Anzac Ada

To be quite honest, she hadn’t thought about home. She had, on all her tours, been amazed at how the local people, though, still thought of England as home – even when most of them had never visited the place, nor were ever likely to. She wondered, as she braced herself against the ship’s rails, peering out over the grey Tasman Sea, if that tie would ever break – the tie that linked her Australians to the land of their forebears. It was only now; now that she could see an end to this latest foray to the antipodes, that she discerned the first twinge of homesickness. There was still much to do before the long and sometimes arduous ocean trip back to Britain. There were her return dates in South Africa to negotiate – but that place never seemed as far away from home and hearth as here.

Part of her loved escaping the winter to the warmer climes of these southern latitudes. And she had to be truthful and admit she was relieved to be away from the close proximity of the war. She felt safer here. The locals didn’t seem as weighed down by it all as back home. She could see the same burden of loss all about, but it seemed to settle with a lighter weight in the colonies. She still referred to them as that, although she knew she’d would never call them this in public. The war had taken too many of the Australian and New Zealand boys she championed. She supposed the conflict would eventually cease, but it was a devilishly long time in coming. She was proud to carry the moniker Anzac Ada, proud of the adulation that had followed her everywhere, on all her trips and this trip in particular.

But, she pondered, in that early morning gloom, how long would this last. Her best years, she assumed, were behind her now and her looks were fading. And she presumed with that she would have to say goodbye to fame and all the rapture she received from her devoted followers. They were mainly men, she had to admit. She knew there were women who were jealous of the hold she attained over their husbands, but really, they had nothing to fear from her.

She had seen the terrible results of the war. She had seen what the war could do to a human body, firstly in Egypt, later in hospitals all over England and even in Melbourne and Sydney. Terrible, just terrible. But seeing it all resolved her. She stiffened her back, rolled up her sleeves and searched around for a cause. She recalled her pre-war tours and the revelation came to her. So many from the Empire had given their lives for Mother England. That would be the focus. And so it had come to pass. She lost count of how much she had raised. That wasn’t the point. It was a small thing compared to their sacrifice. Donations received on her tours largely went to helping the wounded Anzac lads back in hospitals in England. She was also involved with the London Anzac Buffet; that providing warmth, companionship and food for recovering troops and those on leave. She was proud that her efforts had kept it going when it seemed as if, at one stage, it would have to close for lack of funds. She fondly drew up a memory from her last tour when there was a matinee concert for over a thousand returned boys at the Tivoli in Sydney – a triumph. How they cheered her singing and skits. The adulation knew no bounds. Even on board this very boat, on her last trip, she had also given a concert, but this time around she was being a little kinder to herself and taken it easier. She had been doing such acts for over three years now.

This time around she had included an island that seemed as far away from England as it could possibly be. Yet, if anything, it was, of all the places she’d been, perhaps the one that most reminded her of home. Maybe that was the reason for the mild melancholy that seemed to be enveloping her this morn. The island had a more variable climate than its mainland. The countryside was reminiscent, in parts, of the rural landscape she was so used to from the counties of own country. But, most particularly, it was that theatre in the little capital city that struck her. She was told it was the oldest in the Commonwealth. She almost broke down, when, after the ovation at her final performance there, she was presented with souvenirs of the occasion. A moving picture camera recorded that for posterity. Yet, even from there, the lads were dying in the trenches. She was so moved by the beauty of the place – the mountain that kept watch over the premier city, the hospitality that greeted her everywhere and the wildness of the bush, as the locals called the forested regions. She recalled her train trip to the sister city in the north, across a countryside so burnished by the sun, as it rarely was in the British Isles. She cheerily noted that, at every hamlet en route, small crowds had gathered to cheer her passing. She dwelt for a while on the stop, at the halfway point, where she took refreshment in the station’s tea rooms. The villagers were prevented from coming in to watch her and her troupe take their fill of the luscious cream scones. Instead they gawped in from the windows, jostling for a view. Now, what was it’s name? It was in the tongue of the original native inhabitants. She was sure of that, such a strange appellation – starting with a P she thought. She knew the island had its historical dark side too – the decimation of those natives and the convict-days hell holes scattered around the place, as well, the economic sufferings during the straightened decade of the ’90s.

She smiled at the memory of her reception in the big northern town when she arrived – how there was a parade of motorised and horse-drawn transport, taking herself and her fellow performers around to her hotel and later on to the National Theatre where the shows were. Excited crowds lined the thoroughfares. A brass band accompanied them every step of the way. It was glorious. In the southern city she had been taken to a small zoo and shown a very strange animal – half tiger, half wolf it seemed. She had peered into the creature’s eyes and as she did so, a great and inexplicable sadness had come over her. Recalling that moment she gave an involuntary shiver. Then she felt an arm come around her shoulder. It jolted her momentarily from her reveries, but then she settled, realising it was only dear Wilf. She was snuggling in closer to his warm body when she noticed he was pointing to the horizon. A dun smudge could be discerned – New Zealand. ‘Bear up, dear one,’ he encouraged. ‘Another country awaits. When this is over we can both think about our return to Old Blighty.’ With that Anzac Ada took his arm and returned to their cabin to prepare for taking breakfast.

Ada Reeve, in fact, did return to Australia, although I could discover no evidence that she came back to Tasmania. Contrary to the above, her career continued on through the decades, both on stage and later in movies. She appeared in her last film, ‘A Passionate Stranger’, in 1957 at age 83; her farewell to the boards some three years previous. She passed in 1966, but made a television appearance in an early version of ‘This is Your Life’ in 1957 (this can be found on-line). As far as this country is concerned, she remained revered for some time as Anzac Ada before the collective memory of her faded. Some back then even called her ‘The Mother of the Diggers’. She visited again in 1922-24, 1926 and ’29 to ’35, even making films here. One was directed by Frank Thring. Reeve’s two daughters, Bessie and Goody, settled here.

Prior to the Great War Reeve was already a strong presence on the London stage. Born to two theatrical parents, she started off at very young age and gradually made her way up cast lists until she headlined. She had two marriages, the second being to Wilfred Cotton, a fellow actor who took on the role of her manager. Her first glimpse of these shores occurred under the auspices of JC Williamson, 1897-98. And she fell in love with us, as well as with South Africa, travelling constantly to those dominions during her long career. Her life wasn’t all beer and skittles. She nearly died of typhoid fever during a tour to Germany and suffered domestic violence at the hands of her first husband. But it was on stage that she reigned supreme. She was the mistress of innuendo, a suggestive gesture and a knowing wink. Men adored her.

And she in turn adored the Anzacs. Her home on the Isle of Wight became a convalescent facility for her Aussie and Kiwi boys and she raised thousands of pounds to improve their well-being whilst they were away from the front.

YouTube will provide you with her performances and some of her film roles. I first encountered her in a vivid blue dress on a card stand at TMAG, purchasing it, then delving into the ether to discover more about Ada and her link to our city’s Theatre Royal. And now it is the centenary of her triumphant stay on our island in the southern seas. Will anyone else remember that?

Ada Reeve performs –


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