James English Donegan was a vaudevillian, a sportsman, a gymnast, a trick cyclist, and a skilled skater, and, inasmuch as he was born in Ireland, grew up in Australia, lived in England, finally settled in America, and performed throughout Europe, South Africa, North America & Canada, he was also a Globetrotter. He founded, trained and managed the Dunedin Troupe of acrobatic trick cyclists, skaters and slack wire performers, and he inspired many others. Most members of his troupe were from his own extended family and they were primarily a versatile and acrobatic cycling troupe who could also skate. As time passed skating became more prevalent and at least three future generations of his family would perpetuate the memory of his name in the skating world, both on ice and roller skates.
He was one of eleven children born to Michael Donegan and Margaret née English, which gave rise to the somewhat unusual middle given name that he shared with four of his brothers. He was born in Limerick, Southern Ireland, in 1852 but soon after his birth the family moved to Australia where most of his siblings were born. There he made a name for himself as a sportsman and ran a gymnastic school in Fitzroy, Melbourne.
In 1877 he married Hester Ellen Hickson and their first son was born later that year, but sadly died soon afterwards. In April 1878 their daughter Nellie was born, next came Ada in 1881, James Jnr. was born at Christmas 1884 and finally came Maudie in 1886. Nellie’s first skating lesson was at the Lyceum Hall, Melbourne and in 1886 she performed at the Melbourne Exhibition in aid of the Melbourne Women’s Hospital and later that year at a fete for the Australian Natives’ Association.
In the late 1880s James’s other children began to appear at various skating venues as the ‘Donegan Family’. In August 1888 the ‘Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser’ reported on the appearance of Miss Nellie Donegan and Master J. Donegan at the Adelphi Skating Rink as ‘champion juvenile skaters and bicyclists of the world’ and said they had previously been at the Old Crystal Palace Skating Rink performing at a benefit for the manager Alfred Wyburd.
In May 1892 the pair performed as a duo at the Melbourne Athletic Club. Later in 1892, and by then being promoted as the Dunedin Troupe of four ‘society cyclists and skaters’ they first arrived in England. The troupe then comprised Nellie, Jimmy and Maud Donegan & Mdlle Franzini, they were billed as exciting exponents of trick burlesque cycling, skating, serio & comic singing, and pedestal skate dancing.
By the turn of the century they were appearing in London at such notable venues as the Canterbury Palace of Varieties and the London Pavilion in Whitechapel, and using England as a base they toured, and caused a furore, all over Europe.
While still residing in England, in June 1905, James was introduced to the mysteries and privileges of Freemasonry when he was one of four just, upright and free men that were initiated at the first regular meeting of Chelsea Lodge No. 3098 following the consecration meeting in May that year.
The Noble 600
Around the same time he also took a keen interest in the foundation of what was to become the Variety Artistes’ Federation and he was registered as member No.43 at their foundation meeting held at the Vaudeville Club in London on February 18th 1906.
James had already contributed two Guineas to the original Music Hall Home Fund in 1908 when, in 1911, he happily contributed a further £2 10 shillings to the Variety Artistes’ Benevolent Fund & Institution appeal to support Brinsworth House, securing its future and earning himself a place among ‘The Noble 600’.
James’ wife Hester died in Lambeth, South London, in February 1913 and, in respect of her wishes, he arranged for her body to be interred in New York, so in spirit at least, she would have been well able to attend the marriage of their son, James Donegan Jnr., but by then known as Jimmie Dunedin, to Mrytle Rockzella McCloud just a month later in New Jersey. Jimmie and Myrtle both performed as professional skaters but by the 1920s Jimmie was engaged as booking agent for the Keith and Orpheum Theatre circuits.
James English Donegan died himself in New York in 1916 but the family carried on skating. In 1899, James’ daughter Nellie had married aerialist, high diver and gymnast William Andree. They had three children before going to America to appear in circus where, among other adventures, Nellie featured as a ballet girl in the Ringling’s Circus spectacle ‘Jerusalem and the Crusades’. Their son died young but their twin girls, Ellen Matilda “Helen” Andree and Amelia Maud “Maude” Andree, would go on to become professional skaters. Unfortunately William Andree died in 1906 and would not see the success of his daughters.
In 1908 Nellie re-married Adam Earle Reynolds, another skater, and who would become another member of Chelsea Lodge in June 1909. In 1908 they skated with the Florenz Zeigfield musical comedy ‘A Parisian Model’ and then, having based themselves in Jasper County, Indiana, they toured a skate dancing act throughout Britain, America and Canada as ‘Reynolds & Donegan’. They appeared with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circuses and travelled around the country doing exhibition work on fairgrounds and in vaudeville declaring ‘decorative dancing’ to be their forte.
In 1915, while they were performing in the show ‘The World of Pleasure’ at Schubert’s Winter Gardens in New York, their image was used on the cover of the sheet music for ‘The Skating Waltzes’. Back in Jasper County they had a garage converted into a gymnasium where they and their daughters trained and where they trained other girls who went on to skate professionally in vaudeville and circus. They also managed an act called ‘Six Pyramid Girls’.
Nellie died 28th October 1945 and Earle died in 1954. Nellie’s daughter Helen married Walter King and founded and managed a troupe called ‘Helen Reynolds’ Skating Girls’. Nellie’s other daughter, Maude, married Francois LeMaire and they both appeared as skaters on the vaudeville stage.
Their children, Patricia and Eddie, appeared with them in ice skating shows when they were young. Patricia went on to teach skating and Eddie became an accomplished roller skater, ice figure skater and speed skater winning many titles. He was a Navy pilot and flight instructor during World War Two and later became a National skating judge. He was on his way to watch the World Figure Skating Championships in February 1961, as part of his ‘schooling’ to become a World skating judge himself, when the plane crashed in Belgium killing all on board. James English Donegan had really started something when he put on his first pair of skates!