SHORTLY after I was married I had seriously to
consider the question of my future, whether I was going to remain a miner
or take up the stage as a business. Sometimes it happened that I had to
leave my work for a few hours or even for a day in order to carry out my
professional engagements. As a "local celebrity" I was given quite a lot
of latitude by the pit "gaffers" under whom I worked but it was very plain
to me that this sort of thing could not go on indefinitely. Nance and I
discussed the problem over and over again. So far as she was concerned her
last word was always, "Just please yersel', Harry."
I had now got together a fairly extensive repertoire
of songs, comic and sentimental, and I felt that if I could only bring
myself to take the plunge everything would work out all right. But it was
a difficult situation. As a miner I was sure of a good wage; as a comedian
my income was by no means certain. I had practically decided to remain in
the mines, only accepting an occasional engagement near home, when Fate
again took a hand in my destiny.
front of the fire one evening after a hard day's work at the coal-face, my
eye caught an advertisement in the Evening Citizen.. It read—"Comedian
wanted for six weeks' Scottish Tour With Concert Party. Apply So-and-So,
Glasgow." I pointed out the advertisement to Nance. We looked at each
"What about having a cut at it?" I
Again the old phrase, "Just please
yersel', Harry l" Deciding that no great harm could come of at least
finding out the particulars I wrote a letter of application there and
then. We forgot all about the matter for a week or so but at the end of
that time I received a telegram—the first I had ever received, by the
way—asking me to interview The Kennedys at an address in Glasgow. I found
them to be a husband and wife who were pretty well known as the organizers
of concert tours round the smaller Scottish towns. Their annual summer
journey was due to commence in a few days' time. Would I take the place of
a comic who had let them down at the last minute? The tour had been
planned for fourteen weeks, covering some of the nicest little towns in
the prettiest districts of Scotland. The salary offered was thirty-five
shillings a week. For this I would be expected to play three turns on the
programme every and also act as baggage-man, bill-inspector,
stage-carpenter, and also check-taker for the cheaper parts of the house.
The Kennedys were careful to point out that this would be a great chance
for a young comedian and they urged me to consider the pros and cons.
Everything was fixed up there and then.
But my head was in a whirl all
the way back to Hamilton. When I told Nance what had happened the tears
came into her eyes. I think we both "grat" a bit that night. It was a
risk, an adventure, a parting of the ways between the coal- pit and the
footlights! For hours after we went to bed Nance and I talked and talked
over this sudden and unexpected change that had come into our lives. When
she fell asleep, wearied and worried, I continued to con over all the
possibilities, whether of success or failure, of the new life that lay
before me. After all, I finally decided, my heart was really in my singing
rather than in the drab, hardy soul- searing toil and moil of a collier's
existence. Besides, if I failed I could always go back to it I But my mind
was made up—I would do or die!
The tour was due to start at Beith, in Ayrshire, on the
following Monday. I worked right up till mid-day on the Saturday and then
staggered the under-manager by informing him I had accepted an attractive
professional engagement which would prevent me resuming my duties as a
miner. This portentous sentence had occupied my mind for a long time in
the concocting and after I had reeled it off I felt very proud and
independent. The manager looked at me with a mystified, half-pitying
lad," he said, "yer a guid miner an' no a bad wee singer. I'm thinkin'
ye'll be back in a week or two wi' yer tail atween yer legs!"
But he wished me success all the
same, adding, wistfully, that he wished he had the chance himself to see a
bit o' God's green country. We shook hands cordially and parted but as the
"gaffer" turned away he stopped and cried over his shoul der, "If ye come
roond Hamilton way, mind an' send me a free pass for yer concert!"
Nance and I spent all the Sunday
together plotting and planning and dreaming. In the evening we wandered
out the Lanark Road where we had done our courting. We hated to think of
the parting on the morrow and "mony a sigh an' farewell kiss" were
exchanged between us. At nine o'clock the following morning I caught the
train to Beith where the rest of the concert party were due to arrive
later in the day.
The Kennedys were popular entertainers and the tour
throughout was quite successful. We went all over Ayrshire and
Dumfriesshire to begin with and then gravitated to the Border district and
up to the Scottish midlands. I made three appearances on every programme,
singing at least six songs a night and frequently more if I "got over"
well. Sometimes I did and sometimes I didn't. At the larger towns, where
they had had a chance of hearing other travel ling comedians, I was very
successful but at certain small places the people didn't seem to know
whether to laugh or cry. So they did neither—just sat still, listened, and
looked stupidly at me!
