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The Hippodrome and the Livesey Family.




The Livesey Family taken c1925. L-R Roger, Peggy, Sam, Cassie, Barrie, Stella and Jack


Part 2 The Livesey Family
Last month we heard how: once Mexborough had a magnificent theatre known as the Hippodrome, situated on land to the west of the Montagu Arms, now a car park; that the people responsible for its construction were Thomas & Mary Livesey; that they had once owned the largest portable theatre in Europe, ‘The Paragon Theatre’; when Thomas died how Mary had continued on with their dream; when she bought the land and who she took the mortgage out with and who her guarantors were; how it was constructed by George Henry Smith, a building contractor of Mexborough; when it was opened by the well know actor and music hall star Mr. H. Hesslegrave (Soft Tommy Shuttleworth) on 18th Dec. 1893; the opening of the White House Café to provided meals for the vast numbers of people who came from miles around to this theatre; some the world famous entertainers who came to Mexborough to appeared there; when it was demolished and why.

But after providing Mexborough with such a prestigious and successful theatre and giving so much to our town, what happened to Mary and her family when she retired in 1910 and left Mexborough? This question has always haunted me, they cannot have disappeared, and so what happened to them? The answer I think will surprise you.

The Livesey Dynasty of theatrical artists, which lasted for nearly one hundred years, began in 1839 with the birth of Thomas Livesey, the son of Richard and Mary.

The family worked in the cotton mills of Lancashire and by 1861 they seem to have been a prosperous one, his parents and sister being cotton weavers and Thomas himself a mechanic, these being among the most prestigious occupations in the cotton industry. So why did a young man, in a stable well paid job leave, to join the precarious world of the theatre?

The reason for his leaving seems to have been the old, old reason why many young men take such a drastic change in the direction of their lives, love and war. On 12th April 1861 the American Civil War began and the Southern States, after a short time, ceased exporting cotton to Lancashire. This brought mass deprivation as mills closed and vast numbers became unemployed. With no welfare state the workers had to find alternative employment wherever they could. And it was at this time that a young lady by the name of Mary Wright entered Thomas’ life.

Mary was a young actress from a travelling theatrical family and in 1869 they were married and together with her brother Joseph who was a musician, and later his wife Elizabeth who was an actor, the little company began to tour. In Dec. of that year their first child Edward was born, in Wolverhampton and Edward, like all the Livesey children who were to follow, had an unusual characteristic in that he was ambidextrous (being both left and right handed). At this time it seems that Mary and her brother temporarily went their separate ways as we find him living in Burton-on-Trent in an Entertainments Boarding House along with: several musicians; a couple of gymnasts (acrobats); and a contortionist; these entertainers came from various nationalities including Austrians, Germans, and Frenchmen.

They arrived in Mexborough at a time of formation and threw themselves, with gusto, into many civic causes, such as the establishment of the Montagu Cottage Hospital and the equipping of an efficient Fire Brigade. On 18th Dec. c1889, at the Paragon Theatre, they staged a play entitled ‘Caste’. All the takings, which, as the theatre could seat 1,000 when full, must have been considerable.

Thomas and Mary’s overriding ambition had always been to have their own permanent theatre, and as Mexborough was their favourite touring venue, chose this town. But on 9th March 1890 their plans were thrown into disarray when Thomas suddenly died. He was buried in Mexborough Cemetery and, as if to declare to the world that here lies an actor, his memorial stone carries the famous Shakespearian lines: “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women in it merely player. They have their exits and entrances and each in his time plays many parts”.

But Mary’s strength of character shone through and, we presume with the help of her brother who lived at 54-56 Market St., and her adult children, she carried on, and brought to fruition their plans in 1893 when she opened the splendid, first class, modern theatre, the Prince of Wales, equipped with the best that money could buy.

