Category Archives: First World War

Vesta Tilley

The Vesta Tilley exhibition is coming along nicely so I’m going to use the info to blog about her as well. Born in Worcester in 1864, Matilda Alice Powles was the second child in a family of thirteen. Her father was a china painter and amateur musician who developed an act featuring Fathead, the family dog. As he became better known he was offered the job of manager of a music hall in Gloucester. He accepted and became responsible for managing the hall, booking the performers and acting as chairman for the evening. Tilley would go with her father to the music hall and sit with him, memorising the songs and singing them at home. When her father was offered a better job at St George’s Hall, Nottingham, Tilley sang at his benefit when he left Gloucester. This was her first public appearance. She went on to appear at St George’s Hall as ‘The Great Little Tilley’ at four years of age.

Aged four

Aged four

Vesta Tilley says in her autobiography that she felt she could express herself better if she were dressed as a boy. One night she took her father’s hat and coat up to her bedroom and put them on. He came in and found her in front of the mirror singing and acting a song usually sung by a man. Her father got her a little evening dress-suit and she kept the jacket all her life. At this time there was a popular tenor called Sims Reeves and she learned some of his songs. She was billed as ‘The Pocket Sims Reeves’ and wore her dress-suit and a large black moustache. She was five years old.

The dress-suit

The dress-suit

Audiences were not sure if ‘The Great Little Tilley’ was a boy or a girl so her father wrote down three names from the dictionary and put them in his hat. She drew ‘Vesta’ and so Vesta Tilley was born.

Dick Whittington

Dick Whittington

Music hall stars often doubled as principal boys in pantomime and Vesta Tilley was no exception. Her favourite role was Dick Whittington. It was during a pantomime that Vesta met her future husband, Walter de Frece, son of a theatrical proprietor who was a friend of her father’s. She and Walter married in 1890, two years after the death of her father and Walter became her manager, also following his father into music hall ownership.

Vesta Tilley portrayed characters recognisable to her audiences that reflected the times she lived in. The ‘masher’ was a favourite character. He was a man about town and a dandy wearing the latest fashions. Vesta sang about the toffs but also about the clerk on his one-week holiday who imagines himself a swell. Her costumes were made by a Bond Street tailor in London. There were lightning costume changes between each song. She kept her hair long and wound it into small plaits to go under her wig and when off-stage was always careful to dress in very feminine clothes.

Boater, waistcoat and cigar

Boater, waistcoat and
cigar

The masher

The masher

Off-stage

Off-stage

She was hugely popular at home and a favourite in America too, becoming a leader of men’s fashions in the States with outfitters producing the Vesta Tilley boater and the Vesta Tilley waistcoat. Fans could also buy the Vesta Tilley cigar. Vesta Tilley was invited to take part in the first ever Royal Command Variety Performance at the Palace Theatre, London in 1912 which gave the music hall a seal of respectability. Vesta sang ‘Algy, the Piccadilly Johnny with the little glass eye – the most perfectly dressed young man in the house’. There are stories of Queen Mary being so shocked at the sight of a woman in trousers that she buried her face in her programme and advised other ladies in the royal box to avert their eyes.

Algy, the Piccadilly Johnny

Algy, the Piccadilly Johnny

Vesta Tilley often used a uniform to help define her characters. Before conscription was introduced during the 1914-18 war she would assume a military role on the stage and encourage men in the audience to enlist. There is an archive recording of a woman called Kitty remembering her young husband being recruited in this way. They were at a music hall watching Vesta Tilley who went into the audience and touched Percy on the shoulder. He went on to the stage with other young men and joined the army. He was killed on the Somme and his body was never found. Kitty was pregnant and later gave birth to a son. Vesta Tilley was known as ‘Britain’s greatest recruiting sergeant’.

She impersonated policemen, judges, telegraph-boys and vicars noting walks, mannerisms and facial expressions. Although she was under five foot tall she was able to convince her audience of the truth of her characters.

The recruiting sergeant

The recruiting sergeant

The telegraph-boy

The telegraph-boy

Vesta Tilley retired in 1920 at the age of fifty-six and her farewell tour around the country took a year. Her last appearance was at the London Coliseum where she was presented with books filled with nearly two million signatures and it took two pantechnicons to carry the flowers. Her husband was knighted the same year and so Vesta Tilley became Lady de Frece. In retirement she supported her husband during his political campaigning and he became a Conservative MP. When he retired they moved to Monte Carlo. Her husband died in 1935 and she moved back to London, living in a flat overlooking Green Park. At the age of eighty she took a lease on a flat on Hove seafront where a blue plaque pays tribute to her. Vesta Tilley died in September 1952 at the age of eighty-eight and still had the little dress jacket and her wig stained with greasepaint. From poor beginnings she became the highest paid music hall performer but was said never to have forgotten her roots, always being proud of the fact that her greatest fans were working-class women.

