Tag Archives: Vesta Tilley

A Good Night Out

Music hall audiences had a reputation for rowdiness, often well deserved, as they didn’t attempt to hold back their feelings about an artiste. However this was mild compared to theatre in the Georgian period when the gentry would invade the stage during a performance causing the actors the indignity of elbowing their way to the front to say their lines. Spitting, bottle and orange peel throwing and sword-fighting were also audience pursuits, while the singing of popular songs competed with the thespians speaking from the stage. There was a fashion for the wealthier patrons to use their footman to save a seat, which meant the servant could be sitting next to ‘a lady of the first quality’ – just not done.

In the earlier part of the nineteenth century Song and Supper rooms in public houses, known as Free and Easies, were a form of popular entertainment. Entry was free but the audience were expected, nay encouraged, to buy alcoholic drink. Originally only men were admitted and the entertainment came from within the audience with amateur singers strutting their stuff. A reporter tells us ‘the entertainment given at these pothouses are of a low order. Songs are badly sung, mumbled or bawled with an earsplitting accent.’ This didn’t put off the punters and gradually landlords added rooms for the entertainment nights which could be two or three times a week. The Free and Easies developed a reputation for drunkeness and bad behaviour. A letter to the Fleetwood Chronlcle in 1876 tells of the writer passing a Free and Easy in Blackpool ’out of which four boys were coming, and into which two were going; one of them was smoking a short pipe and the others were using profane language; the ages of these boys were from twelve and fourteen years.’ In the same year the chief constable of Preston described a Saturday night where five to six hundred young persons, half of them apparently under the age of sixteen, were to be found in a Free and Easy. Women and girls were now enjoying this kind of entertainment and young women would often take their babies. Groups of women, unaccompanied by men, were common with work-mates and neighbours meeting up for a good night out. The Manchester Evening News in 1877 reported the Chief Constable of that area proposed there should be Free and Easies without intoxicating drinks but which instead would sell cocoa. This seemed doomed to failure.

Wilton’s Music Hall 1859

As the popularity of this form of entertainment grew the halls increased in size and professional acts were engaged. In the early halls the audience sat around tables, some facing away from the stage, and food and drink were served by waiters. There was much coming and going and the performer, without the luxury of a microphone, would battle to be heard above the general hubbub. Gradually music halls were built as separate buildings with audiences sitting in rows on various levels with bars for the the purchase of drinks. The main bar of the Metropolitan, Edgware, had a wide glass panel through which the entertainment could be viewed. The top tier, the gallery, was usually the rowdiest with the ’gallery boys’ hurling rotten fruit and veg, dead cats and even iron rivets at the stage to show their displeasure. The orchestra pit was often covered in wire netting to protect the musicians. The music hall managers were constantly engaged in trying to make their halls respectable with licence renewal a major worry. A contract from the Parthenon Music Hall Liverpool, signed by Adelaide and Oswald Stoll, contains the rule ’Every artiste must stringently avoid introducing any obscene Song, Saying or Gesture’. They were up against such reformers as Mrs Ormiston Chant who saw the halls as dens of depravity with predatory prostitutes and crude performers from whom the lower classes needed protection.

Marie Lloyd

In 1909 the unfortunate Miss Charlesworth appeared at the Islington Hippodrome (later Collins), the Canterbury and the Paragon. On each occasion a gentleman introduced her and took a long time over it, to the displeasure of the audience. When Miss Charlesworth finally appeared she was greeted with a cacophany of boos and hisses and declared herself too nervous to to sing. She bowed to the audience before leaving the stage to the sound of sarcastic laughter. Fortunately this was not the experience of all music hall performers although their reception could vary from hall to hall. Marie Lloyd, much loved in London, was given an unenthusiastic reception in Bradford but gave as good as she got by not responding to an encore at the finish. TS Eliot noted that he had seen Nellie Wallace ’interrupted by jeering or hostile comment from a boxful of East-enders’ but he had never known Marie Lloyd to be confronted by hostility. He also notes that Nellie Wallace made a quick retort that silenced her hecklers.

