Gwen Farrar (1897-1944) and Norah Blaney (1893-1983) were well-known music hall performers of the 1920s and 1930s. They met whilst working as wartime entertainers for Lena Ashwell’s pioneering concert parties, touring behind the lines in Northern France during the First World War. As well as their on-stage relationship, the two were also lovers, of which they made no secret. Defying convention, they lived together, and at one time Gwen leased a property in Effingham, Surrey.
In 2014, a theatre company called ‘Behind the Lines’, was set up by partners Alison Child and Rosie Wakley, to put lesbians centre stage and tell their stories. With Heritage Lottery Funding support they have been able to research the role of women in men’s roles during the period 1914-1918. Their first show, partly based on Gwen and Norah’s lives, was called ‘All The Nice Girls’ and has now been performed throughout the UK in theatres, community halls, pubs and care homes. It also featured as part of the National Festival of LGBT History, in 2016. Alison Child carried out extensive research into Gwen and Norah’s lives and work and in the process came across research by Jeremy Palmer of Effingham Local History Group, who was researching Effingham’s Bohemian set.
The following text has been kindly supplied by Alison Child, Behind the Lines Theatre Company.
Gwen Farrar and Norah Blaney played a part in the Great War as members of concert parties that toured behind the lines in Northern France. It seems they were introduced to each other by the well known tenor Gervase Elwes. It is likely the Elwes and the Farrar families were acquainted, given the proximity of their family homes in Great Billing and Chicheley, Northamptonshire. Gwen is supposed to have run away from Heathfield School, with her cello, on the top of a horse drawn Harrods’ delivery van. Not knowing what to do with this wayward daughter, Gwen’s mother, Lady Farrar appealed to Elwes to find something for her to do. This conversation may well have taken place on the occasion of a Concert at the Electric Theatre, Newport Pagnell, on Tuesday May 1st 1917. The advertised artistes were Mr. Gervase Elwes, ‘the squire of Billing,’ who was a tenor of world repute, Miss Gwendoline Farrar L.R.A.M., cellist, and, among others, Ben Lawes, ‘the mirth maker.’
Meanwhile, Norah was defying her lower middle class parent by performing popular songs in a concert party in Margate. They had long cherished the idea that their gifted only child would be a professional concert pianist and this form of low brow entertainment was, in their eyes, beneath her. However the war was about to change everything. For one thing, Norah later recalled, patriotism was such that playing works by German composers became unthinkable, which severely limited her classical repertoire. Possibly in a further act of rebellion, Norah married a fellow performer from the concert party, pianist Albert Lyne, in November 1914, just before he went off to join the London Scottish Regiment. He served right through the war only to be killed a week before the Armistice in 1918. By the time his personal effects were returned, Norah was living with Gwen at 217, King’s Road Chelsea.
Here are Gwen’s words published in The Sunday Post, May 9th 1920.
“DOING MY BIT IN WARTIME
During the war I thought I ought to do something…and I started by helping to break in Army horses at Hyde Park. I knew a little about horses for I had ridden since I was a child of three. I was taught to ride bareback and I was as much at home in the saddle as anywhere. I used to help break in horses at our farm outside Johannesburg and often went to the training stable to exercise my father’s racehorses.
When I finished at Hyde Park I looked around for something else to do. I met Miss Norah Blaney who was already a popular favourite with the Tommies. She had given up her concert work in order to entertain the men in training and in the hospitals. She discovered that I could play the ‘cello a bit, and suggested that I should go in for concert work amongst the troops.
Entertaining the troops in the camps wasn’t always a picnic. It meant long journeys in crowded trains and very indifferent lodgings in out of the way places. But we both enjoyed ourselves – I think the soldiers were delightful audiences. And such heroes! They didn’t even flinch when I played classical music – they even said they enjoyed it! And they said it so repeatedly that I sometimes believed it was true.
THE GREAT IDEA
However that may be we went to France together…with one of Miss Lena Ashwell’s concert parties and there our present act originated as the result of an accident. Miss Wish Wynne was taken ill and Miss Blaney and myself went on without any rehearsal and started to sing rag-time songs as a duet, together we found ourselves burlesquing them. We got such a reception for the first number that we emphasized burlesque in the second song and made the third ‘rag’ we sang a sheer travesty. Henceforward we made this part of any entertainment in which we appeared.
We always started our turn with a little real music and I think the contrast provides one of the reasons why the audiences appreciate our burlesques. There may be other. Modesty prevents us discussing them.”
