Personal | Melba’s Other Vehicles
Travelling around the world and throughout Europe and America presented enormous challenges to Melba and her fellow artists. Tours had to be carefully planned around ships, coastal vessels, trains and horse and carriages. It must have been a tiring ordeal, particularly as transportation was basic yet there were many trunks of costumes to be moved as well as the artists.
In America, Melba copied other artists who travelled in their own coach hooked on to the appropriate train. Though even that could be fraught with danger and lead to spending time at a railway siding in literally the middle of nowhere. The advent of the motor car must have enraptured Melba who loved new inventions and could also see the enormous possibilities for herself, her fellow touring artists and family.
While the books about Melba give scant mention to her mode of transport from place A to place B, there are several accounts, which show the motor car was a great boon to her.
The first actual mention of Melba and a car was in Agnes Murphy’s book way back in the early 1890s: The routine of Melba’s professional life was pleasantly varied in the spring of 1892 when she won first prize for the most beautifully decorated car in the Battle of Flowers at Nice. Her artistic taste and original ideas were well illustrated in the colouring and design of the ornamental scheme, and along the carnival course the gay equipage was greeted with acclamation. The Prince and Princess of Monaco, who had honoured her with many attentions, were among the first to offer their congratulations on her carnival victory, which was especially popular among the English and French visitors then on the Riviera. (1)
The Argus in Melbourne published the photo below and many Melba biographers have assumed this is the award-winning car. However, the car’s outline indicates it is in fact a much later vehicle, possibly 1910s. Research is underway to find out more about the photo.
While we do not know when Melba purchased her first car, we do know she owned one in Paris in 1904 as it was involved in the death of a pedestrian.
Paris accident 1904
While in Paris an accident caused her great distress. Her car, driven by her chauffeur, knocked down and killed an old man who was crossing the road. The driver was not to blame but Nellie was deeply upset. She could not sleep and cancelled several engagements.
She was still unwell when she left for the United States. It was hoped that the voyage would do her good but it was noticed at the end of the journey that her tension had returned and that she was in a very nervous state. (2)
Interestingly, The Times in London did not see fit to report the matter but The New York Times, Chicago Daily Tribune and the Los Angeles Times all reported the accident. (3)
Melba only made one appearance at the Metropolitan Opera in that December then collapsed with laryngitis and pneumonia.
Try and Guess
After the purchase of her own Australian property the 60 acre Coombe Cottage at Coldstream east of Melbourne, Melba had somewhere to store her own vehicles. One of her favourites was her pony phaeton drawn by her two favourite ponies.
The story is Melba would ask guests: ‘Try and guess the names of the ponies?’
When guests had finally given up Melba would tell them simply: Try and Guess (or if you like, their names are Guess and Try). This must have created a lot of merriment among family and friends. (4)
When spending Christmas home at Coombe Cottage in 1921, Melba took the phaeton and ponies out for a drive. The ponies bolted but Melba managed to control them and returned to the festivities (5) The pony phaeton continued to serve the community as Melba donated it to the Sisters of Mercy at Lilydale so they didn’t get wet when going from the convent to the Lilydale railway station. The Sisters later sold the phaeton and some years ago it was restored by a western district family.
As part of the Sisters of Mercy centenary, Melba’s phaeton was included in the mural installed on the wall of the Mount Lilydale Mercy College centenary performing arts complex so continuing the lasting bond between the Sisters and Melba. Scattered throughout Melba’s letters are references to Melba’s experiences with the wonderful motor car.
While touring in America, Melba and her family – Evie and George used motor cars.
On February 13, 1916 Evie recorded in her small diary:
Ada & Madam (Sassoli) motored with us. Had a burst tyre, also something wrong with the car, had to get a car to pull us into Fresno. (6)
When Melba returned later in the years to the east coast of America, she did an interview with the Chicago Daily Tribune. Under the section Varied Activities for Women which features the work of various high powered business women of the time the reporter highlighted how driving helped Melba’s career:
Mme. Melba possesses such a retentive memory that she can learn an entire opera within a week. She does much of her studying in bed and the airs are chiefly mastered when she is walking or driving. (7)
‘Although sometimes exasperated by the failure of the United States to come into the war (on her side, of course), she (Melba) found much to admire in the American way of life and in their efficient use of modern inventions. She began to hire motorcars for parts of her journeys, and she was delighted by the excellent roads which covered most of the country.’ (8)
At the end of the 1919 Covent Garden season, first since the end of the war, Melba went to Paris to rest (summer in August) before setting off on a provincial tour of England later in the year.
