Violet Helen CAPELL [1904-1980] | Gwulo: Old Hong Kong

Violet Helen CAPELL [1904-1980]

Violet Helen
Birthplace (town, state): 
Birthplace (country): 

In 1920 Violet Capell became the first full time ballet teacher in Hong Kong. She had a working relationship with Daisy O'Keefe. At the beginning all her stduents were westerners but by 1937 about half of her students were Asians 

Source: Developing Dance Education in Hong Kong and the Mainland China by Pearl Chan 2011 

Mentioned in Betty Steel's Diary - impressions of an upbringing in 1920s Hong Kong

"Audrey and Winnie Henderson joined a dancing school run by Violet Capell and Daisy O'Keefe. They gave dancing displays."







Miss Violet Capell and her talented pupils are giving their 6th annual dancing display next week at the Queen's Theatre.

The first performance is at 5 p.m. on Wednesday, February 22nd,  the next on Monday, February 27th at the same time.

A third performance will be given at 9.15 p.m. on February 29th, at the Star Theatre, Kowloon.

These performances have become quite an annual event in Hong Kong and a capital programme is always given. Part of the proceeds are in aid of the London Hospital, so all who turn up are, incidentally, helping on a very good cause.”

Source: Hong Kong Daily Press, page 6, 17th February 1928


Miss Violet Capell informs us that the nett proceeds from her recent Dancing Display, held at the King's Theatre, amounted to $839.50.

Cheques for $100 each have been sent to the International Medical Relief and British War Organisation Funds; the balance of $639.50 going towards the Diocesan Girls’ School Building Fund.”

Source: Hong Kong Daily Press, page 12, 19th January 1940

Marriage 12 April 1899 at St Johns James Ralph Capell Manager Victoria Dispensary to Helen Nannie Hahn

James Ralph Capell of 9 Torres Building Kowloon died 30 November 1928 Probate to Helen Nannie Capell widow

Violet Helen Capell born 18 October 1904 baptised 13 November 1904 St Johns

Passenger List 29 January 1920 UK to Hong Kong

James Capell 55 chemist born Watford

Lily Jane Delphine Capell 19 born Kettering

Passenger List Hakojaki Maru London to Hong Kong departing 16 September 1922

Helen N Capell 42

Passenger List Hakojaki Maru London to Hong Kong departing 16 September 1922

Helen N Capell 42

Violet H Capell age 17

Phyllis M Capell 14

Daisy O'Keefe and Lily C O'Keefe 25  were on the same voyage as Violet H Capell

Australia Electoral Register  1943 Hillview, Raymond Terrace Brisbane

Helen Nannie Capell, Lily Jane Capell and Violet Helen Capell

Australia Electoral Register 1954 140 Ashgrove Avenue, Ashgrove, Queensland

Violet Helen Capell

Death  Violet Helen Caprell 16 July 1980 Brisbane Queensland (Ancestry Tree)

Burial Toowong Cemetery Brisbane. Her  mother Helen Nannie Capell is also buried there

Her brother Ralph Stewart Capell HKVD was a POW in HK during the war and had his mother Mrs Helen Nannie Capell listed as person to be informed. She was then a resident at Hillview Raymond Terrace Brisbane.

Thanks ann but it won't be her as she started teaching full time ballet in Hong Kong in 1920: unlikely as a 15 or 16 year old.

Looking at the British newspapers she was already performing her dances around England (Manchester to London) late 1890s and turn of the century (presumably as a young girl/ lady). No mention in British newspapers after 1902. I think reading somewhere she even perfomed in Singapore prior to turning up in HK, and then she is in Hong Kong by 1920 teaching ballet. Annoyingly, no mention of her age anywhere. I half suspect that 'Violet Capell' may be a nom-de-plume or she is not born in England/Wales - I have not looked at Irish/Scottish records for example. 

Many children started work at age 14 or even youger  in those days.

