Nellie Melba and the daffodil farmer

DAFFODIL DAZE One of the world’s favourite cut flowers, the daffodil.

A Writer unravels a local myth.

MY first glimpse of the Blue Mountains high school I attended was a hillside covered by a layer of golden daffodil blooms. I was in sixth class and a group of us was to play one of the high school teams in basketball, but we were late and had to run to the top of the hill to start the match.

The daffodils were so plentiful (over knee-deep in my memory) that running through them took some effort and created a kind of insane delight as we ascended, laughing and stumbling in their ridiculous golden abundance.

Many years later I took on the task of researching the history of the old house on the hillside, and learned about the man who was behind the daffodil plantation – Robert Matcham Pitt (1849-1935).

Throughout that process the most intriguing element of the home’s story was, for me, his daffodils. Primary sources and archives are all very well, but surviving blooms carefully raised by the long dead … now that was history brought to life.

Soon after moving to London I consulted the International Daffodil Registrar, at that time the wonderfully generous Sally Kington, at London’s Royal Horticultural Society. What Sally found shed a whole new light on the man who was amongst the first to bring the humble Narcissus to Australia.

I had the opportunity to publish a feature article on this horticultural history in the August-September 2010 edition Blue Mountains Life Magazine (Vintage Press). Typically, there’s always parts of a story which must be left out for publication, so I’ve included those at the end for posterity.

HOME GROWN OPERA Helen Porter Mitchell (aka Dame Nellie Melba 1861-1931) worked to bring grand opera to Australian shores.

A Diva’s Daffodils

Nellie Melba’s inspirational encounter with a Mountain Daffodil Farmer

For almost a century there was a tale told that Nellie Melba sang an impromptu recital in a private home in Wentworth Falls and received a rather unorthodox daffodil tribute in return. Now Ann Blainey’s award-winning biography I am Melba reveals the only time the soprano can be placed in the Blue Mountains during daffodil season, and why.

Melba’s journey to the Mountains began in 1909 when she purchased a property near the town of Lilydale outside Melbourne, with two plans in the pipeline – to renovate and landscape herself a sanctuary, and to bring grand opera to her home country.

Before sailing for performances across the northern hemisphere in 1910, Melba met with Australian theatre impresario J.C. Williamson. The soprano guaranteed fifty per cent of the opera project’s budget, leaving the producer to work his connections in the business sector.

The ‘Melba-Williamson Opera Company’ announced Sydney and Melbourne seasons for spring 1911.

On her return trip to Sydney from Europe that year, Melba went to inspect work on her as yet un-named new home, but rehearsals in Sydney beckoned when a boatload of international singers arrived in late August. The venture was launched before an eager public on September 2.

Overseeing fully staged versions of twelve operas, fifty-year-old Melba was also performing three times a week. “Although in some ways she was in her element, the pressure began to tell,” writes Ann Blainey. “By the end of September she was ill, with an aching ear and a sore throat … bronchitis set in, and she was ordered to rest in the mountain resort of Medlow Bath”.

Without Melba, audience numbers dropped, and rumours of her drinking resurfaced. Her letters from these critical weeks reveal a desire to conceal the extent of her vocal problems from the public. Between Williamson and he publicity agent Claude McKay, Melba’s escape to the Mountains was heavily stage-managed.

OPERA FANS Robert and Marie (‘Eugenie’) Pitt at Coorah.

Enter Robert and Eugenie Pitt, resident at their Mountain estate ‘Coorah’ in Wentworth Falls. A successful stock and station agent and one of J.C. Williamson’s guarantors, Robert and the immensely musical Eugenie may have been recruited to aid in the singer’s recovery. As a result of Melba’s secret convalescence in the Blue Mountains during daffodil season, a legend emerged.

It told that Melba arrived at Coorah by car and delighted in Pitt’s fields of daffodils. After dinner, she entertained her hosts by singing, after which Pitt offered Melba a gift. She expressed a desire for some of his daffodil bulbs for her fledgling garden. They were lifted and packed that very night, since the soprano was due to return to Sydney the next morning.

