Eight Female stars of Victorian Music Hall
by Rosie ThomasThe old halls were at the heart of popular entertainment in Victorian London, when ‘music hall’ meant both the buildings that housed the shows and the style of entertainment itself. As soon as they opened they drew huge crowds, hungry for fun and music and spectacle. Before the1850s there was no place of public entertainment for ordinary women - except the squalid taverns.
1. Marie Lloyd was the Queen of Music Hall. She had made her debut as a table singer at the Eagle, but soon she was the naughty phenomenon of the age. In her distinctive trill she warbled innocent-seeming lyrics with titles like ‘Oh! Mr Porter, What Shall I Do?’ and ‘She’d Never Had Her Ticket Punched Before’ that were loaded with double entendres – innocent enough today, but shocking to the Victorians and Edwardians. When the moralists protested about her song ‘I Sits Among the Cabbages and Peas’ she amended it to ‘I Sits Among the Cabbages and Leeks’ – to howls of appreciation from her admirers. Marie had a colourful private life; she was refused entry to the US at the start of a tour because she had shared a cabin on the voyage over with a man to whom she was not married. Her ending was a sad one – she took to the brandy and fell over drunk on stage. The audience thought it was part of the act and roared with laughter, but she was mortally ill and died a few days later aged only 52. A hundred thousand people came to her funeral.
2. Vesta Tilley was a male impersonator. She was Burlington Bertie, every inch the monocled dandy to look at, but singing in a high and very feminine voice. Retired from the stage she ended her long life as Lady de Freece, wife of the MP for Blackpool.
3. Lottie Collins began her career in 1877 in a skipping rope dance act with her sisters as 'The Three Sisters Collins'. While in America in 1891 she heard what was to become her trademark song, ‘Tar-ra-ra-boom-der-ay!’. She sang it at the Tivoli in London and it became a major hit. Lottie would pause after the demure first verse and then whirl into an uninhibited version of the skirt dance. Her legs flashing in high-kicking Can-Can style steps would reveal her stockings held up by sparkling suspenders. This sent the audience wild and left Lottie exhausted.
Although she performed other songs and sketches, Lottie was forever associated with her one song. The exhausting nature of the dance may have contributed to her early death in 1910 at the age of only 44.
4. El Niño Farini 'the boy' Farini first performed at the age of 10 on stage at the Alhambra theatre in London with his adoptive father. Exactly where Farini found El Nino is uncertain, but he was born Samuel Wasgate somewhere in Maine, USA.
He was an attractive boy, with blond curly hair, and no fear of heights.
El Niño first performed as Lulu in Paris in 1870 appearing as ‘The Beautiful Lulu the girl Aerialist and Circassian Catapultist’. Returning to London he performed as Lulu and was top of the bill ‘The Eighth Wonder of the World’ at the Holborn Amphitheatre in 1871. Her act consisted of being catapulted from the ground up to a trapeze and turning three full somersaults.
Following an accident at a performance in Dublin 'Lulu' was rushed to hospital where the secret of his gender was discovered. By this stage he was growing tired of his stage persona, had his hair cut and wore men's clothes. There was much embarrassment amongst male admirers when it was revealed in 1878 that Lulu was in fact a man.
5. Nellie Wallace British music hall star, actress, comedienne, dancer and songwriter became one of the most famous and best loved music hall performers. She was noted for her eccentric appearance “The Essence Of Eccentricity", dressing in ultra-tight skirts (so tight in fact, that she would lie down on the stage and shuffle back and forth on her back to pick up whatever she had contrived to drop), her hat sported a lone daisy, feather or a fish bone and once even a lit candle (supposedly, so she could see where she was going and where she had been).
Not a naturally pretty woman, her 'grotesque get-up' started the audience laughing the moment she appeared on stage; her cleverness, vivacity and facial expressions were second to none. Her main character was as a frustrated spinster, singing ribald songs such as Under the Bed, Let's Have a Tiddley at the Milk Bar and Mother's Pie Crust.
Nellie Wallace died age 78 in a London Nursing Home. The gyrocropter “Little Nellie” in the James Bond film You only live Twice is named after her.
