The tragic death of a famous Savoyard

Savoyard Luscinia tribute 001Found— an envelope crammed with an intriguing collection of newspaper cuttings and Velox snaps, most dating to 1931. The majority of the cuttings concern the failing health of forty three old Bertha Lewis, the famous ‘Savoyard’, who at the height of her singing career with the D’Oyly Carte Opera, was badly injured when a car driven by fellow singer, Sir Henry Lytton, veered off the road and rolled down an embankment during a violent rainstorm between Huntingdon and Cambridge.

The couple were returning from Manchester, when, according to Lytton, the front wheels of the car skidded on a patch of oil. After somersaulting, the vehicle came to rest the right way up. Lytton sustained injuries to his legs and kidneys, but Lewis was rendered unconscious and had serious spinal injuries. Both were rushed to hospital, but while Lytton was discharged after a few days, and later returned to work, Lewis, according to the bulletins which were issued daily to the newspapers, gradually succumbed to her injuries and died after five days.

Lewis’s tragic death was mourned throughout the world of musical theatre and beyond. On June 18th at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin, following a performance of ‘The Mikado’ by the D’Oyly Carte Company, Lewis’s career was commemorated by the presentation of a ‘silver Irish Loving Cup ‘.The singer was praised as ‘a noble woman, a great artiste…who delighted thronged houses by her grace, charm, and faithful portrayal of the characters created by Sir W. S. Gilbert’.

Lewis’s funeral in Cambridge, dominated as it was by her fellow Savoyards, was extraordinary in that one person was absent. Herbert Heyner, the baritone who she had married in 1910, did not attend. This was odd enough, but even more unusual was the fact that just a few weeks later he married a woman twenty-one years his junior.

001The snaps in the collection fall into two categories. There are several prints, none of which are inscribed, of a middle aged couple seated on a grassy knoll behind which is a coastal landscape that could be somewhere in Wales or southern England. In one other print the male figure has been replaced by two females. It is unlikely that any of the figures are Lewis and Lytton, or have anything to do with the two singers. It is most probable that those depicted were fans of Lewis. The other snaps depict the splendid grave of Lewis in Cambridge taken from various positions not long after (judging from the pristine state of the stonework) it was erected. The many clippings that accompany the photos date from May and June 1931 and chronicle not only the injured singer’s progress in hospital, but also the posthumous tributes to her in various newspapers. There is also a typewritten verse tribute to Lewis entitled ‘Luscinia’ (a genus of birds which includes the nightingale) signed Joyce T. Rowe. Could the collection have been assembled by Ms Rowe, who may have been one of the fans depicted in the snaps? If any of you in Jotland can corroborate this or who can identify the people shown, please contact us at Jot 101 HQ. [R.M.Healey]

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