Saturday, 20 February 2016

Sepia Saturday 318: Elsa Stralia

Family history research can lead in many directions. Two years ago when investigating the lives of the families of the siblings of my great grandfather (George Moses) I located the following family story.The image for this week's Sepia Saturday, encouraged me to check my notes and write this post on what I had previously found.
Program held in National Library of Australia collection - online on History Bucket post
The above image is the cover of an eight page program prepared for the tour of Australia and New Zealand by the opera singer, Madame Elsa Stralia, in 1925.

Elsie Mary Fischer was born in Adelaide on 1 March 1881. Her parents, Johannes Hugo Fischer and Annie Christina Clausen, were both musicians - her mother was a pianist while her father was a baritone and Secretary of the Adelaide Liedertafel. In 1889 the family moved to Melbourne where Elsie went to school. She then studied at the Conservatorium of Music directed by Professor George Marshall-Hall where she was awarded two annual scholarships to study with Mme Elise Wiedermann. Her studies completed, Elsie travelled with W C Williamson's Comic Opera Company and in Sydney studied with Gustave Slapoffski who, in 1909, presented her at a concert of the Sydney Philhamonic Orchestra. Elsie's music career was underway.

William Mountford Moses was born on 18 May 1875 and was the son of William Moses (1844-1923) and Elvina Mountford (1851-1935). William and Elvina had twelve children (one died when a baby). The family was known in the Windsor district for their musical abilities and they regularly arranged and performed in concerts. One of their sons, Stanley Mountford Moses, a violinist, was performing in concerts in Europe when he died at the age of 23. William Mountford Moses played the flute and also organised a district drum and fife band. In 1899 William married Linda May Beatrice Conlan. In August 1906 William and Linda had a son, Jack, who died on 29 November. Linda died a week later on 5 December 1906.

At St Stephen's Church, Phillip Street, Sydney, on 24 December 1908, William Mountford Moses (eldest son of William Moses of Windsor) married Elsie Mary Fischer (eldest daughter of the late Hugo Fischer of Adelaide).

Shortly afterwards the newly married couple set off for Europe so Elsie could further her musical career. But first Elsie started to make changes to her name. At one stage she performed as Elsa Adela but as another singer was using Adelaide as a name she finally decided on Elsa Stralia. Australian singers at the time seemed to favour the trend set by Dame Nellie Melba in selecting Australian related names as stage names.

Elsie performed in some concerts in London before travelling to Italy to become a pupil of Falchi in Milan. In 1912 she performed at Genova Teatro Carlo Felice before returning to England. In 1913 she made her debut at Covent Garden as Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni and performed there again the following year.
The Advertiser 12 July 1913
Then war came to Europe. During the war years Madame Elsa Stralia performed at the Drury Lane Theatre with roles in Thomas Beecham's opera seasons. She also toured with with a concert party to South Africa, was soloist with the Royal Philharmonic Society as well as touring with violinist Eugène Ysaÿe, pianist Vladimir de Pachmann and with (Dame) Clara Butt. Many of these performance raised funds for the war effort. Two of Elsie's brothers, Harold and Frank, were killed in action during the war.

Newspapers in Australia, including the Windsor and Richmond Gazette, provided short reports of the success of Elsa Stralia (Mrs W M Moses) including the following:
A great concert was held in London in honor of the magnificent feat of arms by the Australasians in the landing at Gallipoli. The singers represented the different dominions of the Empire. Madame Stralia (Mrs. W. M. Moses) sang tor Australia, and was accorded a wildly enthusiastic reception. (Windsor and Richmond Gazette 13 August 1915)
Many of the newspaper reports mention that Mr W M Moses was accompanying his wife but there is little additional information except for one report that mentioned that he was working in the munitions industry in England during the war. This was confirmed in William's obituary published in Windsor and Richmond Gazette 8 November 1940:
...during the Great War played his part as manager of a munitions factory in England, having a number of memorable experiences in the bombing raids of that period, when the Zepplins were attempting to score a hit on the factory with which he was connected. As a result of his employment in this work, however, he contracted, through regular contact with certain of the materials used in manufacturing explosives, an illness which left him a semi-invalid for the remaining years of his life, though he bore his ill-health with an habitual cheerfulness which was an inspiration to his friends.
After the war Elsa Stralia continued to perform in England and Europe and in 1921-22 she was a soloist in twelve concerts for the New York Symphony Orchestra.  Returning to London she began her recording career with the Columbia Gramophone Company. In 1925 Elsa Stralia made a successful tour of Australia and New Zealand. Another tour was made in 1934 for the Australian Broadcasting Commission. She also toured New Zealand. From 1925 to 1934 she spent much of her time in the USA, often doing radio broadcasts, while in 1929 she made another concert tour of the United States.