Crowds to the theatre were such that it was found necessary to provided meals and a while after the opening of the theatre Mary obtained a house, at the bottom of Garden Street, which she turned into a restaurant. A café which I feel many of us will remember as the ‘White House Café’. Another house was obtained for the family, on Garden Street; where for the first time the family could have a stable, permanent home, enabling the children to be educated locally at Garden Street School.

The first play to be seen on the stage of the Prince of Wales stared Mary’s son, Edward, in the roll of a simple fisherman and it had packed the theatre every night and people had flocked there from miles around.

In 1900 the second of Mary’s children, Sam, married the beautiful Welsh actress Maggie (Margaret Ann) Edwards and five years later, his brother Joseph, married her sister the striking Cassie (Mary Catherine). Both unions were blest with children: Sam and Maggie had two sons Jack Edward, and Barry, whereas Joseph and Cassie had a son and a daughter, Roger in 1906 and Peggy (Margaret). But disaster was to strike both couples as firstly, in 1911, Joseph died followed shortly after by Maggie leaving Sam and Cassie widowed when still very young. The two of them, trying to bring up the four children as one family, were thrown together and the inevitable happened, they fell in love, and were married shortly after in 1913, with Stella, their daughter being born in 1915.

In 1910, at the age of 62yrs Mary retired and, following the sale of the theatre to a Mr. Smith of Dewsbury, moved to live in a pretty seaside cottage, less than 50yds from the sea, at Deal, Kent.

All Mary’s children, had been brought up in a theatre, and so learned to play any roll which was given them. Many had by now, accomplish major rolls in prestigious theatres, becoming well known names in the theatrical world. They then put all their skills into the emerging British Film Industry, which, at the time, demanded highly skilled one-take professional actors and it seems to have been Sam and Cassie who were the lynch pin behind this.

Sam and Cassie, accompanied by their five children, moved to live in North London, close to Elstree, Pinewood and Twickenham Film Studios. Here Cassie proactively promoted the family as their agent and with single minded determination ensured that her husband was always in full employment and the children were well educated, both academically and theatrically. It appears that the first to appear on the silver screen was Sam in 1916, who played the part of Capt. Salzburg in the film ‘The Lifeguardsman’. Over his lifetime he made 47 films and played alongside such notables as Vivien Leigh, James Mason, Charles Laughton, Peter Cushing, etc.

They also stared in a film which could be called the Livesey’s Own. It was entitled ‘Variety’ and stared Sam, Roger, Barry, Jack, and Cassie and told the story of a family, so similar to their own, touring the theatres and music halls, which by then were in decline, it also starred such well known people as the Sherman Girls (the forerunner of the Tiller Girls), Horace Sheldon and Billy Cotton. It was filmed at Cricklewood Studios in 1935 and was directed by Adrian Brunel. One is tempted to believe that it was also financed by the Livesey Family.

Following the death of Sam, Cassie continued to be their agent and promoter. Jack who was born in 1901, the son of Sam and Maggie, became a character actor until a bad accident, while filming an action sequence for a film, badly damaged his leg. This indirectly caused his emigration to America where he firstly stayed in New York and acted the part of the father in a stage play entitled ‘The Entertainer’ for two years, after which he went to Hollywood. He played in eleven films altogether his last film being ‘A Touch of Mink’ released in 1962 playing alongside Cary Grant and Doris Day. He died at his home in Burbank, close to the studios, in California, just before the release of his last film in 1961.

Barry (his name is sometimes spelt Barrie), Jack’s brother was born in 1905, and like his brother was a character actor. He appeared in six films, one is worthy of note this being Rembrandt. It was screened in 1936 and he played alongside his father, Sam, and his step-brother Roger. It stared Charles Laughton and Gertrude Lawrence. His last film came in 1945 ‘They Were Sisters’ where he appeared with James Mason and Phillis Galvert. He died in 1959.

Peggy was born in 1911 the daughter of Joseph and Cassie and was established in the West End as a stage actress. She married Desmond Jeans (real name Desmond McMinn) who was himself an accomplished actor in his own right.

