The society has an extensive archive on Dame Nellie Melba and her contribution both locally and internationally.
Born Helen Porter Mitchell on May 19, 1861 at the family home in Burnley Street, Richmond, Melba was the eldest daughter of David and Isabella (Dow) Mitchell. Melba’s love of music shone early and when she was only six, made her first public appearance in 1867 at the Richmond Town Hall.
Between 1875 and 1880, Melba attended the Presbyterian Ladies College which was then in East Melbourne. While at PLC, Melba had singing lessons with tenor Pietro Cecchi and these continued in later years. After the death of her mother in October 1881, David Mitchell and his two daughters, Nellie and Annie, went to Queensland where David Mitchell had the job of building a mill at Marian. Here Melba met and married Charles Armstrong and had one son George born in 1883.
Melba and her son returned to Melbourne where she continued singing lessons and she made her first professional appearance at the Elsasser Concert on May 18, 1884 in Melbourne. Other appearances followed but it was not until David Mitchell took his family to England in 1886 and Madame Marchesi in France accepted her as a student that her career in opera was launched.
After one year of training, she made her debut as Nellie Melba at the Theatre de la Monnaie in Brussels in Rigoletto on October 13, 1887. Melba did not return to Australia until 1902 but the whole country had followed her progress overseas with pride. Lilydale people in particular followed her career with interest as they regarded Melba as their own.
Links with Lilydale
Melba’s links with Lilydale go back to before her birth when her father, David Mitchell, purchased the Steele’s Flats cattle station by the Yarra River. In the 1870s Mitchell became a Lillydale Councillor (1875-1883) and established the Cave Hill Marble and Limestone Quarry which was officially opened in 1878. With the addition of a dairy, cheese making and bacon curing plants, Cave Hill became the district’s largest employer.
As a child, Melba and her family visited Lilydale on holidays and to her it was home. When Melba returned to Australia in 1902, there was a flurry of excitement in Lilydale which was determined to welcome her in style.
The children of the Yering Primary School had erected a floral arch with the single word, Welcome outside St Huberts. At Coldstream, the entourage was escorted by 100 horsemen from the Yarra Glen and Lilydale Hunt Club accompanied by children on decorated bikes.
Across the Warburton railway bridge at the eastern end of Main Street, decorative arches bore the words: Lilydale Welcomes Melba. At 2pm, Melba and her father passed under a triumphal arch erected at the intersection of Main and Castella Streets and arrived at the band rotunda which like the town was decked out in flags, ferns and greenery.
The special Illuminated Address was read by the Shire secretary, Mr McComb and formally presented by the Shire President. The formalities over, Melba moved on to a reception at Cave Hill followed by afternoon tea.
Keeping a promise made on an earlier visit, Melba performed at Lilydale on March 23, 1909.
It was at this time that Melba purchased St Leonards (formerly Callion Lodge), a 60 acre property at the intersection of Maroondah Highway and the present Melba Highway at Coldstream.
The small home on the property was extended by architect John Grainger and was re-named Coombe Cottage.
World War I
With the threat of war looming in Europe, Melba returned to Australia in July, 1914 and determined to help her Belgian friends in their war effort and later the Patriotic Funds and Red Cross.
On September 14, 1914 Melba gave a concert at the Athenaeum hall for the Lilydale Patriotic Fund which raised £241/8/6 (about $483).
For the Healesville concert held on November 27, 1914, a special train stopping all stations from Healesville to Lilydale, was scheduled to bring people home afterwards.
The program included Mr Ernest Mitchell, Mrs George Armstrong, Mr Frederic Colllier, Miss Dorothy Blythe, Miss Beryl Fanning, Miss Doris Madden, Mr John Lemmone and accompanist, Mr W. Burrell.
Admissions raised about 150 pounds ($300). At the end of the concert, Melba took the stage as an auctioneer and sold off flags raising the total receipts to about 200 pounds ($400).
The Russian, Japanese and French flags fetched seven guineas ($14.70) each; the British flag seven pounds 10 shillings ($15) and the Belgian flag 20 guineas ($42).
The War Effort
Melba also helped raise funds for other groups involved in the war effort. The activities included sports carnivals, fairs and jumble sales.
In August 1915, Melba left Australia for America and was given a formal farewell by the children of Lilydale and a guard of honour was formed by the Boy Scouts. Speaking on behalf of the townspeople, Mr T. W. Simpson said:
Your effort in raising the sum of 30,000 pounds ($60,000) in such a short period was phenomenal and I venture to assert that in Poland, Belgium and France your name will be written in letters of gold on the hearts of the people. As to your native land, you possess the love and esteem of its people. In the fullness of time you will pass away but the name of Melba will be imperishably written in the annals of our country. (Lilydale Express, August 6, 1915).
In response Melba said:
I love Lilydale, and love all its people, for their consideration and kindness.
When a group of 30 returned soldiers stopped at the Athenaeum Hall, for lunch on Sunday, July 8, the welcoming party included Melba and English actor Mr Cyril Maude.
The soldiers watched a short humorous film of Melba and Charlie Chaplin made in America.
After speaking to the soldiers, Melba agreed to a request and to her own accompaniment, sang Home Sweet Home for which she received long and loud applause.
Melba’s unstinting fund-raising efforts were rewarded when in early 1918 King George V created her Dame Commander of the British Empire.
In 1927, Melba was created Dame Grand Cross of the British Empire.
When she died in Sydney on February 23, 1931, the world went into mourning.
Her body was brought to Melbourne on a special train and the cortege passed through the city to the funeral service in Scots Church in Collins Street, the church her father David Mitchell had built. Her wish was to be buried at her beloved Lilydale with her mother, father and family.
The hearse travelled to Lilydale where the coffin was moved to a gun carriage for the final journey to the Lilydale Cemetery. Fittingly, on her grave is Mimi’s words from La Boheme: Addio senza rancore, Farewell without bitterness. To the people of the district, Lilydale’s own Queen of Song was Home Sweet Home.
Through the generous support of Dame Nellie Melba’s grand-daughter, Pamela, Lady Vestey, the museum boasts a fine collection of Melba material which is available to researchers and students on request. The services and facilities available are:
Photographs – an extensive collection of Melba and associated photographs including artists, composers and her own family.
Archives – historical files of press clippings and other material on Melba, her music, her family.
Objects – clothing, accessories, records, music and gifts.
Order your special set of Melba 150th envelopes and stamps.
The society is now collecting information on the location of Melba material throughout the world.
Society member Sue Thompson has now established a website dedicated to Dame Nellie. It is an on-going project but already has a wealth of information, photographs and an extensive Melba timeline online.
Dame Nellie Melba Virtual Museum