Vale Angela Lansbury: If this had worked out she might never have been born...

By John Moran, 12 October 2022

Back in 1995 the late Angela Lansbury, who died aged 96 in Los Angeles this week, told me she had never been to Brisbane, despite the city's prominent role in her family's life. The famous star of stage and screen visited Australia in the 1950s to film the 1959 Australian-British classic, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, but did not make it north to the city where her family nearly settled and built a life.

In 2013 she finally did get to Brisbane, where she enjoyed a few months rehearsing and launching the Australian production of Alfred Uhry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Driving Miss Daisy, at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre's (QPAC) Playhouse, with fellow USA star, James Earl Jones. I had the privilege of seeing this outstanding production and also attending a fundraising lunch for distressed Australian actors, at which Ms Lansbury and Mr Jones entertained us with insights into their careers, acting in general and their stay in Brisbane.

Vale Angela Lansbury: In Australia in 2013, with co-stars James Earl Jones (l) and Boyd Gaines, for Driving Miss Daisy. She finally followed in her grandparents' footsteps and spent some time in Brisbane...

The fascinating thing is, if her grandparents dreams of a new life in Australia back in the 1880s had come true she might never have been born. Fortunately for Angela and the entertainment world her grandfather was less than impressed with his experience in frontier Queensland and returned home to London after a year trying his hand at various jobs. It was a transformative experience and had significant implications for UK and European politics, as well as the stage and silver screen.

Here is my article, from Brisbane's Sunday Mail of 18 June 1995, summarising George Lansbury's time in Queensland. Some of the information relating to the 1990's situation is obviously now dated.

Rats turn star's grandfather off capital

By John Moran, 18 June 1995

JESSICA Fletcher's grandfather would be pleased with the current Queensland Government plan to renovate the former Department of Primary Industry building in William Street, Brisbane.

When George Lansbury, who became a senior British Labour activist and politician, and his wife and children stayed there as an emigrant family in 1884, it was ""filthy dirty, with great rats running over the place all night''. He wrote later: ""The man and women in charge were destitute of all decent feeling and looked upon us as cattle.''

The building was then used as the Brisbane Emigrants' Depot, where new immigrants were landed. Lansbury later said the night's experience and his unhappy year's stay in Queensland made him a lifelong socialist.

It was filthy dirty: Brisbane's Emigrants' Depot in the 19th century. The Lansbury family spent a terrible first night here upon arrival in Brisbane, from England, in 1884.
Former Emigrants' Depot - Now: The heritage listed building in Brisbane's William Street, in the 21st century. It is now National Trust House.

Angela Lansbury, who plays Jessica Fletcher in Channel 10's Murder She Wrote, still speaks of her famous grandfather with pride. ""He was a giant of my youth,'' she said from the set of Murder She Wrote:

"It was grandad's time in Queensland that changed his life. He often talked about it. He might never have become a prominent politician if he hadn't gone to Queensland. I would love one day to visit the places he lived in Brisbane, retrace his steps and have a look at the beautiful river that so impressed him. Despite his difficulties he held many positive memories of his time in Australia. I was in Australia in the 1950s for filming of The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll and loved it. But, I have never been to Brisbane, unfortunately. Maybe one day. Especially as it is such an important part of my family's heritage.''

GEORGE Lansbury was born in Suffolk in 1859 and his family settled in London's East End in 1868. By the early 1880s he was married with three children when ""the thought of a new country and a new start, coupled with the literature issued by emigration agents, made us take up the idea of clearing off to live under the Southern Cross." He later claimed it was his horrific experiences during his year in Queensland that lead to his 55-year political career in Britain as Labour leader and anti-war campaigner.

We felt that this really was the promised land: Brisbane's main thoroughfare, Queen Street, in 1884.

The nightmare began on July 16, 1884, when the emigrant ship, the Duke of Devonshire, anchored outside Brisbane. Next day, he later wrote, ""as we sailed up that magnificent river, everyone standing alongside looking at the scenery, we felt that this really was the promised land''. The euphoria did not last long. He recalled in his autobiography:

"We landed in the afternoon and were marched to the Immigrants' Home. Why the place was ever called a home passes my comprehension . . . It was filthy dirty, with absolutely no accommodation of any kind . . . Had I been a person who took drink I would have gone out after seeing my wife in bed and got gloriously drunk . . . There we sat with our children lying on the floor, while great rats ran about the place the whole night. There was no pretence at making things decent. The man and women in charge were destitute of all decent feelings and looked upon us as cattle.''

