A Objectionable Dress, 1909

Miss Minnie Cunningham, as depicted in the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 24 May 1890.

From the Donegal Independent, 14 May 1909 and the Irish News and Belfast Morning News, 8 May 1909:

“AN ACTRESS’S SKIRTS

The jury in the Nisi Prius Court, Dublin failed to agree to a verdict in an action brought by Miss Minnie Cunningham, burlesque actress, against two companies owning theatres in Dublin and Belfast, and were discharged.

Miss Cunningham had been engaged to play the principal girl in the pantomime of ‘Jack and Jill’, which was produced last Christmas season in Belfast and subsequently in Dublin.

Her action claimed damages for alleged breach of that agreement.

The principal question in the case was whether the dresses supplied to her were too short. 

Mr Healy KC, leading counsel for the defendants, addressing Lord Chief Justice O’Brien, said that Serjeant Moriarty, who appeared for Miss Cunningham, had made the suggestion that it would be an advisable thing if the plaintiff would put on the dresses that she had objected to.

The Lord Chief Justice said he was about to make the suggestion himself.

‘I think,’ he said, ‘the jury should see those dresses on the lady.’

Serjeant Moriarty – It is a most admirable suggestion.  If the truth is on my side, it must appear in that way.

The plaintiff, her mother and Miss Scott, wardrobe mistress, retired.

The Lord Chief Justice said the question in the case was if, in fact, the dresses were indecent, irrespective of the plaintiff’s opinion and the opinion of the defendant.

Serjeant Moriarty – that is the question, I think.

Mr. Healy – That is quite right, but we will submit that, the plaintiff in the first instance having violated the contract in not attending rehearsal, her opinion on the point is of no value.  This is in our pleadings.

The Court then adjourned for half an hour.

On the court resuming, the Lord Chief Justice invited the jury to ask any questions they wished as to whether the dresses were altered or not since they were first given to the plaintiff.  It would be a terrible thing if a lady should be asked to wear an objectionable dress.  On the other hand, it would be a horrible thing, that a man who is in a public position, a stage manager, should try to get rid of a lady by forcing an objectionable dress upon her.  He would like to know if Mr. Healy saw one of the dresses on the lady.

Hr. Healy said he had.

Miss Scott, wardrobe mistress to one of the defendant companies, Warden, Limited, Belfast, stated in reply to Mr. Healy, that she had considerable expertise as she had acted for Mr. George Alexander, Miss Ada Reeve and others.

Since she saw the dress which had just been fitted on Miss Cunningham, in Belfast, it was not altered or shortened in any way.  She was quite clear about that.

The witness, in answer to Mr. Healy, said the dresses had come from the Bristol pantomime, and she had altered them to suit Miss Cunningham. 

Mr Healy -You would not be a party to any indecency in dress? Certainly not.

Witness further stated that when Miss Cunningham complained that the dresses were too short, she (the witness) said they were not and that she had made them according to her own measurement.  Miss Cunningham tried on the dresses again, and Mr. Warden came in, and he failed to see anything the matter with them.  Miss Cunningham was very cross about it, and she said she was not used to wearing small dresses and that she would not wear these.  She also said she was not used to going in rags.  Miss Cunningham was very unhappy, and she did not seem to like any of the dresses.

Miss Cunningham, from the Sketch, 4 October 1893.

‘I said,’ continued witness, ‘that I was willing to get more material, and that I would do anything for her.  I told her I would make a new little skirt for her.’

The Lord Chief Justice – What prevented that from being done?

Witness – I don’t know.  Mr. Warden was willing to alter it a little, for to make the dress long would make the character ridiculous.  Miss Cunningham wanted the dress to be three quarter length, but that would not suit a child’s part.

Witness, in further evidence, said Miss Cunningham had told her subsequently that she had given up the part.  Witness said that was a pity, as she thought the pantomime without Miss Cunningham would not be a pantomime.  She thought Miss Cunningham a very clever artiste.

The Lord Chief Justice – Whatever the result of this action will be, her reputation will remain as a very clever artiste.

Miss Cunningham’s part had been given to Miss Fink.

Some discussion took place as to the measurements of Miss Cunningham and Miss Fink, and it was suggested that they stand on the table in the court in the presence of the jury.

Serjeant Moriarty – Let them take off their boots.

Mr. Healy – I really think it is their hats that should be removed.

The Lord Chief Justice: And the jury agrees.  Let the ladies take off their hats and boots.

Miss Cunningham and Miss Fink, as depicted in the Irish Independent, 8 May 1909.

The two actresses, minus hats and boots, then stood upon the table side by side, and afterwards back-to-back.

The foreman of the jury – Miss Cunningham is undoubtedly the taller.

Mr. FW Warden was then examined by Mr. Healy, and he stated that he was the managing director of Warden, Limited, and carried on business in Belfast and Dublin. He had been in the theatre business all his life, and he had never had a case like this before.  The pantomime was visited by 74,000 people. ‘Jill’ was the part of the Princess, disguised as ‘Jill,’ and of course was a girl’s part.  Having obtained the services of Miss Dorothy Ward for the ‘boy’s’ part, he thought Miss Cunningham would suit the ‘girl’s’ part admirably.  She was an artiste of great talent and was one of the greatest favorites in Ireland.  She was well known in Belfast – her name was attractive – a household word in fact. 