The facts about Coorah are well-known – the property was established in 1889 complete with water pumped from a local creek, a dairy, stables, and a nine-hole golf course. English style gardens and the bulb farm surrounded the late Victorian country house atop a hill overlooking distant blue ranges.

But horticulturists will tell you no serious daffodil hybridiser would lift flowering bulbs unless they were to be transplanted immediately. Legends, of course, are not infallible, and this one needed some unravelling.

Coorah’s centenary in 1989 unearthed how the property became a hostel for children and then the Blue Mountains Grammar School. Pitt’s daffodils were still returning every spring to the north-facing fields of the property, and stories about Melba’s visit persisted.

School parents related meeting Doris Pitt (youngest daughter of Robert and Eugenie) who revisited Coorah in the 1960s and recalled the night Melba sang in Coorah’s large central room.

A ‘below stairs’ oral history of the same event came from Arnold Gorringe. His mother Mary was Coorah’s housekeeper until 1919, and she had to move husband Arnold (head gardener) and two small boys into a cottage on the estate to make room for Melba’s stay.

Barbara Lamble recalled her grandfather Robert Pitt’s long association with opera funding – “Within the family at least he was known to have expressed a dislike for Melba and her money-raising methods,” she said.

BULBS FOREVER Blue Mountains Grammar School student Philip Parkinson in the surviving field of Pitt’s daffodil farm at Coorah in 1961.

Pitt’s daffodils held their own secrets. In 1993 Sally Kington (International Daffodil Registrar at the time for London’s Royal Horticultural Society) analysed photographs of the daffodils still flowering at Coorah. Since they could be seen to be derived from already existing varieties, Sally suggested they were Pitt’s hybrids. His daffodil creations included ‘Clive Pitt’, ‘Doris Pitt’ (two of his children) and those he registered with the RHS – ‘H.H.B. Bradley’ (noted horticulturist) and ‘G.S. Titheradge’ (actor and flower enthusiast).

DAFFODIL FARMER and pastoralist Robert Matcham Pitt (1849-1935). Photo courtesy of Libby White.

In the RHS library, the Daffodil Yearbook of 1914 yielded an essay by Titheradge in which the following appears – “Mr. Pitt is devoted to music, and when the great singer, Mme Melba was here, he, or some members of his family, went to the opera nearly every night. It was during the spring months, and Mr. Pitt used to send the ‘diva’ great quantities of daffodil blooms. One day he wrote and asked if he might be permitted to immortalise one of his seedlings by naming it after her”.

Actor George Sutton Titheradge (1848-1916).
MAN OF FLOWERS Actor George Sutton Titheradge (1848-1916).

“She said she would be delighted, so he sent her some of his finest productions to choose from. Mme Melba happened to select the one called after me, so Mr. Pitt had to tell her it had already been appropriated by an artist in another branch of her profession, but when the time came for lifting the bulbs he made her happy by sending her about 20,000 for her place in Lilydale, Victoria.”

Blainey writes that when Melba returned to Sydney from the Mountains, “she was cheered as she entered the stage”. The Melba-Williamson opera company moved on to Melbourne, where Melba had her sanctuary to nurture any lingering health problems. Audiences were not as keen on the event as Sydney had been. Despite a spectacular opening night, by November attendance dwindled.

Meanwhile, Pitt waited for his daffodils to die back, drawing nutrients into the bulbs. In December they were lifted and rested in sheds. Twenty-thousand bulbs dispatched to Melba sounds like a large amount, but in 1897 Pitt had advertised a stock of half a million bulbs.

In Autumn 1912, Melba busied herself with completing the transformation of the home she’d now called ‘Coombe Cottage’. The name remembered a property she’d rented while performing at Covent Garden, but it’s possible it also had echoes of her time at the similar ‘Coorah’.

There can be little doubt that Melba would have been inspired by Pitt’s achievements – they embodied the end result of the major changes she’d commission for her own estate.

She once said: “If you wish to understand me at all, you must understand first and foremost that I am an Australian. I shall always come back to the blue mountains in the heart of the vast deserted continent that gave me birth.”

Estates with distant blue horizons, not too far from the city life, were obviously close to this woman’s heart.

