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Saturday, 22 September 2012

“A Queen of Swell Society, Fond of Fun as Fond can be…” Or: Some Music Hall Stars:

For the past month here we have been delving into the incredible world of the Victorian music halls, and personally I have learned a great deal. The halls provide an entirely new world of the nineteenth century in which to peek and study, and it would be a lifetime’s work to unlock all the secrets and understand everything about this most jovial-seeming world of laughter and costume.

My guest bloggers have lifted the lid a little on that world, and what we have discovered consequently has changed my perspective on the Victorian halls. The following articles on various stars of the halls, which are my contribution to this month of music hall related articles, have confirmed that change in perspective.

Whilst reading the articles that have appeared here over the past four weeks I have noticed a tinge of sadness running through them like a silent undercurrent. Amongst the make-up and the gas lights the more I read about the music halls the stronger this sense becomes, but it was not crystallized until I completed writing about the four music hall stars who are the focus of this article.

All four of them enjoyed great success in various forms on the stage, be it singing, acting, or dancing, but their stories leave a melancholy echo in the ear. Whether this is true, I leave for other readers to form an opinion. Perhaps the sadness is on my part, and stems from the fact that these institutions are no longer there; and that on every site which used to house a music hall is now only faded echoes of laughter and applause.

Sylvia Grey: (1866 – 1958)

Like most nineteenth century stage stars, London-born Sylvia Grey began her career at an early age, appearing as a ten year old in Shakespeare plays at Sadler’s Wells. She continued acting on stage until the age of twelve, when she enrolled in Trinity College, London. The performing arts school was established in 1877, and so Sylvia would have been among the first attendees of the new establishment. Sylvia graduated with a degree in music, and used this to become a professional singer with a choir.

Whilst with the choir Sylvia continued to study music and singing, and took several small roles on stage, first at the Vaudeville Theatre, and then at the Gaiety. The Gaiety had opened in 1868 as a Music Hall and Burlesque house, replacing the Strand Musick Hall. At the Gaiety, Sylvia learned to dance with the burlesque performers under the tutelage of famous dancer, actor and choreographer John D’Auban. D’Auban had also been a child star before becoming ballet master at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and after that, had taken up the post of dance master at the Alhambra, before moving to the Gaiety. Sylvia made her stage debut as a dancer in 1884 at the age of nineteen, and the following year appeared in ‘The Vicar of Wide-Awake-Field’ for which she was paid the princely sum of £6 a week. Her performances lead to her being promoted to principal dancer at the Gaiety. In 1887 she was given her first speaking part in the play ‘Miss Esmerelda’. Her lines were:

Customer: “How much are your hyacinths?
Sylvia: “Two Shillings a bunch, sir.”
Customer: “Why, yesterday they were a shilling.”
Sylvia: “Yes, but they’re higher since.”

Following her success, she went on to play in many of the Gaiety’s burlesques, and between 1885 and 1889 in ‘Little Jack Sheppard’ (playing Polly Stanmore) and ‘Ruy Blas and the Blasé Roue’, (playing Donna Christina) she even embarked on an eighteen month world tour. But despite her success with the Gaiety, Sylvia actually made more money giving private dance lessons to anyone interested who could pay. Her clients ranged from actors to aristocracy, and counted the great Ellen Terry as one of her students.

Sylvia married in 1893, and made her final West End performance two years later in 1895 playing Countess Acacia in ‘Baron Golosh’. She was twenty-nine when she retired from the stage.
During the First World War she ran an Australian officers club in Piccadilly, London, and went on to appear in a few French motion pictures in the early 1920’s

Sylvia Grey died on 6th May 1958 at the grand age of ninety-two, and in a lovely obituary in The Times, it was told how:

“…In spite of her great age she resolutely refused to grow old and to the end she retained a wide circle of friends who delighted in her anecdotes of the halcyon days of Gaiety burlesque.”
            -The Times, May 7th 1958

* * *

Vesta Victoria: (1873 – 1951)

 Despite being born in Leeds, Vesta Victoria (born Victoria Lawrence) went on to become a great ‘cockney’ character in the music halls. Again, she started her career young, performing on stage with her Music Hall manager father as a child. She continued playing minor roles on stage until her career took off in 1892 thanks to a hit song.

Daddy Wouldn’t Buy me a Bow Wow’ was performed by Vesta for the first time at South London Palace – a music hall in Lambeth, whilst holding a kitten. The song was the most successful in the sixty-year songwriting career of James Tabrar, and it made Vesta a star. It was also released on phonograph in America to much success in the same year.

Two years after the performance that gave her her big break, Vesta gave an interview to the Daily Mail:

Special Interview

It is not often (writes a representative of the MaiI) that one has the opportunity of having a talk with “Vesta Victoria,” or, to give her her baptismal name, Victoria Lawrence. As I neared Mrs Matcham’s house — with whom Miss Lawrence and her mother are staying — l felt a pang of remorse; for I knew that Miss Vesta had had a trying time of it at the Alhambra the night previous; she gave no less than seven songs. Still, interviewing hardens one's heart and steels one's nerves.
It was early in the day. I was comfortably seated in a luxurious chair, when in walked Miss Lawrence. She was tastefully dressed in a morning gown of red trimmed with lace. “Now, Miss Vesta, I have been sent to gain some information about yourself. It is sure to be interesting reading for people, because you know they regard you almost as one of themselves.”
“I am afraid I have not very much to tell you. My life off the stage has been most uneventful. However, I will do my best.”
“We might as well begin as the beginning,” I said. “Tell me when first you took to the stage?”
“Oh," with a roguish smile, “that is so long ago, you know, that I can scarcely remember. Let me see. I should not be quite five years old when I was first before the footlights. It was at my father's Hall at Gloucester. I used to go on the boards every Friday night to get accustomed the audience. Soon after that I got my first real engagement at Dublin at Dan Lowry's Star Music Hall. Ever since I have been very successful and never once looked back.”
“Are you fond of the profession?”
“Ah; I knew would ask me that question; all interviewers do. Yes, I am; but you know I was disappointed the first night of my present appearance in Hull. I had three new songs, and the audience did not catch the choruses. You know we sing a lot better if the choruses ‘go.'
I did not venture to smile for fear of the “wrath to come,” so on the other hand I sympathised, and agreed that the audience was dull one.
“Have you had any strange experiences?” I asked.
Poster for 'Bow Bow'
“Yes, I remember one at Middlesbrough particularly well. For some time I was billed as ‘Baby Victoria,' but I soon threw the infantile name away, and blossomed into full ‘Miss Victoria.’ Under that name I was engaged at Middlesbrough. My father — Mr Joe Lawrence — was with me, and when the manager saw my father he asked where ‘Miss Victoria' was. When he found out that I was 'Miss Victoria’ he refused to allow me to perform, I was such a little dot. He said, ‘that little kid is too young to do anything!' My father asked him if he expected an old woman with wrinkles. Oh; we had an awful time! My father and the Manager were about two hours arguing, and at last it was decided that I should do my turn, and if not satisfactory would receive no money. When I heard that, I made up my mind to do the thing properly, and was very determined about it. Well, I went on and was a wonderful success. After my turn the manager came and took me up in his arms and wanted to kiss me, but father interfered and would not let him. He was awfully nice then, and apologised for his bad behaviour. That sort thing — not the kissing, but the misunderstanding — happened at three other halls, where I had been engaged as Miss Victoria.”
“What a brute the fellow must have been. But have you had any local experiences worth recording?”
“No, nothing particular, except once, when I was at Beverley with Alice Featherstone —one of the Verne sisters, and sister to Mrs Matcham. It was about eight years ago. I would be 12 or 13. We had been to a concert, and we missed the last train back to Hull. We were in a dreadful way, and didn't know what to do. I remember was awfully tired and frightened, but we managed to obtain a trap. I don't think I should have been frightened if I had my ' bow-ow-ow' with me,” said Miss Lawrence, with a merry laugh.
“Ah, that reminds me. Do you mind telling me something about that famous song?”
“Oh, I had almost forgotten to mention it to you, and it has an interesting history. I was doing turns at the Pavilion, South London, and the Standard; and one Friday night Mr Joseph Tabrar mentioned that had an idea for a song, and he wrote it for me. From the outset it went ‘like all that,’ and on the first night a sister artiste — Miss Alice Conway — handed me a bouquet, in the middle of which I found a little black kitten. That was just before I went to America, and I decided to take Pussy with me. As you know, I always sang the song after that with the cat in my arms.”
I murmured “happy kitten,” and then asked if “the trip across the Atlantic was enjoyed?” “I enjoyed myself at the far end. I had a lovely time. The Americans are so nice; but still I like the English quite, or nearly, as well. In New York 'Bow-wow' took a great hold, and in less than two months more than 5,000 copies were sold. I received all sorts of presents. See, this marquise ring I had given me; and, wait a minute, I will show you some others.”
Vesta Victoria returned with armful of boxes. One contained a handsome large gold medal, the gift Mr Paster; a pendant watch, encrusted with diamonds; a fine diamond bracelet, and other “costly trifles,” all of which had been presented her by American friends. There was also a neat workbox given by the chorus at the Alexandra Theatre, Sheffield, where Miss Lawrence was a great success in the character of the Princess in “Alladdin.”
“Now, just another question, Miss Vesta. Are you pestered with love letters and that sort of thing?”
“Oh, yes. I have had a very fair share. There is one I have upstairs. It is great fun. It is from the son of a proprietor of a London Hall. The poor boy is about sixteen and when he heard that inaccurate report about my being engaged he wrote me a loving letter and told me that ‘he envied my old man.’ I have had lots of others asking for appointments and that sort of thing, but they write in vain.”
            - Daily Mail, 1st March 1894

In the same year she gave the above interview, Vesta married music hall manager Frederick Wallace McAvoy. They had a daughter together, but McAvoy was a cruel, abusive and adulterous husband, and so they divorced after a ten year marriage in May 1904.

Following her divorce she began seeing William Edward Herbert Terry, and whilst in New York in 1912 they announced that they were married. A year later they had a daughter named Iris Lavender Terry, but their 1912 marriage seems to have been made up, as English records show that Vesta and William were married in Wandsworth in 1920. (The ‘lie’ about their being married in America was possibly because they knew she was pregnant and wanted to avoid the ignominy of a child out of wedlock, or maybe so that they would be allowed on the boat back to England - in 1913 another Music Hall star, Marie Lloyd was refused entry from England into America on the grounds of ‘Moral Turpitude’ for having undertaken the journey there with a man to whom she said she was married, but under questioning from American authorities, admitted she was not.)

The marriage to William ended in 1926, Vesta having filed for divorce on the grounds of “Ill-usage and association with other women” So far, so unlucky in love.

