Lloyd, Marie (1870–1922)
Lloyd, Marie (1870–1922)
One of the most popular and highest paid stars of the late Victorian and Edwardian music halls of England, adored especially by the working classes. Name variations: Tillie, and stage names Bella Delmere and Miss Marie Lloyd; Matilda Wood. Pronunciation: LOYD. Born Matilda Victoria Wood in Hoxton, a suburb of London, England, on February 12, 1870; died in London on October 7, 1922; daughter of John Wood (a waiter and maker of artificial flowers) and Matilda (Archer) Wood; attended elementary school in London; married Percy Courtney, in 1887; married Alexander Hurley, in 1904; married Bernard Dillon, in 1914; children: (first marriage) Marie Courtney.
Began career at Grecian Saloon at age 15, and shortly changed stage name to Miss Marie Lloyd (1885); rose rapidly to stardom, earning £100 a week (1886); led strike for poorer members of her profession (1907); snubbed by exclusion from royal command performance of music-hall stars, rented a hall for the same night and drew an audience of 6,000 (1912); detained by U.S. immigration officials on Ellis Island at beginning of an American tour for traveling with a man out of wedlock (1913); died while attempting a musical comeback (1922).
Songs associated with Lloyd: "Oh, Mr. Porter," "Everything in the Garden's Lovely," "Twiddley Wink," "The Boy I Love Is Up in the Gallery," "Piccadilly Trot," "It's a Bit of a Ruin That Cromwell Knocked About a Bit," "A Little of What You Fancy Does You Good," "My Old Man Said Follow the Van (but I Dillied, I Dallied)," "Every Little Movement."
Beginning in the 1850s, the British music hall became the most popular form of public entertainment among England's working classes. At a six-pence apiece, they filled the large halls for a cheap evening, as performers reflected their problems, values and aspirations through patter and songs that were by turns raucous, funny, sentimental, and sad. Between 1890 and 1912, the broad, and often bawdy, comedy of the music halls reached its peak, commenting on class structure in the newly industrialized Britain. One woman, Marie Lloyd, became the best known of many female music-hall stars, so personifying the attitudes of her audiences that she became the "Queen of the Music Halls." "No other comedian succeeded so well in giving expression to the life of [her] audience, in raising it to a kind of art," wrote the celebrated poet T.S. Eliot. He was only one of Lloyd's many admirers, who included George Bernard Shaw, Compton Mackenzie, James Agate, and Edmund Wilson. Max Beerbohm included her, along with Florence Nightingale and Queen Victoria , on his short list of the most memorable women of the age. "Above all others," writes D.F. Cheshire, Lloyd was "the epitome of the real spirit of British music hall of the pre-1914 period." When she died, thousands filled London's streets to mourn her.
The girl who became Marie Lloyd was born Matilda Victoria Wood in 1870 at 36 Plumber Street in Hoxton, a working-class suburb of London where the Marie Lloyd pub still perpetuates her memory. Her father was a waiter at the Eagle Tavern in City Road and made artificial flowers. The oldest of 11 children, Marie was known to her family as "Tillie." She was a happy but obstreperous child; she was hyperactive, hated school, resented authority, and dominated her siblings. In an era when children frequently went to work in factories, her mother got her daughter several factory jobs, but Tillie never lasted more than a week. A supervisor in a bead factory fired her after four days for dancing on the work tables.
Even as a child, Lloyd had a strong sense of drama and performed for her siblings in the attic and coal cellar. She and her sisters formed the Fairy Bell Minstrels and toured local missions, singing such temperance songs as "Throw Down the Bottle and Never Drink Again." Several sisters also became music-hall performers but never achieved her fame.
At age 14, Lloyd announced that she was going on the stage. A year later, with her father's help, she made her first appearance at the Grecian Saloon on May 9, 1885. By June, she had employed the stage name of Bella Delmere and was playing successfully in other halls. But Marie dated the beginning of her career from an appearance at the Falstaff Music Hall, where she was spotted by a manager and adopted the stage name she would carry to fame after seeing advertisements in the streets of London for Lloyd's Weekly Newspaper. On October 5, 1885, Lloyd made her first appearance at the famous Oxford Music Hall in the West End, remaining on the bill there for a year. The following October, she received her first newspaper review, which described her as "a pretty little soubrette who dances with great dash and energy." By the end of 1886, her income had risen to £100 per week. At her peak, she was the highest-paid female star, earning up to £800 per week when lesser "artistes" were paid £20–50.
