Requiem for Mignon - 2

  The record card gives only cryptic notes.


18/12/25  Houghton - St James
03/01/26  McKenzie Phipps - American Embassy      
10/07/26  Ponsonby - London sometimes Shulbrede
09/09/26  St Clair -  Dringhouses, Onslow and Brooksbank
21/03/28  Rivington Russell -  l'étranger
10/12/29   Douglas - London, Durnock, Headingley
12/12/29   Mountebank Hassell - Dalemain
15/01/30   Douglas - London, Durnock, Headingley

Most of these notes can be explained and from the beginning, the first definite record of Lilian's career, they are intriguing and revealing.

18/12/25  Houghton - St James

This may seem inexplicable but the second entry makes it clear. This is the US Ambassador to the Court Of St James.  Alanson B Houghton assumed the post on April 5th 1925. He served in London until May 1929. The date suggests that this was a Christmas and New Year booking. Perhaps in this case Lilian was hired as an assistant for a major festivity. Whether or not she was the leading cook this is a very prestigious appointment indeed and shows that she already had a very strong reputation. 03/01/26  McKenzie Phipps - American Embassy     This booking comes immediately after New Year and suggests that Lilian had been a success and was being kept on at the American embassy. This establishes a link between Lilian and America and Americans which might be very significant.

10/07/26  Ponsonby - London sometimes Shulbrede  

This is a surprising connection with another English composer. Lady Ponsonby was Dorothea, the daughter of Sir Hubert Parry who had died in 1918. Her husband was Arthur Ponsonby, a labour politician, who became Lord Ponsonby in 1930. Their London house was in Smith Street and Shulbrede was, and still is, their country home in West Sussex which was often visited by Parry. Dorothea's grand-daughter told me that Arthur Ponsonby employed a large number of cooks and other servants and would write comments on them in a note-book. One cook found the book and wrote against his comment "All Lies!"   Whether or not Lilian met Ponsonby's standards this was a short summer booking. It was, though, long enough to involve travel between the two houses.  

09/09/26  St Clair -  Dringhouses, Onslow and Brooksbank  

Though Lilian's engagements may not have lasted until the date of the following item on the list this may have been a lengthy period of travel between three houses as the next booking is eighteen months later. It was quite common for a family to employ one cook who would work in both their country house and a London house, or to take one cook to the second house to assist for large scale house parties.   This St Clair was Lord Archibald James Murray St Clair, The Master of Sinclair, or more probably. Lord Archibald's wife who would have been responsible for the kitchen staff.   Dringhouses Vicarage was the family home in Yorkshire where St Clair was living at the time of the 1911 census. It was a substantial vicarage as in 1911 there was a staff of six. Onslow Square, Kensington, was the London house. Brooksbank is, according to the Clan Barker website, a geographical area from which part of the family obtained their wealth in the Industrial Revolution. It may, in this case, be the name of another family house which has not been identified.   This St Clair engagement is the beginning of a Scottish thread. 

21/03/28  Rivington Russell - a  l'étranger  

This may also have been a lengthy engagement. It is the most intriguing one. "Rivington Russell" can only refer to Constance Rivington Russell. She was born in 1899 and in 1919 married American politician John Gilbert Winant. He was Governor of New Hampshire in 1921-27  and again  in 1931-1935. In 1941 Winant became the wartime US ambassador to Great Britain. He was a melancholic man and committed suicide in 1947. Constance was, therefore, Mrs Winant in 1928. It was not a happy marriage and Constance spent a lot of time in Europe apart from her husband. She does seem occasionally to have been known by her maiden name. She was born in New York but was referred to by Clementine Churchill in a disapproving tone as a "European socialite."

