WALLS, Thomas Kirby (1883-1949)
Image Source Wikipedia
Tom Walls was born in Northamptonshire on February 18th 1883, he later recalled that while still at school he attended horse race meetings at the local track, and was enthralled by the power of the horses, and the smell and feel of the turf. It was the start of a life-long love of horses and racing that eventually brought him to Ewell.
He started his working life by fulfilling a dream to be a locomotive driver; he then decided to become a detective. However three months of pounding the beat as a Metropolitan Police Constable was sufficient to dull the notion. By nature, a romantic, he turned to acting.
His first appearance on stage was in pantomime at Glasgow in 1905, he later toured Australia and America, but his major theatrical success commenced in 1922, when with fellow Epsom resident Ralph Lynn, he began a long run of "farces" at the Aldwych Theatre, these included Dirty Work, Tons of Money, It Pays to Advertise, and A Cup of Kindness. Ben Travers wrote many of the "Aldwych farces"; and the trio of Walls, Lynn, and Travers (frequently joined by Yvonne Arnaud and Robertson Hare) enjoyed unprecedented success in the London theatres. Walls eventually became a partner in the Aldwych Theatre, and directed several productions, notably The Cuckoos Nest.
In 1927 Walls took over the Fortune Theatre.
He later turned to the cinema; and starred in 36 films, (see Filmography below). He bought the film rights to some of the shows, and directed 23 films. He produced Old Iron (1938), and Tons of Money (1926), and wrote the screenplay for A Night Like This (1932).
He commenced training racehorses in 1917; he was based first at The Paddocks in Windmill Lane, Ewell, and circa 1927 bought The Grange, (subsequently re-named The Looe) in Reigate Road, Ewell. Tom Walls' combination of a full and varied show business career and his other career as a trainer, jockey and huntsman attracted considerable public interest.
In a press interview on 12th November 1927 Walls, in response to the question, "How do you find time to combine two careers?"
explained that after appearing at Aldwych Theatre he was rarely in bed before 1.30 a.m.
"It is a fuller day than most men's because of my twin interests… the stage and horses. My fifteen horses alone are enough to keep me fully employed; I always make a rule of saddling my own horse in a race. In wintertime I hunt on at least one day a week, and I usually manage to squeeze in one day shooting in every week in the season. When I am producing a play it does not materially affect my daily programme. Although I make a rule of personally inspecting every detail of the play's costume, scenery and lighting."
Tom also hunted with the Sussex Staghounds. He was involved in a serious fall while hunting near Lewes. He insisted on going to the Aldwych that night where he was due to appear in "Marry The Girl"; however, despite his protests he was ruled unfit to appear, and subsequently spent some time in a nursing home after infection set in, before subsequently re-appearing to supervise his horses from a wheelchair.
His major success as a trainer came with April The Fifth, a horse he owned in partnership with Mr Sidney McGregor. A late maturing two year old, April The Fifth had three unplaced runs in its first season, but at three won the Lingfield Derby Trial, prior to winning the 1932 Derby at 100-6, making Tom the only Epsom based trainer to win an Epsom Derby in the twentieth century. The crowd was so large that despite Tom allowing ninety minutes for the two-mile journey from Ewell to Epsom Downs, the horse was forced to walk the last half-mile through the crowd.
Tom Wallis on the 1932 Derby winner April the Fifth
Image Source: The Daily Mirror 2 June 1932
The Daily Express, under the headline, "Tom Walls Victory Party, Ewell, Surrey" reported
"I am going to win the St Leger with April The Fifth, and that will be his last race," Mr. Tom Walls the actor and owner of the Derby Winner told me tonight as I walked with him round his beautiful garden at The Grange. It was hard to believe that this comedy actor, dressed in flannels, a cricket shirt, and white sweater was the man who a few hours before had won the greatest race in the world, and afterwards had been congratulated by the King and Queen. "I was pleased when the King asked me about my stables," Mr Walls told me," also, he asked me many practical questions on how I train my horses and how the Epsom air suited them. He was so interested he kept me talking for some time."
Steve Donoghue and Tom Walls outside Tom Walls House
Image source not known
In the Daily Mail, Eric Rickman reported,
"The success of April The Fifth, owned partly by Tom Walls the actor-manger and trained by him at Epsom was one of the most romantic triumphs in the long history of this great race. An actor who can get up early in the morning and train a Derby winner before he leaves for the managerial office or the film studio, an actor who never fails to amuse, and a keen, competent horseman liked and admired by all who meet him, such is the man who has won this Derby. No wonder the crowd cheered."
In The Daily Telegraph, Hotspur noted,
"Never have I seen a Derby winner come from behind as he did to make up so much ground. It was simply irresistible. After nearly a hundred years it has been demonstrated that a Derby winner can be trained at Epsom."
The Daily Express followed up with a story of how Tom "lay at death's door"
the previous year after a hunting accident, and his faith in the horse's potential kept him involved with training.
"It is said the actor won £40,000 in bets alone yesterday, and apart from that any Derby winner is worth £40,000 in stud fees, in addition to the Derby stakes of £6,000. He has been associated with eleven successful productions in the last ten years at the Aldwych Theatre, and has taken millions through the box office"
The Leader June 7th 1932 quoted Tom, under the headline "My Candid Advice To Competitors by Tom Walls"
"There is a lesson for my competitors in my Derby success, and that is stick to it. I nearly gave up racing after my illness, but I had confidence in April The Fifth. I have had my reward, the same spirit may bring success to your door."