Until her mid-30s, Marie played the coquettish but innocent girl who sang about love. Her theme song, "The Boy I Love Is Up in the Gallery," was "borrowed" from another performer, but it was her rendition that aroused the fantasies of every working-class lad in the gallery. After she took up "When You Wink the Other Eye," she adopted a wink that became a trademark. Caricaturists perpetually depicted her mid-wink.
Lloyd lived hard and did not age well. In her middle years, when she could no longer play youthful roles, she became famous—or infamous, in middle-class circles—for the sexual innuendo and vulgarity of such songs as "Oh, Mr. Porter," "Everything in the Garden's Lovely," "Every Little Movement," and "A Little Bit of What You Fancy Does You Good." Appearing onstage in high-fashion clothes, she rubbed her pearls provocatively across her teeth as she transformed such parlor songs as "Come Into the Garden Maude" (words by Alfred, Lord Tennyson) into suggestive come-ons with her body movements, tone of voice, and winks. "With her famous wink, timed to the fraction of a second," wrote one contemporary, "she could make an apparently simple remark very much more." Her working-class audiences loved her vulgarity, and even dirty jokes she did not tell began to be attributed to "our Marie." On the streets of East London off-color stories were often introduced with: "Hear Marie's latest?"
Provocative, sensual, suggestive but never lewd, Lloyd knew her audience and gave the people what they wanted. "They don't pay their sixpences and shillings at a Music Hall to hear the Salvation Army," she said. Even after she became a well-corseted carrier of considerable weight, her reputation as a sex symbol did not entirely disappear. Without abandoning her suggestiveness and double entendres, she began to include more character sketches in her stage turns, aping upper-class women to the delight of her fans. She also made a specialty of characterizing working-class women, with whom she had considerable empathy. She talked and sang about their problems, of alcohol, children, homelessness, crime, poverty, police, and wife-beating. The song "My Old Man Said Follow the Van" concerned the frequent moves of the poor, trying to keep one step ahead of the rent collector. In her later years, one of her most popular songs was "It's a Bit of a Ruin That Cromwell Knocked About a Bit." While seeming on the surface to refer to English history, it was actually about the violence done to women at a pub called the Cromwell Arms, managed by a latter-day Oliver Cromwell, who actually knocked the singer "about a bit" on two occasions.
The naughtiness of Lloyd's performances inevitably got her into trouble with prudish members of the middle class who fought against the music hall as decadent, immoral, and corrupting of the lower classes. In 1896, she appeared before a committee of the London County Council which was reviewing the licenses of the music halls. Performing for the committee, she did her act straight and denied the provocativeness of her songs. "The people are looking for blue, and I can't help it … if they want to turn and twist my meanings," she told them. "I don't make them blue. It's the people." By promising the committee that she would "only sing songs like 'Home Sweet Home,' if you guarantee the audience will be as morally unimpeachable as the songs," Lloyd had the last word. The licenses were renewed, and her performance cannot be considered totally fudged, since she had a reputation for being far more risque than she actually was.
All right then, play "God Save the Queen" and tell 'em she's here.
A fighter, Lloyd led the successful Variety Artists' Federation's strike against unfair management practices in 1907. Plans for the strike were formulated at her pink house beside the underground station at Golders Green, and she was active on the picket lines, telling a reporter of the Daily Telegraph, "We are fighting … for the poorer members of the profession." When Belle Elmore , a third-rate actress later murdered by her American husband, crossed the picket line to perform, Marie observed that it was better to let her pass, for she would single-handedly empty the theater.
By 1912, Lloyd was overworked and possibly an alcoholic, doing two or more turns a night in different areas of London. She frequently sang "I Can't Forget the Days When I Was Young," which included the poignant lines, "It don't seem so very long ago/ When I sit for hours and stare; Oh, I can't forget the days when I was young." On July 1 of that year, she was snubbed by the royals when, despite her top billing in the music halls, she was not invited to appear at the Palace Theater as part of the first royal command performance of music-hall artistes. "Every performance by Marie Lloyd is a performance by Command of the British Public," said Lloyd. The night of the event at the Palace, she rented the Coliseum and put on her show, filling 6,000 seats. Told the curtain was going up, she said to the master of ceremonies, "All right, then, play 'God Save the Queen' and tell 'em she's here."
Lloyd's style was most suited to London, where she had her greatest popularity. She toured Australia and South Africa, and made three tours in the U.S., but her humor and material were too topical, too British, and too class-oriented to be understood outside Britain, and she did not develop a rapport with foreign audiences.
By modern standards, Lloyd was not especially attractive; one contemporary compared her front teeth to "those of a jovial horse." Another described her as "just a rather short, fair, pretty woman with a wide 'toothy' smile, and a voice which is most attractively hoarse." Even allowing for the crudeness of early recording techniques, her singing voice was shrill and nasal. Marie "never had what you could call a good voice," said her sister Daisey Wood . What the "Queen of the Halls" had was energy; she gave her all onstage. "When she sang a song, she was in it," said Daisey. "She got into her words. She was the character."
