Topic: Refrains from Wellington’s Past by Jenny Clay

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If Nana Blanche hadn’t married in Wellington in 1923 she would have gone to study to be a professional opera singer at the Melbourne Conservatoire of Music. That’s what she told my mother, who wondered whether this suggestion was linked to a distinguished elderly man in a photograph with the Godier family.

Blanche’s brother, Harold, was beside him, their mother, Hannah, in the middle, wearing a lace collar and white apron, and Blanche was on the opposite side, dressed in white. The man had a silver moustache and beard, and wore an elegant suit and a hat. On the back it said ‘Berhampore House’.

My mother asked, “The bearded man in a hat, who is he?”

At thirteen I sent a Mairangi Players’1970 programme of The Tempest to Nana Blanche, describing how as a dancing spirit I’d fallen over the King of Naples in the dark. Blanche enjoyed this, and said she hoped the volume bought ‘in Shakespeare’s house’ when she ‘was home in 1957’ helped in my preparation. Blanche Godier was born within the sound of Bow Bells, and her ancestors were Huguenots who fled from France to England.

She came to Wellington as a ten year old with her mother Hannah in 1908. Her brother, fourteen years older, had travelled from London two years earlier. Harold found a job as an organist and choirmaster at the Trinity Methodist Church in Newtown, a suburb where he met the minister of the Newtown Congregational Church, William Evans.

Soon after arrival Blanche was accepted for a private school for girls run in their home by his wife, Kate Evans. My mother believed Blanche’s tuition was in exchange for Kate having organ lessons with Harold. Before marriage she was Kate Edger, the first woman to graduate from the University of New Zealand. She was capped for her Master of Arts along with her sister Lilian in 1882.

Lilian Edger set up a school for girls in Ponsonby, and later lectured with Henry Olcott, the co-founder of the Theosophical Society, around Australasia. They travelled to India in 1897 and toured the theosophical lodges. Lilian became a tutor ‘to an Indian Prince’s family in India’, Blanche said, and she was to the sons of a maharajah between 1919 and 1929.

Writing about her memories, Blanche said the name of Kate’s school was Dera Dhoon, coming from Lilian’s connections with India. She was disappointed not to have a school hat with that name on it, ‘as the other girls were all there when I was enrolled’ and ‘by that time the hat bands were all exhausted’. She said their schoolroom ‘was a huge room that housed a full-sized billiard table’ and ‘we actually had our lessons on it on top of a suitable cover’. She remembered Harold asked the Reverend Evans when he played billiards, and he replied after church ‘on Sunday as it relaxed him after his sermon’. Blanche presumed their three sons also played.

Harold became the organist and choirmaster to the Kent Terrace Presbyterian Church in 1911. By seventeen Blanche was a soprano in the choir. Leo Irwin, who became her first husband, joined the choir three years later as a tenor. His employer with the Dominion Farmers Institute, J. W. Jack, sang bass, and in 1918 established the church Glee Club that they both joined. Harold was an organist in the Masonic Lodge. He was also the accompanist for the Orphans Club, and their musical director from 1927. The club’s name came from Orpheus, the Greek god of music.

In 1931 at an Orphans event for ‘lady friends’ Blanche sang ‘Life and Death’, followed by an encore, and Signor Lucien Cesaroni also sang. Cesaroni had toured the world with the Gonzales Grand Opera Company, before settling in Wellington and running a singing studio. Blanche said she helped him in the latter part of his life. In her early twenties she attended the studio of Mrs. Ernest H. Queree in Willis Street. She was one of Queree’s studio singers who performed in 1919 in a concert and choral work of Hinemoa by Alfred Hill, and William Goudie sang the part of Tutanekai.

Blanche Godier and Leo Irwin were married in the Kent Terrace Presbyterian Church in January 1923. Leo’s brother, Cyril, was the best man; Goudie was the groomsman, and Dora May Abbott, who six years later married Harold, was a bridesmaid. Mrs. Evans, by then a widow, ‘officiated on the organ’, the Evening Post reported, and the ceremony was a ‘full choral one’. Kate wore her Master of Arts gown. When seated she was dwarfed by the large church pipe organ, but played the wedding march with great style. The reception was at the Dominion Farmers’ Institute where there were ‘musical and elocutionary items’, and the bride and bridegroom sang a duet.