Melba wrote from Paris to her daughter-in-law Evie who had taken Pamela to Hythe for some sea air:
‘Ask George to find out if my motor car will be ready. If you ever want the Franklin please do use it – Tanner has nothing to do.’ (9) (Franklin was the model of her motor car and Tanner her chauffeur. At the time, her Rolls Royce was in England.) The provincial tour in October and November 1919 included Thomas Burke a new Irish Tenor and pianist Ferruccio Busoni who was later replaced by Una Bourne. The group performed (not necessarily in the following order but dates have been added where known) at Liverpool (October 2), Birmingham (October 13), Bristol, Bournemouth, Manchester, Leeds, Edinburgh (October 18), Nottingham, Leicester (October 27) and Derby (October 29). (10)
Melba’s car was a welcomed addition for the tour:
North Stafford Hotel Stoke-on-Trent
Dearest Evie, I don’t know when this will reach you but it is just to tell you that we had a lovely trip & did it in 5 hours & Tanner says, `I love my car, she is a beauty’. Powell & Burke arrived at 3 in the morning after many breakdowns. I am told that the conversation between Tanner and Burk’s chauffeur this morning was most amusing. I am still not well and I wish I could rest. There will be a packed house tonight & Liverpool is sold out. (11)
In February 1920, George, Evie and Pamela joined Melba in the south of France. After Evie and Pamela returned to England, George and Melba went to Nice to see Jean de Reske and then to Monte Carlo.
Melba planned to return to Paris on March 16, spend Easter there then travel to London on about April 15 to begin concerts. However, her plans were thwarted as her letter shows:
There is a strike & George & I are wondering how we can get back – all petrol is commandeered but if we can get as far as Marseille we can take a steamer & go straight through to Plymouth. It is a bore as I had looked forward to going to Paris so much. However time will tell. They talk of revolution. If it comes I shall take Henry Russell`s farm & hide there. (12)
Finally Melba and George left Monte Carlo – George going to London and Melba to Paris. (13)
Melba often took her car with her when leaving Europe for any length of time. Her Rolls Royce crossed the seas as it was recorded in Australia and Paris at different times. (14)
1924 Tour of Tasmania
She stayed at the Brisbane Hotel in Launceston giving a concert on January 16 1924. She was driven in her own car, which had come over with her, to the Bush Hotel, New Norfolk on her way to Hobart. (15)
1926 Wild Women Motorists
Melba expressed her views on many things throughout her life. One which caused some controversy was her view of women motorists which was published in Everylady’s Journal in 1926 and drew a response published in the June 1, 1926 edition from Australian woman who had toured Britain with her sisters. Melba believed driving was a “man’s job not a woman’s job as the strain on the nervous system is too great for the feminine temperament”. In response Margaret C. Smith claim women drivers were “less daring and more careful than men” because “they visualise more clearly what an accident may mean”. (16)
Was Melba Wrong?“Wild Women Motorists.”
We have received a letter from an overseas correspondent strongly objecting to some statements made by Dame Nellie Melba in a short article which appeared in our Journal some months ago. For the benefit of those who may not have seen the latter, we reprint it, with our correspondent’s letter.
” Dear Sir,—In your September issue you publish a letter of Dame Nellie Melba’s, a scathing indictment of women motorists in England. I feel that ‘ Everylady’s Journal’ is the very last magazine in which such very misleading statements should be allowed to pass unchallenged, and that it is hardly right not to try to irradicate the false impression which may have been made on the minds of Australian women (of whom I am one) of British women chauffeurs. I and my two sisters have been motoring ourselves fairly continuously since July, including a tour which commenced in Brighton and took us up to Aberdeen through the principal towns in the East of England, through Scotland southwards by the western high roads to Devon, and on to Shanklin in the Isle of Wight. Thus I can claim to be drawing upon a somewhat wider experience than that upon which Dame Nellie bases her letter to the ‘ Weekly Despatch.’ Neither on this tour or subsequently have we encountered one single woman driver who was guiding her car carelessly, or driving recklessly or with excessive speed.
