6 November 2021

Special Guest Post by Alexandra Walsh, Author of The Music Makers (Timeshift Victorian Mysteries Book 2)


Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US

Pembrokeshire, Wales, 2020Serious illness has forced Eleanor Wilder to leave her life in London, close her antique shop, and return to the family farm in Pembrokeshire. Her instinct is to hide from the world but when her parents bring her to a family reunion at the nearby house, Cliffside, she is transfixed by a set of old family photographs.

London, England, 1875Born to a teenage mother who couldn’t cope, Esme Blood is adopted by the ebullient Cornelius and Rosie Hardy into a touring theatrical troupe, along with her friend Aaron. When Aaron’s grandparents return to claim him, Esme is devastated and the two promise they will find each other.

The Music Makers takes us from present day Pembrokeshire to the world of the Victorian theatre as two stories entwine. In 2020, Eleanor Wilder is recovering from a serious illness. It has forced her to make drastic changes in her life, one of which is leaving her much-loved vintage emporium in Richmond, Surrey to return to her family home in Newgale, Pembrokeshire. Moving into an annexe attached to her parents’ farmhouse, Eleanor feels as though her life has slipped out of her control as she reacts and copes to her new situation, rather than being able to make her own choices.

After attending a family reunion at Cliffside, a large Victorian house a few miles away, Eleanor is inspired to search into her own family tree. Her mother shows her some old Victorian photographs and one in particular draws Eleanor’s attention: a woman in a spectacular dress made from peacock feathers. The woman’s irreverent grin seems to call to Eleanor across time. On the back of the photograph is the name Esme Blood. Eleanor decides to investigate further, especially as she has heard the name before, and is sure, somewhere in her antiques emporium, she owns items that once belonged to the mysterious Esme Blood.

And so, the scene is set for The Music Makers. As Eleanor reads Esme’s diaries a world of Victorian theatre opens before her. It is glamorous, it is dangerous but above all, in this era where women’s lives were often restricted, it was a world where women from all backgrounds could succeed and triumph. It was this in particular that drew me to the idea of writing something set in this world.

I first discovered these women and their role in the history of theatre many years ago when I was studying for my Theatre Studies A-levels. The Victorian actor-managers and the changing world of the theatre were fascinating, particularly as women were as much a part of this revolution as men. They became stars and were able to earn their own money, giving them autonomy.

In The Music Makers, Esme Blood, my protagonist, grew up as part of The Hardy Troupe of Theatrical Players, run by her adopted parents, Cornelius and Rosie Hardy. As with many entertainers in this era, they began their careers touring the goose fairs and other events around the country. Rosie would tell fortunes before joining her husband on stage as they sang, danced and turned Shakespeare plays into musicals. Until the day, Cornelius and Rosie hired The Firebird Theatre in Soho, London and their troupe of players found a permanent home and respectability.

Growing up with Esme was her adopted sister, Cassandra (Cassie) Smith; Lynette Mason who is Esme’s best friend and partner on stage, as well as Aaron Maclean, Cassie’s cousin and Jeremiah Hardy, the son of Rosie and Cornelius. All the children performed from the moment they were able to toddle across the stage. Esme soon revealed a pitch-perfect singing voice and became a star in her own right.

To ensure the Hardy Troupe did not descend into caricature, my characters, particularly the women, were all inspired by real performers. One was Bessie Bellwood.


Bessie Bellwood (Wikimedia Commons)

Bessie was born Catherine Mahoney, in London, to Patrick Mahoney and his wife, Catherine Ready, who both originated from County Cork, Ireland. Bessie was one of five siblings: Mary, Ellen, Catherine, Ann and James. In 1876, aged 20, Catherine assumed the stage name Bessie Bellwood and made her music hall debut in Bermondsey.

From the beginning, Bessie’s cockney charm and cheeky manner drew in the crowds. Her most popular song was What Cheer Ria?. It tells the tale of a woman who decides to treat herself to a new dress and a fancy seat at the music hall, rather than sitting with her friends in the cheap seats and how disaster strikes. Other songs in her repertoire included He’s Going to Marry Mary Ann, Woa Emma and Aubrey Plantagenet; all of which followed the same fine line, somewhere between cheeky and rude.

On 24 September 1884, she married John Nicholson, a commission agent. Little is known about him and he seems to have been content to remain in the background as Bessie toured prolifically. Described by author, Peter Davison as, “the kind of woman who epitomised the spirit of the halls”, she was one of the great pioneers of music hall.

