- a theatrical boarding house in Wolverhampton

by Val Wood
Hamilton, New Zealand

My maternal grandparents Edward and Louisa Handley kept a boarding house in Wolverhampton from 1898 till 1918.

Louisa Handley, proprietor of a theatrical boarding house, first in Queen Street, than in  Bond Street, Wolverhampton.


Grandfather Handley had been a soldier for over 20 years in the South Staffordshire Regiment and twelve of those years were spent in India during the time of the Mutiny. 


This old and age-spotted photo shows Edward Thomas Handley, in the centre with the medals. I do not know who the other four men are - but they may be his brothers.


He retired on a fairly small pension and to help feed his family he took a job as stage-door keeper at the Grand Theatre. As an extension of this work his wife had theatrical people to board while the various shows were playing in Wolverhampton.

This old postcard is postmarked 1909 so it almost certainly shows the Grand as Edward and Louisa Handley would have known it.
They lived at 25A Queen Street, upstairs above a shop; the accommodation must have been a reasonable size as the couple had two daughters and a live in maid as well.
I have some of the visitors books that guests signed as they left after staying with my grandparents and reading the entries is a trip down memory lane. What sort of people were they who travelled all over the country acting in the different shows? Did they get lonely and homesick? Were the landladies a sort of mother substitute? It is no wonder that some of them stayed in the same boarding house time after time. It would become like a second home, seeing the same faces and perhaps sleeping in the same room and bed.

Lily Lilford, who played in the Telephone Girl in 1899, wrote in a large and flourishing handwriting how much she had enjoyed her stay - as well as passing on the address to others she would be coming back herself. Over the page are Jessie and Eva from the ‘Beauty and the Beast Company’. They stayed for two whole weeks for the Christmas pantomime. I wonder if they were the main parts or just two lassies in the chorus? Members of the ‘Turner Opera Company’ were followed closely by the ‘Christian Company’, all enjoying the food and comfortable beds. A Chinese Honeymoon was next and then two of the cast of The Belle of New York stayed a little while. In the middle of 1900 some members of a group showing an early cinematograph, called Hearts are Trumps, stayed. This was surely one of the first of the soap operas?

25 Queen Street in 2001. The street does not seem to have been re-numbered and the building of this house easily pre-dates the time Louisa used it as a boarding house.

A page from one of the visitors' book.  The books were exercise books and are now very battered.
A poet leaps out of the next page with an ‘Ode to dear Mrs Handley and her soldier husband who now guards the theatre door.’

Then came the "Merry Madcaps’ and ‘the White Heather Company’. John J Hooker wrote "Everything comfortable, everything Al". He played in the ‘Auld Lang Syne Company’, as did Wilfred and Percy, one of whom wrote "Paradise Personified" and the other "Quite the nicest digs I have ever had, I could die here! In fact I have."

Someone from a rival company added "I bet Mrs Handley has died of long suffering putting up with you lot." Three sisters, Mary, Eva and Violet, write "Don’t forget the swings." J. Williams, with a bold flourish, tells everyone he is not only the conductor of the show but he is the composer as well.

One page is headed up like a letter, with the address of the Empire Theatre. Grandmother is thanked in the usual flourishing words and then tucked away to the side of the page is a recipe for a marvellous cure for bronchitis.

I cannot read all the ingredients, only camphor, but, as my Mother suffered from bronchitis all her life, I do not think the cure was all it was supposed to be.

For three weeks in 1902 members of the British Imperial Band stayed at the house. When it came time to leave they listed all the other bands they had played for: Life Guards, Scots Guards, Royal Marines and even the Carl Rosa Opera Company. I hope they did all their practising at the theatre.

Another page from the books. On this page a thespian expounds at great length.

An aerial photo taken not long after Ring Road St. John's was built. Bond Street runs across the photo from the east end of St. John's to Temple Street. No. 6 is the house immediately right of the white-fronted building.
Over the pages and several months later comes another visit from Barney Stuart of the bronchitis cure. This time he uses large printing and sweeping arrows to draw everyone’s attention to A GOOD AND IMMEDIATE CURE FOR RHEUMATISM. He must have been a frustrated doctor, as once again the recipe is almost unreadable.

As the books fill up there is the occasional reference to my Mother helping out. Her father died in 1906 so the boarders became the sole source of income for the family as Edward Handley’s army pension ceased when he died. The family moved to 6 Bond Street and still the boarders came. 