Vesta proved a comedy hit not only in the UK, but also in America, where she embarked on a lucrative tour of USA vaudeville theatres in 1907. She retired from the stage just after the First World War, but during the 1930’s appeared in a few films and at a couple of Royal Variety Shows. Vesta, who, judging by the interview she gave to the Mail, owned many expensive gifts, was twice the victim of robbery; the first instance being in 1926. She had made a return to the stage in Bristol, and whilst she was away her fifty six year old housekeeper Florence Smith stole 181 uncut diamonds worth £174. Smith tried to sell the diamonds to a pawnbroker on the Edgware Road for £60. This raised the suspicions of the pawn shop owner who called for the Police. Smith, giving a false name, insisted that Vesta had asked her to pawn the objects. Vesta was telephoned by the police, who confirmed that this was not the case, and the housekeeper was arrested.

The second theft occurred in 1934 when thieves broke into her home in Roydon, Essex, and stole jewellery that had previously belonged to the Russian Royal Family worth between £5,000 and £10,000. Vesta had worn the jewels whilst performing at a charity concert in London, and whilst the majority had been returned to a safety deposit box, she had taken two of the pieces home, and they were promptly stolen during the night.

Vesta Victoria died on April 7th 1951 in Hampstead, London, aged 78. At Golders Green Crematorium a lilac tree was planted in her memory, but this is no longer there.

* * *

Letty Lind: (1861 – 1923)

Letty Lind (Born Letitia Rudge in Birmingham) first appeared on stage at the tender age of five when she secured the role of Eva in a stage adaptation of ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin.’ Her mother was an actress who worked on stage in the Birmingham area during a very short acting career, but Letty and her siblings would go onto far greater success.

Letty, along with her siblings Sarah, (stage name Millie Hylton) Elizabeth, (Adelaide Astor) Fanny (Fanny Dango) and Lydia (Lydia Flopp) all had some kind of career on the stage, first as dancers, then as singers and performers in pantomime and comedy and previously mentioned theatres the Gaiety and Daly’s.

At the age of ten, Letty went on tour with American writer Howard Paul and his wife. She enjoyed a successful time on stage, but in private this was not to be an enjoyable period. Howard Paul had an affair with her which resulted in Letty becoming pregnant in 1878. Howard was forty-eight and Letty only seventeen. For this to happen once was perhaps careless to put it mildly, but in 1880 Letty again fell pregnant by Howard; both babies died in infancy. Between the two pregnancies Letty made her London stage debut at the Princess’s Theatre in Howard’s farce ‘Locked Out’ in 1879. Other than being the first time she performed in London, this occasion was notable for being the first time she used the name of ‘Letty Lind’ (Howard had always billed her as ‘La Petite Letitia). This review from the same year suggests that her abilities in singing and dancing were already starting to please crowds:

Not little of the success of the entertainment is due to the efforts of Miss Letty Lind, piquante little vocalist, who was encored after she sang…her execution of the rope dance calling forth hearty applause
        Western Daily Press, January 1879

In 1881 she left Paul Howard’s company, which comes as little surprise, and spent most of the 1880’s performing in various London theatres, including The Gaiety, (in ‘The Nine Days’ Queen’) The Olympic, (in ‘Exiles of Erin’) and The Criterion, (in ‘Little Miss Muffet’) as well as going on a UK tour with several shows.

She returned to The Gaiety to perform burlesque in 1887, and it was at this time that her fame began to rise. She starred in ‘Monte Cristo, Junior’ in which she replaced the hugely popular, but America-bound Lottie Collins (she who made the song ‘Ta ra-ra Boom de-ay’ a huge hit, and about whom we will learn more later) by now Letty’s star was well-and-truly on the rise.

Letty Lind's famous 'Skirt Dancing'
After performing in a few more shows at The Gaiety Letty was ‘loaned’ to The Theatre Royal on Drury Lane for the 1887 Christmas pantomime ‘Puss in Boots’ in which she played the princess. The next eighteen months were spent touring Australia and America, before returning to London in 1889 to star in ‘Ruy Blas and the Blasé Roue’ (alongside Sylvia Grey, whom we met earlier). By this time, Letty’s dancing, and her ‘skirt dancing’ in particular (a type of dancing involving the flinging about of your skirts, made popular by the likes of Kate Vaughn and the aforementioned Lottie Collins) had made her extremely popular. By the mid 1890’s, 
however, burlesque had begun to lose its popularity, and so Letty turned her hand to musical comedies which focused more on singing than dancing.

Before she could get to grips with her new direction on stage, Letty gave birth to a baby boy.

The father of the child was the third Earl of Durham (John George Lambton.) Lambton had been married to his wife, Ethel, since 1882, however illness had confined her to an asylum for most of that time, and Lambton – understandably lonely – had started seeing Letty. The Earl wished to divorce his wife so that he could marry his sweetheart, but his wife’s condition prevented this from being possible as divorce law forbade the legal separation of a married couple in which one partner was ill. As a result, baby John Rudge was born out of wedlock in 1892. The Earl stayed with Letty until her death.

Career-wise, she secured her first role in a musical comedy in 1893, playing Maude Sportington in ‘Morocco Bound’ at the Shaftesbury Theatre. The Show was a huge success and ran for more than three hundred performances. Away from the stage, in their Christmas Number ‘The Pelican’ (a periodical) published short stories written by people connected to the theatre, to which Letty contributed. Other big-names who wrote stories were Albert Chevalier, Sylvia Grey, Augustus Harris and Lilly Langtry. Letty’s story concerned a dancer who had to deal with the nightmare of a petticoat string breaking during a performance.