Vesta Tilley
Ada Reeve

When postcards became the rage in the early 1900s music hall artistes were well represented and their fans collected the cards and sent them with messages of their everyday lives. In 1906 Mrs Baldwin hopes to see Vesta Tilley a week on Monday while a couple of years earlier Miss Gordon looked forward to seeing ’this Lady’ in all her latest successes. Ted saw Vesta Tilley at the Hippodrome (postmark blurred) and sends a card saying ’this girl was one of the soldiers who sang some songs.’ Ada Reeve is described as a nice girl – ‘not half’ by THH when writing to Miss Caley in 1905 and Florrie writes to Ethel to say she went to the Palace in Hull and bought the postcard of Gertie Gitana, ’the star artist.’ These audiences probably restrained themselves from throwing rotten food at the stage but showed their feelings nevertheless by joining in with chorus songs, wild applause and a bit of heckling. They had their favourites and sang and whistled their songs as they went about their business, secure in the feeling they had found a place where they belonged.

Thanks to the British Newspaper Archive, The Victorian Music Hall – Dagmar Kift

Marie Lloyd and Music Hall – Daniel Farson, Marie Lloyd – Richard Anthony Baker

The Popularity of Music Hall website

Gertie Gitana

Behind the scenes


Waiting to go on at the Royal Music Hall

Music hall life was often far from the glamour and glitter we might imagine as this description of a dressing room by singer Lilian Warren shows. She is being interviewed for the trade Paper The Era in 1905 and remembers how artistes would apply their make-up by a ‘small piece of candle’ and a mirror which they supplied themselves. She tells of a music hall in Aberdare where thirteen performers shared one dressing-room where they clubbed together to make the room more acceptable. Lilian bought coal for the fire and the other girls provided the candles. By the time of her interview there had been a marked change with more comfortable, clean dressing-rooms provided.




Jenny Hill

Jenny Hill, ‘The Vital Spark’ became a successful and respected serio-comic but started life in poverty. At a young age she was articled for five years to the Bradford Tavern and her life was not her own. She started work cleaning the bars at a very early hour and then was expected to be changed and in the singing room by mid-day  to harmonise with the drinkers. She often worked until 2am and food was scarce. Jenny died in her late forties and her early life took a great toll.




Marie Lloyd

Marie Lloyd was known as being kind-hearted and was well aware of class distinction and the poverty of the working classes. One day she was leaving a music hall at the end of a performance when she found a group of children round the stage door. They had no shoes and generous Marie took them to a local shop and bought them boots. The next day they were at the stage door again but with no boots. This was recounted by another performer who was with Marie Lloyd at the time.


Vesta Tilley


Vesta Tilley encountered a different kind of behind the scenes experience when performing at a dinner for ‘the poor of London’ given by the King. She arrived at a large building in the city wearing her Eton schoolboy costume and found there were several rooms being used for the dinner. She was running up and down the stairs trying to find the right room passing various officials on the way. Vesta heard one of them indignantly comment that the problems were not helped by these boys getting in everyone’s way.



In her autobiography Vesta Tilley remarks on the rivalry that could exist between performers amid the desire to be top of the bill. There could be appropriation of a successful artiste’s songs or of part of their act and music hall managers were often unsympathetic as they could pay the imitator less money. Vesta felt that in some cases the audience wanted a particular song rather than a particular singer. She mentioned the case of mimics such as Cissie Loftus who was acknowledged as an excellent performer but would have songs lifted from her act by others who made little attempt to portray their subject in a way that was recognisable to the audience.


Cissie Loftus


Music hall performers had their highs and lows on and off the stage but they understood their audiences and their audiences loved them for it.



Thanks to the British Newspaper Archive, Recollections of Vesta Tilley, The Early Doors – Harold Scott







Wherever I lay my hat


The Kebbles

The nature of music hall life meant that the theatrical landlady was a figure looming large in the lives of performers. When lodgings were found, the artistes were dependent on the landlady for food and comfort. As early as 1864 a writer in the Newry Telegraph tells us the British landlady nourishes a general spite against mankind and that she reminds her lodgers of the soft settees they have left at home  by the painful contrast of a few flinty chairs and a horse-hair sofa, on which to snatch an interval of slippery repose. The landlady was often portrayed as ruling with a rod of iron, out to make as much money as possible by providing as little as possible. However, an article in the Manchester Courier in 1887, paints a much more glowing picture in which the landlady ‘obliges’ in different ways. She prepares late suppers, provides newspapers which might have ‘notices’ in them and could even supply a loaf of bread for the lodger of a less diligent landlady.




