B. C. Hilliam, Music Man

1

Bentley Collingwood Hilliam (1890-1968). Portrait from BCH’s autobiography, Flotsam’s Follies. London: Arthur Barron, Ltd., 1948.

B. C. Hilliam immigrated to Canada in 1911 from England, with his mother, when he was 21. Although they initially stopped in Calgary, they moved quickly from there, briefly to Fernie, and finally settled in North Vancouver.

Hilliam had some experience writing for a newspaper in England and he was soon hired by the North Vancouver bi-weekly paper. He worked at this for a couple of years. In 1914, however, Vancouver was in the midst of promoting its first city “Pageant” and Hilliam’s composition, “Here’s a Ho! Vancouver” (aka “A Toast to Vancouver”) was chosen to be included on the program of the Pageant concert in June. “Here’s a Ho!”, with lyrics written by Pauline Johnson (Vancouver’s well-known native daughter who died the year prior to the Pageant), was a hit among Vancouver residents of the time:

Then here’s a Ho! Vancouver in wine of the bonniest hue,
With a hand on my hip and a cup at my lip and a love in my life for you.
For you are a jolly good fellow with a great big heart, I know;
So I drink this toast to the “Queen of the Coast!”,
Vancouver, here’s a Ho! (1)

Screen Shot 2017-12-31 at 4.56.53 PMIt must be said that Johnson’s lyrics don’t travel well into the early 21st century!

But it isn’t an exaggeration to claim that Hilliam’s melody for “Here’s a Ho!” made his name in Vancouver. (2) Scarcely six months after the Pageant, the Chilliwack newspaper was advertising Hilliam as “British Columbia’s foremost entertainer.” Furthermore, a full-scale musical comedy which was written by Hilliam and set in Greater Vancouver would be presented over the 1914 Christmas holidays at the Imperial Theatre (on Main near Georgia Street): “The Belle of Burrard” was met with rave reviews by drama critics and Vancouver residents alike. Hilliam composed  the music and wrote the script for “The Belle” and a local man, Bernard Tweedale, was stage manager.

There were some musical numbers introduced in “The Belle” which were later recycled by Hilliam for use in later productions. One of these poked a bit of fun at the red-hot real estate market in Vancouver at the time. It was called “Lottie Has Lots and Lots of Lots”:

Lottie has lots and lots of lots in all the most outlandish spots;
It takes her a week by motor-car to find out where the new ones are;
In Kitsilano she’s two for sale, and in Lulu Island and Kerrisdale;
At Jericho Beach she owns some sites
and in Fairview, Burnaby, Shaughnessy Heights;
In Newport, Hollyburn, English Bay, in North Vancouver and Point Grey;
Oh — gee whiz! It’s driving ’em fairly dotty,
Scouring the place at a terrible pace
Looking for lots for Lottie! (3)

The Courtney Review Apr 29.1915 UBC

The Courtney Review Apr 29, 1915.

In 1915, Hilliam wrote and composed a series of productions called the “1915 Follies”. The cast of “The Follies” changed somewhat over the course of the year, but Hilliam remained a central figure in each of them and probably was the primary draw. Later in 1915, the company even went on tour across British Columbia, with stops in such locations as Victoria, Courtney, and Kelowna. When they attempted to take the Follies on a trans-Canadian tour, however, they proved less successful, and pulled the plug on the tour after getting no further east than Calgary.

The Follies included a number of noteworthy musical pieces. One of these was a war-themed, patriotic number, with words and music by Hilliam, entitled “The H’Allies H’Owe A H’awful Lot to H’Us”:

Do you want to see a patriotic picture?
Peep into our parlour any night.
See h’our little family h’assembled
Workin’ for the boys who’ve gone to fight.
Mother’s in command of the proceedings,
Lizzy is a kind of h’aide-de-camp.
I collect the h’articles and pack them,
H’assisted by the twins and little Tom.
Sally’s sendin’ cigarettes fot sergeants,
Flora’s sendin’ flannel for the French;
Papa’s busy packing pipes for privates,
Tobacco for the tommies in the trench.
Nelly’s knittin’ nighties for the Nivy,
Never seen the folks in such a fuss,
Though I says it now as didn’t oughter,
The h’Allies ‘howe a h’awful lot to h’us.

Talk about the cleanin’ in the springtime,
Nothin’ to the mess we’re in today!
Sleepin’ helmets dangle from the chair tops,
H’and on the floor a wonderful h’array.
Mother’s in the middle of the debris,
Only head and shoulders can be seen,
Clicking of the scissors and the needles
Minglin’ with Penelope’s machine.
Clara’s sendin’ cholera belts to corporals,
Susan’s sendin’ sweaters to the Serbs,
Gwen is givin’ garments for the gunners,
H’and many of the shirts are brother ‘Erbs.
Ruth is rustling rubbers for the Russians,
No one ever dreams of feedin’ puss.
Though I says it now as didn’t oughter,
The h’Allies h’owe a h’awful lot to h’us. (4)

I know that there was a much more potent connection in Canada with England at the time than is true today. But I have difficulty believing that there were very many Canadians who spoke with this thick, h-ridden, ing-absent (was this a sort of visual cockney?) accent. Vancouver residents, however, seemed to overlook this flaw (if, indeed, they so perceived it), embracing anything produced by Hilliam with great enthusiasm.

