BAIRD TELEVISION


Alice, Who art Thou? An old mystery
By Malcolm Baird, 21 April 2019


Back in 2002, Antony Kamm and I completed our biography of John Logie Baird [1], to whom I shall refer here as JLB. The book was planned to be 150 pages long, but the amount of material led to a volume containing 391 pages of text and 55 pages of end notes. In spite of this, there were still some loose ends and unsolved mysteries, one of which was the identity of JLB's first love.

According to my mother's memoirs [2], JLB had met an attractive woman of about his age in a library in Glasgow in about 1917, while he was starting up his first business project "The Baird Undersock". They fell deeply in love and considered marriage. Although the undersock was selling well, JLB's health was a major problem and he was plagued by coughs and colds in the damp Glasgow climate. His old friend from Helensburgh, Godfrey Harris, had moved to the USA and advised him that a lot of money was to be made in Trinidad by manufacturing jam from the fruit there which was abundant and cheap. JLB wound up the undersock business and sailed for Trinidad in November 1919 on the understanding that his girl would faithfully wait until he returned as a healthier (and richer) man. But in the immortal words of Robert Burns, "the best laid schemes o'mice and men gang aft agley."

Antony Kamm and I spent a lot of time poring over JLB's notes from Trinidad, scrawled illegibly in cheap pocket diaries. The notes consisted mainly of lists of suppliers and agencies, jam recipes, prices, etc. There was no evidence that JLB was working on television, as had been claimed by some writers. But among JLB's notes was a single sheet of paper, containing only an inscription "Alice Where Art Thou?" and a date, 19 June 1920.

In her memoirs [2], my mother mentioned that while JLB was in Trinidad, his first love had married another man. Antony Kamm and I took it that Alice was the girl's forename. We also inferred that upon hearing the news of her marriage, JLB had bitterly scrawled out the title of a popular sentimental song of lost love. This had been recorded in 1913 on an Edison wax cylinder by the famous tenor Ernest Pike and it can be heard at this link, accessed in February 2019: The date on JLB's sheet of paper fell on a Saturday and at first we assumed that it was the date of Alice's marriage [1].

JLB's Trinidad papers also contained a small snapshot, labelled: "Sid (with pipe) --- Easter 1920". Antony Kamm and I included this picture in our book [1] and it is also shown here, enlarged and sharpened. We suggested that Sid was the man she married later in the year. The younger man at the right of the picture may have been Alice's brother; see below.

So here was JLB in the summer heat of 1920, stuck in Trinidad and thwarted in love. His memoirs [3], written in 1941, are silent about the love affair but they do tell the rest of his story with his typical dry wit (see p.36-37):

...then I fell ill with fever ...I decided, when I was able to move about again, to return to London and establish a market there. I bought a large cask and a number of kerosene tins and packed them with mango chutney, guava jelly, marmalade and tamarind syrup. I set sail for London more dead than alive and with more than three quarters of my capital gone. The West Indies is an excellent spot for those in robust health who can stay at the Queen's Park Hotel and spend their time in bathing and motoring, but living in the bush, particularly under the trees in a valley near a river, is not at all a wise course of procedure.

JLB arrived in London in November 1920 and set about selling his Trinidad products. According to his notes, he started to trade in other bulk foods such as honey. In April 1921 he took a short break from his business and travelled up to Glasgow, where he confronted Alice and Sid. My mother's memoirs [2] (p. 37) take up the story:

"In Glasgow he saw her again and persuaded her to go away with him. Her husband seems to have been complacent, and she lived between the two of them. She was with John in the early days of television."

Ten years later, in 1931, television had been achieved and JLB was a celebrity. He was in New York and about to marry my mother (Margaret Albu, 19 years his junior) after a whirlwind courtship. JLB told her about Alice and it says a lot for her that she did not let it stand in the way of the marriage. This extract is from her memoirs [2] (p.110):

We also had to cope with John's old love affair. It had become hopeless, from his point of view, but he was kind and loyal and did not want a violent and painful break with her. He thought that he would hurt her less if he could write to her from New York and say that he was already married, and we spent several hours on our wedding day drafting this letter, until the room was a mass of crumpled paper. It was a waste of time. She read of the marriage in a newspaper the same day, while she was in a restaurant, and the news was a violent shock.

