(b. Sept 12, 1886, Ealing – d.1964, Scarborough)
Join us as we return from our summer break to continue with the biographies – this time – the extraordinary Black British composer and performer, Madeline Rossiter.
A contralto singer, performer, male impersonator, tap dancer, dance teacher, choreographer, multi-instrumentalist, theatre director and comedian, as well as a composer and lyricist.
Rossiter toured extensively across the UK, Australasia and South Asia, known professionally as Madeline Rossiter. also performed in UK productions of musicals like the touring production of Rose Marie as Wanda the Mountain Vamp, leading the dance work of the company.
Despite this extensive presence, Rossiter isn’t included in An Inconvenient Black History of British Musical Theatre and we were told about her by a reader – we’ve noted several times that we are aware of the vaster history we are gesturing towards. What’s particularly exciting about Rossiter is that some of her music has survived – and there is potentially more in private circulation. In celebration of 135th anniversary of her birth, we’ve researched into her remarkable career and brought together some new information from digitised news sources from the UK and the US.
Very unusually for retracing Black practitioners in the early 1900s-1910s, there is one clear and full biography of Madeline Rossiter’s work written while she was still alive. The November 1954 edition of B.M.G. (Banjo Manadolin Guitar) “The Oldest Established and Most Widely-read Fretted Instrument Magazine in the World” – provides a detailed overview of her career, updating their readers that she was still directing amateur musical theatre productions in Cornwall. Though some details are very unclear, using digitised databases allows us to find a little more about Rossiter, who was by any definition, an extraordinary polymath.
Retracing a remarkable career
A complicated family history and a powerful matriach
Rossiter was born in London: somewhat unusually she was given her mother’s maiden name (or stage name) as a middle name, in time this became her own stage name. This is perhaps because of her mother’s fame as both a pianist and temperance lecturer, Madame C.C. [Clara Catherine] Rossiter. When Madeline was only 4, the 1891 census lists her father as ‘no occupation’, and her mother as ‘professor and lecturer on music and literature’. From our experience of viewing census listings at a similar time, this is as unusual as you would imagine.
The B.M.G. reported that as a young child, Rossiter appeared on the Steinway Hall stage giving a recitation – coverage of the actual concert doesn’t mention her as a child. But it seems likely that this was at one of her mother’s many concerts. Rossiter’s racial identity is unclear – available coverage does not comment on it, though this does not mean she was white.
Madeline’s father was US American, William John Lauderdale Millar – styled as Professor W. J. L. Millar (born in 1825). His racial identity is also currently unclear (though presumed white, as you will see the reasoning for) but he had an extensive theatrical career in both the US and the UK.
The death took place on June 25 in America of Mr. W. J. L. Millar, who at one time, in a long and varied career, had been lessee and manager of the St. James’s Hall, Liverpool, and lessee and manager of the Royal, Cork. Most of his theatrical activities, however, were confined to America, where, in Newark, New Jersey, he was the proprietor and manager of the Theatre […] which he opened on February 4 1847.’ (The Stage 14/07/1910, 15)
W. J. L. Millar remains known because of his involvement and apparent “purchase” of conjoined twins Millie and Christine McKoy for a period in the 1850s. The African American twins were subject to frequent and egregious medical and anatomical inspection, displayed for public admission as well as for dignitaries who included Queen Victoria.
Millar widely wrote in the press about his court case after British law made slavery illegal and he lost ‘ownership’ of the two women. Given Millar’s actions, and his racialised and racist descriptions of the McKoy’s mother, it seems hard to imagine he was anything but white.
So, there are questions about Rossiter’s history that cannot be answered as yet. It is clearly possible that both of her parents were white. Millar was definitely involved in purchasing and removing Black children from the US to the UK. Rossiter’s birth was nonetheless registered in the UK in 1886 in Brentford. One thing that is clear, is that she eventually married married William Henry Olley in India, and was listed under both Rossiter and Mrs Olley in arrival papers from one of her many trips to Australia.
Tracing her professional stage career
Like Elsie April, Noel Coward’s music director for many years, Rossiter worked in concert parties. These groups toured the country, often playing in seaside locations at band stands – blurring any lines you may expect between ‘high’ music and seaside entertainment. In the off-season they tended to tour regional theatres.
The B.M.G reports that as early as 1904, she played duets with Sydney James on tours, though little remains of James, a banjo player clearly still renowned in the 1950s. Rossiter was first seen on a stage by 1902, aged only 16 or 17. (Ealing Gazette, 1/11/1902, p.4). In 1905, Rossiter was described as ‘Soubrette, Violinst, Banjoist, and Speciality Dancer’ (Cambrian News 14/07/1905, 4)
By 1905 she was part of the Royal Strolling Players, and they appeared to be based in South Wales (perhaps why the beautiful photo of her was taken by a Tenby photo studio). By 1909 she is specifically listed as performing an ‘American Buck dance’ (an early tap form) (Bournemouth Graphic, 02/09/1909). By 1934, at the age of 48, she was still described as an ‘expert tap dancer’ – clearly she followed the development of the form and kept it within her act (The Stage 20/09/1934, 7)
One of her earliest musical theatre roles appears to have been in the touring company of the early Edwardian musical Kitty Grey, one review of her work in Aberdeen in March 1905 (noted that Rossiter had played a role in the musical as a specialist dancer. She was described by the Dundee Courier as ‘An extremely vivacious and attractive dancer’ (28/03/1905, p. 6).
