The child impersonations Harry did evolved over the years into four children who settle permanently into the ages of six year old Johnny, five year old Elsie, 4 year old Winnie and baby Horace who is usually said to be about 6 months old. These characters had their own distinct voices and eventually their own distinct look thanks to Harry’s own sketches of them for books, comic strips and advertising. To differentiate between the two girls Elsie had dark hair and the younger Winnie had blonde hair. Blond-haired baby Horace, one of the last editions to the roster, appeared the least frequently, especially on the Ovaltiney’s as they were aiming to appeal to older children. For the Ovaltiney’s adventure serials Johnny, Elsie & Winnie were given the surname Fortune, which doesn’t appear to have been used outside of the Ovaltiney shows.
Winnie was particularly intelligent for her age, and when baby Horace gargled incomprehensible sounds it was Winnie who interpreted what he said for Harry when he asked “What did Horace say, Winnie?” which quickly caught on as a catchphrase and was still being quoted by people well into the seventies and eighties even though many had forgotten who was being referenced. In an episode of seventies sitcom Are You Being Served? John Inman’s character Mr. Humphrey’s is heard to ask “What did Horace say, Winnie?” after old Mr. Grainger mumbles something that no-one else quite caught. The catchphrase was even quoted in an early nineties edition of The Times newspaper.
The above images are as the children are best recognized, as the Fortune Family from the Ovaltiney’s series. There was some variation in their look and ages for other media, ironed out over the years. For example in the below sketches used to advertised Creamola Rice Pudding in 1939, which also features baby Horace, it is the older Elsie that is blonde and the Winnie who is dark-haired. And in a 1913 film the baby that would later be the character of Horace was called Johnny, who is usually the eldest.
Harry May Hemsley was born on 14th December 1877 in Swindon, Wiltshire. He was the third of seven children to William Thompson Hemsley (1850-1918), a scenery artist born in Gateshead, Durham, and Fanny Harriet Castle Hemsley (nee May) (1852-1923), born in Raglan, Monmouth. Their first son, William G. Hemsley was born in 1875, followed by a second son, George Robert Hemsley in 1876 and after Harry the fourth child, Berti Thomas Hemsley, who died at birth in September 1879. By 1881 the family had moved down to Margate, Kent, living at 2 Alma Place, where a fifth son was born, Arthur Phillips Hemsley in 1881.
By 1885 the Hemsley family had relocated again, to Battersea, London, where they had two daughters, Ivy M. Hemsley (1885) and Grace F. Hemsley (1888). Here they settled at 1 Comyn Road, Battersea, and on 25th June 1888 Harry Hemsley started school at Mantua Street School, Battersea to finish junior school before starting Belleville Road School in August 1888. The 1891 Census shows they employed a servant, Jemima Haynes, 18 (born 1873) from Wiltshire, possibly the daughter of a family friend from their home in Wiltshire.
The young Harry Hemsley tried out a series of different jobs before settling into his variety act. He appeared in a number of stage productions during
his youth, the first at the age of eight, later productions included a small
part in Sir Arthur Sullivan’s opera Ivanhoe, which premièred at the Royal English Opera House on 31st January
1891 for a consecutive run of 155 performances. Later that year it was performed six more times, for a total of 161 performances. Harry’s father was the scenic artist on this production, so likely got him the part. Harry was 14 at this time.
His father hoped he would follow him into scenic artistry for stage productions and Harry did have a talent for
drawing and sketching. Harry became a cartoonist for the comic magazine ‘Ally Sloper’s Half Holiday,’ which
was one of the first comics named after, and featuring, a regular character, which ran from 1884 till 1916 and
was revived a few times afterwards for short runs in 1922, 1948 and 1976. He also did art work for other London
comics in the late Victorian era during his late teens.
Later during his stage act he also utilized artistry into his act, one of his novelties was to quickly draw a
landscape view and then turn it upside down to reveal that it is a seascape view. He would also go on to
illustrate some of his books about Elsie, Winnie, Johnny and Horace with his own illustrations.
But Harry had his heart set on performing for an audience. He joined a couple of concert parties, including being
a singing impressionist in the original White Coons, and in 1901 joined The Follies concert party, as a bass-baritone.
It was here Harry started to develop his child mimicry act, which was already known to, and enjoyed by, seaside
audiences in Southsea in 1901. By 1905 this was his primary act for which he was nationally known, mostly to juvenile audiences, and he had fine-tuned it to a point where he had several different children’s voices distinctly recognizable. This was not ventriloquism as such, as Harry made no attempt to talk without moving his lips, when speaking as the children he would simply raise a book, newspaper or his hand across his mouth to hide his lips. The act was purely accurate and amusing mimicry of children. Hemsley made a great study of children’s psychology to assist in perfecting his act.
Hemsley’s mimicry in these early days wasn’t just of children, on which he later concentrated. In the first years of the 20th Century he was also known to do impressions of celebrities of the day, especially Wilson Barrett. Wilson Barrett (1846-1904) was a famous actor, manager and playwright of the Victorian era, his melodrama productions being amongst the most popular and largest crowd-grabbers of the time, particularly his many staged productions of Roman-set historical tragedy ‘The Sign of the Cross’ (1895).
As well as gifted in art and mimicry, Hemsley was also musically gifted, singing baritone in concert parties in the early days, and also playing a few instruments. He played the cornet at a concert at Whitstable in April 1903, and also directed the Whitstable String Band for that years’ season. He would go on to write and compose the theme song for the Ovaltiney’s Concert Party; “We Are the Ovaltiney’s.” He also wrote or co-wrote some songs released on record, including “Lather Father Mister Barber,” which he co-wrote with Emmie Joyce in 1928, and “Dirty Little Tinker” which he wrote and composed alone in 1934.
Hemsley put together his own concert party with a twist. Called ‘The Gay Bohemians,’ it was advertised as an “entirely new and novel entertainment.” The concert party consisted of two men and three women; Harry Hemsley, Bert Meredeth, Beatrice Hughes, Belle Greene, and Hettie Grace. Rather than being like standard Pierrot concert party’s, the ‘novel’ idea behind the Gay Bohemians was that the show was in effect ‘acted’ to a story, more like a theatre production. The story was a group of friends at an evening party filling their time up by each one contributing something to entertain the others on the stage, as if the audience wasn’t there, much like Victorian parlour-entertainment, where families would have their own party pieces. The audience were then treated as guests’ at this fictitious party. There were cake-walks, humorous songs, drolleries, lightning sketches, ballads and finally ending on Harry Hemsley’s child impersonations. Beatrice Hughes was a soprano singer of light catchy songs, including “I Love You, Ma Cherie.” Bert Meredeth had been a part of the Follies concert party with Harry previously, they appeared together at Whitstable in 1902, here he played banjo and was a light humourist. Belle Green was a “vivacious and attractive entertainer at the piano, and her little sketches were cleverly done, ‘Isn’t That Like A Man?’ being specially good.” Hettie Grace was a dancer. This concert party of Harry’s toured a few resorts, including a week at the Pavilion on St. Leonard’s Pier from Monday 25th January 1904.