She also tried her hand at writing a song when, in 1894 she penned ‘Dorothy Flop’ for the show ‘The Lady Slavey’. Letty’s sister, Adelaide Astor, performed in the production.

For the rest of the 1890’s Letty stared at Daly’s Theatre in a string of successful West End productions for which she won much praise and many fans, particularly for her graceful dancing. In The summer of 1899 she returned to the world of Music Hall for the first time in seven years when she appeared at the Alhambra:

Miss Letty Lind is the latest recruit to the variety halls, and has this week made her first appearance at the Alhambra, singing “Di Di” from “Go Bang,” the “Gay Tom Tit” from the “Artists Model,” and similar things. The lady has entered into an elaborate explanation why she has accepted Mr. Slater's offer to appear at a music hall. The apology is, of course, wholly superfluous. Very small, indeed, nowadays is the dividing line between the music halls and the after-dinner theatres, and if Miss Letty Lind chooses to accept ten pounds or so a night for singing at the Alhambra the self-same songs as those she is accustomed to sing over the way at Daly's, nobody would be prepared to deny that she is a woman of sense, particularly as just now the theatres in the hot weather are to a certain extent under a cloud. In the autumn, when Mr. Edwardes produces his new Japanese musical play, Miss Letty Lind will be seen singing and dancing again at Daly's.
            - Evening Telegraph, June 1899

Bill for the Last Night at the Gaiety
This would not be the last time in her career that Letty returned to the halls. In 1903 the Gaiety theatre was to be demolished, and put on a final night performance which was made up of many of their current and former stars singing their best loved songs. Letty, then aged forty-one, sang ‘Listen to my Tale of Woe’ from ‘Ruy Blas and the Blasé Roue’. After this performance she retired from the stage.

After retiring from the stage she lived a quiet life at her home in Slough. Her house, Brookside, had been built for her in 1897 on the site of an old inn, and she had lived there ever since, in the peace and quiet away from smoky London. In 1923, at the age of sixty-one, Letty became suddenly ill, and never recovered. After a funeral in St Mary’s church in Slough, she was buried in Windsor cemetery. Her partner, and father to her son, John George Lambton died in 1928.

* * *

Lottie Collins: (1865 – 1910)

An East End girl, Lottie Collins certainly does not buck the trend for music hall performers starting their careers early; she began her career at the age of ten as part of a skipping rope act with her two sisters Lizzie and Marie. They imaginatively called themselves ‘The Three Sisters Collins.

By 1886 Lottie had become a solo music hall act, making her debut in the burlesque ‘Monte Cristo Jr.’ at the Gaiety Theatre – the theatre’s influence on the music hall scene has by now become apparent – but it was whilst touring the vaudevilles in America in 1889 that Lottie’s life was to change forever; Not only did she marry her American beau Stephen Cooney whilst in St. Louis, but it was in the USA that she first heard the song ‘Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay’.

The song was part of a revue (an entertainment show containing many different types of acts from music and dance to sketches satirizing popular culture) called Tuxedo, staged in America in 1891. Her husband, Stephen, first heard the song, and immediately set about securing the rights to play it in England. Once this was achieved, Lottie developed a suitably ‘burlesque’ (and also exhausting) dance to accompany it, comprising of energetic Can-Can style leg-kicks that titillated audiences by exposing stockings, sparkling suspenders and bare thighs.

The 1938 book, ‘Ring up the Curtain’ gives a brief description of how the performance went:

“Lottie began with diffidence, her trembling voice being emphasized by nervous little gestures with her handkerchief. Then she put her hands on her hips, below the waspish waist of the period, and went crazy, along with an intoxicated orchestra, the music mingling, as it were, with the swirl of maddened petticoats and the nip of that scarlet-clad limb. The furore which “Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay” created depended upon the conjunction of song and singer. Either was of small value apart; together they were irresistible.”

If you close your eyes and imagine hard enough you can almost see her on the stage.

It is worth pointing out here that the song was not a big hit until Lottie sang it, such was the vigour with which she attacked it; and as the last sentence of the extract above alludes; the song was worth little without her; and she little without the song. After she performed it at the Tivoli Theatre on the Strand, it exploded.

One Edwardian newspaper looked back on the song and commented on its popularity:

“…It was an epidemic, and its secret and cause was Miss Lottie Collins, the lady who ‘kicked’ the song and herself into worldwide fame…In London, babies lisped it, school children sang it, tottering old men and staid old ladies hummed it, and street boys whistled and shrieked it. Costers, of both sexes, and it each other’s hats, stamped, kicked and yelled it until they were hoarse and feeble from sheer exhaustion. Street organs and German bands played nothing else, it was taken up and echoed from town to village, and the cry throughout the land from cockcrow till midnight was “Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay.”

 As with any craze – or mania as the Victorians would have called it – the song, and Lottie, were in high demand. She performed it at theatres and music halls right across London throughout 1891 and 1892, and at the song’s zenith, it is believed she was performing it five times a night at various venues. Given the exuberance and energy required in the dance routine, I imagine this was excruciatingly tiring.

In late 1892 she returned to America to perform the song in New York, but received rather waspish reviews. One critic described her as a ‘mature woman’ – she was twenty-seven.