There is a 1933 movie clip of Tom Walls playing The Mayor
in "The Cuckoo in the Nest"
on the British Pathé
Meanwhile Tom's son, Tom Walls junior was making his mark as a jockey, and father and son rode in the same race at Lewes on 31st August 1932. Tom junior had attended Harrow School, and then Sandhurst, before serving in The Guards. Tom Walls claimed that the highlight of his turf career was when his son rode Crafty Alice to victory in the Grand Military Gold Cup. "Although I won the Derby with April The Fifth in 1932 there is no gold trophy. All my life I have wanted a gold trophy, and Young Tom has realised that ambition."
Tom Walls, senior, looking on as his son Tom Wallis riding Crafty Alice
the winner of the 1934 Grand Military Gold Cup
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum
Prior to the opening night of "On Approval", Tom explained the reasons behind the switch from stage to screen. He told the Press that "Rookery Nook", which he had produced on stage and screen, was now a major screen success; "It took £2,500 last week at Portsmouth, if a play took half that figure it was a huge success. The talkie has run for sixteen weeks at Melbourne, and is now in its ninth week at Sydney. The stage show lasted three weeks in Melbourne and four at Sydney. I was the first theatrical manager to take off my tours, and the above figures give an idea to my reasons."
Tom Walls gave the impression of vast success. Journalist John Glidden visited The Looe, at this time.
"The stables are reached from the gardens, and they are an imposing site. The staff live in a special bungalow. Tom left the paddocks to show me the kennels. After visiting the hot houses where Tom grows vines, we walked back to the house through the beautifully kept gardens. Before going upstairs I looked in at the dining room with its impressive array of silver racing trophies. The Hall is the most spacious room in the house and the big velvet chairs and settees in crimson looked very well against the stone wall. It was the butler who acted as my escort when I was shown the room of Tom Walls junior who is at present at Sandhurst. The guest rooms at The Looe are named in the pleasant old fashioned way, there is the blue room on the right at the top of the house, the Japanese room where all the furniture is lacquer, and from the single window you get some idea of the extent of the estate. I watched the ploughman at work in the fields, and saw the farm where Tom produces all his dairy produce."
Walls expanded his business empire to include Wansford Quarry near Peterborough. Part of the House Of Lords was rebuilt using stone from the quarry, Tom with his customary outlandish style announced that on top of his other achievements, he was now rebuilding parliament.
After the economics of film production changed following the Cinematography Act, in 1938Tom returned to the role of actor only, however the transition from actor to producer and back again proved difficult; Tom's habit of exercising his horses before appearing on set was not compatible with production, and on one occasion he asked the producer if filming could be abandoned for a few days while he went grouse shooting.
Despite the outward signs of great wealth, all was not as it seemed. Several business ventures were unsuccessful, notably the purchase of the Fortune Theatre. Tom had resisted the offers to sell April The Fifth following the Derby success, instead he leased stud premises at Chertsey where April The Fifth had not been successful, and the bills were mounting. The quarry business was also showing a loss. The early years of the war halted film production, and decimated the racing programme. Despite the Derby win, there is no doubt that the stables, where Tom had few outside owners was an expensive business.
Tom Walls died on 27th November 1949. On the 21st and 22nd June 1950 the contents of his house, The Looe, Ewell, were sold en situ. The auction included 461 lots, sold over four sessions. In addition to the farm, garden, and stable equipment, there were twenty-two water-colours, nine oil paintings, six lots of table china, five lots of silverware, twelve lots of table glass, and a vast array of antique furniture. The billiard room alone yielded forty-five lots.
After the realisation of the assets, and the payment of debts, his estate yielded only a few thousand pounds. Tom's lifestyle took a lot of financing, running a stable as an owner-trainer is an expensive business, and some of the business ventures were not as profitable as they appeared. Tom Walls remains one of the most charismatic personalities the Turf as seen, as one obituary writer observed, "He lived the life of three men, but spent the salary of six."
Bill Eacott © 2012
Actor (36 titles)
1949 The Interrupted Journey
1949 Maytime in Mayfair
(Tom Walls junior also appeared)
1948 Spring in Park Lane
Uncle Joshua Howard
(Tom Walls junior also appeared)
1947 While I Live
1947 Master of Bankdam
Simeon Crowther Sr.
1946 This Man Is Mine
1945 Johnny Frenchman
1944 Love Story
1944 The Halfway House
Captain Harry Meadows
1943 They Met in the Dark
1939 The Van Dyck (TV movie)
Arthur Blair Woldingham
1938 Old Iron
Sir Henry Woodstock
1938 Strange Boarders
1938 Second Best Bed
1937 For Valour
1936 Dishonour Bright
1936 Pot Luck
1935 Foreign Affaires
Capt. the Hon. Archibald Gore
1935 Stormy Weather
Sir Duncan Craggs
1935 Me and Marlborough
John Churchill - Duke of Marlborough
1935 Fighting Stock
Brig. Gen. Sir Donald Rowley
1934 Lady in Danger
1934 A Cup of Kindness
1933 Turkey Time
1933 A Cuckoo in the Nest
1933 Just Smith
1933 The Blarney Stone
1932 Leap Year
Sir Peter Traillon
Sir Hector Benbow
1932 A Night Like This
1930 Canaries Sometimes Sing
1930 On Approval
Duke of Bristol
1930 Rookery Nook