By July 1904 Harry Hemsley was already famous enough with his child impersonation act that another variety artist, Finlay Dunn, was doing impersonations of Harry Hemsley.Finlay had worked with Harry at a fete in Sidney Gardens, Bath in August 1903. Although given that the impression at this time, pre-broadcasting, would only be recognisable to people that had seen Hemsley live at one of the seaside resorts or function rooms at limited locations, it could probably more accurately be described as a rip-off of Hemsley’s act by someone that had seen its success with audiences. Once Harry became a broadcasting star at the end of the 1920s there would be a few impressions of Harry Hemsley.
Although famous for an entertaining fictional family, Harry Hemlsey’s real family were also largely in the entertainment business.
On the 1st June 1907 Harry May Hemsley, aged 29, married Florence Rose Kingwell, aged 22, at St Mark’s, Battersea Rise. Florence was born in July 1884 to Percy William Kingwell (1858-1944) and Rose (nee Morris) (born 1860).
The newlywed Harry & Florence set up home at 82 North Side, Wandsworth Common, London S.W. where, by the 1911 as well as his wife, Florence, 26, also sharing the home were Gladys Spill Hemsley, 25, who was Harry’s cousin from Wiltshire, and Adelaide Annie Power, 19, the family’s servant/domestic, Harry clearly earning enough from entertaining to run a full household. The family were still at this address in the 1930s.
On 7th August 1913 Harry and Florence had a son, Norman Castle Hemsley, born in Streatham.
By the 1940s the family had moved to 186 Lichfield Court, Sheen Road, Richmond, Surrey, and this was Harry’s last address.
Harry Hemsley was called up for enlistment during the First World War on 24th June 1916, aged 40, serving with the Army Service Corps Mechanical Transport, perhaps because he was at the upper end of the conscription age. The ASC was responsible for transporting food, equipment, weapons and other supplies to the troops on the front line and elsewhere by road and rail and waterways, playing an important part in winning the war by keeping the army mobilised. The Mechanical Transport section dealt with driving the cars, vans and trucks. Coincidentally, the ASC was known as Ally Sloper’s Cavalry, Harry had worked on the Ally Sloper comic twenty years earlier and the comic was cancelled in September 1916, three months after Harry joined the ASC (due to paper rationing).
Harry was discharged from the army on 7th November 1917 under Paragraph 2 of Army Order 265/17 as being permanently disabled although there are no details as to how he got injured or medically unfit for service given that he was perfectly able to continue his civilian entertainment career after the war.
Harry had a long-standing association with the Maskelyne family and associated magicians; starting with originator John Nevil Maskelyne (1839-1917), from at least 1905, then when he died his son Nevil Maskelyne (1863-1924) took over, and Nevil’s son Jasper Maskelyne (1902-1973) took over afterwards. The original shows were Maskelyne & Cooke (with George Cooke) at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly until Cooke died 1905. After which John Nevil started a partnership with David Devant as Maskelyne & Devant at the same location and later at St. George's Hall, Langham Place, Regent Street, London,. When John Nevil died in 1917 his son Nevil took over and continued working with David Devant at the new location of St. George’s Hall, but Nevil died only a few years later in 1924, after which the long-running magic shows which had been put on for over 50 years was taken over by one of Nevil’s two sons, Jasper Maskelyne, through the thirties and forties. Other magicians and illusionists that appeared in these shows and also worked with Harry Hemsley at other locations include Charles Morritt and Oswald Williams, who released a trio of magic/humour records with Harry Hemsley in the late 1920s.
Harry Hemsley appeared on-and-off throughout all these different periods, from at least 1905 to as late as at least 1948, working with all three generations of Maskelynes! Harry provided the light relief from the magic and illusion, although Harry’s work was also in the illusion of children being present that were not really there. The magic obviously rubbed off on Harry as he often utilised conjuring tricks in his act as can be heard in some of his records and Pathe film appearances, as well as an illusion film he created for use on the live stage.
One of the earliest associations for Hemsley with Maskelyne’s was a charity show that Maskelyne & Cooke organised on behalf of the Redhill P.S.A. on the 7th January 1905, just a month before Cooke’s death. This was held at the King’s Hall in Redhill and a newpaper review of the time had this to say of the show;
After this point Hemsley was apparently too busy with his many radio broadcasts to return to Maskelyne’s for some time, especially once The Ovaltiney’s started in 1934. On 3rd December 1937 the BBC broadcast a programme celebrating the 70th anniversary of the opening of St. George’s Hall in which Jasper Maskelyne, David Devant and other regulars talked about the shows held there over the years. Harry Hemsley did not apear in the show being interviewed like others but did provide additional historical data and memories for it. Likely to busy with a live show to appear in the studio with the others. Harry did make at least one more return to Maskelyne’s, in January 1948, just three years before his death, and over 40 years after first appearing at the Maskelyne shows.
Harry Hemsley also utilized his artistic talent to write a number of books, most of which were also illustrated by Harry.
Harry’s early foray into the printing world came with a musical monologue called The Coward, published by Reynolds & Co in 1913, for which Harry Hemsley composed the music for F Chattterton Hennequin’s words. He then contributed a story to an annual called Printer’s Pie, published on 13th May 1918, this annual had been printed each year since 1900 and was on its eighteenth edition. Various different writers contributed to its pages.
But it was from the late 1930s that Hemsley started writing fuller story books, to entertain children. The first of which was called ‘Harry Hemsley’s Stories For Children,’ printed by Frederick Warne & Co. Ltd in 1938. Harry did the illustrations for this book himself.
This was quickly followed by a book entitled ‘All About Horace, not forgetting Winnie, Elsie and Johnny’ which was published by Hutchinson in 1938.
In November 1939 the publishers Lutterworth published Harry’s next book entitled ‘Imagination’ which was a book of poems by Harry Hemsley, with the illustrations by H.M. Brock. Harry can be seen reading this book to an imaginary Winnie, in the British Pathe short film “Winnie & Imagination,” issued on 21st March 1940.
With nothing of his television work surviving, and none of his film appearances commercially available, the only lasting record of Harry’s routines and material are the 78rpm gramophone records he made through the twenties, thirties and forties. Some of these were his sketches as performed on stage, others are songs, and some are nursery rhymes and children’s stories.
He recorded on several labels over the years and a number of them are re-recordings of the same material, usually in different pairings. Harry first made a record of children’s stories for HMV in 1923. These were Jack & the Beanstalk and one side, and The Three Bears on the reverse. He then made a series of ‘interrupted nursery rhymes’ for Bell. Harry would be attempting to read Elsie, Winnie or Johnny a nursery rhyme and one or more of the children would keep interrupted and contradicting him for humorous effect. There was a sequential run of three of these in 1925, all of which were single stories told over the two sides; Sleeping Beauty (Bell 396), Jack and the Beanstalk (Bell 397), Cinderella (Bell 398), Bluebeard (Bell 399), Dick Whittington (Bell 400), and Aladdin (Bell 401).
