Harry Clay was a theatrical entrepreneur whose family home was based for many years in Glebe. His only child, actress Essie was born and died in the suburb.
Born near Singleton on 10 May 1865, Harry was a singer in minstrel shows before joining Harry Rickards’ vaudeville company. By the 1890s he was a regular at Rickards’ Tivoli and by 1900 he had started staging his own shows at St George’s Hall in Newtown. By 1905 he was playing one-night gigs in Balmain, Petersham, Parramatta, North Sydney and Newtown, and in the Masonic Hall in the city, and had theatrical business interests in Queensland.
In 1911 Clay built the Bridge Theatre at Newtown (later The Hub), home to ‘the Greatest and Cheapest Show in the Southern Hemisphere’. Clay’s company also toured country towns serviced by rail where players could hone their skills and try out new material. A strategy of continual changes of program, low ticket prices and letterbox marketing kept ‘Harry Clay and his Contingent of Laughter Makers’ popular when other vaudeville houses were falling swift victims to competition from movies and radio. A chance remark by Clay led to Roy Rene’s creation of ‘Mo’, and the success of the Stiffy and Mo routines inspired the Dinks and Onkus double act of George Wallace and Jack Paterson. These comics were great crowd pleasers – as was Thelma Woods whose specialty was singing in front of a projector screen, blending old tradition with new technology.
Henry Clay had moved to Glebe by the time of his marriage in 1887 to Catherine (1869-1965), the eldest child of Mary Ann and Thomas Jubb, a wheelwright living at 57 Gottenham (then spelt ‘Cottenham’) Street. During the next few years, presumably because he was touring, Clay rented one house after another in the suburb where his in-laws continued to live. (Another place in Raglan Street Alexandria may have been used for storing theatrical props and costumes.) In the period 1888-1903 the Clay family home was at 3 Ebenezer Place, 48 Talfourd Street, 126 Brougham Street, 2 Little Darling Street, 113 Brougham Street, 39 Brougham Street, 23 Denman Street and 14 Phillip Street. For two years from 1904 they lived on the corner of Bay Street and Wentworth Park Road adjacent to the stables of the Farmers’ Cooperative Company. By now a household name, Clay was at 25 Wigram Road 1906-7, then at 218 Glebe Point Road 1908-14, before returning to Wigram Road – at number 29 – where he remained until 1920 when he moved to Vaucluse, a suburb popular with those who had enjoyed theatrical success.
At the time of his death Harry Clay was the proprietor of Clay’s Bridge Theatre and Clay’s North Sydney Coliseum (later the Independent Theatre). He died on 17 February 1925 and was buried at South Head Cemetery. His funeral was attended by show business performers and stage crew, together with representatives of the Tivoli, Fullers, Sydney Stadium and Wirth’s Circus managements. His widow left the Eastern Suburbs and returned to Glebe, to 11 Wigram Road.
At the age of seven Harry and Catherine’s daughter, billed as ‘Little Essie Clay’, made her singing debut at Brisbane’s Gaiety Theatre, followed two years later by a season at Sydney’s Gaiety Theatre with the Australian Minstrel and Variety Company in which her father also performed. By 1898, promoted as ‘the phenomenal child balladist’ and ‘the child wonder’ and usually on the same bill as her father, Essie played at Sydney’s Tivoli and with the Continental Vaudeville Company in Brisbane and Rockhampton. Her repertoire included My Mother was a Lady, The Boers have got my daddy and Mr Conductor, please
don’t put me off the train.
In Queensland she performed with Clay’s Waxworks and Variety Company and in 1908, now ‘an established actress’ with Harry Clay’s Dramatic Company. One reviewer hinted that her lead casting in the latter’s production of The World Against Her (a play ‘of inordinate length’) was because she was the promoter’s daughter. With Walter Bentley’s Shakespearian Company she played Ophelia (‘a fine rendition’) and Annette in The Bells (‘amiable and pleasing’). Touring Shakespearian actor-managers often staged crowd-pleasing melodramas to recoup money lost on staging The Bard. For entrepreneur George Marlow, owner of the Princess in Melbourne and the Adelphi in Sydney, she appeared in The Power of the Cross (‘acceptable in a colourless part’), East Lynne and The Bad Girl of the Family. Immediately before World War 1 she was back in Rockhampton with Harry Clay’s Company. By 1916 she was living with her parents at 29 Wigram Road.
Essie Clay died on 13 May 1948 at Glebe – probably at her mother’s house – and was interred in South Head Cemetery following her funeral service at St John’s Church. When Catherine Clay died on 9 January 1965 she was living at 29 Wigram Road in the old family home. At least one of Catherine’s siblings had remained in Glebe. Florrie Jubb, until her death in 1947, was at 38 Gottenham Street.
Brisbane Courier 27.9.1895
NSW births, deaths, marriages registry
NSW electoral rolls
Philip Parsons (ed.) Companion to Theatre in Australia 1995
Sydney Morning Herald several issues
including 13.3.1897, 4.4.1898, 7.11.1910, 14.5.1948