Discover more from Secret Sleuths
The Gaiety Girl divorce case
An actress's wealthy male admirer caused the end of her marriage... eventually
In 1907, former Gaiety Girl Mabel Edith Bryce found herself the respondent in a divorce suit brought by her husband, stockbroker Francis Bryce.
Bryce believed that his wife, had been committing adultery with a wealthy young man named Harold Pape, and so wanted a divorce. The resulting case received substantial column inches in the papers, due to Mabel's former profession.
As Mabel Duncan, she had been an actress on the stage in London - and had performed as one of the Gaiety Girls, the dancing chorus appearing on stage during the musical comedy A Gaiety Girl. Her father, Adam Duncan, had been a racehorse owner and stockbroker, but he had left her to her own devices from a young age, and so at the age of 16, she became an actress. She had first met her husband when she was performing at Daly's Theatre, and they had married on 14 January 1898, when she was 17 - although she declared that she was 21 on the marriage certificate. She continued to work until a year after her marriage, when she 'retired'.
The Bryces tended to write to each other using cryptograms, even when not far apart. In 1906, the Bryces had been staying with Mabel’s cousins, Robert and Gladys Kindersley, on the Isle of Wight. One day, they bumped into a friend of Mabel’s, Mrs Ellison, on the beach, and she invited Mabel to come and stay with her at Bembridge. Francis Bryce agreed. While they were apart, the Bryces exchanged telegrams with using these ciphers. Mrs Bryce sent her telegrams from Bembridge, and Mr Bryce his from Ryde Pier Head station, with each full of rather soppy messages to each other.
However, a private detective, John Charles Hoare, gave evidence at the divorce court. He had been employed by Frederick Bryce to shadow his wife while she was staying at Bembridge - it seems the lovey-dovey telegrams from Bryce disguised his suspicions about his spouse.
Harold Pape was 26 and single. Born in Oxton, Birkenhead, but raised primarily in Sussex in a large house full of servants, he was described as a stockbroker, but does not seem to have needed to work full-time. He enjoyed life to the full, and loved the theatre... and women, particularly Mabel Bryce. He seems to have met Mabel some time prior to the Isle of Wight, later declaring that he had spent substantial amounts of time with her in Scotland, in the full knowledge of her husband - something he would angrily deny.
John Hoare shadowed Mabel around the Isle of Wight, usually while she was with Mrs Ellison, and reported a life full of pleasure. He noted that Harold Pape was 'constantly' with Mrs Bryce, and that they 'used to ride together in a first-class railway carriage'. They had also joined friends of theirs - a Mr Rennie and Mrs Katie Ellison, a doctor’s wife - on the beach, using two bathing tents (one for the ladies, one for the men) to change into their bathing costumes, and went bathing together. After their swim, the two couples separated and Mrs Bryce and Mr Pape went back to the former's lodgings. John Hoare waited outside until midnight, and noted that Mr Pape did not leave in that time.
Mrs Bryce vehemently denied any relationship with Mr Pape. There was no direct evidence against her, and no witnesses had been found who could prove any misconduct. She did admit that she and her husband were 'living under peculiar circumstances' and that he had been very close to a woman named in court as 'Miss A', but she had never alleged misconduct between them, even though they had been seen along together in a punt!
Mabel's counsel, Rufus Isaacs, noted that the foundation of the adultery allegations was the evidence of Hoare, but then added that even he had not suggested adultery, despite seeing Mabel having a fun day out with Pape. Mrs Ellison seems to have noticed John Hoare hanging around, and bitterly complained about having been ‘shadowed by detectives’.
However, it was not just Francis Bryce who Mabel received loving letters and telegrams from. It emerged that she had also received them from Harold Pape - but her counsel, although admitting that Mabel was wrong to accept them and keep them, said that the fault was mainly Pape's. This was presumably because he knew she was married and so should not have written to her. However, Rufus Isaacs insisted that fault ultimately lay at Francis Bryce's door, for the husband had not 'given his wife the protection to which she was entitled'.
"I only know I love you. Darling, do you really care for me? Perhaps you think I love every pretty face. I do feel I really could love you. You are so like what I think a woman ought to be.... I love you so much... I shall not write to you again like this, as letters are dangerous. Don't forget to burn this." (extract from a letter from Harold Pape to Mabel)
Mabel had received numerous love letters from Harold Pape, and the divorce court judge noted that as she had been on stage for nearly three years, she must have had experience with fan letters and so understood what Pape's feelings for her were when he wrote her the letters. She had also kept the letters, rather than throwing them away.
Yet the divorce case had a surprising end; the jury decided that there had been no misconduct, although they asked to register their disapproval of Francis Pape (his conduct 'was worthy of the severest censure'). Mabel was clearly not expecting this verdict, and promptly fainted, having to be carried out of court. The jury registered its disapproval of the fact that someone - presumably Francis Bryce - had hired more private detectives to shadow them during the court case; the judge noted that he had heard other similar complaints, and that if any private detective could be caught shadowing a juryman, he would ‘deal with them’.
Harold Pape was ordered to pay costs, having admitted connivance and 'conduct conducing to adultery'. The Bryces were still married, but the marriage was over and they left the divorce court to live separately, Francis Bryce paying his wife an allowance of £400 a year. Eventually, Mabel wrote her husband a letter:
Dear Frank, I know you have often had inquiries made about me since we parted, and recently I feel sure detectives have been watching me, which is most annoying; and rather than have a continuance of this, I am writing to tell you that if you want your freedom, you can get it. If you like to make inquiries at the Euston Hotel you will find I stayed there in January with someone whose name I do not intend to disclose. Mabel.
Bryce seems to have carried out inquiries accordingly, and found that Mabel was telling the truth. In April 1910, he again filed for divorce, and this time was successful, the final decree being issued ten months later.
Mabel had been used to a lot of freedom both growing up and as a young actress; she was also used to getting attention of men. Marriage at 17 was the worst thing for her do: her husband sought to curtail her freedom, and when he doubted her, he simply commissioned private detectives to follow her around (not very successfully, given that she was aware of their presence). Ultimately, the constant shadowing by the detectives made her realise that being accused of being an adulteress was preferable to being followed, and so she gave her husband the evidence that he had paid detectives to obtain.
It was only nine years later, in 1920, that Mabel married again - to Leopold Fisher Rowe, a Home Counties estate agent. By this time, she was older, and wiser, and hopefully had found a husband who gave her the freedom to be herself; something that her first husband had struggled to do.
After his successful divorce, Francis Bryce remarried in London in 1913. Harold Pape 'got over' Mabel, and married another woman in 1918. Mabel died in Finsbury Park in 1941; the probate of her estate was granted to Hermione Ellison. Hermione was her stepdaughter; she was also the daughter-in-law of Mabel’s old friend Katie Ellison, having married her son Patrick in 1930. It seems that Mabel and Katie’s friendship lasted far longer than Mabel’s first marriage.
Thanks for reading Secret Sleuths! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.