A Preston family produced an international opera bouffe star! She was Emily Soldene.Emily was the daughter of Priscilla Swain whose parents, Charles and Catherine Swain lived in Preston from at least 1821 to 1841. An award-winning writer of musical history, Kurt Ganzl, devoted twenty years to writing an account of Emily’s life which fill two volumes of 1,551 pages entitled, Emily Soldene - In Search of a Singer. What follows here is an epitome of his work - produced with Kurt’s knowledge and approval. It is divided into three sections: 1) A description of Kurt’s research trail as for decades he sought details of Emily’s birth. (This is a noteworthy exercise of how to conduct family research.) 2) Emily’s Preston family and her early life. 3) Emily’s celebrated career.
Emily Soldene, nee Lambert/Swain 1838 - 1912
Emily with her sister, Clara
In the late 1970s, Kurt Ganzl was rummaging in a second-hand bookshop at Brighton when he unearthed My Theatrical and Musical Recollections by Emily Soldene – ‘the best book of the Victorian theatre that I’d ever encountered’. Kurt was hooked. Although Emily had been briefly featured in his earlier book about musical theatre, he decided to expand the reference to her in a planned Encyclopaedia of Musical Theatre. However, Kurt had not nailed the precise date of Emily’s birth, despite knowing its approximate time and place – 1840 in Islington, London. With the help of a colleague and friend, Andrew Lamb, the birth indexes at St. Catherine’s House were scoured – without success. So, Emily’s autobiography was studied in greater detail for further clues. It became apparent that Emily had been frugal with details of her early life. All that could be gleaned was that her father was a lawyer; her mother was called Priscilla and that she had a sister, Clara, who was eleven years her junior. Furnished with these facts, the birth indexes were re-examined and the birth of Clara Ann Solden was located. She was born at St Luke’s, London in 1850 and was the daughter of Edward Fuller Solden (a law clerk) and Priscilla, nee Swain. So, Emily’s recollections had a ring of truth, but where were the parish and civil registration records that recorded her birth?
Priscilla Swain’s marriage
The next discovery was her marriage to Edward Fuller Solden on 4 August 1848. Emily’s name and her father’s were confirmed by the marriage certificate: Charles Swain (an innkeeper). Edward and Priscilla married at the parish church of St Giles in the Field. Edward declared that he was a bachelor and Priscilla, a spinster.
However, Priscilla’s marriage was at least eight years after Emily’s birth. Was this the reason for her reticence about Emily’s birth details? Was she illegitimate? And who were her parents? Then, on the off chance, a birth certificate was ordered for Sarah Ann Solden who was born at Islington in 1847. It yielded the information that she was the daughter of Edward Fuller Solden, but that her mother was Sarah.This muddied the pool. Edward Solden had daughters by Priscilla (in 1840c and 1850) and, in between these dates, by Sarah (1847).
Kurt Ganzl at Emily’s grave in 2006
The next revelation about Emily’s birth was carved in stone – according to the inscription on her gravestone she was born on 30 September 1840.
A bombshell! Kurt received an e-mail headed, ‘Edward Fuller Soldene – the demon bigamist of Islington’. It was reported that Edward had fathered six children by a wife, Sarah nee Lefoe, from 1828-1850 (two years after he had married Priscilla when he claimed to be a bachelor). Although a marriage between the two has not been uncovered, Edward was with Sarah when the census details of 1851 were gathered, and also at his death in 1873. Where were Priscilla and Emily in 1851? The 1851 census gave up this information: Priscilla (a straw bonnet maker), Emily (12) and Clara were at Finsbury, London. But, there were two surprises – their surname was noted as Lambert (despite Priscilla marrying Solden three years earlier) and, from the details on the return, it seemed that Emily’s birth may have been in 1838 and not 1840.
Serendipity raised its beautiful head. Quite by chance, Kurt, while trawling Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, came across a specific reference to Emily’s birth: at Claremont Square, Clerkenwell, London. Was she there for the census of 1841? No. However, another opportunistic search of London trade directories threw up an entry for Mrs Priscilla Lambert, bonnet maker of 111 Aldersgate Street, Cheapside. More confusion! To summarise the discoveries so far; a record of Emily’s birth had not been found and probably her father, and possibly her mother, were bigamists. Also, why had Priscilla called herself, ‘Lambert’ twice?
Hold the presses! - a late development
Time flowed on and the deadline for Kurt’s volumes about Emily drew closer. An ancestral ‘brick wall’ was about to be demolished, albeit partially. In 2006, a search was made for Emily Lambert, aged 2, in a new on-line index for the 1841 census. A hit! There was an Emily Lambert living at 17 Smiths Buildings, Finsbury, London. The adults also present were Frederick (a clerk), Priscilla Lambert and Caroline Swain (14) whose presence confirmed that this was the correct family. Frustratingly, this address was just across the road from Priscilla’s home in 1851.