The witness then detailed the circumstances under which he engaged Miss Cunningham at a salary of £30 per week.  It was usual in his company for the artistes to attend rehearsals free, but Miss Cunningham would not, and he gave way.  The plaintiff said to him ‘You have engaged Miss Dorothy Ward?’ He said ‘Yes.’  She said, ‘She is a great favorite in Belfast and Dublin.’  He replied that Miss Ward had made an enormous success in his last pantomime, and he hoped she would repeat it.  Miss Cunningham hesitated, and, after several questions had passed between them, she said, ‘I don’t think I would like to be in the same pantomime as Miss Ward.  She would outshine me.’  He said, ‘Nonsense. You are one of the greatest artistes that come to Ireland.’ 

At a subsequent interview he asked Miss Cunningham what she intended to do – was she going to carry out her threat not to appear in the pantomime.  She replied, ‘If I have to wear these dresses, I do not intend to play the part.’  He told her he would not alter them, and Miss Cunningham said, ‘I don’t want you or your d— part either.’ And she handed him the book part. 

The Lord Chief Justice – Did she use that expression?

Witness – Yes, she said ‘I don’t want you nor your d— part either. That was the exact expression she used to me on the stage of the theatre.’

Witness further stated that, luckily, Miss Fink was in Belfast at the time, and he engaged her for the part.  Her terms were £15 a week.  In his opinion the dresses in question were not in any way improper.

The witness was cross-examined at some length by Serjeant Moriarty and admitted that Miss Cunningham had on numerous times said to him that the dresses were too short, although they were very dainty and nice otherwise.

Mr. Thomas Hill, who was assistant stage manager during the production of the pantomime, was examined by Mr. Hanna, and stated that on the Wednesday, when they were at rehearsal in Belfast, Miss Cunningham went to Mr. Warden and said, ‘Can I have this song here?’ indicating a particular part of the performance.  Mr. Warden said, ‘My dear Miss Cunningham, no.’ (Laughter) She said, ‘I don’t seem as if I had got anything to do in the pantomime at all.’

Miss Cunningham, the witness went on to say, seemed to be always by herself, and not speaking to any of the other members of the company.  He further deposed to having heard Miss Cunningham say to Mr. Warden, ‘I don’t want you or your d—- part.’

At this point, Miss Cunningham was recalled and in reply to the Lord Chief Justice, denied emphatically that she ever used the words ‘your d— part.’

The next witness was Mr. John McMahon, who acted as stage manager during the pantomime, and who had come from Stockton-on-Tees to give evidence.  Questioned as to what he heard about the dresses, he stated that Mr. Warden told Miss Cunningham she could wear the Colleen’s dress in the song ‘Connemara.’

‘That’s all,’ added witness, ‘I heard about dresses.’  Being examined as to the demeanour of Miss Cunningham at the rehearsals, witness expressed the opinion that she did not put enough ‘go’ into the lines.  The part perhaps was not strong enough.

Miss Edith Fink, in reply to Mr. Hanna, for the defendant, stated that she was approached by Mr. Warden on Friday morning, the 18th, in Belfast – that was after Miss Cunningham had definitely thrown up her part – to play the part of ‘Jill’ in the pantomime in Belfast and afterwards in Dublin.

During the entire time in Belfast and Dublin, did you wear these dresses that Miss Cunningham had objected to? -Yes

The Lord Chief Justice – Is the length of the dresses the same? Exactly.

The Lord Chief Justice – Are you quite sure no alteration was made in the length of the dresses at all? Oh, no.

Mr. Hanna – Was there anything improper or indecent in the dress s worn by you?  No.

Mr. Hanna – You would not suggest that in December last you were as popular in Ireland as Miss Cunningham?  No, I had never played in Belfast before.

The Lord Chief Justice – Miss Cunningham is very popular and an excellent artiste in every way, I believe.

In cross-examination by Mr. Powell, the witness said that the dresses in question were altered for her from what they were made to fit Miss Cunningham.

Mr. George Miller, who had played the part of the ‘Widow Cobble’ in ‘Jack and Jill’ said, in his opinion, there was nothing indecent or improper in the dresses.

Mr. Chambers, also for the defendant, addressed the jury at the conclusion of the evidence, and Mr. Powell replied for the plaintiff.

The Lord Chief justice proceeded to address the jury.  Dealing with the facts of the case, he said the only question the jury had to consider was as to whether the dresses were so short as to be indecent.

The case was a singular one in some respects.  He had never heard a plaintiff so praised as Miss Cunningham was, and he was sure, as a general proposition, it was well deserved.  She seemed to have been a great success at her profession, and whatever might be the result of the present case, he thought she had got a great advertisement (Laughter) because there had been a chorus of praise for that interesting lady. He impressed the jury not to allow themselves to be run away on one side or the other, but to calmly do justice.

It was just half past four o’clock when the jury retired.

After thirty-five minutes deliberation, the jury disagreed and were discharged.”

Miss Cunningham, leaving court with her solicitor Mr Christopher Friery, again from the Irish Independent, 8 May 1909.

Miss Cunningham, who retired from the stage c.1916, is also known for being the muse of Walter Sickert, artist, suspected by some to be the infamous Jack the Ripper.  More about their interesting relationship can be found here.

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