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18 February 2024

Fashion Power-House Madame Pompadour aka Catherine Courtney of Bombay and Her Dancing Sister Barbara Crosby: Their True Origins


Madame Pompadour


Let’s get to the bottom of who Madame Pompadour of Bombay really was. Besides being imaginative, theatrical, a show-stopper, cabaret performer, artiste-extraordinaire, fashionista, designer and a trend-setter, she was also a leading light in the world of fashion in Bombay in the 1930’s and 40’s.  Anyone who was anyone, patronised  the Pompadour Salon at the Taj Hotel. She pioneered, and boldly created the first ever fashion show in Bombay in the 1940’s. 

Image courtesy of the Taj Hotel, Mumbai, Facebook page. Catherine née Michael was Pompadour.


She led and others followed her style, design and panache. She exuded something others did not possess, her verve for life, her happy disposition, her ability to spot a trend before the trend became ‘trendy’, she quite simply put the extra in extraordinary.


Brought up in a family surrounded by music, dance, acting, performing and theatre; creating excitement and show-biz exhilaration is what she and each of her siblings did in some way. Her Irish step-tapping roots shining through. You’d expect someone with that name to be French, she is commonly reported to be English because of the name she was known by, Catherine Courtney. Breaking through the genealogical brick wall, I can reveal for the first time, that she was in fact a local Bombay girl, the daughter of an Armenian[1].


Born Catherine Ripsima Michael in 1905, her father was Charles John Michael[2] the Assistant Secretary of the Bombay Chamber of Commerce, and a hugely respected man, not just in the Armenian community but in the city of Bombay generally. Catherine was unlikely to remember him as he died when she was three in 1908 having suffered a stroke aged only 44. His wife, Annie née Flynn[3] had given birth to her youngest child in March 1908 just a month before her husband passed away. 


Charles’s parents were William Michael and Susan née  Joseph. Like many Armenian families in India, these two families, the Michael’s and Joseph’s, found themselves with anglicised surnames, but in fact, they were derived through a couple of generations using patronymics.  This is a constant head-ache for Armenian family history researchers in India, as many Armenian families chose to name their sons after their fathers or grandfathers, re-using the same surnames and Christian names and transposing their order. 


In the case of the MICHAEL and JOSEPH families of Bombay, names were not only transposed, they were dropped.  For example, Lazar Joseph Michael was also recorded as being Lazar Joseph, his father had been called Joseph Agazar but back in Persia, Joseph Agazar’s father and grandfather had been known by the surname of Gaspar.


With regard to the JOSEPH surname of Bombay I have established that Joseph Marcus Joseph’s father had in fact been called Marcus Joseph Dahbashian. Marcus dropped Dahbashian and was more commonly known as Marcus Joseph.  The name stayed constant for 4 generations back, but I have further discovered the original name had been Dahbashian Zaquaria.


Most of us are limited by English language records, books, articles and anecdotes when we research Armenian family history in Asia, but it is frequently the Armenian language records that give the breakthroughs we often seek.  I am grateful to Rafael Abramyan for drawing this document to my attention, allowing me to make the “English” connection to these very Armenian families.  


Family tree of the Dahbashian family courtesy of Rafael Abramyan


Catherine had first married Reginald Ludwig in 1932 in Moradabad by licence. He was a talented musician but the marriage returns from India to England[4] tells a story of not quite the whole truth.  She married Reginald using the surname of Barnett, however the entry for her father was crossed through Charles John Michael and re-entered as Charles John Michael Barnett. But why Barnett?  It would seem that prior to 1932 Catherine associated closely with a gentleman called W.G. Barnett, a popular and well-known jockey in India. 


He was Australian, and had been a very successful jockey in Sydney.  He had been riding in India and England since 1918.  With a wife and young family in Sydney, he was a man with a lot of freedom when overseas.  The first solid reference that “Pompadour” was Catherine Barnett  is taken from the Times of India August 1931 in which it states: “Madame Pompadour (Mrs. W.G. Barnett), who is appearing at the Three Arts Ball at the Taj Mahal….will appear in impressions of famous screen and stage stars”.  It goes on to say: “Madame Pompadour has offered to create and make a gown for the best dressed lady present in evening dress…….”. As Mr & Mrs Barnett, they were often noted as attending race balls and activities, both enjoying performing and the theatre these occasions called for.


