In June of 1929, 11 years after the end of the First World War, a stained-glass window was dedicated to the Yukon fallen in the Canadian Memorial Chapel in Vancouver. After the speeches and the prayers, a woman stood up to sing. She was a silver-haired grandmother, still beautiful despite her advancing years, and her voice was clear and vibrant, filling the little church with a passionate sweetness.
She was Mrs. George Smith, the wife of a veterinarian, but she would always be remembered as Beatrice Lorne, the Klondike Nightingale.
She was born Beatrice Heley in Scotland, in 1866. When she was 10 years old, her family relocated to Sydney, Australia, where she was first known to have performed as the Fairy Queen in Cinderella at the Theatre Royal in Brisbane in 1881. Even as a child, she was always singing, and sometimes, she said, her brothers paid her a shilling to keep quiet. She saved them up, and when she was fifteen years old, an opera company came to Sydney for an engagement. She took the hoarded coins and paid her way to Sydney in order to meet Madame Annis Montague, the lead singer, to whom she announced, “I want to sing with your company.”
Madame Montague was impressed by Beatrice’s spontaneous audition in a Sydney hotel, and began training her to sing properly, first in a chorus, but soon as a featured performer. She toured with the opera group under the name Beatrice Lorne, but by 1890, she was performing popular ballads on the Australian music hall circuit.
By age 20, she was married to a comedic actor named Alfred James and a mother to a daughter, Constance, but that did not deter her from touring as a singer. Nor did the marriage last very long; by 1892, her husband had departed for the United States. We know that she too immigrated to America, where, by 1895, she was performing at the New Vienna Buffet in Los Angeles featured as “The Australian Nightingale.”
In April, 1899, she appeared with other performers at the Savoy Theatre in Victoria, B.C. She followed them to Dawson, leaving Victoria aboard the steamer Cottage City, September 13, “to fill a theatrical engagement.”
She first appeared at the Monte Carlo on Front Street in October, followed by engagements in every dance hall and theatre in Dawson. Beatrice was a versatile performer who could sing a selection from the opera “Il Travatore” with the same skill as popular ballads like “Annie Laurie,” or “Danny Boy.” It was the latter that appealed to homesick miners, who would occasionally reward her with a shower of nuggets. One such miner was so moved by her rendering of “Coming Thru the Rye” that he gave her $500 in gold, along with an offer of marriage.
While she presumably accepted the gold, she declined the matrimonial proposal, instead marrying Dr. George Smith, a veterinarian and mine broker in Dawson in June of 1901. Marriage did not stop her from performing, and we see her name pop up in theatrical advertisements in the Dawson newspapers in the years that followed.
Theatrical performers occupied a strict caste in Victorian society, but in gold rush Dawson, the lines could become somewhat blurred. Beatrice Lorne found social acceptance and even sang during church services. This was too much for one Methodist church-goer however. The summer of 1904, S.J. Mesher, a Third Avenue grocer, took exception to having a dance hall entertainer performing at a church concert. His objection was unanimously rejected by his fellow congregants. He then wrote a letter of protest about the matter, but the newspapers refused to print it, saying he should address it directly to her, rather than the community.
Mesher placed copies of his letter in various public locations in Dawson City instead. Beatrice’s husband, Dr. Smith, took exception to this course of action, and punched Mesher in the nose for being an “unmanly, petty, spiteful, revengeful, stupid and ignorant” clown. When taken to court over the assault, the judge was decidedly on the side of Mr. Smith, fining him a single dollar for the infraction, and making it clear that he (as well as the community) held Beatrice in high esteem.
Mrs. Smith travelled back and forth between Dawson City and Vancouver several times, performing in both Vancouver and Victoria when stationed Outside, before making her final departure from the Klondike in August, 1906. It was stated in the Yukon World that after a few weeks’ rest in Vancouver, she would visit the principal music centres of England and Europe, accompanied by her daughter. Although it also stated that she intended to return to Dawson in the spring of 1907, I found no evidence that she ever did. She did, however, appear on the program of the Pantages Theatre in Vancouver as a “song illustrator” in November of 1908
The years were good to Mrs. Smith, who occasionally appeared at special events to render her operatic skills. A few weeks after her appearance at the Canadian Memorial Chapel, in 1929, her reputation and her memory were further revived. In August, she was featured at the Sourdough Stampede in Seattle, which was attended by hundreds of Klondike veterans.
When Kate Rockwell returned to Dawson in the summer of 1937, she visited the old-timers residing in St. Mary’s Hospital. She asked them if there was anything she could do for them, and they replied, “bring Beatrice Lorne in with you to sing a few songs for us.” When she returned to Vancouver, Rockwell got Beatrice to record a few of her songs, and sent the recording to the men in the hospital in Dawson.
The widow Beatrice Lorne died September 26, 1945 with her daughter Constance and granddaughter at her side at Vancouver General Hospital.
What was she like? Bert Parker, one of her contemporaries, gives us a glimpse. She was a musician through and through.
“Nothing else interested her,” he said. “She would meet old friends that knew her when she was singing and was interested as long as you talked of singing and singers, but became preoccupied the moment the conversation switched to something else.”
What did she mean to all those she entertained? Parker says something about that too: “In my opinion, Beatrice Lorne gave more pleasure and was one of the best influences we had in those days. I mean by this, that she was the link that connected men up with the finer things in their past lives, made them go back to the cabins and write to mother. She had a host of friends and no enemies, not even professional ones, and will ever be remembered to Sourdoughs as ‘The Klondike Nightingale’.”
I want to thank historian Robin McLachlan, of Australia, for helping me to uncover the story of Beatrice Lorne.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His book, From the Klondike to Berlin, was shortlisted for a national book award. His latest book, “Dublin Gulch: A History of the Eagle Mine,” is now available in Yukon Stores. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org