LIVES – SYDNEY DESMOND TESTER
Researched and written by Jeremy Palmer.
Sydney Desmond Tester was a child actor who acted under the name Desmond Tester and lived in Surrey Gardens at Effingham Junction from the mid-1930s.
He would enjoy a long film, television and stage career, firstly in the UK and then in Australia. During the 1930s he was both critically lauded for his stage roles and worked for film directors of the highest calibre.
He was born on February 17th 1919 in Old Court, Ealing, the second child of Ernest William Tester (born in 1877) and Henrietta Charlotte Blofeld (born on March 6th 1881). They had married on January 28th 1916 and their first child Anne Veronica Blofeld Tester was born on March 14th 1917, also in Ealing. Their marriage certificate stated that Ernest’s profession was as a broker in Cairo, Egypt.
Ernest enlisted on June 24th 1916 aged 39 but was discharged on October 23rd 1917 as no longer physically fit to serve. He seems to have served as a porter then later as a clerk. The 1918 Electoral Register finds him living with Henrietta at her parents’ home 84, Palace Court in Westminster. Henrietta’s mother died in 1920 and in 1921 only her father, Sydney Blofeld, was still living there.
Information on the Tester family is then lacking until 1926. It was then that the truth started to emerge about who Desmond’s father, Ernest William Tester, really was. He turned out to be a career criminal, with convictions dating back to 1898 when he had been gaoled for four months for fraudulently receiving tyres destined for racing cycles. The following article published in The People on October 30th 1927 summarises his criminal career:
whilst this report in The Scotsman on October 27th 1927 about his trial included the following details on what Ernest had been doing in Cairo:
“Detective-Inspector Greer said that some years ago Tester formed a company to take over Ciro’s Club in Cairo. This place was frequented by officers of the forces but it was largely used for gaming and after a time Tester left hurriedly. His wife who had invested £1000 in the venture lost her money and subsequently Tester left her.”
Ernest then moved on to large-scale forgery. The caper for which he was currently being tried began with an inside man, named as Edmund Henry Hammond, who was a clerk working for a firm who acted for the London Equitable Trust. He worked in the room where the company’s documents were kept including blank share certificates. These he stole for Ernest. He was also in a position to answer queries and forge signatures and the seal of the company. Thus they produced fake share certificates. Ernest, when arrested, was charged with forging 2458 cumulative participating preference shares of £10 each, and another forged document which certified that he was the registered proprietor of 400 preference shares at £10 each, all for the Equitable Trust.
Through these forged shares Ernest and Hammond were able to raise £11,000. Eventually the forged documents fell into the hands of one of the directors of the Equitable Trust and the frauds were discovered and stopped.
In May 1926 Ernest and Hammond believed the crime had been blown. Hammond fled to France. Ernest absconded to Ireland but in early June was among others arrested anyway as part of the Dublin Company and Sports Club case.
Here Ernest and others had floated a company in Ireland called Irish Attractions Limited, its purpose being to run a big sweepstake on the Derby and offer £20,000 in prize money. The scheme was stopped by the Irish police and Ernest and the other directors were arrested. He was released on bail of £500. He then went to Leeds, obtained £8000 from a business firm there and fled to France. The Dublin Evening Herald of June 18th 1926 reported that a warrant for the arrest of company director Ernest William Tester of the Old Colony Club, Aldwych House, London had been issued. He was eventually arrested in Boulogne and sent for trial at the Old Bailey in October 1927. He was found guilty and sent down for four years.
Where Henrietta and her two children Desmond and Anne were living during this time is currently unknown. However from 1935 Desmond’s mother Charlotte Tester (dropping her first name), moved into a property called Speedwell in Surrey Gardens at Effingham Junction. Desmond would live thereabouts for at least the next ten years. This is corroborated in a letter from former Effingham resident Michael Waller who remembered Desmond living in Surrey Gardens.
Stage and Film
By 1935 Desmond was already established on stage and making his first steps onto the silver screen. According to his obituary in the Sydney Morning Herald (published on January 16th 2003) he had been spotted at age 12 by a talent scout when accompanying his sister to ballet lessons (see below for more information on Anne Veronica). An alternative story is that the formidable actress-manager Nancy Price had noticed his shock of red hair and given him his first credited role as Robin in the People’s National Theatre production of The Merry Wives of Windsor, opening at the Duchess theatre on December 16th 1931 and pictured opposite (Daily Mirror, December 30th 1931):
Further roles marked him out as a remarkable new talent, as demonstrated by the extract below from a review of the play “Whatever happened to George” staged at the Wyndham Theatre in 1933:
In March 1934 Desmond was cast in “Nurse Cavell” starring Nancy Price at the Vaudeville – the programme can be viewed here:
A month later he took the lead in “Emil and the Detectives” at the same theatre. He finished the year playing the lead in a BBC radio broadcast of Oliver Twist.
