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

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