Madeline Rossiter

Performers often finished an engagement in one town and travelled to the next on the same evening. The Kebbles write that they will leave Southport on Saturday night and arrive in Edinburgh at seven the next morning. They add they are staying with Mrs Shaw. Annie Laurie, a refined comedienne and dancer, travels from Leicester to Middlesbrough and writes to Mrs Nicolson that she will arrive on the Sunday night about ten. She apologises for not having ‘wrote’ sooner. Madeline Rossiter thanks Mrs Brown in Cardiff for sending on a handkerchief and sends ‘best love’. These performers seem to know their landladies and feel comfortable with them.



Annie Laurie

There is a story of an artiste providing a landlady with eight sausages to be cooked but only six appeared at the table. The landlady boldly stated sausages do shrink so in cooking. Vesta Tilley tells of lodging in Manchester over the Christmas period in the same house as Dan Leno and his family. They were both very young and were looking forward to the Christmas Day feast provided by their families but cooked by the landlady. The meal was to be on the table by six o’clock at the latest so that they could return to the theatre for the third and last show. When they arrived for the turkey and plum pudding they found the landlady and her husband had been celebrating enthusiastically and had forgotten to cook the dinner. The Christmas feast descended into tea and boiled eggs.


Vesta Tilley




In 1887 Alexina Anderson was appearing in Robinson Crusoe in Leeds and was charged with assaulting her landlady, Mrs Wilcock. The defendant asked her landlady for some hot water and some unfriendly words passed between them with the pantomime star applying a forceful epithet to Mrs Wilcock. Miss Anderson was said to have struck her three times with a portion of fishing rod and was found guilty with a fine of ten shillings. In 1895 in Blackburn Mrs Hyland, a landlady, was summoned for using abusive language. Miss Doris, a cast member from the pantomime Babes in the Wood, was lodging opposite Mrs Hyland but visited other cast members at Mrs H’s house. The landlady was asked to serve a cup of coffee but Mrs Hyland brandished a poker and threatened to brain the lady if she didn’t leave the house. The police were called and she locked the officer and the others in a room together. Mrs Hyland was fined five shillings and costs.


The landladies had photographs displayed of their lodgers and kept a visitor’s book in which the artistes wrote their opinions of their stay. A couple of  newspaper articles of the time point out that that the comments were always complimentary as they would probably need to stay there again. The performers were always complaining about their lodgings in private. Landladies had a constant stream of performers with different wants and needs, sometimes staying for as little as two nights but expecting decent food, a comfortable bed and a clean room. Sometimes they found it, sometimes not. This is an advert from the Sussex Express which lists theatrical lodgings alongside adverts for church roof shinglers and ferrets.



Thanks to the British newspaper archive.co.uk,   Recollections of Vesta Tilley









Brighton Hippodrome

The Brighton Hippodrome started life as a skating rink and then became a circus before finding it’s true calling as a venue  for dramatic and variety performances in 1902. Tucked away in a narrow side street the rather plain exterior hid a glamorous venue designed by Frank Matcham, the theatre architect extraordinaire. IMG_0029It held around 2000 people and had five bars, refreshment rooms, lounges and promenades, warehouses, stabling and a large open yard. Before the grand opening a journalist from the trade paper, the Entr’acte, remarked that the facilities for dispensing liquors are very considerable while an advert for musicians states that evening dress and sobriety are indispensable. There was to be an orchestra of eighteen musicians, all to be experienced in the variety and circus business, and a first violin, piano, cello and bassoon were needed to complete it. In July 1901 first-class acts of all kinds were directed to write immediately to secure their bookings.


Vesta Victoria

We know that the biggest music hall stars of their day appeared at the Brighton Hippodrome, including Marie Lloyd, Vesta Tilley and Hetty King. Vesta Victoria, a very popular singer and comedian, had an off-stage adventure during her time at the Hippodrome in 1906. She went for a moonlight motorboat ride with some friends and when they were seven miles out to sea the petrol for the engine caught fire. They couldn’t put out the flames and the Derby Daily Telegraph reports that just when the situation appeared to be desperate, Miss Vesta Victoria lit upon the expedient of tying her motor-veil to a boat-hook and of waving it in the moonlight. This was seen by fishermen who rescued the group and brought them ashore.


Vesta Tilley

In her autobiography, Vesta Tilley tells of her experience in Brighton when playing the Hippodrome in the First World War. As Brighton was a coastal town no lights were permitted at all and she says she was obliged to literally feel her way from the Hippodrome to the Metropole Hotel each night after the performance. On one particularly dark night she and her maid found their way to the seafront and Vesta suggested guiding themselves by the railings. They finally realised they were getting no closer to the hotel and found they were walking round and round a small circular  garden in the centre of the road. VestaTilley is reputed to haunt the Brighton Hippodrome, but in a dress rather than stage costume, and there is said to be a whiff of her favourite perfume backstage.


