At the Whanganui Regional Museum, a recent cataloguing project for the recorded music collection revealed some music hall treasures and raised some eyebrows. One such recording is the song Girls Study Your Cookery Books by Florrie Forde which contains the lyrics, “Every courtship from the kitchen / Always ought to start / They say that through man’s appetite / Is the way to reach his heart.” Sage advice. So who was Florrie Forde?
Florrie was born Flora May Augusta Flannagan on 16 August 1875 in Fitzroy, Victoria, Australia. She was the sixth of eight children born to Lott Flannagan and his wife Phoebe, who had two children from a previous marriage. Flora’s parents separated and her mother later married Thomas Ford, a theatre costumier, and they had another six children.
Flora and some of her siblings were sent to live in a convent but at the age of 16 she ran away to live with an aunt in Sydney. She altered the spelling of her name and made her first music hall appearances in 1892. Her efforts were well received with one reviewer stating her performance of the serious-comic song Yes, You Are was “a great attraction”.
Florrie loved the stage and took several dramatic roles but preferred pantomimes and audience interaction. She toured with Harry Rickard’s variety company and was encouraged by vaudeville star George Chirgwin, who invited her to tour with him in Britain.
She wanted to make it on her own, however, and at the age of 21 Florrie moved to London. She made her stage debut in August 1897, performing in three music halls on the same night: The South London Palace, The Pavilion, and The Oxford. She became an immediate star and was booked out by Moss & Thornton variety theatres for three years.
Music hall entertainment was at its peak and Florrie’s engaging stage presence and particular diction fitted in very. She specialised in songs that were partly serious and partly comedic and would invite her audiences to sing the catchy choruses with her, expertly calming them down before she moved on to her next piece.
Florrie made her first recording in 1903. She recorded a total of 700 songs in between her stage appearances over the next three decades. She appeared in the first Royal Variety Performance in 1912, and during the height of her popularity in WWI, she made several popular recordings including It’s A Long Way To Tipperary and Pack Up Your Troubles In Your Old Kit Bag.
Known for her generosity as well as her great talent, she helped less successful performers, setting up her own travelling revue in the 1920s to launch new artists.
Florrie gave her last performance to patients at a naval hospital in Aberdeen on 18 April 1940, after which she collapsed and died of a cerebral haemorrhage, aged 64.
Someone in Whanganui’s past has been a fan of Florrie and left a number of her recordings to the Museum. As well as Girls Study Your Cookery Books, the Museum also holds copies of I Can’t Keep My Eyes Off the Girls, They Sang God Save The Queen, Are We Downhearted No-o-o?, and On The Banks Of The Rhine. Several of her recordings can be heard on YouTube.
Sandi Black is the Archivist at Whanganui Regional Museum.