It is curious that a Constance, possibly in Europe without her husband, should be hiring a cook rather than living in hotels. It is far more curious that the entry is marked "a l'etranger" which means travelling abroad. This is a potentially important element in this story. From the very beginning of her recorded career Lilian has a very strong link with America and Americans. As an important piece of evidence from a later period reveals Lilian herself had been in America. I believe this is may be related to an earlier experience of America and not because of any trips she might have made as a cook with Constance Rivington Russell. There are very good reasons for this deduction. Firstly, there is no reason why Constance would have hired a cook in England to take back to her home in the USA. Secondly, Constance's travels across the Atlantic are easy to trace, though not necessarily completely, in the records of arrivals and departures on ancestry.co.uk. The Winants regularly travelled between New York and Europe and also to Hamilton, Bermuda where they seem to have taken summer holidays. For example Constance can be found travelling from Bermuda to New York in March 1926. In April 1927 she is sailing from Cherbourg to New York. There are no records of any voyages in 1928. Though the evidence may be incomplete the absence of any arrival and departure records for Constance in 1928 (under either her married or maiden name) suggests that her travels with Lilian as her personal cook were in Europe. Constance did spend time in France, presumably without her husband. Could she have taken Lilian to France? Could she not find as good a cook in France? Of course the travels may have been entirely within Great Britain where Constance might well have taken houses for short periods.

Mrs Winant crossed the Atlantic more than once in 1929. She travelled from Bermuda to New York with her family in May 1929 but she was back in Europe alone later that year as she can be found returning to New York from Cherbourg on the Olympic on December 18th 1929. The next recorded engagement for Lilian is on December 10th 1929. She may have been retained by Constance throughout 1928 and 1929. If so she would not have been needed on the family holiday to Bermuda.

10/12/29   Douglas - London, Durnock, Headingley  

This engagement raises another mystery.   In spite of the three locations given it is difficult to establish which Douglas family this is. "Durnock" must be "Dornock," which is a very small village in Dumfriesshire not far from the border. There are no large houses in the village but it does have historical links with the Douglas family. It is possible that this particular Douglas family did have a home nearby as the next entry on the index card is for a short engagement not too far away in England, followed by a return to the Douglas family.   I have not found any connection of a Douglas family with Headingley but a search in the electoral rolls for 1929 found a Sholto Courtney MacKenzie Douglas at 33 Collingham Place, Kensington. This is a Douglas with a historical link to Dornock, but most curiously the electoral roll lists a "Josephine Nelson as one of the residents.   Though this is not 100% certain there is a reasonable possibility that this is Lilian.

The Index Card has her surname changed to Nelson at some point before the latest date listed, 15th January 1930. Though she certainly called herself Lilian in the 1940s she appears on electoral rolls in the 1930s which are certainly her, as Lilian Josephine Nelson. She may have used different first names from her selection of four at different times. Her employers are unlikely to have known her as anything other than "Mrs Nelson" and have been unsure what name to give on the electoral registration form.   Another potential problem with identifying this Josephine Nelson as Lilian is that she appears at the same time as Lilians definite listings on the electoral rolls in the 1930s. In fact if Josephine is the same person as Lilian she would have achieved three appearances in 1937 when the Lilian Josephine is listed in her own flat at the same time as appearing at Lord Berners' house.   This may be surprising but it is completely possible when the electoral rolls are for different boroughs. It is understandable that this would happen when someone  is keeping a pied a terre and also living in, but not all the time, at the house where she works. Her employment might have been seasonal. "Josephine Nelson is listed with the Douglas family until the start of the war, concurrently with her employment by Lord Berners. This may not be that odd. Berners himself lived between three houses, London, Faringdon and Rome. Each establishment had a cook and other staff, with only his chauffeur moving between them.   If this Josephine is Lilian Nelson her continuing, apparently permanent, employment by the Douglas family might be a reason why her list of employments ends in 1930.  

12/12/29   Mountebank Hassell - Dalemain  

The penultimate entry on the index is clearly a Christmas engagement as Lilian returned to the Douglas family for the final recorded position on January 15th 1930. I have been unable to explain "Mountebank which does not seem to be a name connected with the Hasell family of Dalemain. Dalemain.   Dalemain is near Penrith, 37 miles from Dornock. Perhaps the Douglas family provided a cook for the Christmas celebrations at this very attractive classical house.   After Christmas Lilian returned to the Douglas family. At that point her record ends. I have found no further sign of a "Lilian Nelson," as she then was, in service until she started working for Lord Berners. 

