A Tale of Two Maurices: Family history and theatrical micro-history

Christopher Balme with David Taylor (david@taylorcobham.co.uk)

The publication of my recent book, The Globalization of Theatre 1870-1930: The Theatrical Networks of Maurice E. Bandmann (2020), has generated responses from unexpected quarters ranging from the Getty Centre (where a curator is researching a prominent dancer on the Bandmann Circuit) to more personal stories relating to family history. It is the latter that shall be explored here because family history, no matter who is engaged in it, whether the professional historian or the interested amateur, invariably engage in a form of micro-history which is itself an established methodology in the discipline. As I stress in the preface to my book, the family history of the Lopez family, recorded by Vanessa Lopez, the grand-daughter of Stephen Lopez, one of Bandmann’s managers, provides a superb documentation of the theatrical circuit. It already existed before I began my research, I drew on it extensively, and it is still accessible.

In early 2021 I was approached by the historian David Taylor, in relation to a family story with a possible connection to Bandmann. His great-grandmother had served as a ‘monthly nurse’ for a boy named Maurice E. Benson, who had „theatrical connections“. I knew the name, principally because he was mentioned in Bandmann’s will as a recipient of £1000, the same amount apportioned to the deceased’s mother and sister. This puzzled me at the time because I could find no reason why he should be so munificently rewarded. I knew only that he worked in some capacity for Bandmann’s companies in India but little more. He also played a role in briefly resuscitating the circuit after Bandmann’s death together with Alec Ross, another associate.

David Taylor wrote to me with information that the mother of Maurice Benson was Blanche Forsythe, perhaps the most prominent actress on the Bandmann circuit before 1910. They toured together in the UK and the Mediterranean during the 1890s, she was the major shareholder in Bandman’s ill-fated Mediterranean and the East Entertainment Syndicate Ltd, and she accompanied him on the first far eastern tours until around 1910. Her most famous stage role was the eponymous heroine in the hit novel and play Trilby. After that she embarked on a successful career as an actress in silent films.

Blanche Forsythe in the role of Trilby, ca. 1896. (Helena Cowell Collection)

Within David Taylor’s own family it was unclear who the father was, but the birth certificate showed unequivocally that Blanche Forsythe was the mother. Family oral history proposed that the father was the actor-manager, Frank Benson, who would be knighted for services to Shakespeare. In addition to the birth certificate, Taylor had also acquired court records referring to Bandmann’s divorce in 1904 where Blanche was mentioned as having a relationship with him. Here David Taylor can take up the story:

“The facts around Maurice Benson are shrouded in mystery. However, they are part of the Taylor family story and so I will set them out here. My father often told the story about a young child who was left first in the care of his Grandmother Mary Taylor in Appledore and then, after her death, with his own mother. The child was named Maurice Benson and was said to come from a theatrical family, his father being Sir Frank Benson (1858-1939) the well-known actor-manager. I started to investigate Maurice Benson to see what the facts were behind this family story and found that he was born on 28thDecember 1896 in a house in Bude Street, Appledore. His birth certificate states that his mother was Blanche Benson “formerly Forsythe” and his father was given as “Maurice Benson”, a theatrical performer. 

Certificate of Birth of Maurice Benson in Appledore on 28th December 1896. UK Registry Office.
1901 Census listing Maurice Benson living with Mary Elizabeth Taylor at 100 New Street, Appledore. [National Archives, UK]

In 1901 Maurice, aged 3, was living at 100 New Street, Appledore with Mary Elizabeth Taylor, widow of Thomas Taylor and mother of “Jonty” Taylor. In the census of that year Mary was described as a “Monthly Nurse”. The term “Monthly Nurse” was given to women who were employed for a short term to assist a mother with her new-born baby. Often care would start once a woman entered “confinement”. It usually continued for the first few weeks after a child born. At times the monthly nurse assisted with the birth itself and the line between midwives and monthly nurses was sometimes blurred.

Maurice Benson was still with Mary ten years later, in 1911, after she had moved to 2, Seaview, Appledore. On-line archives reveal that, from 1903 to 1906, Maurice attended Appledore Elementary School. He then went to Bideford Grammar School as a boarder until 1913. His registration details at Bideford Grammar state that his father was a “Theatrical Manager” and that his parents were “abroad”. After leaving Bideford Grammar his first job was as a “Clerk in Accountant’s Office.”