Throughout the 1890’s she continued to perform at variety shows and music halls around Britain, and she even had a hit with Vesta Victoria’s signature song ‘Daddy Wouldn’t Buy me a Bow-Wow’ less than half a decade after Vesta’s version catapulted her to fame and fortune. ‘Bow-wow’ seems an interesting choice of song for Lottie to cover; given that her rise to superstardom was thanks to a super-hit song of her own.

In 1897 – Diamond Jubilee year – the newspaper Society published an article which made accusations of indecency at her, and claimed that the songs she sang were vulgar. Lottie took legal action and won £25 in damages, though the episode probably did her image a deal of good, and helped her to become one of the icons of the so called ‘Naughty Nineties’. Its true, her routines were ‘saucy’ in their time, but that is what the music halls were all about. Risqué was their business.
In November of Jubilee year Lottie returned to New York and sang three new songs, (it seems theatre performers did not rest!) ‘The Little Widow’ ‘The Girl on the Ran Dan’ and ‘A Leader of Society

By the end of the century her nine-year marriage to Stephen Cooney appeared to be becoming an unhappy one. In 1898 Lottie tried to commit suicide by cutting her wrists and neck with a penknife, though she was discharged from hospital on the same day she was admitted (no counseling back then!) so the injuries could not have been too severe – the physical ones, at least.


Miss Lottie Collins, known in private life as Mrs. Coonev, and to the public for many years past as the I exponent of “Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay” and a very popular form of skirt dancing, was yesterday morning admitted to the Great Northern Hospital suffering from wounds in her throat and wrist, said to have been self inflicted.
The facts are stated to be that the lady in question, who occupies rooms at 16, Highbury crescent, close to the Highbury Station of the North London Railway, went to her bathroom yesterday morning in order to take her usual bath. Shortly after she had entered that apartment piercing screams were heard, and on the servant entering the room to ascertain the cause she found her mistress lying on the floor, covered with blood, which was flowing from her neck and throat. A small penknife was also seen close at hand. The servant at once sent for assistance, and a doctor and the police soon arrived.
Miss Collins was at once taken into her bedroom and laid upon her bed, where her wounds were temporarily attended to. A conveyance was soon afterwards procured, and in it the patient, who appeared in a somewhat dazed condition, was driven to the Great Northern Central Hospital, where she was examined and her injuries dressed by the house surgeon. The latter gentleman later informed a representative of the Press that the wounds, which were not serious, had been made with a penknife and were apparently self inflicted. There were two or three cuts on the neck and one on the left wrist.
Later, Mrs. Cooney, having recovered somewhat, was allowed to leave the hospital and go home. As might be expected under the circumstances, the police and hospital authorities are very reticent as to any knowledge they may possess of the matter.
            - London Daily News, 10th November, 1898

Cooney died in 1901 in Saratoga, California. I have read reports that he and Lottie had three children together, but the only information I can find for any of them is for their most famous offspring, the musical star Jose Collins, who, despite Lottie’s wish that she learn French, how to play the piano and all the requirements of a life of domesticity, defied her mother and became the famous stage actress that she did.

In 1902 Lottie married for a second time when she wed producer and composer James W Tate, who was ten years her junior. The marriage was not to last long, as Lottie died on 1st May 1910 of heart disease.
I’ve seen a lot of reports claiming that she suffered with a weak heart all her life, leading to many various opinions that her untimely death at the age of just forty-five, was brought on by her many years of robust and vigorous dancing the exhausting dance that accompanied her hit song. In a poetic way, many opinions say that the song that made her, also killed her.

Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay
A sweet tuxedo girl you see
A queen of swell society
Fond of fun as fond can be
When it's on the strict Q.T.
I'm not too young, I'm not too old
Not too timid, not too bold
Just the kind you'd like to hold
Just the kind for sport I'm told

Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-re! (sung eight times)
I'm a blushing bud of innocence
Papa says at big expense
Old maids say I have no sense
Boys declare, I'm just immense
Before my song I do conclude
I want it strictly understood
Though fond of fun, I'm never rude
Though not too bad I'm not too good


A sweet tuxedo girl you see
A queen of swell society
Fond of fun as fond can be
When it's on the strict Q.T.
I'm not too young, I'm not too old
Not too timid, not too bold
Just the kind you'd like to hold
Just the kind for sport I'm told


* * *

Having written about these women, common threads seem to run through all their stories, connecting them. Most of them found their way into the world of entertainment at a very young age, often through one or both parents and many of them also experienced unhappiness or lack of luck in love, or being ill-used by men in general. I’ve written about actresses before, and the life of Ellen Terry – perhaps the nineteenth century’s greatest actress – also followed this same path. Marie Lloyd, that most effervescent music hall star was certainly not blessed with a smooth and uneventful love life.

One wonders if a lifetime on the stage singing, dancing and acting makes it impossible to do anything other than pretend, and that although the photographs, interviews and performances show happy people, was the actor masking the person beneath the character? Had life allowed art to imitate it so much that it became the very thing it was mimicking? Who knows, but many child stars of the twentieth century followed similar paths in their personal lives, with celebrated young actors, actresses and musicians going on to become involved in drugs, bankruptcy and suicide. This seems to suggest that a balance of the fact and fiction is difficult when the line has been blurred for your whole life.

My thanks are most humbly extended for the final time to Nancy Bruseker, Fern Riddell and Peter Stubley for the fantastic work they have put into their guest posts over the last month, in which I have learned so much about a world I was not particularly au fait with.