Marie Lloyd


In 1921 Marie Lloyd appeared before the Duke of York (George VI) and the Prince of Wales (Edward VIII) at the Hippodrome and received the royal approval in that the ‘democratic‘ Prince of Wales applauded the performance despite the fact that it was not customary for royalty to applaud in theatres. So in the year before she died Marie was accepted and appreciated by the establishment.

To end with a bizarre story – in March 1907 the Mid-Sussex Times reported that the musical director at the Brighton Hippodrome had written to say that one of his hens had laid an egg weighing over five ounces. The egg could be seen at the Hippodrome any evening.



This is the Hippodrome at the present time. There is a campaign to save and restore the building. The website is ourHippodrome.org.uk

Thanks to the British newspaper archive.co.uk, Recollections of Vesta Tilley, Marie Lloyd – Richard Anthony Baker



Merry Nelly Power


Nelly Power

Merry Nelly Power was born in 1854 and according to an article in the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News started out on stage in 1863 at the Southampton Music Hall which was owned by her uncle. Her charm and vivacity  carried her to success in the provinces and London, where she entertained in pantomime and burlesque. In those days burlesque was a drama, usually with song and dance, which spoofed serious productions and made fun of the politics of the day. The topical references would often change from one performance to another and there were often exchanges between the actors and the audience. The risqué element was provided by women playing the part of men, dressed in tights and short trousers and sometimes smoking. The costumes were embellished with feathers, silks and fringes.

In 1867 Nelly was appearing at the London Metropolitan Music Hall in the Edgware Road with no star billing but by 1870 she was in the Four-Leaved Shamrock at the Canterbury Hall in London. The advertisement in The Sportsman tells us she is appearing every evening in the Grand Ballet, as Dermot, as the Pet Jockey and as Apollo. She also gave her celebrated imitations of the most popular songs of the day. She is obviously a big draw as the management is keen to point out prices will not rise during the engagement of this charming burlesque actress and the advertisement is devoted solely to Nelly. Here are two photos of burlesque costumes from the 1870s.

Augustus Harris engaged her as principal boy in pantomime and the up and coming  Vesta Tilley had her nose put slightly out of joint when she realised she was to play second fiddle to Nelly and also to be her understudy. In her recollections, Vesta makes the best of it, commanding a high salary and having a scene to herself to sing one of her popular songs. She points out, It was the one and only time I had played second fiddle’ while acknowledging Nelly Power was a great star in those days.

In 1874 Nelly married Israel Barnett who seems to have been an unscrupulous character and the marriage was not a happy one. In 1875 Nelly’s admirer, Frederick Hobson, was charged with assaulting Barnett who was by now living at an hotel in Covent Garden while Nelly lived with her mother in Islington. Nelly was filing for a divorce but Barnett hoped for a reconciliation and was upset to find Nelly in Hobson’s company on several occasions. From the reports of the trial we find out that Barnett had been involved in dodgy financial dealings and had spent a brief time in prison. He was unable to remember if there were any charges of fraud against him but did remember he was a bankrupt. Nelly gave a strange statement in which she said since she had known Barnett all her jewellery had been ‘swept away’ . Hobson was bound over to be of good behaviour for six months on a bond of £50. Nelly’s statement made more sense when I came across a report of a theft of jewellery from her home to the value of £1,500 in 1874. There was no evidence of a break-in and the theft was described as mysterious.



Nelly made a name for herself as an early male impersonator wearing tights, spangles and a curly-brimmed hat. She had a great hit with a song entitled La-di-dah which made fun of the swells of the day.

                                       Ee is something in an office, lardy dah!

                                       And he quite the city toff is, lardy dah!

It seems that females didn’t wear authentic male attire in the early days of male impersonation and Nelly may have been adapting a burlesque costume.

She faded for a while, suffering ill health, but in 1885 was appearing at three London music halls nightly and was said to retain all her old go. She died two years later, performing to the end, but there was no money to pay for the funeral. A subscription was got up to pay the undertaker but in the following year her agent, George Ware, was sued for £18 19s 6d as the full funeral costs had not been met. Not long after Nelly’s death her mother Agnes was taken to court by a draper who claimed £4 4s 3d for various articles supplied to the deceased in 1885 and 1886. These included bonnets, underclothing, gloves, fancy aprons, dress materials etc. The judge remarked that there was no money even to pay for the funeral and found for Mrs Power. Nelly’s greatest hit was ‘The Boy in the Gallery’ adopted cheekily and successfully by rising star Marie Lloyd.

