I was born in Cardiff Royal Infirmary in 1867, the last and most scrawny of Thomas and Nesta Thomas’s three daughters: Morag, Eirian, and Clara. I lived with my Mam and Dad at 11 Whitchurch Street and they worked in Cardiff Market selling fresh vegetables and some fruit grown in the valleys.
For some strange reason, when I was no more than about four, my Mam and Dad, well especially my Dad, got the idea to move abroad, from Wales into England, but not just anywhere in England, but straight to Covent Garden in London. In fact, he must have had the idea much earlier, given my strangely English-sounding Christian name “Clara.” I use the term “abroad” rather loosely, but it will make it clear what an incredible thing it was for a Welsh family of vegetable retailers to move to England. I wonder now, as I approach my sixth decade, what it was that planted this germ of an idea in his mind. And now I’ll never know, because he died 35 years ago this August.
It wasn’t long before Thomas Thomas, vegetable retailer from Cardiff, was working with George Smith, a coster monger at Covent Garden. It was a far cry from being opposite the lava bread stall in Cardiff Market. Here in the heart of London, where the city stayed awake late for the thrills provided by the theatre district and woke up early in the morning with the gulls and the pigeons for the excitement of garbage collection and the arrival of fresh produce and flowers, Thomas Thomas – known fondly by his friends as “Tom the spud” – had arrived!
Growing up in London was very exciting, even in our impoverished area of Peckham. I soon felt the pull of the London stage and from a young age, I pestered my Mum and Dad for dancing and singing lessons so I could get into the chorus line of one of the music halls that were always being staged. I had to find my own money for my lessons and I earned it by running errands for some of the stars of the London stage – Marie Lloyd and Samuel Lane. The next step came when I was hired steadily by one of the dames of the London stage, Violet Peabody. She’d been a vigorous ingenue when she started on the London Stage and I learned a lot from her, like how to walk and talk and hold my tea cup, though you’d never know it now by the way that reluctance and rheumatism have mucked up my knees.
Well it was from Miss Peabody that I heard about the auditions for a fresh new line of chorus girls the next Saturday morning. I put on my best (my only) dancing shoes and arrived early the big day. I dance my legs off at the audition, keeping up with the instructions perfectly. My dancing angels were with me that day. And then, there I was, IN the chorus. What a thrill!
From that point on, life just got better and better, for a while. It was about that time I first met that philanderer, Fred Higglebotham. Of course, I didn’t know at the time that he was a philanderer. I just looked into his blue eyes and I melted. He was more than a stage-door Johnnie, because he sometimes got small parts – the one-liners – that show up in everything from Shakespeare to Shaw. Anyhow, we started walking out of a Sunday afternoon and it wasn’t long until he asked my Dad for my hand. He told me he wanted all of me, but he told my Dad he just wanted my hand.
We had a lovely quiet wedding in the registry office near Leicester Square. It was on a Saturday in May when the spring blossoms were in full force. Work for Fred, I soon discovered, was thin on the ground. I was getting one job after the other in the chorus, dancing my legs off, and in one of my shows – I even had a small part with a character with a name – “Daisy”!
Well, that’s when things started to go downhill. Work for Fred got more and more scarce. I had a miscarriage, having had to dance my way through the first three months of my pregnancy. I cried non-stop for three weeks when that happened – I did so long to have a little girl of my own. And then Fred fell in love with another chorus girl – Gladys Casnave. I think he fell in love with her posh name first. Being such a good looker, he managed to catch Gladys’s eye and that’s when things reached rock bottom.
Anyway, he deserted me and our little tenement home and took up with Glad gladly. It left me very sad and rather cranky.
The next season I was dropped from the chorus line: my knees were already starting to suffer from all the high kicks. I became desperate and started looking for any kind of employment as long as it was still in the theatre world. I finally found something – I became Miss Judith Bliss’s dresser. Actually, when I started working for her, she was Miss Walrand, but when she saw the chance to change her name to Bliss – and in the process marry David Bliss, the well known novelist – she swanned her way forward.
Actually, I became Miss Bliss’s seamstress, her dresser, her fetcher and carrier. I even helped her with her lines on the odd occasion. I was happy enough though I did miss the dancing and singing. That was all forty years ago. Who would think it! I’ve been with her ever since.
Miss Bliss has hardly changed at all. She’s kept her pretty figure and her hair has just gone from gentle blond to flowing white. Mine meanwhile has gone from Welsh black to coalminer’s grey. I think I’ve lost my lovely posh accent and my lovely walk that Miss Peabody worked so hard to engrain in me, because I had such a let down of a life. I’ve kept Freddie’s name – I’ll be Clara Higglebotham till the day I die, even though he couldn’t give me the little girl I longed to have.
I’ve had to make do with Miss Bliss’s two brats – that Simon and Sorel. Oh they’re alright, but they are a bit stuck on themselves. That Simon thinks he’s such a great drawer and Sorel – I don’t know what she’s trying to cultivate in herself! Though she does have a pretty enough voice.
So Cookham it is these days. And I have to cook ’em all their meals, the Blisses!
Miss Bliss finally retired last season from the London stage. It was done with great ceremony. And we moved to Cookham and tried to blend in. What a hope! Me with my cockney accent and Miss Judith with her winsome ways.
Oh, I must tell you! A bunch of London visitors came last weekend to stay. It was a disaster of a Saturday-to-Monday, just like always. But this time, this handsome young fellow – very tall and suave and debonair – he gave me a tip of £1 10. I couldn’t believe it! That’s my weekly wage and then some.
I’m going to tell Judith this morning, once breakfast’s done, that I’m going to take next Saturday off – no matter how many visitors they have coming and never tell me about – and I’m going to go up by the 10:15 a.m. train to London and I’m going to see the latest London show. With this much money, I won’t even have to sit in the Gods like I did when I was young, but in the orchestra circle. I think I’d like to see that new Noel Coward show – his latest – I think it’s called Hay Fever. I wonder what it’s about. Well it’s bound to be a change from life at Cookham!