1927 saw three records released on the Beltona label in September, which were again nursery rhymes, with one or more of the children being taught to recite them. These were; ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’ and ‘Little bo Peep’ (Beltona 1312), ‘Sing A Song of Sixpence’ and ‘Little Boy Blue’ (Beltona 1313), and ‘Tommy Tucker’ with ‘Jack & Jill’ (Beltona 1314). Hemsley then recorded four records for the Edison Bell Winner label, ‘Jack & Jill’ and ‘Little Boy Blue’ (Edison Bell Winner 4721), also in September 1927. Then three in December that year; ‘Tommy Tucker’ and ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’ (Edison Bell 4722)., ‘A Family Party’ in which Harry and the children enjoyed a Christmas party (Edison Bell Winner 4743), and the last Winner record was Harry Hemsley and other celebrities in ‘Yuletide’, again enjoying a Christmas party (Edison Bell 4754).
Harry first broadcast as a member of the ‘White Coons’ concert party in 1923 but he first started broadcasting by himself on the BBC’s London 2LO service on 25th March 1927 in an hours variety entertainment that also included future ‘Upstairs Downstairs’ star Angela Baddeley in a monologue entitled “The Public Call Box.” At this time Angela was a comedienne doing comedy skits and sketches. Elsie & Doris Waters (“Gert & Daisy”) were the other stars in Harry’s solo debut show.
From here-on-in Harry became a regular fixture on BBC radio, especially on BBC London 2LO as well as most of the other regional BBC stations; Cardiff 5WA, Manchester 2ZY, Birmingham 5IT, Glasgow 5SC, Newcastle 5NO, Bournemouth 6BM, as well as Daventry 5GB and later Daventry Experimental 5XX (which went on to become the Empire Service, later World Service). These regional stations had a limited broadcast range and Harry could tour the country broadcasting to different regions much as variety stars had toured the provincial theatres, tweaking material for regional local flavour and topicality. Later still, from April 1930 these stations would be merged into two; the BBC National Programme and the BBC Regional Programme.
Harry was an instant hit on BBC radio, broadcasting at least once every single month from first broadcasting in March 1927 until June 1928 uninterrupted. These early radio broadcasts put Harry in shows alongside
all the other big variety stars of the new radio medium; Elsie & Doris Waters, Clapham & Dwyer, Gracie Fields, Tommy Handley, the Western Brothers, Cicely Courtneidge, Leonard Henry, Mabel Constanduros, Muriel George & Ernest Butcher, Robb Wilton, and Ronald Frankau, amongst many others, as well as some of the older generation of Music-Hall stars such as Harry Champion, Harry Tate, Wee Georgie Wood, and Florence Oldham.
Most of these shows were an untitled variety slot, occasionally these shows would be entitled Vaudeville, at other times Variety, and at times Music-Hall, often they had no title at all. Eventually the BBC caught on to the American idea of a regular series name in a regular slot to attract listeners at the same time, and it finally settled on the long-running title Music-Hall through the thirties and forties. The slot was usually an hour, although sometimes it was just 30 minutes and some extended editions went out at 75 or even 90 minutes. Sometimes there was a theme to the show, such as the broadcast on 27th December 1930 to which Harry Hemsley contributed, on the fairly newly created National Programme, when a variety programme themed on golf was broadcast.
Other variety shows with a title or theme in which Harry participated include ‘Please Ring,’ in July 1933, “an entertainment of Jingles and Jangles in song, sketch and story” by Ernest Longstaffe, the BBC producer, writer and conductor of the BBC Theatre Orchestra. Ernest would produce a co-write a couple of shows with Harry later on for BBC radio.
There was also “This Radio Racket,” a radio burlesque, in March 1934, alongside Dorothy Summers, who would find fame in BBC radio’s ITMA a decade later as Mrs Mopp (“Can I Do yer now, Sir?”).
From 1935, with the Ovaltineys Concert Party having been broadcast from December 1934, Harry found himself even more in demand after attracting millions of listeners through that show, allowing Harry the opportunity to do his own starring shows, he also broadcast from the large RadiOlympia event in 1935. He had an occasional 60-minute slot radio programme of his own called Winnie’s Hour, devised by Harry Hemsley and produced by Ernest Longstaffe on the BBC Regional Programme. Not a regular series, but one-off specials, there was an episode on 27th May 1935, another on 30th August 1935, this episode broadcast from Northern Ireland, and a final one on 23rd May 1936. Other specials written by Harry Hemsley himself featuring his fictional children include ;Tune In, Daddy’, co-written and produced by Ernest Longstaffe and broadcast on 29th May 1937. This programme was framed as a family listening to the radio and commenting on the acts they were listening to, with Harry Hemsley as the Father, Gladys Young as the Mother, and Harry voicing Elsie, Winnie, Johnny and Horace as they listened to the variety and Music-Hall acts guesting on the show, including Music-Hall giant Harry Champion.
There were also shorter shows and independent sketches in 10, 15 and 20 minute slots throughout the 1930s. ‘When We Were Seven, or So Much A Wordsworth,’ a fifteen-minute sketch starring Harry Hemsley with Herbert Aldridge, written by Dudley Clark, broadcast on 6th March 1936. Another fifteen-minute broadcast sketch was “an unusual interview” with Ashley Sterne and Harry Hemsley, broadcast on 20th August 1936.A ten-minute sketch called ‘Triffles’ was broadcast by Harry Hemsley with Hermione Gingold on the BBC Regional Programme on 22nd June 1936, an ‘imaginary’ conversation between Hermione, Harry, and the children. Another fifteen-minute sketch was ‘Winnie’s Novel,’ broadcast on 22nd December 1937, again on the Regional Programme. Another fifteen –minute Winnie programme was broadcast on 24th November 1938 on the Regional, and another new sketch on the 23rd May 1939 on the National Programme. Other slots of his own on BBC Radio include a thirty-minute broadcast on 17th March 1947, and a twenty-minute broadcast on the 7th April 1947, both on the Home Service, and a ten—minute slot on BBC West on 31st December 1947. His last own independent slot was on 26th November 1948, a ten-minute slot on the BBC Home Service, was simply a broadcast of a couple of Hemsley’s records rather than a new live or pre-recorded sketch.
As well as getting his own slots, and guesting fairly regularly on Music-Hall, Harry also guest-appeared in many of popular shows of the 30s and 40s. These include at least two appearances on ‘Friends To Tea,’ a popular 30s tea dance programme, on 13th December 1937 and 13th June 1938. There was also two appearances on Tea-Time Cabaret, on 3rd February and 14th December 1940. This shows was broadcast live, being relayed from different hotels, tea-rooms, and function rooms across the country. The second of these broadcasts for example was broadcast live from the Grand Hotel in Torquay, with Harry doing his usual child studies.
Harry also was the star guest in the sixth and final edition of the Western Brothers’ series Cad’s College, on 14th July 1938.
