The comedian Harry Weldon is buried in Hampstead Cemetery, Fortune Green Road, in a grave close to other music hall performers: the famous Marie Lloyd, and the husband and wife act called ‘This and That’: James and Clarice Tate. Co-incidentally, it was said that that as a young man, Harry got the idea of going on the stage when he delivered a bouquet to Marie Lloyd.
Harry was born James Henry Stanley in Liverpool on 1 February 1882. He worked as a clerk in a shipping office and next as a florist’s assistant while performing as an amateur. His first professional engagement was as a member of a touring group run by the wonderfully named ‘Professor Hairpins’. It wasn’t very successful and Harry often had no money: ‘It was sometimes necessary to leave the landlady at short notice and without paying. I used to write their names on the backs of bills and send on the money when I could.’
Harry’s first stage appearance was at the Tivoli Music Hall, Barrow, in March 1900. He proved so popular that by November 1901, he was appearing at the Marylebone Music Hall in London. He developed his act using a prolonged whistle to accentuate the letter ‘S’, which became his much imitated trade mark: ‘Sno use’ became a classic expression. He was also known for his ‘clean’ jokes and routines. ‘Stiffy, the Goal-Keeper’; ‘The White Hope’ and ‘Bronzo, the Bull Fighter’ are among his best known sketches. Another character he developed was ‘Dick Turpentine’, a comedic take on the well known highwayman, you can see a cartoon of him at:
In 1907 Harry was in Fred Karno’s company when he was first cast as ‘Stiffy’ in ‘The Football Match’ routine. Two different stories are told about this sketch, but both feature a young unknown by the name of Charlie Chaplin, then working for Karno on a meagre salary of 35 shillings a week. In the first version, Charlie is Harry’s understudy and he almost collapses from fright when he has to go on at a moment’s notice. Harry was supposed to have said of Chaplin, ‘he was so stiff he left ‘em cold, but he was one of the most unassuming and kindly fellows that one could meet.’ The other recalls Charlie playing the villain who tries to persuade Stiffy to ‘throw’ the match, offering him huge amounts of whisky which the goalie refers to as ‘training oil’. Whichever is correct, a recent biography of Chaplin claims Charlie was by far the better comedian and upstaged Harry, who far from praising him, never forgave him.
After playing ‘Stiffy’ for many years, Harry presented ‘The White Hope’ – a boxing act. A stooge in the audience always responded to Harry’s challenge, ‘Come up and be knocked out!’ But one night the British champion boxer Billy Wells stepped onto the stage instead! The men became friends and when Wells was fighting Colin Bell (1914) Harry feigned a bad throat and lost voice to cancel a performance and go to the bout. When Wells knocked out Bell, Harry stood up and roared, ‘Hurrah, he’s out, he’s out!’ Elated, he turned round and saw Frank Allen sitting behind him. Allen was the managing director of New Cross Empire where Harry had been booked to appear that evening! Weldon soon added ‘Tell ‘em what I did to Colin Bell’ to his repertoire. In 1922, Harry appeared at the Royal Variety performance, an honour denied to Marie Lloyd, because of her risqué songs and troubled private life.
Harry was married twice: for the first time on 29 August 1902, to Clarice Mabel Holt. Born in Manchester the daughter of the owner of a music shop, Clarice was a ‘vocalist’ who may have been a stage performer. Harry and Clarice had a daughter Mabel, known as Maisie, who was born in September 1906. But the marriage was an unhappy one. The couple formally separated in March 1922 and never lived together again. In 1925 Clarice divorced Harry on the grounds of his adultery with Hilda Glyder. They’d been living together at Alexandra Court, Maida Vale for some time. Hilda was an attractive but diminutive American, just 4 foot 11 inches tall and some 16 years younger than Clarice. Hilda came to Englandabout 1914 and made a career for herself as a popular singer and comedienne.
Hilda and Harry appeared together in many productions including the 1923 and 1924 Christmas pantomime, ‘Dick Whittington’ at the London Palladium. He was one of the villains and she played Alice, who falls in love with Dick. They were married in June 1926.
The adverts for their appearances show a relentless schedule of touring, appearing for a few nights at venues the length and breadth of the country. Harry appeared a couple of times at the Kilburn Empire in 1915 and 1916, while Hilda played the Empire and Willesden Hippodrome on several occasions during the early 1920s. In the days before radio and TV, a performer could use a song or a routine for many years before needing new material. There were always fresh audiences and fans were happy to revisit an old favourite. In Hilda’s case, however, some reviewers did politely suggest she would benefit from some new songs.
Harry had been suffering health problems since 1923. At the end of a tour of South Africa in 1929, Hilda told the press that ‘she and Mr Weldon are feeling fine’ but in fact Harry was seriously ill. The couple landed at Southampton that September and Harry never recovered, dying at his London home, 132 Maida Vale, on the 10 March 1930. His graveside at Hampstead Cemetery was lined with spring flowers and a large number of fellow performers were among the mourners. At the funeral Hilda fainted and had to be helped to her car and taken home. Many stage performers sent floral tributes, among them one from Charles Gulliver, the owner of the Palladium: ‘In memory of one of England’s greatest comedians.’ Harry left his widow just over a £1,000.
You can judge for yourself and see a recreation of the ‘Football Sketch’ on YouTube or hear Harry singing ‘I’m Going To See Old Virginie’. You can also buy a CD of Weldon at http://www.musichallcds.co.uk which lets you download a short extract of him singing ‘Stiffy the goalkeeper’.
Hilda returned to the stage for some years. She remarried businessman David Gerry and died in New York in 1962. There are images of her on the web, painted by Walter Sickert and a 1913 photo, taken just before she came to try her luck in England.
Harry’s daughter Maisie Weldon also went on the stage, as an impersonator and singer. In 1931 she married theatrical manager Fred Finch but he died two years later. Maisie continued to perform, ‘the famous daughter of a famous father’, and in 1950 she married Carl Carlisle, another impersonator. The couple became well-known radio ‘stars’ and there is a short 1941 British Pathe film clip of her singing and doing impersonations, including a very sibilant one of her father Harry. The problem for modern audiences is how to identify exactly who’s being impersonated! There’s also a British Pathe clip of her husband (1943) where he helpfully names the actors he’s impersonating.