The Hippodrome and the Livesey Family.
The Livesey Family taken c1925. L-R Roger, Peggy, Sam, Cassie, Barrie, Stella and Jack
Part 2 The Livesey Family
Last month we heard how: once Mexborough had a magnificent theatre
known as the Hippodrome, situated on land to the west of the Montagu
Arms, now a car park; that the people responsible for its
construction were Thomas & Mary Livesey; that they had once owned
the largest portable theatre in Europe, ‘The Paragon Theatre’; when
Thomas died how Mary had continued on with their dream; when she
bought the land and who she took the mortgage out with and who her
guarantors were; how it was constructed by George Henry Smith, a
building contractor of Mexborough; when it was opened by the well
know actor and music hall star Mr. H. Hesslegrave (Soft Tommy
Shuttleworth) on 18th Dec. 1893; the opening of the White House Café
to provided meals for the vast numbers of people who came from miles
around to this theatre; some the world famous entertainers who came
to Mexborough to appeared there; when it was demolished and why.
But after providing Mexborough with such a prestigious and
successful theatre and giving so much to our town, what happened to
Mary and her family when she retired in 1910 and left Mexborough?
This question has always haunted me, they cannot have disappeared,
and so what happened to them? The answer I think will surprise you.
The Livesey Dynasty of theatrical artists, which lasted for nearly
one hundred years, began in 1839 with the birth of Thomas Livesey,
the son of Richard and Mary.
The family worked in the cotton mills of Lancashire and by 1861 they
seem to have been a prosperous one, his parents and sister being
cotton weavers and Thomas himself a mechanic, these being among the
most prestigious occupations in the cotton industry. So why did a
young man, in a stable well paid job leave, to join the precarious
world of the theatre?
The reason for his leaving seems to have been the old, old reason
why many young men take such a drastic change in the direction of
their lives, love and war. On 12th April 1861 the American Civil War
began and the Southern States, after a short time, ceased exporting
cotton to Lancashire. This brought mass deprivation as mills closed
and vast numbers became unemployed. With no welfare state the
workers had to find alternative employment wherever they could. And
it was at this time that a young lady by the name of Mary Wright
entered Thomas’ life.
Mary was a young actress from a travelling theatrical family and in
1869 they were married and together with her brother Joseph who was
a musician, and later his wife Elizabeth who was an actor, the
little company began to tour. In Dec. of that year their first child
Edward was born, in Wolverhampton and Edward, like all the Livesey
children who were to follow, had an unusual characteristic in that
he was ambidextrous (being both left and right handed). At this time
it seems that Mary and her brother temporarily went their separate
ways as we find him living in Burton-on-Trent in an Entertainments
Boarding House along with: several musicians; a couple of gymnasts
(acrobats); and a contortionist; these entertainers came from
various nationalities including Austrians, Germans, and Frenchmen.
They arrived in Mexborough at a time of formation and threw
themselves, with gusto, into many civic causes, such as the
establishment of the Montagu Cottage Hospital and the equipping of
an efficient Fire Brigade. On 18th Dec. c1889, at the Paragon
Theatre, they staged a play entitled ‘Caste’. All the takings,
which, as the theatre could seat 1,000 when full, must have been
Thomas and Mary’s overriding ambition had always been to have their
own permanent theatre, and as Mexborough was their favourite touring
venue, chose this town. But on 9th March 1890 their plans were
thrown into disarray when Thomas suddenly died. He was buried in
Mexborough Cemetery and, as if to declare to the world that here
lies an actor, his memorial stone carries the famous Shakespearian
lines: “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women in it
merely player. They have their exits and entrances and each in his
time plays many parts”.
But Mary’s strength of character shone through and, we presume with
the help of her brother who lived at 54-56 Market St., and her adult
children, she carried on, and brought to fruition their plans in
1893 when she opened the splendid, first class, modern theatre, the
Prince of Wales, equipped with the best that money could buy.
