Sunday, July 2, 2023

Maesmore Morris


Maesmore Morris

The beautiful dramatic actress, Gertrude Maesmore Morris, overcame violent domestic abuse to become a successful international star.

Gertrude was born in England in March 1872, to Hannah Elliot and Dr John Willmot. In 1882, aged 10, she came to Australia with her father and they settled in Melbourne Victoria.

Ten years later, Gertrude had grown into a beautiful young woman and at 20 made a very good match. She married a prosperous gentleman some years her senior, Mr Maesmore Morris, an accountant and son of a wealthy iron merchant, John Morris.

The marriage was quite successful for about two years, and Gertrude had a son, Colin. However, after his birth, Maesmore started to drink and with drunkenness  came violence. This increased after he suffered a major professional setback . In 1896 he was publically accused of misusing the funds of an estate of which he was the trustee. The case came to court and was reported in the papers, for such a prominent man it was a shameful scandal, it accelerated his abuse of alcohol, and his lost his job.

The family had no means of support, and Gertrude suggested that she take to the stage. Maesmore interviewed theatrical manager J C Williamson and gave his approval when Gertrude signed a contract with the famous entrepreneur.

Gertrude took the professional name, ‘Mrs Maesmore Morris’ a name she maintained throughout her career. She first appeared on stage at the Princess Theatre in Melbourne in 1897 taking a small part in a company lead by Julius Knight. Her husband waited for her after every performance for a few weeks and escorted her home.

However, he soon stopped meeting her and his alcoholism began to take a violent turn. One night when Gertrude was at her father’s house, a man called Richardson offered to escort her home. Believing that her husband was at the house Gertrude asked Richardson if he wanted refreshment. Maesmore was furious when he realized another man was present. He screamed at Gertrude, accusing her of infidelity and struck her viciously across the face, drawing blood.

The violence escalated quickly. One night Maesmore came home whilst Gertrude was sleeping, he flung her from the bed so violently that she struck her head against the baby’s cot. Her brother was summoned and took Gertrude from the house.

Soon afterwards, Maesmore sent Gertrude a letter, forbidding her return to the family home.

As these incidents occurred, Gertrude was performing and rehearsing for J C Williamson. She was appearing in plays such as the Two Little Vagabonds and the Prisoner of Zenda, which starred internationally famous actors Julius Knight and Mr Majeroni, divas, Miss Elliot Page and Miss Stella Esdaile were also in the cast.

One night during a performance of Two Little Vagabonds, Maesmore appeared in the stalls. When Gertrude entered the stage, he began screaming obscenities over the footlights. He created a major disturbance and was forcefully removed from the theatre.

The harassment continued whilst she continued to play, and she must have been terrified, particularly when he began waiting for her outside the stage door. One night the stage door manager told Gertrude that Maesmore had threatened to shoot her, and she had to find an alternative exit .

Divorce in 1897 was a complicated business which  favored the husband. Gertrude had to prove that her husband had been a drunkard for 3 years and left her without means of support. The scandal attached to such a petition and the problems it would cause her son in terms of his inheritance stopped Gertrude from divorce.

1897 was a horror year for Gertrude, and it was compounded when her father Dr Willmot died late in the year. However, showing strength of character and determination Gertrude continued her acting career.

Gertrude stayed with the Julius Knight Company for two years and appeared in plays such as a Royal Divorce, The Cough Drop and the Working Girl. She toured many states including New South Wales, South Australia, Queensland, and Western Australia and received good notices in all of the capital cities. She was highly praised for her beauty, which was always mentioned in reviews, but she had good dramatic skills which were more than adequate for the supporting roles she played.

In August 1899, Gertrude was offered a role as understudy in George Alexander’s London Company. Later that year she travelled to England to take up the role, using her stage name, Mrs Maesmore Morris.

She took letters of introduction from J C Williamson with her and they ensured continued work. She began with Alexander in small parts and as an understudy. One day the leading lady missed the train and Gertrude was introduced as the new American actress by the manager. The mistake was corrected the next day by Alexander contacting the newspapers to ensure they correctly described her as Australian.

She continued working steadily and gained notice for her beauty. She worked for famous managers such as Anthony Hope, Arthur Bouchier and Charles Wyndham and toured the provinces in supporting roles. She was so successful that she stayed for five years.

In 1904 she returned to Australia in a company headed by Nellie Stewart. In October, in Melbourne, she appeared with Nellie and Harcourt Beatty in “”Pretty Peggy” As she took the stage she was applauded warmly by the audience and the critics commented on her improved acting skills and her ever luminous beauty.

Gertrude continued to tour with the Nellie Stewart Company and in 1905 finally petitioned for divorce from Maesmore Morris. All the sordid details of her abuse was publicised in the newspapers and she was granted a divorce, not on the grounds of abuse, but on the grounds of desertion. Maesmore had moved to South Africa to pursue the family occupation of mining. She was also able to divorce because her  11 year old son’s inheritance was secure, his grandfather had died in 1902 and left him a substantial sum.

Gertrude had need of the divorce because she was planning to remarry. The lucky man was Lieutenant R M Suttor of the Naval Reserve and officer on the RMS Ophir. The pair was married in September 1906 and Gertrude gave up her career and stage name, Mrs Maesmore Morris, to retire to private life.

Her son Colin became a tea planter in Ceylon, and in the late 1920s he and his wife made a long visit to Australia which thrilled social circles.

Gertrude died in 1951 in London.

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