Written by Terry Brown
Terry Brown is well known to our readers as he has contributed a number of discographies and articles of exceptional quality to our website and our Discographer Magazine.
Eileen Caroline ‘Tommie’ Dundas was born to Frank Harold Dundas and Florence Clark in the coastal town of Girvan, Ayrshire on 8 June 1908; the town from which she took her professional name. Primarily a dancer, showgirl and cabaret performer, she began her career working at the age of three with her father. Her father, Frank, was an experienced ‘light’ comedian and excellent vocal mimic, (part of whose act consisted of impersonating various singers), who ran a Pierrot concert party on the open air bandstand in Stair Park, near the sea front at Girvan for many years. Nora Wilson, a local resident recalled seeing Girvan at the time, ‘When she, (Girvan), was about six years of age she used to do a song and dance routine in the concert party run by her parents Frank and Florence on summer evenings just before and during the First World War. She used to bring the house down’. As the war progressed, Frank Dundas moved from the band stand to the stage and young Girvan went with him. They were very popular and spent almost the next eight years working constantly, usually as a double and sometimes separately, in scores of variety and cine-variety shows, pantomimes, reviews, (‘Fads and Fancies’ 1915), repertory, even the musical comedy, ‘Honeymoon Express’ (1916). Recalling this period Ms. Dundas said, ‘I played everything from Red Riding Hood to little Willie in ‘East Lynne’, and I worked very hard with my father, in variety shows principally, until I was 15, and then I branched out into musical comedy’. Indeed she did as Girvan got her first big break in late 1923, when she joined the touring production of the Gershwin show, ‘Tip- Toes’, starring Betty Balfour, in which Girvan was one of the principle dancers. After a year on the road, Girvan moved into a more settled existence dancing and singing in cabaret work, with spells over 1925/6 in the, ‘Midnight Follies’, at the Metropole Hotel and nearly a year in the ‘Piccadilly Revels’, at the Piccadilly Hotel.
Girvan got her first proper notice in ‘The Stage’ in June 1927. She had been appearing in the ‘Queen’s Club Cabaret’, for some time and when its producer Mme. Colette, decided to let each of her dancers have a go at producing numbers for the show themselves, her first choice was Girvan. ‘The Stage’ commented,
‘Girvan Dundas has done her work exceedingly well. The opening dance number is well dressed in blue and white dice costumes, followed by a good toe dancer clad in orange. Girvan Dundas is a good dancer, but she is not so successful as a singer’.
This comment probably alludes to the fact that Girvan had a deep contralto voice which was pretty unsuited to the majority of upbeat popular songs around at the time; later her sultry tones would become better appreciated and rated.
Just prior to ‘The Stage’ review, Girvan had married Jack Dunleavy Barker at St. Pancras Register Office in London on 13 May 1927. Girvan was aged 18 and Barker 24. Barker a pianist, accordion player and vocalist hailed from Tallarook, a small town in the State of Victoria in Australia. He had originally arrived in the UK, via South Africa, on 29 June 1925 as one of the Three Australian Boys, a piano, drums, banjo and vocal act created with partners, Hector McLennann and Leslie Ross, which they had formed in Melbourne in 1924, (originally as Ross’s Jazz band).
On their arrival in the UK, they were lucky enough to get booked into the Holborn Empire in London where by chance they were seen by an American agent (Edward Darling), of the Keith-Orpheum Theatre circuit. He liked the act and Barker and company went to the States on 17 October 1925, where they toured with considerable success, eventually returning to the UK on 8 June 1926.
It’s not known when Barker and Girvan got together, but the Three Australian Boys did a fair amount of cabaret work in London during the late twenties, and no doubt this is how they met up. By 1928, the Three Australian Boys had become a top variety turn and toured both here and on the continent and on occasions when she was not working elsewhere in cabaret, (usually for cabaret producer, Carl Hyson), in London, Girvan would join the act, to add a bit of high kicks and glamour. The boys made their recording debut on 18 October 1928 for Parlophone singing, From Monday On/Coo-ee ( ⦿ R249). More touring followed into 1929 and over January to July, the boys made 12 more sides for Parlophone.
