Miss Janet Alexander


Star of stage, screen and briefly television
1878-1961

Janet Alexander
Janet Alexander on a Wills cigarette card.
Image source: New York Public Library (Image ID 408846).

No, I've never heard of her either, but she was born in Ewell, lived there for the first few years of her life and was apparently quite famous back in the day. Her full name was Kate Janet Alexander, christened at St Mary's, Ewell on 13 August 1878, although she seemed to give her date of birth as 1880 for professional reasons. The cigarette card pictured above is one of a set of 50 actresses and, despite the fact they are all unknown to me, they must have been big years ago to get into a highly popular cigarette packet.

Parents

Her father was Charles Dallas Alexander, born 1839 Calcutta; he graduated from Cambridge with an MA and was a civil engineer originally. Subsequently he looks to have been admitted to Lincoln's Inn as a barrister and then became a schoolmaster. He married Helen Kate Shuldham (born c.1851 Berwick) in 1874. Initially they lived in London and Wimbledon but in about 1878 they came to Ewell, where Charles ran the Grange School. The other Alexander children are shown below.

William DallasBorn 1875 Wimbledon, died 1944 Surrey. Awarded the DSO during WW1.
Molyneux Shuldham*Born and died 1876 Kensington district.
Charles Shuldham Born 1877 Wimbledondied 1950 Westminster.
Ernest Dundas Born 1879 Ewelldied 1959.
William Stuart Haldane** Born 1880 Ewellprobably died 1955 Surrey.
Honoria Helen Kathleen Born c.1889 Hammersmithdied 1913 Mundesley Norfolk.
*named after Helen's father, Molyneux Pooley Shuldham.
**it seems odd to have two children called William, but that was the case.

The Grange
The Grange. Date not known
Image source: Bourne Hall Museum.

Something very serious seems to have happened in this family. I have no firm evidence, but suspect that Charles Senior had major psychiatric issues, for in both the 1901 and 1911 censuses he was a private mental patient and Helen was living elsewhere. In any event they had all left Ewell by 1886, when the Grange School became Ewell Monastery. Charles died in Kent in 1917, followed by Helen in 1927, then living in Berkshire. There is no sign of the Alexanders in the 1891 census, apart from Kate Janet and William Dallas, who were with a relative and governess, and in the 1911 census William Stuart Haldane Alexander was living in a doctor's house as a mental patient. This all seems very sad and it does look as if the family rather fell apart somewhere in the late 1880s.

Janet

As just mentioned, Janet and brother William the Elder were with a relative in 1891: he was Colonel William Stuart, a widower, and he had a houseful of daughters, relatives and servants at his substantial establishment in Tempsford, Bedfordshire. Janet and William are described as the Colonel's cousins and he looks to be on the Alexander side of the family.

An internet source, which appears to be reliable, says that Janet went to the Henry Neville drama school and we can pick her up definitely in 1901 when she is boarding in Southport, described as being in the 'dramatic profession' and aged 21, so she had already started shaving off a couple of years. I was, though, considerably surprised at the names of her fellow boarders - Osmond and Godfrey Tearle. You need to be of a certain age to remember Godfrey, and he was only 16 at this point, but I have heard of him and saw some of his films on a faltering black and white Radio Rentals TV. He was eventually knighted for services to drama. In 1901, though, he was treading the boards with his father's theatrical company, doing a week's run (involving a different Shakespearean play each night) in each town. Janet was not with the Tearles but touring with a different company, led by J Egerton Hubbard and Harcourt Beatty, and receiving good reviews, although not yet playing leads.

According to one review, Miss Alexander 'hails from the Emerald Isle', which is not a name I have ever heard used for Ewell, but this was showbiz and good copy for the flamboyant papers of the time. In her early days as an actress the plays she performed in were fairly light (comedies quite often), but she made the most of them. This snippet appeared in the Gloucester Citizen of 28 April 1903: 'Referring to the dramatis personae, first mention must be made of Miss Janet Alexander, who is particularly pleasing as Blanche Chilworth. Miss Alexander presents the finished character cleverly, and much of the success of Monday evening's performance was due to her effort'.

In 1907 Janet married actor Lauderdale Maitland (Lauderdale Valentine John Maitland, born 1878, Croydon) and this is around the time she began to play more dramatic parts, often opposite him in leading roles.

Lauderdale Maitland with actress Nora Kerin in 'The Prince and The Beggar Maid' c.1908.
Postcard image of Lauderdale Maitland
with actress Nora Kerin in 'The Prince and The Beggar Maid' c.1908.
Image source: Linda Jackson © 2015

Obviously I cannot deal with all the stage appearances, of which there were many, but here is a review of just one.

Metropole

'The Apple of Eden', a new romantic play, produced last night at the Metropole Theatre before good audiences, is an unusually good specimen of its kind. Laying the scene of his story in Slavonia, one of the smaller and more turbulent of European States, the author, Mr G Carlton Wallace, finds for his plot plenty of good material in the intrigues, both political and domestic, of the Court. A mad King, a much-wronged Queen, a scheming Prince and a fine type of Britisher playing the part of the 'deus ex machina'*, are discriminatingly used to form a really good plot. The situations are strong, the dialogue is well written and the denouement is powerful. Last night the acting was thoroughly capable. Mr L Maitland did well as Julian Hanbury …Miss Janet Alexander, in the part of Queen Margaret, throughout showed herself to be an actress of exceptional ability.

Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, 24 January 1911
*in this play, the term would mean the intervention of a character who suddenly resolves a seemingly unsolvable situation.

By 1916 Janet was making silent films and her first decent part seems to have been in 'A Fallen Star' with Albert Chevalier. She made four films in that year, including one co-starring her husband. In 1919 she starred with Godfrey Tearle and Lauderdale in 'Queen's Evidence". Her film parts tailed off as the talkies came in, but, of course, by the end of the 1920s she was in her 40s (or probably not, if you had asked her age at the time), so parts were very likely more scarce. In 1930 she was in a comedy called 'The Compulsory Husband', which starred Monty Banks (now remembered for being the first husband of Gracie Fields rather than for his career, which hit the skids after the introduction of talkies because he had a strong Italian accent), and she played the mother of his fiancée. That same year she had what seems to be her last film role, again as a parent, in 'No Exit', starring John Stuart, who was an enduring and popular film actor over several decades - my mother thought he was gorgeous. The IMDb website has details on 21 Janet Alexander films from 1916-30.

Lauderdale had died suddenly in 1929 and this probably had much to do with Janet's retirement, but she did make a brief comeback during the 1950s - on American television, in 'Robert Montgomery Presents' (Mr Montgomery was another of mother's heartthrobs and father to the late actress Elizabeth Montgomery who starred in the long-running TV series 'Bewitched' in the 1960s and 70s). Janet was involved in writing, journalism and editing after her showbusiness retirement.

No, don't go yet - there is a further instalment. Janet was a long-time friend and colleague of Sir John Alexander Hammerton (I believe she must have worked as his assistant) and if you have access to the Oxford DNB, there is a detailed article about him; the one in Wikipedia is not that good but gives you an idea of the man. His main claim to fame was as an author and editor of reference works and the Oxford DNB says that 'he was the most successful creator of large-scale reference works Britain has known'. Significantly, he was a big fan of the theatre and once managed a theatre company in Eastbourne. His first wife died in 1948 and on 1 February 1949 he married Janet; they lived in Eastbourne, but, sadly, Hammerton died suddenly on 12 May of that same year. Janet died on 28 June 1961, then living in London. There are some nice photographs of Janet on the National Portrait Gallery website.

Linda Jackson © 2015.