Thursday, 31 August 2017

Noel Patrick Hilton…circus boy comes to town

The story starts with the accidental electrocution of lines worker Harold Patrick Keys on 23 March 1925 in Sydney. The death was ruled an accident by the coroner though some in the family thought in their grief this was highly unlikely as ‘Pat’ was experienced with electricity.

The death of the reliable Harold was a tragedy for his young family and a sad blow to his mother, brothers and sisters. 

Only nine months before, another loved brother ‘Hock’ who had been a champion boxer died as the result of ‘pneumonia’ perhaps brought on by the stresses of his career. 

Hock's legend would loom large in the family and his mother mixed her remembrance of Les Darcy’s funeral procession down Oxford Street in Sydney with the humbler event for her prized son’s farewell. The two men had a common background, though Keys died young it was after his best boxing was behind him. The families were also close and Dad remembers called Darcy's widow, Margaret, 'auntie'.

Beatrice Keys had married Alexander Marion Poe in 1914 and by the time of Harold's death they had brought four children into the world. 

But Poe was a restless spirit and they split about 1922. He had taken care of their eldest daughter who travelled with him, their second daughter lived with her mother, their eldest son was fostered to one family but ‘escaped’ from them quickly and their youngest son had been fostered more successfully to Bill and Ivy Lyell, following Ivy's miscarriage.

Beatrice’s youngest sister Bertha had met Poe very early in his relationship with her sister and didn’t like him. She was a strong woman who developed an enthusiasm for the ‘rag trade’ and after the start of the first world war in Australia had moved to New York to follow her passion.

Beatrice tried to keep contact with her husband and, perhaps as a staunch Catholic, never divorced him. Poe seems to have got on with Hock and the common connection may have been ‘shows'. Poe was a vaudeville artist and both he and Keys also took part in tent boxing shows. 

Perhaps this is where the two men met and perhaps this led to an introduction to Beatrice.

Beatrice knew that Poe would have wanted to farewell her brother Harold Patrick and she was often in search of a reason to track him down. There was also a notice in the paper. Either way, Poe was there for the funeral of his brother in law on 25 March 1924. The event was followed by a traditional Irish wake, though Poe was not a big drinker. Poe then went back on the road...

A little less than 280 days later they had a son.

Beatrice presented herself at St Margaret’s Hospital in Sydney on Christmas Eve with a story about needing a place to stay as her baby was imminent. The hospital admitted her and the next day a baby boy was born.

The story goes that she hung a flag at the foot of the bed seeking funds and that the Lord Mayor of Sydney came through for his Christmas visit and presented the young baby with a soft toy.

Beatrice had to decide on a name. It was obvious to her what that would be. He was named Noel Patrick Hilton Poe. ‘Noel’ because it was Christmas, ‘Patrick’ after her brother whose death made his life possible (and it was also a saint’s name), and ‘Hilton’ after hotelier Conrad Hilton dashing socialite also born 25 December. Later in life, Noel would drop 'Patrick' and keep 'Hilton'.

For the first years of his life, Noel’s family consisted of himself, his mother and his sister Joyce. Joyce later worked as a soubrette with the Tivoli Circuit. He grew up sometimes living in Darlinghurst where friends included the Rooklyn brothers, Roy Rene Mo and Sadie Gail. 

Sometimes he lived on the road when his mother joined Perry Brothers Circus to travel country towns in Australia's eastern states. 

Noel remembered Jack Rooklyn in particular. He spent time with him in his car while he did his rounds of the Clubs where he had placed slot machines and often gave Noel a shiny shilling for his help. Jack was apparently keen on Noel's sister Joyce and was the person who took him to a hospital when his appendix burst - saving his life as Noel remembered it. (In spite of Beatrice's  encouragement Joyce refused Jack's advances.)

Maurice Rooklyn, the magician, did have his way with Joyce however - she was one of the hundreds he cut in half!

Although she’d had a vaudeville background herself Beatrice was now content to do the cooking. Noel remembered in particular that Beatrice did some work on a white horse called ‘Dolly’ while they were with Perry Brothers. 

Young Noel had a dark complexion, like his father, and often wore a turban while sitting on the Perry brothers’ elephants as an ‘Indian boy’. Elephant ‘Jimmy’ would also pick up circus gear when it was time to pack up. He would also pick up two men on the call of ‘up Jimmy’. Noel thought this would be fun, though as a boy was much lighter than two men. On hearing 'up Jimmy' the elephant lifted Noel too far and he went over the top of the animal - luckily unhurt.