Crowds to the theatre were such that it was found necessary to
provided meals and a while after the opening of the theatre Mary
obtained a house, at the bottom of Garden Street, which she turned
into a restaurant. A café which I feel many of us will remember as
the ‘White House Café’. Another house was obtained for the family,
on Garden Street; where for the first time the family could have a
stable, permanent home, enabling the children to be educated locally
at Garden Street School.
The first play to be seen on the stage of the Prince of Wales stared
Mary’s son, Edward, in the roll of a simple fisherman and it had
packed the theatre every night and people had flocked there from
In 1900 the second of Mary’s children, Sam, married the beautiful
Welsh actress Maggie (Margaret Ann) Edwards and five years later,
his brother Joseph, married her sister the striking Cassie (Mary
Catherine). Both unions were blest with children: Sam and Maggie had
two sons Jack Edward, and Barry, whereas Joseph and Cassie had a son
and a daughter, Roger in 1906 and Peggy (Margaret). But disaster was
to strike both couples as firstly, in 1911, Joseph died followed
shortly after by Maggie leaving Sam and Cassie widowed when still
very young. The two of them, trying to bring up the four children as
one family, were thrown together and the inevitable happened, they
fell in love, and were married shortly after in 1913, with Stella,
their daughter being born in 1915.
In 1910, at the age of 62yrs Mary retired and, following the sale of
the theatre to a Mr. Smith of Dewsbury, moved to live in a pretty
seaside cottage, less than 50yds from the sea, at Deal, Kent.
All Mary’s children, had been brought up in a theatre, and so
learned to play any roll which was given them. Many had by now,
accomplish major rolls in prestigious theatres, becoming well known
names in the theatrical world. They then put all their skills into
the emerging British Film Industry, which, at the time, demanded
highly skilled one-take professional actors and it seems to have
been Sam and Cassie who were the lynch pin behind this.
Sam and Cassie, accompanied by their five children, moved to live in
North London, close to Elstree, Pinewood and Twickenham Film
Studios. Here Cassie proactively promoted the family as their agent
and with single minded determination ensured that her husband was
always in full employment and the children were well educated, both
academically and theatrically. It appears that the first to appear
on the silver screen was Sam in 1916, who played the part of Capt.
Salzburg in the film ‘The Lifeguardsman’. Over his lifetime he made
47 films and played alongside such notables as Vivien Leigh, James
Mason, Charles Laughton, Peter Cushing, etc.
They also stared in a film which could be called the Livesey’s Own.
It was entitled ‘Variety’ and stared Sam, Roger, Barry, Jack, and
Cassie and told the story of a family, so similar to their own,
touring the theatres and music halls, which by then were in decline,
it also starred such well known people as the Sherman Girls (the
forerunner of the Tiller Girls), Horace Sheldon and Billy Cotton. It
was filmed at Cricklewood Studios in 1935 and was directed by Adrian
Brunel. One is tempted to believe that it was also financed by the
Following the death of Sam, Cassie continued to be their agent and
promoter. Jack who was born in 1901, the son of Sam and Maggie,
became a character actor until a bad accident, while filming an
action sequence for a film, badly damaged his leg. This indirectly
caused his emigration to America where he firstly stayed in New York
and acted the part of the father in a stage play entitled ‘The
Entertainer’ for two years, after which he went to Hollywood. He
played in eleven films altogether his last film being ‘A Touch of
Mink’ released in 1962 playing alongside Cary Grant and Doris Day.
He died at his home in Burbank, close to the studios, in California,
just before the release of his last film in 1961.
Barry (his name is sometimes spelt Barrie), Jack’s brother was born
in 1905, and like his brother was a character actor. He appeared in
six films, one is worthy of note this being Rembrandt. It was
screened in 1936 and he played alongside his father, Sam, and his
step-brother Roger. It stared Charles Laughton and Gertrude
Lawrence. His last film came in 1945 ‘They Were Sisters’ where he
appeared with James Mason and Phillis Galvert. He died in 1959.
Peggy was born in 1911 the daughter of Joseph and Cassie and was
established in the West End as a stage actress. She married Desmond
Jeans (real name Desmond McMinn) who was himself an accomplished
actor in his own right.
