Tilley, Vesta (1864–1952)

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Tilley, Vesta (1864–1952)

English performer and male impersonator. Name variations: Lady de Freece; Great Little Tilley; Pocket Sims Reeves; London Idol. Born Matilda Alice Powles in 1864 in Worcester, England; died in 1952 in Monte Carlo; daughter of a variety-hall manager; married Sir Walter de Freece (a music-hall owner and member of Parliament), in 1890 (died 1935).

Debuted in Gloucester, England, at age 3 or 4; appeared on the London stage (1874–1920); appeared in Sinbad (1882) and Beauty and the Beast (1890); toured America (after 1898).

Vesta Tilley was the stage name of the popular English performer, singer, and male impersonator Matilda Alice Powles. She was born in Worcester, England, in 1864 and took to the stage before she was out of diapers. After making her professional debut at age three or four with the help of her father, who owned and managed a music hall in Gloucester, England, she appeared on stage in boy's clothing at age five and went on tour with her father under the marquee of "Harry Ball the Tramp Musician and the Great Little Tilley." When she was 10, Tilley made her first London appearance. By 16, she had been dubbed the "London Idol." In her signature top hat and tails, she anticipated 1920s cabarets, entertaining audiences with faultless performances in roles she researched herself.

Tilley frequently appeared in the principal boy's role in pantomimes and was seen in Sinbad (1882) and Beauty and the Beast (1890). After 1898, she toured the United States, earning critical acclaim in New York and Chicago. Among the songs for which she became known were "Burlington Bertie," "Jolly Good Luck to the Girl Who Loves a Soldier," "Following in Father's Footsteps," "After the Ball," "The Army of Today's All Right," and "Algy—The Piccadilly Johnny with the Little Glass Eye." In 1912, Tilley was featured in the first royal command performance of music-hall entertainers. A London stage presence for 50 years before retiring to the enthusiastic applause of well-wishers and loyal fans at the Coliseum, she helped to herald in the modern stage. Upon her retirement, actress Ellen Terry presented her with a book containing the autographs of two million admirers.

Tilley was married in 1890 to Walter de Freece, a music-hall owner who was knighted (1919) and became a member of Parliament. After leaving the stage, she divided her time between England and the south of France. Nearing the age of 90, Tilley died in Monte Carlo during 1952.


The Concise Dictionary of National Biography. Volume III. NY: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Uglow, Jennifer, ed. The International Dictionary of Women's Biography. NY: Continuum, 1985.

Lolly Ockerstrom , freelance writer, Washington, D.C.

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Tilley, Vesta (1864–1952)

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