Stella was born in 1915, and was reg. in Eastery; the registration district of her paternal grandmother Mary Livesey, and it is tempting to believe that she could have been born at her home. She was the only daughter of Sam and Cassie and initially helped her mother in promoting the family. It appears that she may not have gone into the film industry and she escapes mention on the internet, with the exception of Ancestry.Com. This shows a Stella Livesey b1915 who married a Charles Robinson in 1935 in Eastry, Kent. We then discover among passenger lists, a Stella Livesey crossing the Atlantic on a number of occasions, on prestigious passenger liners such as the Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mary. Could she have been visiting Jack in America? I suppose now we will never know.

Then last but, certainly not, least there is Roger and his wife Ursula Jeans (born Ursula McMinn), well where do I begin with them? Well as Julie Andrews says “start at the very beginning it’s a very good place to start”. . Roger was born in 1906 the son of Joseph and Cassie and was named after his maternal grandfather Roger Edwards. Thanks to Cassie, he was well educated attending both the Westminster City School and the Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts, founded in London it is the oldest college of it kind in the world. He first appeared on stage at the age of 5yrs then in 1917 came his first West End appearance, as an office boy in the stage play ‘Loyalties’ at the St. James’ Theatre. He then played a variety of roles from 1920-1926 in the West End and in 1921 his first film was released, this being ‘Rainbow Ends’ followed by another two in 1921 and 1923. Tours were then undertaken by him of the West Indies and South Africa showing productions of Shakespeare and modern comedies. He then returned to join the Old Vic/Sadlers Wells Company and from 1931-1935 seven more films were released in which he stared.

In 1932 he met a recently widowed young actress who had made a name for herself in the West End, by the name of Ursula Jeans, and they were married when Roger went on tour to New York. They returned to England, Ursula to appear in Noel Coward’s ‘Cavalcade’ and Roger to sign up with Alexander Korda, following which he appeared in his first lead role in ‘The Drum’. He then appeared with his step-father Sam, and step-brother Barry, in the unforgettable film ‘Rembrandt’ which joins the painter at the height of his career. It was one of Korda’s best films and it was this film which introduced Roger to his father’s personal friend Charles Laughton.

Roger seems to have recognised the potential of TV, and must have been among the first to make films specifically for this market. His first T.V. film was ‘Black Magic’ in 1938, which being a success was followed by another two prior to the 2nd WW.

During the 2nd WW Roger and Ursula became leading actors, and personal friends of Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh. They also purchased a small cottage named ‘Plough Cottage’ and there built a summerhouse in the garden where Olivier stayed whenever he was filming in Debham. At the outbreak of war Roger worked in an aircraft factory but was asked to join ENSA and, with Ursula, toured India and North Africa.

They were involved in many adventures. One of which occupied during their journey to India when the hydraulics of the Stirling Bomber they were travelling in, froze and refused to let the undercarriage down. Without an operational undercarriage they were unable to land, and eventually the plane would have run out of fuel and crashed, there was no alternative but to urinate on it. This thawed it out and they were able to land successfully. On another occasion Bryan Forbes and another corporal were stranded and Roger came to their rescue even buying them a meal after the excitement was over.

It was during the war (1943) that Roger was involves in the making of a film which, for its time, was controversial. It depicted the lifelong friendship between a British Officer and a German of equivalent rank and horrified Churchill who tried to get it banned. It took many years for it to attain the status that this masterpiece of British Filming deserved; its name of course was ‘The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp’ which after its release in New York established Roger as an internationally known character actor.

It was at this time that Roger became godfather to Peter Ustinov’s daughter Tamara. This was after he had procured Peter’s release from an Army Mental Home in order that he could watch the first night staging of his first play.

In 1946 he played the role of a benevolent surgeon on the film ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ which was chosen as the first Royal Command Performance. Following the war, in 1947 Roger and Ursula starred in the West End in ‘Ever Since Paradise’ written and directed for them by J.B. Priestly.