Noel also learned some simple trapeze work with Dunnie and Albie Perry so that he could do a somersault while standing on Albie Perry's feet. During the day he often played on the trapeze nets when his mother worked. 

Christmas Day was always memorable for him as he briefly became the centre of attention for the circus family. The circus would have Christmas lunch together, and then sing carols. Then they would sing 'happy birthday' for Noel. He enjoyed it of course but the teenager Jack Perry (later part of the Zig and Zag team) was very unhappy that an 'outsider' received so much attention.

When Noel eventually met his father, he was a toddler. One of the ways Beatrice kept ‘in touch’ with her husband was to seek a court order for him to pay maintenance for the support of his family. The documents show this was an event which took place regularly. Beatrice would then ‘bail him out’ by paying the money owned which she then received back. 

One of the several notices about Poe with his nom de plumes 
in the NSW Police Gazette.

By about 1930 Beatrice was finding it difficult to provide the support needed to her young son. The depression was underway and finding work was not easy.  Dad remembers doing the rounds of shopkeepers seeking broken biscuits or dripping. Beatrice started to think about how to continue to support Noel. 

It was at about this time that Beatrice’s sister Bertha visited Australia from the United States. She was doing well in the 'rag trade' but unable to have children and young Noel got on well with her. The two sisters were in regular contact and it's likely that collecting Noel was one of the reasons for Bertha's visit.

Noel was impressed in particular with her leather jacket and was intrigued that she seemed to be the only family member to give Poe a dressing down. She wasted no time suggesting to her sister than Noel could return with her to live in the USA. 

Young Noel thought this would be a great adventure, but Beatrice refused. While she was in need of help she also wanted to be able to see her son.

Beatrice had to downsize her accommodation and Bill Lyell assisted her with the move. Lyell was an amateur boxer and so in Beatrice’s circle of acquaintances. Years earlier she had given him her then youngest child soon after her separation. Lyell talked suggested that he would be happy to take Noel into his household as well. His wife, Ivy, was unable to have children herself and he hoped the two boys would get to know one another. It would be good for both of them, he argued. Beatrice agreed.

Just before the move to the Lyells, Noel met his father again and remembered him as very well dressed with a penny in every pocket. Perhaps Beatrice wanted to let him know what she was doing. There is no story about his reaction but he would probably have been for it. He would certainly have preferred the arrangement to Noel living with his abrasive sister-in-law.  

So Noel moved in with his new family at Lane Cove a respectable middle-class suburb on Sydney's lower North Shore. It was not a formal arrangement, but he immediately started to use the surname 'Lyell'. There was some tension with his elder brother who had been surprised to find that he had a younger brother. He may also not have known anything about his natural family until the seven-year-old Noel appeared. 

Noel and Bill Lyell became as close as Ivy had become to Noel's older brother.

19 March 1932 gave Noel a very specific memory – the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The way the 8-year-old remembered it, he was the first person to ride a tricycle over the bridge. His horizons continued to expand.

Noel’s time with the Lyell’s provided the stability he needed. He attended North Sydney Boys High and learned the building trade from Bill Lyell. He also followed Bill’s interest in boxing and spent a fair amount of time bodybuilding, training and remembering stories about his champion boxer uncle. He got to know his brother and the two did some work together in a brick factory. 

A young Noel with a catch in the early 1930s.
The picture is torn in half - who is missing?

However, in the late 1930’s as a teenager, he wanted to reconnect with his mother and sister and find out more about the rest of his natural family. Ivy was not happy with the idea, though Bill understood it was inevitable. 

Initially, he moved to downtown Sydney and got a job with his Lyell Godfather, Joe Gardiner. Noel worked for him as a bell-hop / waiter in the Plaza Hotel and there learned the catering business. Prior to that, he had worked as a painter and monumental mason with his Lyell 'grandfather'. 

So he was setting off in life with a number of skills which he would put to good use.

A picture of Perry Brothers Circus about 1935, after Noel had left.
Note the elephants and twin pole tent.

The next item will describe Noel's quest for a surname. See: Noel Patrick Hilton finds a surname or two…

This item was revised on 7 September 2017 to include additional material. The source was a collection of notes I wrote during the 1990s following various conversations and collected on numerous pieces of paper. Dad was not eager to ‘reveal all’ in one discussion so whenever he would say something I’d write a note on whatever was handy. The notes also record conversations with other people. Amazingly almost all of it is legible.