WHY A BANKRUPT WENT INTO SHOWBUSINESS.
In the late 19th Century many people travelled to Australasia to make a quick fortune, but found little except tragedy and bad luck. When the Greenwood family tried a similar route they ended up having to sing for their supper. Through illness, accidents and financial hardship they entertained audiences across Australia and New Zealand for twenty years. Leann Richards reports.
Robert Charles Greenwood was an English gentleman of business. In the 1880s he travelled to New Zealand with his wife Marie Kito Greenwood and became a land and commission agent. Marie was a cultured English lady who had a vast knowledge of music.
In 1886, RC Greenwood declared bankruptcy. His growing family was left without any means of support, so he and his wife made an unusual decision. They decided to form a travelling entertainment company.
By 1887, Mrs Greenwood had organised her five children into a troupe of performers. Eldest daughter Maribel, around 15 years old, was an accomplished actress and singer. Agatha, her younger sister, was an accomplished violinist. Nora, the next sister played piano, and the youngest girl, Ruby, also known as Roberta, sang and recited songs. The baby of the family, Bob, aged about 7 years, gave recitations and was the family comedian. They performed in Town Halls in New Zealand and became a popular attraction.
In 1888 they tried their luck in Australia. Their first appearance in Sydney, at the YMCA hall, was greeted with a terrible Sydney Morning Herald review.
According to the Herald, the versatility of the performers detracted from the show. The paper stated that the girls sang badly and that young master Bob was not amusing. The family continued to perform for a short time, but Agatha fell sick with rheumatic fever whilst the younger children fell ill with severe colds. The bad reviews and family illnesses convinced them to leave the theatre.
Mr Greenwood returned to business at the mining exchange and the rest of the family settled into a more conventional gentile lifestyle at Woolloomooloo in Sydney.
Maribel continued to perform. In 1890, she played in A Midsummer’s Night Dream with George Rignold and stayed with the actor manager for some time. The family had another brush with fame in 1891 when a book written by Roberta, when she was 8 years old, was published. The book, called Little People, was a series of stories about growing up with sisters in New Zealand. The charm of the narrative was enhanced by the illustrations, drawn by Nora and Agatha.
The financial crisis of 1890 hit the family hard. Robert Charles lost his job and by 1892 they were again suffering severe financial problems. So the Greenwood family of entertainers went back on the road.
Using Maribel’s success in Shakespeare to advertise, they commenced a well-received tour of Australia’s capital cities. Their show, which consisted of melodramatic plays, included the whole family and several other actors. After some good reviews in Australia they returned to New Zealand in 1895 for a long stay.
An itinerant company of the era faced many vicissitudes. Illness, especially of young children was common. Agatha’s bout of rheumatic fever had left her weak. Touring also brought the risk of accident. In New Zealand in 1895 Ruby curiously examined a pistol backstage, only to have it discharge in her face. She was lucky to escape without permanent damage.
Travelling companies lived in close proximity and on a precarious budget. Disputes about payment were common. In 1895 Robert Charles Greenwood, the patriarch of the family sued an actor for larceny. He accused him of stealing eight pounds, sent as an advance. The actor countered that he was owed 30 pounds from his last stint in the company and the suit was dismissed.
Personal animosities were inflamed in the close confines and stresses of touring. New Zealand papers stated in 1896 that the company was close to collapse because of internal dissension and bad business practices.
Between 1895 and 1900 the family performed Shakespeare, burlesques, and dramas such as East Lynne in New Zealand. They visited gold mining towns and major cities and their reviews ranged from laudatory to derogatory.
Tragedy struck in 1898 when Robert Charles died. The theatrical profession in New Zealand tendered the family a benefit that did little to ease the pain of loss, but helped keep the company afloat. Included in the benefit performance was a new name, a young boy called Charlie Williams, Maribel’s son.
They returned to Australia in 1900, but engagements in the capital cities were few. Their style of entertainment lacked the professionalism and extravagant settings needed for a big city audience. They became a fixture on the country circuit. Their travels took them to Ballarat and Bendigo, Broken Hill and Port Pirie, and everywhere in between.
The travelling life continued to cause problems. As the girls grew into adulthood they began to take more responsibility for the managerial side. Nora acted as advance agent and was the level headed sister. In 1902 her mother’s dress was set alight by a spirit lamp. Nora, without panicking, quickly doused the flames with a blanket. She and her mother were both slightly burned.
Tragedy struck the family again in 1903 when Walter Baird, Roberta’s husband, died in an accident at the Chute in Manly. He left Roberta alone with one-year-old twin children. Fortunately her family was able to support her and after a brief period of mourning she continued performing
The Greenwood family toured Australia regularly until 1914, when they disbanded the company. Maribel and Nora settled in Eden NSW with their families. Agatha also stayed in Eden but never married. All three contributed towards the musical life of the town and were well known as society performers. Robert moved to Hillston NSW, married and had several children and grandchildren. Roberta moved to Sydney with her twins, Cecil and Dora. Descendants of the family still live in Eden and Hillston.
The Greenwoods never reached the heights of fame of a Carrie Moore or Nellie Stewart, but they entertained thousands of people across Australasia for over 20 years. Their family cohesion and togetherness lasted through privation, bankruptcy, tragedy, illness and accident. Throughout all they remained ‘the Greenwood family.’
With thanks to Greg Greenwood, grandson of Bob.
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Originally published in the July / August 2012 edition of Stage Whispers.