His first credited film role was in the quota quickie “Midshipman Easy” (director Carol Reed, 1935) but in 1936 he obtained his first significant role in Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller “Sabotage”. He played the precocious Stevie, fated to carry a bomb across London on a bus in the film’s most notorious and still shocking sequence. Hitchcock later regretted sending Stevie to his doom, as he felt it broke an unspoken pact with the audience. Nonetheless it builds with remarkable tension to its climax, and Desmond’s guileless playing with a fellow bus passenger’s little dog – which he did not like doing as he thought he was competing with the dog for the audience’s sympathy – while nervously checking the time as the bus is held up in traffic, demonstrates what a clever child actor he was.
Desmond would make a further eight British movies up to 1947, for directors as notable as Alexander Korda (“The Drum” in 1938, playing a drummer boy who befriends and Indian prince on the NorthWest Frontier of India) and Robert Stephenson (“Nine Days A Queen” in 1934 and “Non-Stop New York” in 1937). “Nine Days a Queen” included in its cast an actor named Edward Dignon who at the time happened to live close by to Desmond in a property named St Theresa’s Cottage in Surrey Gardens. Michael Waller described him in his oral history thus:
“He used to walk with a bit of a stoop and he talked very quietly and I think he fantasised a lot. And he used to walk to the Catholic church in Effingham and back. He was a regular church-goer.”
In 1939 Desmond appeared in the film “An Englishman’s Home” (also known as “Madmen over Europe”) based on a sensational 1909 play written anonymously by Guy du Maurier, the brother of its producer Sir Gerald du Maurier. The scene pictured opposite appeared in The Sketch on October 4th 1939.
The story concerns an attack on England by a foreign power identified as “Nearland”, generally assumed to represent Germany. The home of an ordinary middle-class family named Brown is besieged by Nearlander soldiers, and the play climaxes with the father shooting an enemy officer and subsequently being executed as the invaders triumph. The 1939 film took this as its basis but added a German spy who is despatched to Britain to search out targets for a planned invasion. The spy, posing as a wireless salesman, ingratiates himself into the Browns’ house, and sets up a large radio transmitter with which to send information back to the Germans. Desmond plays the naïve son of the Brown family, excited by the possibilities of wireless technology but oblivious to how it is being used.
Immediately afterwards he joined the cast of “The Stars Look Down”, seen in this image published in The Nottingham Evening Post on August 21st 1939.
It was filmed in August 1939 by Carol Reed and starred his old mentor Nancy Price.
This was a socially conscious movie concerning tragedy and injustice in a mining community in north-east England. Even with an enormous budget of £100,000, which was spent on a huge set and recreation of a pithead, the film was a financial success and was received especially well in America.
War and Conscience
The opening of these two films at the end of 1939 coincided with Desmond, aged only 20, declaring himself to be a conscientious objector, as reported in the article on the right, published on November 10th in the Manchester Evening News.
It is especially notable that he did not object only to combat. He objected also to propaganda films and even entertaining wounded soldiers in hospital. If this decision did not halt his career entirely, it certainly threw a large spanner in the works and was merely the first of a number of abrupt changes which Desmond made throughout his subsequent life. He would not appear in another film until 1946. Two weeks later on November 25th he addressed the Leatherhead and Ashstead Group of the Peace Pledge Union on why he had become a conscientious objector, as advertised in The Dorking and Leatherhead Advertiser on the 24th:
He moved to Bookham to work on a farm, with his address given in the many newspapers which reported the story as Bayfield Cottages, Maddox Lane in Little Bookham. In September 1943 a “Sidney Desmond Tester” was mentioned as living in a caravan in Hanley’s Orchard, Bookham Common and working as a tractor driver, having been the subject of a theft. The loss of his income might have also caused his mother to let out Speedwell, as the 1939 England and Wales Register shows a family named Carter living there. Newspaper reports from 1941 and 1942 mention a Miss Carter, secretary of the newly formed Effingham Junction Women’s Institute, as contactable at Speedwell, Surrey Gardens.
