Jenny Hill (music hall performer)

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Jenny Hill c.1885

Jenny Hill (1848 – June 28, 1896), (born as Elizabeth Jane Thompson) was a popular British music hall performer of the Victorian era 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. From 1868 to 1893, Hill was at the peak of her fame, enjoying top-billing at music halls across London and in the northern provencies. 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. She later purchased the Rainbow Music Hall (later renamed the Gaiety Theatre) in Southampton in July 1884, but it was destroyed in a fire the same year. On stage, she played Mrs Micawber in an adaptation of David Copperfield; and also played 'Nan' in the 1889 revival of J. B. Buckstone's Good for Nothing at the Grecian Theatre in Shoreditch.

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. A tour of New York in 1891 was not a success, and she returned to London. She later appeared at the Luscombe Searelle, Johannesburg, in 1893. By now her health was so poor that she could only be taken onto the stage in her wheelchair where she shook hands with her audience.

Returning to Britain in 1894 and in poor health, Hill died in London aged 48. She is buried in Nunhead Cemetery in London.

Early life[edit]

A contemporary of Marie Lloyd and Bessie Bellwood, Jenny Hill was born in Paddington in London to Michael Thompson (1812/13–1881) a Marylebone cab driver. Her stage début was made at the age of six or seven, when she performed as the legs of the goose in the pantomime Mother Goose at the Aquarium Theatre in Westminster. In about 1860 she made her professional debut at Dr. Johnson's Concert Rooms, traditional 'Song & Supper Rooms' in Fleet Street.[1] In 1862 her father apprenticed her to a publican in Bradford. In return for the chance to sing to the public house's customers until 2 a.m. she suffered great privations which would seriously affect her health in later life, rising at 5 a.m. to polish the pub's pewter, scrubbing floors and bottling beer until her performance began at noon.[2]

On May 28, 1866 aged 18 she married John Wilson Woodley, an acrobat who used the stage name Jean Pasta; he later abandoned her leaving her with three children: Lettie Woodley (1869-17 May 1943) (the music hall performer Peggy Pryde), Jenny Hill Woodley, and a son who seems not to have survived.

Music hall career[edit]

Moving to London, Hill sang at the London Pavilion, a music hall, where she stopped the show and forced the popular entertainer George Leybourne to wait for her to finish. Such was his generosity that he carried her back on to the stage for an encore.[3] By 1871 she was earning £6 a week at the London Pavilion. Her vivacity and animation caused the theatrical agent Hugh J. Didcott to give her the sobriquet 'The ‘Vital Spark’, a title she used thereafter.[1]

From 1868 to 1893 Hill was at the peak of her fame, enjoying top-billing at music halls in London and the north, usually appearing at three or four different halls a night, earning £30 at each hall. As a music hall manager she was less successful; in 1879 she purchased the Star Music Hall in Bermondsey (where Bessie Bellwood had made her debut), and from July 1882 to 1883 she kept a public house in Southwark. She purchased the Rainbow Music Hall (later renamed the Gaiety Theatre) in Southampton in July 1884. Opening in September 1884 after refurbishment, it burned down in December of the same year.[1] In the straight theatre she played Mrs Micawber in an adaptation of David Copperfield; she also played 'Nan' in the 1889 revival of J. B. Buckstone's Good for Nothing at the Grecian Theatre in Shoreditch, but she did not excel in either role.

Later years[edit]

Alfred Concanen's sheet music cover for 'Arry by E. V. Page (1882)

On March 25, 1889 she appeared on the same bill as Bessie Bellwood at the Canterbury Theatre of Varieties.[4] Her 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. Eventually, she earned enough by dancing the "Cellar Flap," singing her song The Coffee-Shop Girl and by her male impersonations to buy The Hermitage and its farmlands at Streatham.[2]

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. Following the death of her estranged husband John Wilson Woodley on 8 January 1890 she married Edward Turnbull, a music hall manager; in December 1890 she was given a benefit at Canterbury Hall.[1]

Hill played on the vaudeville stage in New York for sixteen weeks from February 1891, but she was not a success with American audiences who could not understand her London slang. Following her return to Britain she was given another benefit in September 1892 at Canterbury Hall after a period of ill health, but by June 1893 she had recovered sufficiently to appear at the London Pavilion. She then went on a British tour that included Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Bradford, her former home. Because of her continuing ill health she was advised by her doctors to go to a warmer climate for the winter. She accepted the invitation of the theatre manager Luscombe Searelle to appear in Johannesburg, arriving there in December 1893. By now her health was so poor that she could only be taken onto the stage in her wheelchair where she shook hands with her audience. Returning to Britain in May 1894 she moved to the more moderate climate of Bournemouth for her health.[1]

Jenny Hill died in June 1896 of pulmonary tuberculosis at her daughter Peggy's home in Brixton in London aged 48. She is buried in Nunhead Cemetery in London.

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