I am not sure when William decided to return to Australia. An article in Windsor and Richmond Gazette 16 January 1920 states that he had applied for transfer of a wine licence to the new Hawkesbury stores.  I have seen other references suggesting he was still in England:
A letter was recently received by Mr. and Mrs. W. Moses, of Lawson, from their son, Mr. W. H. Moses[W M] , husband of Mme. Elsa Stralia, who is regarded as one of the greatest singers of the present day. They are in London. Mme. Elsa Stralia has been engaged by the Beecham Opera Company, and is to give 76 operatic performances, commencing on September 27, and finishing at the end of July. At the end of her operatic season this Australian nightingale will probably make a tour of Australia.  Windsor and Richmond Gazette 24 September 1920.
However William certainly remained in Australia in 1925 after his wife returned overseas after her Australasian tour. On her return to Australia in 1934-1935 Elsie Mary Moses filed for a divorce from her husband, William Mountford Moses, in Sydney in April 1935 on the grounds of desertion. The divorce was not contested and we only have Elsie's side of the story. According to Elsie, William returned to Sydney in 1920 'to prepare a home for her'. William did not reply to her letters and when she announced to him in 1924 that she wanted to retire 'he refused to do anything for her'. When in America in 1933 she became ill and had to be assisted back to Australia. She then stated that she saw her husband in a cafe, but he would have nothing to do with her. (Canberra Times 16 April 1935). The divorce was granted.

In Wellington New Zealand 29 April 1935 the announcement was made of the engagement of 'Miss Elsa Stralia, the well known singer who arrived here from Sydney by the liner Monowai today' to Mr Adolph Christensen, a sheep farmer, of Patea, New Zealand. 'Mr Christensen met Miss Stralia on her arrival, and in an interview both confirmed the engagement. (The West Australian 30 April 1935)

Madame Elsa Stralia  and Adolph Christensen were married in Sydney on 14 November 1935. The newspaper reports at the time stated that the couple had met after Madame Elsa Stralia had sung a concert at Patea and they were engaged three days later. The Advertiser (Adelaide) 15 November 1935 provides a detailed description of the wedding including the dress of the wedding party. After the wedding the couple returned to New Zealand. When her husband died in 1943 Elsie returned to Australia and lived in Belgrave until her death on 1 September 1945.

Money from the estate of Elsie Mary Christensen was used to fund a scholarship  for young female singers.

William Moses died at Windsor, New South Wales on 1 November 1930. His obituary stated that his health had suffered from the effects of working in the munitions factory in London during the First World War. The electoral roll entries show that he lived in Manly for a time but spent most of the rest of his life in Windsor. The entry for 1930 provides his occupation as 'invalid'. Occupation is blank for other entries. In Windsor he would have been close to a large circle of family and friends.

There are many references to and articles about Elsa Stralia in Trove including photos, sheet music and gramophone recordings. Among the photos there is also an image of a pendant presented to Elsa Stralia on her arrival in Sydney in March 1925.
There are also a number of articles available online including:
Elsa Stralia (1881-1945) - Australian Dictionary of Biography
Elsa Stralia - Forgotton Opera Singers
Elsa Stralia - History Bucket


  1. Celebrity marriages were just as difficult then as now. Poor William ending up an invalid. Very interesting story revealed here.

  2. A very interesting biography. I enjoy opera but had never heard of Elsa, so thank you for introducing me to her life.

  3. A sad story altogether. Funny how the name Elsie doesn't have the glamorous ring to it and needs to be changed. This came up in another Sepian post this week as well.

  4. That wasn’t a name I’d heard of before - either before, or after she tinkered with it! An interesting history and photograph.

  5. An engaging part of family history with a sad conclusion for them both.

  6. What an interesting story of the lives of these people, Elsa being the most publicized as well as talented. Thanks.