Sunday, March 4, 2012

A man in the wings

Usual topics in this blog are about forgotten or marginalised women of history, but I'm also interested in men who might not quite have been bucket carriers in the same sense but had difficulty in tagging behind their prominent spouses.
My previous blog on Australian opera divas brought one to mind: Charles Nesbitt Frederick Armstrong, husband of Dame Nellie Melba. 
He doesn't rate a mention in his own right at Wikipedia or in other biographical listings and seems to have been an athletic but short-tempered, independent and largely solitary individual who preferred a life of adventuring and living close to nature rather than swanning about in high society and sitting in plush opera houses. He was the youngest son of an Irish baronet and probably sent out to Australia as a remittance man in his early twenties.* But even by then he was already an experienced world traveller, having been first apprenticed in a sailing ship while still only in his teens.
In Queensland, he was a jackaroo on a cattle station where he became an expert horseman and later took various casual jobs in the bush and in cities. In Sydney, he honed his bare-knuckle boxing skills to championship levels.
There is a story that when he was married and returned to England some years later, he went along to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and took on the standing challenge to any horseman to ride their prize buck-jumper for a prize of £50. With Buffalo Bill himself in the audience, Charles Armstrong rode the buck-jumper for several minutes until the horse gave up the fight and thus he won the prize.
One of the few known photographs of Charles Armstrong, from  Nellie Melba Museum, Lilydale, Victoria
When the young Nellie Mitchell first went to Queensland in 1882 and met "Kangaroo Charlie", this dashing aristocrat turned bushman, the physical attraction between them was immediate and passionate but also ultimately doomed, as is so often the case between two strong-willed and charismatic individuals. Armstrong’s taste in music was burlesque, rather than grand opera. He loved the wide open spaces and masculine pursuits. She adored the finer arts and was destined for the grand stages and salons of Europe. 
Nellie did try to cope with life she described as "barbaric" in Mackay, Queensland, where Charles took on the job of a sugar mill manager and where their only child, George, was born, but she knew she was made for higher things and it was inevitable the marriage could not take the strain. 
The couple struggled to stay together as Nellie's fame grew but eventually bitter battles ensued over George’s upbringing and Armstrong spirited the boy away to the wilds of America for some years. The divorce became final in Texas, USA, in 1900.
Charles Amstrong lived to the age of 90, and spent the latter part of his life on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, where he had an isolated cedar cabin on the shores of Shawnigan Lake. He never remarried and died on 2 November 1948.
Nellie and Charles’ son George also had only one surviving child, Pamela, who later became Lady Vestey. She too had a long life, living in Melba’s old home at Coombe Cottage in the Yarra Valley, Victoria, Australia.  Lady Vestey died in September 2011.

Details about the tempestuous marriage of Dame Nellie Melba and Charles Armstrong taken from:

Melba, by John Hetherington
I am Melba, by Ann Blainey (Marvelous Melba in USA)

Some web links to Melba’s life with Charles Armstrong:

The church where they married.

Their home at Marian, Queensland and the church were Nellie is said to have sung

History of Lake Shawnigan, British Columbia

A couple of reports on the recent passing of Lady Vestey

Remittance men were often younger sons of the British upper classes who were a burden to their family being spendthrifts, gamblers, womanisers or just hotheads who had got into trouble at home, and who were sent abroad "to the colonies" to find their own way in life, although usually cushioned with a generous allowance.