This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005
Florrie Forde (1875-1940), music hall artist, was born on 16 August 1875 at Fitzroy, Melbourne, and registered as Flora, sixth of eight children of Lott Flannagan, an Irish-born stonemason, and his wife Phoebe, née Simmons. Possibly Jewish, Phoebe had been born in either London or the United States of America, and had two children from a previous marriage to Daniel James Cahill. Florrie's father later ran the United Service Hotel, Fitzroy; her parents' marriage ended about 1878. In 1888 Phoebe Cahill, claiming to be a widow, married Thomas Henry Snelling Ford, a Melbourne theatrical costumier, by whom she had six children (some prenuptial) before she died in 1892, aged 46. Florrie and some of her numerous siblings were put into a convent for a time, then she ran away with her sister Nan, seeking shelter with an aunt in Sydney. According to a later report, she was an under housemaid at Government House.
Adapting her stepfather's name as her stage name, 'Florrie Forde' first appeared as a singer in a vaudeville programme at the Polytechnic Music Hall, in the Imperial Arcade, Pitt Street, on 1 February 1892, performing popular and comical songs. At the Mariner's Church, Sydney, on 2 January 1893, purportedly with her father's written consent, she married with Congregational forms Walter Emanuel Bew, a 31-year-old water police constable from England and a widower.
Forde's long and illustrious career in pantomime began when she played Jack in George Rignold's The House that Jack Built in 1894 in Sydney. She also took dramatic parts in plays such as The Work Girl, but preferred singing and the lively exchanges with music hall audiences. She toured with Harry Rickards's variety company and in March 1897 appeared at the Theatre Royal, Adelaide, for one week, during which time the programme was adapted to become a special concert for the members of the Australasian Federal Convention, then meeting. She sang She Wore a Little Safety Pin, Behind, which the Adelaide Advertiser's reviewer thought risqué, but which appealed to the 'boys in the gallery'. Encouraged by the visiting vaudevillian G. H. Chirgwin, and with an invitation to tour with him in Britain, Florrie determined that she would establish a career abroad for herself, without his assistance.
On August Bank Holiday 1897, she made her first appearances in London at three music halls—the South London Palace, the Pavilion and the Oxford—in the one evening, singing You Know and I Know. Immediately booked for three years on the Moss and Thorton circuit, she never looked back. With clear diction, and a commanding stage presence, she had the ability to select songs with catchy choruses and to lead an audience in singing them. Her early successes included Down at the Old Bull and Bush in 1904, which became a music hall anthem. Other numbers that she made popular and recorded included Pack Up Your Troubles, It's a Long Way to Tipperary, Oh! Oh! Antonio, Hold Your Hand Out Naughty Boy, Goodbye-ee and Has Anybody Here Seen Kelly.
Florrie was a regular star in pantomime all her life, continuing to play principal boys in costumes designed to flatter 'leggy' girls and not the portly matron she became—by 1922 she weighed 16 st. 10 lb. (106 kg). Once settled into a routine of performing and recording, she released an avalanche of songs on cylinders and discs, making 700 individual recordings between 1903 and 1936. In 1906 she introduced another Australian, Billy Williams, to the Edison Bell recording studios. Forde was known for her generosity, particularly helping other performers who were down on their luck, and for her enduring sense of Australian-ness, evident in recordings of her broad, nasal vowels, which she retained to the end of her career.
On 22 November 1905 at the register office, Paddington, London, as Flora Augusta Flanagan, spinster, she married Laurence Barnett (d.1934), an art dealer. They made their home at Shoreham, Sussex. She appeared in a royal command performance in 1912 and in World War I was at the height of her fame. During the 1920s she helped to establish the duo of Chesney Allen and Bud Winthrop, bringing them together in a show she called 'Flo and Co'. Winthrop used Florrie's maiden name, thus creating the celebrated team of 'Flanagan' and Allen. In the 1930s Forde appeared in small parts in several films and continued as 'queen' of the hippodromes and music halls. After entertaining patients in a naval hospital, she died of a cerebral haemorrhage on 18 April 1940 at Aberdeen, Scotland. The Anglo-Irish poet Louis MacNeice left a tribute to her in a poem, 'Death of An Actress', recalling how:
With an elephantine shimmy and a sugared wink
She threw a trellis of Dorothy Perkins roses
Around an audience come from slum and suburb
And weary of the tea-leaves in the sink.
Jeff Brownrigg, 'Forde, Florrie (1875–1940)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/forde-florrie-12920/text23343, published in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 1 November 2014.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005