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Monday, 3 January 2011

‘A Little of What You Fancy’ Or: Exploring the Life in Victorian Dancehalls & Theatres

An aspect of the 19th century that interests me is that of ‘celebrity’ and how new breeds of celebrity were born. In an age where books, newspapers and magazines (not like the magazine’s of today – more like newspapers) were the only media in peoples homes, the ‘celebrities’ were authors such as Dickens and Wilkie Collins who would give readings of their books, engineers such as Bazalgette and Brunel, the royal family themselves, artists and the like.

However, as the century wore on theatrical entertainment expanded from fusty old men acting Shakespeare and carriages pulling up outside a foreign Opera, which were very much middle and upper class persuits. Entertainment came to those closer to the bottom rung of the social ladder, and it came in the shape of the dance hall, which provided comical entertainment for all with comedic actors and actresses and light hearted musical ditties.

Was this the birth of modern day celebrity culture? In my short time as a ‘Victorianist’ I have yet to scratch the surface of the Victorian entertainment industry, (save for a blog post I did on the comedian Dan Leno, which you can read here) But its an area of the era that I have always found interesting, particularly from the point of view of the actresses who, in an era where women were, in many ways, inferior to men, appeared to be accepted on stage

With that in mind, I decided to choose two quite different Victorian actresses as my starting point, one for each side of the acting coin I have described above, and will allow them to escort me into this interesting topic.

Our hostesses are, first, one of the era’s finest Shakespearian actresses Ellen Terry, and second, ‘Lewd’ music hall star Marie Lloyd.

Ellen Terry (February 27, 1847 – July 21, 1928)
Ellen Terry aged 16; By Julia Margaret Cameron
Ellen Terry was born in Coventry into a theatrical family. Her parents, Benjamin Terry and Sarah Ballard had eleven children, five of which; Florence, Fred, Kate, Marion and of course, Ellen, went on to become actors, and two of which; George and Charles, went into theatre management. Ellen’s brother Charles would later father two daughters who would also appear on the stage, Minnie and Beatrice.

Ellen began acting as a child in Shakespeare plays with her first appearance on stage coming at the tender age of 8, when she appeared opposite Charles Kean as Mamillius in ‘The Winter's Tale’ at London's Princess's Theatre in 1856. She also played the roles of young Puck in ‘A Midsummer Night's Dream’ in 1856, Prince Arthur in ‘King John’ two years later, and Fleance in ‘Macbeth’ in 1859. That same year, Kean retired, and Ellen went on to appear in the comedy ‘Nine Points of the Law’, by Tom Taylor, at the Olympic Theatre. She was 12 years of age. For the next two years, she toured with her sister, Kate, performing sketches and plays with their parents and a musician.

Between 1861 and 1862, Ellen was engaged by the Royalty Theatre in London, managed by Madame Albina de Rhona, where she acted with W. H. Kendal, Charles Wyndham and other famous actors.

In 1862, she and her sister Kate joined J. H. Chute's stock company at the Theatre Royal in Bristol, where Ellen played a wide variety of parts, including burlesque roles requiring singing and dancing, as well as roles in ‘Much Ado about Nothing’, ‘Othello’ and ‘A Merchant of Venice’. 

In 1863, Chute opened the Theatre Royal in Bath, where Terry, now aged 15, appeared at the opening as Titania in ‘A Midsummer Night's Dream’ and then returned to London to join J. B. Buckstone's company at the Haymarket Theatre in both Shakespearean and modern comedic roles.
As a teen, Ellen continued acting in London and on tour. At age 16 In London, during a run at the Haymarket Theatre, Ellen and her sister Kate met, and had their portrait painted by the artist, George Frederick Watts. The artistic lifestyle of Watts made a big impression on Ellen, and in February 1864, shortly before her 16th birthday, she married him. Watts was 46.
Ellen gave up acting during her marriage to Watts, but the marriage was unhappy as neither she nor her husband were able to remain faithful and they separated after 10 months of marriage.

