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:

“ACTRESS SET FREE. DIVORCE GRANTED TO MISS JOAN CHALLONER.

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 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:

“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.”

 

 

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

Epitaph

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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