Newcastle’s forgotten movie star charts the life of Kate/Kitty Johnson. The thrill of the hunt, the adventure, and the excitement of discovering your ancestors are just three reasons why we love ancestry. Many of you probably know a little bit about your parents and grandparents but when we start digging deep into the archives we can uncover some fascinating stories. The 1st March marks the beginning of Women’s History month and we have the perfect story to celebrate women’s history right here in Newcastle. Readers may be familiar with David Wardell’s local history posts? Well today we share more of his research, this time into the ancestry of his wife’s family.
Read the story of Newcastle’s forgotten silent movie star of the 1920’s Pauline Johnson the great aunt of David’s wife Catherine.
The Silent Movies
The story of Pauline Johnson (neé Kate – Kitty) a Newcastle Girl who rose to fame in the 1920’s in Silent movies.
Kitty was the great aunt of Gosforth resident Catherine Wardell, and the daughter of a local Newcastle gunsmith.
Newcastle Born Movie Star
Kate Johnson a little known Newcastle born movie actress starred in numerous silent movies between 1920 and 1929. Born on 3rd November 1899, the third youngest of nine children of Richard Johnson a Newcastle gunmaker and Catherine his wife living at 11, Haymarket in Newcastle. Known as Kitty to her friends and family she later adopted the stage name of Pauline Johnson .
Very many of her family worked later at Hardy’s of Alnwick, the top Fishing Tackle Manufacturer, working as gun makers, reel or rod makers and fishing fly tiers.
By 1901 the family have moved next door to 9, Haymarket, part of a large property occupied by multiple families, the Johnsons having just three rooms for a family of nine.
By 1911 the census shows they have moved yet again to 74, Sandyford Road, now with two further children, and still with only three rooms between them all. Two of Kate’s older sisters, Lilian & Isobel, are listed as professional dancers and were known to have been part of a dance troupe, which was later very occasionally to include Kate. They were known to have danced together in France after WW1 and in the early 1920’s as well as in England.
Whilst living in Newcastle Kate started her career as a typist for a short while and then during WW1 she joined the WAAC which soon after became the WRAF at St. Leonards, Hastings. In an article from The Bioscope, British film journal in 1920 she says she joined up at age 15 but in fact her WRAF record shows that this actually took place in December 1917 when she had just turned 18. Kate claimed to have achieved the rank of Sergeant serving on the staff of the Cadet Brigade in Hastings. The record however only shows a promotion to ‘forewoman’ which may have given rise to her claim., ‘forewoman’ being the WAAC equivalent of an NCO. She was later moved to the London Recruiting Office for the WRAF and was discharged on compassionate grounds in August 1919.
Kate’s First Film “Bookworms”
One day Kate turned up at Gainsborough Studios looking for work as a film extra and got lucky being chosen for a role in the Adrien Brunel’s Silent Movie “Bookworms” (1920) playing opposite Leslie Howard.
Howard was just starting out in his illustrious film career and later became a renowned actor, best remembered for his role as Ashley Wilkes in Gone With The Wind.
Howard and Brunel had just set up their own film company, Minerva Films, which ultimately failed as production costs outstripped the income from their films. Many of their scripts were written by A.A.Milne of Winnie the Pooh fame.
Kate adopted the stage name of Pauline Johnson and, was managed by Bramlin’s Agency which had been set up by John (Jack) Meredith Payne, Adrian Brunel and Bertram Jacobs and had a reputation as an agency run ‘by film-men for film-men”.
Pauline then took part in another movie ‘The Great Gay Road ‘ (1920) and was subsequently selected to appear as the heroine ‘Blanchette’ in the French movie of that same name (1921), made in France by René Hervil, although she barely spoke a word of French. Luckily this mattered little in the Silent Movie Era. She later appeared in lead roles in several Walter Forde silent movie comedies and other silent movies.
Overall she made more than 20 films, all silent and all produced during the 1920’s , often of a comic genre. She was very well known, often playing the lead in her movies and frequently appeared in the press here and in Australia. “The Flying Scotsman” in 1929, one of her last movies pioneered a move in to the talkie era having sound added in the latter half of the film. It was one of the first British ‘talkies’ .
It had been rumoured that she had a brief affair with Walter Forde, the actor and director aka Thomas Seymour Woolford, and this was purported to have been quite early on as he later became very close to, and very controlled by his wife, Adeline Culley.
Peril On The Sea?
An article appeared in the Evening Telegraph in August 1922. Pauline had taken a small dinghy some distance out to sea at Hastings . On turning the boat round to return to shore she found that whilst rowing ‘with all her might’ the little dinghy did not make any progress towards the shore. Since there were no other boats around she decided that the best plan was to go with the current and head for the shore, where she ended up some miles further down the coast, arriving somewhat exhausted.
It looks a little like a press stunt to gain some attention. Perhaps it was a case of ‘anything that would get her name in the news !! ‘
Pauline was very keen on motor racing and in particular motor cycle Speedway that had risen up in popularity the 20’s . She obviously hung around with some of the stars of Speedway and perhaps had affairs with a few of them, in particular with Billy Lamont, a well known speedway star.
The Flying Scotsman
Pauline played a leading role in the 1929 film “The Flying Scotsman”, with Moore Marriott , Alec Hurley and the young and then very much unknown, Welsh actor, Ray Milland appearing in his second film . Ray Milland later went on to achieve considerable international fame.
“The Flying Scotsman” was claimed by some to be possibly the first talking picture , The Americans making a different claim – it was more probably ONE of the first BRITISH talking pictures. This film is still available on VHS tape and DVD.
The steam engine used was loaned to the film company by LNER who also provided them with the use of a loop of rural Hertfordshire railway line for four consecutive weekends. One stunt would have seen Ray Milland decapitated had he not acted very speedily, after which he refused to do any further scenes dangling from the side of the engine.
Quoted from an interviewer
“Miss Johnson will open this door..” said the director of the film, lighting a cigarette, “and will clamber along while we shoot her” I meant photographically— ” from that specially built stage..”. . “How fast will the train go ? ” , I said. “Seventy or eighty miles an hour, I shouldn’t wonder,” replied the director , Miss Johnson powdered her nose.
” Er— are you insured ? ” , I asked her. “Me insured ? ” said Miss Johnson. “No I’m not insured. What good would that do me if the worst, happened ? ” and she laughed merrily.
The film remains somewhat revolutionary because of the cast’s real, and very dangerous stunts, which included climbing along the side of a train moving at high speed, a feat that Pauline Johnson achieved whilst wearing high heels. The cast all did their own stunts in this movie. No stuntmen around at that time !
A New Life In Australia
On 30th October 1929 Pauline , having completed all her filming commitments, travelled out to Australia to visit her older sister, Lily, and her husband Charles OLLIVER, accompanied by her mother Catherine (Kate) JOHNSON.
They sailed on the Aberdeen and Commonwealth Steamship Line vessel ‘Jervis Bay’ and several well-known speedway riders were on board the ship including Billy Lamont and several others returning home to Australia . © David Wardell
We hope you enjoyed reading our edited version of the story. The full version complete with family photographs, filmography list, Pauline as a racing driver and her life in Australia is available to read below. We highly recommend that you don’t stop here!
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