Requiem for Mignon - 3

Mignon was seen as a happy-go-lucky girl, remembered as one of the girls smoking and playing cards between shows, but she was also believed to have had a sad life.

One of her colleagues believed she had been adopted by a doctor. This could be true. If Mignon was born to an unmarried mother who was pursuing a career she would have to have been taken into care in some way. This was not necessarily a bad thing. Dora Nelson and her daughter were looked after in a "Home for Girls in Wimbledon and both mother and daughter had successful lives afterwards. Mignon might well have been in a similar home for a while.

Perhaps it was easier to imply that she was an orphan rather than to admit that she was illegitimate. It is curious, though, that her friends did not seem to be aware that she had a mother living, and, the evidence suggests, a mother who went out of her way to look after her. Perhaps there was some kind of agreement between them that Mignon would keep her family background to herself.  Doremy Vernons interviews with former Tiller Girls included descriptions of what appear to be three dramatic suicide attempts by Mignon. After forty or fifty years the memories may not be completely reliable but there is no doubt that these were shocking experiences for all her colleagues.  

"We were at, what was it Stamford Brook, for God’s sake? Yes, the Commodore. She went up on the roof , slashed her wrists with razor blades. Looking back I would think that was half her trouble she wanted to be noticed (Maisie Williams)

"There was a Jewish Girl with the Plaza's: Mignon.She was up on the roof when I was there. (Binnie Sisters)

Binnies idea that Mignon was Jewish may simply been due to her unusual name, or perhaps by association with a supposed Jewish boyfriend:

  "She was going out with a very nice boy, a Jewish boy and something, I dont know what, and she ran up to the Commodore, Hammersmith, roof with a jug of peroxide and ammonia and just swallowed it, so she was so burnt she was taken to hospital. She was discovered by one of the boys going up for a smoke.   "She didnt die then, anyway she came out of hospital. We thought it was a serious, tragic thing. Thought it very wrong. We kept it quiet, nobody ever knew anything about it.   "The first time was in Mrs Tillers time. (Phyl Blakeston)

Phyl had been "Head Girl of the Plaza Troupe and later became a dance arranger, particularly for shows produced by Emile Littler. "Mrs Tillers time implies before 1936 when John Tillers second wife died. It may be possible to date this first incident more accurately. The Commodore Cinema stood at 395 King Street, Hammersmith. Stamford Brook was the nearest Underground station. The cinema opened on 14th September 1929. It was a large cinema with a restaurant and dance hall and designed for cine-variety with an orchestra as well as a large Standaart cinema organ. The cinema was independently owned by Commodore National Theatres Ltd until it was taken over by Associated British Cinemas (ABC) in July 1933. ABC abandoned the stage shows and dispanded the orchestra. This suggests that Mignons first suicide attempt was in the period 1930-33. It is remarkable, particularly considering that her friends seemed to think Mignon was an orphan, that the Commodore was only a matter of yards from Hamlet Gardens where Lilian Nelson lived between 1931 and 1936. Hamlet Gardens is an Edwardian development of "Mansion Flats."

They were, and still are, smart apartments, very well positioned for public transport and ideal for people working in the city. Strangely Lilian, and her supposed husband William, can be found on electoral roles at several different flats. Perhaps they rented vacant flats for short periods while they worked in short term and unpredictable employments. In 1930 the residents at no. 41 Hamlet Gardens are: Ernest John Edward Davis William Nelson Ernest Davis has not been definitely identified but he may have been a chaffeur, originally from Chiswick, with a wife Alice Maud Critch whom he married in 1911 when they were both in their mid 30s. He may have been a colleague of William Nelson, working in the same household. For several years previously Davis had been living in the apartment with a Lena Davis, possibly a second wife. Lena is no longer listed after 1928 and William Nelson had moved in.  

