Growing up, says choirmaster Gareth Malone, his parents were “always singing” around the house. Amateur dramatics enthusiasts, they passed their enthusiasm for music and performance to their son. “In my DNA, there’s a little switch for singing and it’s on,” Gareth jokes.
Gareth is therefore particularly keen to find out about two forebears who, family stories suggest, also worked in showbiz: actor Edmund Payne and impresario Daniel Lowrey.
Gareth begins by researching the life of his great great grandfather, Edmund Payne. There’s plenty of archive material on Edmund’s career available. That’s because, as Gareth discovers amidst the splendour of Her Majesty’s Theatre, Edmund was a successful comic actor, well known enough to have performed for George V at a Coronation Gala Performance in June 1911.
Noted for his comic lisp, Edmund was, according to one account, “a real funnyman who was never vulgar”. Gareth is delighted with what he’s discovered. “He was somebody who could make people laugh and what’s better than that?” he says.
Donning a pair of headphones at the British Library, Gareth was able to find a recording of Edmund Payne performing a comic song
There’s more: in Stoke Newington, Gareth meets a cousin, Leslie, one of Edmund’s descendants, who’s able to give Gareth a DVD of their forebear performing. Gareth shows this to his family, including his grandfather, who never met Edmund and says, “I’ve wanted to see this for 94 years.” Gareth concludes his research at the British Library, where he listens to a recording of Edmund performing a comic song.
Gareth next turns his attention to his 4x great grandfather, Daniel Lowrey. Family legend suggests Daniel was from Dublin, but the first trace of him is in Leeds, where the census reveals Daniel was the son of a weaver and shows him working as a dyer. This doesn’t sound too much like a showbiz figure. The 1851 census reveals that Daniel moved across the Pennines to Liverpool. How was he making a living? Initially, Gareth can’t read the document, but then he realises Daniel’s profession is listed as “sings at concerts”.
Meeting theatre historian Dr Caroline Radcliffe at a Liverpool pub, Gareth learns more about Daniel’s life in the city. According to an 1857 trade directory, Daniel became a publican. A copy of theatrical newspaper The Era, from 1859, reveals more about Daniel, in a listing that describes him as: “The greatest Irish singer of the present day, bar none.”
Professor Kevin Rockett told Gareth about Dan Lowrey’s attempts to revive his career in Ireland
Daniel, it turns out, converted his pub to be the Malakoff Music Hall, and a photograph of Daniel shows a man who “looks like he can handle himself”. Which might have been necessary because the venue was close to the docks, where things could get rough. Daniel was also a confident self-publicist, who placed a statue of himself on the façade of his music hall, and in 1870 stood for election as an independent in a safe Conservative council ward.
In 1871, perhaps because his bid for office was treated as a bit of a joke by the local media, Daniel moved to Dublin. Or perhaps Daniel moved because he spotted an opportunity. Daniel became the proprietor of the Erin Music Hall, a far bigger and grander establishment than his Liverpool operation. It was successful, and today it’s called the Olympia.
Gareth sees a picture of Daniel, genuinely a self-made man, at the venue. “How wonderful it is to be related to somebody like that,” he concludes.