Betty Blackburn

img753 World's Pictorial News November 20, 1927, p 12. cropped image.jpg

​(c) World's Pictorial News, 20th November 1927

Betty was born in 1900 to James Edward, an iron worker and Elizabeth a weaver. The family lived at number one Cotton Street - by 1911 there were five girls and they lived at 54, Whalley New Road. Unfortunately, when the war broke out Betty had to work in the mill where she earned eleven shillings a week and sang as she looked after her 'half a side' and forty ends. She didn't like the work and admitted she was not so good at it otherwise she could have earned more. Previously, at the age of eight she had won a singing contest at a Blackburn cinema and at the age of nine was noticed singing and dancing round a maypole. Friends collected money and Betty went for singing lessons which Mr. Edmund Gorse of Griffin Boys School gave her and this proved to be the excellent groundwork for the more advanced training she later received. Soon after this a special concert was arranged for repatriated soldiers and Mr. Gorse nominated Betty for a part in the programme. As a result of that concert​ the 'singing mill girl' was noticed by Dr. Herman Brearley, a church organist and choirmaster, who took an interest in her and gave her tuition.

Several of wealthy townspeople subscribed to a fund to send Betty to the Royal College of Music in London. At the age of sixteen she had earned the qualification L.R.A.M. which was a diploma or licentiate in either teaching or performing. In London, Betty lived in a hostel for young ladies near the college with girls who were far above her social standing. They accepted Betty and the lady who ran the hostel, Mrs. Marshall, was an extremely charming woman who was surprised that Betty had conquered her strong Lancashire accent. This came about when Betty had started singing and with the lessons she thought deeply about what she was doing and finally no trace of an accent remained. Whilst at the hostel Betty saw an article in the paper stating that a Madame Calve, a famous prima donna, was looking for a girl to develop into the role of  Carmen. Betty went to the Queen's Hall to present herself to Madame Calve but the man on the door laughed and said the announcement had been a mistake. Not deterred Betty wrote to Madame Calve and was delighted to receive a reply with an appointment. Again Betty was disappointed to learn that the letter had been intended for another girl and was about to leave when Madam Calve sent word that she would hear Betty sing. Madame Calve was impressed and immediately took Betty on as a pupil. Betty was a contralto at that time but Madame Calve noticed that she held her head in an unusual manner and discovered that Betty had a throat problem. Betty went to see a Doctor Lloyd who incidently always saw Caruso when he was in England, and a minor operation was performed which on recovery made Betty a soprano. Betty joined the D'Oyly Carte Company and went on a year's tour in Australia in Gilbert and Sullivan operas.

On return, in 1923, Betty came back to her home town to perform for the first time since leaving to train in London. The Theatre Royal, where she appeared in the Lilac Domino, was packed each night and she was a great success. After this there were concert engagements and then she enquired about other opportunities to find that there were to be auditions by the Stoll Picture Theatre on Kingsway. Only two names could be submitted and this had already been done so unless one dropped out Betty could not attend. Good fortune prevailed and a girl did drop out and Betty won a contract. In 1925 Betty starred as Alice, the principal girl in the pantomime Dick Whittington, at the Theatre Royal Bournemouth and, at that time, was engaged to be married to Mr. George E. Attridge of London. She then received a telegram asking her to tour Australia but she would only accept if first married and after consulting timetables at 11.30 a,m, on Christmas Eve, Betty dashed off to London where she was married by special licence on Christmas morning at St. Barnabas's Church, Clapham Common. Betty then returned to Bournemouth for the matinee performance and immediately after the pantomime on the 29th January 1926 travelled to Melbourne. 

George was a civil servant in the Inland Revenue and lived with his father at 8, Elspeth Road Battersea. In 1929 Elizabeth was also at that address but on the 7th March 1930 she sailed from Southampton to Cape Town. It would seem that she stayed in South Africa returning on the 25th May 1931 described as an actress and showing her proposed address in England as 90, Lansdowne Street, Blackburn - where her parents lived. Betty travelled to South Africa again and returned to Southampton on the 29th August 1936 - again giving Landsdowne Street as her proposed address and her occupation was shown as a secretary. All this time George was living at Elspeth Road and it would seem that he and Betty were no longer together. Betty 'the Lancashire nightingale' died in Johannesburg in June 1960 where she had been a city councillor and had, at some stage, become Mrs. O'Connor.

Much of the above information is from the following sources:
The Blackburn Times, April 7th, 1923
The Northern Daily Telegraph, December 28th,1925 
The World's Pictorial News, November 20th,1927 
The Daily Mail, June 9th, 1960
Compiled by Community History Volunteer, Janet Burke
Published January 2022.