Next day they found a ""kind of humpy'' at Fortitude Valley, for which they ""were plundered 10 shillings a week''. Cockroaches, black- beetles, mosquitoes and flies replaced the previous evening's rodents.

That magnificent river: Brisbane River 1884 (Queensland State Archives).

Lansbury's plan was to build a prosperous future for his young family in the new world, but after a terrible year they returned to England disillusioned and broke. ""When you read any violent denunciation from my pen of the crime and vice of unemployment, please remember my indignation is due to the memory of the mental, moral and physical shame and deterioration my wife and I suffered in Queensland,'' George wrote.

WORK in Queensland was equally disappointing. He found a job breaking stone, which brought on neuralgia and left him a nervous wreck. A slaughterhouse job, driving the carcass delivery van, fell through when the devoted Anglican refused to work on Sundays. A farm servant's job at 40 pounds a year plus food - ""flour, meat and sugar, nothing else'' - provided some hope.

His Queensland experiences were anything but a cherishable recollection: George Lansbury, would-be Queensland settler 1884-85 and UK Labour leader 1932-35.

The old farmer pictured a pretty cottage amid lovely surroundings to be the Lansbury home on the farm at Harrisville, near Ipswich. But, the pretty little cottage turned out to be a small wooden humpy from which the family could watch the stars while lying in bed. The furniture was sparse, the work demanding and the boss a tyrant. "Almost every day I quarrelled with my employer and things came to a head when he brought the Member of Parliament for the district round and I put my case to him," Lansbury later claimed.

Despite threats of imprisonment for breaching the Masters and Servants Act, the Lansburys returned to Brisbane and another farm job at Eagle Farm. After two months they moved into town where George laid out the Brisbane Cricket and Sports Ground - the old Queens Park Ground, now part of the Botanic Gardens. Despite the change of fortune, and a partnership offer from George's employer, the Lansburys finally decided to leave Queensland. On April 21, 1885, they sailed for London.

George laid out the Brisbane Cricket and Sports Ground: The Queens Park cricket and football ground, Brisbane 1880s (middle of image beside the "magnificent" Brisbane River). This is now part of the Brisbane City Botanic Gardens.

BACK in England he started an agitation against emigration, holding meetings every night on Mile End Waste and other parts of London. In February 1886 he organised a major anti-emigration conference, to which politicians, church leaders, the various Colonial Agents-General and emigration society representatives were invited . Lansbury was also keynote speaker and when he recounted his personal experiences the Queensland Agent-General, James Garrick, took exception and engaged him in a vigorous debate. But, Lansbury carried the day and the Colonial Office established the ""Emigration Information Department'' to give ""free and honest advice to emigrants''.

In fact, his experiences in Queensland were the spur that led to his entry into politics, world fame as a pacifist and a State Memorial Service at Westminster Abbey. He became involved in local London East End and national politics, pacificism, supported the suffragette movement and, in 1929, was appointed Works Minister in Ramsay MacDonald's Labour Cabinet.

When UK Labour suffered a disastrous electoral defeat in 1931, he was elected leader by the few survivors, but was deposed because of his uncompromising pacifism after Mussolini invaded Abyssinia in 1935. Angela was the daughter of George's son Edgar, who died in 1935. When bombs started falling in London in 1940, the widow, actress Moyna Macgill, Angela and her two brothers were evacuated to America.

What if? Angela Lansbury's father, Edgar, and mother, Moyna Macgill, on their wedding day in London in 1924. It is unlikely they would have met and had Angela if the Lansbury family had, as originally planned, settled in Queensland, Australia.

A new generation of Lansburys would make a better fist of the new world than George did in Australia. In 1943, Angela made her sensational debut in the film Gaslight, starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer.

George Lansbury died on May 7, 1940, and was cremated. Thousands of men, women and children lined the route of his funeral. As his coffin entered the flames, the congregation sang The Red Flag. The Brisbane Courier-Mail obituary noted that ""his Queensland experiences were anything but a cherishable recollection'' and he returned to London's East End where ""he worked continuously and heroically, proclaiming his doctrine of world peace and Socialism."

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