Thursday, 28 June 2012

Vesta Tilley

Before getting in to the material in Vesta Tilley’s scrapbooks, I think it’s probably important for me to say something about who she was, and provide a bit of context for the forthcoming letters.

The usual biographical detail is readily available on Wikipedia; I’ll sum up (and embellish) a few of the key points here.  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, living in cramped inadequate housing, moving around the country as the family grew and Vesta’s career became the chief source of income for them all.  Harry served as Vesta’s 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 such.  She was, throughout her career, the star of the show.

Now, to talk a bit about 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.  

(above two images courtesy Worcester County Archives Vesta Tilley collection)

While she was extremely particular about every aspect of her costume, down to the cufflinks, and 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, if you'd like to hear her!

I have to quickly point out, first of all, that while this drag act 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, the odd thing is just how her fans react.  For reasons that have not 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.  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.  It was basically 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.

For 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.  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 in Putney Vale Cemetery in Wimbledon. 

(Feel free to ask for further details and/or clarification on anything about her life.  88 years in 800 words means I’ve left quite a bit out!)


  1. Ooh, I might have to go and see her if she's only in Wimbledon!

    (Excellent first post. *thumbs*)