On 4th January 1939 Harry made an appearance in the second episode of a show by Brice Sevier called Land of Song, in it Harry contributed a sketch as a young, three-year old Christopher Robin, from the Winnie the Pooh stories.
Although a star of BBC radio, Harry Hemsley also made an appearance on the Rediffusion wired radio service in Hull, an independent radio network broadcasting occasionally since 1928 and regularly since 1936, it closed down in the mid 1980s. Harry had a fifteen-minute sketch to himself on 25th April 1939.
Back on the BBC, other radio appearances at this time include ‘Life Begins At Sixty, A Boarding House Saga’ in which Harry featured along with Elsie, Johnny, Winnie and Horace, broadcast on 6th July 1939.
Harry guesting as main feature in an edition of Henry Hall’s Guest Night on 23rd December 1939, along with the Western Brothers. It was recorded live by the BBC at Colston Hall in Bristol earlier from 15:00, and then broadcast on the Home Service in a 45 minute slot from 16:15. In it Harry helped Henry Hall put on a Children’s Party for the children that were there at Colston Hall.
Into the 1940s Harry continued to guest on the big shows of the time, including Jack Warner’s war-time hit Garrison Theatre, on 10th February 1940.
A series called ‘Crazy Café’ gave Harry a guest appearance in the edition of 5th 1940. The episode also featured Mabel Constanduros and her imaginary family, in which she played most of her adult family members, including the ever-popular Grandma.
Other hits of the 40s giving Harry Hemsley the limelight include Happidrome, the war-time hit that starred Harry Korris, Robbie Vincent and Cecil Fredericks. Harry also guest appeared with Flotsam & Jetsam in the second of their three episode series of November 1944, and an appearance on the ever-popular Worker’s Playtime on 4th October 1946, recorded in the staff canteen at the Horstmann Gear Co. at Newbridge, Bath. Harry also made two appearances on the show that would become the big variety hit of the 1950s, Variety Bandbox, the first appearance was on 11th May 1947, and the second appearance, with Frankie Howerd now as host, was on the 2nd April 1950. This appears to have been Harry Hemsley’s very last radio broadcast. He died the following year whilst making a television series.
One of Harry Hemsley’s biggest successes was not for the BBC, but for Radio Luxembourg, with the iconic Ovaltineys Concert Party series. As an antidote to the stuffy and paternalistic BBC, Radios Normandy and Luxembourg were broadcasting to England via large transmitters on the European mainland, with shows in English over the weekend and mostly French during the week, stealing millions of BBC listeners on a Saturday and mostly Sunday with it’s populist style, whilst on the BBC Sunday was still ‘The Lord’s Day’ not a day of entertainment. One of the biggest shows for Radio Luxembourg was the Ovaltineys Concert Party which started broadcast in December 1934 on a Sunday afternoon in an half hour slot from 17:30 till 18:00.
The show was sponsored by and named after the Ovaltine drink and the series turned out to be a brilliant marketing ploy, with a special membership club for children started in 1935 called The League of Ovaltineys, which had secret codes and signs, and a Rule Book. Members got a bronze badge on joining and could work towards a Silver star badge by getting three or more friends to join the Leauge. There was even a comic created for members called Ovaltineys Own Comic in 1936. The children of the Ovaltineys Concert Party also toured up and down the country in their Pierrot costumes, giving live shows for Ovaltiney League members and their parents.
The famous theme song “We Are The Ovaltineys” is still remembered today, and this was written and composed by Harry Hemsley, who also brought along his children to the show, Elsie, Johnny and Winnie. For this series the children with given the surname of the Fortune Family, and they featured in a regular five-minute adventure serial each week towards the end of the programme. The adventures would last a few episodes and then move on to a new story. As usual Harry Hemsley voiced Elsie, Johnny and Winnie in a regular ongoing serial within the show, as well as voicing various adult characters the children were talking to. Elsie, Johnny, and Winnie were also the images used on much of the Ovaltiney’s marketing and membership stuff, and starred in the comic strip. Again these images of the children were based on sketches of them by Harry Hemsley. The episodes ended each week with the concert party singing the song “Ovaltineys Say Goodbye.” By 1939 the League of Ovaltineys had reached a peak of 5 million active members!
Th League of Ovaltineys head office was at 184 Queens Gate, South Kensington, London SW7, a large townhouse that had been used as a convalescence home/hospital for soldiers after the First World War. Just after 12am on 19 February 1944, a high explosive bomb struck 184 and 185 Queen’s Gate. The fronts of both houses were damaged as well as water and gas mains in the road opposite. A ruptured local gas main caught fire, which then spread to no 184. Lack of water caused serious problems for the Fire Service. Initially, three Heavy Rescue parties and two mobile cranes attended the scene. Later, further rescue parties and a mobile canteen were requested. At 185 Queen’s Gate there were both free and trapped casualties. Four bodies were recovered on 19 and 20 February and removed to Holy Trinity Church on Prince Consort Road. Two more bodies were subsequently recovered from 184 Queen’s Gate. Rescue parties saved one man - pinned to a bed by a beam - who was initially thought to be dead. In total, eight individuals were later confirmed killed with eight others seriously wounded (four of whom had been trapped under wreckage and had to be rescued). The wrecked building was later demolished and now the Imperial College has their Blackett Laboratory building on the site. I don’t know if it was still League of Ovaltineys headquarters at this point or whether it had reverted to a private house as the radio show had stopped at the outbreak of war but I’ve no idea if the League continued throughout, it likely closed down too as paper and ink were rationed during the war.
The show ran for over 200 transmissions up until 1939 when English broadcasting was stopped by the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg to maintain it’s neutrality in the war. The following year Luxembourg was invaded and taken over by the Nazis and after previously being used to cheer up the British public, Radio Luxembourg was used by Germany to broadcast propaganda to Britain in the hope if demoralizing its citizens, most notably William Joyce broadcast from there, and quickly became known as Lord Haw Haw.
After the war Radio Luxembourg was put back on the air by the occupying British army as propaganda to cheer up the country again, and the Ovaltineys Concert Party was one of the first shows to return in 1946 running into the late fifties with a few attempts in the seventies and eighties to revive it. The forties revived show had new children in the concert party, which included future television personality Leslie Crowther, and his future wife-to-be Jean Stone. The League of Ovaltineys was relaunched in the late sixties with Morecambe & Wise as its Presidents but neither the club nor radio show revivals regained their pre-war popularity.
We Are The Ovaltineys theme song – Written & Composed by Harry Hemsley
We are the Ovaltineys,
Little girls and boys;
Make your requests, we'll not refuse you,
We are here just to amuse you.
Would you like a song or story,
Will you share our joys?
At games and sports we're more than keen;
No merrier children could be seen,
Because we all drink Ovaltine,
We're happy girls and boys!
Hemsley then died the following day, Sunday 8th April 1951, aged 73 whilst still in hospital. When Probate was granted on 27th June 1951, to Barclays Bank Ltd, Harry’s effects amounted to £14,831. 12s 7d. (which, with inflation, equates to a not inconsiderable sum of a little under £395,000 today). Harry’s wife, Florence Rose, died in 1967. Their son, Norman, who had appeared as a baby in that 1913 illusion film, died in Lewes, Sussex, in April 1990, aged 76.
