Kate Howarde

Film production in Australia has always had its ups and downs. Production of feature films began early (The Story of the Kelly Gang, 1906), and continued during World War 1, when the industry in many other countries was flagging under the combined effect of the privations and disruptions of war, and the growth of Hollywood. The last year of the war was a particularly good year (Pike and Cooper list 18 feature films produced in 1918) (1) but it was followed by a slump (seven features in 1919), slow improvement (ten features in 1920, 13 in 1921), and another slump in 1922 (back to seven features) (2). This is not a scenario to encourage confidence, so the production of Possum Paddock in 1920 was an optimistic gesture.

Producer Kate Howarde, however, was not one to be easily discouraged. She was at the height of her career in 1920 – a popular actor known throughout Australia, managing her own theatrical company, writing her own material. And she had just had a major success with her play Possum Paddock. She obviously felt ready to take on the new challenge of film production. After all, she was used to meeting challenges: her whole life had demonstrated that…

Catherine Clarissa Jones was born 28 July1864 at North Woolwich, England, to Edward George Jones, general labourer, and Harriett Hannah, nee Payne. The family emigrated to New Zealand when Catherine was a child, and it was in Christchurch that she married William Henry de Saxe, musician, on 28 April 1884 in the Registrar’s Office. Their only child, Florence Adrienne, was born at Christchurch, 5 December 1884. Catherine Clarissa Black (the Australian Dictionary of Biography has been unable to locate any Australian or New Zealand record of the death of de Saxe, nor of her second marriage to vaudevillian Elton Black (3)) died from cerebral thrombosis on 18 February 1939, at the home of her daughter Mrs Rodway Gainford of Kensington, Sydney, and was buried in the Anglican cemetery, Randwick.

But this bland official story tells us very little of the colourful life of theatrical entrepreneur Kate Howarde – the professional name of Catherine Clarissa Jones/de Saxe/ Black throughout a long career. Most of the evidence for that alternate story comes out of media reports of her performances and other activities, as well as the occasional interview or journal article about her. And most of that evidence can be traced back eventually to Kate herself – a skilled publicist, who knew the importance of a ‘good press’.

Like many another performer, she took five years off her age, making her talent appear even more precocious than it apparently was (4). So she could claim that she was paid for stories of school life published in the Wellington Post at age nine, and that a children’s pantomime she wrote was publicly performed when she was ten years of age (5). But it was not only her age that was manipulated to make a ‘good story’. She claimed to have learned to speak fluent French from her French mother (6), which might have surprised Harriet Hannah Payne/Jones of North Woolwich, but was probably intended to construct a more exotic and cosmopolitan image for Kate Howarde, theatrical entrepreneur (7).

Some of these stories are relatively easily identified as inventions or exaggerations, like the claim that she was managing her own theatrical company by age 17, rather than the much more likely mid- to late-20s. We should not think any the less of her for this, for such a publicity talent was extremely useful in navigating successfully within the theatrical world with its notoriously fickle audiences. But the stories muddy the waters too, complicating the biographer’s task: everything in the rest of this article is conjecture – based on available evidence, but contingent, open (as all history ultimately is) to re-interpretation if new information comes to light.

It is, for instance, clear that by the late 1890s the Kate Howarde Company was based in Australia and touring extensively throughout New Zealand and all Australian states, performing mainly in country town halls and tents. In later years, she was called the ‘Tent-theatre queen’ (8) but – as Barbara Garlick points out in the most extended discussion of Howarde and her work to date – such a categorisation limits how she is perceived. It makes her appear to be to a combination of gypsy and independent woman, but not much more than that (9).

The gypsy image certainly encapsulates the experience of the touring performer. It was a stressful business (10) – transport was by car or rail or coastal steamer; the performers had to accept whatever accommodation and performance venues were available; transport (and sometimes even the show itself) was at the mercy of the weather; payment could be small or slow in reaching the performers. Audiences might be enthusiastic and grateful for the opportunity to see the kind of production that was routinely available to people in the cities, or they could be sparse and parsimonious, difficult to please. Kate had a public reputation for cheerful acceptance of whatever came her way: “Kate Howarde realises whatever compensations there are in country travelling and keeps a warm spot for the big-hearted people who wait at the station (if there is a station) to welcome returning entertainers as old friends”. (11) But those who knew her well admitted that her equanimity was sometimes challenged by that gypsy life on the road (12).