With the continuing popularity of the Three Australian Boys, Barker decided to give his wife a chance to fully realise her own talents away from a cabaret setting, and in October 1929, he created a new act, initially billed as Jack Barker’s Three Happy Boys with Girvan Dundas, (later Girvan Dundas & her Three Happy Boys). Barker had recruited two singing musicians, (multi-instrumentalist Bill Airey-Smith and banjo/guitarist Billy Tringham) to back Girvan, as well as perform their own specialities. Yet again the act proved another popular variety attraction, which toured independently of the Three Australian Boys.
Girvan Dundas & her Three Happy Boys made their debut at the Hackney Empire on 21 October 1929, with a reviewer describing the act as,
‘An agreeable little turn made up of exhilarating singing and instrumental selections, that are ably assisted by Girvan Dundas, whose high-kicking dances are full of vitality’.
On 13th December 1929, the Three Australian Boys were booked onto the so called, ‘African Theatre’, circuit and left for South Africa, not returning till March 1930. Whilst her husband was away Girvan continued to tour with Airey-Smith and Tringham, (with a pianist), and entered a new area of the entertainment business, films. Girvan got a bit part in a short, PDC’s production, ‘Eve’s Fall’ with John Stuart. Girvan later explained,
‘It was rather funny how I got the job. At a party I met the casting director. He didn’t know my name or that I was an actress, and he thought I’d just do for the part. He didn’t know I’d been practising since I was three’.
She did other film work mainly for British International Pictures over 1930, including, ‘Kiss Me Sergeant’ in May and, ‘Almost a Honeymoon’, in July. As 1930 progressed Barker and Girvan continued to tour separately in their own acts and this separation seemed to become embedded when Girvan’s act joined US singers Layton & Johnson’s Road Show.
Billed as ‘Britain’s Premier Instrumental Singing and Dancing Presentation’, Girvan & her Three Happy Boys toured with Layton & Johnson continuously from November 1930 to December 1931, whilst Barker and the Three Australian Boys did the same, albeit elsewhere.
1932 followed a similar pattern, with occasional bit work in films for Girvan and both acts continuing to tour apart, including spells, (as in the previous year), in France, Holland and Germany. However, from February, Barker and Girvan developed a double act to fit into a review, ‘Happiness for Sale’ at the Palace Theatre, Reading, which they joined on 22nd, as juvenile lead and soubrette.
I should mention here a bit about Girvan’s song writing activities.
When Barker originally arrived in the UK with the Three Australian Boys, they had used material written by Australian songsmith, Jack O’Hagan (1898-1987), whom Barker had known well in Melbourne. Two titles, Carry On (1931) and Rambling Down the Highway (1932) had their lyrics, ‘anglicised’ by Girvan, and both were published here.
Girvan then began to write songs with her husband, including, probably their best known, How Do You Do Honolulu (1933) and later others.
Incidentally reports elsewhere that Jack Barker wrote under the name, Jack O’Hagan are untrue. They were two completely different people and both wrote under their own names (or pseudonyms). At the start of 1933, Girvan got a more substantial speaking/singing role in the film, ‘The Lost Chord’ with Elizabeth Allen (Associated Producers Distributors), but otherwise the year ahead appeared to be business as usual. But change was in the wind and following an appearance at the Tivoli, Aberdeen in April 1933, Barker decided to drop the Three Happy Boys act. Although he continued with the Three Australian Boys, he began to do more as a double with Girvan, including touring with Crazy Gang comedians, Nervo and Knox. It was shortly after this tour that Barker got an offer from Aussie impresario, J. C. Williamson to tour the Tivoli Theatre circuit in Australia. Barker and Girvan jumped at the chance.
On 7 July 1933, Girvan, Barker and fellow Australian Boy, Hector Mclennan, embarked on the S.S. Bendigo and set sail for Melbourne. (Leslie Ross remained in the UK, and with Barker and McLennan now out of the act, he set about creating his own Australian Boys, albeit with new recruits, including Teddy Simpson. Across the mid thirties, the newly created Three Australian Boys became a semi-permanent fixture on the Gaumont British cinema circuit in cine-variety. On the 2 July 1936, they made a short for Pathe and the act lasted till April 1937).
Meanwhile, Barker, Mclennan and Girvan arrived in Melbourne on 8 August 1933, where they were greeted with much excitement by the local press.