She was in a variety of pantomimes, including the Theatre Royal Hanley production of Cinderella in 1905, and the Sunderland production of Sinbad the Sailor in 1909 (again as a dancer). She played in variety theatres alongside her concert party bookings, including the Grand Theatre, Bolton; Bristol; Gateshead; Oldham; London’s West End variety theatres including The Tivoli, New Bedford (Camden).
She established her own concert party company in May 1911, “The Gossips” (Bournemouth Graphic, 26/05/11, 10), although her variety work continued. It appears they were the companion company to James’s, and they continued to be successfully booked over the next few years. In 1914 they were advertising for a male pianist, with the note “wanted just to play the piano and do nothing else” (The Stage, 26/02/1914, 9). The company, at least in 1914, were made up of Rossiter herself, Jack Austin, Lena Lawton, Marjory Bowyer, Blodwen Butcher and Claude Powell Eastbury. (Derbyshire Advertiser and Journal 19/06/1914, 9).
1910-20s International Touring in India, Hong Kong and Australia
Rossiter toured extensively for many years, even calling herself a permanent resident of India, and in one Australian interview, discussing her plans to settle there. It is challenging to track the full extent of this international practice. In 1911, for example, one newspaper suggested Rossiter had ‘only recently returned from a tour in Africa’ (Derby Daily Telegraph, 19/08, 1911, 2). If this was the case, it would likely to have been South Africa, given the performance practice of other women during this period, but cannot be confirmed.
She certainly toured to Australia. In 1917 she was performing at the Tivoli Theatre in Sydney in the Passing Show of 1916/17. She also began a long performance association with Zimmy the Jazz Drummer, about whom, besides the intriguing name, little is known. In September 1918 she gave an interview in The Lone Hand in which she described her early career in the UK:
In September 1919 she performed in Mumbai (then Bombay) as a headliner with Maurice Bandmann’s touring company. She performed a farewell for the same production in May 1920, so she was clearly touring in the interim. Again with Bandmann’s company she visited the Theatre Royal, Hong Kong, performing in Bran Pie, Oh Joy, Buzz Buzz, Maid of the Mountains, The Kiss Call, The Shop Girl, Afgar, Tails Up Irene and The Southern Maid. March 1921 (her travels are documented in the colonial newspaper the South China Morning Post).
The Gibraltar Chronicle described Rossiter as ‘a lady of extraordinary versatility and whether singing at the piano to her own accompaniments, dancing or in male impersonations’ was equally at home.’ (in the South China Morning Post, 29/03/1921, 7)
She returned to Sydney in 1922, and again in 1925: ‘Madeline Rossiter, who first came to this country with the late Sydney James, returned here during the week after some years spent in India and the East’ (The Billboard 1925-09-26: Vol 37 Iss 39, p. 42). During this period she gave her address as 41 Marlborough Hill, St Johns’ Wood, London – this was perhaps the home of her husband or her mother.
International touring: musicals, revues, and the end of the pier
In 1923 she choreographed dances in the musical revue Sunshine and Laughter billed as “Madeline Rossiter and the Cambrian Quartet” in the UK (produced by Jack Waller). She directed Flares & Flashes in 1924, showing it in British venues before taking it to Australia. This production is the first time a minstrel show is connected to her work (Portsmouth Evening News, 9/07/1924, 1).
By 1925 she was again producing her own work, taking her production of Mixed Grill (a revue) to Hong Kong. She produced (and presumably directed), many of these shows. She also appeared on radio there in 1925, and news reports from the period relate her fame and popularity.
She continued to be associated with touring concert parties, even after the form’s popularity had waned. She was part of the Fol-de-Rols in 1932, something which the British press came to love. Clearly, she was especially loved in Eastbourne and Hastings, one local newspaper wrote:
She directed regional amateur theatre companies across the UK from as early as 1938. One wonders what the experience of being a Black British woman directing the Driffield Amateur Dramatic Society could have been like in 1938. This continued throughout the next fifteen years or so, in 1949 she was directing amateur musical theatre in Scarborough, including Show Boat at Dewsbury Empire. She directed Maid of the Mountains as an amateur production with the Stratford-Upon-Avon Amateur Operatic Society in November 1952, which suggests her services were in something of national demand.
Preliminary List of Compositions
|Archive.org CCE, bl.uk||You cannot forget; words and music by Madeline Rossiter, of England. 20/08/1915; Cary & co., London.|
|‘Douglas Cake Walk’ Banjo solo (1906) John Alvey Turner, London|
|Trove (Australia)||‘On the promenade’ London Music Agency (Sydney) 1913|
|Trove||‘Josie: vocal fox trot’ voice and pian (Words and music by Rossiter and Oswald Anderson|
|bl.uk||‘Tis good to live (1910) Cary & co, London|
|bl.uk||‘Della – Come when the sun is setting’ (1910) Cary & co, London|
|bl.uk||Three Little Pieces for the Pianoforte (1907) Leonard & co, London|
|B.M.G article||‘Romping Rosie’ ?? published on Banjo: An American Five String History 1901-1956, Fremaux & Associates|
- Library of Congress, Catalogue of Copyright Entries; 1915 Musical Compositions Last Half of 1915 New Series Vol 10 Part 2, accessed via archive.org
- Shope, Bradley. American Popular Music in Britain’s Raj. United States: University of Rochester Press, 2016.