If there are such beings as ‘ reckless women motorists ‘ one may at least traverse a good many thousand miles without meeting one. If really they could be met with on one comparatively short journey driving as Melba describes, the roads, with the overwhelming amount of traffic they now carry, would be utterly unsafe to venture out upon; one shudders to think what would happen!Our experience leads us to endorse the remarks of a man writing in one of the daily papers lately. He said he considered the most careful drivers were women, and that most of the accidents were caused by reckless youths, and put some blame on the ubiquitous “motor bike.” We have often remarked that the average men drivers of private cars were also wonderfully considerate and careful—just occasionally one has suffered from high-powered cars being driven past at excessive speed, and perhaps being forced unduly to the side. But the worst sinners are drivers of commercial and delivery cars — perhaps their temptation is greater! Often these cars and lorries pull up just wherever they wish, irrespective of proximities to corners or the wrong side of the road.
My nearest approach to an accident was on turning a sudden corner on a steep grade finding a great lorry, stationary in front of me, and the inevitable third vehicle approaching, with no room for three abreast. But one must be prepared to meet all kinds of emergencies on the road. The object of this letter is just to say that we have been caused no unnecessary inconvenience by women drivers who, as a general rule, I have no hesitation in describing as less daring and more careful than men. I read lately this is because they visualise more clearly what an accident may mean. This may be so.—”MARGARET C. SMITH.”
Wild Women Motorists.By Dame Nellie Melba.
During this week I had occasion to motor up from Brighton to London. I was forced to choose the hour at which the main stream of traffic was against me, but had the drivers of the cars coming in opposite directions been even moderately careful there should have been no difficulty.
As it was, the journey was a nightmare from start to finish. The only reason why I did not arrive in London in a state of prostration was because I happen to be blessed with exceptionally steady nerves. And the women drivers were by far the worst offenders.
With a sublime disregard for others, they swept along at breakneck speed, choosing the right or the wrong side of the road with complete indifference. When they desired to outstrip a rival car they steered round it without troubling for an instant to see it any Vehicle was coming from the opposite direction. Corners seemed to them only a means by which they might gain a thrill, and if they possessed motor-horns they certainly did not use them. The calm manner in which they seem to regard themselves as the sole possessors of any right to the road was illustrated as soon as I arrived in London. My chauffeur was driving down a main road when suddenly he almost collided with a car coming straight out of a side street without blowing its horn. In charge of that car was a girl —a very pretty girl — with a cigarette between her lips. By a miracle we managed to avoid a crash. The girl laughed as though it were all a joke.
The true explanation, I honestly believe, is that the average woman is not fitted by nature to drive a car. Any woman, of course, can drive if she desires, just as any woman can ride a horse or wheel a perambulator. But constant driving, especially at the pace which seems to be fashionable nowadays, is a man’s job rather than a woman’s. It makes a strain on the nervous system too great for the feminine temperament.Study the face of the confirmed woman motorist and you will probably come to the same conclusion. Her eyes are staring, her forehead is puckered, her hands are often unsteady. I have seen faces flash by me on the road which seemed indeed to be the faces of mad women.
1. A. Murphy, Melba a Biography, Doubleday, Page & Co, New York 1906, pg 66.
2. P. Vestey, Melba A Family Memoir, Pamela Vestey, Melbourne, 2000.pg 118. 3. The New York Times, Chicago Daily Tribune and the Los Angeles Times.
4. P. Vestey recollection.
5. P. Vestey, op. cit. pg 196.
6. P. Vestey, op. cit., pg 150.
7. Chicago Daily Tribune, August 13, 1916 pg 3.
8. P. Vestey, op. cit., pg 157.
9. P. Vestey, op. cit., pg 174.
10. Musical Times October to December, 1919.
11. P. Vestey, op. cit., pg 175.
12. P. Vestey, op. cit., pg 177.
13. P. Vestey, op. cit., pg 178.
14. Rolls-Royce and Bentley in the Sunburnt Country by Tom Clarke and David Neely pg 31.
15. P. Vestey, op. cit., pg 204.
16. Everylady’s Journal, June 1, 1926 pg 506, Chiefly Froth and Bubble Gossip from the Gay and Hectice Centre of the World. column