Friday, 14 September 2012

“When Vesta Tilley is on the Bill You Had Best Book far in Advance…” Or: The Incredible Vesta Tilley: A Guest Post By Nancy Bruseker:

There are some names which reappear, time and again, in discussions of British music hall.  One of those names is Vesta Tilley. She topped the bill in the biggest and best music halls for decades, and her final tour before retirement culminated in the presentation of three volumes of signatures from fans from around the world.  She played in cities and towns around the UK, and also took her act overseas, where she was equally feted for her performances. And yet, why she was so popular and successful in her time is little considered. Thus, herewith an introductory reappraisal of her life and work, and what her fans had to say about this extraordinary performer.

Vesta Tilley was one of the best known of the British ‘Golden Age’ music hall stars.  She was born Matilda Powles in 1863 in Worcester, and started perform on stage at the age of 3, as her father, Harry, was the chairman (the master of ceremonies, say) of the local music hall.  By day, he was a ceramics painter, because even then, the local entertainment scene didn’t necessarily put food on the table. The Powles family - or Ball, as they sometimes called themselves - were working class in their circumstances.  When Matilda - or Tilley - was born, they were living in cramped inadequate housing, moving around the country as the family grew. 'The Great Little Tilley' was an immediate success, and by the age of ten, she was serving as the main breadwinner for her family.  It meant being on tour with her father for months at a time: no time for formal schooling! On tour together, Harry served as her manager, as well as performing on the same bill as her with Fatso, the family dog, who could apparently do tricks.  Later, several of Vesta’s siblings would join her on stage, always billed as 'Vesta Tilley's sister/brother'.  She was, throughout her career, the star of the show.

Vesta’s act - or turn, in the parlance of the time - was that of a male impersonator.  That is, she dressed up in men’s clothes, and then sang songs which were from the man’s point of view while doing some limited choreographed movement.

This choreographed movement was very carefully studied; for example, when she decided to take on a soldier's persona, she spent hours in train stations, watching them move, in order to accurately mimic them on stage.  

While she was extremely particular about every aspect of her mannerisms and her costume, down to the cufflinks, her hair was always covered by a wig, she made no effort to alter her voice.  The University of California Santa Barbara Library has made some wax cylinder recordings available, so if you'd like to hear her, you can do so by clicking here:

Unfortunately, because her act was an audiovisual experience, listening to the recordings is an incomplete encounter.  Further, while she appeared in a film tailored very much to her act, no known copies of this film - The Girl Who Loves a Soldier - survive.  Instead, we have to rely on contemporary descriptions of her performance, such as that offered by W.R. Titterton.

When Vesta Tilley is on the bill you had best book far in advance, or you may tip-toe disconsolately at the back of  the ‘standing room’, and catch but a stray glimpse of the goddess through the bobbing leafage of ladies’ hats.  Say you have been wise and have got a seat in row D of the stalls, where you will not lose the slightest of her gestures. You have dozed through clown and conjuror and operatic antique. … And now…

Almost before you have looked at your programme the electric-lit numbers that flank the footlights have twitched and changed, and the band is playing a merry dancing chorus you know.  A ripple of applause grows to thunder and dies away in the gallery. … And the orchestra plays the chorus through again, for Vesta Tilley, artful fellow! loves to keep us waiting and expectant.

There is the low buzz of a bell, the conductor bends to his orchestra, the chorus starts again, and a dapper young man in an exquisite purple holiday costume strolls from the wings leaning on his bending cane.  He comes to the centre of the footlights, and poses with crossed legs and staring monocle, the features deliciously quizzical and inane.  It is a perfect picture - perfect in colour and composition, the quintessence of seaside dandyism; but for a subtle hint of womanly waist and curving hip you might fancy it indeed a round-faced boy.  Even so, you are doubtful.
And then the picture speaks, and the illusion is piquantly broken - or, rather, the optical illusion continues, only there is another person present - the woman artist who unfolds the tale.

In deliberate confidential recitative she tells us of Bertie, the thirty-bob clerk, who sweats in a London office for fifty-one weeks of the year, and for this one blessed week is lording it on the Brighton promenade as the mashaw (and she shoots her cuffs) -er - Claude de Vere.  Exquisite caricature!  Every gesture is right; every tone is right - striking the delicate chord between irony and burlesque; and there is no weak exuberance, everything is done with a fine virile restraint.  These are not quite the gestures a dandy clerk would make; they are better than that - they explain him, laugh at him, justify him.  They have all the deep truth of uncynical humour. 
And the gestures move to rhythm- the strut, the cocking of the hat, the dusting of the clothes and boots with the purple handkerchief, the throwing of stones into water from the pier-pier-pier, all the ironic melody controls.  Is it a dainty, flitting butterfly you are looking at or an affected fop?  Perhaps, seen from this proper distance, they are the same.

How sure the singer is! How despotically she rules over her audience - dallies with the rhythm, draws it out, pauses in mid-gesture, the hand in the air, the monocle nearing the eye - pauses perilously long, you get uneasy, the bicycle goes so slow you are afraid it will topple - it almost does, but in good time the chorus comes to its conclusion with a ‘My word!’ and one dainty feminine hand slaps the other, and the body wriggles into itself with a foot up.  ‘My word! he-is-a naugh-ty boy!’  O Tilley! 

Titterton’s description, with the slippage of pronouns and gender identifiers, marks an important aspect of her performance.  While Vesta’s drag act of the turn of the last century did not mean anything like what a drag act would mean now, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t ‘queer’ in the old-fashioned sense of being a bit odd.  While British society perfectly accepted cross dressing as part of entertainment - some have even said that it seems to be a peculiarly British obsession - there is nonetheless something odd that happens with Vesta in particular, and impersonation acts in general.