Harry May Hemsley and his imaginary family - Johnny, Wiinnie, Elsie, and Horace entertained for 50 years and even today people have been known to ask "What did Horace Say, Winnie?" when they haven't understood what someone has said, even if most have forgotten who is being quoted. So let's remind ourseves of that top Child Impersonator.
Johnny, Winnie and Elsie, the Fortune Family, from the League of Ovaltineys mid to late 1930s.
Sketches by Harry Hemsley from Cramola Rice Pudding adverts running in newspaper in 1939. ABOVE LEFT; Johnny, Elsie & Horace wait for Winnie. For some reason younger Winnie was the dark-aired one here instead of Elsie. TOP RIGHT ABOVE; Winnie feeds Horace some Craemola Rice pudding from another newspaper ad. RIGHT: Winnie watches Johnny eating his Creamola Rice Pudding from a third newspaper ad for the product.
Harry’s father was the scenic artist W.T. Hemsley, whose first professional work was the painting of stock scenery for the Mechanics' Institute at Swindon, in 1868; and his first London engagement for "The Eviction," at the Olympic, in 1880. His many famous productions covered nearly the whole range of Shakespeare's plays ; he painted Greek scenes for the University plays at Cambridge, and Roman scenes for the far- famed "Quo Vadis." W.T. Hemsley had his own artist studio, at Felix Street, Westminster Bridge Road, London once the family moved to Battersea.
RIGHT: A joint advert for both W.T. Hemsley and his son George R. Hemsley (Harry's older brother), both operating as Scenic Artists from their own seperate studios. BELOW. As an artist W.T. Hemsley also painted oil-on-canvas paintings, including the below entitled Stonehenge (1904), which is in the National Railway Museum Collection.
Harry’s oldest sibling, William George Hemsley (1874-1934) was a theatrical carpenter, working on the sets for stage productions, the second brother George R. Hemsley (1876-1923) became a scenic artist like his father.
Then there was Harry, followed by Arthur Phillips Hemsley (1881-1956) who also became a variety entertainer like his brother, after starting out as a sculptor. He was in a comedy double act with comedienne Elsa Brull, becoming a well-known double-act called Brull & Hemsley, which toured Britain from at least June 1906 when they did a summer season of concerts together at Jephson Gardens, Leamington. In March 1907 Arthur and Elsa married and the couple lived with her father at first, but after a few successful tours of the Australian variety circuit in 1913 and 1918, they then emigrated to Australia, arriving on 19th May 1924. By September that year they were already topping the bill in Sydney. They had a successful sketch routine called ‘Fun in a Music Shop’ doing the rounds from 1910 until at least 1914 in Britain and later a sketch called ‘The Knut, the Girl and the Egg’ (also known as ‘The Knut and the Girl’) from late 1914. This routine is in two parts, firstly a meeting at the seaside between the two, and later in a shop, where the holiday flirtation has a happy ending. After emigrating Arthur made the odd trip back to England and could occasionally be heard on BBC radio, but he remaind domiciled in Australia with his wife where they had a very successful and long-lasting career on Australian stage and radio until Arthur died in there aged 73 in 1954. He is buried in Rookwood Cemetery, Sydney. Elsie lived on until 1961 and she was buried with him.
Harry’s two younger sisters, Ivy and Grace, were homemakers.
Harry’s niece, Isobel Hemsley, daughter of Harry’s oldest brother William, became a well-known variety singer in the 1920s and 30s (her mother, Harry’s sister-in law, Isobella was also a stage actress). Isobel had been a member of a concert party that had toured Africa, Palestine and the Sudan. Isobel’s brother William John Hemsley, Harry’s nephew, became a scenic artist like his grandfather, but for films rather than stage, becoming assistant art director for the Gainsborough studio in London.
“During the evening Mr. Harry May Hemsley gave displays of his remarkably realistic and humorous imitations of children. Posing as a teacher of an imaginary infant school, he caused his juvenile class to answer the questions he put to them in a manner quite irresistible, and elicited loud and prolonged applause. Later on Mr. Hemsley gave an amusing sketch of the rehearsal of a stage play, and further showed his powers of mimicry by imitating the talk of children at various ages, and a scene at a children’s party. In his novel sketch “Art and Artists (or the Delights of Pot-boiling),” this artists showed powers of a very different, but equally brilliant, order, his productions as a lightning artist causing both admiration and amusement among his audience, especially when, with a few touches, and by reversing the picture, he turned a landscape into a seascape.”
By 1910 Harry Hemsley was a frequent regular at Maskelyne’s on-going shows at St. George’s Hall, with the illusions performed by John Nevil Maskelyne, Ernest Hastings, Owen Clark, David Devant and Charles Morritt.
Working around all this magic gave Harry the idea for an illusion of his own and in December of 1913 he shot a one-reel silent film (10-15 minutes long) called ‘In The Picture’ (also known as ‘Talking to the Picture’). This was a film of a young girl named Edna Maude who played Elsie, and Hemsley’s own real son Norman Hemsley, just four months old at the time, as baby Johnny. The film was produced by a British silent film producer called Barker, who released silent films up until they folded in 1919. Over the next couple of months Harry rehearsed an act around this piece of film in which by the time it came to stage at one of Maskelyne’s magic shows from the week beginning Monday 27th April 1914 he was able to ‘interact’ with the two children in the film and provide their voices from the stage in his usual manner. The film was recorded in such a way that ‘Elsie would reach down below the view of the camera as if taking something from Harry’s hand as he held items up to the screen whilst standing in front of it and whilst pocketing these making it look as if Elsie had taken them from him on the stage into the film. The illusion then ended with Harry walking to the side of the screen on the stage and behind it and appearing in the film as if he had just walked into it. A very clever idea. It is unknown if this piece of film still survives today, whether there is an archive of Barker material or Hemsley owned the piece of film outright and it may have been lost to time. At the same week Hemsley performed this stage illusion Charles Morritt introduced his new illusion ‘The Great Safe Mystery’ to the shows.
Hemsley took his film on tour with him too rather than just using it at Maskelyne magic shows. He did the film illusion at the Exeter Hippodrome for the week beginning 31st August 1914.
In the 1920s Maskelyne’s introduced a magic ‘revue’ show called “Hullo Maskelyne” which mixed magic with variety acts and Hemsley was back for several of these, in 1923, 1926, and 1929 at least. By this time Jasper Maskelyne was running the shows, having taken over from his Father and Grandfather before him. St George’s Hall was now renamed Maskelyne’s Theatre. Oswald Williams was a regular magician at these shows during this era and he released a trio of magic/humour records with Harry Hemsley on the Radio label.