Catherine, under her stage name of Pompadour, had a life-long association with the Taj Hotel, Bombay.  Her early years were spent in Musoorie, and Poona, where her Pompadour brand was eagerly sought after. She also made regular overseas trips to Europe sourcing the latest fashionable clothing and importing them to India. Meanwhile Wilfred Grant Barnett regularly found himself on the English turf jockey circuit, and made some memorable wins in the early 1920’s.  I have not been able to find any evidence that he and Catherine ever formally or officially married, but when Catherine married Reginald, and used the surname Barnett, and there is more than one source that describes them as “Mr. & Mrs. Barnett”, it does point towards her being “married” to him. Could that have been a blatant lie, or the result of a very secret marriage ceremony? Whichever it was, there is no escaping the fact that for a number of years, Catherine and Wilfred were considered a couple, and openly worked the social circles as Mr & Mrs Barnett. The earliest reference to Catherine as Mrs. Barnett that I have found so far is the Times of India October 1923 in which it states Mrs Barnett and Mrs. F. Michael “ [this is Catherine’s mother] undoubtedly found the planning of the [Japanese Carnival in Poona] no light task.


As much as he was a regular rider on the Indian jockey scene, she was a regular dress designer and supplier to ladies looking for the latest fashion.  She was as much of a fixture at the Indian races as he was as a jockey, they made a charismatic couple. In 1927 they made a trip to England together as a married couple. However, the Indian newspapers reported that Barnett was going on a long cruise to South America and the Continent [Europe], when in fact he and Catherine had made a bee-line to the nearest passenger ship to sail to England; a plausible ruse to throw people off the scent then, but for digital hounds like myself, using newspapers to track movements, this has proved to be not quite the whole truth.  This would be one of many visits to Europe they made, although not always together.  Catherine is recorded as sailing alone to London from Bombay on board the Rajputana in March 1929, to purchase new stock for her shop, and no doubt to visit her sister whom I will touch on a little later in this blog.


The Pompadour brand was going from strength-to-strength. She rotated her business locations, depending on the racing season, but made a permanent move to Bombay in the 1930’s where she established a key location inside the Taj Hotel.  She continued to entertain with song and dance routines, but her focus now was more fashion, and keeping her clientele well dressed.  With her sister Barbara living in London and another sister, Charlotte living in the USA, Catherine was able to get up-to-date fashions and supplies from leading fashion centres, London, Paris, New York and Los Angeles. From the late 1930’s onwards The Taj Hotel Bombay became a family affair. As well as Catherine running Pompadour, her older sister Barbara had moved from London back to Bombay and set up a dance school directly adjacent to the Pompadour dress shop.  The two sisters became the  ladies to go to for dance, style, deportment and design; between them they had swept up a large proportion of the ladies of Bombay to their respective businesses; you could dance well and look fantastic courtesy of these two entrepreneurial Armenian women. A perfect combination for any modern young lady of the city.


In 1943, when Catherine Ludwig married Frank Courtney at the Armenian Church Bombay[5], there was no mention of a previous marriage to anyone called Barnett, there was however, a note stating this was her 2nd marriage, the previous one to Ludwig was subject to a High Court Suit of 1941. I’m speculating this was a divorce case.  What can also be identified from this document is Catherine lied about her age. She was not 28 as indicated, she was in fact 38 years old, the same age as Frank her bridegroom.

Image: Liz Chater

We may never know for certain if Catherine had ever gone through any official ceremony with Wilfred Barnett, or whether they used the ‘Mr. & Mrs.’ prefix to cover their unmarried relationship. If they had married, then he had committed bigamy and so had she when she married Reginald.


As Mrs. Frank Courtney, Catherine continued with her very successful Pompadour shop and brand. During the war years both Catherine and Barbara participated in fund-raising for war-related causes, doing what they did best; organising balls, dances, fashion shows and cabarets.


