Unlocking the Past: Scottish superstar Harry Lauder visits Kurri Kurri

WORLD TOUR: Scottish vaudeville star Harry Lauder, who at one point was the highest-paid performer in the world, visited Kurri Kurri in 1914.

WORLD TOUR: Scottish vaudeville star Harry Lauder, who at one point was the highest-paid performer in the world, visited Kurri Kurri in 1914.

It's hard to imagine now that a Scottish vaudeville star with an average voice and a cheesy comedy act which caricatured Scots culture, could become a world-wide entertainment sensation.

But from 1900 to the mid-20th that's just what Harry Lauder did.

By 1911 he was the highest-paid performer in the world and counted no less than Winston Churchill as one of his fans, the powerful politician describing him as "Scotland's greatest ever ambassador...who rendered measureless service...to the British Empire."

The following year he headlined the first Royal Command Performance and gave a private performance to King Edward VII at Sandringham.

In 1914 Harry Lauder toured Australia as part of a world circuit which included performing in the USA, New Zealand and Canada.

Wherever he arrived he received a rapturous welcome from his legion of fans and in the Hunter Valley it was no different.

LEGION OF FANS: A large crowd gathered to farewell Harry Lauder after his visit to Kurri Kurri in April 1914. Pictures: Cessnock City Library Local Studies Collection

LEGION OF FANS: A large crowd gathered to farewell Harry Lauder after his visit to Kurri Kurri in April 1914. Pictures: Cessnock City Library Local Studies Collection

Harry had a deep connection with Kurri Kurri as two of his brothers, John and Matt, had migrated to Australia and were coal miners in the town.

On April 1 he made a triumphant arrival, disembarking from the train to find about 3000 people crowding the platform and spilling out into the surrounding streets all were hoping to catch a glimpse of Harry.

In the evening the Chamber of Commerce hosted a grand reception for 350 people at the Chelmsford Hotel.

He spoke to the crowd in English and Scots Gaelic and some replied back in Welsh, reflecting the heritage of the early coal miners and Kurri Kurri residents. The evening finished with Harry regaling the crowd with songs including Auld Scotland, I Adore Ye and My Highland Home.

Despite Harry's enormous wealth, grand estate and adoring fans he didn't have an easy ride to the top of the entertainment field.

Born in 1870 his once prosperous family fell on difficult times and young Harry worked in a flax mill and as a coal miner.

Starting his musical career at 13 years old he sang at variety concerts and in music halls, often performing to local miners who encouraged him.

LOCAL CONNECTION: Harry Lauder's brothers John and Matt were coal miners in Kurri Kurri.

LOCAL CONNECTION: Harry Lauder's brothers John and Matt were coal miners in Kurri Kurri.

By his early 20s he was successful enough to leave coal mining and become a full-time entertainer.

Harry Lauder made many more trips to Australia, the last being in 1929. He declared "...every time I return to Australia I am filled with genuine enthusiasm....it is one of the very greatest countries in the world."

  • Kimberly O'Sullivan is the Local Studies Librarian at Cessnock City Library. Email her on kimberly.osullivan@cessnock.nsw.gov.au.

READ MORE: Find the entire Unlocking the Past archive here.

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