Pioneering producer Lena Ashwell instigated these concert parties. Several of them ran consecutively so she delegated to other artists the responsibility for organising individual tours. Gervase Elwes was one of these leaders. He wrote detailed accounts of these performances, just behind the lines in northern France, in letters home to his wife in 1917, “One thing is certain, and that is that one cannot live a couple of days out here without feeling proud (to bursting point) of one’s country on account of both men and women…We have come to the conclusion that we don’t ever like having less than two concerts a day and should prefer to have three!”
Their audiences were mainly British ‘Tommies’, officers and nurses. One day, six French officers were invited to attend and in their honour Elwes included some French songs in the programme. He writes, “They certainly seemed to enjoy the concert and Norah Blaney during her ‘songs at the piano’ which always come at the conclusion, brought them into her gaga, much to their amusement and delight. It was very funny.” Norah had the ability to improvise, to play classical music, popular songs and ragtime which was a great asset.
Here in Popular Music and Dancing Weekly March 8th 1924 she describes her meeting with Gwen and how their double act came about:
“One of the members of the party was a young girl who played the cello very nicely and now I come to one of the most interesting points of my career for the cellist was none other than Gwen Farrar – the girl with the most delicious sense of humour I have ever known. I well remember Mr Elwes telling me about her when we were first making plans for the party. “There is one girl I am doubtful about.” he said, “She has never been to France and she’s rather a spoilt child – her father is a millionaire and I don’t know how she will turn out.” I could picture to myself what sort of girl she would be – a spoilt darling who would put on a lot of side because of their father’s millions. I needn’t have worried. Gwen and I took an immediate liking to one another and we chummed up from the moment we first met. All went well until one day Wish Wynne – who was also playing in the party – sprained her ankle and couldn’t do her turn. Gwen saved the situation and proved that she could not only play the cello but play the fool just as well! That was really the start of our turn for after that Gwen and I always played together. Later on we came back to England and Gwen and I were such good pals by this time that the thought of parting from each other was almost unbearable.”
Elwes wrote,”Miss Norah Blaney is very amusing and a wonderful pianist, and Miss Farrar is also most entertaining and as clever as can be. She and Miss Blaney make up the young and giddy part of our ‘Company’ and of course have great fun…we call them the ‘bad girls of the family!’ Miss Farrar and I have dog fight sometimes for the entertainment of the officers when we are dining at their Mess. She can growl excellently, and her ‘wounded dog’ is priceless, so that when we are both doing a dog fight the noise is really quite life-like, and has more than once had a success fou’”. Gwen nicknamed Elwes ‘Uncle Nonnie’ after the chorus refrain ‘Hey nonnie, nonnie’ in one of the songs he sang, ‘Sigh no More’.
Their audiences were often enormous; at one, “about fourteen thousand…and how they did enjoy it! Everywhere they implore us to come back, it really is most affecting. They always say, too, that ours is the best concert party they have ever had.”
Despite the levity of these accounts, the importance of these concert parties should not be underestimated. They played a major role in supporting troop morale and the courage and resilience of the performers was considerable. The experience of performing in the Great War brought Gwen and Norah together, gave them the confidence and experience to take risks on stage and resulted in the creation of their unique, highly unconventional and entertaining variety act which they went on to perform in the West End and on Broadway.
Gwen and Norah featured in the LGBT History Month display at Surrey History Centre in February 2018. At an LGBT coffee evening ThatsTV Surrey recorded Ali Child (Behind the Lines theatre company) and Jeremy Palmer (Effingham Local History Group) talking about their research into Gwen and Norah. ThatsTV Surrey also filmed Di Stiff (Archivist) talking about the LGBT collections at Surrey History Centre. Watch the interviews on Youtube:
The Sunday Post, 9 May, 1920 – recollections of wartime work by Gwen Farrar
‘My Experiences at The Front’ by Miss Norah Blaney Popular Music and Dancing Weekly Magazine, 1924
Read more about Behind the Lines theatre company and their work www.behindthelines.info. Research into Gwen and Norah and how the company researched their wartime work can be found at https://www.behindthelines.info/the-history/. Details of All the Nice Girls can be found at http://www.behindthelines.info/all-the-nice-girls/ and a local review of can be seen at http://www.epsomguardian.co.uk/news/11778043.Play_to_bring_to_life_performing_duo_from_World_War_One/
For Effingham Local History Group see http://www.effinghamparishcouncil.gov.uk/local-history/
Discover more about Gwen Farrar and Norah Blaney on the Footlight Notes blog http://footlightnotes.tumblr.com/post/55400116649/gwen-farrar-1899-1944-english-duettist
Winifride Elwes and Richard Elwes, Gervase Elwes: The Story of His Life, Grayson and Grayson, 1935