Wilfred Grant Gleeson Barnett

Montage of Wilfred Grant Gleeson Barnett: Liz Chater


Whilst researching the story of Catherine and Wilfred Barnett, I wondered why it had all ended so abruptly. Did the real Mrs. Barnett appear? Did either of them get a conscience? Was there a natural drifting apart? Who knows, but it may have had something to do with the life-changing event suffered by Wilfred in January 1931.  And this is where the wily Wilfred had blurred the lines of identification. But for a terrible accident, he probably would have continued with the deception. W.G. Barnett was riding at the races in Bombay on Saturday 30th January 1931. His mount was Shipshape, one of three horses owned by the Maharajah of Rajpipla.  It was the principal race of the day The Cheveley Handicap and he’d been riding well until he fell off the horse, having been crushed between the animal and a fence. He suffered a broken foot, broken ribs and internal injuries. There were many discussions amongst the doctors at St. George’s Hospital, Bombay and it was concluded that Barnett’s foot had been so badly crushed they found it necessary to amputate  it. The operation was undertaken by Major Gilroy, Resident Surgeon, IMS. This may have been the pivot point on which Catherine decided to quietly change the direction of her life, she may have even chosen to do so without the knowledge of her family. In October 1932, Catherine married Reginald Ludwig in Moradabad, north-east of Delhi, and a long way from Bombay, but she married in the name of Barnett.


But what of Wilfred Barnett? Preferring to be known as the son of George Barnett and Maud née  Braid, he was actually the illegitimate son of Maud Braid and a sheep shearer of Coonabarabran named James Gleeson. Wilfred Grant Gleeson was born in Coonabarabran 28 November 1887.  Gleeson had deserted Maud when Wilfred was barely a few months old.  Maud had pursued him through the local courts to be brought to account and contribute towards Wilfred’s welfare.  Eventually, the law caught up with him, but he didn’t hang around for long, and Maud found herself having to look after Wilfred on her own.  By 1895 she had met George Barnett, he subsequently proposed, and they developed into a family unit.


Wilfred had started his racing career in Sydney on the pony circuit as early as 1905. His early impetuousness in the saddle earned him some disqualifications. In one instance he pushed so hard, it was claimed he interfered with (or obstructed) another pony and rider, and found himself off the course with a 3 month ban.  With his speed and focus he learnt how to control and strategize in races, but continued to take risks and therefore run the gauntlet of after-race enquiries and their consequences. His style and aggressive drive caught the attention of similar-minded trainers, and he was given chances that he jumped at.   When giving an interview to a racing reporter, he claimed his parents moved to Sydney when he was about 5 or 6 and they wanted him to become an engineer.  The harsher reality was that Maud had been deserted by his father, and George stepped in to the role of father-figure.


Wilfred quickly became a well-known and popular rider in Australia, firstly as a pony rider and then as a licensed jockey.  For reasons only known to himself, he changed the name he rode under. Firstly, it was Wilfred Barnett, then it became W.H. Barnett, this morphed into Wilfred Henry Barnett, and then he also used William Henry Barnett.  In 1915 he rode “St. Carwyne” to victory in the Metropolitan Cup in Randwick, it obviously was a very important win for him. Not only did it underline his reputation as a successful jockey, the sweet success of it was such that he named his house in Sydney after the horse. There are a number of references to Barnett living at “St. Carwyne, Addison St.”    It was this period between 1915 and 1916 where he really made his mark, and he became a jockey that got results.


Before Wilfred was able to consider going  abroad, he needed to prove his name, date and place of birth.  Being an illegitimate child, this was not something he could easily do. However, in readiness for him to travel  with his burgeoning career to Asia and Europe beckoning,  he had his mother sign a ‘declaration of adoption’ at the NSW Registrar Generals’ Office in August 1916. Her address was “St. Carwyne, Meek Street”.  It stated that Wilfred Grant Gleeson had been adopted by George Barnett on 8th November 1895, the same date that George had married Maud née  Braid.  This was the document that would be the passport to Wilfred’s future, it represented world-wide freedom.[6]


Although he had established himself as a good, intelligent rider, his style was always on the edge of legal. In September 1916 he was pulled up rather abruptly when an inquiry found him guilty of “dishonest practice” and was disqualified from racing in Australia for a year.  His appeal against the decision was dismissed very swiftly. It could be said that Wilfred’s career in India was as a consequence of that ban. Once he was allowed to ride again, he returned to the saddle and followed up with owners and trainers who were prepared to pay for his skills. The turning point for Barnett to go to India was on the eve of the Metropolitan Stakes in October 1918.  He had a number of very successful races in his back pocket with ‘Kennaquhair’, a horse that had catapulted him into the forefront of every punter’s mind.  This horse, that jockey, were a formidable team.  Barnett was scheduled to ride Kennaquhair in the Metropolitan, but the night before the race, he was asked to stand down in favour of another jockey called McLachlan. Wilfred was furious, and it was this incident that made his mind up to leave Australia and go to India.


