Vesta Tilley (1864–1952) was a star of the English music hall circuit for more than four decades. Tilley's stage persona was that of an upper-crust male fop, and her cross-dressing made her one of the earliest male impersonators to achieve mainstream renown. Tilley later dressed in the khaki uniform of a World War I-era British soldier and delivered patriotic appeals to help the war effort. Tilley's obituary in the Times of London noted that "her power of creating a character was such that no one who saw … her walk across the stage as the absurd little redcoated recruit with the large cigar, in her song about 'the girl who loves a soldier,' is ever likely to forget the picture."
Tilley was born Matilda Alice Victoria Powles in the city of Worcester, in England's West Midlands, on May 13, 1864. She was the second of 13 children in her family, and was named after her mother, a dressmaker. Her father's occupation was listed on her baptismal certificate from St. Peter the Great church in Worcester as that of a china gilder, but he would eventually become a stage comic and manager of a music hall in Nottingham, another Midlands city. At some point he changed the family surname to Ball.
Wore Mustache to Impersonate Tenor
English music halls were an immensely popular form of entertainment for the working classes in England after 1850 or so. Their nightly shows offered a mix of popular songs, comedy sketches, and specialty acts, and a distinct musical style emerged around it, with chipper, crowd-pleasing numbers that often skewered the rich. Tilley made her first appearance on the music hall stage at age three, and was appearing in male dress by the time she turned six. Her first notable character was that of "Pocket Sims Reeves," a send-up of a popular music hall tenor of the era, J. Sims Reeves.
Tilley made her London stage debut at Canterbury Hall in 1874. At one point, she was appearing in three shows a night at three separate venues in the city, billed as "Vesta Tilley." Her stage name was taken from the Latin word for "virgin," vesta, and was probably a nod to a ubiquitous "Swan Vesta" brand of matches that dominated the British market at the time. The "Tilley" part of her name was a common diminutive of Matilda.
Tilley was a child star who easily moved into her teen and young adult years with increasing success. Her most popular routine was that of the typical English "toff," or upper-class gentleman. She dressed in dandy-ish suits, and sang songs that poked fun at such types. One of her most famous tunes was "Burlington Bertie," in which she sang, "I'm Burlington Bertie, I rise at ten thirty/And saunter along like a toff/I walk down the Strand with my gloves on my hand/Then I walk down again with them off." Other signature songs of hers were "Following in Father's Footsteps" and "The Midnight Son."
"The Lond on Idol"
Though Tilley dressed as a man, even to the point of wearing men's undergarments—since women's lingerie of the era was designed to emphasize the figure—she sang in a clearly female soprano, and the gender-bending act was a crowd favorite. She became the most popular female performer of the 1870s and 1880s, and was particularly adored by her working class fan base. By then she was also earning a small fortune. Her family was not wealthy by any means, but her success enriched them, and her father would manage her career and restrict her personal life for many years.
Tilley's father died in 1888, and two years later, at the age of 26, she wed Walter de Frece, a successful songwriter and astute entrepreneur who owned a chain of music halls across England. De Frece took over management of her career, and wrote her songs as well. By the 1890s she was the undisputed queen of the English music hall stage. Her publicity materials dubbed her "The London Idol," and she made extensive tours of the country, the British colonies, and even the United States. She also made some of the first recordings in Britain in 1898, along with fellow music hall stars Bert Shepard, Ada Reeve and Dan Leno, which were done for the Gramophone Company.
During her 1894 American tour, Tilley played the vaudeville circuit, which was the corresponding equivalent to the music hall as a form of popular entertainment in the United States. In 1903 she appeared on the New York stage at the Murray Hill Theatre in Under Cover. A New York Times review of the show noted that at Tilley's appearance on stage, "the house fell—at her sprightly and nimble feet." The critic paid further homage to her as "an artist … to the tips of her toes, and to the last delicately nasal tone of her boylike voice."