In Vesta’s case, one of the odd things is just how her fans react. For reasons that have not yet been fully explained, Vesta’s fan base was notably dominated by working class women, a fact which Vesta prided on sharing in interviews in newspapers, and reflects her collection of fan mail, which is heavily weighted towards that group.  We get a view in, thanks to the fantastic collection of scrapbooks she made and kept throughout her career, into which she pasted newspaper articles, photographs, and the letters she got from innumerable fans.  Arguably, Vesta’s historically working class roots made her connect more with those fans, and those fans in turn, connect with her.  But there’s something about how Vesta takes on the roles of these men - clerks trying to be a Big Noise while on holiday, messenger boys, rich dandies, soldiers, sailors - on stage, where she parodies their mannerisms and pokes (gentle) fun at them as a group - which can be read as quite empowering for the women in the audience.

Just to be clear - Vesta Tilley was very very very good at what she did, and in her time, Madonna levels of famous.  In the 1890s, she was the highest paid woman in Britain and she toured the US six times (ODNB).  While there is very obviously a transgressive element to her performance, she stayed on the right side of the line in terms of comedy, and causing offence.  In part, this was helped by her very strict view as to innuendo - comparing her material to her peers (such as Marie Lloyd) her songs had none  - and her equally strict adherence to feminine attire off stage.  She made it nearly impossible for anyone to criticize her choices - in comportment, in performance, in choice of career.  Though she never had children, she comes quite close to ‘having it all’, as we modern women are meant to do.

Returning to her fans, then… it’s quite clear that they were inspired by her career and life.  Her autobiography notes that many of them named their daughters after her, and the correspondence supports this. Others talk at length about how they - her female fans - made sure that their daughters knew about Vesta Tilley.  Many more still talk about going to see her perform with a group of other women, coworkers in a number of cases, no doubt friends in many others.  These letters are a series of blog posts in their own right!

For now, it must be understood that here was a woman - who no one doubted was a woman, who everyone understood as feminine - who simultaneously set her own agenda and was emphatically the primary agent in her own life.  That she did this by (literally) taking on masculine roles - and then making fun of them - even today sounds incredibly daring and subversive.

In the end, Vesta had more than fifty years on the stage, retiring in 1920 at the age of 56.  By this time, she was Lady de Frece, courtesy of a knighthood for her husband’s war work during the First World War.  She lived another 32 years, half the year in Monaco, half the year in London, relaxing and compiling the scrapbooks which now form the basis for my research into her fans.  She’s buried next to her husband in Putney Vale Cemetery, Wimbledon. 

Nancy Bruseker is a PhD student at the University of Liverpool passionate about audience research, history, and just about any kind of music. Find her on Twitter @acanancy and browse the history of musical entertainment on her blog,

Thursday, 6 September 2012

A Brief History of the Music Halls, Or: Why Do The Middle Classes Have to Ruin Everything? A Guest Post by Fern Riddell:

The British Music Halls occupied a special place in the history of mass entertainment. They influenced generations of comedians, give birth to the genius of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel, and the singing stars of Vesta Tilley and Gracie Fields. Born out of the pub song and supper rooms of the 1830s, the music halls were officially recognised by the 1843 Theatres Act, setting them aside from the ‘theatre proper’, ballet, and opera. This meant they could be licensed, controlled and regulated by the government.  But in the early days the music halls were not really seen as a controversial space, they were primarily a male dominated space, holding ‘harmonious gatherings’ in places such as Evans Music and Supper Rooms, The Coal Hole and the Cyder Cellars. They were pretty much exactly as stated – a hall for music, attached to a pub. Public houses were everywhere, they occupied the poor, why not allow them to have a hall alongside?

But by 1852 they had evolved into something quite different, something special, something unexpected.

The halls of the 1850s were a new breed. Led by the self-styled ‘Father of the Halls’, Charles Morton, - a title also claimed by the 1844 manager of Evans, Paddy Green - the new music halls were purpose built buildings, seating between 700-1,500 people each night. The Canterbury Music Hall was the first of these, opening in 1852, and then again in 1856, after a significant rebuild to increase seating capacity. Morton built this hall at 143 Westminster Bridge Road, and it signalled the new style of entertainment, specifically for the working classes, in the heart of the city of London. It was a marvel to behold: opulent ceilings, chandeliers and a carpet that had reportedly cost 1000 guineas. The middle classes were shocked, why was Morton going to such expense just to provide entertainment to the masses? Elegant designs and exteriors belonged to those who could afford to have them at home, not just to be visited for pleasure.

But this is where the very core of the entire music hall industry ideal exists. It was a world of fantasy; it attempted to create perfection and sold it to the people who would never have enough money to obtain it. It was the modern day celebrity gossip magazine and reality TV star world rolled into one, and appearing twice nightly just down your road. Historians have argued that the music halls were the first commercial mass entertainment to appear in Britain, they appealed to everyone. In a world that was solely orientated along class and gender lines, the music halls were a place that drew in men and women, old and young, from all walks of life. Until the 1880s they were a primarily working class space, with audiences made up of tradesmen, clerks and the occasional ‘toff ‘or ‘swell’ looking to rough it amongst the common people. Through topical songs they kept their audience informed of parliamentary bills, changes in the geographical landscape of London, political intrigues, as well as domestic relationships and trials. The songs were witty, clever, and occasionally stolen from the poetry of the greats like Byron or Keats. Above all, they educated their audience about their rights and situation. And this was viewed as highly dangerous.