Kate’s independence was also clearly evident. Not only did she run her own company but she determinedly carved out a niche for it that was independent of the powerful theatrical circuits operated by the Williamson, Fuller and Tait dynasties. She managed not only the production side of the business but also the financial side, doing her own bookkeeping and apparently keeping solvent throughout a long career (13).

Her creativity, then, is just another aspect of a complex personality. She wrote much of the company’s material, including sketches, songs and pantomimes, and claimed to have also written several serious plays, including When the Tide Rises and Under the Southern Cross (14). Under her management, the company enjoyed a modest prosperity. It included her two younger brothers, Louis and Albert (Bert) Howarde, and one of her two sisters (Billie, who later married Harry Craig, also of the company). Billie and Harry Craig kept the Kate Howarde company touring in Australia during Kate’s first trip out of Australasia. She travelled to San Francisco in 1906, where she experienced the earthquake and was forced to leave the shattered city with other performers, for New York, where she later claimed that one of her plays was pirated by an American theatrical agent (15), contradicting yet another claim that she lost all her play scripts in the earthquake (16). We do know, however, that she earned her keep in New York writing theatre reviews for newspapers before travelling on to London. It may have been during this trip that she married her second husband, Elton Black, who had been with the company from about 1904 and returned to Australia with Kate in 1909 (17).

From 1914 to late 1917, at a time when suburban theatrical companies were not common, the Kate Howarde company successfully presented weekly-change repertory at the National Theatre, Balmain, Sydney. The fare included Kate’s own melodramas, The White Slave Traffic (1914) and Why Girls Leave Home (1914). She separated from Elton Black around 1918/9, just before her greatest success – the bucolic comedy Possum Paddock.

This was advertised as “written, produced and presented by Kate Howarde”, and it toured country areas before opening in Sydney at the Theatre Royal, 6 September 1919. Often compared with the Bert Bailey play of Steele Rudd’s On Our Selection, or with Henry Fletcher’s “Wayback” family sagas, Possum Paddock tells of the financial and romantic problems of a bush family, mixing drama and sentiment with farce. It was advertised as “the funniest play that ever struck Sydney” (18) and was greeted with hilarity by large audiences. Kate was given credit for “the manner in which she has catered for the public; she has just hit upon the right thing that they like, and she is being rewarded by packed houses nightly”. (19)

This success encouraged Kate to turn the play into a film – making her Australia’s first woman to direct a feature film (20). The film was produced at Rushcutter’s Bay, in the studio opened by Cozens Spencer in 1912. Kate was sufficiently insecure about entering the new world of film production to employ veteran Charles Villiers to help her adapt the screenplay and direct the film, but she kept the full production credit for herself. (William) Lacey Percival was photographer. (21) Many of the original cast participated, including Kate herself as the widow Nella Carsley, though her daughter, using the stage name, Leslie Adrien, took the female romantic lead, played in the first theatrical production by Rose Rooney. The film was released successfully at the Lyric Theatre, Sydney in January 1921, and reviewers were generally kind: one described is as “a likeable picture which would be considerably improved with an intermission or the use of the scissors here and there” (22). Kate made no further films, blaming this on the unfair distribution of the exhibition proceeds (23).

Gum Tree Gully poster

Nevertheless, the success of both play and film was sufficient to finance a ten-month tour for the whole company in 1922 to South Africa, USA and Great Britain (24). On their return they continued to tour country areas, with occasional city seasons, presenting revivals of Possum Paddock as well as imported plays and others written or adapted by Kate herself. The Bush Outlaw (1923) produced “condescending laughter” (25), but a second bucolic comedy (Gum Tree Gully, 1924) was a moderate success. She also did quite well with more dramatic (and melodramatic) works such as The Limit (1921), Find Me A Wife (1923), and Common Humanity (1927). In 1935, only four years before her death, she presented The Judgment of Jean Calvert in Sydney though it seems unlikely that this was one of her own plays.

There are several reasons for telling Kate’s story. First, it is an intriguing story in its own right; one that, given her significant role in Australian theatrical and film history, deserves to be told more often. Second, this version of the story corrects some errors in earlier versions, though it remains full of unanswered questions and strange ellipses. Third, when so little of her only film remains – and that little seems to be currently preserved out of sequence (26) – it is just easier to talk about the person than the text. But, some things can still be said about that text, using evidence from the play script and film script (27), as well as from the surviving footage.

