What does Nellie Melba, the Australian singing sensation, have to do with Shawnigan Lake?

Charlie Armstrong (Nellie Melba Museum)

What do Peach Melba and Melba Toast have in common? Both were named after world renowned Australian singer Nellie Melba. And?, you ask, what could that possibly have to do with the history of Shawnigan Lake? Read on…

Nellie Melba was born Helen Porter Mitchell in 1861. Both of her parents were musical and she studied music from an early age.  In 1882, she married a handsome adventurer named Charlie Armstrong. Charlie, the son of a Baronet, was the manager of a sugar mill in Australia. The marriage was a mistake from the start and, two months after their son George was born (1883), Nellie left Charlie never to return.

In 1884, Nellie decided to become a professional singer and, after studying with well respected teacher Mathilde Marchesi, she had her debut in Brussels in 1887. She then went on to conquer London and Paris and eventually the world. She reportedly had the voice of an angel with a near perfect two and a half octave range. It was Marchesi who encouraged her to adopt the stage name of Melba – an abbreviation of her home town of Melbourne. In 1902, she returned to Australia for a concert tour. She was welcomed as a “Superstar”.

In 1890, she met the Duke of Orleans and embarked on a steamy affair. Still married to Charlie at the time, he threatened a messy scandal, by making public the sordid details of the affair, if she did not give him a divorce. Well aware that a scandal could finish her career and end her high society lifestyle, Nellie agreed to a quiet divorce in 1900.

In an attempt to put as much distance as possible between himself and Nellie, Charlie moved to Shawnigan Lake and lived a very quiet life. Charlie lived at Shawnigan for close to forty years on the property that is now the George Pringle Memorial Camp. There, he attempted to raise sheep. There was no road to his farm and he was often seen rowing across the lake to pick up mail and supplies. Other times, he was a fine sight as he stood in his motorized boat and traversed the lake. In the winter he would walk across the ice carrying a twenty foot pole in case he fell in…which happened more than once. He was reputed to be a fine horseman and an eccentric, domesticated bachelor. He enjoyed making his own bread and exchanging recipes with local housewives. The son of Nellie and Charlie (George) often visited his father at Shawnigan Lake. Nellie Melba never did. Charlie Armstrong died, in 1948, at the age of 90 in Victoria.

Nellie became a celebrity of international status. She was made Dame of the British Empire in 1918 and elevated to Dame Grand Cross in the order in 1927. She became the highest paid artist of her time and often made the equivalent of more than $250,000 (current value) per concert. She was one of the first singers to recognize the potential in the gramophone and made over two hundred recordings. She insisted on her own colored label and that her record should sell for $1 more than that of any other artist. She is reported to have said that there was no sense having a perfect voice if one didn’t have intelligence, magnetism, single-mindedness, health, strength and determination. Nellie was a demanding, temperamental diva and a liberated woman who was well aware of the importance of image. Ironically, she died in 1931 after failed cosmetic surgery.

She lived her life by the following motto (her words): The first rule in opera is the first rule of life: see to everything yourself.

To learn more about local history visit the Shawnigan Lake Museum at 1775 Shawnigan-Mill Bay Road.    Hours: Friday (summer only), Saturday & Sunday Noon – 4.     Phone: 743-8675

Email:  shawniganlakemuseum@shaw.ca

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