My mother only met Alice once, after JLB's funeral in Helensburgh in June 1946. Although Alice was not on the list of mourners, she showed up at the family home in a distressed state. The two women chatted sympathetically for a few minutes over tea, but my mother could not remember any details of the conversation.

After JLB's death, my mother had a nervous breakdown from which it took her several years to recover. Then she returned to South Africa where she had been born and raised. In the 1960s she wrote her memoirs and offered them to several London publishers. They were uninterested, but eventually the memoirs were accepted by a South African publisher [2] and the book later sold well in the UK, especially in Scotland.

In 2000, the well-known historical writer Antony Kamm and I set out to write our biography of JLB [1] and we considered the possibility of a search at the Scottish Registry Office to determine Alice's identity. Until recently, such a search would have required a good deal of time and money and we were already under pressure from the massive amount of technical and financial information that was coming to light. So the full identity of Alice remained unknown, although we were fairly sure of her forename and the fact that she was from Glasgow and about the same age as JLB, and had married a Sid in 1920.

More years passed. Our book [1] came out in 2002 and was well received. My father's own memoirs appeared in 2004 in a Scottish edition [3] which was also well received. Sadly, Antony Kamm died in 2011. But thanks to the internet, the Scottish Registry entries are much more accessible than ever before, on https://www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk.

Late in 2018 I searched this website and found that an Alice Bain had married a Sidney Wise in September 1920. Shortly afterwards I discovered to my chagrin that a website called Scotlandonair [4] had "scooped" me by a few weeks! The full image of the marriage registration has been obtained for a few pounds and it is shown below:


The handwriting has been transcribed and summarized as follows:

Date of marriage: 24 September 1920
Groom: Sidney Campbell Wise, age 29, Engineer's draughtsman, resident at 147 Edgefauld Road, Springburn, Glasgow.
Bride: Alice Bain, age 30, spinster, resident at 2 Downs Street, Springburn, Glasgow.
Place of marriage: 324 Crow Road, Partick, after Banns according to the form of the United Free Church of Scotland

The marriage date differed from the one given in JLB's plaintive note (19 June) but that may have been the date upon which he heard of the engagement.

At the time of the wedding, JLB had just reached the age of 32. Alice Bain's age of 30 is consistent with Margaret Baird's statement [2] that JLB and his love were of about the same age.

Further searching of the "scotlandspeople" website revealed that Sidney Wise had died in 1962 in Glasgow (occupation given as company director) and Alice herself had died in 1971 in Glasgow. Her surname was given as Bain in the entry of her death. Also it seems likely that the third person in the 1920 picture was Alice's younger brother, Robert Mason Bain (b.1899 in Glasgow, m.1925, d.1960 in Fife).

My attempts to contact Alice's living relatives have been unsuccessful. She had a daughter, also called Alice, born in October 1935 and apparently still living at a Glasgow address, listed under her married surname, not "Wise". I wrote her a short letter of enquiry in early February 2019 but no reply has been received for over 2 months. However the letter was never returned to me by the postal system as "unknown"; this suggests that it may have been delivered.

However I decided not to press the matter with Alice's daughter, as she and other relatives are entitled to their privacy. On the other hand it is fair to say that JLB has become an iconic Scottish figure during the century since he and Alice first met. The television history community is interested in his personal life as well as his technical work, so I am glad to be able to throw some new light on this old mystery. May I thank Iain Baird for his help with the final version of this article.

Bibliography

[1] "John Logie Baird, a life" by Antony Kamm and Malcolm Baird, National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh (2002)
[2] "Television Baird" by Margaret Baird, Haum, Cape Town (1973)
[3] "Television and Me" by John Logie Baird, Mercat Press (now Birlinn), Edinburgh (new edition 2004)
[4] http://wiki.scotlandonair.com/index.php?title=John_Logie_Baird
accessed 12 April 2019. Website owned and operated by Graham Stewart who is with BBC Scotland.


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