F. Finch Smiles

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F. Finch-Smiles (b. Ramsgate, Kent, 17/09/1865 - d. Putney, London, 14/04/1944) was an actor.


Francis Augustine Finch Smiles was born in Ramsgate to John Finch Smiles and his wife, Caroline. His father was a medical doctor and his mother was the granddaughter of Anne Marie Grosholtz (1761-1850), better known as Madame Tussaud. At the time of the British Census of 1881, when he was just 15, he was clerk to an insurance broker, but according to the Canadian Census records of 1901, he came to North America in 1890. He may have done some acting as an amateur or even as a professional in England, because in the United States he initially toured with the theatrical company of Fanny Davenport and from 1891 with the celebrated Richard Mansfield, visiting many of the major cities. The repertoire included plays such as Beau Brummel, Prince Karl, Ten Thousand a Year, Don Juan and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. His parting with Mansfield was acrimonious and after supporting Carrie Turner at the Fifth Avenue Theatre in New York, in 1898 he returned to Canada, settling in Victoria, British Columbia. By the following year he was heavily involved in the local theatre scene, not only as elocutionist and actor but also as stage manager and occasional director for the Victoria Dramatic Club.

When the Anglo Boer War broke out, Finch-Smiles joined the Royal Canadian Regiment to fight in South Africa. The contingent arrived in Cape Town towards the end of November 1899 and on 18 February the following year he was wounded during the battle of Paardeberg. He was shot in the left knee, the bullet entering from the front and making its exit at the back, tearing a ligament. It was not life-threatening, but by September 1900 he was back in Victoria and resumed his theatrical career. In fact, the Dramatic Club honoured him by staging a benefit performance of The Private Secretary, with Finch-Smiles directing and playing the leading role. During this time he also became the proprietor of the short-lived The Outlook, “a fortnightly journal of local and general interest”. At some stage he married actress Isabel Pitt Lewis, but in 1901, when he was in South Africa, she was granted a divorce by the Canadian courts.

In fact, within a year of arriving back in British Columbia, he had returned to South Africa and in August 1901 he acted in An American Citizen for the Edwardes-Wheeler comedy company at the Theatre Royal in Durban. In 1902 he was General Director of what was then the Ramblers Hall in Bloemfontein and acted in The Colleen Bawn by Dion Boucicault for the Garrick Theatre Company. In 1904 he was living in Cape Town and his new wife, Hannah Emmeline Heeley-Pickard (1877-1928) gave birth to a boy called Basil. Unfortunately, in 1905, the baby died at the age of six months while the couple were visiting Umtali. Later that year they returned to England. For the next six years he toured the provinces with various stock companies, appearing in such plays as Charley’s Aunt (under the direction of Brandon Thomas), The Sailor’s Wedding, East Lynne and The Speckled Band. During this time his wife gave birth to two sons, Paul and John.

Always peripatetic, in June 1912 he returned to South Africa, with his wife and two young sons following in September. In 1914 their daughter, Iris, was born, while he acted in East Lynne and The Melting Pot. By 1916 he was in the town of Parys, in what was then the Orange Free State, where he was manager of the Recreation Department. Subsequently he returned to the stage, appearing in plays such as The Silence of Dean Maitland, Master and Man, The Thief, Land of Promise, Leah Kleschna and Camille at either the Palladium or the Standard Theatre, and in The Man Who came Back (1921), produced by H. Lane Bayliff, at His Majesty’s Theatre. In 1923 he appeared in the only film he made in South Africa, namely The Reef of Stars, based on the novel by H. De Vere Stacpoole and directed by Joseph Albrecht.

This may have inspired him to try his luck in the United States, because later that year he turned up as Finch Smiles in his first Hollywood film, entitled For Sale, directed by George Archainbaud. He played a butler and this was a part he played again and again in a number of his known subsequent films. His most significant role was as Austin in Harry O. Hoyt’s adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World (1925), though Austin is, of course, Professor Challenger’s butler. While in some films he wasn’t even credited, his directors included the likes of Clarence Brown, Maurice Tourneur, John Ford, Tod Browning and Sidney Franklin, and amongst his fellow actors were Mary Pickford, Laura La Plante, Greta Garbo, Norma Shearer and Lon Chaney. His last known film was The Last of Mrs. Cheyney, based on the play by Frederick Lonsdale, starring Norma Shearer and Basil Rathbone.

Hannah died in Los Angeles in 1928 and the following year Frank returned to Great Britain, accompanied by his three now almost adult children. At the age of 64 he apparently retired from the acting profession, as there seem to be no further stage or theatre credits for him. Curiously, the British website Find a Will, which gives the date of his death, refers to him as the Reverend Finch-Smiles. (FO)


Victoria Daily Colonist, 9 April 1899

Victoria Daily Colonist, 25 May 1899






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