Stage cigarette dangling from her lips, swagger stick tucked beneath her chin and steady gaze at the camera. This photo of Jean Aylwin, star of the Edwardian theatre, does not immediately lead to you to think:
‘Now there’s a George Square Girl.’
But she was, although it was as Jean Aitken that she first registered at George Watson’ Ladies’ College in 1895 just short of her eleventh birthday. Jean was born in Hawick in October 1884, the only daughter of John Aitken and Mary Ann Morham. John was a photographer and by the time Jean was six the family had moved to Glasgow where Jean attended Church Street Public School in Glasgow’s West End before transferring to George Watson’s Ladies’ College in Edinburgh for her secondary education.
While her parents remained in Glasgow, young Jean would become a boarder for six years at the Trades Maidens’ Hospital, then located at Ashfield, 121 Grange Loan, a brisk twenty minutes’ walk from George Square.
Originally founded by Mary Erskine along with the Merchant Maidens’ Hospital, the Trade Maidens’ Hospital appears to have been a boarding house for George Watson’s Ladies’ College in all but name by the time Jean was there under the supervision of Miss Robina Macintyre, the Mistress of the Institution.
Within two years of leaving school 1901, Jean was back in Glasgow and about to be bitten by the acting bug. As she said in an interview later in life:
"I was living in Glasgow when Mr Forbes Robertson and Miss Gertrude Elliott were appearing there in The Light That Failed, and one night when I went to the theatre to see that play, I became so infatuated with the idea of going on the stage that I wrote the next day to Miss Elliott asking her to help me get on it. She very kindly allowed me to come to see her, and was awfully good to me, and eventually gave me a letter to Mr Dion Boucicault, in London."
Miss Elliott’s letter proved enough to secure an introduction to the actor and stage director Dion Boucicault, but it was not enough for him to offer Jean any work. He told her that only a “Scotch part” would suit her. As she later admitted wryly, "To tell the truth, you could cut my accent with a knife at that time, but I did not believe it."
Nevertheless, her luck changed when she met the manager of a touring company who was staying at her boarding house in Bloomsbury and she was recruited to play a variety of character roles in melodramas touring around country towns. Jean Aitken became Jean Aylwin and her career was launched.
The roles were unglamourous but her early tours were not without incident. She later recalled the laughter she caused when playing the role of a murderer in a performance one night in a small Welsh town.
"On this night, quite unintentionally, I was handed a curling-tongs instead of a dagger. In my excitement I rushed on, stabbed my victim, and then - standing over his body - held the curling tongs aloft. Well, as you can imagine the audience shrieked with laughter, and I dropped the pair of tongs as if they were red-hot, bent my head to hide my confusion."
This obvious sense of humour was to stand her in good stead. By 1905 she was in the chorus at the Gaiety Theatre in London’s West End, progressing to playing a maid in The New Aladdin. It was a show described as a “miscellany of fun, melody and glitter” and garnered Jean some good reviews.
“A signal success was made by Miss Jean Aylwin as the Princess's Maid, and in the song Dougal, she challenged comparison with Harry Lauder, so rich was her humour and refined drollery.”
“A definite plot is not among the absolute essentials of a musical comedy,” commented a contemporary reviewer dryly and for the next few years, Jean found herself playing the character, often comedic parts in a series of successful shows. In 1907, she played Minna, the Captain of a Girls’ University, in The Girls of Gottenburg which featured the female chorus clad fetchingly in a good deal of braid and epaulettes and Jean belting out songs such as A lot of funny folks one sees at Ladies Universities and Officers' girls have lots of fun.
The show transferred to the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh in February 1908. However, it seems unlikely that there was a school trip from George Square to see it. Certainly, no mention is made in early editions of the George Square Chronicle. We can only speculate what the teachers and girls would have made of it (or of the Watsonian playing a leading role) if they had attended.