The following Headline and story come from, ‘The Daily News’, (Perth Australia) for 8 August 1933:
TOE-NAILS WITH A DIAMENTE HUE English Dancer Has Many Varnishes AGED 23, TWENTY YEARS ON STAGE
‘A girl, aged 23, who has danced for her living since she was three; whose father and grandfather were on the stage before her; who is married to a vaudeville artist, is a ‘blues’ singer, dancer and impersonator, has worked in films, wears the latest French fashions in hats and dresses, has a variety of nail varnishes — and has varnished toe nails peeping through silver sandals at night — Miss Girvan Dundas, English actress, who arrived in Australia on the Bendigo today. Miss Dundas, who has been touring in France, Germany and Holland, as well as in London for the past two years, was for 12 months a hostess in the Piccadilly Hotel Cabaret, noted for its pretty girls. The resort of film stars and famous people, it had among its visitors the Prince of Wales, whom Miss Dundas described as ‘just an average, pleasant sort of chap’. Blues singer, dancer and impersonator, Miss Dundas has known variety in her work. Miss Dundas has the air of a Parisian, dark coloring, delightful dress sense and the ‘windswept’ bob that the French woman would not abandon this summer. She was wearing the ubiquitous white hat of the Continental summer, a panama, in the Greta Garbo adaptation of the masculine Trilby shape. She brings with her wardrobe nail varnishes to match each frock — green, black, gold, red diamente, among them. With her husband-, Mr. A. H. Barker, and a third player Miss Dundas will visit the capital cities on tour’.
‘The West Australian’, for 9 August 1933 gushed,
LONDON’S LATEST HAT Variety Actress Visits Australia
‘Wearing a smart Trilby hat over hair cut in the latest wind-swept style, Miss Girvan Dundas (Mrs. Jack Barker) had her first glimpse of Australia from the deck of the Bendigo yesterday morning. The Trilby hat, Miss Dundas explained, was quite the latest thing in London and derived its name from similar headgear worn by men. The model she was wearing was of white felt, set jauntily on the side of the head. The brim was straight and about two inches wide, and the crown was dented in mannish style. A black ribbon band was its only trimming. ‘London men are wearing hats that are very similar at present,’ Miss Dundas added, ‘only theirs are known as ‘curlers’’. Miss Dundas has appeared on the London stage, and has also danced and sung at various night clubs, and cabarets. Before sailing for Australia, she had been appearing in variety shows in London, and had also made several talking pictures with Warner Brothers and British International Pictures. She enjoyed talkie work immensely, she said, and had been fortunate in having her voice, which was very deep, record well. Although this visit to Australia is being made primarily to see her husband’s people in Melbourne, Miss Dundas hopes to appear both on the Australian stage and in Australian films. Her husband, Mr. Jack Barker, is one of the ‘Three Australian Boys’, who have met with success as variety artists in England, America and on the Continent’.
‘The Adelaide Advertiser’, also chimed in, (albeit rather ignoring Girvan), on 14 August:
GREEN TWEEDS AND SPOTTED TIES Something New For Men
‘Wearing a bright green tweed suit and a spotted white tie to match, Mr. H. H. McLennan, an Australian vaudeville star, was a centre of interest when he stepped ashore from the Bendigo at the Outer Harbor on Saturday. The wearer told an interviewer that he thought green tweeds would be regarded as the correct thing among well dressed men in Adelaide very shortly. He added that every well-dressed man in London was adopting green tweeds for street and office wear. “Some fellows are wearing grey green tweeds, but that is a mistake.” he said. “Grey-green is mainly grey, with a faint green stripe and is definitely unbecoming. But the real green, or the new green, is hard to resist. White ties, with spots or horseshoe designs to match the color or the suit, are very fashionable now. The brims of hats are very narrow, and the latest style is the camber curl. The hat is small crowned, and has a narrow, unbound brim, which is curled up all the way round. It gives a rakish appearance.” Mr. McLennan and Mr. Jack Barker who is returning with him, are original members of the ‘Three Australian Boys” act, and they have been away from Australia for eight years, during which time they have toured England, the Continent, and America. The third member of the act – Leslie Ross – has remained in England. Messrs. McLennan and Barker will engage another artist in Melbourne, and will probably play in all the capital cities. They expect to return to England in about 12 months. Also travelling on the Bendigo is Miss Girvan Dundas, an English dancer’.
