Serendipity among the Victorian Blogs

One of the nice things if, like me, you are a Victorian trapped in the 21st century is the network of blogs about the era. You can wander from one to the other but occasionally you have the pleasure of stumbling on something that belongs to a different blog.

So it was when blogger Robert Stephen Parry, author of five historical novels, was recounting the day in 1878 when the Scots-born American Alexander Graham Bell went to Osborne House to demonstrate his fairly new invention, the telephone. Queen Victoria phoned Osborne Cottage and spoke to Sir Thomas and Lady Biddulph, who were stationed there with a phone.

Then I sat up with a start. Mr Parry says: “Apparently, a certain Miss Kate Field was situated at the cottage as well and from here she gave a rendition on piano and sang Comin’ Through the Rye.’” To a Trollopian, Kate Field means only one person, namely, the American actress and journalist who was close to Trollope. It seems she was probably the first person to sing over the phone and certainly the first to sing over the phone to a Queen.

It looks as if both the story and the singer are new to our blogger but not to Trollopians who can read it in Victoria Glendinning’s splendid biography Trollope. She says Kate, “not a great actress”, was absorbed by the phone and wrote a score of articles about it after its first American demonstration. In London, with which she was familiar, being lauded not only by Trollope but the likes of Thackeray, she became, as Miss Glendinning put it, a pioneer public relations officer, organising the publicity and press releases for Professor Bell.

“It was Kate,” she wrote, “who sang Kathleen Mavourneen down the line to (the Queen) from nearby Osborne Cottage.”

Miss Glendinning says:”The Queen was not much impressed.” Mr Parry reports the Queen’s diary as recording: “We talked with Sir Thomas and Mary Bidulph, also heard some singing quite plainly. But it is rather faint, and one must hold the tube close to one’s ear”.

But, according to Mr Parry, Bell that evening also organised four-part songs from Cowes, a bugle retreat from Southampton and the national anthem from London. So impressed was the Queen that, on her behalf, Sir Thomas wrote to Bell asking him if Her Majesty could keep the phone. Bell, prompted by his PRO perhaps, offered her a special set of telephones, which immediately went into action and were used heavily by the household.

Which song did Kate sing for the Queen? Well, Comin’ Through the Rye is a cleaner version of a very rude number. Kathleen Mavourneen, the second word being based on an Irish Gaelic word for “my beloved”, was sung by the Irish soprano Catherine Hayes for the Queen at Buckingham Palace in 1849 and became a hit in the American Civil War. Mr Parry’s blog is at  Another favourite of mine, mostly about the Pre-Raphaelites, is  and there is, of course, The Trollope Jupiter at .

by Peter Blacklock