I will follow up the Violet Capel born in Hong Kong

Ballet Development in Hong Kong According to Hong Kong Dance History, Ballet was given a strong push in Hong Kong in 1922 when the world famous ballerina Anna Pavlova performed classical and modern ballet with her company in Hong Kong. Her performance altered the idea of what the Chinese considered indecorous for well brought up Chinese girls to expose her legs in public. 1920, Violet Capell became the first full-time ballet teacher in Hong Kong. At the beginning, all of her students were westerners, but by 1937 about half of her students were Asians.

A preview of a play performance from the touring Dallas Company in Singapore in January 1901 which seemed to have toured India prior to their arrival in Singapore:

"...In dancing, Miss Violet Capell and Miss Flo Darnelli are of the very highest rank, and have both appeared in the London Music Halls..."

Source: The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (Weekly), page 6, 3rd January 1901

I've located Violet Capell in dance performances in London to Manchester in the very late 1890s from the newspapers. No age mentioned. It would seem this is her as charity performances in HK from the 1920s to 1940s by her pupils are directed to and benefiting British institutions, usually of the London variety. 

I think you are correct. Many performers in music halls had names other than their birth names. 

Travelled to Hong Kong on the same voyage in  1922

Dance (Amateur) 8 November 1929 Weekly Press page 621 Miss Daisy O'Keefe's pupils dancing display at the Theatre Royal.

That's a good find ann! Do you have the link for the second one in 1929 as I could not find it?

Daisy (25 years old) and Violet (17 years old) were both on the same ship in the 1922 voyage from London to the Far East with occupation as 'nil' for both of them. That means in 1920, they would have been 23 and 15 years old respectively so the accepted orthodox story of Violet setting up a dance school in Hong Kong in 1920 and working as a full time dance teacher may be a rather gilded version of the truth.

In the 1925 HK newspaper reviews of the performaces, Violet Capell was 'assissted' by Daisy O'Keefe and the pupils were described as Violet's pupils...

Source: China Mail, page 9, 8th January 1925

...which would suggest that Violet was the senior partner in the working relationship between the two despite her much younger age

I can believe her leaving school at age 14 (as many did in her generation then) and immediately working,. The fact that Violet's 42 year old unemployed mother and 14 year old sister Phyllis all travelled First Class from London to the Far East in 1922 would suggest money was not really in short supply.



I found the link on a Carl Smith Card


Card No.:175061


Violet might have been appearing on stage at a very young age. 

An 1880 Act made education compulsory until the age of ten, following campaigning by the National Education League. Under the Elementary Education (School Attendance) Act 1893 it was increased to 11 and the right to education was extended to deaf and blind children. In 1899 the leaving age was increased again to 13.

He had a successful business in Hong Kong but when he died in 1928 his wife would have depended on her children for income

In 1924 I had reached the top of the school (ed. note - she was 14), and my school days ended. The nuns asked me to stay on and teach English to a class of Chinese girls, as many of them knew little English. I agreed to try, but was not happy and gave it up after a few months, and began to learn Pitman's shorthand and typewriting to prepare myself for a career as a Secretary.V

Yes, agree. The school leaving age was raised to 14 by the Education Act 1918 by the time Violet reached that age

....well, they need some education then! Haha


When I say they need education, I mean it (!). Clearly Hong Kong dance history is ignored or understudied at best

Interesting fact: Violet's mother was Helen Nannie Hahn, born in Hong Kong 1880.  Helen's father was Albert Hahn, a German from Berlin, who arrived in Hong Kong in May 1877.

And Mr A. Hahn (ie Violet Capell's grandfather) gave dancing lessons in Hong Kong already way back in 1880.


MR. A. HAHN'S DANCING CLASSES have been Re-opened on the 1st October

Fletcher's Buildings,


Hongkong, October 4, 1880"

A. Hahn Dancing Classes China Mail page 1 22nd January 1881.png
A. Hahn Dancing Classes China Mail page 1 22nd January 1881.png, by The China Mail

Source: The China Mail, page 1, 22nd January 1881