In the end Barker, Mclennan and Girven did not add another performer, and as a threesome they opened on 11 September at the Tivoli, Melbourne, in the review, ‘Hotcha’, ‘An entertainment of novelty and originality’, with a run to October. They then moved at the start of November into the Tivoli, Sydney, in, ‘This and That’, followed by ‘Wy Wurry’, then onto the Melbourne, Tivoli in December in ‘The Spice of Life’.
This review was booked to go into Theatre Royal, Adelaide on 4 March 1934, but for reasons unknown, at the end of the Tivoli run, Barker and Girvan, (minus Hector McLennan, who stayed put) decided to return to the UK and on 11 April 1934, Barker and Girvan arrived from Melbourne at Tilbury Docks, back in London. Barker immediately began to cast around for new variety ideas and found it in the person of US born pianist/vocalist, John, ‘Johnny’, Phillip Walsh who had arrived in the UK as an, ‘actor’, in November 1933. Teaming up as, ‘Walsh and Barker’ in May 1934, they began to get some good cabaret and variety bookings. (Incidentally, Walsh and Barker always billed themselves as, ‘The American Duettists’ although only Johnny Walsh was from the US and of course Barker was Australian). Girvan also found work almost immediately back in the UK when she rejoined Carl Hysons Agency (for whom she had worked on and off in the twenties), joining the cabaret he had put into the Café Anglais in London’s Leicester Square. With Barker’s new act doing well and Girvan back in cabaret, all seemed well until one evening at the Café Anglais, the 30 August 1934 to be precise, a group of friends including London born jockey, Charles James William Smirke (1906-1993), who was celebrating a win at the races, as noted in his autobiography, ‘Finishing Post’ (1960).
‘The head waiter approached me as the lights dimmed and the band took over for dance music (Louis Simmons & his Band were resident at the time), and a tall brunette stepped up to the microphone. “Is there any special number you would like, Mr Smirke?” I settled for the Cole Porter tune Night and Day. That long-legged curvaceous brunette sang it, gazing at me as if we were the only two people in the room. When the lights went up again I asked the head waiter to invite her to our table to take a glass of champagne. She seemed to know all about me and my riding career and flattered me-let’s admit that I had both ears flapping open- with extravagant praises for my Derby winning efforts a few months earlier. I was hooked. And fell hard. This cabaret singer used the stage name of Tommie Dundas, (Girvan actually rarely used this nickname as far as I’m aware), and was the estranged wife of Jack Barker, another notable performer of that era’.
(Smirke’s comment here is disingenuous as Barker and Girvan gave no indication of marital problems at the time and there is no evidence that they were, at least then ‘estranged’).
He went on,
‘Tommie was all woman and in every way, a striking contrast to Alice, (his then wife). This difference became all too much for me for I had never met her like before’.
Smirke then says he, ‘set about getting my divorce’ (from his own wife). However, he did no such thing. He entered into an adulterous affair with Girvan that lasted to 1937, something we will return to later.
But let’s get back to 1934…
Towards the end of the year, Walsh & Barker made a record for Regal Zonophone ( ⦿ MR1493), two slightly risqué titles, Ding Dong, Ping, Pong and Daisy, Tessie and Mabel, and they made their radio debut on 5 October 1934. Girvan managed to get a job as a, ‘croonerette’ (to use the parlance of the time), with the Band of US pianist Charlie Kunz, then resident at the Casani Club, in London’s Regent Street.
Girvan’s career as a band singer rapidly took off and she made her radio debut with the band on 11 January 1935 and in a brief reference to this appearance told the Daily Mirror how, ‘At the age of 15, (she), got engaged twice in one year, to show off, (her) rings and make the other girls envious’.
On 12 January 1935, she began recording with Kunz for the British Homophone Company, singing two titles twice, Looking for a Little Bit of Blue and Home James, and Don’t Spare the Horses, issued on the 10” Sterno label, with shorter versions for the 8”, Plaza and Lewis labels.