Yet, despite being known for her ability to shout down her hecklers and her bawdy songs, Bessie was admired by the public for being a devout Roman Catholic who did a great deal to help the poor. She died on 24 September 1896, aged 40, of a heart condition and thousands of people lined the route of her funeral as it passed along Whitechapel Road. She was buried in St Patrick’s Catholic Cemetery in Leytonstone.

While Bessie provided me with inspiration for Esme and Lynette’s sparky, cheeky act called The Skylark Sisters, another music hall star provided me with the source of Cassie’s desire to ‘catch an earl’.

Cassie is Esme’s adopted sister and they have a complicated and combative relationship. From the beginning of the story, Cassie Smith, is determined to marry into the aristocracy, a storyline inspired by the real-life actress, Dorothea Jordan, who became the mistress and companion of the future king, William IV. They met while he was the Duke of Clarence and were together for 20 years, having ten illegitimate children who were given the surname, Fitzclarence, and were acknowledged by their father.

Throughout the Victorian sections, I refer to real events featuring other key women of the era. Lynette Mason, best friend and co-star of Esme, has her heart set on acting rather than singing. She is inspired by Henry Irving, one of the more famous actor-managers from this era, who was building a good reputation at the Lyric Theatre. Alongside Irving, was Ellen Terry, who became one of the most sought after actors of her generation.

When Esme and Lynette set out on their adventures, Lynette is invited to appear in the pantomime at the Theatre Royal, Brighton. While, these days, the pantomime is seen as a slightly downmarket but entertaining event to enliven Christmas, in the Victorian era they were seen as legitimate theatre and to star in one was a huge honour. I chose this particular performance for Lynette to enable me to mention another female pioneer of Victorian theatre, Mrs Ellen Elizabeth Nye Chart née Rollason.

Born in Islington, Ellen Rollason was the daughter of a builder but her ambitions lay elsewhere. Working hard to establish herself as an actor, she arrived in Brighton in 1865 where she joined the company of Henry Nye Chart the owner and actor-manager of the Theatre Royal. Two years later, in 1867, they were married, an event which was quickly followed by the birth of their only a child, a son.

Ellen and Henry continued to act together, however, Ellen became increasingly interested in the management side and when her husband died in 1876, she took over the theatre, presenting her first season of plays only weeks after Henry’s death.

Her eye for spotting, and then leading, trends; for making bold choices and her inclusivity of all strata’s of society soon saw her rise to be one of the most successful actor-managers of the era. Ellen was the first actor-manager to extend the traditional ‘season’ of plays, allowing the theatre to remain open all-year round. As the years went by, she replaced the resident cast with touring companies, ensuring a steady stream of successful shows. She pioneered the matinee, and in particular, what became known as ‘flying matiness’. These saw a popular London production, including cast, scenery and props, coming to Brighton to perform the afternoon show before returning to London for the evening performance.

The pantomimes were the most profitable shows and Ellen spared no expense, staging such classics as Aladdin, Dick Wittington and Jack and the Beanstalk. Shows ran from Christmas Eve until February, with at least one performance where the theatre was opened to the staff and inmates of the Brighton Workhouse. More than a thousand people were invited to this free show, offering an afternoon of wonder and excitement, and making Ellen hugely popular in her hometown.

Her bold choices and fearless risks made Ellen a fortune, as well as, cementing her position as one of the greatest theatrical impresarios of the era.

These women were feisty, strong-minded individuals who lived life by their own rules. My characters are a small tribute to the pioneering women of Victorian theatre who helped to pave the way for future generations.

Alexandra Walsh

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About the Author

Alexandra Walsh is a bestselling author of the dual timeline women’s fiction. Her books range from the 15th and 16th centuries to the Victorian era and are inspired by the hidden voices of women that have been lost over the centuries. The Marquess House Saga offers an alternative view of the Tudor and early Stuart eras, while The Wind Chime and The Music Makers explore different aspects of Victorian society. Formerly, a journalist for over 25 years, writing for many national newspapers and magazines; Alexandra also worked in the TV and film industries as an associate producer, director, script writer and mentor for the MA Screen Writing course at the prestigious London Film School. She is a member of The Society of Authors and The Historical Writers Association. Alexandra is currently writing the fourth book in The Marquess House Saga, The Jane Seymour Conspiracy, which will be published in July 2022 by Sapere Books. For blogs, updates and more information visit her website: www.alexandrawalsh.com or follow her on Facebook and Twitter @purplemermaid25

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