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Josephine Sarah Popplewell


Josephine Jacombs was the first of eight children born to William Thompson and Josephine (nee Lane) Jacombs. We were told about our “famous great aunt”, Madame Rosa Bird, by our mother. It turns out that Madame Rosa Bird was indeed famous. In 1888 Josephine married Arthur Popplewell at Petersham, NSW. They had two children: Violet and Benjamin.

"Madame Rosa Bird is a native of New South Wales. She came to England in 1897, after appearing several times professionally in Sydney. She studied in London with Mr. Henry Blower, and made her first appearance at the Albert Hall five months later. Subsequently she studied with Marchesi, and afterward appeared in London at a concert at which the Princess of Wales was present. Later she sang at the Albert Hall at the big Empire Concert, and represented Australia. On this occasion she was presented to the King, who complimented her on her singing. She organised the musical reception given to Lord Kitchener, when Prince Christian received the guests. In 1906 Mrs. Popplewell sang Princess Henry of Battenberg's songs before the royal composer. A week later she was presented to the King and Queen of Spain at Cowes, when the Princess complimented her on her singing."

Next was a reference to her in 1903, touring Ireland with Mrs Howie, Mr Barton McGucken (tenor) and the Chamounix Orchestra. In 1906 her partnership with Ernest Lipschutz, 174 New Bond Street, Middlesex is dissolved. Also, her stage name is to change from Madame Rosa Bird to Madame Rosa. "A Talented Australian, Mrs Arthur Popplewell, (nee Miss Jacombs, of Sydney), the first Australian to be decorated with the order of the Red Cross of Spain, is a sister of Mrs Dr Grey, of Boulder. She studied for five years under Marchesi, and is now one of the foremost sopranos of the British Isles. She lives in London, where she teaches the Marchesi system. She has frequently appeared before the Queen at Buckingham Palace, and is held in high regard by Her Majesty. During her visits she also made the acquaintance of the present Queen of Spain."

"Australians in England 8th March 1907"; Among the Australians presented at their Majesties' Court last Friday evening were Mrs Taverner, Lady Lucas Tooth, Mrs Arthur Popplewell (Madame Rosa Bird) and Mrs Walter Sully. Lady Tooth wore a handsome gown of faint [sic] green brocade, the skirt and corsage relieved with old lace and gold embroidery. The Court train was of faint green striped brocade, diamond ornaments. Mrs Popplewell wore a gown of white satin, the skirt having deep flounce of old lace and a panel of silver embroidery. The train was of white tutin, lined with silver tissue. On the right side was an embroidered silver spray of flowers, and on the left side and hem of the train were festoons of old point lace. Her jewels were diamond necklace, tiara and ornaments, she carried a bouquet of white heather and lily of the valley.” Then again in 1907: LONDON SOCIETY LEADER SAILS FOR AUSTRALIA Mrs Arthur Popplewell is among passengers on Steamer China. Mrs Arthur Popplewell, a prominent society leader of London, and one of the best known English singers, left San Francisco Tuesday on the steamer China for Honolulu and Japan, after a visit of a few days in this city, during which time she was the guest of her nephew and niece, Mr and Mrs GW Aikln of Fresno, at the St Francis hotel. Possessed of a magnificent soprano voice, Mrs Popplewell has never turned her talent into professional lines, but is widely known in England and in many parts of the European continent as a singer at benefits and private entertainments, where she always appears as Madame Rosa Bird. Mrs Popplewell, who is a widow and very wealthy, has a town house in London and a river home on the Thames, both of which have been the scenes of many brilliant social gatherings. It was she who gave the great reception to Lord Kitchener on his return from South Africa, at which Prince Christian received the noted warrior. Mrs Popplewell has been presented at both the British and Spanish courts, and, last March was decorated by King Alfonso with the Red Cross of Spain, being one of the four women who have been accorded this honor. Mrs Popplewell is a native of Australia, but has made her home in England for many years. She first sang in London as colonial representative of Australia at a great benefit concert several years ago, which was attended by 15,000 persons, and since then her fame as a singer has steadily increased. She studied music under Mme Marchesi and has sung not only at many great benefits but in the homes of members of the English and Spanish nobility. Princess Henry of Battenberg, mother of the queen of Spain, recently wrote a song especially for Mrs Popplewell, and her last appearance in England was at a charity concert at the home of the Duke of Westminster. Before coming to San Francisco Mrs Popplewell visited Montreal as the guest of Lord Strathcona, High Commissioner for Canada in London and Banker for the sick of the Royal Victoria hospital in that city. Mrs J Popplewell is on her way to Sydney, Australia for a visit with her parents and expects to visit Japan, China and India and return to England by way of Suez. This is her first visit to America and she expressed herself Tuesday as charmed with the country and the people whom she has met during her short stay.

Music and Drama: Mme Rosa Bird (now Mrs Popplewell), a one-time Sydney soprano who was "brought out” by Mr Henri Kowalski, will return here early next month for a visit to her relatives, after many years' absence in London. Mme Bird, who was known here as Miss Josephine Jacomb, has many Japanese friends of influence, so that before she left England it was arranged that her visit to Tokyo should be recognized by an invitation to the Emperor's annual garden-party. This is generally given early in November, but (in a letter from Yokohama dated November 17) Mme Bird explains that, owing to the tardy flowering of the chrysanthemums this year, it had to be postponed until November 19. The Australian visitor witnessed the review of troops by the Emperor, and she has been presented by the Government with the order of the Red Cross of Japan. During her stay in Yokohama Mme Bird has visited various hospitals and schools, and has sung to them a number of Songs composed by Princess Henry of Battenberg.

