Mary O'Neil: A Theatre Life in Pictures


Mary O'Neil was the stage name of my mum, when she had a short career as a singer and actress in Theatre and Music Hall from 1943 to1953.


Margaret Thompson was born Margaret Spark on 18th May 1929, the third daughter to Frederick and Annie Spark. I am afraid knowledge of how she came to start her stage career at the age of 14 is, and will probably remain, unknown. Indeed my scant knowledge of her time in the theatre comes from undated photographs I have, a few cuttings - some found online, and a few memories of her chatting about the life she had left behind. On only one occasion, when prompted by her sister Edna, did mum reluctantly sing 'You'll Never Know', a popular song of the time and a favourite among audiences.


Sometime in 1943 she was discovered by Theatre producer Edward (Teddy) Hinge of E. J. Hinge Productions Ltd, who owned the Grand Theatre in Wilfred Street, Byker. The earliest cutting I own, with her photo, when she was 16, is from The Stage, for a production of 'Fully Fashioned' in London in 1945, her second anniversary with Hinge Productions. Mum also gained the epithet (Little) Mary O'Neil.



'Peaches On Parade' at the Empire, Gateshead in 1944, and 'Join the Party' at the Grand, Byker, 1945.


I remember mum saying she would "entertain the troops". These two variety shows seem ideal.





Here are cuttings for 'Fully Fashioned' from the Bedfordshire Times 1946, at the Royal County Theatre, and the Woolwich Empire, London.


Mum had gained the epithet 'Everybody's Sweetheart'. Also on the bill are the 'Bainbridge Brothers And Irene' and Leslie Want - more of them later.





I have also found a cutting for a production of the Pantomime Little Bo-Peep, Christmas 1945 at Grand Theatre, Byker. Where mum is given a glowing tribute. I am not sure if this is the production that Theatre producer Donald Auty refers to as for having "live sheep" on stage, there is certainly no mention in this cutting. However, the photo above is from that time.




Here is one of my favourite photographs, dedicated to my mum's sister Edna and her husband Ron. I am assuming, from the flowered bonnet, that this is mum as Little Bo-Peep.





Here is a reference to Little Bo-Peep, 31st December 1945 at the New Hippodrome Darlington, with mum's new epithet 'Everyone's Sweetheart'.


And a photo taken in Trafalgar Square.



The next production I have a reference for is 'No, No, Nanette' in 1949 at the Portsmouth Coliseum.


Here is the poster for this 'Ever Popular - Ever Gay, Most Famous of all Musical Comedies'




In 1950 there was a new touring production called 'Way Down South'.


This photograph is one of only two I have of a production in dress rehearsal. It may be the Grand Theatre, Byker, but I have not been able to ascertain this. There is only one person, other than mum, who I can definitely identify, Lance Bainbridge of The Bainbridge Trio, on banjo.



On the 18th May 1950, Mum celebrated her 21st Birthday with Edward Hinge and the cast of 'Way Down South'.


In the photo with mum are Edward Hinge, Johnny Daw, Edna Dean and the Tatler Girls and Lance Bainbridge. These are the only people I have been able identify. I have many photos of Mum with Edna Dean and Johnny Daw.




Mum with Edna Dean, outside Queens Park Hippodrome, Manchester. July 1950.




Portsmouth Evening News 16th January 1952.

In 1951/1952. Mum played 'Cinderella' at the Portsmouth Empire, with Billy 'Uke' Scott as Buttons




I have three references of mum playing Goldilocks in 'Goldilocks and the Three Bears'. First at the Grand Theatre, Byker in 1949, and at the Lyric Theatre, Northallerton, 1953 (flyer) and at the Regal, Southend. Here is the second photo I have of a full dress rehearsal for the production. This is probably The Grand Theatre, Byker - although I haven't been able to confirm this.




This brings me to the end of my mum's career, but the story does not end.


Sometime in the 1970s a representative from Theatre Royal, Newcastle visited. The Black and White Minstrels were appearing at the theatre, and Les Want who was one of the original Minstrels wished to meet my mum again, he had been mums first boyfriend in the early days before the Minstrels. Mum declined, that was another life she had left behind for over 20 years.


During lockdown in 2020, I was doing more research into mum's career and I discovered musician Dave Bainbridge who had written a piece of music dedicated to his mum 'Collendoorn Suite Part 2'


Dave's mum was Irene James of The Bainbridge Bothers and Irene, then The Bainbridge Trio. I contacted Dave and sent this photograph signed "To Mary XX", showing, left to right, Lance Bainbridge, Irene James and Jack Bainbridge (Dave's Father).



Irene died in 2013. Dave had not seen this photograph before, and kindly delved into his mum's archive and found these photographs. I cannot tell you how grateful I am to Dave for sending me photographs I didn't know existed. It appears they had become good friends, possibly Irene, the elder, taking my mum under her wing. One is dated 1946, another at Luton and another Mary O'Neil at Great Yarmouth 'What A Smasher' 1947.






With Dave's photos I was now able to identify Irene with mum in this lovely photograph taken on Brighton Pier.




As I say, I am extremely grateful to Dave Bainbridge for adding another chapter to mum's story, and wondering what else is still out there to discover.


Mum died on 22nd May 1986.






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Family Domain:




Photographic and newspaper clippings archive of Brian and Lance Thompson, and the Arthur Lloyd website.


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