Mary Elizabeth Taylor (photo: Taylor family)

My researches revealed that Maurice Benson’s mother, Blanche Forsythe (1872-1953) was a well-known stage actress and that she also appeared in several early melodrama and historical dramas made with the Barker Films Company from 1912 onwards. Her full name was Blanche Victorine Forsythe. Despite what is said on Maurice’s birth certificate, Blanche never married.  She was best known for her roles in “East Lynne” (1912), “Jack Tar” (1915), “The Rogues of London” (1915) and the title role in “Jane Shore” (1915). She also played the title role in “She” (1916). Her last movie was “A Just Deception” (1917).

Blanche Forsythe in The Rogues of London (1915)

Although the name Benson seems to link both Blanche and her son Maurice to the well-known English actor-manager Sir Frank Benson (1858-1939) who founded his own company in 1883 and produced all but three of Shakespeare’s plays, the father is more likely to have been Maurice Bandmann, a well-known theatrical impresario.

In 1903 Blanche Forsythe was named in the divorce proceedings of Maurice and Gertrude Bandmann. The divorce papers state that Bandmann had committed adultery with Blanche Forsythe from about 1898. However, the papers also state that Bandmann had an affair with a lady named Florence Fletcher and that she had given birth to a child in September 1897. This seems to suggest that Bandmann was having relationships with a number of women at this time. Although the divorce papers state that his relationship with Blanche Forsythe started in about 1898, it now seems likely that he was the father of Maurice Benson who was born in 1897. Bandmann had a reputation as a womanizer.

Maurice Bandmann (1872-1922)

Maurice Bandmann went on to work closely with Blanche Forsythe both through her acting career and in business matters relating to his company. Maurice Benson also worked closely both Bandmann and Forsythe and travelled with them to Egypt, India and the Far East. In 1919 Maurice Benson travelled to India. The Passenger List for the vessel on which he sailed states his profession as “theatrical” and his last country of residence as Egypt. In India Maurice married Marjorie Eanswyth Lamport who died in 1951. The couple had a son named Maurice and a daughter named Doreen. When Maurice Bandmann died, he left the considerably large sum of £1,000 to Maurice Benson.

Everything points to Maurice Benson being the illegitimate son of Maurice Bandmann and not Sir Frank Benson as assumed by my father. Presumably Blanche put down the father as Maurice Benson to preserve Bandmann’s identity. My father told me that Maurice Benson returned to Appledore on a number of occasions to visit and that he was very kind to Maggie Jane Taylor. Perhaps this why Maggie Jane’s first child, who died in infancy, was named Maurice, and her daughter was called Blanche.

Although not part of the Taylor ancestry, Maurice Benson is an interesting character and his story links the Taylor family with one of the early stars of the silent films and a pioneer theatrical impresario.“

Evidence that Maurice E. Bandmann was the father of Maurice E. Benson is overwhelming. But why did they give their son the surname, Benson? Was it a kind of theatrical joke, or perhaps a desire to link the baby’s name to the father: Bandmann and Benson sound very similar and produce the same initials: MEB. Bandmann was married at the time of the birth, although already estranged from his wife, but presumably had little taste for a scandal. Both he and Blanche evidently remained on good terms because they continued their private and professional relationship for some years. The parents presumably also remained in contact with their common child (no doubt there were financial responsibilities as well in the arrangement) because once he became old enough young Maurice joined his father on the circuit. By 1919, when Maurice Benson went out to Egypt and India, Maurice Bandmann’s second marriage was on the rocks. Yet, he was joined by his illegitimate son and evidently integrated into the company and provided for in his father’s will. By 1922 he was listed on the letterhead of the Bandmann Eastern Circuit Ltd and the Madan Theatres Ltd as ‘Director & Secretary’ in Calcutta.

Letterhead of the Bandman Eastern Circuit Ltd. listing Maurice E. Benson as ‘Director and Secretary’ of the Calcutta office.

In the categories of romantic fiction, one could speculate that Blanche Forsythe, the beautiful and successful actress, was his great love but their relationship was destined never to be consummated in marriage. For the theatre historian, in the language of network theory, these were strong (family) ties that had always kept actor-manager families quite literally together on the road.

 


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