Empire Day Service—St Paul’s Cathedral, 12th Jun 1915: H.M. Queen Alexandra was present at the service. The note of Empire was emphasised by the presence of the High Commissioners and Agents-General of the Dominions, as well as by a number of wounded soldiers, the Matron-in-Chief of the Canadian Medical Service, and parties of Canadian and Australian war nurses. The Colonial Office was represented by Sir Harlmann Just. Amongst others present were: The Duke and Duchess of Somerset, the Earl of Meath, Countess Roberts, Lord Keay, Baroness De Ros, the Dowager Lady Napier of Magdala, Lady Lilian Wemyss, Sir Edmund and Lady Barton, Sir Gilbert and Lady Parker, Sir Charles and Lady Lyall, Sir V. Grey Wilson, Sir Frederick Pollock (President of the League of the Empire) and Lady Pollock, Viscount Hill (representing the Education Committee of the London County Council), Lady Scott, Mrs. Arthur Popplewell, Sir John Kirk (representing the Ragged School Union), Dr. G.W. Prothero and Mrs. Prothero, Colonel Duncan Smith (representing the Royal Colonial Institute), Lieutenant (General Sir R. Baden-Powell (the Boy Scouts), Mr. F. Horton (Imperial Maritime League), the Bishop of Singapore, Canon Mercer (South Africa), Archdeacon Josa (West Indies), and the Mayors of Bermondsey, Chelsea, Deptford, Hackney, Hammersmith, Lambeth, Poplar. Stepney, Battersea and Finsbury, Sir Philip Hutchins (Chairman) and Mrs. Ord Marshall (Hon. Secretary).

Later in 1916 "Her lovely home in Moreton Gardens has been turned into an Australian Hospital for soldiers … Dear me! what a bedlam it often is when they feel well and all begin to shout and sing together"

Banjo Paterson—Happy Dispatches: "December 15th. Dropped in for a chat with Sir TA Coghlan, our agent-general for New South Wales. As unemotional as a professional billiard player, and as self-reliant as a sea captain, Coghlan has battled his way from a minor civil service job to his present position through sheer ability. Many years of dealing with statutes, orders, and regulations have rendered him rather superior to the trammels of red tape. After considering the matter for a while he says: “I can get you over to France. But if you write one word for a newspaper, or if you tell anybody that you’ve ever been inside a newspaper office, you’ll deserve all that’s coming to you. If you go over there and lie low for a while they may let the correspondents go to the front later on. There’s an Australian hospital over there, Lady Dudley’s hospital they call it, and we have a man there in charge of a government ambulance. He wants to come home; so you can go over and take his place. You’ll see something too, let me tell you; for of all the troubled outfits that I ever had to handle, this hospital beats the lot. It’s a first-class hospital, don’t make any mistake about that, but its adventures would make a book. Colonel Eames is in charge. You know him well, don’t you? I wouldn’t have Eames’s job for a fortune.” “What’s up with it?” I asked. “Who’s running it? Is Lady Dudley running it?” “Well, not exactly. But a lot of its success, and a lot of its trouble are due to Lady Dudley. There’s a wonderful woman for you. Beauty, social position, everything. But she’s a Quaker by birth. Comes from that Gurney family of bankers; and if you want a real good stubborn fighter get a Quaker (Coghlan was a good Roman Catholic himself.) The hospital is run by a committee, mostly women. They’re all snobs and they’ll do anything fair or unfair, that Lady Dudley says. It’s a petticoat-ridden outfit.” Everything went queer from the start with this thing,” he went on. “They called a meeting of Australians in London to form the hospital, and most of the rich Australians over here either went there themselves, or sent their wives and cheque-books. The wives were so excited at having anything to do with Lady Dudley that they would vote anything she wanted. Of course, everybody wanted to get a job on the hospital (so that they could say they had been over to the front) or they wanted to work some friends in. They called for promises of money and Robert Lucas Tooth, a very wealthy old Australian, promised ten thousand pounds; others chipped in as much as they could. They had no trouble in getting the money. Then the question came up about a secretary to the hospital. Everybody there thought that he or she would make a good secretary; but they were waiting to see what Lady Dudley wanted. Then Robert Lucas Tooth chipped in and said that he had a lady friend, a Mrs Popplewell, who used to be a professional singer and he thought she would make a very good secretary. In fact he made it clear, no lady friend no ten thousand pounds. They couldn’t toss that much money overboard, so the lady friend went. Everything worked by the rule of contrary in this show and though she had been a professional singer she has turned out to be a good common sense capable woman. Works like a beaver; keeps her eye on the accounts; sees that no money is wasted, and is cheerful all the time. One of the best. You’ll see her when you go over.”

So, our Great Aunt, Josephine Sarah Popplewell (nee Jacombs), was indeed a very popular and famous soprano, wealthy and bejewelled and world travelled.

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