Lilian's record card suggests that she had started calling herself Nelson before January 1930 when the list of employments on the card ends. She herself appears on the electoral roll in 1931 as "Lilian Josephine Nelson”, joining William Nelson and Ernest John Edward Davis. This was, presumably, a two bedroom flat.
These dates suggest that Lilian’s life and career had changed in 1930. Has she married, or re-married, changed her name and started a different pattern of work, no longer with Mrs Hunt’s agency? In 1932 no one is listed at no. 41 but at no 46 are: William Patrick Nelson Lilian Josephine Nelson Phyllis Nelson Ernest Davis has gone. I have been unable to identify Phyllis Nelson. She may have been William Nelson’s mother, or even a daughter by an earlier marriage or relationship. In 1934 they are joined by Mignon Nelson. Mignon’s career as a Tiller Girl in the London cinemas had started several years before this. It seems reasonable to suppose that she had been living with her mother throughout this time. The suicide attempt at The Commodore had been almost within sight of Hamlet Gardens and must have taken place no later than 1933.  If Mignon had been living there for a few years before this could it be that this is the first year that she had been eligible to vote and that she had turned 21 in 1933/4? In spite of the fact that the age on the death certificate makes her five years older this is a strong possibility as will be made clear when the tragic story of Mignon’s death is told.   In the 1934 Post Office Directory Lilian appears as Mrs Lilian Nelson, suggesting that she is the householder. In 1935 no. 46 is occupied by Leslie Jarvis Wilkin. At no. 59 are: William Patrick Nelson Lilian Josephine Nelson Phyllis Nelson Mignon Harman In 1937 the Nelsons are still at no. 59 but "Mignon Harman” is listed as "Mignon Nelson Harman”. Mignon’s changing name is intriguing.

Perhaps, in 1934, her mother or step-father has put her down as Nelson, assuming she was happy to take on her mother’s new name. Mignon may not have accepted this. She continued to use Mignon Harman as a stage name into the 1940s. This might well have been her real name. 
Whether Mignon had lived with her mother throughout her Tiller Girl days, or whethert she moved in after the suicide attempt at the Commodore., Lilian and her new partner would have found themselves looking after a very troubled young woman. There seems to have been a similar incident at the Palace Theatre, Victoria. Doremy Vernon suggests that Vera Mannings version may not be reliable, though it is extremely detailed. The detail of the low parapet does fit the building.
 
"I was the first one to save her life. We were in something at the Palace in London. I heard someone screaming. It was a boiling hot summer. As I came out of my dressing room I heard someone screaming on the roof and I found her writhing. Luckily it had a little parapet about 3 feet high. Blood coming out of her mouth, screaming in agony, a white jar by the side of her. It would be a 2 pint jug. She had filled it with peroxide, iodine and bleach and drunk it. She lost her stomach through that, nearly.
 
"I flew downstairs and found some of the Girls.
.
"What's the matter, what's the matter?
"ME: Mignon's committing suicide.
 
"I don't know what made me do it - I'd heard someone say that if anyone has poisoned themselves give them a drink of milk. I grabbed 2 pints from the stage doorkeeper.
 
"He said  That's not yours. I don't give a sod, I said.
 
"I got to the top of the roof and poured it down her throat. Someone had phoned a doctor. He came running up the stairs. They got her down to the dressing room. I looked in once, there was blood all over the floor. The lining of her stomach she had burnt away.
"She was a happy go lucky girl, dark hair. Lovely features. "(Vera Manning)

Phyl Blakeston described the attempt that finally ended Mignon's career in the Tiller Girls. This was in Paris at the Paramount, now the Gaumont Opera. This was a sister of the Plaza in London, designed by the same architect.  

"Mignon had gone without saying a word, nobody noticed that she had gone, then when she wasnt back, others had been trying to get into the loo the door. It had been engaged all this time, when somebody knocked on the door and said that we only had one girl that spoke French, that someone was locked in the lavatory, of course it was Mignon, and they got over the top. "She had cut her wrists, she hadnt cut both, only one. We didnt even know about it in those days. A "cry for help (is) what it was.   "Once again it was all kept hush hush. She was taken to hospital. She was stitched and alright.   "When we came back to London, of course it was too worrying.Mignon didnt come back. We werent told why or anything. We didnt ask. We were too polite. We didnt ask. (Phyl Blakeston)

It is impossible to be sure when this happened but Phyl's comment that the earlier attempt was in Mrs Tiller's time suggests that this was later, by implication after 1936 when Mrs Tiller died, but it might well have been two years earlier and predates the appearance of Mignon at Hamlet Gardens with her mother and step-father. It is impossible to imagine what factors, aspects of her character, led Mignon to these suicide attempts, though the Hammersmith incident does suggest a direct link with her mother and step-father living close by. Doremy Vernon asked Phyl Blakeston if she thought Mignon was unstable.

"No, never. We sat up till three in the morning, four of us playing cards, she was one of them.”  

In spite of the injuries she had done to herself (in the case of the poison this was almost certainly permanent damage) Mignon’s career had not ended. By 1937 Lilian and William Nelson had found what they would have expected to be permanent employment with Lord Berners. They moved into Berners’ house at 3 Halkin Street and they appear on the electoral rolls at that address from 1937-9. As Mignon could not move with them and as it is hard to imagine that her mother would abandon her daughter after such a painful time, it is probable that she had found new work for herself and was safe for the moment.

 Go to part 4