Showing posts with label Nellie Harmston. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Nellie Harmston. Show all posts

Sunday, April 30, 2023

Ossie Delroy and Jack Delroy- The Delroys.

 With Thanks to Kate Besley and Mark St Leon for their help- Particularly Kate who patiently answered my emails.

In late 1912, a young juggling duo, The Delroys, began appearing in advertisements, in theatre trade magazines and newspapers. They were hoop rollers extraordinaire, comedy artists, brothers in juggling.

They were Jack and Ossie, the Delroys, and both were in their early 20s.  In November 1912 they played the National Amphitheatre and in early 1913 they played with Mysto, the magician. They passed hoops and made comedic remarks, they juggled tennis racquets, Ossie rode a unicycle and juggled, and they offered five pounds to anybody in the audience who could do the same.

After reaching the heights of the Brennan circuit at the National Amphitheatre, their career was sidelined to the fringes of the Australian vaudeville scene. The variety theatres were experimenting with moving pictures, so there was less work, and the pay was declining. The Delroys travelled to New Zealand for a short tour in 1913, and then they sailed to Asia where they joined Harmston’s Circus. In August, Jack wrote to Variety Magazine in Sydney, raving about their good reviews and great houses in China.

The Delroys spent about 3 years with Harmstons and toured through Asia. In 1916 the partners split and Jack left the circus.



 When Jack left, he was not alone. He had started a relationship with the circus owner’s daughter, Nellie Harmston. The couple, with a friend, John Gordon Kerr, and with Nellie’s daughter Jeanette, embarked on a ship in Shanghai for the United States in 1916.

Jack Delroy’s real name was Pierce Alexander McDonald and he was born in Parkes New South Wales in 1893.  He was a slender, handsome man with light brown hair and grey eyes. John Gordon Kerr who accompanied Jack and Nellie to the US, was supposed to be Jack’s new juggling partner. However, in October 1916 Jack was advertising for a new partner who could pass clubs and hoops because Kerr was ill and in 1917 he died in Illonois. 

Jack and Nellie worked with a circus in Pittsburgh in 1917 and Jack also managed a Chinese touring group. In 1920 they decided to return to Australia. On the way they toured the Chinese troupe in Shanghai.

Nellie Harmston McDonald, known by her stage name Nellie Harmston, had developed an act with performing birds. She had over 20 birds, including cockatoos, who performed various tricks including acrobatics, mini trapeze, musical items and tumbling. One cockatoo, The Colonel, was described as almost human. They were enormously popular particularly with children. When the couple arrived in Australia, Nellie and her bird act was almost immediately booked as a headliner for the Tivoli Circuit.

Jack was not in demand as a juggler, it was Nellie who was booked continuously throughout the early 1920s. Jack was referred to as Nellie’s ‘hubby’ who ‘assisted with the birds.’

Denied the opportunity to juggle regularly, Jack branched into business. In 1922 he became part owner of a confectionery store in Sydney called Hills which was later renamed Macs. The store had the exclusive licence to provide sweets to all the theatres in Sydney and was located next to the Theatre Royal. He also obtained the copyright for the ‘sawing a woman in half illusion’ and warned in large advertisements, that magicians in Sydney would have to ask permission before performing the trick in public.

Everyones Magazine 1920s

Nellie’s cockatoos were world famous and Nellie was a talented juggler, performer and animal trainer. Her act often included cats, rats and birds. It was constantly booked in theatres in Australia.  Around 1923 Nellie left the country with the bird act and the family remained overseas for three years. When they returned the birds starred as headliners and once again toured the Tivoli Circuit.

In 1927, Jack imported a Chinese acrobatic troupe The Kwong Sing Wah troupe, who played the Tivoli. Later that year Jack created McDonald’s Wonder Show which included the troupe. There was also a juggler, Manelli, in the Wonder Show.  This was Jack’s alter ego. Young Jeanette also performed and sometimes conducted the cockatoo act.  Mc Donald’s Wonder Show did good business. It was ‘comedy, novelty, melody and thrills, delighting both the ear and the eye.’

In 1928 Nellie suddenly passed away in Sydney, and Jeanette and Jack were left alone, with the birds, to make a living.

