Catherine Huggins – early days
Almost all historical references just relate to “Mrs W H Foley” without revealing her actual first name or original surname. Born in Louth, Lincolnshire in early 1821, she was baptised Catherine Huggins – her father Benjamin Edward Huggins and mother Frances Pierce. Both parents were actors who toured the UK.
In March 1843, her first child was born – Charles Pierce Huggins. On 17 September 1845 at St Pancras Church, London, she married Daniel Caparn.
In 1847 the family emigrated to Tasmania where Foley became a dressmaker and milliner in Hobart.
Clearly, the marriage did not go well once in Australia. By November 1848, Daniel Caparn publicly gave notice that he would not be responsible for his wife’s debts.
Daniel and Catherine subsequently went their own ways.
A few years later in 1851, Daniel Caparn died in Honolulu. Their son Charles was subsequently taken care of by a Mr Jones.
Meanwhile, on 26 June 1849, Mrs Caparn left for San Francisco on the schooner John Bull – possibly attracted by the excitement of the California Gold Rush.
Marriage to William Foley
In California, Catherine met William Henry Foley, and within 2 years of leaving Australia and her first husband, they were married.
On his son John’s birth certificate, William recorded in 1860 that he and his first wife (i.e. Catherine) had one living daughter, Willelmina Foley, and two non-surviving children. To date, no record has been found for the birth of these children.
Mrs W. H. Foley – actress, singer, entertainer
Peter Downes has written quite extensively about Mrs W.H. Foley in Shadows on the Stage and Top of the Bill. The information in these two books is summarised in the following extract from the Te Ara: the Encyclopaedia of New Zealand.
Her first reported stage appearance took place in Sacramento on the 23rd of that month when, as Mrs W. H. Foley, she performed in a song-and-dance troupe sharing the bill with one of her husband’s more elaborate imported showpieces, A Great American Panorama of New York City.
The Foleys presented plays and other entertainments to enthusiastic audiences in Hawaii in late 1851 and 1852, and in December 1852 sailed from Honolulu to Australia. After stage and circus shows in Sydney and Melbourne they ventured to New Zealand with their Victoria Circus, landing in Nelson on 13 September 1855. Here Mrs Foley made her New Zealand début, joining her husband in the circus ring for some ‘comic duets in character’ on 29 September. Undoubtedly surmising she could do better than this, she left the circus, made her way to Auckland on her own, and quickly established herself as an actor of considerable accomplishments.
With a fine instinct for publicity and a large repertoire of comedies, farces, historical plays and melodramas, she soon had audiences crowding the tiny Military Theatre to the point of discomfort. She was supported first by some local amateurs led by one of the pioneers of theatre in Auckland, George Buckingham. Later she joined a group of itinerant professionals that her husband, now reunited with her, had brought from Sydney to play at the Theatre Royal in Auckland. This new theatre had been built at the instigation of William Foley and was opened on 3 March 1856 with what was almost certainly the first production of a Shakespearean play in New Zealand, Othello. Mrs Foley’s name headed the cast list.
By the end of 1856 the Foley ménage had moved to Wellington, where Mrs Foley was to enjoy her greatest triumphs. Long seasons during the next ten years were interspersed with successful tours to Lyttelton, Christchurch, Wanganui, Dunedin and Napier. She and her husband parted company in October 1857 but she did not appoint a new permanent leading man, Vernon Webster, until May 1860. He quickly established himself as an excellent partner for his much-praised employer.
It appears that Vernon Webster was a stage name adopted in New Zealand by 28-year-old Lowten Lowten, an experienced amateur actor originally from Liverpool. Numbering top-ranking professional actors among his friends and colleagues, Lowten had been an active member and for some years president of the élite Liverpool Literary and Dramatic Society. He came to New Zealand in early 1858 with his brother Harry, and they farmed at Porirua before Lowten’s return to the stage.
Usually Mrs Foley and her company presented popular plays and variety shows but on occasion they would perform a more substantial work, such as a Shakespearean play. Mrs Foley’s repertoire was extremely large, even at a time when the average actor was expected to have a wide selection of characters ready for instant portrayal. That she had so many roles at her command testifies to enormous industry and versatility. She must also have had considerable stamina. In one evening she presented 14 characters in excerpts from as many plays, then performed a group of popular songs and ended by playing the lead part in a farce.