My pride got
a nasty blow one evening in a village near Berwick-on-Tweed. I was leaving
the hail after the shOw and was feeling rather sad because I had not had,
to say the least of it, nearly so good a reception as a third-rate juggler
who was one of the artistes. Standing at the foot of the lane leading up
to the rear entrance of the hail was a group of "locals" discussing the
quality of the entertainment they had just listened to. I heard my name
mentioned. Pulling my cap down over my eyes I slowed up my pace anxious to
hear what the "fans" were saying about me.
"He's a droll wee deevil that Hairry Lauder craitur—the comic chap that
cam' oot sae often," one of the men was saying.
"Tuts, man," sneered a companion, "he's no a real
comic at a'—he's the bill-inspector an' he's only thrown into the
programme to idli the time! He was in my shop this mornin' beggin' me to
show a bill! The wife turned to me when he gaes oot an' says she, 'What's
that half-wittit "under-sized" nyacket onywey, Dauvit?" I didn't wait to
hear any more. The tears came into my eyes.
All the same that first concert trip was really an
unending joy to me. We covered hundreds and hundreds of miles of Scottish
territory which would otherwise have remained a sealed book so far as I
was concerned. My passion for my native land was whetted more than ever. I
revelled in its scenery, in its people, its customs and traditions. At
every new place we pitched our nightly tent, so to speak, I made it my
task to inquire into the local history and what great men or women the
town or village had produced. I had every opportunity for doing this sort
of thing because, as I have already told you, I had to act in the
capacities of a veritable Poo Bah—baggage-man, bill-inspector and
distributor, stage-carpenter and front-of-the-house man while the people
were assembling for the concert.
Immediately on arriving in a new village I had to see the
"props" removed to the concert-hall. After that I set out for a tour of
the main streets carrying with me a huge pile of leaflets which I
distributed to everybody who would accept one. I had to call on the local
billposter who had done our advertising a few days before, pay his
account, and go round with him handing out free passes for the
entertainment to such shopkeepers who had been kind enough to display our
placards in their windows. After dinner I adjourned to the hail and
superintended the stage fit-up ready for the evening. Often I had to
tackle the whole job myself when no assistance was available. Then home to
my lodgings, a cup of tea, and back to the hail in time for the "early
doors." This was my daily programme. As often as not the company were up
at six o'clock in the morning if the "jump," was a long one. Apart from
travelling and their actual work on the stage none of the others did
anything—all details and odd jobs were left to the "wee comic" who found
himself hard at it from early morning till late at night, a fourteen or
sixteen-hour day, and all for thirty-five shillings a week!
But I loved every minute of it.
Compared with my old life as a miner I felt like a bird suddenly liberated
from its cage. It seemed as though some good fairy had waved her wand over
me and had changed all the drabness of life, the colourlessness of my
former existence, into the romance of travel, the glory of fresh air,
How did I manage on thirty-five shillings a week, you
may ask. Splendidly is my reply. Every week I sent Nance a postal order
for a pound. This left inc fifteen shillings for my own personal expenses.
It was more than ample! While the more prominent "stars" on the programme
generally put up at the local hotels the lesser fry scouted round the town
for cheap lodgings the moment they arrived. In these days the local
stationmaster in most of the Scottish towns and villages kept a list of
householders who were not above taking a nightly boarder. If the
stationmaster was not immediately available there was always the local
policeman willing to oblige with a list of likely domiciles. My plan was
to let all the others have "first cut" at this list; whatever was left I
calculated would be cheapest! And during all the fourteen weeks of that
early tour I seldom paid more than a shilling for my bed. Occasionally I
had to go the length of eighteen- pence but against this extravagance I
frequently got shelter for ninepence and sometimes as low as sixpence. All
meals were, of course, extra. But after a week or two on the road I
discovered that it was a paying plan to make a bargain for bed and
breakfast inclusive. I didn't mind, I would explain to the lady of the
house, paying as much as i/6d for a good bed and a decent breakfast!
Sometimes the door was shut in my face. As often as not I screwed the
landlady down to a shilling or one and threepence—all in!
Let me admit right off that I
slept in some quaint houses and many queer beds. Only a few weeks ago when
I was playing at the Victoria Palace, London, I got a letter from a young
man now an officer in the Royal Navy asking me, among other things, if I
remembered the night I slept with his father in Troon, Ayrshire. For a
long while I couldn't make out what the letter referred to but the strings
of memory gradually loosened and I began to remember the incident which
the writer recalled. Thirty-five years ago I had gone to his mother and
asked for a night's lodging. She explained that her house was full of
Glasgow holidaymakers and that there wasn't a spare bed in the place. But
if I cared to sleep with her husband while she "crept in aside the twa
weans," I could do so and welcome. Of course I did, The boy who wrote me
the letter was not then born but the fact that Harry Lauder had spent a
night in their house had become a family tradition. The sailor son was
home from, Australia and, hearing me sing at the Victoria Palace, he had
written asking if I cold verify the story. I wrote tack and assured him
that I had had an excellent sleefi with his good father in Troon, but that
he snored dreadfully!
