Arthur Phillips Hemsley was born in Alma Place, Margate on August 13th 1881. He was the fifth son of Durham born actor and scenery artist William Thompson Hemsley and his actress wife Fanny. Harry Hemsley, one of Arthur’s elder brothers, was a child mimic and might be best remembered for his radio success in England as one of BBC’s Ovaltineys.
By 1885 the family had moved to London where William set up the scenery business in which Arthur would first start work as a scenic painter and sculptor. The young Arthur was clearly attracted by all the other aspects of theatre that he experienced and while still only a young man he became stage manager for the well-known actress/manager Sarah Thorne back at the Theatre Royal, Margate. From there he joined a stock company at the Grand Theatre Islington.
He also appeared in Dickens’ plays and was much sought after by some Drury Lane companies as a character actor. He continued to develop his skills as a stage performer and early in the 19th century he found his niche and began making a name for himself in musical comedy. He found particular success at Blackburn Royal Theatre and the York Royal Theatre and he also scored well with his clever eccentric dancing in ’The Orchid’, a musical comedy that he would later produce himself in Australia.
He formed a sketch act with London born soubrette Elsa Brull. The couple married in March 1907 and as ‘Brull & Hemsley’ they enjoyed much success touring with their own sketches such as ‘Fun in a Music Shop’ and ‘Uraliarty’, which had its West End debut at the Oxford Music Hall in August 1913. Others followed including another called ‘The Knut, The Girl and the Egg’.
They travelled extensively with at least nine tours of Africa for Barney Hyman before being engaged in Cape Town for the South Africa Theatres Trust. Then it was on to Zanzibar, and then to India where they toured for several years under Maurice Bandmann management. They also made two trips to Australia, in 1913 and 1918, where they were particularly well received and where they would eventually make their home in 1924.
In August 1917 they had landed a year’s work with the ‘Courtiers Costume Comedy Company’ at Cremorne Gardens, Brisbane. It was here that Arthur first showed interest in Freemasonry after discussing it with local men from the cast and production crew.
On 4th June 1920, at the Alice Street Masonic Temple, proposed and seconded by entertainers Hugh Huxham and Les Warton respectively, he was initiated into Thespian Lodge No.73 on the register of the Grand Lodge of Queensland. According to the minute book “the meeting was attended by a goodly portion of freemasons from the theatrical fraternity”. He and Elsa often appeared for charitable causes including ‘The Far West Home for Crippled Children’ and the YWCA in Perth.
In 1924 he embraced the arrival of radio broadcasting to Australia and by 1930 he was on radio for the Australian Broadcasting Commission and station 4BC. In 1931 he was anchor-man and producer of Shell Radio Party, a programme heard all around Australia and in 1936 he did his first national radio tour for the ABC. In 1950 he made a brief, ill-advised and unfortunately unsuccessful foray into film when he featured in ‘The Glenrowan Affair’. Arthur died aged 73 in 1954 and Elsa died in 1961.