From theatrical princess to penniless waitress

From theatrical princess to penniless waitress

Kate Everleigh was a teen star of the Victorian stage, who died in penniless obscurity. Researching her life illustrates the difficulties of tracking theatrical lives, as Nell Darby shows

Dr Nell Darby, Writer who specialises in social and crime history

Dr Nell Darby

Writer who specialises in social and crime history

The Victorians loved their theatrical stars, and, like today, the newspapers would breathlessly tell their readers about the latest ‘pet’ actress, publishing sketches or photos of them, and offering titbits of salacious gossip. However, trying to get a full picture of those actresses whose careers were relatively short is tricky, and researching them can be both rewarding and frustrating. One case in point is that of Kate Everleigh, a Victorian actress, comedienne and singer, who fascinated and amused audiences in both Britain and America in the 1870s and 1880s.

Kate Everleigh
Kate was regularly mentioned in the press, and in 1875, a full-page sketch of her appeared in one of London’s theatrical newspapers British Library Board

I initially came across Kate while researching my great-grandfather’s three older sisters, who were all on the stage. I was researching the middle sister, Alice, and discovered that she had been performing in Edinburgh in 1879, when she married actor and composer Frederick Solomon in a private – illegal – marriage. Within six weeks, she and the rest of the cast had travelled on to Dublin, where Alice, only 18 years old, became ill with typhoid fever and died. Frederick Solomon moved on from Alice rather quickly, and there is no mention of this ‘marriage’ in any record of his life.

However, while I was researching Alice’s relationship with Frederick Solomon, I started reading about his younger brother Edward, also a composer, and his marriage to another actress – Kate Everleigh. The first mention of her in the digitised British press is in August 1874, when she was described as a ‘promising young songstress’ performing at Southwark’s Raglan Music Hall. At this time, she would have been around 13 years old.

Kate Everleigh in mid 1880s
By the mid 1880s, Kate was being depicted in newspapers as a more sedate, calmer, figure, despite still only being in her mid twenties British Library Board
1885, Kate had been on the front page of one paper
In 1885, Kate had been on the front page of one paper; yet now, she was gossiped about why she was no longer appearing in the theatre, with what seemed to be a snide comment about her music hall origins

If you look on the internet, you won’t find much about Kate Everleigh’s origins or family. She claimed to have been born around 1861 in London, but there is no proof of that, as there is no birth registration under this name. In fact, she is only evident in one census, under her married name. In this, she is like many other female actresses of the time: their use of stage names sometimes makes tracing them hard, although some adapted their existing names or used their mother’s maiden name.

It is easier to piece together Kate’s professional life, although there are still gaps. Press coverage shows that she performed frequently in the UK over the course of 1874 and 1875 (her rapid ascent in popularity and career being noted, along with frequent references to her youth). In June 1877, Kate was supposed to be performing abroad, but for an unknown reason did not go. Her agent at this time, Charles Roberts, stated that having ‘relinquished her Continental Engagements [Kate] will, contrary to expectation, remain in Town until further notice’. However, the famous burlesque performer and manager Lydia Thompson took her troupe to America in August that year; Kate went too, and is known to have performed with Thompson’s company in New York.

Two years later, in August 1879, there was an intriguing mention of Kate in The Era, the theatrical newspaper, suggesting that she had been in ‘great distress’ in America, although out of Victorian sensitivity, the paper ‘cannot say what this young lady’s troubles have been’. Whatever the problem was, Kate had to leave America, and had travelled via Paris back to London. There are then signs that she then returned to America and performed in San Francisco; there is certainly a gap in UK press mentions of her at this time. However, in 1884, an advertisement appeared stating that she had arrived in England – presumably from America – and was available to perform as principal burlesque boy for a short season. The following month, she was playing a minor character in another production with Lydia Thompson’s company, her appearance being acknowledged in the papers as though she was a forgotten star:

Edward Solomon
Lambeth-born composer and conductor Edward Solomon had a complex love life, but this didn’t stop Kate falling in love with him

‘The Miss Kate Everleigh who has been playing with Miss Lydia Thompson… is the self-same handsome and lively young lady who, a few years ago, was the idol of a heap of music-hall mashers [dandies].’ (The Referee, 12 October 1884)

For the rest of the 1880s, the theatrical press contained steady mentions of Kate’s name, but she soon had something else to concentrate on. On 5 March 1889, she married Edward ‘Teddy’ Solomon at Brighton Register Office, by licence. She gave her name as Catherine Priscilla Jones, 28, daughter of Henry Jones, gentleman. There are no earlier records of a Catherine Priscilla Jones of around this age, with or without a father called Henry.

Kate was likely to have known Edward Solomon for some time through their work – the theatrical world could be small at times. She must, therefore, have known of his somewhat chequered personal history. For starters, on 15 March 1873, Edward had married Jane Isaacs, 15, an actress known professionally as Lily Grey – despite her mother’s understandable objections. Within two years, he had abandoned her, leaving her with their baby daughter, Clara. In 1881, the census recorded him as living with his wife, Edith; but Edith Bland, another actress, was actually his lover, not his wife, and one of his many conquests.

