In August last year I received an intriguing email from Ernest Huggins, a retired school teacher from London, Ontario. He had just come across our Dictionary of New Zealand biography entry on Mrs W. H. Foley, one of the varied band of entertainers who travelled round the country in the 19th century, bringing song, dance, poetry and spectacle into the lives of ordinary New Zealanders. Mrs Foley was a much-fêted actress, but somewhat elusive – when her biography was first published in 1990 we knew only her stage name, and had no details of where she was born, her early life or what happened to her after she apparently faded from the scene in 1867. That was about to change. Mrs Foley, Ernest told me, was his great-great-aunt, and his cousin, Zoe Cant, had details that could fill in some of the gaps: ‘She has quite a file on Mrs Foley, aka “Auntie Naughty” and I am sure would be delighted to share it with you.’
Indeed Zoe had a wealth of information on Mrs Foley. For starters, she knew her original name – Catherine Huggins – and had discovered that she was born into a family of actors in Lincolnshire, England around 1821. In 1843 Catherine Huggins gave birth to a son, Charles, and she married his father, Daniel Caparn, two years later. The family emigrated to Tasmania in 1847. Catherine ran a dress shop in Hobart for a while before she and Daniel separated. She went on her own to San Francisco; Daniel ended up in Honolulu, where he died in 1851. That same year, Catherine married William Henry Foley, ‘a charismatic clown, circus proprietor and theatrical entrepreneur’ in Sacramento. In 1855 they arrived in New Zealand with their circus, and Mrs Foley soon branched into acting. This was the point at which our original biography had started.
Realising that major amendments and additions would be needed, I contacted the author of the DNZB biography, Peter Downes. It turned out that, with the assistance of Catherine Bishop, a PhD student, and Ian Harding, another family historian, Peter had found out even more information about the feisty Mrs W. H. Foley. After the birth of a daughter, the Foleys had parted company in 1857, and some time later Catherine took up with her company’s new leading man, Vernon Webster, who confusingly also went by the name Lowten Lowten. In 1867 Catherine and Lowten embarked on an unsuccessful tour to Chile, followed by a period in England. In 1882 they married (bigamously, as William Foley was still alive), and the following year came back to New Zealand. They made a brief return to the stage, then retired to Napier to run a hotel. Catherine died there in 1887, and is buried in the Napier cemetery. Her gravestone gives no clue that she was once the celebrated Mrs W. H. Foley.
Peter’s revised version of the entry is now up on the site and makes a fascinating read. The discovery of all this rich new information is the result of some great collaborative detective work, made more impressive because of the many names Mrs Foley went by during her lifetime. Mrs W. H. Foley, aka Catherine Huggins, aka Catherine Caparn, aka Lucy Catherine Foley, aka Lucy Kate Lowten and Mrs Lowten Lowten, enjoyed her finest hours in New Zealand. It seems fitting that her bones now lie in New Zealand soil.
There is one more mystery I want to solve: what did she look like? If you have or know of the existence of a portrait of Mrs W. H. Foley that we could attach to her biography, I would love to hear from you!