Once I had to sleep with a dog! It was at a village in
Stirlingshire. There were very few houses in which boarders could be
accommodated and at the very last house on the list I was told that it was
quite impossible to put me up. I said I would gladly sleep on the floor
rather than walk the streets all night. The occupants of the house were a
miner and his wife. I told them I was an old miner myself and that I was
now a comedian touring with a concert party.
This information caused them to
relent a bit and the upshot was that I was shown into a small room and
told that I could sleep on the floor with a pillow and a couple of
blankets which they would provide. To my astonishment there was quite a
nice bed in the corner of the room and on the bed was lying, curled up but
with a suspicious glint in its eyes, a lurcher dog. I asked whose bed that
the miner, "that's Jock's bed!"
"An' wha's Jock, may I ask?" said I.
"That's him!" was the reply,
pointing to the dog. The wife explained that the lurcher was the apple of
her hus band's eye. He was being trained for a race due to come off in a
week or two. He always slept in this bed. But he was a quiet dog and
wouldn't disturb me if I didn't disturb him! I felt inclined to suggest
that Jock should be made to sleep on the floor and that I should have his
bed but the night was cold and wet outside and I deemed it better to cause
no un necessary complications. So my "shake-down" was duly prepared and we
all wished each other good-night.
An hour or two later I was startled out of my sleep by
Jock licking my face. I was very cold and uncomfortable, But the lurcher
was evidently quite friendly inclined. Stretching out my, hands I happened
to touch his bed. How cozy and warm it felt! So I just slipped into the
dog's bed. He jumped in beside me and together we fell sound asleep. When
the landlady came into the room to waken me in the morning she expressed
great astonishment at seeing me in the dog's bed and coolly added that
Jock was a "funny brute, sair gone in the temper and awfu' gien to bitin'
folk, especially strangers!" I was glad to get away from the house without
doing anything to spoil "Jock's" good impres sion of me—his recent
another occasion I had agreed to pay a shilling for my bed to an old widow
woman in a village in Galloway. Before going off to the concert about
seven o'clock in the evening she told me that she would just leave the
outside door on the latch and that I would find the kettle on the hob if I
wanted to make myself a cup of tea after the show. In the course of the
concert one of the other artistes told me that he had not yet fixed up any
place to sleep in. So I told him he could come with me if he promised to
pay ninepence for his share of the accommodation. He readily agreed. My
intention was to pay the old lady eighteenpence for the two of us and thus
reduce my own personal liability in the matter by threepence!
The two of us went home and made
ourselves some tea, both drinking out of the same cup, and eating the
remains of a packet of biscuits which I had got from a grocer when I
handed him his free pass for the show. Soon we went to bed but were
wakened about three o'clock in the morning by a noise as of someone
suffocating. After lying in bed for a few minutes debating in low and
anxious tones what we should do and advancing all sorts of explanations
for the weird sounds from accident to murder I crept out from between the
blankets and lighted a stump of candle the while my companion sat up in
bed with his hair actually standing on end with terror. It did not take me
long to trace the groans and gnrglings to a press in the corner of the
back to the bedside I said, "My God, Jamie, but there's some dirty work
been done here this nicht! We've got mixed up in something dreadful and
we'll baith be for it wi' the police in the mornin'."
Meantime the sounds continued
worse than ever. At last we decided to investigate further. Taking our
courage in both hands we advanced again to the press door and listened
carefully. All at once it opened of its own accord and a woman's body
rolled on to the floor of the room at our feet. My trembling chum, who was
now holding the candle stump, let the flame touch a tender portion of my
anatomy. I shrieked; he did the same and so did the "body." The candle
fell and went out. I tripped over a chair and went smash full length on
the floor, roaring like a bull. The uproar brought several neighbours to
the house in their night attire. The explanation of the "mystery" was very
simple. The poor old body had only one room and as she did not see why she
should lose the shilling I offered for the night's lodgings she had crept
into the press intending to doze there for the night and get up silently
in the early morning before her lodger was awake. When the press door gave
way and she was suddenly thrown into the room, finding two men instead of
one, she "kink her senses athegither" and started to shriek the place
The rest of
the night we spent in a bed provided by one of the sympathetic neighbours
and in the morning the old woman got her eighteenpence all the same. Many
and many a time have I laughed over the incident of the landlady who tried
to sleep in the kitchen press!
