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Foley, Mrs W. H.

by Peter Downes


During her life as a professional actor Mrs Foley took her second husband’s name and initials, but she was baptised Catherine Huggins in Louth, Lincolnshire, England, on 2 January 1821. She was the second of ten children of Frances Pierce and her husband Benjamin Edwin Huggins. Her parents and both sets of grandparents were actors, and this theatrical heritage asserted itself in Catherine’s adult life.

In March 1843 she gave birth to a boy, Charles Pierce Huggins, and on 17 September 1845 at St Pancras Church, London, married his father, Daniel Caparn, a chemist and druggist. In 1847 the couple emigrated to Tasmania with their son and Catherine became a dressmaker and milliner in Hobart. There they separated and in June 1849 Catherine travelled alone to San Francisco. Daniel followed in September but soon moved to Hawaii where he died on 8 February 1851. At the time of his father’s death, young Charles Caparn was in the care of William Jones, a well-known Launceston watch and clockmaker.

In San Francisco Catherine met William Henry Foley, a charismatic clown, circus proprietor and theatrical entrepreneur, and they married at Sacramento in June 1851. Her first reported stage appearance took place in Sacramento on the 23rd of that month when, as Mrs W. H. Foley, she performed in a song-and-dance troupe sharing the bill with one of her husband’s more elaborate imported showpieces, A Great American Panorama of New York City.

The Foleys presented plays and other entertainments to enthusiastic audiences in Hawaii in late 1851 and 1852, and in December 1852 sailed from Honolulu to Australia. After stage and circus shows in Sydney and Melbourne they ventured to New Zealand with their Victoria Circus, landing in Nelson on 13 September 1855. Here Mrs Foley made her New Zealand début, joining her husband in the circus ring for some ‘comic duets in character’ on 29 September. Undoubtedly surmising she could do better than this, she left the circus, made her way to Auckland on her own, and quickly established herself as an actor of considerable accomplishments.

With a fine instinct for publicity and a large repertoire of comedies, farces, historical plays and melodramas, she soon had audiences crowding the tiny Military Theatre to the point of discomfort. She was supported first by some local amateurs led by one of the pioneers of theatre in Auckland, George Buckingham. Later she joined a group of itinerant professionals that her husband, now reunited with her, had brought from Sydney to play at the Theatre Royal in Auckland. This new theatre had been built at the instigation of William Foley and was opened on 3 March 1856 with what was almost certainly the first production of a Shakespearean play in New Zealand, Othello. Mrs Foley’s name headed the cast list.

By the end of 1856 the Foley ménage had moved to Wellington, where Mrs Foley was to enjoy her greatest triumphs. Long seasons during the next ten years were interspersed with successful tours to Lyttelton, Christchurch, Whanganui, Dunedin and Napier. She and her husband parted company in October 1857 but she did not appoint a new permanent leading man, Vernon Webster, until May 1860. He quickly established himself as an excellent partner for his much-praised employer.

It appears that Vernon Webster was a stage name adopted in New Zealand by 28-year-old Lowten Lowten, an experienced amateur actor originally from Liverpool. Numbering top-ranking professional actors among his friends and colleagues, Lowten had been an active member and for some years president of the élite Liverpool Literary and Dramatic Society. He came to New Zealand in early 1858 with his brother Harry, and they farmed at Porirua before Lowten’s return to the stage.

Usually Mrs Foley and her company presented popular plays and variety shows but on occasion they would perform a more substantial work, such as a Shakespearean play. Mrs Foley’s repertoire was extremely large, even at a time when the average actor was expected to have a wide selection of characters ready for instant portrayal. That she had so many roles at her command testifies to enormous industry and versatility. She must also have had considerable stamina. In one evening she presented 14 characters in excerpts from as many plays, then performed a group of popular songs and ended by playing the lead part in a farce.

During the final years of Mrs Foley’s stay in New Zealand public taste was changing. More touring companies from overseas were adding a new dimension to colonial entertainment and there was a growing demand for something different. After 10 years as the acknowledged favourite of New Zealand theatre, Mrs Foley’s popularity was beginning to wane. On 10 December 1866 she gave the last of three farewell performances in Wellington and the following month took the leading roles in some plays for the Garrick Club in Whanganui. Six months later, on 3 July 1867, she and Vernon Webster left New Zealand on the Lieutenant, bound for Guam and Valparaiso, Chile.

The South American venture does not appear to have flourished and in late 1868 the pair were advertising a benefit performance in Peru to enable them to return to their ‘own country’. It seems they were in financial strife following the deaths of several members of their company.

For the next five years there is no trace of them. By June 1873, however, Lowten Lowten (as he was now known) was living in Liverpool where he and his brother Thomas had set up in business as ale and porter retailers. Mrs Foley must have been with him for at least some of the time, as the April 1881 British census shows them living together as man and wife. They eventually married in Liverpool on 11 May 1882.

The Huggins family was noted for changing names and Catherine was no exception. From at least 1863 she had been using Lucy as her first name and was signing herself as ‘L. K. Foley’. The certificate of her marriage to Lowten gives her name as Lucy Catherine Foley, widow, daughter of Benjamin Huggins, deceased. Presenting herself as widowed could have had legal consequences as W. H. Foley was still alive, though living several thousand miles away. He did not die until 1885.

The Lowten brothers’ partnership was dissolved in February 1883 and in late December, Lowten and Lucy returned to New Zealand. From 29 February ‘Mr and Mrs Lowten Lowten’ began staging some ‘drawing room entertainments’ at the Napier Theatre Royal and in nearby towns. On 21 April 1884 a nearly identical programme was given in Whanganui, billed as by ‘Mrs W. H. Foley and Vernon Webster’.

The performance in Whanganui was the last given by the couple, and the names of Mrs W. H. Foley and Vernon Webster disappeared from public view. The couple returned to Napier where, in December 1884, Lowten took over the ownership of the Royal Hotel.

Lucy Kate Lowten died at Napier on 4 March 1887 and was buried in the Napier cemetery. Reports of her death and the inscription on her gravestone give no indication that she had once been the celebrated stage artist known as Mrs W. H. Foley. Her death certificate noted that she had no surviving children but this may not be correct. Her son Charles Caparn and a daughter, Wilhelmina Foley (who was born in the 1850s), could still have been alive.

After his wife’s death Lowten Lowten sold the Royal Hotel and moved away from Napier. He died in Kaponga, South Taranaki, on 24 August 1891.

There is no doubt that for most of the 15 years she resided in New Zealand Mrs W. H. Foley was a star. She introduced many people to dramatic productions and whenever she appeared settlers crowded into the little halls which passed for theatres to experience the much-publicised magic of her performances. Afterwards, newspaper reporters used their most extravagant adjectives to describe her, possibly exaggerating her talent. But for the mostly unsophisticated men and women who flocked to see her on stage, she provided a rare opportunity to forget for an hour or two the harsh realities of colonial life. To these people standards were of no importance. As far as they were concerned, Mrs Foley represented the acme of theatrical artifice, and they loved her for it.

He whakaaturanga anō

Rārangi pukapuka

    Bishop, Catherine. 'Commerce was a woman: women in business in colonial Sydney and Wellington.' PhD thesis, Australian National University, 2012

    Family information held by Zoe Cant and Ian Harding, descendants of the Huggins and Lowten families respectively

    Downes, P. Shadows on the stage. Dunedin, 1975

    Downes, P. Top of the bill. Wellington, 1979

Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Peter Downes. 'Foley, Mrs W. H.', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1990, updated o Āpereira, 2015. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 July 2024)