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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.