Meanwhile, his widowed mother who was a forever hopeful, but actually unlucky in love, woman, was subject to some conniving deceit.  She had met a man called Milleram in February 1918 and they became friends.  It was reported that in August that year he stole £200 from her and later in December 1918 he further stole £45 and a diamond ring that belonged to her son Wilfred that she was looking after while he was in India.  In January 1919 Milleram then proposed marriage to Maud, but not before he had almost wrung her dry of her savings. She bravely took him to court, he tried to imply she had given him various gifts of money, he steadfastly protested his innocence, but after the damning evidence given by Maud, the judge and the jury didn’t buy the story and Milleram changed his plea to guilty.


By now Wilfred had become a very successful jockey in India, and, as the stars were in decline for his mother, his were most definitely on the rise.  His life was dictated by the race seasons in India, England and Australia. He was a regular jockey on the circuits in Bombay, Poona and Calcutta, and continued to catch the attention of eager owners and trainers willing to pay handsomely for his skills.  How he met Catherine Michael is unclear, but she had independently made a name for herself as a seemstress and entertainer in Poona, where the Pompadour brand was born.  With the spoils of her fashion success, she was often spotted at the races, and enjoyed several winners over the years. She was smart, quick-witted and intelligent, he was dashing, confident and a consummate performer. She couldn’t possibly have known he was married with a wife and child back in Sydney.



Wilfred Barnett had married Olivette Walsh on 24th February 1910 in Sydney[7], she was 4 months pregnant.  Their first son Wilfred William Matthews Gleeson Barnett had been born on 17th July 1910[8], he survived only 11 months and died on the 6th July 1911. Their next child, a girl, was born on 10th November 1911.  Willerina Eileen Barnett married at 16 years of age to Maurice Tosh, and was dead at 17 ½. In May 1929, they had an infant son, Eric Tosh, but Willerina’s mother Olivette adopted him and he took the name Barnett.  


Wilfred happened to be in Australia at this time of Willerina’s death, he had left Bombay in April 1929 as the Indian race season had closed.  He had been the most successful jockey that year with 23 wins and 28 seconds having ridden 141 mounts. It was also a most profitable season for him, as he had chosen to ride freelance rather than be retained by any owner or trainer.  It is unlikely to have been a coincidence that Catherine had also left Bombay in March 1929 and headed to Europe on a fashion buying mission.  She returned to India by July and, with great fanfare, announced the opening of her new Pompadour store in Poona that month. In August 1929 Catherine, as Pompadour announced she was putting some of her gowns and hats on show at Greens Hotel Bombay for 2 days, and invited her customers to view her collection, thus expanding her customer base.  Her return to India coincided with Wilfred’s return to India, and just a month after Willerina’s funeral  Wilfred quickly left Sydney and returned to Bombay. He left grieving Olivette and their youngest child behind.


Wilfred and Olivette’s last child was called Eric Gleeson Barnett, born 6th September 1914. Eric was encouraged to ride, secured riding apprenticeships in Sydney, he had a mixed beginning; on one occasion suffering a nasty fall. Although by the late 1920’s Wilfred and Catherine were tripping the light fandango together in India, Wilfred’s wife and family continued to live in Sydney; out of sight, out of mind. Wilfred was earning well, living life to the full with a beautiful, vibrant young woman as a companion. In October 1929 he had regained rhythm to his life and took up riding in Meerut for His Highness the Maharaja of Kashmir and the Northmore Stable. As the horseracing seasons moved from city to city in India, so too did Catherine with her Pompadour fashion house.  In July 1930, the racing season at Mussoorie had finished and she and Wilfred moved to Poona for the coming races.  Catherine capitalised on it and opened up her Poona shop in Elphinstone Road in time for the ladies who attended the races.  Her gowns and hats for this season had been purchased on her behalf by her sister Barbara from the fashion houses of Paris, and shipped out to her.  Catherine, of course knew that Barbara was in-tune with her own ideas and expectation of style, and had no hesitation in relying upon her to get the very best outfits for the Pompadour brand in India. In October 1930 Catherine, as Mrs. Barnett, was the chief organiser for the Poona Race Ball. She arranged a cabaret show, promised it to be “full of pep from start to finish”. Catherine was also the chief dancer in the cabaret and chose seven specially selected girls from Poona to make up the “Follies”.