We are left to assume Pitt’s bulbs were planted at Coombe Cottage sometime during her first proper season there.

But well before they would have flowered the next spring, Melba was in Europe again. Blainey suggests the disappointing Melbourne reception of her grand opera season was the reason – “The company disbanded on a dismal note. Melba’s inclination was to leave almost at once …”

However, the diva’s association with daffodils was far from over. During the same northern autumn Melba arrived in Britain, Irish Plantsman William Hartland released a catalogue of bulbs advertising a new variety, listed as “new for 1912” and named ‘Madame Melba’.

Pitt had sourced much of his bulb stock from Hartland since the 1880s – was it he who suggested to Hartland that since she’d missed too many seasons at Covent Garden it was time for a ‘Melba’ daffodil?

Robert Pitt gardened until the 1930s at Coorah, but his daffodils outlasted almost everything else he planted. Bulbs which he gifted to his staff and others still appear every spring. Titheradge called him “one of the pioneers of the cult,” and the daffodil heritage of the greater Blue Mountains owes much to his mass plantings and hybridising at Coorah.

FEELING FOR FLOWERS “If I had only the money that has been spent in flowers for me and nothing else, I should still be a rich woman” Melba once said.

An anecdote from the Australian Women’s Weekly in 1970 links Pitt and Melba late in both lives – “For one of her farewell concerts he sent her thousands of daffodils from his daffodil farm. A flood of golden blooms flowed onto the stage … Melba announced she would personally sell the flowers in Martin Place the next day, in aid of Sydney hospital.”

Whether the daffodil farmer’s twenty thousand ‘G.S. Titheradge’ bulbs ever graced the diva’s garden remains a mystery.

The Story goes on …

In 2014 Melba’s garden at Coombe Cottage was opened to the public for the first time. I visited in February, 2015.

Since the publication of this article more has come to light about divas, daffodils and Coorah. My sister Jen happened-upon some fascinating photographs of another opera singer from the Melba-Williamson company (Austrian contralto Marie Voluntas-Ranzenberg) who visited Coorah on Sunday, October 15, 1911, was given lunch and garlands of flowers and had her photograph taken with the Pitt family. This at least proves the Pitt Family was in residence at the time of the legend about Melba’s visit. 

The day I arrived at the RHS library in 1993, Sally Kington showed me a card catalogue entry which simply said “R.M. Pitt?”. Sally said she found it fascinating to find a story associating Narcissus with opera, an industry abundantly supplied with flowers, but rarely daffodils, apparently.

In 1993 I corresponded with the resident of Coombe Cottage in Lilydale – the late Lady Pamela Vestey (grand-daughter of Melba) – she had no knowledge of twenty thousand daffodil bulbs on the property.

The design of Melba’s garden at Coombe Cottage was one of the last estates created by William Guilfoyle (1840-1912), the man responsible for several iconic gardens in the state of Victoria, including Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Garden.

PLUCK COVER copyCoombe, the Melba Estate, as it is now known, experienced many design changes over the years, including plans that were never realised by garden designer Edna Walling in the 1920s.The property remains a private home (under the ownership of the next generation) amidst a winemaking operation, with Melba’s garden open for tours

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

This article appears in Michael’s eBook Pluck: Exploits of the single-minded

5 thoughts on “Nellie Melba and the daffodil farmer”

  1. Such a fascinating tale. I remember those fields of daffodils – nothing could be more beautiful. Thank you for doing such valuable research.

    1. Thanks Mary, it’s such a shame that the fields diminished in the 1980s, symptomatic of the era, I suspect! There are only a few verges of Pitt’s daffs left at Coorah now, and a smattering in some gardens in Wentworth Falls.

  2. I love reading your work Michael – you always have something to teach me! I had lots of Coorah daffodils at my house before we moved and sadly (for us) we had to leave them behind . So sad that some people had no idea about preserving them and uplifted many of them at the wrong time and planted them under the pine trees in the total shade. Some of my fondest memories involved children running down the slope and throwing themselves into the garden beds. I had to reprimand them but really wanted to join in the fun.

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