 It is worth adding one more possible red-herring at this point.   While working in these occasional and unpredictable positions Lilian would have needed a base from which to operate, otherwise she would have been left looking for temporary accommodation whenever a position ended or whenever there was a break, such as Constance Winant going on holiday to Bermuda or temporarily rejoining her husband. Lilian also had a daughter to consider. Where would she be living?   Perhaps in 1925 the home address was with Annie Harman in Wimbledon but by 1929 Lilian had become the partner of William Nelson. William is a mystery in himself but later he was a butler, working with Lilian at Lord Berners’ house. He would have to have been as experienced in service as Lilian. It is highly likely that they met at one of the houses Lilian passed through as a cook.   I have not been able to trace William before 1931. He may also have had an index card at Mrs Hunts that is now lost. There are, though, some other tantalising entries in the electoral rolls. 
There is a Lilian and William Harman at 3 Quebec Mews, near Oxford Street, in the late 1920s. In 1929 they are joined by a “Miss Winnie Harman”. Could this be Lilian’s daughter, turned 21 and eligible to vote for the first time? This is not the name she used, but it could be real name and the other a stage name. Is “William Harman” the same person as “William Patrick Nelson?” Could Winnie be a sister and sister-in-law rather than daughter? This is tantalising.  As a mews it is a credible address for people in service in the centre of London. This has to be put aside as a possibility rather than definite evidence.

From this point on both Lilian and her daughter emerge from the mystery and shadows in surprisingly dramatic ways.   In the 1930s the undoubtedly genuine Lilian and William lived in a series of flats in Hammersmith. The electoral rolls for these flats, in Hamlet Gardens, identified the daughter, and perhaps the daughter of Sir Edward Elgar, as Mignon Harman, or, sometimes, Mignon Nelson.    

The earliest dated definite trace of Mignon is as a dancer in a Jack Buchanan show "That’s a Good Girl" in 1928.

The programme misspells her name as "Harmon” but there is no doubt that this is her. She is listed as one of "The Eight John Tiller Girls." The Tiller Girls are particularly remembered from Saturday Night at the London Palladium in the 1950s and 60s. Their act was based on highly disciplined high-kicking routines, usually featuring a long line of matching dancers. This was a late incarnation of an enormously successful tradition, not just one troupe but many different troupes all deriving from the vision of John Tiller as long ago as the 1890s. In the twenties and thirties there were groups of girls performing in reviews and pantomimes and in cine-variety. Major cinemas featured stage acts in the intermissions between films including the Plaza, Piccadilly Circus.

They appeared across the country and also, right from the early days, in Paris, Germany and America. John Tiller was a successful business man in the Manchester cotton trade but music and theatre were his obsessions. In 1885 he became director of Comedy Theatre in Manchester and he launched a dancing class for children. By 1890 he was able to provide groups of child performers for pantomimes. From the very beginning the standards were extremely high and his dancers were an immediate success. The development of the Tiller girls owed as much to a very strong business sense as it did to Tillers love of the theatre. The growing business also had a social aspect. The early Tiller girls were from the poor parts of Manchester, such as Moss Side, and the hard work and difficult hours brought in money and a sense of purpose. Within a few years Tiller had produced a series of troupes of child dancers and had also launched older troupes, the Tiller Ballet and The Tiller Combination of Eight Ladies. There were tours across the country and rave reviews of the routines which Tiller choreographed and arranged the music for himself. By the end of the century Tiller had established the Tiller Training School and Lyric Academy in London. Though many of the girls formed acts with a particular theme, "The Superba Quartette," "Snowdrops", "Four Champions ", the press was beginning to refer to "Tillers Girls." Even before 1900 Tillers business had become international and from the beginning of the twentieth century troupes of Tiller girls were appearing at the Folies Bergere in Paris. This is a very significant fact.

