Mr & Mrs John Laurie

Mr and Mrs John Laurie.

It pains me to refer to a woman only by her husband’s name, as in ‘Mrs John Laurie’.  However, this is how women were normally referred to in England in the past, indeed, the not so distant past at that.  In this blog post we will read about Mrs John Laurie, and by a process of deduction, I am able to name her in her own right, as Oonah Veronica Todd-Naylor.  (There is debate over the spelling of her first name: Oona or Oonah.)

First, of course, in order to know of Mrs John Laurie, it follows that we need to know who Mr John Laurie (1897-1980) was.  This Scottish actor is most famous in Britain today for his comedy role in a fabulously popular 1970s television series called Dad’s Army.  By this time in his life, he was an elderly man and it was a surprise to me when I learned that he was not ‘just’ a tv actor, but was a well-regarded and accomplished Shakespearian actor.

According to Wikipedia, John Laurie served in the First World War, and after being demobbed, he trained under Elsie Fogerty at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London, which is the same School where Irene Mawer met Ruby Ginner, both of whom were employed by Fogie as teachers at that same school.

While working at the Central School, Irene Mawer helped to teach the young John Laurie.  In the speech Irene Mawer gave during the celebrations for 21 years of the Ginner-Mawer School, she remembers her input:

‘Among the many brilliant actors and actresses who have passed through Miss Fogerty’s hands and whom, in their wild youth, I helped to train, are Laurence Olivier, whom I remember as a particularly violent leader of the Revolutionarie in THE RED ROSES, with Mrs. Laurie as the Marquis, Alison Leggatt who played Priscilla, and last, but by no means least, John Laurie, who won’t mind my reminding him of the desperate occasion when he put his jaw out at the dress rehearsal of Priscilla and played the part of George with that offending member supported by a handkerchief, which was tied in a bow on the top of his head.’

The war ended in 1918, and Wikipedia states that John Laurie gave his stage debut in 1921, so I surmise that his Central School training was c.1918-1921.  In1922 Laurie was performing Shakespearian roles on the stage at the Old Vic in London, and at the Memorial Theatre in Stratford.  Another link, then, is that the Ginner-Mawer School regularly performed at the same Memorial Theatre and held their summer schools in Stratford as part of the Shakespeare Summer Festival, featuring dances, ballets and mime plays.

By 1934, John Laurie was on the Committee of the Irene Mawer-founded Institute of Mime, and was still there in 1939 (I don’t have records from other years).

I think it may have rankled a bit with Laurie, that he was a well-trained and capable actor who only really found fame through the medium of a tv sit-com: 

I’ve played every part in Shakespeare. I was considered to be the finest Hamlet of the twenties and I had retired, and now I’m famous for doing this crap.  (John Laurie’s comment on Dad’s Army, recalled by Ian Lavender[10]’)

By the sound of it, I would think that John Laurie was at the 21st birthday celebrations, along with his wife, Oonah.  John was married twice.  His first wife, Florence May Saunders, whom he had met at the Old Vic, died from meningitis in 1926. His second wife was Oonah Veronica Todd-Naylor, who survived him. Together they had a daughter, Veronica (1939–2022).

Given that the Ginner-Mawer 21st Birthday was in 1937, presumably the Mrs. John Laurie referred to in Irene Mawer’s speech would have been John’s second wife, Oonah Veronica Todd-Naylor (1901–1990), who was known as ‘Toddie’ (info from Jack Tannett, personal email, 2020).  

I am guessing that Toddie was good friends with Mildred Robley-Browne (nee Peters), an Old Girl and stalwart of the Ginner-Mawer School.  I have blogged about Mildred previously, please do have a look at the posts, she was a terrifically interesting woman.  Her husband, Surgeon-Captain Robley Browne, OBE, kept detailed diaries which survive to this day and tell us much about Ginner-Mawer.

In the 1930s, John and Toddie were house guests of Mildred Robley-Brown; the occasion was rehearsal time for productions called ‘Mime’ and ‘Eager Heart’.  The relevant diary entry in Mildred’s husband’s notes is for 24 November 1930.  Later diary entries show that Toddie also helped Mildred with rehearsals for a play due to be performed on 18th March 1937, which was the same year as the 21st birthday celebrations.

I am guessing that Oonah Laurie (Toddie) was a Ginner-Mawer Old Girl.

The write-up in The Link of the Birthday event states that 

‘The programme opened with two dances to Edith Sitwell’s verse, spoken by Mrs. John Laurie and Avice Spitta.  The first was ‘Waltz,’ danced in an enchanting moonlight effect by Helen Guy-Smith, Lois Gray, and Primrose Story, and the second was ‘Polka’, gaily danced by Helga Burgess.’  (The Link, October 1937, pp.20-23)

I think that the evening’s entertainment was organised by the Old Girls, rather than by Irene Mawer or Ruby Ginner – but I would imagine that only the very best performers would have been chosen.  Mawer was in charge of the dramatic side of the school, and although she was well-known for her mime skills, she was also an accomplished teacher and performer of voice – so for a student or former student to have been chosen to speak Edith Sitwell’s verse would, I imagine, indicate that the performer was highly thought of.  Well done Mrs Laurie!


Author: Janet Fizz Curtis

Janet Fizz Curtis is trained in the Irene Mawer Method of Mime and Movement and is now writing a book about the life of Irene Mawer.

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