These three texts are very different. The play script gives a clear impression of what the stage play must have been like. All dialogue is given, but there are also references to “bus”, meaning stage business, ad lib. The flavour of this can be gauged from reviews:

The little tea-party at which the two bashful young freaks from Dan Martin’s were entertained by their shy boys at the Possum homestead, threw the audience into convulsions of mirth. Enjoyment reached a climax when Bobby McQuade’s sausage stuck out of his mouth until the united efforts of his brother and the girls tore it from his throat just as suffocation point was nearly reached! Then did the Theatre Royal stalls wave like a cornfield in the wind! It was a strange, weird spectacle. In detail the people were rocking to and fro, digging each other in the ribs, and slapping each other on the back! (28)

The use of the term “freaks” for lower-class rather simple-minded characters is apparently standard for the time. (29) In this case, it is used in the play script itself (30), and again in the programme booklet. The Sydney Morning Herald reviewer explains that “Fred Macdonald is once more the star comedian, and his inimitable Billy McQuade is one of a whole series of freak characters which have an ‘On Our Selection’ flavour”. The freaks include Billy’s brother Bobby and their two sweethearts, Mary Ellen and Anastasia Martin: “The double courtships supplied broad, but inoffensive, low comedy” (31). Again, the flavour can be gauged from the dialogue:

Bob: What, have your socks got holes in?
Bill: Of course they have
Mum: (Surprised) They have?
Bill: If they hadn’t how could I get my feet in em (32)

The other characters that fall into this category, though they are not specifically named as “freaks”, are Shad (the McQuades’ faithful retainer) and Elizabeth Martin (sister of the villainous Dan Martin who tries to outwit Dad McQuade), who also eventually form a couple, with a bit of help from their friends.

The characters and story elements are familiar from films as early as After Sundown (1911) (33). In both After Sundown and Possum Paddock there are two suitors for the heroine, one of whom is after her money (in After Sundown she will inherit the hotel, in Possum Paddock she has an inheritance due when she comes of age). There are also two older couples, one romantic (in After Sundown the heroine’s widowed father marries the widow, in Possum Paddock Hugh Bracken pairs off with the widow Nella Carsley), and one comic (in Possum Paddock, Shad and Elizabeth), as well as a series of younger couples. These are similar characters and storylines to those of On our Selection (Raymond Longford, 1920), The Waybacks (Arthur Sterry 1918) and the Hayseeds series (The Hayseeds Come to Town [Beaumont Smith, 1917], The Hayseeds’ Back-blocks Show [Smith, 1917], The Hayseeds’ Melbourne Cup [Smith, 1918]).

So, it is understandable that Kate Howarde would consider that, with her vast stage experience, she could turn her own play into a film. But the film script shows how wrong she was! She certainly opened the play out, to include scenes at the railway station and other locations in addition to the homestead where the play is located. But she simply shifted the dialogue, almost intact, to the right side of the page, demonstrating no understanding of how to translate speech into action and (a limited number of necessarily short) dialogue inter-titles. In other words, this film script could not have been filmed until after the introduction of sound film, and Kate must have been made aware of this as soon as she showed it to a veteran like Charles Villiers. This may well explain the huge differences of plot and character between the play and the film script on one hand (both clearly written by Kate alone), and the film on the other (with script credited to Kate and Charles Villiers in collaboration).

Possum Paddock poster

The play is truly a ‘bucolic comedy’ – ‘bucolic’ because it is set in the country, ‘comedy’ because there is never any serious doubt that it will all end happily. The emphasis is on the naïve but kind-hearted country folk, whose goodness defeats any villainous plot against them. Act 1 ends with the auction, in which the widow Nella Carsley saves the day by arriving just in time to outbid the villain and so save the paddock for the McQuade family. The bulk of Act 2 concerns the attempt of Fred Deering to court Nancy McQuade for her inheritance, and ends with Nella Carsley exposing Deering’s motives to Nancy at the cost of a misunderstanding between herself and Hugh Bracken. Act 3 resolves this misunderstanding, and allows all five couples to celebrate the coming of the railroad, routed through the paddock which had been so fiercely disputed and which now belongs clearly to the McQuades and so brings prosperity to the family.

