Harry Lauder in Australia 1914
It was August 1914.Harry Lauder his wife and son, John, were sitting at lunch in a Melbourne Hotel. A hall porter came in from the outside.
"Lieutenant Lauder" he called over and over again.
John Lauder, a Lieutenant in the Territorial Battalion of Highlanders beckoned the porter to him. The man passed him a telegram. It had two words
John looked up at his parents and his eyes were shining. His father looked upon his only child sadly. His heart was sore but he was proud of his son. John turned towards his father and asked
‘What do you think dad?"
Harry Lauder replied gruffly,
‘ This is no time for thinking son. You know your duty.’
John eagerly replied,
Thus John Lauder with thousands of others joined the British army in the war to end all wars.
His father, world famous comedian, Harry Lauder, had just turned 44. He was a sober, non-drinking, Scotch Presbyterian . His bulbous nose and rubbery features had entertained people from around the world. Harry Lauder had arrived in Australia in March 1914. Little did he know that the tour, his first to this country, would begin in laughter and end in a sorrowful parting.
Lauder left his home in Dunoon Scotland in November 1913. His long tour started in America. He made his way to San Francisco and left there on March 10th 1914. On March 29th, his boat, the Sonoma, slowly steamed through Sydney heads.
The harbour was full of craft, both great and sma’
and each had all her bunting flying. Oh they
were braw in the sunlight, with the gay colours
and the bits of flags, all fluttering and waving in
Harry, his wife and his brother in law, Tom Vallance, watched this display in puzzlement. Suddenly they realised that this parade was in honour of Harry Lauder’s arrival in Australia. Thousands of people, mostly of Scottish origin, had turned out to greet him.
As Lauder and his wife alighted from the boat they were surrounded by people playing bagpipes and dressed in kilts. Huge numbers of men dressed in suits and straw boater hats, escorted them to an open topped car. Harry and Mrs Lauder sat in the back seat and were escorted by masses of people up the street. The crowds were so dense that the car could only move at a crawl as hundreds of bodies pressed against it.
Lauder travelled to Melbourne and performed there for several weeks before returning to Sydney. He made his first stage appearance in the city on Wednesday 27th May at the Theatre Royal. Ticket prices for this premier event were high, ranging from 10 shillings to 2 shillings.
Harry’s arrival on stage was preceded by a long series of vaudeville acts. This long delay made the audience impatient. Finally, late in the evening, Harry Lauder sauntered on stage. He performed sketches and songs. Amongst the songs were ‘Tobermory’ and ‘I love a lassie’. The latter was a song that Harry had written and composed. It was to become one of his signature tunes.
I love a lassie, a bonnie hie lan’ lassie
If you saw her you would fancy her as well
I met her in September
Popped the question in November
So I’ll soon be havin’ her a’ to maself
Lauder sang and spoke with a strong Scottish brogue. His enunciation however, ensured that he was clearly heard throughout the theatre.
Amongst the sketches he performed that first night were, ‘The saftest o’ the family" where he played a village schoolboy. Another sketch he presented was ‘She is ma’ daisy’, where he played a general. Lauder later described the character
He’s the kind of soldier who brags about himself;
He’s the kind of soldier who spends most of his time
in the guardhouse and when he’s not there he spends
most of his time in the canteen.
According to the Sydney Mail, Lauder sang with a pleasing baritone. Yet it was not his voice that made him a comic success. It was his presentation and the antics that accompanied his songs that created the comedy. The Mail commented on his ‘unusual power of facial expression’ and ‘queer little distinctive tricks in his bristling movement.’ Harry Lauder’s smile was infectious and he bubbled with humour and happiness .He projected a warmth and emotion which crossed the footlights and enchanted an audience. He was a highly charismatic performer.
His charisma crossed all class boundaries and the Theatre Royal was packed with over 2000 people. They received his performance cordially, yet not overly enthusiastically. In fact the newspapers seemed disappointed in the audience reaction. Yet it seemed that they warmed to him as his performances continued. Soon all Sydney began asking the question, ‘Have you seen Harry Lauder yet?"
Lauder added several songs to his repertoire during his second week. By June 10th, he was singing ‘When I get back to bonnie Scotland’ and ‘We parted on the shore.’ The Sydney Mail described him as ‘a Scottish Dickens’ and praised him for his ‘kindly Scotch humour.’ He continued to draw large crowds to the Theatre Royal.
The next week he changed his programme again. He added two new songs, ‘She’s the lass for me’ and ‘Same as his father was before him.’ The newspapers began talking of ‘the reign’ of Harry Lauder and labelled him ‘the king of vaudeville.’ His name was on the lips of everybody in Sydney.
Harry’s very successful run came to an end on July 1st 1914. He travelled back to Melbourne where he and his devoted wife had a warm reunion with his son John. They were in the midst of this reunion when war was declared and John received the fateful telegram from England.
Lauder described the confusion in Melbourne generated by the war announcement.
In Melbourne, and I believe it must have been much the same
elsewhere in Australia, folks didn’t know what they were to do, how they
were to take this war that had come so suddenly upon them.
and rumours and questions flew in all directions
Yet there was a peculiar eagerness too. Before Lauder and his wife could sail from Melbourne the next day he was describing the lines forming outside the recruiting offices.
But these Australians took no chances;
They would offer themselves first
and let it be decided later whether they
Harry Lauder, his wife and brother in law travelled to New Zealand. His son John made his way to England to join his battalion. Whilst in Wellington, Lauder saw New Zealanders imbued with the excitement of war.
New Zealand was all ablaze with the war spirit.
The New Zealand troops were mobilising when
we arrived, and every recruiting office was
besieged with men
Lauder performed in New Zealand and then returned to Scotland.
He became heavily involved in recruiting. He created a band that became famous throughout the British Isles. He made speeches in England and Canada persuading young men to join up and fight for the Empire. He sang for the wounded and performed for the troops on leave. Everywhere he went he urged young men to enlist.
John Lauder was wounded in France and came home to his parents in Scotland. He was pale and sombre and his eyes were shadowed with the knowledge of the carnage he had seen. After his wounds had healed he went back to the front as Captain John Lauder.
His father continued his performances and his recruiting drive. Christmas 1916 came and Harry was expecting John home on leave. The family were planning a wedding, John was to marry his Scottish sweetheart and his parents were eagerly anticipating the ceremony.
Harry was performing in London at the Shaftesbury theatre. He spent part of New Years Eve 1916 at Tom Vallance’s place. Harry was tired and retired early to his hotel room in London.
January 1 1917 dawned and a loud banging wakened Lauder. He sleepily arose and saw a porter standing at the door with a telegram in his hand.
Capt John Lauder killed in action, December 28.
Official. War Office.
Harry was devastated.
‘I felt that for me everything had come to an end with the reading
of that dire message. It seemed to me that for me the board of life
was black and blank. For me there was no past and there could be
no future. Everything had been swept away, erased, by one sweep
of the hand of a cruel fate.’
Harry Lauder returned to the stage in London, three nights later. His act included a scene set at the Horse Guards. A company of men marched past in khaki as Harry Lauder sang a song about the boys coming home.