During the final years of Mrs Foley’s stay in New Zealand public taste was changing. More touring companies from overseas were adding a new dimension to colonial entertainment and there was a growing demand for something different. After 10 years as the acknowledged favourite of New Zealand theatre, Mrs Foley’s popularity was beginning to wane. On 10 December 1866 she gave the last of three farewell performances in Wellington and the following month took the leading roles in some plays for the Garrick Club in Wanganui. Six months later, on 3 July 1867, she and Vernon Webster left New Zealand on the Lieutenant, bound for Guam and Valparaiso, Chile.
There is no doubt that for most of the 15 years she resided in New Zealand Mrs W. H. Foley was a star. She introduced many people to dramatic productions and whenever she appeared settlers crowded into the little halls which passed for theatres to experience the much-publicised magic of her performances. Afterwards, newspaper reporters used their most extravagant adjectives to describe her, possibly exaggerating her talent. But for the mostly unsophisticated men and women who flocked to see her on stage, she provided a rare opportunity to forget for an hour or two the harsh realities of colonial life. To these people standards were of no importance. As far as they were concerned, Mrs Foley represented the acme of theatrical artifice, and they loved her for it.
Peter Downes. ‘Foley, Mrs W. H.’, first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol. 1, 1990, and updated online in April, 2015. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/biographies/1f13/foley-mrs-w-h (accessed 20 July 2017)
Return to New Zealand and final days
The Lowten’s time in South America may not have gone well and there is not much known about this time. At some stage, they travelled to the United Kingdom. By June 1873, however, Lowten Lowten was living in Liverpool where he and his brother Thomas had set an ale business.
Lowten Lowten and Lucy C Lowten are recorded in the United Kingdom 1881 Census, living in Elm Vale, West Derby, Lancashire, England. Living with them is Elizabeth Maciver, servant aged 21.
Lowten is recorded as married, age 48 – estimated year of birth 1883 in Frodsham, Cheshire, with an occupation of Ale & Porter Merchant. There is a christening record for 29 May 1832 with father Thomas Lowten Lowten and mother Anna Maria.
Lucy C is recorded as his wife, age 59 and born in Louth, Lincolnshire.
They actually married on 11 May 1882 in West Derby, Lancashire (marriage index record). The marriage record gives her name as Lucy Catherine Foley, widow, daughter of Benjamin Huggins, deceased. At this time, William Foley was still alive, so the widow claim was false. The Huggins family was noted for changing names and Catherine had taken to using Lucy as her first name.
In December 1883, Mr and Mrs Lowton left England on the Lady Jocelyn, and returned to New Zealand, disembarking in Napier.
Peter Downs recorded that:
From 29 February ‘Mr and Mrs Lowten Lowten’ began staging some ‘drawing room entertainments’ at the Napier Theatre Royal and in nearby towns. On 21 April 1884 a nearly identical programme was given in Wanganui, billed as by ‘Mrs W. H. Foley and Vernon Webster’.
The Huggins family was noted for changing names and Catherine was no exception. From at least 1863 she had been using Lucy as her first name and was signing herself as ‘L. K. Foley’. The certificate of her marriage to Lowten gives her name as Lucy Catherine Foley, widow, daughter of Benjamin Huggins, deceased. Presenting herself as widowed could have had legal consequences as W. H. Foley was still alive, though living several thousand miles away. He did not die until 1885.
Peter Downes has noted that the performance in Wanganui was the last given by the couple, and the names of Mrs W. H. Foley and Vernon Webster disappeared from public view. The couple returned to Napier where, in December 1884, Lowten took over the ownership of the Royal Hotel.
Lucy Kate Lowten died at Napier on 4 March 1887 and was buried in the Napier cemetery. Reports of her death and the inscription on her gravestone give no indication that she had once been the celebrated stage artist known as Mrs W. H. Foley. Her death certificate noted that she had no surviving children but this may not be correct. Her son Charles Caparn and a daughter, Wilhelmina Foley (who was born in the 1850s), could still have been alive.
After his wife’s death Lowten Lowten sold the Royal Hotel and moved away from Napier. He died in Kaponga, South Taranaki, on 24 August 1891.