Jean’s career took another exciting turn when she was amongst the cast of Our Miss Gibbs which transferred to Broadway in 1910. That was not before Jean had made her first silent film Winning the Widow. She must have returned to the UK by the end of 1911 or beginning of 1912, because she was to appear with Harry Lauder in the Titanic Disaster Fund Appeal show at the London Hippodrome on 5 May 1912, less than a month after the ill-fated liner sank.
Actresses associated with the Gaiety Theatre, The Gaiety Girls as they were known, were seen as symbols of ideal womanhood. Some would go on to marry into society or even the nobility. Jean also had her admirers, and in 1913 she married Alfred Rawlinson, the younger son of a baronet.
He was a widower and seventeen years older than Jean. The marriage was of great public interest and attracted a great deal of press coverage.
Alfred, or Toby, as he was known to his friends, was something of a ‘gentleman adventurer’. Aged forty-seven at the outbreak of war and too old to enlist, he nevertheless made a private contribution to the war effort by driving his own car up and down the Western Front, initially picking up casualties but later customising it with a machine gun and Union Jack. Wounded, he returned to Britain, established a mobile anti-aircraft unit and joined the Intelligence Corps, working undercover in the Caucasus before getting captured by the Turks and imprisoned until late 1921.
It is difficult to judge just how much time Jean and Toby spent together. On her return from the United States, Jean had turned to more serious acting but at the start of the war, she embarked on a series of ‘tartan revues’, touring Scotland and the north of England, giving benefit concerts to support the war effort. In 1918 Jean starred in her second and final silent film, playing the Mother Superior in The Greatest Wish in the World. In the same year Dion Titheradge wrote Something to his Advantage, for her. It ran at the Euston Theatre and the Coventry Hippodrome and one reviewer remarked that: "There may not be much of a 'plot', but there is sufficient to bring out the remarkably fine qualities of Miss Aylwin".
Having had a ‘good war’, Jean seems to have disappeared from the stage for a couple of years. This coincides with the return of her husband Toby, his health wrecked by his time in Turkish prisons. Perhaps she took time off to help him to recuperate. However, the Rawlinsons were also without means and Jean returned to the stage in 1923, taking the predictable part of the Scottish maid, in one of the two rival productions of the musical play Polly at the Chelsea Theatre. However, by the end of the year, Jean had withdrawn from the production, announcing that she was going to travel to India and the Far East to work with the Wesleyan Missionary Society, combatting leprosy.
The reason for this sudden, complete change in career direction seems to be linked to her husband subsequently suing her for divorce on grounds of adultery, citing the composer of Polly, Hubert Bath as co-respondent.
The scandal fatally damaged Jean’s acting career. There is very little evidence that she actually made it to India or the Far East. Her nephew thought that she might have spent some time in a psychiatric hospital, possibly the Glasgow Royal, but there is no record of her there. Her father died in Gourock in 1926, so maybe she was with him then. Her name appeared in The Radio Times that year, when she sang and played the piano on the programme Scotch Tales and Songs for the BBC. And that is where we lose touch with Jean Aylwin, the Scottish actress.
She lived in and around London as Mrs Rawlinson, probably working as a housekeeper to a series of different employers. When she died near Margate in 1964, aged 79, her death certificate stated that she was a retired housekeeper.
Jean Aitken, the Edinburgh schoolgirl, who developed a starry ambition to tread the boards was not there. Jean Aylwin, the professional Scottish actress was not there either. Neither was Mrs Alfred Rawlinson.
A reviewer writing in 1906, soon after Jean began her career wrote:
“It is about two and a half years since Miss Aylwin, who is a native of Hawick on the border, made her entrance into the theatre, and the way in which she managed it proves she can think for herself.”
Perhaps that would be her epitaph, on a gravestone that she did not have.
Thanks to Heather Bain, Ethel Wilson's granddaughter, and Alastair Redpath of Project Hawick for their help with and enthusiasm for Jean's story.