Then that fateful day in January 1931 happened, and Wilfred’s life, as he knew it, changed forever.  Catherine stuck around for just over a year, but in October 1932 she married Reginald Ludwig, a gifted musician.


Wilfred’s forced retirement from racing in India wasn’t the end of his association with the sport. Although he never regained the enviable success he had as a jockey, he stayed true to his passion, and obtained a trainer’s licence just a year after his accident.  In March 1932 he obtained a position as trainer to Lt. Col. Zorowar Singh in Bombay.[9]


He had returned to Sydney permanently by the time his mother Maud passed away in 1946 at their shared home St. Carwyne in Meek Street, the house being her possession.  Although Wilfred registered the death and arranged for the cremation the day after her passing, it would seem that it may not have been an easy relationship between them. Her Will reveals she left all her possessions to a local estate agent, William Holland, rather than her son. Holland was also sole executor, and Wilfred was not mentioned at all.  After all the years Maud and Wilfred had stuck together, his home was now someone else’s.  Wilfred and Olivette had gone their separate ways years ago, but they still lived in close proximity to each other in Randwick, Australia. Olivette passed away in 1950 at the Prince Henry Hospital, New South Wales.[10] Wilfred died aged 75 on the 13 July 1963 at the Lidcombe State Hospital and home, he was cremated on 16th July 1963 at Rookwood Cemetery. His son Eric Barnett was informant.[11]




Barbara Michael – Later Crosby

It was Barbara whom Catherine had visited whilst on a trip to England with Wilfred Barnett. While he was riding at various horserace meetings around the country, Catherine spent time with her equally unconventional sister.


Barbara loved to dance. It was her passion, her life.  As early as 1921, she set herself up to teach dance in Bombay. 


Known then as Miss B. Crosby-Michael, her business later became known as “Michael’s Modern Dance Academy”.She was just 22 when she first left Bombay for England, travelling with her mother, they stayed in London.  Not long after arriving, she found herself as a dance teacher to members of the Spanish royal family. During her time in Malaga she taught her Majesty, the Queen of Spain and her children, the Prince of Asturias, and the infantas Beatrice and Maria Cristina how to Charleston[12]. In August 1927 Barbara took the bold step of changing her name by deed poll but didn’t formalise her application with the Courts until May 1929. She renounced the surname MICHAEL and would be forever known as Barbara Crosby[13].


In March 1930 Barbara could be found pioneering what we know today as the very popular American theme “Dancing with the Stars” or the UK version “Strictly Come Dancing”.  She and her dancing partner, twice “Star” professional champion, Sidney Stern reached the finals of the “Star” All-England Dancing Championships at the Royal Albert Hall. The competition was fierce, the talent of everyone competing extraordinary. Barbara and Sidney elected to dance a new tango “The Coqueta” something that Barbara was actively trying to popularise in London. 

Barbara Michael, who changed her name to Barbara Crosby


As a dance hostess in the West End, she had already introduced it as part of her routine in her club the Café de Paris, and the audiences loved it. As a cabaret performer, she moved in the same orbit as the likes of Leslie A. Hutchinson “Hutch”, Merle Oberon and Noel Coward.

The fashion of pearls worn backwards, beautifully executed by Barbara Crosby and Diana, Princess of Wales.


Barbara took fashion very seriously, here in 1930 she paired a beautiful long gown with a chic pearl necklace draped down her back, something the late Princess of Wales also featured in 1985. Both wore their outfits with striking effect.


Barbara’s life was incredibly fast-paced. In July 1930, she found herself delightfully enveloped in an all-consuming whirl-wind romance with an up-and-coming, charismatic actor named Frank Fox.  They married secretly at the Registry Office, Marylebone, London.  Barbara gave an interview to the newspapers after they returned from honeymoon in Paris:

“It was revealed on Friday that Miss Barbara Crosby, the dance hostess of the Café de Paris and the daughter of the late Mr. Charles John Michael, secretary of the Bombay Chamber of Commerce, was married at Marylebone Register Office last week to Mr. Frank Skinley Fox, an actor, well known both in the West End and in Australia, from which country he has recently returned after touring “In This Year of Grace” with Maisie Gay.


“ Miss Crosby, who is one of the most notable of the West End dance hostesses, taught dancing in India and in the South of France before coming to London, and she numbered the Queen of Spain among her pupils when teaching the foxtrot in Spain.