Mignon's mother had told Kenneth Clark that she had been in Paris and been a friend of Jane Avril. This could have been as early as 1899 or 1900 and Lilian may only have been a teenager. At first this seemed an unlikely claim but knowing the history of the Tiller Girls it becomes completely credible. It is very reasonable to suppose that her mother could have been part of that earlier generation. A biography of Jane Avril refers to her returning to Paris around 1899 with an English "Swallow Troupe”. This sounds very much like one of Tillers speciality acts or something very like it.
Though there is no evidence for what she was doing before this show opened, in Cardiff, on 6th February 1928, it is reasonable to guess that Mignon had been through the intensive training of one of the Tiller Schools, probably at the Tiller Training School at Trafalgar House, Great Newport Street, London. To have been hired for a prestigious show, in a small troupe that unusually identified the dancers by name, she must have been an experienced and reliable dancer already. She may, though, have still been very young.  I think it is reasonable to assume that Lilian had started her career working through Mrs Hunts so she could be nearer to Mignon, though some of her periods of employment took her far away. In fact the tour of "That’s a Good Girl” coincided with the period that Lilian was travelling with Constance Rivington Russell. As it will be seen Mignon was a highly strung young woman and Lilian might have felt she needed to be close to her from the start of her dancing career. The shows female lead was Elsie Randolph who was in several Jack Buchanan shows. She had a long career and managed to appear in two Alfred Hitchcock films forty years apart, Rich and Strange in 1932 and Frenzy in 1972.

 The show toured Manchester, Newcastle, Glasgow, Golders Green, Leeds, Liverpool, Sheffield, Manchester (again), Newcastle (again) and Glasgow (again) before opening at the London Hippodrome on 5th June 1928 for a run of 363 performances. The show closed on 16th March 1929. Considering Sir Kenneth Clark’s comment that Mrs Nelson’s daughter "had a strong physical resemblance to Elgar" one of the girls in an  illustration from the programme of "That’s a Good Girl” (also clearly visible as one of the eight dancers in a full cast photo) does stand out. The image of the Tiller Girls with Jack Buchanan appears at 3 mins 23 seconds into the video on this page.            

I have spoken to one person who knew Mignon later in her life. She was unable to be sure which of these she was. At first she was drawn by the eyes of the girl sitting at the right of Jack Buchanan, but then she wondered if it was the one standing to his right. As all the girls are wearing wigs and made up to be similar it was impossible to be sure, but one of these is almost certainly Mignon Harman.
It is worth looking at this picture when considering how old Mignon was. If Mignon was born in 1907 or 8, as her death certificate suggests, she would have been 20 at this time. But there is reason to suppose that she was several years younger. Though they must have make-up and wigs these do look like teenagers. Could Mignon, whichever one she is, have been as young as 15 or 16 in 1928?   When Doremy Vernon interviewed former Tiller Girls in the 1970s and 80s for her book "Tiller's Girls” several of them spoke about Mignon as someone they clearly remembered for her personality and for the dramas surrounding her. Mignon is mentioned in the book itself but, extraordinarily, Doremy was to provide me with transcripts of her interviews with women who had known Mignon well in the late twenties and early thirties. These are startling vivid first hand accounts. In the late twenties and early thirties Mignon was one of the "Plaza Tiller Girls" who performed between films at the Plaza Cinema in Lower Regents Street, London. The Plaza Girls, as one of the leading troupes, were called on to appear in films (still silent) in the years immediately after the cinema was launched. They appeared in "A Little Bit of Fluff," released in 1928, a comedy starring Betty Balfour, an English answer to Clara Bow, and Charlie Chaplin's brother, Syd.

These film appearances were shot without interrupting the stage shows, with the girls travelling to and fro from the studios as part of very long working days. In 1938 Walter Sickert used a still from "A Little Bit of Fluff” as the basis for a painting of the Plaza Tiller Girls, "High Steppers.” He had produced two pictures of the girls in 1928, probably based on newspaper cuttings. He may never have seen them in the flesh. These earlier paintings were disliked intensely by the dancers as their arms and legs show none of the precise synchronisation that they prided themselves on. The later painting may give a better impression of the Plaza girls in 1928. There is no way of knowing if one of them is Mignon.

Go to part 3

That's a Good Girl selection,.