Nelly Power was buried in Abney Park Cemetery in north London and her funeral procession was attended by at least three thousand people. The British Music Hall Society restored her neglected grave in 2001 and the inscription reminds us she was only thirty-two when she died.

NOTE – on some devices the last illustration of Nelly Power in male impersonator costume is showing upside down. I have tried to rectify this to no avail, so many apologies if she is standing on her head in your version.

Thanks to the British Newspaper Archive, Michael Kilgarriff, Recollections of Vesta Tilley







Dick Whittington as played by Miss E Beaufort, early unknown, Vesta Tilley and Hetty King

Pantomime season is here, although in Victorian times you’d have heard the cry, ‘Oh, no it isn’t‘ as pantomimes traditionally started on Boxing Day. The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in London set the benchmark for pantos all over the country but in the 1870s the theatrical Vokes family monopolised the production, a strategy which ultimately failed as it was reported ‘they were on stage far too long‘ and were ‘sublimely indifferent as to whether the story of Cinderella be a Sanskrit myth or a Greek fable‘. The production closed early, losing money and the following year the pantomime was staged by Augustus Harris. Harris hit on the idea of incorporating music hall stars into his shows and putting on spectacular scenes often with four or five hundred people on stage. The pantomime could last for anything up to five hours and Harris’s successor introduced an interval part way through finding that this contributed to a considerable increase in the sales of refreshments.

Such spectacular productions demanded dedication from the cast and the trade paper The Era gives us a taste of the hectic preparation for a panto. ‘The pantomimes are now in excellent working order, and attracting large audiences. Refractory traps have become obedient — fairy cars no more require the palpable hand of the stage carpenter to appear with a dingy shirt-sleeve in the midst of them, bewildere ballet-girls and stupified super-numeraries are found no longer rushing on in the wrong scene and never appearing in the proper one, the stage arrangements at last develop the original intention of the designers’. The trap is the star trap mentioned in a previous post through which the performer was propelled at speed, not without risk to life and limb. Some newspapers carried a special section of pantomime accidents and we find in 1861 that in one production a member of the cast was wounded when a pistol shot was misdirected and in another there was an escape of gas and an explosion.


Carrie Moore as Robin Hood

The introduction of music hall stars caused dismay in some quarters as they would perform their particular specialities which interrupted the story being told. Eccentric dances, acrobatics and topical songs were added to cash in on the popularity of the performer. Women from the music hall often took the part of principal boy wearing elaborate costumes and showing a shapely leg. Vesta Tilley was once engaged by Augustus Harris to play in Dick Whittington but just before rehearsals began the pantomime was changed to Beauty and the Beast and Vesta was to play the Prince. She found that that after the second scene the Prince was changed into the Beast and she would have to wear a mask until the final scene when the good fairy would change her back into the Prince again. Vesta was not happy with this and came up with a solution. She stipulated that she would not appear in the scenes in which her character was masked but would reappear for the final scene. This meant she could perform her own act in nearby variety theatres and she claims to have trebled her salary. Her role in the masked scenes was taken by John d’Auban but we don’t know how the audience felt about the substitution.

There’s so much to write about pantomime that the next blog will cover it as well. Oh, yes it will!


Thanks to ‘Recollections of Vesta Tilley’ and Westminster Reference Library

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

The masher

The masher



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.

Who sent the cards?

Sometimes the comments on the back of the postcards can be quite intriguing. On turning over a photo of Vesta Tilley we find a message from Ernest to Miss Eva Cooper in Dublin, sent from Glasgow in 1906. It says ‘we broke all previous records here yesterday. Had two of the biggest houses we ever had. Had a postcard from Holmes and one from Quigley...’ This sounds like music hall or theatre performances. Was Vesta Tilley involved? Was the postcard from Sherlock Holmes? The realms of fantasy are endless. Whatever the answers, it’s a wonderful photo.

Ernest's card of Vesta Tilley

Ernest’s card of Vesta Tilley

Then, as now, there were avid collectors of postcards but no short-cuts to finding that elusive special card. Nelly writes in 1906 apologising to her aunt, Mrs Thoruley in Bolton, as she can’t get the Vesta Tilley card she wants but instead sends one of Vesta with a cigar in the uniform of a soldier. Annie sends a card from West Hartlepool to Miss Turner to say it is the only one she can get of Vesta Tilley, this time holding a cigarette dressed as a young man about town. In 1905 Charlie is pleased to be able to send a card of Vesta at all as he has had to try several shops before being able to get it.

