Motherly love was not uppermost in Lilian Ross’ mind when she adopted a young girl around 1911. She had no plans to raise a traditional family; instead, she intended to train her young ward to become a contortionist so she could put her onto the stage. And it seems that she was successful in her intentions. Archives staff member Zoë D’Arcy tells the story of Lilian and how images of her contortionist poses came to be in the Archives’ collection.
By 1915, the young adopted girl, using the stage name ‘Little Verlie’, was a member of the Fuller Brennan Vaudeville and Star Pictures tour, and wowing audiences all around Australia with her act. The Broken Hill Barrier Miner was by no means alone in singing her praises:
Little Verlie, who is only 12 years of age, provided a wonderfully clever entertainment. She is both acrobat and contortionist, and can dance. She did some indescribable feats, and was withal dainty and graceful – whether somersaulting or twisting herself into the most grotesque shapes. She walked about on her head and on her hands as easily as the ordinary pedestrian, and finished with a one-legged skipping rope dance, while the other leg was twisted round her neck. Little Verlie’s ‘turn’ was applauded throughout (19 October 1915).
Success on stage
Lilian’s fortunes rose with Verlie’s success. She had been a respected dance teacher in Brisbane, with her pupils’ performances often being written up in the social pages of the newspapers. But now Lilian was able to move permanently to Sydney, and her printed letterhead proclaimed her as ‘The inventor and only teacher in the world of artistic contortion posing, now portrayed by “La Petite Verlie”, the child who has caused a sensation in Australia’.
That same year, 1915, Lilian decided to adopt a second child to teach alongside Verlie. To find the appropriate child, she advertised in the Theatre magazine, stipulating that she was hoping for a child with fair or red hair, whom she would look after until the child came of age. The adoption is represented as a social experiment, and a challenge that she could adopt a child with no aptitude and make them as successful as Verlie. As a result, she adopted a young boy named Darrell.
Verlie’s act must have been sensational. You can get a sense of it from photographs that Lilian Ross lodged as part of a copyright claim a year later in 1916. This and subsequent claims, complete with photos, are now part of the Archives’ copyright collection. The files make for very interesting reading, as together they reveal a story that extends from that halcyon year of 1915 through to the end of Verlie and Darrell’s careers on stage in 1922.
In 1916 Lilian copyrighted 26 poses; each is described in the copyright claim and accompanied by a photograph. They all feature Verlie twisted into a variety of shapes – mostly by herself, but sometimes she’s posed with her young adopted brother, Darrell. The written descriptions of each of the poses are enough to make the average (and not very flexible) reader wince. For example: ‘18th pose: walking on hands with child around waist’. And if you think pose 24 – ‘walking on hands with both feet under chin’ – sounds painful, then pose 26, which required Verlie to walk on her elbows with her feet under her chin, must have been a real killer.
In her copyright claim, Lilian Ross specifies that the act could only be presented by Verlie and Darrell Anderson (Anderson was Lilian’s married name). She was very concerned about other performers stealing her material. In one of the many letters she sent to the copyright office, she writes that ‘I have been inventing Acrobatic Feats and Contortion Poses for the last five years, and when I produce a new feat, it is stolen and used by other teachers and their pupils’. In another letter on the same file she complains again that most of her work had been copied by other performers, consoling herself that it had only been copied ‘in a crude manner’.
Meanwhile, she was working her two adopted children as hard as she could to keep earning money. Maybe to disguise the fact that there were only two children, and also to keep their acts fresh, they both worked under a multitude of stage names. Over the years they appeared on billings as Baby Ross, Little Verlie, La Petite Verlie, Wee Noel, Wee Darrell, Boy Bonham and – as a duo – Winsome and Noel. Together, they even toured South Africa in 1917–18.
Bid for freedom
Running away and joining a circus is supposedly the dream of many young children. But in Verlie and Darrell’s case, just the opposite was true. While they were undoubtedly gifted performers, both of them harboured dreams of escaping to a normal life. Neither child had ever been to school – or had even been taught to read.
In 1922, Verlie made a bid for freedom and ran away. A letter from Lilian Ross to the copyright office shows that she was distraught. ‘I am at present ill in bed suffering from shock caused by Verlie Anderson running away…I wish her to be prohibited [from] using any of my work unless it is under my instruction.’ In the letter she makes it clear that neither Verlie nor Darrell (who she refers to as Wee Noel) have permission to perform her copyrighted poses ‘outside’. Her concern with Verlie running away was not for the girl herself, but that Verlie might now make a living doing contortion acts on her own ‘as I have instructed the girl…twelve years free, also boarded and clothed her’.
In fact, Verlie didn’t attempt to make a living with her unique skills. And neither did Darrell, when he also ran away some time later. Lilian Ross, whose printed letterhead now simply stated her to be ‘Australia’s teaching genius’, had lost her two most talented pupils.
View Archives records relating to this article:
- Single and double contortion poses on pedestal, copyright application, 1916
- Physical culture entertainment, copyright application, 1922
- Entertainment in dumb show beautifying studies, copyright application, 1922
- Entertainment in dumb show contortion and acrobatic, copyright application, 1922
Fact sheet 105 – Copyright records
See more of Lilian Ross’ contortionist poses on the Archives’ Flickr site.