Anyone who grew up in a Liverpool household which enjoyed singalongs would probably be familiar with the old music hall standard Lily of Laguna. But how many would know that the song was written by a composer who grew up in Liverpool and attended St. Francis Xavier’s College ?
The composer, who enjoyed great success in Edwardian musical comedy, was Leslie Stuart, a name he adopted having been born in Southport as Thomas Augustine Barrett on 15th March 1863. His father, also Thomas, was a cabinet maker who hailed from western Ireland. Moving to Liverpool the Barrett family lived at 117 Field Street L3 in Everton [now demolished].
The family moved to Manchester in 1872 and young Thomas’ musical talents saw him established as organist at Salford Cathedral by the time he was 15. For some years he mainly composed church music but then found increasing success with popular music hall ballads. His father had been property manager at the Liverpool Amphitheatre and Thomas and his elder brother Stephen soon developed a taste for the stage. Stephen became a music hall performer using the stage name Lester Barrett. By the 1890s he was publishing his songs under the name Leslie Stuart, providing the ‘blackface’ singer Eugene Stratton with many songs, including Lily of Laguna. In 1894 he published the well-known patriotic ballad Soldiers of the King (for which he used a tune originally written as a march to celebrate the opening of the Manchester Ship Canal.
The early years of the 20th century saw the height of his musical career, his first full musical comedy, Floradora  enjoying great success. Sadly he began to accumulate large gambling debts which saw him declared bankrupt in 1913. As musical tastes changed demand for his work all but disappeared and the bankruptcy was followed by drinking and marital problems.
He died at his daughter May’s home in Richmond aged 65 in 1928. In 1939 a bronze bust of Stuart was placed in Manchester Central Library inscribed “A son of Manchester who moved the nation to song”. A man of Manchester maybe, but a child of Liverpool !
Given the opening lines of Lily of Laguna, it is highly unlikely that it will nowadays be performed in its original form which is indeed offensive even by Edwardian standards
It's de same old tale of a pal-pa-ta-ting
niggar ev'ry time, ev'ry time;
It's de same old trouble of a coon Dat wants to be married very soon
The sheet music of Stuart's 'greatest hit'.
© Liverpool Footprints