According to Norah in 1906 Hetty King has rather a nice face and Miss Greenhalgh of Southport receives a card from GS which says, ‘I believe you like sailors?’ This is written on the back of a card showing Hetty as a pipe-smoking sailor.

Hetty King - for anyone who likes sailors

Hetty King – for anyone who likes sailors

Bert also sends a card of Hetty the sailor to Aggie in 1907. It is rather touching as he writes, ‘you may expect me home on Fryday (sic). The boat leaves here at 9 o’clock but we don’t know what time we will get to Nottingham.’  

The card writers often apologise for their poor writing, explaining it is a ‘wretched pen‘ or they are writing while standing-up. Experience of trying to decipher these messages has taught me that handwriting was as varied then as it is now and was by no means an art form which has now been lost. I have a few cards sent to Seddon Cox Esq from Babs which are in mirror writing. They all feature Gabrielle Ray and Miss Craske and Babs remarks on the sauciness of the card shown here. I’ve included the back of the card as well for translation by the keener among you. Click on it and you should get an enlarged picture.

Mirror writing

Mirror writing

Gabrielle Ray and Miss Craske

Gabrielle Ray and Miss Craske

Performers used their own publicity postcards to communicate with boarding-houses and arrange meetings up and down the country. The Kebbles sent a card from Southport to Edward Stream telling him they will travel overnight to Edinburgh and asking him to call on them at their lodgings at Mrs Shaw’s.

The Kebbles card sent to Edward Stream

The Kebbles card sent to Edward Stream

Madeline Rossiter thanks Mrs Brown ‘in haste’ for sending on a handkerchief and Ruby Rowe asks God to bless Mr & Mrs Stream in 1921. Miss Effie Fellows ‘the one and only perfect boy’  uses her postcard to tell us she is the ‘one and only male impersonator who has dared to visit Scotland Yard, London, England in male attire without being discovered. She has repeated this stunt in every large city throughout the universe.’ 

Effie Fellows - the one and only Perfect Boy

Effie Fellows – the one and only Perfect Boy

Last, but not least, is Phyllis Broughton who was a Gaiety Girl and appeared on the theatre and music hall stage. She addressed and stamped cards of performers to herself and asked them to sign and return them. I have a Vesta Tilley card and one of Sybil Arundale, an actress and star of pantomime and musicals, with Phyllis’s address on the back.

Postcard addressed to  Phyllis Broughton

An example of Phyllis Broughton’s self-addressed postcards

Phyllis Broughton was at one time engaged to a colliery owner, John Hedley, but sent him a telegram to break off the engagement when she received a marriage proposal from the heir to Earl Cowley. The heir subsequently jilted her so she sued him for breach of promise, winning the case and a substantial sum of money. John Hedley had built a house for Phyllis and he kept this empty but in good repair as a shrine to her. It is said he sent her a basket of fruit and flowers from the garden every week. When he died he left most of his estate to Phyllis but she had pre-deceased him. The house became a home for distressed actors and actresses.

Phyllis Broughton

Phyllis Broughton

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.

Male Impersonators

The crowd have settled, the hammer has fallen and the performer moves into the limelight. A song, a dance, a novelty act, a wink and a smile transported women from the Music Hall into the lives of their audiences and sometimes into their hearts. Who were these women? How did they live their lives? Let’s visit their world.

Early male impersonators like Nelly Power, pictured here, wore tights and a curly brimmed bowler hat.

Early male impersonators like Nelly Power, pictured here, wore a man’s hat or jacket with tights.

A popular figure on the Music hall stage was the male impersonator.

Vesta Tilley was the highest paid music hall performer of her time. She started out aged four in 1868 and retired in 1920 at the age of  fifty-six.

Vesta Tilley was the highest paid music hall performer of her time. She started out aged four in 1868 and retired in 1920 .

There were many of them, famous names such as Nelly Power, Vesta Tilley, Hetty King and Ella Shields. Some were not so famous but known to the audiences of the time, among them Bessie Bonehill, Emma Don, Pauline Travis and Louie Tracy ‘the dapper dandy boy.’

Louie Tracy, the dapper dandy boy.

Louie Tracy, the dapper dandy boy.