From 15th December 1930, and over Christmas that year, Maskelyne’s put on a big Christmas show designed by Oswald Williams, blending magic and mystery in a fantasy called “This Magic Stuff.” Similar to Harry Hemsley’s ‘Gay Bohemian’s Concert Party’ of 1904, the idea here was that a group of conjurors, whilst awaiting the advent of the New Year at the Master Magicians Club, fritter away the hours until midnight strikes by showing each other a number of new illusions. Like Harry’s earlier seaside concert party, the audience were treated as other guests watching people entertain each other to while away time. Noel Maskelyne, joined the programme for Christmas, had a series of tricks of a spiritualistic character, and finished them up by producing a ghost of the Old Year. Mr. Oswald Williams created invisible wine from invisible bottles, and Harry Hemsley was again on-hand with his act.
By the 1910s Harry’s act had really taken off and he was getting booked for the major Music-Hall and variety theatres in London and the provinces. He was working so hard at this point at one stage he was even doing two shows per night at two different locations for a total of four shows and a dart across Manchester between each. For the week beginning Monday 11th August Harry was appearing at the Manchester Hippodrome theatre in Oxford Street for two shows starting at 18:40 and 20:50 and also appearing at the Manchester Empire theatre in Ardwick Green for two shows starting at 18:35 and 21:00. He was able to do this by being further down the bill at the Empire and therefore starting later at that venue, giving him time for the 33 mile jaunt across Manchester to reach the Empire, then madly dash back to the Hippodrome for the second show and back to the Empire again for its’ second show, each night for a week! The old theatre attitude of never turning down work as you never know when the next engagement could be seems to have been taken a little too far. A few acts are known to have over-worked themselves in this manner, and even over-stretched themselves, the Western Brothers were involved in a motoring accident whilst racing between two venues in the one night.
Harry was also known to give his services to charitable events and occasions, including a Blind Heroes concert in September 1919 for soldiers blinded during the Great War, alongside Music-Hall greats George Robey and Harry Tate, and on Boxing Day 1931 Harry and popular radio comedian Gillie Potter made a personal visit to two Bath hospitals, the Royal United Hospital, and the Royal Mineral Water Hospital, to cheer the patients with a personal performance, after already performing two live shows at the Bath Pavilion that day at 15:00 and 20:00. In December 1938 Harry gave his services for another concert for old soldiers still undergoing regular treatment 20 years after the Great War at a concert in aid of the “Not Forgotten” Association. The proceeds were donated to providing Christmas gifts and treats for wounded men still undergoing treatment in hospital. There were nearly 4,000 wounded still in Ministry of Pensions hospitals and sanatoria in Great Britain and Ireland at this time and the event was attended by Her Royal Highness, Wing Commander Sir Louis Greig (chairman of the association), Lady Polson, and the Hon. Lady Monro. Wounded officers and soldiers and members of the committee were presented to the Princess, who accepted a bouquet of pink and cream roses.
Harry continued working steadily in music hall and variety theatres throughout the thirties and forties although by this time radio was his main medium. The last live appearances for Harry that I have been able to trace is a series of dates for Harry Fielding’s ‘Music For the Millions’ concerts, appearing at the Winter Gardens, Bournemouth in September 1946, then the Winter Gardens, Eastbourne in May 1947. Harry then returned to Winter Gardens, Bournemouth in August and September 1948, and then again in July and September 1950 and finally back at Eastbourne in September 1950, just 7 months before he died.
Harry made no feature film appearances but did make a few shorts over the years for various types of release. His earliest foray into film was the above mentioned 1913 one-reeler ‘In the Picture’ for use live on stage rather than shown at the cinema.
Harry then made a series of eight 2-5 minute shorts over a period of years for Pathe to use alongside newsreels and cartoons that went to making up the cinema experience in the 1930s as side attractions to the main feature. These were all filmed at Pathe’s London studios. These sketches were mostly, if not entirely, taken from his stage act and offer an opportunity to see the routines he was performing on stage. All eight survive today.
The first was “Winnie & the Picture Book,” issued on 18th May 1933, in it Winnie is keen to see a picture of Thomas a Becket as Harry explains to her all the famous men in English history in the book. Hemsley’s ‘Thomas a Becket’ sketch had already been recorded previously for 78rpm record, released as the second side to ‘Drawing On A Slate’ for the Picadilly label in 1929.
The second was “Drawing Winnie,” issued on 11th December 1933. In it Hemsley is trying to draw a picture of Winnie, who won’t keep still or quiet. Hemsley’s ‘Drawing Winnie’ sketch had already been recorded previously for 78rpm record for the Ariel label in 1931 and again for the Parlophone label in 1932.
The third was “Winnie & Imagination,” issued six years later on 21st March 1940. In it Harry reads Winnie a story from ‘Imagination,’ which was a book of poems written and illustrated by Hemsley himself, published by Lutterworth in November 1939.
The fourth was “Johnny & the Three Bears,” issued on 10th April 1941 10/04/1941. In it Harry tries to read Johnny the story of the Three Bears but Johnny asks silly questions to annoy Harry.
The fifth was “Winnie & Chess,” issued on 14th October 1941. In it Winnie keeps interrupting Harry’s game of chess with another man by asking silly questions.
The sixth was “Winnie & the Conjuring Trick,” issued on 13th July 1942. In it Harry tries to show Winnie and a man a ‘conjuring trick’ with a match and a coin.
The seventh was “Johnny & the Poem Recital” issued on 4th January 1943. In it Harry listens to his son, Johnny, attempt to remember a poem he is learning and has to recite at school. Hemsley’s ‘Johnny & his Recitation‘ sketch had already been recorded previously for 78rpm record, released as the second side to ‘Writing a Letter for Winnie’ for the Picadilly label in 1929.
The eight and final known short was “Winnie & the Paintings,” issued on 27th September 1943. In it Harry shows Winnie a book of famous paintings and tries to get her to recognize paintings such as the Laughing Cavalier but Winnie is not impressed. Hemsley had written a book called Harry Hemsley’s Painting Book in 1942, illustrated by Thomas Henry.
Apart from these Harry made a few other short films. He made a film called ‘Heads Win’ with Beryl Orde, Monica Bishop and Robert Baddeley in 1939 for use in a stage show which was a mixture of live stage acts and films projectioned onto a screen on the stage to combine the two entertainment forms and attract cinema audiences back to the theatre. The stage show was entitled ‘Heading Ahead for Beauty.’ I don’t know the content or length of this short film, there is no modern mention of it online, but a few contemporary ads for the stage show in Somerset and Gloucester in April and May 1939 show that it played for at least four weekly stints at that time.
Next Hemsley made a short cartoon film of Elsie, Johnny & Winnie to advertise Rinso laundry soap. Harry provided the voices for all three children as usual and this gave viewers an opportunity to ‘see’ Hemsley’s children as well as hear them. How widely this ad was shown in cinemas and whether it still survives is unknown. It did play at the Cavendish cinema in Nottingham in 1940.