In July, 1915, Hilliam was a participant in a Great War fundraising event, sponsored by the Vancouver Daily World, to collect funds for guns for the British Empire and her allies.

Me

“Me” – a drawing from the book, “Chuckles: This Nonsense”, by J. C. Alden, 1920. Drawing of and by the book’s illustrator, Hilliam.

In September, H. Sheridan-Bickers organized a number of local artists, including Hilliam, to perform in aid of the Canadian Patriotic Fund.   The name given to this group of entertainers was “The Smart Set”. The group would perform again in December to benefit the Red Cross Society.

In February, 1916, Hilliam enlisted in the Canadian Over-Seas Expeditionary Force and was made, initially, a Lance Corporal. He was part of the Canadian Engineers (according to his wartime personnel record, his trade was “registered carpenter”). He was soon given a commission, however, and Lieut. Hilliam was given responsibility for recruitment concerts and Canadian camp entertainment for troops stationed in Canada before they were sent overseas. For this task, he was stationed in Ottawa.

There were at least a couple of occasions during the war when Hilliam was in Vancouver: for concerts in 1916 to benefit the Returned Soldiers Club. One of these was in January (“Y’Olde Time Mastodon Minstrels” concert held at the ‘old’ Orpheum – when it was in the former Opera House on the west side of Granville) . I don’t know what it was that persuaded Hilliam to choose a Minstrel theme for a Canadian wartime fundraiser. The first part of the evening consisted of “Back to Dixie Land”, followed by “I Long to Lay My Head on Mother’s Knee”, and rounded out with “Alabama Jubilee” and “My Little Gray Home in the West”! The other numbers that were performed prior to the intermission were more traditional fare. They included “Looking for Lots for Lottie” (Hilliam) and “Take Me Back to Canada”. Things got weird again after the intermission, though, with music featuring The Coon Band Orchestra!

Perhaps word came down from on high subsequent to the January Minstrel event that the December 1916 fundraiser should be tamer. The December concert (held at the Dominion Theatre at Granville near Nelson) was certainly more like a typical “1915 Follies” or “Smart Set” event: The evening kicked off with “Here’s a Ho, Vancouver!” and concluded with a “Piano Revue (including suggestions of Rubinstein, Mendelssohn, Liszt and Tchaikowsky)”, doubtless with Lieut. Hilliam at the piano.

Following the armistice, Hilliam moved to New York City. He had been introduced to that larger and, presumably, more-critical audience towards the end of the War in a concert presented in NYC’s Hippodrome. He was a huge hit there, too, and he decided to make his home in Manhattan for about six years after the War. Later, he returned to Mother England where he ultimately teamed up with Australian, Malcolm McEachern, to form the musical comedic duo of Mr. Flotsam (Hilliam) and Mr. Jetsam until McEachern’s death in 1945. Hilliam died in 1968.

It is striking to me that Hilliam was able in such a brief period (about two years) and at such a young age (about 25) to captivate the City of Vancouver, an at-the-time relatively unsophisticated town and then continue, from strength to strength, elsewhere in British Columbia, in other parts of Canada, at NYC, and then, together with McEachern and the magic of the wireless, onto the international stage.

I wonder whether Hilliam would have had such a meteoric rise in popularity if he hadn’t moved to Vancouver when he did, where he could get his start in an environment in which there was much less competition for attention than in England.


Notes

(1) From: Book of the Pageant of Vancouver. Vancouver Summer Festival Association, June 1914. The Vancouver Pageant was held in June 1914, complete with a concert at the Horse Show Building near Stanley Park and a full-scale parade with many floats). The exuberance shown by Vancouver residents for the city’s first official “summer festival” was muted somewhat by August when Canada joined the Great War. It isn’t clear to me if Vancouver ever repeated her first Pageant in subsequent years (as seems initially to have been the plan).

(2) The full sheet music of “Here’s a Ho!” may be found here. Also on this site there is a midi file of the tune. Parts of the midi seem okay, but part way through for some mysterious reason, the pace of the music slows quite dramatically.

(3) Flotsam’s Follies. by B. C. Hilliam. London: Arthur Barron, Ltd., 1948, p.22. This volume is available in Vancouver Public Library (it is a reference book, however, and so cannot be borrowed; it is retrievable, however, for reading at the Central Branch, with staff assistance, from compact shelving). I highly recommend it as a very good read. Although some of Hilliam’s early recollections seem to me to be less than wholly historically accurate, he is a very good storyteller!

(4) Victoria to Vimy: The First World War Collections of the University of Victoria Libraries: Florence Westman’s scrapbook. This is an amazing mine of Great War recollections collected by one person. Ms. Westman’s scrapbook (see link at the bottom of the webpage) runs to well over 300 pages! Included among those pages are several Hilliam photos, a few of his sketches, wartime programs, including a couple of Vancouver theatre programs from that period, and several newspaper articles in which he is mentioned.

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One Response to B. C. Hilliam, Music Man

  1. bcfilmguy says:

    The Imbert Orchard Collection at the BC Archives/RBCM includes an interview with B.C. Hilliam, recorded in Britain in 1964. http://search-bcarchives.royalbcmuseum.bc.ca/b-c-hilliam-interview

    Orchard interviewed two Vancouver associates of Hilliam’s, Harriet Parker and Elsie Beeman, who recall “The Belle of Burrard.”

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