As they grew up it must have been a marvellous life for my Mother, Vera, and her sister Grace, always new and exciting people coming to stay.

An added bonus was seeing all the shows at the different theatres, mostly from the wings.

Mother said she was quite grown up before she ever saw a performance from the front of the house.

On the right is St. John's vicarage. The archway in the centre of the third building down the street divided No.6, on the left, from No.7 on the right. Bond Street would have been further from the theatres than Queen Street, but much quieter and more "respectable", and the house might well have been bigger, as the Ordnance Survey map shows this house stretching a long way back. Courtesy of David Clare.

Bond Street today. No. 6 is somewhere under the office block.

One thing that stands out in these visitors books is the handwriting - such big bold scripts. It was nothing for a writer to fill up half a page with only a few words. Some have beautiful, even writing; others are almost unreadable. Many different-coloured inks were in use - a lovely lavender ink was used by members of an Italian Opera company but were their thank you notes, written in Italian, ever understood?

The last entries in the books are from a different kind of boarder: New Zealand soldiers who had lost legs or arms on the battle fields of France. After long spells in hospital they were sent up to the Midlands to learn new trades before returning home to New Zealand. These men enlivened the life of my Grandmother and her daughters, always playing jokes and good for a laugh.

One favourite joke was to re-tie the apron strings of Grandma’s white apron to the back of her chair so she had difficulty getting up. Even as an older man my Dad would have a chuckle about the look on her face when she couldn’t get up.

As well as helping with the boarders Vera and Grace worked.  In the memoranda pages of her communion book Vera neatly recorded the major events of her life:
Born Sept. 13 1896.
Commenced School Sept. 1901.
Left School Sept. 1910.
Started work at Chowen's Cafe July 1912. Left Feb 1913.
Started work at Langman's Pawnbroker July 1913. Left December 1913.
Commenced at Tilley's Fruiterers May 1914. Left August 1916
Commenced work on munitions at James Gibbon's August 3rd 1916.

Book plates in prizes awarded to Vera Handley at St.Peter's School and St.Peter's Sunday School, Wolverhampton.

Private Charles Heaphy, from a water colour by Irene M. Ward, painted while Charles was in hospital during World War 1.

Vera worked 12 hours a day in James Gibbon’s munitions factory, making hand grenades. Although the hours were long there must have been some time for romance because in October 1918, one week before the end of the war my Mother, Vera Handley, married Charles Heaphy of New Zealand and sailed with him on a troopship to New Zealand.

Charles Heaphy was a New Zealander who had come to Europe as a soldier during the First World War. He was wounded and was sent to hospital in England.

When he recovered he was sent to Wolverhampton as part of a scheme for retraining Commonwealth soldiers before they returned home.  Charles and many other NZ soldiers were trained at Guy Motors.

In Wolverhampton he met my mother, Vera - and soon knew her well enough to sign her autograph book, as seen below.
Charles Heaphy (far left) with other soldiers during training at Guy Motors.
Vera Handley's autograph book open at the page where the poem "The Night has a Thousand Eyes" has been written out and signed "8/3625 Pte. C. Heaphy, 2nd Company, 2nd Otago Battalion, NZE7".

In front is her communion book, given her by Robert Allen of St.John's on 10th March 1915, when she was confirmed at St.Chad's church.

Another entry in the autograph book is by her cousin, Guardsman Lawrence Arundel, of Wolverhampton and the Coldstream Guards, dated December 1918.

Romance blossomed between Vera and Charles.


Wedding photo of Charles and Vera Heaphy, 16th October 1918, St. John's, Wolverhampton.

Guy Motors (still "under government control") gave Charles Heaphy this reference on 9 December 1918. 

They say he has had experience in machine tools and in working with combustion engines; that he has "taken a keen interest in any work he has been given to do" and that they "feel sure he will prove quite a useful man".

On 10th October 1918 Vera stopped working for James Gibbons and on the 16th she married Charles at St. Johns church.  Charles and Vera sailed for New Zealand, the boarding house gradually closed as my Grandmother and her daughter Grace prepared to come to New Zealand when a berth on a ship was available. Sadly Louisa Handley took sick and died in May 1920 and Grace came out by herself to join her sister.

Note:  Val Wood's book "War Brides: They Followed their Hearts to New Zealand", Random Century New Zealand, 1991, is an account of the war brides who went to New Zealand after the First and Second World Wars. 

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