Harry’s last foray into film was to record an English sound-track for a Russian-made short puppet film re-titled for English distribution as ‘Land of Toys’ in 1946. Other female voices for the English dub were provided by Charlotte Bidmeade. It doesn’t appear to have been given a wide release, but it was shown by the Hull Film Society at the Tivoli Theatre, Hull on Sunday 17th March 1946 and was broadcast on BBC Television on 4th April 1948 in a children’s slot.
Next came ‘Harry Hemsley’s Songs For Children’ which was published by Francis & Day in 1941. This was a song-book of 12 songs for children with words and piano parts, with side illustrations by Harry Hemsley.
Harry’s next book was ‘16 Recitations for Children or Child Impersonators‘ published in 1941. I have no other information on this title at present.
The next book by Harry was ‘Harry Hemsley’s Painting Book’ published by London & Glasgow in 1942. This was illustrated by Thomas Henry.
Another musical monologue was published by Reynolds & Co in 1943 entitled ‘Pity the Boy Who’s Grown Out of His Clothes.’
This was then followed by a series of three story books about the adventures of baby Horace and his siblings at various locations, all published by Raphael Tuck & Sons Ltd, and all written and illustrated by Hemsley himself. First was ‘Horace at the Zoo, not forgetting Winnie, Elsie and Johnny’ which was published in 1944, the popularity of this led to two sequels, ‘Horace on the Farm, not forgetting Winnie, Elsie and Johnny’ in 1946, followed by ‘Horace and the B.B.C., not forgetting Winnie, Elsie and Johnny’ published in 1948.
Harry recorded some records for the ‘Radio’ label starting with ‘Christmas with the Kiddies’ (Radio 887) (on both sides) in which Harry is assisted by Walter Todd on the recording. The next record was ‘A Child’s Wish’ (with Emmie Joyce) and ‘Children At Play’ (Radio 956), both in November 1928.
In 1929 there were three records of conjuring tricks in which Harry assists Oswald Williams, the magician who worked with Harry at the Maskelyne magic shows. This was the ‘Magical Problems series,’ These were ‘The Donkey and the Rope’ with ‘Your Character’ (Radio 1251) (Oswald is incorrectly labelled as Oscar Williams on this first one)! The next was ‘Under A Hat’ with ‘The Coin and the Glass’ (Radio 1269), the second side of which was a trick that Harry recorded on a Pathe short film later in 1942. The last of these conjuring records was ‘Copper & Silver – A Coin Trick’ with ‘Cutting the Cards – A Card Trick’ (Radio 1294). None of these three records with Oswald Williams feature the voices of Johnny, Elsie or Winnie, or any other child impersonation. Harry simply appears as himself to assist and react to Oswald’s tricks.
In 1929 Harry made a record for the Dominion label, these were the sketches ‘Winnie is Told a Story’ and ‘Winnie & the Picture Book’ (Dominion A201), a sketch also recorded for Pathe film.
Another record in 1929 was for the Broadcast label, these were the sketches ‘Winnie’s Recitation’ and ‘The Pancake’ (Broadcast 384).
Still in 1929 Harry made a couple of records for the Regal label, the first was some more children’s stories, ‘Beauty & the Beast’ and ‘Jack the Giant Killer (Regal G8975). The second was a recording of the popular novelty song ‘Misery Farm,’ which had been recorded by many artists that year including North & South (Tommy Handley & Ronald Frankau), Lesley Sarony, Harry Bidgood & His Broadcasters, and even popular crooner Al Bowlly. The reverse side here was ‘Lather Father Mister Barber’ which was co-written by Harry Hemsley and Emmie Joyce (Regal G9261).
Next Harry released five records on the Piccadilly label, starting with the sketches ‘Drawing On A Slate’ with ‘Thomas A Becket’ (Piccadilly 206) which was recorded in January 1929. The ‘Thomas A Becket’ sketch was also released as a Pathe short film. Second was ‘Writing A Letter for Winnie’ with ‘Johnny and his Recitation’ (Piccadilly 240), and the third was ‘Do Daddy’ with ‘Daddy’s Boy’ (Piccadilly 256), both still in 1929. The fourth and fifth were sketches spanning both sides, ‘Kiddies Christmas’ (Piccadilly 402) in 1930, and ‘Christmas Dinner with the Children’ (Piccadilly 658) in 1931.
‘Minding the Children’ with ‘Drawing Winnie’ on the Ariel label, was also released in 1931. Harry then made five records for the Parlophone label starting with ‘Children Playing at the Doctors’ and a re-recording of ‘Minding the Children’ (Parlophone R1050) in 1931. The others, in 1932, were ‘Elsie, Johnny & Winnie’s Broadcast’ (Parlophone R1168) over both sides, then a re-recording of the Ariel sketch ‘Drawing Winning’ combined with ‘A Bear Story’ (Parlophone R1316), ‘The Kids Go Carolling’ with ‘Christmas Presents’ (Parlophone R1313 and same recordings on Regal 2601), and finally ‘Explaining Pictures’ with ‘Packing Up’ (Parlophone R1396).
In 1932, Harry released four Durium records. These were cheap single-sided records made of cardboard covered in a resin known as Durium. This was during the Depression when these cheap records could be knocked out at a rate of 70,000 in the time it would take to produce just 700 shellac records due to a speedy process. The first had ‘Ride A Cock Horse,’ ‘Little Bo Peep’ and ‘Hey Diddle Diddle’ on it. The second had three short stories on the one side; ‘Where Are You Going To,’ ‘Old Mother Hubbard,’ and ‘Pussy Cat’ (Durium 5020). The third had another three short stories on the one side; ‘Tom the Pipers Son’ ‘Little Miss Muffit,’ and Ding Dong Bell,’(Durium 5021). The last which had two songs; ‘Sing A Song of 6d’ and ‘Pat a Cake’ (Durium 5022). ‘Sing A Song of Sixpence’ had previously been released as a fuller song with interruptions on the Beltona label in 1927.
In 1934 Harry made a record for the Regal Zonophone label, ‘They All Blame Me’ with ‘Curly Wig’ (Regal Zonophone MR 1438). Next Harry made three records for the cheap Sterno label, a re-recording of ‘Drawing On A Slate,’ which had been released on the Picadilly label in 1929, here with ‘Picture Book’ which had also been previously recorded as ‘Winnie and the Picture Book’ for the Dominion label in 1929 (Sterno 1381). The other two Sterno records were new material, ‘Dirty Little Tinker’ with ‘Swinging On A Gate’ (Sterno 1392), and ‘Things I Mustn’t Do’ with Merry Go Round’ (Sterno 1444). Dirty Little Tinker was written and composed by Harry Hemsley.
Being busy with the Ovaltiney’s from 1935 onwards Harry only made two more records a few years later, both for Columbia. The first was with singer Suzette Tarri ‘The Kids and the Chair’ (on both sides, Part 1 was subtitled ‘Out Shopping’ and Part 2 was subtitled ‘Doin’ A Bit of Busking’) in 1939 (Columbia FB2063). The second and final 78 was in 1941, this was a single sketch over two sides for Christmas, ‘The Christmas Rehearsal’ (Columbia FB2716). Here Harry listens to Elsie, Johnny & Winnie do their various pieces for a Christmas entertainment, including singing and recitations.