There are some gross continuity errors in the version of the film currently available. One very obvious one is the scene of Hugh Bracken presenting Nancy McQuade with a black kewpie doll, which he has purchased under the misapprehension that she is a little girl: in the current film version, this scene has been cut in two and makes no sense in its current locations. However, assuming that the copyrighted film script was abandoned almost altogether (34), we have no way of knowing how accurately the current film reflects the way the story was told in the 1920 film. What we do know is that both the story and the characters have been greatly changed from the play. In the film, Nella Carsley seems to act only as a confidante for Nancy: it is not her, but Hugh Bracken, who saves the day at the auction, and Hugh and Nancy form the central couple (instead of Hugh and Nella as a secondary couple to Nancy and Leonard). Leonard has been omitted altogether, and a new character, Maggie Masters, is introduced – seduced by Fred Deering, and abandoned by him when he realises that Nancy is an heiress worth courting. In the present version of the film, the story closes with the race to get the money to the auction in time to save the paddock.

In the process, the tone of the story has shifted from bucolic comedy to romantic melodrama. The film presents a story far more serious than the play. One of the surviving scenes is the attempted rape of Nancy by Fred Deering: no matter how artificial it may look by current standards, this is no decorous seduction, but a brutal and violent assault. Similarly, the story of Maggie Masters is explicit and potentially tragic: the censors reportedly demanded a cut from the film – a scene in which Maggie imagines desperately throwing her baby into the river (35). In this melodrama, the family is challenged (both financially and emotionally) but survives (Mum and Dad still in their long-term relationship, Nancy starting out on the next generation’s long-term relationship), the community is challenged (by the railroad and the dastardly activities of the villain) but survives. Placing the auction at the end means the film builds to a suspenseful climax, different from the more light-hearted and jocular tone of the final party in the play. Nevertheless, this melodrama is finally romantic, again establishing not just one couple but five (36).

One feature that remains constant across all three texts is their Australianness, something repeatedly commented upon by reviewers.

…lifting Australianism into the place she considers it has too long been deprived of in the theatrical world…Australians want more of the atmosphere of their own country (37).

The Australian atmosphere is well maintained, from the kookaburra and the ‘possums to the bad roads (38).

…[first, the] vista of gum trees with their golden autumn tints on gracefully massed foliage, and the second to the kangaroo and ‘possum skins nailed up on doors, or out to dry on fences, with real kookaburras chuckling over the comedy from the roof of the wood-shed (39).

These writers locate Australianness in iconic natural features – weather, animals, bad roads. But they could also have pointed to the traditional characterisation of the inherent virtue and resilience of the people who live in the Australian bush, including their capacity to laugh at themselves. In this, Kate Howarde was in good company: other well-known names producing a comparable Australian film at round the same time were Franklyn Barrett (The Breaking of the Drought), Raymond Longford (On Our Selection), Harry Southwell (The Kelly Gang), Wilfred Lucas (The Jackeroo of Coolabong), and Beaumont Smith (The Man From Snowy River). Possum Paddock can hold its own with all of these.

Kate Howarde is significant in Australian theatrical and film history, as a pioneering woman writer and producer, and for bringing live theatre to generations of rural audiences. As we celebrate the contribution of current generations, we should also remember the pioneers – including the first woman to write, produce and co-direct an Australian feature film!