6. Lily Morris, who specialized in singing comedic songs, notably 'Why Am I Always The Bridesmaid' and 'Don't Have Any More Missus Moore’, had a dynamic personality and a great repertoire of songs. She retired from the stage in 1940, except for a brief appearance in 1948. In 1941 she appeared as the formidable "Lady Randall" in the Arthur Askey comedy I Thank You but reverts to type in the final scene where she gives a rendition of the old music hall standard "Waiting at the Church" at an impromptu concert in a tube station bomb shelter.
7. Bessie Bellwood was a London music hall performer, popular with the working classes and noted for her singing of 'Coster' songs, including "What Cheer Ria." In 1876, aged 20, Catherine 'Kate' Mahoney assumed the stage name Bessie Bellwood and made her music hall debut at Bermondsey in London. Although she lacked the versatility of her rivals Marie Lloyd and Jenny Hill, she nevertheless became a popular performer noted for her 'saucy' stage manner and her ability to argue down even the toughest of hecklers, including a 15 stone coal-heaver who left the music hall where she was appearing after a five minute dispute during her act. Her volatile, unpredictable nature was such that within four hours of having a devout conversation with Cardinal Manning about some Catholic charity or other she was shortly afterwards arrested in the Tottenham Court Road for knocking a down a cabman because she believed he had insulted the man she loved. A devout Roman Catholic, she was admired by her public for her many acts of kindness to the poor. In later life, Bellwood suffered from alcoholism as a result of her financial troubles and bankruptcy. With her health in decline, she died at her home in London aged 40.
8. Jenny Hill (born Elizabeth Jane Thompson) was known as "The Vital Spark" and "the Queen of the Halls". Her vast repertoire of songs included "Arry", "The Boy I Love Is in The Gallery", "The Little Vagabond Boy", "I've Been a Good Woman to You" and "If I Only Bossed the Show".
A later contemporary of Marie Lloyd and Bessie Bellwood, Hill made her stage début at an early age when she performed in Mother Goose at the Aquarium Theatre in Westminster. Embarking on a career in music hall, Hill sang at, amongst others, the London Pavilion and from 1868 to 1893, Hill was at the peak of her fame, enjoying top-billing at music halls across London and in the Northern provinces. In 1879 she became a proprieter of her first music hall in Bermondsey. From 1882 to she kept a public house in Southwark which lasted a year.
By 1889 the privations she had suffered in her early life were taking their toll, and she was forced to cancel a number of theatrical engagements due to ill health. Hill died in London aged 48. She is buried in Nunhead Cemetery in London.
About The Illusionists
UK Pub Date: February 27, 2014 | Harper Collins | Hardcover
From the bestselling author of the phenomenally successful The Kashmir Shawl
A terrifying place for a young, beautiful woman of limited means. But Eliza is modern before her time. Not for her the stifling if respectable conventionality of marriage, children, domestic drudgery. She longs for more. Through her work as an artist’s model, she meets the magnetic and irascible Devil – a born showman whose dream is to run his own theatre company.
Devil’s right-hand man is the improbably-named Carlo Bonomi, an ill-tempered dwarf with an enormous talent for all things magic and illusion. Carlo and Devil clash at every opportunity and it constantly falls upon Eliza to broker an uneasy peace between them. And then there is Jasper Button. Mild-mannered, and a family man at heart, it is his gift as an artist which makes him the unlikely final member of the motley crew.
Thrown together by a twist of fate, their lives are inextricably linked: the fortune of one depends on the fortune of the other. And as Eliza gets sucked into the seductive and dangerous world her strange companions inhabit, she risks not only her heart, but also her life…
Praise for The Illusionists“Rival, revenge, love and obsession combine to make this journey into the underworld of Victorian London utterly rivetin” - Fanny Blake, Woman and Home
“A brilliant gothic mix of glitter and grime and so atmospheric you can almost see the pea-soupers” - Wendy Holden The Daily Mail
About the Author
Rosie Thomas is the author of a number of celebrated novels, including the bestsellers The Kashmir Shawl, Sun at Midnight, Iris and Ruby and Constance. Once she was established as a writer and her children were grown, she discovered a love of travelling and mountaineering. She has climbed in the Alps and the Himalayas, competed in the Peking to Paris car rally, spent time on a tiny Bulgarian research station in Antarctica and travelled the silk road through Asia. She lives in London.
For more information visit Rosie's website. You can also connect with her on Facebook.
Rosie's blog tour continues tomorrow with a stop on The Friendly Shelf!
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