In an interview, given in the 12th January edition of, ‘Popular Music and Dancing Weekly’, Girvan gave a rundown of her career to date and told the interviewer,
‘I’m still a bit dazed about this delightful new life of crooning. At present I think I’m only fair. But I hope to get very much better soon. Pat Hyde’s my favourite crooner and when I’m as good as she is, I’ll be happier’.
The interviewer noted that she had been married for eight years to Jack Barker of Walsh & Barker, the variety duettists. Girvan recorded further sides with Kunz on 5 February 1935, How Can You Face Me, and Pop, Goes Your Heart, again recording them twice for the respective Sterno and Plaza issues. Later in the month, Kunz dropped Girvan for reasons unknown and her affair with Smirke continued whilst Walsh & Barker rose to the top rank in variety and cabaret.
As the year progressed, Girvan got a featured spot in the Dorchester Follies at the Dorchester Hotel and in mid-1935, Walsh and Barker made their film debut in a British Lion musical short, followed by one at Pathe, with another 11 appearances in Pathe shorts between 1936 and 1941.
Over the balance of 1935 to early 1936, Girvan disappears off the radar but probably continued performing in cabaret. Jack Barker continued his double with Johnny Walsh with great success and in late March 1936 they got an offer to go to the States to appear in New York. Walsh and Barker boarded the S.S. Ile de France on 15 April 1936 for New York arriving on 21st, and headed for the George Washington Hotel.
Interestingly Girvan did not accompany him at that time, probably because by then he had become aware of her affair with Charley Smirke. Walsh and Barker, billed this time and again erroneously as, ‘British Singing Comedians’ opened at New York’s Savoy Plaza Hotel, ‘Café Lounge’, on 25 May to popular acclaim. But assuming by then that Barker and Girvan had indeed become ‘estranged’ on 3 June 1936 Girvan Barker, ‘Theatrical’ age 26, departed on the Ile de France from Southampton and headed for New York. On arrival, on 9 June she told US immigration that she was going to join her husband, J D Barker, already in NYC. It’s not known if this trip was at Barker’s instigation or Girvan’s, but if Barker had become aware of Girvan’s infidelity perhaps it was an attempt at reconciliation? Walsh and Barker completed their first season at the Savoy Plaza on 6 July and then had a break, perhaps time for Barker and Girvan to patch things up, but this doesn’t seem to have worked out as Girvan returned to the UK alone on the Ile de France arriving on 19 August 1936.
Girvan and Smirke seem to have maintained their relationship although it seems to have been a pretty rough relationship. In his autobiography Smirke was quite vicious about Girvan. He asserted,
‘It was only later that I came to realise how her beauty of face and figure veiled a savage jealousy of temperament and a quite unsuspected spirit of mercenary pettiness’. Continuing he said, ‘I had always been a free spender, but a bad book keeper. Alice, (his wife) had the way of equating one mood with the other, and I naturally thought that Tommie could manage my affairs, in the same way and appointed her my banker. From that moment on, I realised what a great mistake I had committed-for I would have to plead with her to allow me to go away to the races with as much as £5.00., the great romance began to look like ‘Cinderella’ in reverse. I was doing all the hard work, while she was grabbing, and keeping a tight hold on all the money’.
What Jack Barker must have felt whilst all this was going on can only be imagined. Walsh and Barker remained a top act and began to make regular television appearances on the fledgling BBC London service. As to Girvan, again any cabaret work went unreported, and in the light of what is described below she appears to have dropped out of the business altogether at this time. Anyway, later in the year the Girvan/Smirke situation came to a head. On the 8 October 1937, Smirke divorced his wife, Alice in an uncontested case and on 2 November 1937, Barker obtained a decree nisi from Girvan on the grounds of adultery with Smirke, ‘at a flat in Jermyn Street’. But the Smirke/Girvan shenanigans rolled on. According to Smirke,
‘I was watched like a hawk, which you can imagine did not suit me a bit, and there is nothing worse than to be mistrusted. (Very rich, coming from an adulterer!). I decided to make a break but she wouldn’t let me go, saying she loved me, but that if I married her she would give my money back’.
So, on 13 August 1938 at Epsom Registry Office, Girvan and Smirke married. Smirke recalled,
‘We did not even look at each other during the brief ceremony-and we left by separate doors’.