She returned to acting for a short time, but then began a relationship with the man with whom she had been unfaithful whilst married to Watts - the architect Edward William Godwin. During their affair Ellen had become pregnant with Godwin’s child. In 1872, when she was aged 25, Ellen gave birth to Edward Gordon Craig.
After the birth of Edward, she retired from the stage for six years and retreated to Hertfordshire with Godwin and their son, but their relationship ended in 1874, and she returned to acting.
Upon her return, Ellen was praised and received critical acclaim for her work in Shakespeare and other classics.

In 1878 she joined Henry Irving's company as his leading lady, and for more than twenty years she was considered to be the leading Shakespearean and comic actress in Britain.
Two of her most famous roles were Portia in ‘The Merchant of Venice and Beatrice in ‘Much Ado About Nothing. She and Henry Irving also toured with great success in America and Britain.

In 1903 Ellen took over management of London's Imperial Theatre, but the venture was a financial failure. Ellen then toured and later also lectured.

In 1916, at the age of 69, she appeared in her first film as Julia Lovelace in ‘Her Greatest Performance’, and she maintained a successful stage acting career until 1920, and also appeared in films until 1922. Her career lasted almost 70 years.

In 1925 Ellen was made a Dame Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire, only the second actress to receive the honour. In her later years she gradually went blind and suffered from senility.
On July 21, 1928, Ellen died of a cerebral haemorrhage at her home in Kent, at the age of 81. Her ashes lie in a silver chalice in St Paul's Church, Covent Garden, London. Her son, Edward Gordon Craig, went on to become an important actor, designer, and director. He married May Gibson and they had four children but his long term lover was the dancing legend Isadora Duncan. They had a daughter together, Deirdre who was tragically killed aged 7 by drowning in the Seine. Her grand nephew, Sir John Gielgud, also became an actor. 

The singer Helen Terry and illustrator Helen Craig are also descendants of hers.

Stephen Coleridge anonymously published Terry's second autobiography, The Heart of Ellen Terry in 1928.

Marie Lloyd (12 February 1870 – 7 October 1922)
Marie Lloyd was born Matilda Alice Victoria Wood on February 12th 1870 in Hoxton, London as the eldest of nine children. Her father, John Wood, was an artificial flower maker, and part-time waiter at the Royal Eagle Tavern. His wife, Matilda, was a largely independent woman and dressmaker.

As soon as she was old enough, Marie began helping her mother with dress-making and in her spare time organized her sisters and friends into a performing group called the Fairy Bells Minstrels - 'minstrel' groups being extremely popular in the 1870’s and 1880’s. The Fairy Bells toured the local mission halls with an act preaching the evils of drink - an ironic beginning to a career which ended with Marie staggering in simulated drunkeness on the stage singing "It’s a Bit of a Ruin That Cromwell Knocked About a Bit”. ‘The evils of drink’ would also go on to play a cruel role in her personal life.

After working at a handful of menial jobs, the larger-than-life Marie quickly grew bored and decided that she would pursue a career on stage. Her first appearance was in 1886 at “The Grecian" under the stage name of Bella Delamare, where the 16 year old Marie sang two songs; a ballad called ‘Time is Flying’ and ‘My Soldier Lassie’. The gig ended with Marie dancing an Irish jig which, in her own words: 'went down immense'.

From this crowd-pleasing turn Marie earned a trial performance at the Belmont Music Hall in Hackney Road, followed by a week's worth of shows there, for which she received the huge sum of £15 per week. She began to perform at small halls, two or three in a night, and became an almost overnight success. She channged her name from Bella Delamare to Marie Lloyd; the 'Marie' being chosen because it was thought to be 'classy' – where Lloyd came from, nobody seems to know!

Within a year Marie was earning good money and had met a man named Percy Courtenay, to whom she got married on November 12th 1887. Percy was 25 and Marie 17, (although she lied about her age on the marriage certificate and said that she was 18.)