Stella was born in 1915, and was reg. in Eastery; the registration
district of her paternal grandmother Mary Livesey, and it is
tempting to believe that she could have been born at her home. She
was the only daughter of Sam and Cassie and initially helped her
mother in promoting the family. It appears that she may not have
gone into the film industry and she escapes mention on the internet,
with the exception of Ancestry.Com. This shows a Stella Livesey
b1915 who married a Charles Robinson in 1935 in Eastry, Kent. We
then discover among passenger lists, a Stella Livesey crossing the
Atlantic on a number of occasions, on prestigious passenger liners
such as the Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mary. Could she have been
visiting Jack in America? I suppose now we will never know.
Then last but, certainly not, least there is Roger and his wife
Ursula Jeans (born Ursula McMinn), well where do I begin with them?
Well as Julie Andrews says “start at the very beginning it’s a very
good place to start”. . Roger was born in 1906 the son of Joseph and
Cassie and was named after his maternal grandfather Roger Edwards.
Thanks to Cassie, he was well educated attending both the
Westminster City School and the Italia Conti Academy of Theatre
Arts, founded in London it is the oldest college of it kind in the
world. He first appeared on stage at the age of 5yrs then in 1917
came his first West End appearance, as an office boy in the stage
play ‘Loyalties’ at the St. James’ Theatre. He then played a variety
of roles from 1920-1926 in the West End and in 1921 his first film
was released, this being ‘Rainbow Ends’ followed by another two in
1921 and 1923. Tours were then undertaken by him of the West Indies
and South Africa showing productions of Shakespeare and modern
comedies. He then returned to join the Old Vic/Sadlers Wells Company
and from 1931-1935 seven more films were released in which he
In 1932 he met a recently widowed young actress who had made a name
for herself in the West End, by the name of Ursula Jeans, and they
were married when Roger went on tour to New York. They returned to
England, Ursula to appear in Noel Coward’s ‘Cavalcade’ and Roger to
sign up with Alexander Korda, following which he appeared in his
first lead role in ‘The Drum’. He then appeared with his step-father
Sam, and step-brother Barry, in the unforgettable film ‘Rembrandt’
which joins the painter at the height of his career. It was one of
Korda’s best films and it was this film which introduced Roger to
his father’s personal friend Charles Laughton.
Roger seems to have recognised the potential of TV, and must have
been among the first to make films specifically for this market. His
first T.V. film was ‘Black Magic’ in 1938, which being a success was
followed by another two prior to the 2nd WW.
During the 2nd WW Roger and Ursula became leading actors, and
personal friends of Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh. They also
purchased a small cottage named ‘Plough Cottage’ and there built a
summerhouse in the garden where Olivier stayed whenever he was
filming in Debham. At the outbreak of war Roger worked in an
aircraft factory but was asked to join ENSA and, with Ursula, toured
India and North Africa.
They were involved in many adventures. One of which occupied during
their journey to India when the hydraulics of the Stirling Bomber
they were travelling in, froze and refused to let the undercarriage
down. Without an operational undercarriage they were unable to land,
and eventually the plane would have run out of fuel and crashed,
there was no alternative but to urinate on it. This thawed it out
and they were able to land successfully. On another occasion Bryan
Forbes and another corporal were stranded and Roger came to their
rescue even buying them a meal after the excitement was over.
It was during the war (1943) that Roger was involves in the making
of a film which, for its time, was controversial. It depicted the
lifelong friendship between a British Officer and a German of
equivalent rank and horrified Churchill who tried to get it banned.
It took many years for it to attain the status that this masterpiece
of British Filming deserved; its name of course was ‘The Life and
Death of Colonel Blimp’ which after its release in New York
established Roger as an internationally known character actor.
It was at this time that Roger became godfather to Peter Ustinov’s
daughter Tamara. This was after he had procured Peter’s release from
an Army Mental Home in order that he could watch the first night
staging of his first play.
In 1946 he played the role of a benevolent surgeon on the film ‘A
Matter of Life and Death’ which was chosen as the first Royal
Command Performance. Following the war, in 1947 Roger and Ursula
starred in the West End in ‘Ever Since Paradise’ written and
directed for them by J.B. Priestly.
