Tag Archives: Bessie Bonehill

A market for vice and drinking

Mrs Ormiston Chant

In late Victorian times music halls were a countrywide institution and had moved on from grimy rooms at the back of public houses to full blown palaces of entertainment with elaborate architecture and lavish interiors. However, they still had their critics with the foremost among them being Mrs Ormiston Chant of the Purity Party whose view was that the halls catered for people who had a small proportion of brains. She began a campaign to remove the much appreciated Ladies of the Promenade from the Empire, Leicester Square, in London. This did not please a young Winston Churchill who wrote in his autobiography we were scandalised by Mrs Chant’s charges and insinuations. Churchill was filled with scorn when a canvas screen was put up to hide the exquisitely dressed prostitutes and was part of a crowd who later tore it down. The council closed the bars and the canvas screen was replaced by railings but the decision was reversed at the next licensing session and the discreet ladies returned. Marie Lloyd fell foul of the prudes on the prowl at the Empire when Mrs Ormiston Chant made a public protest by shouting out during one of her songs. Even the Empire’s footmen in blue and gold livery could not convince the purity campaigner that this was a respectable house.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Marie Lloyd received a less than flattering description from Virginia Woolf after a visit to the Bedford Music Hall in Camden Town. We went to the Bedford Music Hall last night and saw Miss Marie Lloyd, a mass of corruption – long front teeth – a crapulous way of saying desire and yet a born artist – – A roar of laughter went up when she talked of her marriage. She is beaten nightly by her husband. This was at the music hall built in 1899 on the site of the original Bedford Music Hall (1861). The original being later known as the Old Bedford and providing the setting for a series of Sickert’s music hall paintings.

The dancer, Maud Allan, caused a stir in 1908 with her classical dancing and costume particularly when performing Salome which was banned from some music halls and theatres. The Palace, Manchester, received a visit from the Chief Constable who watched her performance and advised the Manchester Watch Committee to prohibit her appearance. He expressed a wish to go on the stage to get a closer look at her costume but was denied this by the managing director, Mr Alfred Butt. The Chief Constable was very anxious to accept Mr Butt’s suggestion that he look at the costume when Miss Allan had changed but was stopped by the official who was with him. Maud Allan agreed in some cases to dispense with the carrying of St John the Baptist’s head on a platter during her performance. I was amused to see that on one occasion she was followed on the bill by Juliette’s Sea-Lions.

America was not without it’s perils for the music hall star as male impersonator, Bessie Bonehill, found out during a season at Tony Pastor’s theatre in New York. She kept an anonymous note she received which quoted a passage from the scriptures, The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, for all that do so are an abomination. Bessie Bonehill had short hair, unusual for the time, and did not wear wigs unlike many male impersonators. The Daughters of America tried to have her expelled from the country but she was enormously popular.

Thanks to British Newspaper Archive, Marie Lloyd and Music Hall by Daniel Farson, Marie Lloyd Queen of the Music Halls by Richard Anthony Baker, England’s Gem – the story of Bessie Bonehill by Richard Bonehill

Bessie Bonehill

Bessie Bonehill

Bessie Bonehill

Bessie Bonehill was born into a poor family in 1855 in West Bromwich and was originally part of a clog dancing act called The Three Sisters Bonehill. It is said she first started dressing as a young boy in 1862 which would back up her claim to be the first male impersonator in the music hall. She was a highly paid principal boy in pantomime and became famous on the halls for singing patriotic songs including one entitled ‘Here stands a Post’ in which Bessie was dressed as a young soldier. The song became an instant hit. It was originally sung by Miss Rosa Garibaldi who was the niece of General Garibaldi. Rosa was engaged at the Royal Music Hall, Holborn in March 1878 at a sum of £3 weekly but her voice didn’t go down well with the crowd and she wasn’t asked back for a second week. Bessie adopted the song and had the success denied to Rosa with horse-drawn London buses carrying posters advertising the tremendous success of Bessie Bonehill.

Her success continued and she travelled to America to appear at Tony Pastor’s theatre in New York. Apparently she received at least a dozen proposals of marriage a week and was so popular she was re-engaged with an enormous salary increase. However, the Daughters of the American Revolution were not impressed by a woman dressing as a man and tried to have her thrown out of America. In one of her scrapbooks Bessie kept an anonymous note she had received. It quoted this passage from the scriptures; ‘The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, for all that do so are an abomination’. It claimed to have been sent ‘in love’. Bessie cut her hair short for her impersonation roles, unlike many male impersonators who wore wigs, which probably helped to fan the flames of righteous indignation.

Bessie Bonehill with her short hair.

Bessie Bonehill with her short hair.

At one point at Tony Pastor’s theatre Bessie Bonehill and Millie Hylton, another male impersonator from the West Midlands, carried out three hundred and sixty consecutive sell-out performances over five weeks with Bessie earning $450 a week. She was an astute business woman and invested in a farm on Long Island which had a fruit farm, granary, dairy and cheese factory.

Bessie Bonehill and Millie Hylton were linked in another, less pleasant way. Performers were open to blackmail in those days, with gangs threatening to disrupt their performances if a payment wasn’t forthcoming. Bessie was playing in the pantomime Aladdin in Sheffield when she was followed home by a group of people of the ‘coster type’ who asked for money for the applause they had given her during the evening. They claimed to have been paid by other performers in the past. She refused and on the Saturday evening there was a loud hissing as she began a song. Bessie told the audience what had happened and the would-be blackmailers were removed from the theatre to loud applause. She was accompanied home by a constable every evening in case she was attacked for her bravery. Millie Hylton was not so lucky as she and her brother were attacked on their way home from her performance in a pantomime in Birmingham. The New Zealand Herald tells us they were set upon by two ‘roughs’ and five women. According to the newspaper account her brother was beaten unconscious and the women dragged Millie to the ground, kicked her and made as if to strangle her. She had refused to succumb to the blackmail of paying for applause and the police thought this attack was the would-be blackmailers’ revenge. There is a wonderful photo of Millie Hylton and others waiting for their turn at the Royal Music Hall, Holborn. She is in the middle with a white stick. Performers didn’t always get dressing-rooms to wait in and conditions were crowded and rudimentary, particularly for those lower down the bill.

Waiting to go on at the Royal Music Hall

Waiting to go on at the Royal Music Hall

This post is a tribute to Richard Bonehill who died in February 1915. We never met but swapped notes about Bessie. Richard published a book called ‘England’s Gem’ – the story of Bessie Bonehill.

Who’s a pretty boy?

Emma Don 1873-1951

Emma Don 1873-1951

Male impersonators are a fascinating part of music hall history and I have a lot of postcards of these artistes. This post is mainly pictorial and then in the next post I’ll choose one performer to talk about in more detail. I can’t resist showing the not so good along with the sublime and I’ll leave you to decide which is which.

Gertie Lewis Photo around 1908.

Gertie Lewis
Photo around 1908.

Hettie (Hetty) King 1883-1972

Hettie (Hetty) King

Vesta Tilley 1864-1952

Vesta Tilley 1864-1952

Deb St Welma  Aka Deb Webb and Teddie Webb. Photo around 1917.

Deb St Welma. Also appeared as Deb Webb and Teddie Webb.    Photo around 1917.

Bessie Bonehill 1855-1902

Bessie Bonehill

Ella Shields 1879-1952

Ella Shields

Flo Dixie  Photo around 1921. Described as the bantam male impersonator.

Flo Dixie
Photo around 1921. Described as the bantam male impersonator.