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Florrie Forde

Florrie Forde was an Australian with an attractive personality and a great stage presence. She was very astute in her choice of material and specialised in songs with rousing choruses which audiences joined in with gusto.

Florrie Forde

Florrie Forde

I remember some of the songs from family parties when everyone still sang the choruses and laughed and swayed back and forth in time to the music. My grandmother reminisced how she had found two of her sisters singing and dancing to one of the tunes from a barrel organ outside a pub. She’d dragged them away and they weren’t very happy about it. Down at the Old Bull and Bush,       Oh, oh, Antonio and Hold your hand out, you naughty boy were favourites.

At twenty-one, Florrie Forde was an immediate hit when she came to London. She appeared in three music halls on her first night – the South London Palace, the Pavilion and the Oxford. She went down so well she was offered a three year contract on one of the music hall circuits. During the First World War she sang some of the most popular songs of the day – Pack up your troubles, It’s a long way to Tipperary and Goodbyeee. Music hall stars often played principal boys in pantomime and Florrie Forde was no exception. She continued to perform until 1940 when she suffered a cerebral haemorrhage while entertaining the troops in World War 2.

The poet, Louis MacNeice, wrote of her in his poem Death of an Actress

With an elephantine shimmy and a sugared wink
She threw a trellis of Dorothy Perkins roses
Around an audience come from slum and suburb
And weary of the tealeaves in the sink.

The show goes on

Madame Bairewe is billed as the inimitable Tyrolean on her postcard. I found a mention of her in a newspaper from the Charleroi region in Belgium, dated 31st December 1916. Among the war reports there is an advert for a variety show. We are told the performance starts at 7.30 precisely and ends at 10 ‘very precisely’. The audience will have one hour to get to their homes. Artistes include American eccentrics, comic jugglers, dancers, acrobats and Madame Bairewe, described here as the celebrated Tyrolean. Another newspaper advert from around the same time describes her as a comic.

Madame Bairewe the inimitable Tyrolean

Madame Bairewe
the inimitable Tyrolean

Ivy Kidd

Ivy Kidd

Performers travelled in Europe for work during the First World War. There are two postcards of Ivy Kydd sent in 1915 and 1916. The first is sent to her by her ‘old pal’ Mabel, also a performer, who writes that she is sending the photo as promised. She goes on to say ‘we had fine success best on bill.’ The card has French stamps (postmark too faint to read) and is sent to Ivy in Puteaux, also in France. Ivy herself has written on the card saying, ‘Mr Maurice did this photo, but developed it in Toulouse, so Mabel sent it to me.’

I wonder if she sent this card on to her mother, who lived in London. In December 1916 Ivy sent her a card from Milan of herself in the Buffalo Belles, a Wild West show. She writes, ‘ Mr M says I look like a real Indian.’ Hard to work out which one is Ivy. She asks Mrs Kydd to keep all the postcards she sends and put them in an album ‘when you get it.’

The Buffalo Belles Wild West Show

The Buffalo Belles
Wild West Show

Who were they?

Unknown faces look out at us from the postcards, we sometimes have a name but it doesn’t always help in finding out about their lives. These women and young girls took up eccentric dancing, boxing, diving, mimicry to make a living on the halls. It was hard, travelling round the country, often appearing in dingy rooms at the back of drinking establishments where the audience were not shy of expressing their opinion of the artiste. It was a bad idea to appear just before a popular performer if you had a weak voice or your comic turn was not funny. The audience just wanted to see their favourite.

I have a postcard of the Sisters Romney sent to Mrs Johnings in Canterbury on 28th October 1914, not long after the start of the First World War.

Sisters Romney

Sisters Romney

The sender, Bert, writes that he saw the Sisters at Ramsgate Marina Hall at a Smoking Concert held by the town for the soldiers before they departed. He describes them as ‘lovely dancers and singers’ and as sisters, although they could have adopted this as part of their act. The back of the card is a poignant reminder of ordinary lives. Click on the card to read the message.Sisters Romney back