Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Ackland, Essie Adele (1896–1975)

by Kathy Moignard

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

Essie Adele Ackland (1896-1975), singer, was born on 27 March 1896 at Woollahra, Sydney, eldest daughter of Henry James Ackland, licensed victualler, and his wife Marea, née Bassetti, both native-born. A grand-daughter of 'the silvery tenor' Harry Ackland, Essie had a lifelong ambition to sing, but did well at school and acquired basic secretarial skills before studying at the New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music under Roland Foster who found her modest, unassuming and diligent. Despite being plagued with throat trouble, she took further lessons from Joseph Bradley and Madame Emily Marks. 

In 1921 Miss Ackland was invited to sing in Handel's Messiah on Christmas Eve with the local Welsh Choral Society. She performed in 1922 with the Royal Sydney Apollo Club and the Royal Philharmonic Society of Sydney, and also toured Queensland. Encouraged by Henri Verbrugghen and Dame Clara Butt, Essie was chosen as solo vocalist to accompany the Belgian cellist Jean Gerardy on his 1923 tour of Australasia. In ninety-five performances over six months she won unanimous critical acclaim.

Although Gerardy had advised her to study in Vienna, she eventually sailed for London on 21 March 1925, following a farewell concert at the town hall, stage-managed by Reginald Joseph Morphew, a baritone and fellow student. Having studied in Italy, he joined her in London and married her at St Saviour's parish church, Paddington, on 24 February 1926; they were to remain childless. Both obtained work in the concert field, yet seldom appeared together; Essie later attributed their long and happy marriage to their independent, successful careers.

Befriended by Ada Crossley, Essie became a prominent oratorio and concert performer. She was introduced to the Gramophone Co. by Browning Mummery and made forty His Master's Voice discs, often with organ accompaniment, but became best known as a ballad singer. Tall and dark, with a contralto voice of 'phenomenal range and power' once described by Verbrugghen as 'liquid gold', she was regarded as an 'unaffected, genial Australian' of 'natural simplicity and charm'. In 1936 she was soloist in Queen's Hall and National Sunday League concerts, gave two Messiah performances, broadcast for the British Broadcasting Corporation, made gramophone records, and toured the provinces and Scotland.

When Essie came to Sydney with her husband in March 1937 radio had made her name a household word. Her triumphant four-month concert tour for the Australian Broadcasting Commission was followed by eight weeks in New Zealand. Critics praised the lustrous quality of her voice, her sincerity and her grace. In Britain during World War II she joined the Entertainments National Service Association's first concert party and appeared in 1300 concerts in army camps, hospitals, factory canteens and air-raid shelters throughout the country. She entertained Australian soldiers in London at her Edgware home, and enjoyed gardening and golf.

Accompanied by Reginald, in November 1947 Essie Ackland returned to Sydney. Next year she toured the State's coalfields, Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia; she announced her retirement in February 1949 and afterwards lived quietly at Gosford, New South Wales. Predeceased by her husband, she died on 14 February 1975 at Mosman and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Musical News, 1 June 1923, 2 Feb 1925, 1 July 1929, 1 Dec 1936, 1 Jan, 1 Apr 1937, 2 Aug 1948
  • Radio Pictorial, 1 Feb 1937
  • Wireless Weekly, 19 Feb 1937, p viii
  • ABC Weekly, 12 June 1948, p 17
  • Herald (Melbourne), 2 Mar 1937
  • Courier Mail (Brisbane), 2 Apr 1937
  • Age (Melbourne), 24 Nov 1947
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 15 Feb 1975
  • taped interviews, 1972, made by Mr P. Burgis
  • Ackland papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Ackland newsclippings and brochures (ABC Archives, Sydney)
  • ABC papers (National Archives of Australia).

Citation details

Kathy Moignard, 'Ackland, Essie Adele (1896–1975)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/ackland-essie-adele-9305/text16327, published in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 26 July 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

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