgekeeper, the fall-guy?  What was the nefarious purpose of the “false rumour”?  Did Stooke, the Chairman, have a hidden vested interest and was he attempting to pervert the course of cemeterial justice?  Was the further investigation a cover-up, perhaps in the national interest?

We may never know the answers to these important questions – I can find no further report.  The statute of limitations may have passed but this Victorian whodunnit remains a mystery.