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.
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’ ……”
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.
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.”
“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.”
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..”
“A STAGE FAVOURITE OF THE RIVIERA: MR HARRY WELCHMAN AT CANNES WITH MRS WELCHMAN.
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.”
Apart from her reprise in the Student Prince in 1939 Sylvia seems to drop out of the media spotlight from then onwards.
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.
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