“It was a case of love at first sight,” said Miss Crosby. Her husband saw her dancing one night and then he came every night for six weeks. Through a mutual friend he obtained an introduction to her.  Within a fortnight of knowing each other they had decided to get married and the wedding was solemnised by special licence.


“We had to keep the matter secret for a time for family reasons but now there is no reason why it should not be known.  We have just returned from a honeymoon in Paris. My husband is a real ‘he man’, I may say.  He swims, plays rugger, tennis and all the other sports.  He is a great swimmer, and when in Melbourne last year, narrowly escaped being eaten by a shark….” “ Belfast Telegraph 9 August 1930.


Barbara and Frank departing for their honeymoon in Paris


Barbara and Frank went to India in December 1930 to visit her family, and as you will see below the trip would be a significant turning point for Frank. Barbara would have used the trip to France as an opportunity to purchase the latest fashions, both for herself as well as her sister Catherine back in India.  The Pompadour brand and stock stayed fresh because of the regular European purchasing trips Catherine and Barbara made.


I think today people don’t realise how influential Catherine and Barbara were in the fashion and beauty industry in Bombay in the 1930’s and 40’s.  These two Armenian sisters had talents they were able to exploit for themselves. Their individuality saturated Bombay society, it was their charismatic charm that helped to elevate their clients’ confidence. Ladies were able to present themselves on the local social scene with poise and self-confidence. Barbara’s experience on the London club scene allowed her to pass on trends to Catherine in Bombay months before they became popular en-masse. The sisters were also very good at writing ads for the classified columns in newspapers; rarely using the same terminology, always an exciting vibe to it. Much like today’s social media posts on various platforms, they knew how to excite and intrigue in the classified ads. They understood the value of the press, each often featured in ‘newslet’ pieces, thus keeping their names constantly in the minds of the ladies chasing the very latest in couture or social standing. Their premises were side-by-side in the Taj Hotel, Bombay, mirroring their love and sibling affection for each other. Not only was there a family synergy to them, their combined knowledge of the fashion, beauty and health industry made them an Armenian tour-de-force.


Frank Fox



The dashing Frank Fox whose relentless pursuit of Barbara eventually paid off, they married within 2 months of meeting each other. Image: IMBD website.


Born Frank Fox, 29th September 1907 in King’s Norton to Frank Fox a carpenter cum journeyman and Beatrice his wife, née  Skinley. Frank Fox senior was also drawn to the stage and became a well known performer and comedian in his own right.  His son Frank, wanting to stand out from the crowd, made his name more memorable and skilfully became known as Frank Hugh Skinley Fox, Hugh being a nod to his maternal grandfather Hugh Skinley. As he became more recognised and well known, his name occasionally was reported as Frank Henry Shirley Fox and as someone who liked to keep the press and public on their toes, he made no effort to correct this.  Consequently, Frank Henry Shirley Fox was often written instead of Frank Hugh Skinley Fox.


The marriage didn’t last. Barbara filed for divorce. In May 1937 she was granted a decree nisi on the grounds of his adultery at a hotel in Charing Cross in March 1935. The suit was undefended. Barbara stated that in December 1932 Frank had obtained a post as aide-de-camp  to a Maharajah in India, and, later, she found love letters from another woman addressed to him. Those with enquiring minds will no doubt be wondering how Frank ended up in India.  He claimed he had been returning to England after a two year stint in Australia. Visiting a school friend in India, he said he would like to see the country. His friend was secretary to a Maharajah and Frank thought that was the sort of job he would like.  The friend advised him that the Maharajah was advertising for a Controller of Palaces. Frank met the Maharajah at dinner and was given the job.  He had absolutely no idea what a Controller of Palaces was and when he went to take up the job, he found he had to control 2,000 natives working in the gardens of the Maharajah’s five palaces. He was also in charge of purchasing furnishings for the palace and bungalows. He really must have felt he had fallen on his feet. He openly agreed it was a grand life with a car and 12 servants of his own. 


