Cards of Vesta Tilley, out of drag and in a male role
|Born||Matilda Alice Powles
13 May 1864
Commandery Street, Worcester
|Died||16 September 1952
|Other names||Lady de Frece|
|Occupation||Music hall singer & male impersonator|
|Spouse(s)||Abraham Walter de Frece|
Matilda Alice Powles (13 May 1864 – 16 September 1952), was an English male impersonator. At the age of 11, she adopted the stage name Vesta Tilley becoming the most famous and well paid music hall male impersonator of her day. She was a star in both Britain and the United States for over thirty years.
Tilley was born in Commandery Street, Worcester, Worcestershire in 1864. Her father was a comedy actor and sometimes theatre manager, and Tilley first appeared on stage at the age of three and a half. At the age of six she did her first role in male clothing under the name Pocket Sims Reeves, a parody of then-famous opera singer Sims Reeves. She would come to prefer doing male roles exclusively, saying that "I felt that I could express myself better if I were dressed as a boy". At the age of eleven she debuted in London at the Canterbury Hall the name Vesta Tilley. "Vesta" referred to a brand of safety matches, and "Tilley" is a nickname for Matilda.
Tilley began to be known for her singing of comic numbers, including "Girls are the Ruin of Men" and "Angels without Wings", both by George Dance.
She married Walter de Frece at Brixton Register Office on 16 August 1890.
Tilley's popularity reached its all-time high point during World War I, when she and her husband ran a military recruitment drive, as did a number of other music-hall stars. In the guise of characters like 'Tommy in the Trench' and 'Jack Tar Home from Sea', Tilley performed songs like "The army of today's all right" and 'Jolly Good Luck to the Girl who Loves a Soldier'. This is how she got the nickname Britain's best recruiting sergeant – young men were sometimes asked to join the army on stage during her show. She was prepared to be a little controversial. Famously, for example, she sang a song "I've Got a Bit of a Blighty One", about a soldier who was delighted to have been wounded because it allowed him to go back to England and get away from extremely deadly battlefields.
- "When I think about my dugout / Where I dare not stick my mug out / I'm glad I've got a bit of a blighty one!"
Tilley performed in hospitals and sold War Bonds. Her husband was knighted in 1919 for his own services to the war effort, with Tilley becoming Lady de Frece. He was elected Conservative MP for Ashton-under-Lyne in the 1920s and then for Blackpool.
There were a number of other stars at the time who were women dressed as men, a genre which seems to have disappeared in the 1920s. Vesta Tilley had to make some effort to underline her femininity off stage, to protect herself against criticism. She always wore fur and jewellery off stage, and although she had no children herself was very much involved in children's charities. When she gave up the stage, one of the main reasons was that her husband wanted to become an MP, and her profession was not really respectable enough for such a milieu.
Tilley made her last performance in 1920 at the Coliseum Theatre, London, at the age of 56. For the rest of her life she lived as Lady de Frece, moving to Monte Carlo with her husband upon his retirement. She moved back to England after her husband's death in 1935. Her autobiography, Recollections of Vesta Tilley, was published in 1934. Vesta Tilley died in London in 1952, aged 88. Her body was buried alongside her husband, at Putney Vale Cemetery and a black granite memorial marks the spot.
- Sarah Maitland (1986) Vesta Tilley p14, Virago Press, London ISBN 0-86068-795-3
- A blighty one = a wound which sends you back to England
- Vesta Tilley at the Internet Movie Database
- Biography on Collectors' Post
- Biography on Women of Brighton
- Biography on People Play UK
- Mike Casselden's Vesta Tilley website
- Vesta Tilley cylinder recordings, from the Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara Library.
- "Vesta Tilley". Theatre and Performance. Victoria and Albert Museum. Retrieved 2011-02-15.