This entry appears to confirm that Priscilla was indeed Emily’s mother and that she was born in 1838. Frederick was possibly her father, but were Priscilla and Frederick married – she claimed she was a spinster when she married in 1848? Did Frederick die before Priscilla’s marriage to Edward Solden? If not, there was another bigamous marriage! Emily’s birth certificate and/or the parish record of her birth remain elusive. Only one of these documents would possibly solve the mystery of her parentage. Perhaps they have never existed.
Was Emily Soldene ever in Preston?
What those with Preston interests would love to know is: did Emily Soldene ever visit the village? Did, ‘those feet in ancient time walk upon (Preston) Green..’. What do we know for a certainty? Emily was born between 1838 and 1840. Her grandmother, Catherine Swain was living in Preston in 1841 – sometime between 1841 and 1851 she moved to nearby Langley Bottom. Emily’s great grandmother, Ann Swain (nee Thrussell) and great aunts, Priscilla Swain and Harriet Saunderson (nee Swain) were living in Preston between 1841 and 1851. There are powerful reasons to believe that Priscilla would have taken the young Emily to her mother’s home which was less than thirty miles from London. On what basis may this conviction be substantiated? The main sources are from Emily’s own hand. She penned a series of Australian newspaper articles that have been found and transcribed by Kurt Ganzl. Although Emily does not specifically write of Preston, she does mention Hitchin and John Bunyan’s Dell. She also alludes to some of her family members. Here are some of her references (italics mine):
‘When I was a child, I was very fond of the country...’‘When I was a tiny tot, in a country village, (the parson) used after chapel on Sundays to have dinner in our house and go to sleep in the afternoon in the big armchair.’ ‘I remember as a child, that my uncle at Christmas, birthdays, anniversaries, bonfire nights and such like times, used to take down the old horn, fill it up standing in the midst of and handing it round to his friends....who drank it empty again and again while singing lustily, “The Nineteenth Light Dragoons, my boys....”’ (This was an ancient marching song of her grandfather, Charles Swain’s regiment.) ‘I’ve heard my grandmother tell that, when she was a girl, she knew of a great lady of a house at Hertfordshire who used to take eau de cologne on lumps of sugar to make her eyes shine...’ ‘When I was a little girl living in the country, three miles from everywhere, my grandmother used to send me into the cherry orchard to gather a basin of snow...’ (A story repeated twice elsewhere) ‘When I was a girl we had nothing but linen sheets in our house...Of course when London cousins came down for Christmas we used to have the warming pan.’ ‘Do you recollect the springtime when you were a child and the garden, the children’s garden when one went to visit one’s grandmamma, and she laid out a little garden for the child herself, with shells all around. In it were roots of violet, primroses and cow-slips from the close-at-hand wood...’ (Wain Wood?) ‘I used to gather a little nosegay which I sniffed and regarded with much pride and pleasure as I trotted by the side of my aunt to church.’ ‘I had an aunt used to sing Irish songs. No accompaniment, you know, just sitting in the hedge row or in the harvest field.’ ‘...Mitcham Common a mass of bloom – same in the lavender fields of Hitchin.’ ‘The Dimsdales were a very old family in Hertfordshire when I, a little girl, lived in “them” parts’. (Baron Dimsdale owned Willian, a village near Hitchin.) ‘...as a toddler, I was intimately acquainted with a kennel of hounds down Hertfordshire way, where the straw plait comes from.’ (After Queen Alexandra bought some Luton-made straw hats) ‘This will help the plaiters and straw-workers a great deal and her Majesty’s thoughtfulness is much appreciated locally (in Luton and Bedfordshire). I belong to “them Bedford parts” you know and so feel interested. I understand all the mysteries of “split” and “whole straw”, of “pearl edge” and “rustic”, etc.’ ‘“I know a bank whereon the wild thyme grows” says the poet and I know a dell, John Bunyan’s Dell, down in a quiet wood in a quiet valley in Hertfordshire, three miles from everywhere. In the season it is a perfect riot of wild strawberries. Overhanging trees make the dell shady. Little birds run in and out cheeping. A perfect carpet of wild flowers fills the air with a perfume delicious...’‘Lord Brampton died last month...a sort of associate of mine. Born at Hitchin, Herts, son of the solicitor. You know what that sort of thing means in a small provincial town. The Hawkins folk lived in a tall, narrow, red-brick, Queen Anne kind of house, two or three doors down from the Sun Inn – crack inn of the place. Henry had a brother, Dr Hawkins. All the salt of the earth settled in Hitchin since the “Flood” called in Dr Hawkins when anything was the matter – conferred a sort of cachet on the callers-in. My grandmother was one of them. ‘Hitchin, dear old place. Market Tuesday. Market day - a great occasion when I was a child. Pickled salmon in tubs from Berwick-on-Tweed, bloaters from Yarmouth, oysters from Colchester. Being an inland town, fish in those ante-railway days much appreciated. Gingerbread sweets, toys, regular paradise. Then there was the plait market, the pig market, cattle market, horse market. Sometimes a show would be held in Swan Yard; a show with a drum, a man beating it, a fat woman, an armadillo, a tall girl with short skirts and big feet dancing on the platform. “Walk hup! Walk Hup! cried the showman. “Just