Then the worlds of Roger and Ursula came crashing down when, during a tour of New York, Roger collapsed and almost died. He was diagnosed has having cancer and doctors had no alternative but to perform a colostomy to save his life. With most of their money eaten up by American medical bills and Roger’s confidence and spirits at rock bottom Ursula had to approach their friend, the internationally know golfer Babe Zacharias, who had undergone such an operation himself, for help in getting Roger fit to act again. The couple returned to ‘Plough Cottage’ and, in order to help the community, they opened a shop and post office in a nearby village, and Rogers’ convalescence began. During this time he contacted the South Yorkshire Times asking if anyone could remember what Mexborough and the Prince of Wales Theatre was like when his grandmother, father, and aunts and uncles lived there and received a host of answers. Encouraged by the high degree of feeling still held for the Livesey Family in our town, and all the support he received, he returned to acting.

In 1948 he made another film for TV and another in 1950. Everything seemed to be getting back to normal and then tragedy struck once again when Ursula was diagnosed with cancer. This time there was to be no recovery and sadly she died 18mths later, having being nursed throughout by Roger. Roger was heartbroken and could not bear to be in the cottage which held so many memories and loaned it to a young, local, homeless couple, while he lived at the post office. In 1975 he made his last acting appearance, in the TV series Benjamin Franklin; he died of Colorectal Cancer, aged 69yrs. on 4th Feb. 1976.

His funeral was attended by a galaxy of star but these were eclipsed by members of the local community. Even a very ill boy from a nearby village, who Roger had regularly visited in hospital, insisted on paying his last respects, even though he was, by this stage, in an iron lung.

But that is not the end of the Livesey story. Roger and Ursula were not blessed with children but their theatrical legacy did not die with them. You read how, in the 2nd WW Roger and Ursula worked for ENSA and how they helped young budding actors in many ways. Following the end of the war some were struggling to obtain work and gave up the stage. One of those, rescued by them, was Kenneth More, who stared in the film ‘The North West Frontier’ with Ursula which was on our TVs at Christmas. While working on the T.V. series ‘The Pallisers’ they met a little girl, then aged 6yrs. Her parents were going through a difficult period in their relationship and Roger and Ursula wished to adopt her. They recognised in her a spark of acting genius and in order to distract her from the unpleasantness at home encouraged her outstanding acting ability. It didn’t matter where in the world they were they kept in touch and continued to encourage her. The little girl grew up to be the fine actress we now know as Susan Hampshire who until recently could be seen acting alongside Richard Briars in the TV series ‘Monarch of the Glen’.

Two fine actors, a legacy the Livesey Family, should be proud of.

Information obtained from:
Firstly thanks to Ron James for his help with respect to the research into the family history of the Livesey Family.
Sam Livesey – IMDb, Wikipedia, South Yorkshire Times, photographic archives of Mex. & Dist. Heritage Society
Jack, Barry, Peggy, Roger and Ursula, Livesey – Wikepeadia
Books: The History of the Hippodrome Theatre Mexborough 1893-1939 by Brian Hillerby.
Wikipeadia: Architecture, The Lyceum Theatre Sheffield, Livesey Family, Les Dawson & Roy Barraclough, Florrie Forde.
Personal Memories of: William Blount (the Electric Man) and Brian Hillerby.
Archives of Mex. & Dist. Heritage Society: Plan of the Paragon Theatre and its situation in Mexborough; Livesey Family by Jill Watt; Programme of the play ‘Caste’ 18th Dec. c1890 performed at the Paragon Theatre; surviving portion of a book entitled ‘Old King Coal’ author unknown; programme of ‘Rio Rita and ‘The Geisha’; Newsletter dated Feb. 2000.
Ancestry.com: Census Returns; 1841, 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881, 1891, 1901, and 1911; Passenger lists.

Copyright: This newsletter may not be copied, in part or in its entirety, without the permission of J.R. Ashby