Marie and Percy lived very comfortably in a nice house in Lewisham, existing almost solely on Marie’s wages from her stage work as Percy had no regular job other than occasional touting at various race tracks. Despite Marie giving birth to a baby daughter whom they named after Marie’s mother, Matilda, their marriage hit the rocks when Percy began drinking heavily and treating Marie badly.

By 1893 they were living all but separate lives. Percy, however, did not wish to let Marie – or her money – go, and would constantly show up at her performances and attempt to get backstage. In the end, she notified the police, telling them she felt threatened by him. Percy was arrested, and in court, the Magistrate found against him. Their marriage ended in 1894.
Whilst her private life was less than happy, Marie's career went from strength to strength. Between 1891 and 1893 she performed in pantomime at Drury Lane with the great comedian Dan Leno and was a great success.
Her first major success in the music hall was ‘The Boy I Love is Up in the Gallery’, with which she quickly became one of the most famous of English music hall singers. Her performances mirrored, and poked fun at, the disappointments of life, especially for working-class and poor women.

Marie’s songs, although harmless, antiquated and even charming by today’s standards, began to gain a reputation for being ‘racy’ and filled with clever double entendres. This was largely down to the way she sang them with a knowing wink and a smile and the odd gesture which created a conspiratorial relationship with the audience. Her ability to add lewdness to the most innocent of lyrics led to frequent complaints from the stereotypically Victorian morality groups who blamed her, and artists like her for many of society’s ills. She became the target of Vigilance committees, who, along with other voices for morality and abstinence opposed music halls, and had succeeded in closing down institutions such as Cremorne Gardens.

Marie liked to claim that any immorality or lewdness was in the minds of those making the complaints, and in front of these groups would sing her songs straight faced, without the gestures or winks to show their supposed innocence. In one famous incident, she was summoned before one of these committees and asked to sing her songs. She sang them "Oh! Mr. Porter" and "A Little of What you Fancy", in such a sweet and innocent way, that when she had finished, the committee could not back up any of their claims.

However, for her third number she sang the popular and innocent drawing room ballad ’Come into the Garden Maud’. She made the cozy song – which had probably been sung after dinner parties in many of the committee members’ own drawing rooms – her own, by giving such an obscene rendition that the committee was shocked into silence.
On another occasion, when the moralists objected to her song ‘I sits among the cabbages and peas’, which, when performed, made it clear that ‘peas’ referred to urinating, she changed the lyrics to ‘I sits among the cabbages and leeks’ to the roars of laughter of her adoring audience, who still recognized the reference (a leak being a colloquialism for urinating)

Marie first appeared in America in1897 at the age of 27, where her "blue" reputation preceded her. In an interview in the New York Telegraph she defended herself, saying:

“They don't pay their sixpences and shillings at a music hall to hear the Salvation Army. If I was to try to sing highly moral songs, they would fire ginger beer bottles and beer mugs at me. I can't help it if people want to turn and twist my meanings.”
—Marie Lloyd, New York Telegraph

When she returned to England Marie met and fell in love with the singer Alec Hurley and in 1901 they went to Australia, where they performed on stage together with tremendous success. She and Alec had lived together for four years before Percy Courtenay finally divorced her in 1905. She and Alec were married the following year.

Shortly afterwards came the Music Hall Strike. This strike was called by the smaller artists who, because of changes in their contracts, found themselves giving extra performances for no extra pay. Marie, being a big name, commanded whatever fee and terms she pleased but, despite her own success, she supported other performers and contributed generously to the Strike Fund.
Marie was noted for her generosity and had paid nightly for 150 beds for the homeless and destitute of London and for boots for small barefoot children who clustered round the stage door.

The Music Hall Strike ended in success for the performers, but the Managers of the theatres took this defeat bitterly, and in later years would take their revenge on Marie…

By 1910 Marie and Alec’s marriage was becoming more and more unhappy, thanks in no small part to Marie meeting – and falling in love with – young Irish jockey Bernard Dillon. He was 22 and Marie was 40 and in no time Marie had left Alec and moved in with Bernard. A year later, after the Jockey Club revoked Dillon's license, his career was finished and he, like her first husband, Percy, turned to drink.