Desmond Tester’s sister, Anne Veronica (who would drop her first name and be identified as Veronica Tester in public) had also lived with the family at Speedwell. She had trained as a ballerina but had not reached the levels of stardom of her brother. She and Desmond appeared only once on stage together as far as we know, in a pantomime called “Bluebell in Fairyland” at the White Rock Pavilion, Hastings, in January 1933. Veronica was commended for her dancing. She continued as a ballerina, appearing as such in a satirical play titled “Angelica”, staged in the West End in April 1937. Also appearing was her fellow dancer and friend, Dorothy Stevenson. In December they encountered Lawrence Durrell, visiting London from his family retreat on Corfu (Lawrence Durrell: a Biography, by Ian S. MacNiven, p.192). This could have been through Peter Cecil Bull, also a friend of Desmond, who had appeared in four movies with him. Peter Bull would go on to enjoy a distinguished career on film. Desmond seems to have been on the periphery of the scene, perhaps understandably given his film commitments. Lawrence invited Veronica and Dorothy back to Corfu, where they spent the summer of 1938 with Lawrence and his wife Nancy, exploring the island and further afield (see The Durrells in Corfu by Michael Haag, p.143-8 for Veronica’s memories of this blissful summer). Dorothy and Veronica would appear as characters in season 4 of the ITV television series “The Durrells”, played respectively by Talitha Stone and Sophie May Wake. The friendship with the Durrells would continue after the War, as both Dorothy and Veronica married and moved overseas.
Back in London, the two women featured in a piece (Newcastle Evening Chronicle, March 15th 1939) on the Joan Davis Ballet Girls company, where Veronica described her long Corfu sojourn as a “pagan holiday”. The interviewer paints a picture of her as a woman with many skills:
“… she was a member of the backstage fencing team of the show “Balalaika” which, during the non-stop run of Eric Maschwitz’s musical, played havoc with professional adversaries. Veronica is expert as horse-woman, golfer, swimmer, mountaineer.”
During the War Veronica Tester played an important part in the anthropologist Tom Harrisson’s ground-breaking Mass Observation project, before being called up to organise the land girls in Pembrokeshire. The Electoral Registers find her still there in 1945 but by 1946 she must have returned to Surrey as it was in Bookham where she was profiled by The Sunday Mirror (July 14th 1946) as follows:
“Oddest careerist in the Women’s Land Army is their Surrey organiser, a ballet dancer with – most days – straws in her hair. Ruddy-cheeked Miss Veronica Tester, 29, danced at the Dorchester and Romano’s as well as in ballet before the war, but she was a practical farmer, too.
Now she lives at Bookham, Surrey, in a caravan she bought from gipsies on Epsom Downs (“I paid £80 for it, but it is worth £150 now”). Her companions are Tuppence, a German sheepdog, and two cows.
She keeps a business-like eye on the land girls of Surrey but still goes to Volkova for ballet classes. Her ambition – to take a degree as a psychiatric social worker.”
Clearly this is referring to the van on Bookham Common in which Desmond had also been staying during the War. By 1946, however, Desmond’s life had already changed considerably.
This brief announcement in The Times on May 10th 1944 declared to the world that Desmond Tester was now married:
“Tester : Stuart. – On May 6, 1944, quietly, at St Mary’s Church, Leatherhead. DESMOND, only son of Mrs. Tester, of Effingham, Surrey, to EVELYN, elder daughter of CAPTAIN STUART, V.C., D.S.O., R.N.R.”
Demond had married a lady named Evelyn Stuart, the eldest daughter of Captain Ronald Neil Stuart, a recipient of the Victoria Cross, the Distinguished Service Order, the French Croix de Guerre avec Palmes and the United States’ Navy Cross, for a series of daring operations he had conducted while serving in the Royal Navy during WW1. Desmond Tester, conscientious objector and farm labourer, was marrying the daughter of one of England’s most celebrated naval heroes. There is a great deal of information on Captain Stuart available online but this extract from his obituary in The Times (February 10th 1954) details the exploits for which he won the VC:
“During the earlier part of the 1914-18 War Stuart served in various ships of the Royal Navy, but later he was fortunate enough to be selected to serve in the new “Q” ships. It was while serving in the Q-ship Pargust in June, 1917, that his conduct won for him the Victoria Cross. Even among a band of heroes, as the men who manned the “Q” ships undoubtedly were, Stuart’s gallantry stood out, and under rule 13 of the Royal Warrant of January 29, 1856, he was selected by the officers and the ship’s company to receive the Victoria Cross. Already Lieutenant Stuart (as Captain Stuart then was) had the D.S.O., and the further great honour of the Victoria Cross which was bestowed upon him was the first time the distinction had fallen to an Anglo-Canadian in the Imperial forces.”