Smirke then described how he took off alone for a trip to Jamaica later in the year only to find Girvan waiting for him at the station. They left on the ‘Ariquani’, on 16 December 1938. Girvan was recorded, simply as, ‘wife’, again indicating that at this time she was out of the entertainment business. Smirke noted about the crossing,
‘I need hardly add that not only was the sea stormy. We barely spoke during the voyage and when we arrived at our final destination-Kingston-I stayed one night and returned on the same boat to England-hoping to dodge her once again’.
In fact Girvan and Smirke travelled back together on the ‘Ariquani’, arriving in Bristol on 16 January 1939, again Smirke was recorded as a ‘jockey’ and Girvan simply as his ‘wife’. Smirke continued in his autobiography,
‘We played this game of cat and mouse till life became unbearable, and a few weeks later, I decided on straightforward tactics, and went to visit Alice, (his ex-wife) in her flat’.
According to Smirke this incident with Alice, led to Smirke’s divorce from Girvan. However on 3 June 1939, we were given a slightly different slant on the Girvan/Smirke marriage, from Girvan herself, when she was sued by Bentall’s Department store for the non-payment of £4.17.6d. In a Daily Mirror article, headlined, ‘He Left Me On The Day We Wed’, the following appeared,
‘Mrs Girvan Eileen Caroline Smirke, wife of Charlie Smirke, the jockey, said at Kingston County Court yesterday, that her husband deserted her on her wedding day last August, (1938). ‘There have been various reconciliations’, she added, ‘but he left me finally last January and has not paid me maintenance since then. He earns £8,000.00 a year, including £2,000.00 retainer from the Aga Khan’. Sued by Bentall’s, she denied liability on the ground that she was entitled to pledge his credit. Judgement was given for the company. ‘I had to get work as a cabaret artist, ‘ she said, ‘ I earn £8.00 a week, but have to pay £2.00 for the flat, £1.00 for a maid, £2.00 for car hire and have to buy my own evening dresses’. The story concludes by saying, ‘Proceedings are pending in the divorce court on the grounds of desertion’.
Whatever the truth, Girvan and Smirke were divorced shortly afterwards, although I’ve not been able to trace the exact date. As to the nature of Girvan’s cabaret work, this would appear to be back at the Café Anglais, which at the time had Harry Roy’s band in situ. Another singer, Kay Harding writing in 1987, recalled,
‘I started singing for Harry Roy at the beginning of 1940 at the Café Anglais. I was very young and unsophisticated and not used to the West End. Tommie was working with the band and was very worldly, so Harry asked her to look after me. We both sang with the band and after a while we went on tour. I was living with my parents and Tommie had a mews flat in Paddington. She was a good sort and had a good sense of humour, but she never mentioned her family. We both made records for Harry Roy and she left the band before I did’.
Girvan made three records with Harry Roy, with a contingent of the main band, known as the Tiger Ragamuffins, ‘Oh, Johnny’ (6 March 1940 – ⦿ Parlophone F1692); ‘She Had To Go And Lose It At The Astor’ (3 March 1940 – ⦿ Parlophone F1698) where Girvan sings with other band members, and ‘Playmates’ (3 March 1940 – ⦿ Parlophone F1706) as one of Harry’s vocal group, the ‘Sweethearts of Swing’ who were Girvan, Kay Harding and Jean D’Arcy.
Apart from the Café Anglais, Girvan and the band played the Stratford Empire week commencing 25 March 1940, and at the Finsbury Park Empire, week commencing 1 April 1940, although she left the band on 5 April, for reasons unknown. What is known is that she was recruited by ENSA not long after this and did extensive touring, entertaining troops and factory workers up and down the UK. The last substantiated appearance of Girvan was in a review, ‘Let Loose’, starring Renee Houston and Donald Stewart, which opened in Swansea on 21 September 1942 and toured till late November, finishing at the Tivoli, in Aberdeen. I have been unable to trace Girvan’s activities after this time, but she probably did more ENSA work, given the opportunity. Girvan’s tumultuous career unfortunately came to a sad and tragic end when she died suddenly from probably undiagnosed cancer on 6 September 1944, at the Samaritan Free Hospital in London, aged just 36.
But what a life she led.
KEY: ⦿ 78rpm