Was Present at Historic Event
Tilley still dominated the London music hall scene after the turn of the century. A Times of London review of one of her shows at the Palace Theatre in January of 1909 asserted that "her beautifully clear voice, her inimitable walk, and, not least, the excellent quality of her songs, all combine to produce a very attractive turn." Three years later, the Palace was the site of a pivotal event in music hall history, the first Royal Variety Performance. The honored guests of the 1912 charity benefit were King George V and Queen Mary, and the Royal Variety show, with its official royal patronage, was seen as the full legitimatization of the music hall genre. Tilley performed a signature tune as Algy, "The Piccadilly Johnny with the Little Glass Eye." Brian Viner, a journalist for London's Independent newspaper, wrote many years later that as "Tilley stepped on stage in gentlemen's trousers—as her act rather demanded—Queen Mary thought the spectacle so immodest that she ostentatiously buried her face in her programme. Applause was consequently muted, and the organisers mortified."
When World War I began in 1914, Tilley enthusiastically participated in recruiting efforts. She dressed in the typical khaki uniform of the British army, sang patriotic tunes written by her husband, with the most popular being "Jolly Good Luck to the Girl Who Loves a Soldier," "The Army of Today's All Right," and "Six Days' Leave." Another was "Your King and Country Want You," which she performed at recruitment rallies and is sometimes known by the alternate title "We Don't Want to Lose You but We Think You Ought to Go." Its lyrics were a blatant appeal for bodies. "We've watched you playing cricket and every kind of game/ At football, golf and polo you men have made your name/ But now your country calls you to play your part in war/ And no matter what befalls you/ We shall love you all the more/ So come and join the forces/ As your fathers did before." Young men at the rallies who failed to be swayed by these songs were given white feathers, the symbol of the shirker, by pre-arranged children in the crowd if they tried to walk away without signing up.
For her role, Tilley was often heralded as "England's Greatest Recruiting Sergeant," but the war spelled the end of the music hall era. Popular support for the war fell as casualties mounted, and Britain would lose 900,000 military personnel, with two million injured or permanently maimed. There was a sense of bitter betrayal among the working classes that the popularity of the music hall had been co-opted for patriotic means, and then resulted in such tragic losses.
Tilley and her husband were now quite wealthy. He was knighted in 1919 for his wartime service, which made her Lady de Frece, and she decided to retire from the stage around the same time that he entered politics. This necessitated her retirement from the stage, because such work would have been unsuitable for the wife of a political candidate. Her farewell performance came in June of 1920 at London's Coliseum. She delivered her usual crowd-pleasers, such as "Jolly Good Luck to the Girl Who Loves a Soldier," and at its line, "Girls, if you want to love a soldier/You can all love me," a male voice cried out from the audience, "We do!" As the Times of London reported, "from that point Miss Tilley began to lose some of her self-control." Following her performance, she was feted with bouquets and speeches, and spoke some words herself, but broke down near the end, the same Times article reported. She was also presented with a "People's Tribute" memorial book that had been signed by two million fans.
Tilley campaigned for her husband in the 1924 general elections, in which he won a seat from the riding of Ashtonunder-Lyne in Lancashire as a Conservative (Tory) party candidate. He stood in the 1929 elections from the riding of Blackpool, and served in the House of Commons until 1931. Tilley's autobiography, Recollections of Vesta Tilley, was published in 1934. Her husband died the following January in Monte Carlo. She died on September 16, 1952, at the age of 88, in London. An editorial in the Times of London paid tribute to her the next day, noting that the music hall phenomenon was built around performers who were virtuosos in one particular area, and "no form of virtuosity was more exacting or more nicely poised than that of the male impersonators, and in that little group of virtuosos none was mistress of a more delicate art than Vesta Tilley."
Independent (London, England), December 14, 2005.
New York Times, November 6, 1903.
Times (London, England), January 27, 1909; June 1, 1920; June 7, 1920; September 17, 1952.
"Vesta Tilley," PeoplePlayUK, Theatre Museum, http://www.peopleplayuk.org.uk/guided_tours/music_hall_tour/music_hall_stars/tilley.php (January 2, 2006).
"Vesta Tilley," http://www.btinternet.com/∼radical/thefolkmag/vesta.htm (January 2, 2006).