He learnt to speak Hindustani and fell into life as a trusted member of the household. He discovered that tiger shooting was the biggest sport and the English men on the Maharajah’s staff went out on foot after them.  On one of his first hunting trips Frank, wearing riding breeches and long boots, sat under a tree in the heat of the day. Suddenly he began to itch and jumping up found that he was sitting on an Indian ant hill. Whilst he and his servant were busy vigorously trying to get the ants off him, the long grass ahead started to suddenly move, fearing for their lives, that a tiger was about to pounce, Frank reached for his gun, to find a peacock had strutted out towards them. Returning to de-anting, it wasn’t long before they were startled by a black panther who had leapt from a tree and landed between him and his servant. The panther got away; that was one shot he didn’t get the chance to take, much to the amusement of the Maharajah’s staff. Part of Frank’s duties was to come to Europe and interview statesmen and arrange meetings for the Maharajah. In this way he met Mr. J.H. Thomas, Mussolini and the King of Italy.  The Maharajah always disembarked in Italy and travelled with his suite in the Italian state train.[14]


Frank continued to be a successful actor with a number of appearances in the West End. In 1938 he made his screen debut as the leading man in “Double or Quits”, a Warner First National Film at Teddington.


In May 1948 Frank married for a second time at Ealing Registry Office to Jasmine Lydia Bligh, a well- known and very popular television announcer on the BBC.   Interestingly, the marriage record gives more details than normal: “Frank Fox the divorced husband of Barbara Fox formerly Crosby a spinster, ACTOR, and Jasmine Fox (name changed by deed poll formerly Bligh) the divorced wife of John Paley Johnson.”  This marriage also ended in divorce, Jasmine filing in October 1953 on the grounds of her husband’s cruelty. This one was also not contested. Jasmine was not completely the innocent party, but the judge in the case chose to “exercise the court’s discretion in respect of Mrs. Fox’s own admitted misconduct.”[15]


Meanwhile by June 1938, Barbara became a proprietress and had taken on the London club “Slippin” on Regent Street. She tarnished her good reputation somewhat at this place, when the club  was raided by the police for selling alcohol without a licence. She and Myrtle Allman, who styled herself as “agent for the customers”, an imaginative way of saying ”barmaid” were fined, Frederick Sergison, a wine waiter at the club was bound over for aiding and abetting.[16] It may well have been this incident, that made Barbara return to India.  


By January 1939 Barbara was back in Bombay and opened up a beauty parlour at her sister’s shop Pompadour. Acclaimed to be “under the personal supervision of Miss Barbara Crosby of London”, it introduced Bombay memsahibs to a new type of hair stylist, beauty culturist and a variety of beauty preparations direct from London and New York.


Leaving the day-to-day running of the beauty salon in the capable hands of her European staff, by the middle of 1939 Barbara returned to her first love and had set herself up as “Crosby School of Dancing”. She now had a dance partner, Monsieur Orloff a celebrated and successful European ballroom dancer.  Together, they offered dance classes, specialising in the Tango, Viennese Waltz and the Cuban Rumba, and the school was right next door to her sister’s shop, Pompadour, which was growing from strength to strength.  Barbara quickly found her stride, and regularly organised dances and cabarets at the Taj Hotel.  At Christmas time Barbara would arrange and sponsor dance contests for the public to enjoy, offering generous prizes, but she also used these opportunities to give demonstrations of the rumba, waltz and fox trot with Monsieur Orloff. This kind of soft marketing gained her many new clients all desiring to be able to dance these moves with the smoothness, style and aplomb exhibited.  Catherine and Barbara had a complete marketing package between them; teaching ladies (and gents) how to dance, guiding them on what to wear, advising them how to look their very best and also stay slim and fit with their own development slimming club. This latter programme was extended to men too; there was no reason why anyone should venture to any other type of premises for these services.  The sisters were taking Bombay by storm, creating a solid reputation in this new, burgeoning industry.


Barbara, forever the consummate professional, never missed an opportunity to promote herself, and when there was a fund-raiser being held in aid of the Red Cross in Bombay in June 1940, she stoically performed, even though she almost had to cancel because of flu. Without missing a beat she turned this to her advantage; not only supporting the Red Cross by performing, she ended up with a ¼ page picture article jointly promoting not only her support for the charity but the flu product that averted her potential no-show. It was a genius piece of marketing by Barbara.


Barbara continued to live in Bombay all through the 1940’s, regularly holding dance classes as well as undertaking exhibition performances with her partner Monsieur Orloff.  After the death of her mother Annie in June 1948, Barbara’s presence in India disappeared. Barbara features a number of times in Charlotte Breese’s book “Hutch: The True Story of our Biggest Cabaret Star” which refers to Barbara’s time at the Café de Paris as Hostess in charge of a number of young ladies who over saw their every movement.