Captain Stuart was known as an irascible man, allegedly embarrassed by any fuss surrounding his celebrity, and was also apparently known in his retirement for jeering loudly at movies depicting overblown heroics. We can only speculate what he made of his new son-in-law but he may have sympathised with Desmond setting his face so determinedly against what was expected of him by society, and his refusal to appear in movies that falsified heroic actions.
Desmond and Evelyn’s first child Jolyon was born February 24th 1945. Desmond and his mother were now back in Speedwell according to the 1945 Electoral Register. In 1946 Evelyn and Desmond – joined later by Veronica Tester – moved into The Corner House, Church Road in Bookham. They stayed there until 1948 before moving to other parts of Surrey as their family grew.
After the War
Even if his pre-War fame had deserted him, Desmond was still picking up roles on the stage. Essentially though, his film career in the UK was over. The Daily Express’s William Hickey even found him employed as a greengrocer in North London, with occasional – if highly skilled – work as a flower arranger (8th November 1955 edition).
From an interview in the Australian newspaper The Stage, published on April 22nd 1994, Desmond freely admitted that his acting career had been rejuvenated when, with a year’s guaranteed work, he moved to Australia as one of the leads in the farce “Sailor Beware” opening at the Comedy Theatre, Melbourne. At the end of 1956 he decided to stay in his adopted country.
His wife and four sons followed in January 1957. His mother Henrietta also set off for Australia on May 12th 1959, but tragedy struck when two weeks into the voyage she died of circulatory failure due to heat exhaustion.
Desmond’s luck, however, had otherwise changed. His arrival ‘down under’ coincided with the start of television broadcasting. From 1957 onwards he specialised in children’s television, both producing and starring in various series. Within a month of his mother’s demise he was at Sydney’s Mascot airport to welcome Disney’s Mouseketeers, who were due to appear on Channel 9, the station transmitting old episodes of The Mickey Mouse Club which he hosted. He discovered other stars too – Paul Hogan of Crocodile Dundee fame was an early beneficiary, while the world – if not Michael Parkinson – owes him eternal thanks for giving us Rod Hull, who was an early collaborator on shows such as “Kaper Kops” and “Clot in the Clouds”. As Desmond’s obituary stated:
“A generation of children came to know his face as he presided over afternoon programs during which he never talked down to his audience. Tester had five children – Jolyon (deceased), Dermot, Giles, Toby and Simon – and a gentle appreciation of childhood imagination.”
In 1974 he returned to films with minor supporting roles, and also reappeared on the stage in Christopher Hampton’s “Savages”. Roles in other significant plays such as Arthur Miller’s “The Price“ followed but these were occasional jobs rather than fully embracing a return to the limelight. Interviewed by the Sydney Morning Herald in October 1982, while in rehearsal for “The Price”, he was described as follows:
“This is a Des Tester in his 60s, craggy, weatherbeaten face, a fluff of white hair and a maze of yellowish beard on his face.”
We learn from the interview that his eldest son Jolyon had died, one son had stayed in Australia, but Evelyn had returned to London with the others. However the streak of bloody-mindedness that had emerged in him as a conscientious objector was still in fine shape:
“In 1975 he bought a horse, Horace, and started his first wanderings. In 1979 he spent a year in the outback droving cattle. He set off walking from the other side of the Blue Mountains following the stock routes, criss-crossing the ranges and rivers to the Northern Tablelands in Queensland.”
In the interview he describes how he then spent three months in Thailand:
“To travel alone as an old guy is great. You just stagger along. You do not look like an antique hippy and it is amazing how you are accepted.
It is lovely to be up in the hills and be offered a smoke of opium; you wouldn’t have it of course, it just makes you sick. At my age I can’t even smoke grass. I am quite enjoying getting older. If you have had a decent youth and you are not vastly acquisitive there is no great pain in getting older.”
After he had finished his wanderings and failed to make a business out of it he returned to Sydney, with no regrets for having given up his TV career, saying:
“If I had got into management I would not have gone on the road. I would be half the bloody person and twice the age. I would rather go barmy on the stock route than go barmy on the television networks.”
The following movie clip is taken from what is perhaps the only known instance of a surviving recording of Desmond being interviewed:
Desmond Tester died on New Year’s Eve 2002 in a Sydney hospital. Of all the Effingham actors and performers, his story stands out if only because it feels scarcely believable. Having overcome a criminal father who had fleeced his mother, with the shame and difficulties this must have placed upon the family, then becoming the best child actor on stage and screen in the UK, before putting it all in jeopardy for political convictions, shows a man of immense character, who then rebuilt his life and career on the other side of the world. Although he will always be remembered for working with Hitchcock, many of his other films are still available to watch, so if you should spot his name on an old movie, take a moment to remember what happened to the child actor Desmond Tester.