On top of this blow came the moment the theatre managers had been waiting for; the first Royal Command Performance was held in 1912 and was especially for the artists of the Music Hall.
The list of artists chosen to perform was released, but there was one glaring omission: Marie Lloyd.
She waited in vain for her name to be added to the list and then, on the day of the performance, pluckily staged her own show at the London Pavilion, with printed strips stuck on the posters bearing the defiant slogan ‘Every Performance by Marie Lloyd is a Command Performance’ and ‘By Order of the British Public’.

The following year, in 1913, Marie undertook a six month tour of America with her beau, Bernard. Despite not being married, (indeed, Marie was still married to Alec Hurley) they traveled as Mr. and Mrs. Dillon. Upon being questioned when they arrived in America by an immigration officer, this fact was discovered and they were refused entry to the United States.

The next morning, Marie and Bernard – along with several lawyers, attended an enquiry in which she was told that both she and Bernard would be deported for 'moral turpitude' and held on Ellis Island until the ship 'Olympic' sailed back to England on the following Saturday.
On the Friday, she and Bernard boarded the ship prepared to return to England, but on the Saturday morning, just as they were about to sail, word came that they would be allowed to stay if Marie gave bail of £600 and they stayed in separate hotels.

Two months later, in the middle of Marie’s tour of America, her real husband, Alec Hurley died, and Marie married Bernard at the British Consulate in Portland, Oregon. Once again, Marie lied about her age on the marriage certificate; stating her age as 37. She was 44, Bernard was 29.

During the First World War, like most music hall artists, Marie supported recruitment for the army. The music hall bills often contained the addendum of a recruitment speech in order to drum up interest, with shows being put on whilst men signed up. During these shows, Marie sang the song ‘I didn't like you much before you joined the army, John, but I do like you, cockie, now you've got your khaki on.’ Which became popular with troops, she also sang in many free concerts for the masses of wounded men returning from the trenches.

As the years passed Bernard’s drinking became heavier and, as history repeated itself for the Queen of the Music Halls, her husband began to beat her. Marie herself then began drinking, and the situation worseded until in 1920 Bernard was charged with assaulting Marie's father. The couple then separated.

From then on Marie disintegrated. She still worked but it became more and more difficult to get her on to the stage in time. Her voice became weak and her act shorter and shorter.
On 4th October 1922, at the age of 52, Marie Lloyd was appearing at the Empire Music Hall in Edmonton, London and the last song in her act was her famous ‘It’s a Bit of a Ruin That Cromwell Knocked About a Bit’.
During the performance she staggered about on the stage as the audience laughed at her mock drunken antics. She fell to the floor to the sound of uproarious cheers. Marie had if fact collapsed.
She died three days later. Her funeral on 12 October 1922 was attended by more than 100,000 people.

The Queen of the Music Hall 'Our Marie' as she was affectionately known, was gone, and she took the music hall with her. In the late twenties and early thirties, attendances to the now seemingly outdated form of entertainment waned.

 Reading the poignant stories about the lives of Ellen Terry and Marie Lloyd – two quite different, and yet, in many ways, quite similar women – for the purpose of writing these pieces has, I think, given me a great starting point on the subject of Victorian entertainment, particularly the dance hall.

If anyone can recommend further reading on this subject then all suggestions would be welcome.


  1. They both sound like fascinating women, especially Marie given the drinking hall angle. Thanks for sharing.

  2. I thought Marie's story was particularly poignant, given the hardships she suffered in her life.

  3. Interesting piece. You go rather too far when you say that the music halls "were set up as recruitment centres". This is overstating the case, though it is true that at some shows a recruitment speech would be added to the tradition show of singers, acrobats, ballet, boxing etc etc.

  4. Thanks for the correction, I've altered my text - input appreciated! I'm not an expert on many of these aspects so its nice when someone with a little more knowledge adds their input.

    All the best