goin’ ter begin’”. Sometimes my uncle would take my hand and we walked “hup”. Heaven! ‘Hitchin has a beautiful church, more like a cathedral. The vicar has beautiful daughters. The church has a long chancel and at evening services, a big block. Bats flew up, down, here, there and everywhere in the most terrifying manner. On certain Sundays of the year, the big porch would be piled high with big loaves and after the morning service, the vicars beautiful daughters would present them to the poor old women of the parish and the poor old women would bob low and mumble, “Thanky miss; Gawd bless yer, miss” and cuddling the loaf, would hobble away.’Strenuous, those beautiful daughters. After a certain harvest festival, one of them carried a sleepy, tired child through the moonlit stubble fields and as she marched, she sang – “The fourteenth Light Dragoons, me boys ...”Here the sleepy child fell fast asleep. I was that child. ‘Hitchin, a place of quiet and Quakers; a place of odorous perfume, lavender fields and that sort of thing. Mr Perks in the High Street, sells the best lavender water in the world. My grandmother used to put a sprig of lavender and rosemary in my Prayer Book. (This account bristles with specific references that prove Emily’s first-hand knowledge of Hitchin: the Sun Inn, Swann Yard; market day was Tuesday; the vicar, Henry Wiles (at Hitchin, 1820-1856) had five daughters; there was a Dr Hawkins and a Mr Perks, druggist etc)
This is a large body of evidence from which the following compelling conclusions may be drawn: Emily stayed in the countryside as a young girl; she was with her grandmother and other family members; she was familiar with Hertfordshire and specifically Hitchin and Bunyan’s Dell. As Kurt comments, ‘we have a picture of a seemingly very happy childhood spent between homes in northern London and Hertfordshire...Preston, definitely.’
There is even more circumstantial evidence that Priscilla, although thirty miles away in the Islington/Clerkenwell area of London, maintained close contact with her Swain relations living around Preston. There are no less than four weddings of her family at the parish church of St James’, Clerkenwell between 1838 and 1854: 1) Charles Swain (Priscilla’s brother) married Mary Reed (both of Preston) in 1838. Witness: John Buckingham, baker of Preston. His wife was Abigail nee Young who was related to Charles’ Swain’s wife, Catherine Young.2) Ann Maria Swain (Priscilla’s sister) married Daniel Joyner (of Hitchin) on 2 February 1846.3) Jonathan Swain (Priscilla’s brother) married Sarah Thrussell (of Hitchin) on 26 October 1851.4) Stephen Swain married Charlotte Wilshere nee Swain (cousins) in 1854. Mull over this: Why did these couples endure the hassle of travelling to London to marry rather than use their local church in Hitchin? And Daniel Joyner and Sarah Thrussell lived within sight of St Mary’s! Also, when at London why, from the many churches that they might have chosen, did they select the one at Clerkenwell? Surely it was because of the local presence of a Swain – likely Priscilla, possibly Charlotte Wilshere (nee Swain) who was also living in the area. Indeed, was Charlotte’s presence the reason that Priscilla herself moved to this part of the metropolis? What may be deduced from this data is that there was a strong bond between Priscilla and her family. Just as they went to Priscilla’s part of London, surely Priscilla (with Emily) occasionally returned to Preston. Clinching verification of Emily’s attachment to and contact with Preston followed the stroke suffered by her husband, Jack. When he was sent to Bognor to convalesce, his nurse was Naomi French, daughter of John and Martha who were living next door to John Tolman Swain in 1861 at Preston. Kurt Ganzl’s conclusion from the evidence that he has amassed is, ‘...Emily Soldene spent some or most of her child hood years with her grandma in Preston – and I’ll give better than 99 to 1 on that!.’
A note. Apart from acquiring a copy of Kurt Ganzl’s set of volumes, checking the Swain family tree and finding the marriage certificate and census entries shown above, I have done no research whatsoever for this article. Everything included has been unashamedly distilled from Kurt’s work - for which I have great admiration. Kurt wrote, ‘I’ve gone for the washing-list kind of biography. The type that was fashionable in the 1980s where you gathered every tiny bit of minutiae on your subject that you could lay your hands on and you made sure that every tiny bit of that minutiae went into the finished article’. As a researcher (of sorts), I am staggered by the deluge of detail he had uncovered and includes in his work.
Kurt Ganzl in Preston
Did you see this man (right) in Preston in May 1997? For background and a few photos Kurt (although based in New Zealand) visited the village – ‘Preston is a simply beautiful village’. ‘The hamlet is still unspoiled, the neat,confident houses and cottages set around an unpretentious village green, dominated by a group of huge lovely and seemingly ancient trees. Yes, beautiful....Ken (Reilly, his taxi driver) and I took a brief stopover at the Red Lion, an attractive and obviously at least partly ancient hostelry situated on the side of the Green and as I sat outside its doors in the sunshine, my half of Guinness in my hand, looking
stupidly at the old trees, the grass, the sky, the pretty pub and hoping, believing that I was somewhere near the place where my Emily....’Kurt photographed Spindle Cottage, the Green (‘still lovely’), the Red Lion and its interior including a rather startled ‘local’. These snaps appear in his Emily biography.