One key to her popularity was that she never lost touch with her working-class background. Music-hall audiences, who "gave the bird" to performers who got uppity and forgot their origins, could force a performer offstage. Lloyd embodied the soul of the working class and could develop a rapport with the rowdiest of audiences. In the tough industrial city of Sheffield when she was once "given the bird," she refused to leave the stage. "So, this is where you make your knives and forks," she said, looking out over the audience. "Well, you know what you can do with them, don't you. And your circular saws as well." Her listeners were won over.
Marie was 17 at the time of her first marriage, to Percy Courtney. They had one child, Marie Courtney , and divorced in 1905. By then, Marie had been living openly with Alexander Hurley, another music-hall performer who became famous for "the Lambeth Walk." Their marriage, begun in 1907, lasted only five years, and probably ended because of Hurley's professional jealousy. Her relationship with her third husband, Bernard Dillon, was also scandalous from the beginning, and the marriage was a disaster. Dillon was a successful jockey who won the Derby in 1910, and Lloyd was nearly twice his age. In violation of the mores of times, they lived openly together, out of wedlock, and paid dearly for their refusal to be bound by the standards of the day. Dillon lost his coveted position in the Jockey Club, and in 1913, when Lloyd was entering the U.S. for a tour, immigration officials charged the couple with moral turpitude and detained them on Ellis Island until they agreed to live separately during their visit. With the Statue of Liberty as background, Lloyd fumed: "What irony! The statue ought to be pulled down. It is a stinking lie." She and Dillon were married on February 21, 1914, in Portland, Oregon. Eventually, they lived apart.
Lloyd, who loved people, held open house every Sunday evening in her London home. Extravagant with her money, she was also famously generous with the less fortunate. "She had a heart had Marie," said a friend. "The size of Waterloo Station." Though she probably earned £500,000, she left an estate worth only £7,000. Marie was also known for her temper and allowed no one to get the best of her. "It's better out than in," she said, "and anyway it relieves my feelings." On one occasion, irritated by a shopkeeper, she paid her bill in bags filled with the large, heavy English pennies of the period.
In her last years, Lloyd was frequently ill, and her feistiness and rebellious spirit disappeared. "All my oof has gone," she told her friends. She continued to work but began drinking before performances and had trouble remembering lines. Regarded as unreliable, she was forced to work the smaller halls. In August 1922, when she tried to make a comeback, her singing voice was so feeble that a woman performer was positioned in the wings to sing along with her. On October 5, Lloyd was onstage at the Edmonton Empire, singing "It's a Bit of a Ruin That Cromwell Knocked About a Bit," when she staggered and collapsed, evoking shrieks of laughter from the audience who thought it was part of the act. Taken home to Golders Green, Marie Lloyd died of kidney failure two days later, age 52.
It is hard to separate fact from legend about "Our Marie." She was an institution in her time, a star and an individualist on and off stage. Like other female performers of her genre, she was an inspiration to working-class women who could hope that with luck and talent they too might escape their drab lives. She also had brilliant timing and magnetism. It was charisma that carried her to top billing and kept her there. Significantly, of the 50-odd songs associated with her performances, not one remained in the popular repertoire for long after her death.
In her obituary in The Times, H.H. Child described Marie Lloyd as having "a vivid personality whose range and extremely broad humour as a character actress were extraordinary." On October 13, 1922, The Times reported that the East End of London virtually closed down for her funeral, pubs were draped in black crepe, and an estimated 50,000 followed her motor car behind the hearse through the streets to Hampstead. Titled people as well as costermongers sent floral tributes. Symbolically, her death also marked the end of the music hall. "It is not cruel to say that she died opportunely," wrote H.G. Hibbert. "The music hall is on the eve of a crisis."
Cheshire, D.F. Music Hall in Britain. Teaneck, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1934.
Farson, D.N. Marie Lloyd and Music Hall. London: Stacey, 1972.
Mander, R., and J. Mitchison. British Music Hall. London: Gentry Books, 1974.
Naomi, Jacob. "Our Marie" [Marie Lloyd]: A Biography. Bath: Cedric Chivers, 1936.
The Times. October 9, 1922 and October 13, 1922.
Macqueen-Pope, W. The Melodies Linger On: The Story of the Music Hall. London, W.H. Allen, 1950.
Wilson J. Hoffman , Thorn and Frances Pendleton Professor of History, Hiram College, Hiram, Ohio