Mary Elsie Nathalie (Elsie) Berry
Elocutionist, elocution teacher
Elsie Berry, an elocutionist who grew up in Clifton Hill, represents a class of public performance which was very popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century but is rare nowadays. Elocution teachers proliferated partly through people’s desire to improve their everyday speech, but many were also popular performers. Concerts by elocutionists and their pupils were frequent, featuring character recitals, poetry, and humorous sketches, as well as songs and instrumental music. Elsie had a natural talent and even as a child showed an amazing gift of mimicry. After coming home from a concert she would throw the whole family into shrieks of laughter through her impersonations of one artist after the other.
Miss Berry would became well known locally through her clever monologues at the piano and other work as an elocutionist. Here is a description of a concert she and her pupils put on in the Fitzroy Town Hall in 1906:
as the ladies in the audience largely yielded to the request to take off their hats, the more spectacular parts of the programme were viewed in comfort and enjoyed by all … in elocutionary ways naturally Miss Berry came first. Her versatility and excellent methods were demonstrated in two scenes from The Lady of Lyons, and a humorous dialogue; as she is personally an object lesson in the grace and winning manners characteristic of those who recognise that physical and mental culture should go hand in hand, this most pleasant concert should greatly popularise this young lady as a teacher of elocution.
Fitzroy City Press 30 Nov 1906 page 3
The Berry family was well-known in Collingwood and Clifton Hill. Elsie’s grandfather Nathaniel Berry had arrived in the colony in 1850 on the same ship as Charles Baker, and lived in Collingwood for many years. Elsie was born in Budd Street Collingwood, but during her infancy the family moved to Turnbull Street in Clifton Hill. Her father held a senior position in charge of the Government printing works, and was a founding member of the Hodgkinson Street Baptist Church. In her teens Elsie attended Clifton College in North Fitzroy, where she took careful notes of the essential elements of elocution, and studied the pianoforte under Professor Otto Rohlk of Queens Parade Clifton Hill. As a young woman she won championships in the Ballarat, Geelong, and Melbourne elocutionary competitions, accumulating over 150 prizes by 1905. By this time the family had moved to Hunsdon in Heidelberg Road Clifton Hill, the house that would again be her residence in the forty years leading up to her death in 1982. In 1904 she advertised herself as available for engagements such as concerts and At-Homes, then in 1905 she began giving private tuition at Hunsdon. In 1909 she left for London to study elocution under Paul Berton and Samuel Haslock. Before her departure for England a farewell concert was sold out, as reported in The Observer January 1909: ‘All Clifton Hill was there … Miss Berry is as good at comedy as tragedy, and is a fine vocalist. The greatest feature of the night was her Lady Macbeth in the sleep walking scene. It was blood curdling.’
Elsie and her mother returned to Clifton Hill in 1910 after 15 months ‘touring the old world’. Among her public events was a recital at the opening of the Northcote Library in High Street on 21 August 1911. In 1914 she married dashing yachtsman Oswald O’May at the Baptist Church in Collins Street, honeymooned at Mt Buffalo, and went to live near Hobart where her husband’s family ran the Bellerive and Lindisfarne ferries. Here she featured constantly in the newspapers as a performer and teacher, using her maiden name. Miss Berry had firm views on what made a good elocutionist. She had a strong dislike of the old fashioned associations of the word ‘elocution’ with ineffectiveness, theatricality, triviality and bad taste. ‘Gesture comes naturally to many of us and although I would not think of teaching stock motions with a poem to be recited, I myself almost unconsciously suit the action to the word, and it seems to me that only by fully matching utterance, tone, inflection, stress, gesture, and movement can we bring out the utmost of poetry and drama that each line contains. It takes many years of hard study and practice to reach so high an ideal.’
Around 1927 life took a dramatic change. The O’May family gave up the Hobart ferry business and Oswald took work as a ferry captain in Sydney. In 1928 Elsie took a world tour without her husband. On her return she stayed with her parents for some time; her mother died in September 1929. The O’Mays seem to have lived together in Sydney for a while in the early 1930s but finally divorced in 1936. One of the bones of contention was said to be Oswald’s refusal to have the widowed Mr Berry come to live with them. Elsie stayed for a while with her brother in East St Kilda, but by 1942 was living with her father in Clifton Hill.
In the 1930s she gave occasional public performances, sometimes with her sister Ethel Ashton who was a well-known piano teacher and soprano. In 1937 the sisters participated in a fund-raising concert for the Royal Melbourne Hospital; possibly Elsie’s last public appearance was a recitation at a Prahran mayoral reception in 1938. Miss Berry was a tall and striking-looking woman, making a charming bride in her early thirties, and displaying elegance in dress and excellent posture in her fifties. The Sydney scandal rags made good copy from her elocutionary inflection, stress and gesture in the divorce court.
After her father’s death in 1945 she remained at Hunsdon in comfortable circumstances. She lived a long life, moving into a nursing home just before her death at the age of 100, and left her estate to be shared among the seven nieces and nephews who were the offspring of her siblings.
49 Heidelberg Road
|Birth Date||Birth Place|
|1882||Budd Street Collingwood|
|Spouse Name||Date of Marriage||Children|
|Oswald Thomas O'May, c. 1884-1947||3 June 1914, Melbourne||None|
|Home Street||Home City||Status of Building|
|9 Turnbull Street||Clifton Hill||Demolished|
|49 Heidelberg Road||Heidelberg||Extant|
|Baptist Church Hodgkinson Street Clifton Hill|
|Death Date||Death Place||Cemetery|
The Argus; Cummings, Bitter roots, sweet fruit; Teacher Registration file 434; Berry, [Student’s exercise book]; Northcote Leader; Fitzroy City Press; The Age; The Sydney Morning Herald; Table Talk; Punch; Mercury (Hobart); The Australasian; The Gippsland Farmers’ Journal; Mercury and Weekly Courier; The Sun (Sydney); Truth (Sydney); Geelong Advertiser; Preston Leader.