Then the worlds of Roger and Ursula came crashing down when, during
a tour of New York, Roger collapsed and almost died. He was
diagnosed has having cancer and doctors had no alternative but to
perform a colostomy to save his life. With most of their money eaten
up by American medical bills and Roger’s confidence and spirits at
rock bottom Ursula had to approach their friend, the internationally
know golfer Babe Zacharias, who had undergone such an operation
himself, for help in getting Roger fit to act again. The couple
returned to ‘Plough Cottage’ and, in order to help the community,
they opened a shop and post office in a nearby village, and Rogers’
convalescence began. During this time he contacted the South
Yorkshire Times asking if anyone could remember what Mexborough and
the Prince of Wales Theatre was like when his grandmother, father,
and aunts and uncles lived there and received a host of answers.
Encouraged by the high degree of feeling still held for the Livesey
Family in our town, and all the support he received, he returned to
In 1948 he made another film for TV and another in 1950. Everything
seemed to be getting back to normal and then tragedy struck once
again when Ursula was diagnosed with cancer. This time there was to
be no recovery and sadly she died 18mths later, having being nursed
throughout by Roger. Roger was heartbroken and could not bear to be
in the cottage which held so many memories and loaned it to a young,
local, homeless couple, while he lived at the post office. In 1975
he made his last acting appearance, in the TV series Benjamin
Franklin; he died of Colorectal Cancer, aged 69yrs. on 4th Feb.
His funeral was attended by a galaxy of star but these were eclipsed
by members of the local community. Even a very ill boy from a nearby
village, who Roger had regularly visited in hospital, insisted on
paying his last respects, even though he was, by this stage, in an
But that is not the end of the Livesey story. Roger and Ursula were
not blessed with children but their theatrical legacy did not die
with them. You read how, in the 2nd WW Roger and Ursula worked for
ENSA and how they helped young budding actors in many ways.
Following the end of the war some were struggling to obtain work and
gave up the stage. One of those, rescued by them, was Kenneth More,
who stared in the film ‘The North West Frontier’ with Ursula which
was on our TVs at Christmas. While working on the T.V. series ‘The
Pallisers’ they met a little girl, then aged 6yrs. Her parents were
going through a difficult period in their relationship and Roger and
Ursula wished to adopt her. They recognised in her a spark of acting
genius and in order to distract her from the unpleasantness at home
encouraged her outstanding acting ability. It didn’t matter where in
the world they were they kept in touch and continued to encourage
her. The little girl grew up to be the fine actress we now know as
Susan Hampshire who until recently could be seen acting alongside
Richard Briars in the TV series ‘Monarch of the Glen’.
Two fine actors, a legacy the Livesey Family, should be proud of.
Information obtained from:
Firstly thanks to Ron James for his help with respect to the
research into the family history of the Livesey Family.
Sam Livesey – IMDb, Wikipedia, South Yorkshire Times, photographic
archives of Mex. & Dist. Heritage Society
Jack, Barry, Peggy, Roger and Ursula, Livesey – Wikepeadia
Books: The History of the Hippodrome Theatre Mexborough 1893-1939 by
Wikipeadia: Architecture, The Lyceum Theatre Sheffield, Livesey
Family, Les Dawson & Roy Barraclough, Florrie Forde.
Personal Memories of: William Blount (the Electric Man) and Brian
Archives of Mex. & Dist. Heritage Society: Plan of the Paragon
Theatre and its situation in Mexborough; Livesey Family by Jill
Watt; Programme of the play ‘Caste’ 18th Dec. c1890 performed at the
Paragon Theatre; surviving portion of a book entitled ‘Old King
Coal’ author unknown; programme of ‘Rio Rita and ‘The Geisha’;
Newsletter dated Feb. 2000.
Ancestry.com: Census Returns; 1841, 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881, 1891,
1901, and 1911; Passenger lists.
Copyright: This newsletter may not be copied, in part or in its
entirety, without the permission of J.R. Ashby