By the later half of the nineteenth century, there were over 300 music halls licensed in London alone. Syndicated groups began to appear, opening music halls in towns and resorts across the country, and later the world. Their influence over the tastes and ideas of their audience was unlike anything that had ever been seen before. National stars were created, Marie Lloyd, Mark Sheridan and Little Tich all represented the ‘true working class’ and packed houses to the roof night after night.

Marie Lloyd Singing 'A Coster Girl in Paris'

This combination of mass congregation and the popular masses was too much of a threat to the intellectual elites, who watched in horror as, across the water, the European working classes began to replace and rebel against their former masters. Keen to stop any social unrest from occurring in Britain, the elites and middle classes managed to take hold of the one weapon that could have radicalised and revolutionised the British working class – the music halls.

Through a steady process of regulation, and subversive tactics of a slow alteration to song topics – goodbye political information, hello ‘Ere, ‘e’s got an awful big carrot in ‘is barraaa’ *wink* *nudge nudge* - the music halls altered from an expression of the working classes, to a middle class stereotype of working class character. This happened slowly over a period of about twenty years, from the 1870s to the 1890s. Previous historians often lay the blame on a capitalist-driven social-climbing management, who bowed to the new measures – less alcohol, no prostitutes, no innuendo - to insure a higher paying audience. The halls themselves altered, getting rid of their promenades – even though this resulted in vandalism by the patrons, including a young Winston Churchill – and seating 5000 people in grand buildings more like cathedrals than the simple churches of entertainment from the 1850s. Electricity came in to replace the dangerous gas lighting and the ‘Palaces of Variety’ were born.

Harry Champion Singing 'I'm Henry the Eighth I Am'

But while this social manipulation took hold, there was one area of the music halls that saw little alteration, and that was in its performers. They came from the true working class: singers, contortionists, illusionists, acrobats, comic duos, dancers, animal tamers, trick cyclists, and ballet girls. The music hall bills were a combination and mutation of every form of entertainment you could think of.

John Davidson’s 1891 poem, In a Music Hall, gives some idea of the audience’s attraction to the halls:

“I did as my desk fellows did;
With a pipe and a tankard of beer,
In a music hall, rancid and hot,
I lost my soul night after night.
It is better to lose one’s soul,
Than to never stake it at all.”

In the early days, a bill would consist of 9-10 acts, of differing appeals with a Chairman, who sat on stage, sometimes in almost a grand throne, and acted as general overseer and organiser of the night’s entertainment. Mid-way through the changes, and certainly by the late 1880s, the role and office of Chairman had almost totally died out, the tables that had filled the auditorium had been removed, and a pit for the musicians had been created, but the bills remained the same.

And so did the pay and situation between artists, agents and mangers. By 1907, it was the artists who were really suffering. The long hours, contracts that would ban you from working within a ten-mile radius of any hall for six months after an appearance, and little pay had taken their toll. The acts went on strike. The ‘Music Hall War’ affected performers across the industry, from the highest paid stars to those scraping a living. The formation of unions such as the Variety Artists Federation (which went on to become Equity) show that the industry had begun to regulate itself, inside as well as for outside appearances. The success of the campaign was another demonstration of how far the music halls had come from their working class origins. And this was no more apparent than at the first Royal Variety Show (yeah, it’s from the music halls!) in 1912, then called the Royal Command Performance.

I recently watched a BBC documentary with Julian Fellows proclaiming that the attendance of Royalty at the show signified just how close to the people the King and Queen had become, how much they felt a kinship with their subjects and how greatly they enjoyed it when Vesta Tilley appeared on the stage. They didn’t. It may have been a good piece of public relations, but when Vesta Tilly appeared on stage, in her male attire and began to sing, Queen Alexandria was so shocked that she turned her face away and ordered the entire court to do the same. If anything, this single moment signifies just how great the social divide still was between the monarchy and the attitudes and beliefs of the common people. But here they all were, brought together under the banner of the music halls.

So what happened to the music halls? Where did this brilliantly inclusive and entertaining for of theatre seem to die out? Traditionalist historians say it was with the advent of the First World War, and the combined threat of cinema and radio. Revision historians disagree, the halls evolved to incorporate both these new forms of media, creating ‘cine-variety shows’ and live performances on the BBC. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s new music halls were still being built and acts achieving international success. It is clear though, that the one threat it could not survive was television. Even ‘Saturday Night At The London Palladium’ became the last vestige of a dying art form. One of the most poignant films to capture this sense of loss was by one of the most famous stars of the music halls. Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight, (1952), has an overwhelming ache for times gone by, and performances past.

Charlie Chaplin's 1952 film 'Limelight'

So there you are, a brief history of the music halls. And this is just the short version; I haven’t talked about the prostitutes, the serial killers, the spies, the alcohol or any of the other equally fascinating and exciting parts of its history. There isn’t enough time to cover everything. But the next time you hear a stand up comedian, or watch a new avant-garde comic duo, remember that without the music halls, they would never have existed. The legacy of the halls echoes through time, and deserves far more attention than we currently seem to give.

Fern Riddell is a PhD Student exploring Religion, Sexuality and Crime in London's Music Halls from 1850 - 1939. Follow her on Twitter @FernRiddell and for more on the curiosities of Victorian entertainment get yourself over to her blog at (some content may not be suitable for those of a stereotypical ‘Victorian’ constitution!)