By MICK ROBERTS ©
THE Dapto Agricultural Hall, south of Wollongong in the Illawarra region of NSW, had a ‘full house’ on the evening of Wednesday October 6 1897.
The large and enthusiastic audience had gathered to be entertained by various artists in aid of the Dapto Agricultural and Horticultural Association.
The Wollongong Orchestra had performed, followed by a number of local singers, when publican and popular Sydney vocalist, ‘Andy’ Blanchard made his way onto the stage. As usual, the well-liked entertainer was greeted with thunderous applause.
The hotelier had an admiring public. However, it was to be his last dramatic performance.
As Andy hit the last note of the last verse of a song he had performed many times before, he dropped dead, falling into the audience.
The Sydney hotelier had frequently appeared at the Dapto Agricultural Society’s concerts, which, he always declared he found great pleasure in attending.
Before taking to the stage, Andy, in his usual professional manner, walked up to the Association’s chairman, warmly shook his hands, and stepped forward to sing the descriptive ballad, ‘Their heads nestled closer together’.
The last verse of this song describes how a husband desperately tries to console his grieving wife after the death of their newly born child, and in silent sympathy, with each other, “their heads nestle closer together”.
Andy reportedly performed this verse so convincingly that he brought tears to the eyes of some of Dapto’s most hardened audience members.
Just as he reached the last bar, a strange expression came over his face, he suddenly tottered forward a few steps, still singing, and, just as he concluded the last note of the song, fell from the stage into the lap of a woman sitting in the front row.
His melodramatic end caused a sensation at the time.
Andrew Currie Blanchard was born in Victoria in 1855 before making his way to Sydney as a young man. He married Catherine Butler in 1878 and as a descriptive and humorous singer he ranked high among the vocalists of Sydney.
Andy was always ready to assist at charitable events without fee or reward, and always pulled a crowd.
In 1894, at the age of 39, he took the reins of the Mansion House Hotel at Haymarket, on the southern fringes of the Sydney CBD.
The Mansion House Hotel was opened in 1880 on the corner of George Street and Ultimo Road, and from 1946 has traded as the Mountbatten Hotel.
While hosting the Mansion House Hotel, Andy continued as a singer, and did not hesitate when invited to perform at the fourth annual Dapto Agricultural Society’s concert. When he fell into the audience while concluding his Dapto performance in 1897 many thought he had slipped and fainted.
Andy was carried into the ante-room of the galvanised iron hall and two local doctors, who happened to be among the audience, immediately went to his assistance.
A local musician played the overture from ‘The Gay Parisienne’, while another singer gave her rendition of, ‘Never to Know’ before Doctor Wade appeared on the stage. Many thought Doctor Wade was to announce that Andy had recovered; but instead he made the shocking announcement that their star performer was dead. The Illawarra Mercury reported:
Needless to say the audience was horror-struck; one lady was removed in a half-fainting condition; and a general feeling of awe overspread the assembly. Mr. Cullen, in broken tones, said that of course the concert could not go on; the tickets would be returned at the door, and the committee would arrange for another entertainment on a date that would be advertised. The large audience then dispersed, and the body of the deceased gentleman, who had met his end in such an awfully tragic fashion, was conveyed to Curry’s Hotel, a telegram being immediately despatched to apprise the bereaved family of the dreadful occurrence.
An inquest was held the following day, with Andy’s teenage son, Washington Earl Blanchard explaining that his father looked in good health on the morning before the concert. Washington said that his father had been suffering severe headaches for the past few years, but never paid much attention to them.
Doctor Curgonven at the inquest said when he went into the ante-room of the hall Andy had ceased to breathe, save for an occasional gasp, but his heart continued to beat for about five minutes. He said the cause of death was cerebral haemorrhage, or a stroke, probably accelerated by the exertion of singing.
Andy’s death shattered the family, his widow, Catherine, and 19-year-old son, and 13-year-old daughter. The funeral was largely attended, with several hundreds of men, women, and children marching either side of the procession, which wended its way along George, Liverpool, and Oxford-streets to the Waverley Cemetery.
The procession was headed by a band, including representatives of various kinds and orchestral associations, professional and amateur musicians, and employees of the Eveleigh Locomotive machine shop.
Andy’s coffin was carried from the hearse to the grave by members of the Dapto Agricultural and Horticultural Committee. His tombstone is said to bear the following Inscription:- “Andrew Blanchard, whom the Lord took away without one moment’s warning whilst singing at Dapto, October 6, 1897, aged 43. Erected by his loving wife and children”.
Andy’s widow, who continued as host of the Mansion House Hotel, died just two years later from a broken heart – officially though Catherine’s cause of death was congestion of the lungs. She was just 40 years of age, and was buried with her husband in the Waverley Cemetery.
© Copyright Mick Roberts 2020
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