THE GOLDEN AGE OF BRITISH THEATRE (1880-1920)
by Sydney Higgins
Decima Moore was born on December 11, 1871. She received her name because she was the tenth child (and ninth daughter) of Edward Henry Moore, the Sussex County Analytical Chemist and his wife, Emily. Theirs was a musical and artistic family. (Four of her sisters became professional performers. They included Eva Moore, a successful stage and film actor, who was also the mother of Jill Esmond, the first wife of actor Laurence Olivier; Bertha Moore, a singer; and Bessie Moore, a member of the D'Oyly Carte company.)
Decima was educated at Boswell House College, Brighton. After leaving school in 1887, she won the Victoria Scholarship for singing at the Blackheath Conservatoire of Music where, under Madame Rose Hersee, she studied for the next two years. In November 1899, she signed a three-year contract with the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company. On December 7, 1889 - just four days before her eighteenth birthday - she played Casilda in the first production of Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera The Gondoliers at The Savoy. She spoke her first appearance in an article published in Men and Women, that was published on November 7, 1903.
Then came the first night.
I did not know how to "make up," but Miss Geraldine Ulmar was sweet to me, and helped me, and did my hair, and gave me a lot of tips and hints.
I had to make my first entrance in a gondola, with my back to the audience; and when I turned round to get out of it and faced the house my feelings were such that I shall never forget. I had only been to about three theatres in my life, and, of course, had never seen an audience in evening dress from the stage.
When I did see that audience it looked to me like piles and piles of shirt-fronts, one on top of another, in an immense shop window, and I felt a "catch" in the chest as if I had fallen into an ice-cold bath and it had taken away all my breath.
I stuck my finger nails into my palms and said, "This won't do!" and walked down the stage, trying to remember all I had been told to do and not to do.
I got through the evening in a kind of dream, wept all the way home in the hansom, convinced I had been a failure, and wept again next morning when my father called out to me. "Nice notices!" I thought he meant bad ones; and when I read them and found they were nice, I said I was sure they had been so kind to me because they must have known how frightened I was.
| Decima Moore In
A Gaity Girl
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The critics were unanimous in their praise of her performance. The production was a great success and ran until June 1891. Next, from September to November 1891, she played Polly in Captain Billy, a curtain-raiser before The Nautch Girl at the Savoy from early September until November 1891, when her contract with D'Oyly Carte ended.
Her elder sister, Jessie, took over her part in Captain Billy but Decima Moore went to the Prince of Wales's Theatre to star in her own show Miss Decima (1891-2). She appeared in a succession of shows for the next couple of years, including Ophelia in Gilbert's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (1892) and Bab in J. M. Barrie's and Conan Doyle's Jane Annie (1893). The she played Rose Brierly in the musical comedy, A Gaiety Girl, that opened at the Prince of Wales's Theatre on 14 October 1893.
In 1894, she went on a world tour of The Gaiety Girl and, while in Richmond, New York, she married another cast member, Cecil Ainslie Walker-Leigh (1866-1948), who later became a career soldier in the British Army during the Boer War and the Great War, retiring with the rank of Colonel. The marriage, however, did not last anywhere near that long. On the grounds of adultery and cruelty, Decima divorced him in 1902, at the end of the Boer War. On the 15th August, 1905, she became the second wife of Major Frederick Gordon Guggisberg (1869-1930) and went with him to West Africa, where he was subsequently to become Governor and Commander-in-Chief of the Gold Coast and British Guiana. With him, she wrote We Two in West Afria that was published in 1910.
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During the periods when she had returned to Britain, she continued to appear in musicals and concerts for another ten years or so until the outbreak of the First World War when she threw her considerable skills and energy into significant projects that included founding the Women's Emergency Corps and establishing the British Navy, Army and Air Force Leave Club in Paris. For her war work, she was awarded the CBE in 1918.
By the time her husband died in 1930, he had been knighted and she was Lady Decima Guggisberg, C.B.E. She continued to do a considerable amount of charitable and social work, especially during the Second World War, when she reopened the British Leave Club in Paris, leaving in June, 1940, a day before the German Army arrived. On the front door, she left the notice "Temporarily Closed".
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