  1. Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper, Australian Film 1900-1977, OUP, Melbourne, 1998, p.47
  2. Pike and Cooper, p.85
  3. My recent interest in Kate Howarde has been stimulated by my researches towards preparation of an ADB supplement entry on her, which has given me access to the search facilities of the ADB. My thanks to Chris Cunneen and the ADB supplement staff for their co-operation and tolerance in what has proved a long and difficult – but also exciting and surprising – search.
  4. Some commentators exaggerated even further than did Kate herself. Frank Hill, for instance, stated that she “was just entering her forties” when Possum Paddock returned to Sydney for a revival in March 1923 (“Kate Howarde: our own Noel Coward”, Truth, 8 June 1958): she would, in fact, have been close to 60 years old.
  5. Australian Woman’s Mirror, 15 Jan1929, p.12
  6. Australian Woman’s Mirror, 15 Jan1929, p.12
  7. In addition, Kate’s marriage certificate shows William de Saxe’s birthplace as Paris, though his family seems to have been British (his father’s given name was George and his mother was born Ellen Fox). Nevertheless, Kate may well have learned French from, and/or spoken it with, her husband or her parents-in-law.
  8. Harold Love (ed), The Australian Stage: a documentary history, Kensington, NSWUP 1984, p.120
  9. Barbara Garlick, Australian travelling theatre 1890-1935: a study in popular entertainment and national ideology (Ph.D. thesis, University of Queensland, 1994), p.157
  10. These stresses are well captured by Tommy Clyde, “The ‘pleasures’ (?) of country theatrical tours”, Everyone’s, 17 June 1925, p.38
  11. Australian Woman’s Mirror, 15 Jan1929, p.12
  12. Barbara Garlick, Ch.6
  13. Barbara Garlick, Ch.6
  14. She claimed to have written When the Tide Rises at age 16, and shown it to Bland Holt (Australian Woman’s Mirror, 15 Jan1929, p.12), but she also claimed that the play she showed to Bland Holt was Under the Southern Cross (Australian Variety and Show World, 3 Oct1919, p.11)
  15. Australian Woman’s Mirror, 15 Jan1929, p.12
  16. Possum Paddock theatre programme, 1919, n.p: “Miss Howarde was induced by Bland Holt to take six of her plays to America. She opened at the Park Theatre, San Francisco, under her own management, and from the opening night the press and the public were unanimous in their praise of Miss Howarde’s play. The season was at its height when the San Francisco earthquake occurred. Miss Howarde lost all her manuscripts of her plays, and from that day to this has never been able to replace them.”
  17. Barbara Garlick, Ch.6
  18. Australian Variety and Show World, 26 Sept1919, p.6
  19. Australian Variety and Show World, 26 Sept1919, p.12
  20. Possum Paddock, 1921, prod: Kate Howarde; dir. Kate Howarde and Charles Villiers; sc. Kate Howarde and Charles Villiers from the play by Kate Howarde; ph. Lacey Percival; cast: John Cosgrove (Andrew McQuade), James Martin (Dan Martin), Leslie Adrien (Nancy McQuade), Jack Kirby (Hugh Bracken), Kate Howarde (Nella Carsley), Cora Warner (Jean McQuade – Mum)
  21. Australian Variety and Show World, 5 Aug1920, p.1
  22. Sun 30 Jan 1921
  23. Andree Wright, Brilliant Careers, Pan Books, Sydney 1986, p.107
  24. Everyone’s, 3 May 1922, p.21; 11 Oct.1922, p.26
  25. Sydney Morning Herald review, cited in Margaret Williams, Australia on the Popular Stage 1829-1929, Melbourne, OUP 1983, p.261
  26. Possum Paddock (1921), ScreenSound Australia (The National Collection of Screen and Sound), access copy, title no.6882
  27. Both the play script and the film script are held in the National Archives of Australia, Canberra, Attorney-General’s Department, Copyright registrations; A1336, 7819 (play script), A1336/1-2, 25752 (film script)
  28. Sydney Morning Herald, 8 Sept 1919
  29. The description of the production of After Sundown in 1911 contains a similar reference: see Prahran Telegraph 2 Sept1911, reproduced in Ina Bertrand (ed), Cinema: a documentary history, NSWUP, 1989, p.37
  30. Play script p.70
  31. Sydney Morning Herald, 8 Sept 1919
  32. Play script, p.32
  33. See endnote 29
  34. The kewpie doll incident is one that is in the film script (pp. 34-36), and that survives in the film, including Bracken’s comment about its doubtful respectability (as an inter-title).
  35. Pike and Cooper, p.103
  36. Though these five couples are different from those in the play. The play gives us Leonard and Nancy, Hugh and Nella, Bobby and Anastasia, Billy and Mary Ellen, Shad and Elizabeth. The film gives us Hugh and Nancy, Fred and Maggie, Bobby and Anastasia, Billy and Mary Ellen, Shad and Elizabeth (the last couple may have other names in the film – the identities of the older ‘freaks’ are not clear from the remaining footage). In the film, Nella Carsley is not romantically linked.
  37. Australian Variety and Show World, 3 Oct 1919, p.11
  38. Sun, 30 Jan 1921
  39. Sydney Morning Herald 8 Sept 1919

About The Author

Ina Bertrand is a freelance writer and also a Principal Fellow in the Cinema Studies program at the University of Melbourne.

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