As a preschooler, my mother Marie performed with the church concert group. Blanche was unusual for the thirties, choosing to separate from her husband when she believed he was unfaithful. She supported her daughter and herself by teaching piano and singing, ‘straining voices’, with payments also from Leo, who was an accountant. He remarried in 1937. He became less of a performer, but Leo Irwin was the first Secretary-Treasurer of the New Zealand Federation of Music Societies, established in 1950; and he formed a company licensed to manufacture Deutsche Gramophone Records.

Blanche Godier sang on early radio in Wellington - three songs in contralto on 2YA in March 1931, and ‘Love is a Dream’ in soprano on 2YC in 1937. She participated at a National Council of Women meeting in 1934, and was a soloist at a Theosophical Society lecture on Reincarnation by Mr. T. G. Queree. She was involved in the slightly intellectual bohemian side of Wellington. Blanche belonged to the Esperanto Club and sang pieces, including popular songs, in Esperanto at meetings where Anton Vogt, a poet, performed sketches. When Marie was at high school they lived in the house of ballroom dancing teacher Rosina Bligh. Blanche fitted a piano into their bedsitter, and some of her singing pupils entertained at the Esperanto Club.

A year after my mother died, I discovered the mystery man with the beard and a similar hat in From Distant Villages, a book I heard about at the 2008 Going West Festival. He was Mariano Vella, born in Macarsca, Dalmatia. He arrived in Wellington as a sailor on the ship Rakaia, and became a fisherman at Paremata. He leased Mana Island off the Kapiti coast and managed the sheep farm there from the late 1880s until his retirement in 1909, when his sons took over. Returning from Europe with his second wife in 1894, their ship was wrecked on Great Barrier Island. After his retirement they went back to the Adriatic, returning to live in Plimmerton in 1915.

Vella would have met the Godier family at events around Wellington after 1915. Blanche performed with the church choir for the Sailors’ Friend Society in the early twenties, which Mariano may have belonged to as he’d been a sailor. Harold was an artiste in a concert in aid of the Crippled Soldiers and Sailors Hostel in the Masonic Hall, Berhampore, in March 1919. Cesaroni was in a ‘Grand National Concert’ the same month.

Blanche performed in support of schools, possibly with connections to Vella’s sons; at the Wellington Old Boys Association with Mrs. Queree as the accompanist in 1919; and at a concert for the Newtown Marist Brothers’ School in 1921 in the Town Hall, where she was billed as one of the ‘leading artists of Wellington’. In the photograph Harold and Blanche look dressed for a concert and Mariano Vella may have been a distinguished guest, entertained by them afterwards. The suggestion of Blanche training at the Melbourne Conservatorium is much more likely to have come from teachers like Queree or Cesaroni.

My memories of Blanche are mainly from the house in Oban Street in Wadestown she shared with her second husband Neil McMillan, with a Daneman baby grand piano in the lounge. When I was around ten and staying there, they had a charming musician boarding, who teased me over dinner, before a glamorous singer came to collect him. I found him in Blanche’s address book as Russell Channell. He’d helped to establish the original New Zealand Opera Company, and became their musical director. He accepted a position in South Africa in 1969, where he was living when Blanche died in 1973, and later worked with the Australia Opera Company.

What I vividly remember from Blanche’s funeral was the singing. My mother was on one side of me, and, on the other, Cherry, her cousin and the daughter of Harold and Dora Godier. Blanche’s friends, and people from the Esperanto group, and people she had taught filled the church. When the hymns were sung the sound swelled to the eaves, billowing inside and around us, and Blanche was there in the joined voices, living in the spirit of the song.


‘Refrains from Wellington’s Past’ was written for the Memoir & Local History Competition 2011, run annually by the New Zealand Society of Authors (Bay of Plenty Region) with support from Tauranga Writers.


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Refrains from Wellington’s Past by Jenny Clay