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Howard Vernon (1848–1921)

by Joan Maslen

This article was published:

Howard Vernon (1848-1921), by unknown engraver, 1884

Howard Vernon (1848-1921), by unknown engraver, 1884

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, A/S02/06/84/92

Howard Vernon (1848-1921), singer and comedian, was born on 20 May 1848 at Batman's Swamp, Melbourne, and baptized John, son of Richard Lett, brickmaker, and his wife Jane Catherine, née Williamson. At the age of 15 John worked as a clerk, at 16 as a tea-taster and blender. His first Melbourne stage appearance was as a tenor in a concert at which Johann Kruse played a violin obbligato. When Vernon appeared to share the applause, amusing everyone but Kruse, George Coppin remarked to Vernon: 'My boy, you are a comedian'. He also sang and acted with Walter Montgomery, William Lyster and Coppin; in 1873 he performed as primo comico in a season of opéra bouffe conducted by G. B. Allen, husband of leading soprano Alice May, and subsequently joined them in the company they took to the East. In Sydney on 2 February 1870 as Norman Letville he had married an actress, Mary Jane Walker (d.1905); they were to have nine children.

By 1874 Vernon had formed a small group of singers which he named the Royal English Opera Company. They toured Australia, New Zealand, India, China and other Eastern countries, and in 1877 went to Japan. Vernon visited England, playing Ange Pitou in La Fille de Madame Angot and Fritz in La Grande Duchesse with the Alice May company. He then performed at San Francisco, United States of America, as a member of Emilie Melville's company.

In Singapore in 1876 Vernon and Alfred Plumpton produced Trial by Jury, aided by the band of the 74th Highlanders who were stationed there; they also staged Trial by Jury and The Sorcerer at Bombay, India. On his return to Australia, Vernon joined J. C. Williamson and began the long series of Gilbert and Sullivan opera performances on which his fame largely rests. In May 1881 he appeared in The Pirates of Penzance in Melbourne; in November he played Bunthorne in Patience in Sydney. Other roles in which he gave the first Australian performances were Ko-Ko (The Mikado) 1885, King Hildebrand (Princess Ida) 1887, Wilfred Shadbolt (The Yeomen of the Guard) 1889, Don Alhambra (The Gondoliers) 1890 and King Paramount (Utopia Ltd) 1906. Esteemed by Australasian theatre-goers for his mastery of such roles, Vernon had—in each opera—one character which was regarded as his by right and merit. Alfred Cellier, the conductor at the Savoy Theatre, London, who had worked with both Gilbert and Sullivan, declared that Vernon's interpretations compared with anything seen in London.

On 8 March 1906 at Sorell, Tasmania, as Howard Vernon he married an actress and singer, Lavinia Florence De Loitte (1881-1962), daughter of William Henry de Loitte, accountant, and his wife Florence Lavinia, née Herbert (known as Adams), comtesse de Vilme-Hautmont. Born on 15 March 1881 at Balmain, Sydney, Vinia de Loitte, as she was known on stage, became the toast of Sydney in 1904 as Fifi in The Belle of New York. That year she met Vernon when they both performed in Patience. They frequently appeared together, both in Australia and abroad, and in 1909 gave musical entertainments at the Brussels exhibition. She published a booklet, Gilbert and Sullivan Opera in Australia (c.1933).

After several years in Britain, Vernon came home to Melbourne in 1914, retired from the stage and ran a book shop at Richmond. In 1920 J. C. Williamson Ltd gave a benefit for him, but failing health prevented his appearance. Vernon died at Prahran on 26 July 1921 and was buried in Brighton cemetery with Anglican rites; his estate was sworn for probate at £47. He was survived by his wife who died on 22 August 1962, and by two daughters and two sons of his first marriage, one of whom used the stage name 'Victor Prince'.

Select Bibliography

  • P. Downes, Shadows on the Stage (Dunedin, NZ, 1975)
  • H. Love, The Golden Age of Australian Opera (Syd, 1981)
  • E. Irvin, Dictionary of Australian Theatre 1788-1914 (Syd, 1985)
  • Age (Melbourne), 27 July 1921
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 27 July 1921
  • Argus (Melbourne), 27, 29 July 1921
  • Table Talk, 4 Aug 1921
  • Sun (Sydney), 24 Aug 1962.

Citation details

Joan Maslen, 'Vernon, Howard (1848–1921)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 27 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (Melbourne University Press), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Howard Vernon (1848-1921), by unknown engraver, 1884

Howard Vernon (1848-1921), by unknown engraver, 1884

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, A/S02/06/84/92

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Vernon, John

20 May, 1848
Batman's Swamp, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


26 July, 1921 (aged 73)
Prahran, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.