Researching a biography of her mother, opera singer Josie Kean, awoke memories of a remarkable Australian musical figure.

Growing up during the 1940 and 50s our household was noisy and busy. Days began with mum warming up her early morning voice with Lucia’s Mad Scene, followed by Tosca’s Vissi D’arte, then singers arriving for lessons or rehearsals followed by my uncle Larry commandeering the piano to do jazz arrangements for his group The Kean Notes, or working on compositions for brass bands. We kids got a look in to practise piano during the late afternoons while they were busy preparing for performances or just getting on with whatever had to be seen to.

My parents, more bohemian than your everyday mum and dad, raised us in a virtual artist colony in East Melbourne. Their parties on Saturday nights included people from all walks of life, many from the arts world. The wealthy, the poor and the unwashed came to experience the music, and I recall uncles singing duets and patter songs from Gilbert and Sullivan operettas alongside student instrumentalists or singers ‘having a go’ and seizing the opportunity to perform in public.

This strange but highly colourful world of ours included a genteel man named Thorold Waters. During the Great Depression he discovered my mother, Josie, singing and playing piano in pubs. He loved her voice and became her mentor. As a child, I remember him as a sweet, elderly and beautifully mannered gentleman, who made time to chat to us, allowing us to sit on his lap and amuse him with our childish nonsense. His story, long forgotten, is nevertheless extraordinary.

Born during the late 1870s, Thorold Waters began his career at the age of 12 as a cadet journalist and copy boy for the Melbourne Age. At 14, he moved to Sydney and became a sub editor of the Balmain Leader. Regularly using his lunch hour to talk politics with the proprietor of an umbrella repair/second hand book shop run by Billy Hughes (later William Morris Hughes, PM), he was off to a good start. Sir Henry Parks, who lived in Balmain, also took him under his wing, inducing him to join the Balmain Debating Society. This seemed to set a precedent, for over the years many famous and extraordinary people touched his life.

At the age of 17, Thorold fell among poets such as Henry Lawson, ready to sell his rights to In the Days when the World was Wide for five pounds, Victor Daly (poet for Punch and The Bulletin), Edwin J Brady (author, Australia Unlimited) and Francis Myers (poet and novelist).  Thorold also had a boyish admiration for JF Archibald, co-owner and editor of the Bulletin who, in Thorold’s words, “had sometimes ironed out the creases from Lawson’s poems and his prose, a service which was never necessary for Daley”. By this time, he was working for the Daily Telegraph.

The Opening of the First Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia by H.R.H. The Duke of Cornwall and York (later H.M. King George V), May 9, 1901 by Tom Roberts

In 1901 the future King and Queen of England (Edward VII and Queen Alexandra) visited Australia for the purpose of setting the new Parliament in motion. Corresponding for Melbourne’s Age, Thorold was asked by the editor David Syme to investigate the possibility of travelling on the Royal Train. After much ado, permission was granted and he found himself the only journalist approved, The Age scoring a delicious scoop over all the other newspapers in the country. When Thorold wrote his memoir in 1950, he was the sole survivor of those journalists who chronicled the 1901 opening ceremonial and first day’s business of Australia’s Federal Parliament in the daily press. He was still very young, but already experienced.

In later years, he befriended the Australian artist Tom Roberts, who painted the official picture of this auspicious occasion for presentation to King Edward VII. Thorold quizzed him about the philistine deletion of all the working journalists from their positions on the stand near the Royal dais, and the substitution of citizens of high, if transient, renown or solid monetary and social pull. Many, but not all, had been present in less conspicuous positions at the inauguration. Roberts was given a list of those to be exalted by the Barton Government, however, the only fellow in the bunch worth remembering was David Syme!

After a distinguished career in journalism, Thorold travelled between England and Australia over a period of years as an oratorio singer. His beginnings were once again, humble. He stayed in a rooming house for budding singers close to Covent Garden, where everyone had tickets in the cheap galleries to experience the voices of Caruso, Nellie Melba et al.  Sometimes they would spy George Bernard Shaw who refused to comply with the evening dress regulations, and on a Bohème or Butterfly night, maybe Puccini himself.

His soloist career was cut short soon after World War I began. His last concert was shared with the wonderful Australian baritone, Peter Dawson singing a sentimental Auld Lang Syne. After war service, journalism once again took over and he became the theatre critic for major newspapers in London, Melbourne and Sydney. By then Thorold was a man of high integrity and he came to the notice of Dame Nellie Melba who implicitly trusted his opinion. They became great friends, attending operas together, experiencing the absolute wealth of European voices those heady days had to offer.

He returned to Melbourne during the early 1920s working as music critic for the Sun News Pictorial, a fledgling Melbourne journal. The Ballarat Eisteddfod soon came to his attention. They were asking for donations to assist their young singing contestants with their future careers. He soon discovered there was a wealth of good singers from Australia and New Zealand, and he managed to raise a substantial sum from the newspaper, which gave the competition it’s new name, The Herald Sun Aria. Waters became the adjudicator. Over the years, winners pursued careers in the great opera houses of Paris, Monte Carlo and Italy, with some achieving honours at the New York Metropolitan and Covent Garden, Marjorie Lawrence topping the list.

Loved by all, Thorold passed from his richly generous and noble life in (approximately) 1955. These memories were shared by him with my grandmother, whom he loved, my mother, and thankfully down to us.