It was on this first tour that I had the opportunity of
visiting Robert Burns's birthplace at Alloway and also the house wherein
he died at Dumfries, Afterwards, in the old bookshop in the square at
Dumfries I purchased for ten pence a second-hand volume of his poems and
songs. Every minute I had to spare in each busy day I poured over this
treasure; the book was my constant companion and my joy. I learned all
Rabbie's songs by heart. My favourites were "O Wert Thou in the Cauld
Blast," "Mary Morrison," "0 A' the Airts the Wind Can Blaw," "Come under
My Pladie," "Corn Rigs," "Bonnie Wee Thing," and "My Nannie's Awa." But,
indeed, every song of Burns which dealt with love and the lasses, oh,
appealed to me tremendously and I remember, in those weeks of my first
rapture for the great bard of Scotland, telling myself over and over again
that some day I would compose a song or two which would also exalt and
glorify the charms of some unknown Mary or Jeannie, or Nell, or Annie.
Yes, a Harry Lauder love-song that would be sung all over the world!
As luck would have it the tour
also brought me to the birthplace of men like Tannahill, the Paisley Poet,
and James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd. These men I worshipped second only
to the Immortal Robert himself and I possessed myself of copies of their
books and of every book or pamphlet that had ever been written about them.
They were my Heroes of Scottish Song. I was only a poor, uneducated miner
but with what entrancement did I read, over and over again, the Supreme
Wish of Robert Burns-
-A wish (I mind its power)
wish that to my latest hour
Will strongly heave my breast -
for poor auld Scotland's sake
Some useful plan or book could make
Or sing a sang at least.
At that time and for years afterwards I frequently felt
that the stuff I was singing was poor and tawdry and unworthy, but the
determination to write a good love-song some day never quite forsook me.
Whether, even yet, I have succeeded is not for me to say but I would
express the wish that if I am remembered for any of my songs it will be
for such lyrics as "Roamin' in The Gloamin'," "I Love A Lassie," "Over the
Hills to Ardentinny," or my latest and greatest song, "My Heather Belle."
All too soon for me the Kennedys'
tour came to an end and I found myself back at Hamilton again, I was now
in my own estimation at least, a fully fledged professional comedian and I
never doubted that the engagements would roll in for the illustrious Harry
Lauder. As a matter of fact two "inquiries" were waiting for me on my
return and as they were both "guinea-and-a-halfers" I felt that the world
was really a very cheerful place to live in after all. Nance had actually
saved nearly ten pounds from the pound a week I had been sending her.
How she achieved this wonderful
record I did not inquire too closely; I suspected that she had spent most
of the time with the auld folks, who were only too glad to have her
assistance in looking after the children of whom by this time there must
have been eight or ten. Altogether the Vallances had fourteen, several of
them coming on the scene long after we were married and had a boy of our
return to Hamilton was a great event among our family circles and my own
pals and admirers. I was regarded as a prodigy; the astrachan coat was
worn every day and for a week or two I strolled about the town with a
lordly air, thoroughly enjoying the envious looks of my old cronies as
they went to and from the pits in their greasy clothes.
Alas, my state of independence
was not fated to last long. After I had fulfilled the two engagements
which were waiting me the postman religiously passed our door. Nobody
seemed to want the services of Harry Lauder, comedian. The money my wife
had saved was slowly dwindling away: I was eating the bread of idleness—a
terrible thought! At last my mind was made up. I would go back to the pit
and give up all hope of ever making a living on the stage. Only too well
did I know what such a decision meant in the way of jeers and sneers from
the comrades I had left in the mine less than six months ago. But the
situation was desperate. There were only two things I could do—sing or cut
coal. Evidently nobody wanted to hear me sing. Getting a job at the
coal-face presented no difficulty whatever, so I "signed on" with the
under-manager who had prophesied so accurately that I would be back with
my tail between my legs. He was a kindly man and he, at least, did not rub
in the fact that I was a "stickit comic." I cannot say as much for some of
the men, and weeks elapsed before they allowed me to for- get the fact.
There was nothing really bitter about their chaff but it galled me
dreadfully. I think I must have expended my rage and mortification on the
coal-face for I worked like a galley-slave and made splendid wages-much
more, I can assure you, than the fellows who were inclined to laugh at me.