I also have a Harry Hemsley record called ‘Johnny and the Rabbit’ but this is a test record by the C.G. Co. Ltd (record number HA1080, matrix 56516) but I have yet to locate a commercial copy of this record, it may never have been issued and I have no idea when it was recorded but would appear to be 1930s.
ABOVE: Mid to late 190 postcard of The Ovaltiney Concert Party of chldren in their pierrot costumes. As well as appearing on the radio show they toured Britain entertaining League of Ovaltiney members and their parents at live shows.
Harry made a few trips abroad by ship, he spent some time in Durban, South Africa, at least twice, returning from their to Southampton Port on 7th September 1912, alone, and again from and to the same place arriving home on 29th January 1929, this time with wife Florence. At this time in 1929 Harry was still living at 82 North Side, Wandsworth Common. On both occasions he travelled on the ship Kildonan Castle.
Harry also spent some time in India, returning from Bombay and arriving in London on the ship Kaisar-I-Hind on 6th April 1933, this time alone.
He also made a trip to Portugal just a year before he died, leaving Southampton for Madeira, Portugal on the ship Venus, with wife Florence on the 8th February 1950. By this time Harry was 72 and Florence was 65, they were living in 186 Lichfield Court, Sheen Road, Richmond, Surrey, Harry’s last address.
Harry Hemsley became something of a regular on early pre-war experimental BBC television broadcasts, making no less than thirteen broadcasts between 1932 and 1936 when the medium was new and there were plenty of acts to give a first try. Many variety artists rejected the new medium of television, just as they had done radio a decade earlier, as material they could use for decades around the variety theatre circuits became useless after one broadcast that everyone had heard/seen. Artists were advised by Equity to avoid the new medium, which many thought would not last in any case. The BBC began experimental broadcast of television in 1930, and started a regular television service from the new studios at Alexandria Palace in 1936. It came to a stop at the outbreak of war in 1939 and was off for the duration as the large masts were seen as a useful landmark guide and homing beacon to German bombers.
Harry was open to the new medium and first broadcast on Tuesday 6th September 1932. These broadcasts were via the Baird system with the vision being broadcast along the BBC National Programme wavelengths and the sound on the Regional Programme wavelengths, sometimes vice-versa. His second television broadcast was just thirteen days later on 19th September with Harry doing his ‘Drawings for Winnie’ sketch which was also available on 78rom record and recorded for Pathe film. Two months later Harry made his third broadcast on 29th November, doing his ‘Winnie and the Picture Book’ routine, also available on record. Then on 9th December 1932 Harry made a fourth appearance on the fledgling television service as Father Christmas, handing out toys to the children.
In 1933 he made his fifth broadcast on 14th March 1933 in a sketch with Harry as a jolly schoolmaster teaching Winnie, a sixth broadcast on 17th May saw Harry performing a sketch called The Dwarf, a seventh broadcast on 25th October saw Harry trying to entertain Winnie, and his eighth television broadcast on 18th December 1933 saw Harry again playing Father Christmas in a television programme entitled Toyland.
1934 saw just the one television broadcast, another edition of Toyland, on 22nd December.
1935 saw three television broadcasts by Harry Hemsley, his tenth overall broadcast being on 29th April in his ‘Cartoons for Winnie’ routine, his eleventh broadcast on 1st July was ‘Showing Winnie a Picture’ and his twelfth broadcast was on 26th August 1935in a repetition of ‘Cartoons for Winnie’ which he had broadcast live in earlier in April.
Most of the above were half-hour television slots between 11:00 and 11:30, some were 45 minute slots between 11:15 and 12:00, whilst the second Toyland broadcast, in 1934, was broadcast from 16:30 till 17:15. Harry did not have these shows to himself, but was one of several artists broadcasting their acts in turn.
In 1936 Harry made his final pre-war television broadcast, from the new BBC television studio at Alexandria Palace. This was another Christmas programme on 21st December 1936, with Harry Hemsley officiating around a large toy selection. This was performed and broadcast twice, at 15:00 till 15:20 and again the same thing over from 21:00 till 21:20 as television was all live then with no system of recording possible until post-war.
Harry was the arguably the biggest name in any of the above programmes, most of the others being minor and long-forgotten variety acts prepared to work on television in the hope of promoting their acts.
Further details of the others appearing can be found on the ‘Harry Hemsley on TV’ page above.
As all of the above programmes went out live and there was no recording capability at the time none of these shows survive today, although there is at least one picture of Harry Hemsley dressed as Father Christmas from one of these broadcasts, handing out toys to children. As can be seen from the descriptions, most of the sketches involve Harry doing Winnie’s character, who appears the most often mentioned in most of the live shows too, the public appear to have taken to Winnie the most.
Despite Winnie’s popularity and central role, it was Elsie who had the final word. Harry’s final work was also for television, a series of short sketches called ‘Mind Your Manners’ in the children’s strand ‘For the Children’ between January and April 1951. In these Harry just voiced Elsie, whilst her Father was played by Peter Madden and her Mother was played by Irene Prador. The idea being that the parents were naughty and disruptive whilst Elsie had to admonish them and act like the adult.
There were seven fortnightly episodes but two days before the seventh and final episode was to be broadcast live on 7th April 1951, Harry suffered a heart attack and was hospitalized on 5th April at The Nelson Hospital, in Merton, Surrey.
The broadcast of this last Elsie sketch still went ahead on Saturday 7th April, with someone else providing the voice of Elsie off-screen. This last edition of Mind Your Manners was also different to previous episodes in that child viewers of the previous edition a fortnight earlier had been invited to suggest plots for the last edition, with the script based on the winning child’s idea. It was won by two children who came up with the same idea and both children were interviewed by Cliff Michelmore after the sketch live on TV to give their opinion of the finished sketch.
The idea of the show was a group of children in their own concert party, singing songs, with a few adult guests and regulars such as ‘Uncle Henry’ (like the BBC Children’s Corner/Hour the adults were known as Uncles and Aunts). The children in the show, from the Italia Conti’s School, were known by an initial letter, all from the word OVALTINE, so for example Ivy Woodward was known as V. They were all under the Chief Ovaltiney, who was never identified in the shows (and was portrayed by several men over the years) who would give out a message in the League’s Secret Code. Clarence Wright, who would later go on be to a regular star of Tommy Handley’s I.T.M.A.series, would sing songs on the Ovaltineys show, including Harry Hemsley’s opening theme song. The episodes were recorded at the J. Walter Thompson studios at Bush House, The Strand, London, then the recordings were transported to Luxembourg for broadcast.
ABOVE: Harry Hemsley as Father Christmas on early television. Only stills exist from these shows.
In 1952 a memorial sundial for Harry and his imaginary children was erected in the public gardens at Stoke Newington, one of very few at that time also dedicated to fictional characters. The sundial was inscribed “To Harry Hemsley and his imaginary family – Johnny, Elsie, Winnie and Horace.” I do not know if it still there today.