Barbara passed away on the 28th April 1967 at her flat in Queen’s Gardens, Paddington, London, she was 65. The informant at death was Leonard A. Wareham. Her certificate states she was a retired sales assistant at a department store. Cause of death was right heart failure and chronic bronchitis.[17] She was cremated on 3rd May at Kensal Green, arranged by Leonard Wareham, her executor.[18] There was no newspaper notice placed in the UK, but her sister, Catherne Courtney remembered her in the Times of India for the next couple of years.


For one so lively, vibrant and gay throughout her life, her demise appears to have been alone. Her ashes were placed on temporary deposit at Kensal Green Crematorium, which does make me speculate if her final journey was back to India where her remaining family were. Perhaps in the fullness of time, her extended family of nephews and nieces will read this blog and contact me to fill in the blanks, something that often happens after I have published a story.


Catherine Courtney remained in India, and continued to build her fashion business, earning respect and recognition as the years went by.  She also continued to make regular buying trips to Europe and America, her forensic fashion eye choosing what was going to be a future trend in Bombay.  As her marriage to Frank Courtney matured, they both developed into reliable, strong pillars of Bombay.  


Catherine had some particularly exciting fun moments. In the 1950s Catherine participated in the first international fashion design and beauty contest ever held. It was organised in connection with the global premiere of “Helen of Troy”, by Warner Brothers’ New York. As Madame Pompadour, she entered three different designs, one of which came third, but it was the buzz of her being from India that set the gossip columns tongues wagging. New York adored the beautiful Pompadour, she represented mystery and Indian glamour not regularly seen, she was both alluring with her stories and exciting with her use of Indian fabrics.


In 1975 Catherine’s husband, William Francis Courtney was appointed American Consul-General in Bombay, and together they worked hard at expanding co-operation, investment and cultural exchanges between the US and India. During the 1970’s and 1980’s Catherine can be found combining her official role as the Consul-General’s wife with her fashion business, and often sought after as a compere for fashion and charity events held at the Taj Hotel. In June 1980 William Courtney was honoured with an O.B.E., for services to the British community in Bombay.[19]


Away from their joint Consul-General duties and fashion work Catherine and William enjoyed sailing, and in 1983 he won the Customs Cup with his keel boat “Mesrope”.  Between them, they were often presenters of winning trophies to excited recipients or receivers of them, and their presence on the sailing scene of Bombay was always keenly felt.


One of the last joint events Catherine and Frank attended together was a Remembrance Day memorial day service held at Malabar Hills in November 1999. Frank read the lesson, Catherine, then in her 90’s, sold poppies. A year later, on the 22nd November 2000, Catherine passed away in Mumbai and was buried in the Sewri Cemetery the next day. Frank died 27 January 2008 in Bombay. A well-loved, respected and formidable couple placed gently into the history books.


These two ladies, through their family connections to the Joseph’s of Bombay, are distinguished not only by their remarkable lifetime achievements but by their unique, and up until now, lost family connection to the distant Dahbashian family. This discovery of a name change to these well-known Armenian family names of Bombay will, I hope, go some way to break down genealogy brick walls for those searching for their elusive Armenian families.  There are of course, other siblings to Catherine and Barbara, I have not included them in this particular blog story as my focus was solely on the lifelong connections between the two sisters.


Catherine and Barbara, the two razzle-dazzle Armenian sisters from Bombay, enjoyed every moment of their creative lives, living life to the full, putting their mark on a long Dahbashian family line. 


© Liz Chater, Chater Genealogy 2024

Thanks to:
Rafael Abramyan
Karen Mkrtchyan
Beryl Makhzangi

[1] BL n3-95-17 baptism return

[2] Armenian Church Bombay Marriage Register

[3] BL n3-68-332 marriage return

[4] N1-545-311 marriage record

[5] Armenian Church Bombay Marriage Register

[6] Birth/Adoption record NSW archive

[7] Marriage Certificate, NSW Archives

[8] Birth Certificate, NSW Archives

[9] The Civil & Military Gazette 1932

[10] Australian Cemetery Index

[11] Death certificate

[12] The Bystander 5th March 1930

[13] London Gazette 8th May 1929

[14] Extracted from the Kensington News and West London Times

[15] The Evening Standard 23 October 1953

[16] Daily Telegraph & Morning Post June 1938

[17] Death certificate

[18] Cremation/burial record

[19] London Gazette 14 June 1980