By Brad Dison
Moyna Macgill was an actress from Northern Ireland. She performed regularly in London’s West End, and also appeared in film and, many years later, in television productions. Her husband, Edgar, was a successful English politician, and had served as the mayor of the Metropolitan Borough of Poplar, England. Theirs was an upper middle-class family.
Their daughter, Brigid, was born in a Central London hospital in 1925. Brigid had an older stepsister from her mother’s previous marriage, and two younger brothers, Edgar and Bruce. When Brigid was nine years old, her father died of stomach cancer. That same year, Moyna got engaged to a former colonel with the British Army. Moyna and her children moved in with the former colonel and his children. For five years, the two families lived in a tense environment. The former colonel ruled his home like a tyrant. Moyna wanted to escape.
Events of World War II had a profound effect on the lives of Moyna and her family. In 1939, war with Germany was inevitable. In addition to Moyna’s desire to escape from the former colonel, she also wanted her family to escape from the looming war. Moyna secretly finagled passage for herself and her children to Canada aboard an ocean liner called the RMS Duchess of Atholl.
Late one night in late 1940, Moyna gathered Brigid, Edgar, and Bruce, along with their belongings, and left London. Moyna and her children never saw the former colonel again. Moyna’s oldest daughter, a newlywed, remained in London. After a four-and-a-half-hour trip, Brigid’s family arrived at the docks in Liverpool.
The Duchess of Atholl was a grand ship, about two-third the size of the Titanic. In December of 1939, the British military requisitioned the ship for troop transportation. Although the ship was not supposed to be used for passenger transportation at this point in the war, Brigid’s mother got herself, her children, and what little they brought with them, aboard the ship. Many people have theorized that Brigid’s mother used her celebrity status or her late husband’s political connections to gain passage to Canada.
Later that afternoon, the Duchess of Atholl left Liverpool and headed into the Atlantic Ocean toward Canada. Rather than traveling in a straight line, the ship zigzagged through the ocean to lessen the chances of being struck by a torpedo from a sneaky German submarine. On the night Moyna, Brigid, Edgar, and Bruce left England, Germany began a nighttime bombing raid on Liverpool, the main Atlantic seaport, in what is referred to as the Liverpool Blitz. Brigid’s family had escaped just in time.
Several days later, Moyna and her family arrived in Canada and eventually made their way down to New York. With no money and few possessions with which to barter, their futures seemed miserable. Just when their situations seemed hopeless, a kind family took them in and helped them gain a foothold on their new lives in America. Moyna and her children had heard that America was the land of opportunity, and the kind family helped reinforce that notion.
Had Moyna and her family waited just one more day to leave Liverpool, they might not have survived the Liverpool Blitz. During World War II, after Moyna and her family traveled to the new world on the Duchess of Atholl, the ship was struck by several torpedoes from a German submarine and sank in the Atlantic Ocean.
Within two years of their arrival, Moyna began acting in Hollywood films. From 1943 to 1945, Moyna appeared in no less than ten films. The Irish Times ranked Moyna Macgill 35th in Ireland’s greatest film actors of all time. In her more than four decades in film and television, she appeared in productions including The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Twilight Zone, and Black Beauty. Her children followed her into theater. Edgar became a multiple award-winning theater, film, and television producer. He produced Broadway plays such as The Subject Was Roses, Promenade, and Gypsy. Bruce became a television producer, television writer and screenwriter in a career which spanned over thirty years. He worked on such iconic television shows as The Wild Wild West, Mission: Impossible, Wonder Woman, Knight Rider, The Brady Bunch, Happy Days, The Odd Couple, and Murder, She Wrote. Brigid’s acting career has spanned eight decades so far. Brigid occasionally shared the screen with her mother. Her other numerous film credits include The Manchurian Candidate, Blue Hawaii, and Beauty and the Beast. Like her brother Bruce, Brigid also worked on the Murder, She Wrote television series. Moyna Macgill is better known for being the mother of Brigid than for her work as an actress. You see, Brigid’s family called her by her middle name. The rest of the world knows Brigid as… Angela Lansbury.
- “Lesser-Told Story of Belfast-Born Film Star Who Was Mother of Iconic Superstar,” NewsLetter, accessed March 30, 2021, https://www.newsletter.co.uk/retro/lesser-told-story-belfast-born-film-star-who-was-mother-iconic-superstar-985733.
- “Moyna Macgill,” IMDb.com, accessed March 31, 2021, https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0532256/?ref_=fn_al_nm_1.
- “Edgar Lansbury,” IMDb.com, accessed March 31, 2021, https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0487052/?ref_=nmbio_trv_1.
- “Bruce Lansbury,” IMDb.com, accessed March 31, 2021, https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0487049/?ref_=nmbio_trv_1.
- “Angela Lansbury,” IMDb.com, accessed March 31, 2021, https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0001450/?ref_=nmbio_trv_1.
- “Angela Lansbury – Interview On Her Life, Career,” YouTube.com, accessed April 4, 2021, https://youtu.be/yHtq-kGzF9o.
The Photo is of Moyna Macgill in 1945.