They travelled to New Zealand, Jack appearing as Manelli the juggler. The reviews said that Manelli ‘appeared to be able to juggle anything light or heavy and his feats with hoops and hats were remarkably clever.’ Jack appeared with a partner called Mack, who dressed as a tramp and performed humorous feats as Jack juggled. The New Zealand papers said that Jack was the heir to Cinquevalli.

Advertisement for Jack and Jeanette's show in New Zealand newspaper

Jean performed a living marionette act. Her mother had died less than 6 months before, yet she continued working with Jack in New Zealand almost continuously through to mid-1929.

Jack Delroy , juggler, reappeared in Australia in 1930 and in the early years of the decade was juggling in regional shows. In 1934 he married Alice Doell in New Zealand. The couple, with Jean, remained there. In 1934 Jack listed his occupation as merchant.  In 1951 he became a New Zealand citizen.

Meanwhile Jean continued performing with her living marionettes, becoming a feature between the movies. She eventually settled in New Zealand and had a family who still lives there.

Jack returned to Australia in old age and died in 1975 in Sydney.



The adventures of Ossie Delroy made him a legend in the Australian theatrical and circus communities.

When Jack left Harmston’s circus with Nellie, Ossie remained. He stayed with the circus for almost two decades and became Harmston’s right hand man. Originally, he performed a unicycle/juggling act, but with time he became a jack of all trades, a manager, an advance man, a trainer, an acrobat and a trouble shooter.

When Ossie became Ossie Delroy the juggler, it seems he left his origins behind. Fragmentary evidence suggests that his real name was Oswald Albert Smith and he was born in Newtown in Sydney in 1890. His mother was Mercy Smith and his father, John Thomas, was a brickmaker.


Ossie with Harmston's Circus-

Ossie travelled through Asia with Harmston’s Circus for over 10 years. In 1924 he was described as ‘doing a wire act, trick bicycle, comedy juggling, and musical offering. In addition to this he is elephant trainer, transport man and above all he is Willie Harmston’s first lieutenant’.

Ossie did a quick stop in Australia in 1924 to get married, but he soon travelled to Asia to rejoin his boss. The boss died in 1936, and Ossie, perhaps not happy with the new management, returned to Australia and New Zealand with Sole Brothers circus in 1938.

In New Zealand, he was described as the ‘juggling genius and hoop spinner’ direct from India. A review said ‘His wonderful control in juggling five hoops or balls at the one time was greatly appreciated and his club work and every feature of his display was clean and finished.’

Ossie toured with Sole Brothers across Australia in 1939. War was declared in September that year, and Ossie was too old to fight. He remained with the circus until 1941 when he joined the famous Thorpe McConville show.

Ossie with Jimmy Wallace- Pix Magazine (damaged photo in my collection)

In 1940 he featured in a two page photo spread in Pix Magazine with young Jimmy Wallace. They were shown juggling hoops, clubs and balls and passing. Ossie, lying about his age, was too old to fight, and Jimmy too young. Jimmy had been juggling since he was a boy and it’s possible that Ossie was his juggling teacher and mentor as they lived in neighbouring suburbs.

In August 1941, Ossie enlisted with an Australian Army entertainment unit led by comedian, Jim Gerald. Ossie lied to the army about his age, and entertained the troops on the front line, often unicycling and juggling in dangerous conditions.  He returned to Australia in 1943 and entertained the forces with the Waratah troupe in North and Western Australia, where he and Jimmy were called a ‘perfect juggling team’.  He returned to the front lines in New Guinea with this touring company in 1943.

Ossie on the Unicycle entertaining the troops in the Middle East- Australian War Memorial 

After the war Ossie teamed with Jimmy and they performed at the Brisbane Theatre Royal. He continued working with McConville, and during the 1950s teamed with Jimmy again. He was in his 60s at this time.

In Sydney Ossie loitered in Pitt Street at Poverty Point with all the local performers. They elected a mayor and gossiped about work and lack of it. Ossie was a well known and respected character in the community and continued working well into the 1950s.

Ossie scaring a child - 1951 newspaper

Ossie seems to have stopped the travelling showman life in the 1960s. He passed away in 1978 in his home in Sydney. He is spoken of as a legend in the circus world, and his adventures took him a long way from his humble beginnings as a brick makers son in Newtown.