The Musical Gardners by Isolde Kinns
"The celebrated Gardner family … both as individual performers and as an orchestra, have gained the warmest encomiums from the most severe professional critics." So read the publicity material when John William Gardner and five of his children toured Australia with the Irish vaudeville show 'The Great Hibernicon & Comedy Company' during the late 19th century. After a paragraph on each of the performers, the article concluded: "It may be truthfully stated that the combination of the Hibernicon Company with so talented a company of musical artists will attract the patronage of all those who seek to be amused and instructed by an entertainment replete with fun and humour, whilst entirely devoid of the faintest suggestion of vulgarity."
John William Gardner, leader of the first group of 'The Musical Gardners', had been an organist and bandmaster in Ireland before he migrated to Australia with his wife and children in 1878. He was born in Ennistymon, County Clare, to Andrew and Mary Garnier. Andrew was a wheelwright and supplier of spinning wheels to the Ennistymon workhouse, but John William claimed that his father had been a bandsman at the Battle of Waterloo, and had given him his first music lessons. Irish-born Andrew had anglicised his surname to Gardiner, but in Australia his son usually spelled the name Gardner.
Although he had been granted an assisted passage to South Australia as a labourer, John William continued his career as a musician in his new country. He played the organ, conducted various bands, and was musical director of the Theatre Royal Orchestra in Adelaide. As his children grew older they each learned to play at least two musical instruments, and most toured as soloists or played in theatre orchestras, as well as touring with the family concert group.
Fred Gardner played the double bass at His Majesty's Theatre, Perth, and in Adelaide a critic for The Advertiser described his trombone solo, 'The Death of Nelson' as, "a masterly performance almost moving the audience to tears in memory of the great loss sustained at Trafalgar".
The youngest member of the family, Andrew, played the piano, flute and French horn. He was best known as a flautist, and played in the orchestra at Melbourne's Princess Theatre. Like several of his siblings, he became one of the many Irish hotelkeepers in Australia, and eventually settled in Tasmania, but he continued to return to Melbourne to play in the theatre orchestra.
George Gardiner, the eldest son, was the only member of the family who consistently spelled his surname with an 'i'. He played the cornet, bassoon, violin and piano, and became conductor of various orchestras, including the Theatre Royal, the Cyclorama and the Excelsior Band, and was musical director at the opening of the Cremorne Gardens in Perth.
When he was nine years old, John Arthur Gardner made his debut as a violinist at the Adelaide Town Hall, and at sixteen he became leader of Pollard's Opera Company Orchestra. Later he was employed as a violinist at the Princess Theatre in Melbourne. His contract with J.C. Williamson, Theatrical Manager of Melbourne, dated 5 July 1900, provided him with a salary "at the rate of three pounds per week in Melbourne or Sydney or at the rate of three pounds ten shillings when travelling, such rate to include all matinees".
In the early 1900s, George and John Arthur decided to form a new group of 'The Musical Gardiners'.
Members of this group were George Gardiner, John Arthur Gardner, and John's wife, Elfrieda Parnell Evans (known professionally as Miss Freda Gardner). When George married Cora de Saxe a couple of years later, she too joined the group, and they formed a very versatile ensemble, playing a variety of instruments including trombone, violin, cornet, clarinet, flute, cello, mandolin, xylophone and "a musical hat rack". Cora and Frieda both also sang, and one reviewer of their show at the Bijou Theatre, Melbourne, in 1912 commented on Frieda's "unique and clever act in which she sings to the violin, using her own obligato, being the only performer in Australia doing this act".
Their vaudeville company played to full houses and rave revues in Tasmania, Western Australia, New South Wales and Victoria:
"Hundreds were unable to gain admission on Saturday evening at His Majesty's Theatre. The playing of the "Misere" from "Il Trovatore" on the French horn by the elder brother was loudly applauded, and the younger brother's Violin solo, introducing the wonderful realistic canary imitation brought down the house." (The Hobart Mercury)
"The Gardiners are the finest combination of brilliant musicians that have yet appeared in Australia." (The Critic)
"…the entertainment was … one of the best yet given in Perth." (The West Australia Mail)
Eventually John and Frieda decided to settle down as hotel managers, at first in Western Australia and then in New South Wales, although John continued to play in orchestras. In 1944, when he was 68, he wrote the music for a national anthem, 'God save Australia', which was published with words by Miss Ruby Currie.
George and Cora formed another musical company to tour Europe and America. Their performances at the Winter Gardens in Berlin were cut short by the outbreak of World War I, and they hastily departed for America, where George was appointed musical director of the Columbia Phonograph Recording Company of New York. When Cora died, aged 28, shortly after their return to Australia, a note was written on the side of the certificate which was registered with the NSW Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages, stating: "Deceased toured the world on two occasions as a musician". George was left with two small daughters, and twenty years later one of these daughters, Biddy Gardiner, was performing in another group of 'The Musical Gardiners' in Tasmania. John and Frieda's only son, Johnny Gardner, also became a professional musician, playing the clarinet and saxophone with dance bands around Sydney.
John William Gardiner's two daughters also raised families of musicians. Regina married James Fitzpatrick, a hotel keeper in Broken Hill, and their two daughters, Bobbie and Rita, became known locally for their musical ability. Rita married Broken Hill bandleader, Sydney Trenaman. John William's younger daughter, Minnie, had toured with him as a singer and pianist. After her marriage in 1896 she and her husband William Bradley moved to Melbourne. Six of their children became well known in the 1920s and 1930s as 'The musical Bradley family'.