Dame Nellie Melba in Queensland

I recently read of the passing of Dame Nellie Melba’s granddaughter Pamela, Lady Vestey 1918-2011 in Mark McGinness’ obituary published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 1 October.

McGinness writes that Lady Vestey was born Pamela Helen Fullerton on September 12, 1918,  “the only surviving child of Melba’s only child George Armstrong. Her mother, Evelyn Doyle, a Brisbane-born singer, was George’s second wife, to whom Melba was devoted.”

Dame Nellie Melba herself was born Helen Porter Mitchell on 19 May 1861 in Richmond, Victoria. She lived with her parents, Isabella and David Mitchell, and seven younger brothers and sisters, and attended the Presbyterian Ladies College in Melbourne.

Dame Nellie Melba at a reception at Windsor, Brisbane, ca. 1908. John Oxley Library Image 54920. Dame Nellie Melba photographed outside the Gresham Hotel, Brisbane, ca. 1909. John Oxley Library Image 36747. Programme cover for Dame Nellie Melba’s Australian Concert tour of 1902. he programme in Brisbane included Madame Melba singing Verdi’s aria from La Traviata, Ah fors e liu, and two other pieces, Mozart’s Porgi d’amor and Bemberg’s Nymphs and Sylvains. Her accompanists were Miss Llewela Davies and Herr Benno Scherek who played on Bechstein and Steinway concert grand pianos. The second concert was held at the Exhibition Hall at Brisbane and Mr George Musgrove was the director of the concert. (Informaton taken from the programme details). John Oxley Library Image 61519. This photograph of Dame Nellie Melba was taken by Mr. H. W. Mobsby, Queensland representative at the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco in 1915, on the occasion of a visit which Dame Nellie Melba paid to the Australian Pavilion when pasing through America. (Description from The Queenslander, 5 March 1931). John Oxley Library Image 62365.

Melba moved to Mackay with her father, who had purchased a sugar mill there, after the death of her mother and one of her sisters in 1881. In 1882 she married Charles Armstrong in Brisbane, and they had a son, George, the following year. Jim Davidson in his Australian Dictionary of Biography entry on Melba writes of Armstrong that he was “tall, blue-eyed, and three years her senior, a man who agreeably combined skills as a rough-rider with the recommendation of gentle birth: his father was a baronet.” Davidson goes on to sum up Melba’s life in Queensland… “Sequested in a tin-roofed house, Melba became bored with the incessant rain and frustrated with a foundering marriage. The birth of her son George did little to allay her growing ambition to sing professionally, and on 19 January 1884 she left Mackay for Melbourne.”

An interesting collection from this time in the tropics is held in the State Library of Queensland’s John Oxley Library. TR1797: Dame Nellie Melba Correspondence 1882-1986 consists of correspondence sent by Nellie Melba to her singing master in Melbourne Signor Pietro Cecchi. There are eight letters and one telegram, all addressed to him. The collection also contains several newspaper clippings on Melba, as well as original photographs of Sr. Cecchi and one of Melba dated 1921; an unidentified house associated with Melba and 5 cartes-de-visite of famous men including William Gladstone, Giuseppe Garibaldi and Thomas Carlyle.

House built in 1883 for Charles Armstrong, manager of the Marian plantation and his bride, Helen Porter Mitchell, later the operatic diva, Dame Nellie Melba. Melba’s letters reveal that the house was not finished when she returned from her honeymoon in April of 1883. Mackay Regional Council Image R0000168531. Manager’s residence, Marian Mill. In her autobiography, Melba casts aspersions on her living conditions at Marian. The couple spent relatively little time living there, as Armstrong was relieved of the Manager’s position before the first crushing season was over, and Nellie moved south to her family in Melbourne in Febuary 1884. The house which was originally located close to the mill (see background) was moved to another site in the mill grounds, and eventually became a Tourist attraction and information centre in Edward Lloyd Park, on the eastern outskirts of Marian in 2001. Mackay Regional Council Image qmc05800. Winifred Rawson and friend relaxing on the verandah at “The Hollow”, near Mackay, Queensland about 1875. John Oxley Library Image raw00010.

One of these letters to Sr. Cecchi from 1883 toured Australia as part of the National Treasures from Australia’s Great Libraries Exhibition in 2006. Melba wrote this letter from “The Hollow”, home of the Rawson Family whose lives in Mackay in the 1870s and 1880s are well documented in the Oxley Library’s Rawson Family Archive.

McGinness writes in his obit that Lady Vestey gave generously to institutions that honoured her grandmother’s memory. “In 1998 she gave hundreds of Melba costumes, documents, objects andphotos to the Lilydale Museum (now the Yarra Ranges  Regional Museum). She also gave 80 stage costumes, accessories and photos to the Victorian Arts Centre’s performing arts collection and, in 2008, endowed the Melba Opera Trust with $150, 000 to sustain her grandmother’s bequest in 1931 to ‘find another Melba’.”

From these original collections held in institutions in Australia and abroad we are able to gain a deeper understanding of Dame Nellie Melba’s life and career. An Australian diva acclaimed by critics around the world as a ravishing voice of flawless purity and aflame with brilliance.

Simon Farley

Arts Librarian – Queensland Memory – State Library of Queensland