I never imagined that a strange public notice about the estate of a woman in Cheshire, would lead me on a trail to an actor from the era of silent movies.
The London Gazette on March 7, 1924 published a notice from by a firm of solicitors inviting claims against the estate of their client who had died the previous year.
What struck me as odd was that the client was referred to as Lilian Heenan but in parenthesis it was suggested she could also have been known as Lilian Leslie. Was Leslie her maiden name I wondered or was it the surname adopted upon a second marriage?
I set out to find some answers.
A quick check of civil registration of deaths shows that a woman called Lilian Heenan died in 1923 at the age of 36. The death was registered in Birkenhead district, Cheshire in the third quarter of 1923. There were no other people by that surname whose death was registered anywhere else in England during the period corresponding to the date in the public notice, so i can be sure I had the right person.
That would mean she was born about 1887.
Probate records confirmed this. The probate registry gave her date of death as 17 Sept 1923 and her residence as number 53 Trafalgar Road – the exact same details as shown in the public notice.
The probate record provided some additional information. One that she was the wife of Richard Heenan and the second that administration of her estate valued at £221 was granted to Robert Noble, a merchant.
Both these facts raised even more questions. Why wasn’t her husband the administrator of her estate? Who was Robert Noble and what was his connection to Lilian Heenan?
Marriage to Richard Heenan
A search of civil registration marriage records turned up a marriage between Lilian Noble and Richard Heenan in Cheshire registration district in 1909. So now the connection to the Robert Noble mentioned in the probate record, made sense.
Initially I thought that Richard Heenan had pre-deceased his wife but though I went back to 1909 I couldn’t find any death record in England, Wales or Scotland of anyone by that name. Nor could I find a probate record for him.
The couple were missing from the 1911 census and there were no births of children with the surname of Heenan recorded in England and Wales between 1901 and 1923 where the mother’s maiden name was Heenan.
So I widened the search and found the couple as passengers on the SS Campania which left Liverpool on October 30, 1909 and arrived in New York on 6 November. Richard was described as 28 years old and occupied as as “comm”. (I suspect that’s an abbreviation for commercial). His wife was then 23 years old. The couple were recorded as recently living in Seacombe, Cheshire but were now intending to make their home in Camden, New Jersey.
The next record of this couple comes via in the 1915 census for New York. They are living in E14 Street, Brooklyn with two sons, both born in USA. Richard’s occupation caught my attention:
Richard Heenan, head, aged 34, born England,, Resident in USA for six years. Status of alien. Occupation of actor.
Lillian Heenan, wife aged 28, Resident in USA for six years. Status of alien. Occupation – housework
Richard Heenan, son, aged 5, born in USA, status of citizen . Resident for 5 years
Robert Heenan, son, aged 1, born in USA, status of citizen, resident for 1 year
A Career In Films
What kind of actor was Richard Heenan? There was a clue in the information provided when he registered the birth of his son Robert in the year prior to that census. In that document, Richard Heenan is described as 33 years old and has an occupation of “moving pictures artist”.
This would have put him into the midst of the boom period for the film industry in the United States. From about 1906 purpose-built cinemas for motion pictures had started to open up in larger cities, showing a 30-minute programme of short films. It was the era of the “silent film”; which reached its height from around the 1910s to late 1920s.
By about 1910, actors began to receive screen credit for their roles. Was Richard Heenan listed in any of the films made during this period.
The short answer is yes. But not under the name of Richard Heenan. For some reason he adopted the name of Richard Leslie for his film career.
There are more than 23 films in which he appeared between 1912 and 1915, mostly in small roles. The film database imdb.com describes him thus
Beau Brummel didn’t endear itself to the critics. Moving Picture World on 8 March 1913 said the lead actor had given a “delightfully engaging portrait” but there was no clear story to the film and little suspense.
A more recent viewer mentioned Richard Leslie’s performance in a different film – What A Change of Clothes Did (1913) as one of the highlights of the film. “My favorite character was actually the butler (Richard Leslie), who’s only in two scenes, but he provided a nice, subtle bit of comic relief that made me smile.”
I think it’s possible Richard’s first son Robert made appearances in some of the films as a child actor. In one film from 1915 called The Conquest of Constantia there is a role of Teddy played by Dick Leslie Jr. The description of the film and a still from one scene shows clearly indicates Teddy was a child so could not have been played by the 34 year old Richard Heenan. His son Robert would have been 5 years old at the time.
The Curtain Falls?
In May that year, the Evening Ledger – an evening newspaper in Philadelphia – published an advert on a page of updates and gossip about the latest films and their stars. Richard Leslie’s name appears under the heading “Vitagraph Prominent Personages.”
Vitagraph – also known as the Vitagraph Company of America – was a Brooklyn based company that had grown by 1907, to be the most prolific American film production company, producing many famous silent films. But World War I spelled the beginning of the end for the company. With the loss of foreign distributors and the rise of the monopolistic Studio system, Vitagraph was slowly squeezed out of the business. It was sold to Warner Brothers in 1925.
Was the dwindling fortunes of Vitagraph – the studio for whom Richard Heenan made all is films, behind his decision to leave the United States and return to England in 1919? Richard Heenan , now 38 years old, his wife Lilian, and sons Richard (aged 9) and Robert (aged 5) arrived at Liverpool on the SS Carmania in June that year. Their stated destination was 2 The Promenade, Seacombe, Cheshire. His parents had been living in Seacombe – though at a different address – in 1911 at the time of the census. Did this influence Richard’s choice of location for their new home.
What happened between then and his wife’s death in 1923 is a mystery. On the passenger list in 1919 he was described as an actor so presumably his intention was to find work in that capacity in the UK. But .I’ve not located any records of a Richard Leslie or Richard Heenan taking on acting roles in England or Wales, though this doesn’t necessarily mean he wasn’t involved.
It wouldn’t have been easy to find work in the UK film industry however.
In the 1920s there were a few studios such as Cricklewood Studios in London but they faced heavy competition from the USA. By 1926 only 5% of all films shown in UK cinemas were British made. A slump in 1924 caused many British studios to close. Did Richard Heenan return to the USA to try to rekindle his career in its much larger film industry ? Or did he find a different occupation?
All we know with any certainty is that he died before 1940. On 13 May that year the Liverpool Echo published an announcement of the marriage of his younger son Robert Leslie
May 11, at Great Sutton, Robert Leslie, younger son of the late Mr and Mrs Richard Heenan, Brooklyn New York, to Rayda, only daughter of Mr and Mrs G F Cash, Great Sutton.
My research has answered some of the questions I started with.
I know now that the public notice relating to Lilian Heenan used Leslie as an alternative surname because that was how her husband was known for some years.
I know that the administrator of her estate was a relation on her side of the family – possibly a brother.
What I don’t know is whether her husband was still alive at the time of her death. If he was, the fact he was not named as her administrator suggests they were separated. But where was he?
I also don’t know why he chose the surname of Leslie as his stage surname. It wasn’t his father’s name nor that of any of his siblings.
All of these questions are going to take further research. As always information that can shed more light on the individuals mentioned here, will be welcomed.