Lillian Russell
Edward Solomon committed bigamy when he married American actress Lillian Russell in New Jersey in 1885. By the time he married Kate in 1889, his first wife had divorced him – but Lillian didn’t until 1893
Claire Romaine
Kate’s stepdaughter Clara – Edward Solomon’s daughter by his first wife, Jane – would grow up to become a successful actress, comedian and male impersonator, under the stage name of Claire Romaine British Library Board

Four years later, while in America, he married the famous American actress Lillian Russell, neglecting to tell her that he was still legally married to Jane. By this time, the couple had already had a baby. Edward failed to realise that the significant press coverage of the marriage of an American star might reach British shores, and that Jane, his legal wife, might read about it. She did, and so did most of Britain, in a case that scandalised the country.

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By the time that Edward married again in Brighton, he had finally been divorced by his first and legal wife, Jane Isaacs. However, it was only after his marriage to Kate, in September 1893, that Lillian Russell began an annulment suit. In it, she stated that she had left Edward back in September 1886, ‘because Teddy was found to have taken Jane Isaacs as his wife prior thereto, and had not divorced her, and then Teddy married Kate Everleigh, and there they are.’ The legal end of this previous marriage finally came two months later.

The 1891 census is the only one where Kate is recorded, living in London with Edward and his brother Bowers. She was still listed as an actress and continued performing until 1894. The following new year, she stopped to nurse Edward, who had typhoid fever. He died at their home after ten days’ illness, on 22 January 1895, aged 39. Kate was widowed after just six years of marriage. She is absent from the 1901 census; and there is just one mention of her in the press in 1902 as a ‘survivor’ of the Victorian music hall. She is listed as ‘Kate Everleigh (Teddy Solomon’s last wife)’, as though her prior career had been subsumed by her late husband’s status.

Some of the obituaries of Edward failed to mention Kate at all: in one typical example, it was noted that his best-known opera had been written a full 15 years earlier, and that ‘he was the husband of Miss Lilian [sic] Russell, who, however, divorced him some years ago’. This whitewashing must have hurt Kate immensely; she was said to have been a devoted wife who ignored the gossip and simply loved her husband. She was, however, never as famous as Lillian Russell, nor attached to the drama and intrigue that surrounded their liaison, and so she did not receive the same level of attention as Lillian when Edward died.

And then she disappeared from the record for over 20 years. It’s only after she herself died that the press remembered who she was, and then it was to make a point about how far her life was perceived to have fallen. The Sheffield Independent had a small item titled ‘Star of the Past: Once famous actress dies in poverty’. The Belfast Telegraph’s headline was similar: ‘Once famous actress dead’.

The Oxford Music Hall
The Oxford Music Hall – not in Oxford, but in London, on the junction between Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road – was a popular Victorian venue. It is pictured here in 1875. Kate performed on its stage that autumn

Kate had lived a humble life since her husband’s death, no longer acting, but instead taking on a variety of work in order to eke out a living. By the 1920s, she was working as a waitress at the Florence Restaurant in Soho, serving desserts. After her shifts, she would return to her rooms at St John’s Wood Terrace, alone. She then developed cancer, and after two unsuccessful operations, died on 8 February 1926, at the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital. After she died, her colleagues at the Florence Restaurant clubbed together to pay for her funeral. Kate now lies in an unmarked grave at what was St Marylebone Cemetery (now East Finchley Cemetery); but the fact that she could be buried decently is testament to the respect her colleagues had for her, not as a once famous star, but as a decent human being.

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital
Kate died at the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital, a hospital for women on London’s Euston Road, pictured here a few decades earlier

A brief press obituary of Kate noted that Solomon was ‘an erratic genius’ who was ‘suffering from declining fortune’ when the ‘plucky’ Kate married him, ‘stuck to him, and nursed him through all his vicissitudes’. She was undoubtedly a strong woman – someone who was on the stage in their early teens and who made a success of her career, travelling overseas to perform, could not be regarded as a weak individual. She also clearly loved Solomon, looking after him and forgiving him his past and present problems. In addition, when she was struggling financially, she did not sell her story, or plead for handouts; instead, she took any job she could.

The brick walls I have faced trying to find out who Kate really was are sadly typical of research into theatrical lives: the stage names, the desire to obscure elements of individuals’ lives when they married in haste, or to men with reputations, make it sometimes difficult. In addition to this, despite women’s success on the stage, some of them, like Kate, still found themselves adopting a more traditional role when they married, and then came to be obscured by their husband’s fame, or infamy. Kate’s stage career is well recorded in the pages of the theatrical press; but of her personal life and difficulties, there are frustrating gaps left behind.

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