James Donegan – Freemason Entertainer

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.

Early Life

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.

Masonic Career

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.

Family

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!

© Hungerford Lodge 4748

Martin Henderson – Freemason Entertainer

1Blind performer Martin William Henderson was born in Cullercoats, Northumberland in 1881. His parents had their own challenges with hearing and speech but by overcoming all the difficulties that arose, Martin was able to pursue a successful music hall career billed as the ‘Blind Musical Marvel’ or ‘The Concertina King’. As well as the concertina he played the oboe, piano and organ.

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Martin Henderson’s Concertina

He could also play chess, all skills that he learnt as part of his education at the Royal Normal College for the Blind at Upper Norwood, on the outskirts of South London. He started to appear locally around North Shields and Whitley Bay and among his last appearances before his career drew him further afield were smoking concerts at the Grand Hotel Tynemouth in aid of the Tynemouth Rowing Club and he appeared at the North Shields Central Palace of Varieties on the night of January 3rd 1900, the night it was destroyed by fire.

Soon afterwards he was taken up by the Moss Stoll circuit and toured with them for over six years from the turn of the 20th century and in 1907/08 he had a very successful seven month tour of Australia for Harry Rickard.

The Sydney Echo reported thus “…..he played a brief solo upon the piano, after which he gave a duet of exceeding beauty upon the piano and the concertina………he swept the keys of the former with his left hand and manipulated the concertina with his right………in response to augmented applause he illustrated medley methods in the use of the concertina, choosing ‘The Blue Bells of Scotland’ for his theme………his melodious rendering was so heartily appreciated that he was compelled to submit to an encore, for which he gave an imitation of a church organ, his illustration of the ringing of church bells was decidedly realistic and his imitation of a school bell was droll in the extreme. The audience could ‘Hear the Pipers Calling’ when he produced Scottish bagpipe music upon the concertina, for which he obtained another recall“.

He had travelled to Sydney via Freemantle on board RMS Omrah from Tilbury and on December 9th 1907 he opened at the Tivoli Theatre for Harry Rickards who was reported as saying “Apart from his talents as a musician he is particularly bright and pleasing looking, ‘his eyes are open’ ” remarked Mr Rickards “and when he named his salary, I assure you he opened my eyes as well, but he was so good I had to close the bargain“. On the trip out he entertained at two concerts and the passengers were so delighted that they subscribed to strike a special medal as a commemoration of the voyage, as one commentator remarked “Every one of his pianoforte selections is performed as a result of repeated readings from the score by Mrs Henderson and memorised until he can play thus perfectly from the score he has never had a chance of seeing”.

He further endeared himself, to Sydney audiences at least, when he disrupted the schedule to arrange a special concert for the folk of the Blind Institute in that City. Martin’s education at the Royal Normal College had also included training in physical and sensory skills such that when he returned home from Australia he was able to take part in a boxing match with the gymnast and clown Jim Obo as part of the entertainment on an outing of the Terriers Association…….and won!

Afterwards Jim said he had not taken the fight seriously, he intended to play the fool for a few rounds before finishing Martin off and they could all go home. Martin however did take it seriously; there were 50 guineas at stake which he wanted for charity. After the fight he said that after he had landed one decent punch square on Jim’s nose he knew he was rattled and getting more and more frustrated. Martin could sense every footfall as Jim pranced around him, he could feel and hear, and even smell Jim’s arms flailing around through the air. He could in fact ‘see’ every punch coming. His wife would probably have been equally aware of his physical and sensory skills as she bore him eight children.

Martin always took a great interest in the Variety Artistes’ Benevolent Fund & Institution at Brinsworth House and had contributed £2/10/00 in 1911 to help pay off the mortgage and thus become one of the ‘Noble Six Hundred’. He remained an active participant and contributor to that and many other charitable causes.

Martin was initiated into Chelsea Lodge No. 3098 on 17th June 1910. He was initiated by Alfred William Henry Beales who had started his working life as a draper’s assistant but had become a music hall performer, agent and theatre manager professionally known as Harry Bawn. With his touring days over Martin moved back to the North-East and resigned from Chelsea Lodge on 27th February 1922.

Exactly one month later he was accepted as a joining member of Lord Armstrong Lodge No. 3074 at Whitley Bay at which time he was listed as a confectioner. He became the Lodge organist and in 1932 he was a founder of Brier Dene Lodge No. 5344, also at Whitley Bay. He was awarded Northumberland provincial honours as Past Provincial Grand Organist.

On Saturday July 26th 1924 Martin started what was to become an annual busking tour of the town to raise money for local charities. Hoping for £50 to go to the Newcastle Infirmary, he walked the streets playing his concertina non-stop for 12 hours. One report noted that “his handicap in life sits so lightly upon him that it is hard to realise that Martin is sightless“. August 1925 was his second 2nd tour going for £55 to Newcastle Infirmary. It was also in 1925 that he also started along run of radio appearances.

In October 1929 there was a benefit for Martin at the Coliseum, Whitley Bay, to recognise and show appreciation for his services to charity. It was noted that during the previous six years he had raised over £800; the Royal Victoria Infirmary Newcastle alone receiving £400 and other charities receiving a similar amount between them. Martin wasn’t finished yet, he completed ten annual busking tours raising in excess of £1200 with the Variety Artistes’ Benevolent Fund & Institution at Brinsworth House always being well remembered when allocations were made from his endeavours.

Martin died in 1941. His education and training at the Royal Normal College had served him well. The college which had been founded in 1872 still flourishes today. It is now known as Royal National College for the Blind and is based in Hereford.

© Hungerford Lodge 4748