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 music hall performer who adopted, at age 11, the stage name Vesta Tilley and who became one of the most famous male impersonators of her era. 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, known as Harry Ball, was a comedy actor, songwriter, and music hall chairman; with his encouragement, 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, billed as "The Pocket Sims Reeves", a reference to the then-famous opera singer Sims Reeves. She also performed songs from his repertoire, to add to the illusion. 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."
Under her father's management, Vesta toured extensively in 'the provinces', as towns and cities outside London were known. While she appeared on stage at St George's Hall in Nottingham most frequently – her father was the chairman of the hall – she also performed in other towns such as Birmingham, Hull, Leicester, Derby and Liverpool. Successful from the outset, by age 11 her salary supported her parents and siblings as well.
The first decade of her career saw her billed most often as 'the Great Little Tilley'. As it happens, however, the gender ambiguity of her name was causing problems for audiences, and she and her manager father were asked to come up with another. She was billed as Vesta Tilley for the first time in April 1878, when performing at the Royal Music Hall in Holborn, London. "Vesta" referred to both the Roman goddess of hearth and home, and a brand of safety matches; "Tilley" was her childhood nickname for Matilda.
Repertoire and performance
Early on, Vesta performed the songs of Sims Reeves, and songs written for her by her father. These included sentimental pieces such as 'Poor Jo', which had her playing the character of a workhouse child. Other sentimental songs would follow, such as 'Squeeze Her Gently' and 'The Pet of Rotten Row', and 'Strolling along with Nancy.'
As she got older, she followed other male impersonators into songs where she undertook portraying young men behaving either embarrassingly or badly. Among these characters would feature the titular character 'Burlington Bertie' as well as clerks on holiday at the seaside ('The Seaside Sultan'). These were intended to be comical, and allow the audience to laugh at the inflated egos of these characters. Equally comical was the play on her identity as a woman and the subject matter of many of her songs. This can be read even just in their titles: 'Girls are the Ruin of Men', 'Following in Father's Footsteps', 'The girls I've left behind me' and 'Naughty Boy' are a few examples.
She also played the principal boy in a number of pantomimes. She played the role of 'Pertiboy' in 'Beauty and the Beast' at the Birmingham Theatre Royal during the 1881–2 season, and appeared at the same again in 1885-6 in the titular role of 'Robinson Crusoe'. She was best known for her titular role in 'Dick Whittington'; a role she reprised throughout her career. Notably, she also appeared in the Drury Lane pantomime for the 1882–3 season production of 'Sinbad' (in the role of Captain Tra-la-la) and 1890–91 season's production of 'Beauty and the Beast', where she played the prince.
Vesta Tilley was romantically involved with Albert Fisher from Birmingham (who latterly named his daughter, Vesta Minnie Parsons after her) and later went on to marry Walter de Frece, music-hall entrepreneur and the son of a theatre owner, at Brixton Register Office on 16 August 1890. By then she was already a famous entertainer, and her career would continue to blossom. Walter de Frece founded a chain of music halls called "The Hippodrome" where Tilley was a regular performer. A true professional, she would spend months preparing the new character types she wanted to represent on stage. These roles had a slightly mocking edge, furthering her popularity among the working class men in her audience. She was wildly popular among women as well, who viewed her as a symbol of independence. As a celebrated vaudeville star, she laid the foundation stone of the Sunderland Empire Theatre in 1906, and as a result, has a bar named in her honour within the venue.
Her career reached the US as well, and in 1912 she performed at the first Royal Variety Performance as 'The Piccadilly Johnny with the Little Glass Eye': "The most perfectly dressed young man in the house".
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.
There were a number of other stars at the time who were women cross-dressed as men, including Bessie Bellwood, Ella Shields, Hetty King, Fanny Robina, and Millie Hylton. 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.
Vesta's farewell tour took a year to complete between 1919 and 1920. All proceeds were given to a local children's charity in the city where the performances took place. She made her final appearance 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 married Walter de Frece at Brixton Registry Office on 16 August 1890.
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
- Lady de Frece, Recollections of Vesta Tilley, London: Hutchinson, 1934. p. 52.
- Maitland, Sara. Vesta Tilley. London: Virago, 1986. p. 24
- The Era, 4 April 1878, p. 20.
- Vesta Tilley Biography accessed 24 October 2007
- "The Great War Interviews 2: Katie Morter". BBC. Retrieved 24 March 2014.
- A blighty one = a wound which sends you back to England
- the quiet busker (12 May 2012). "Vesta Tilley". flickr.com. Retrieved 15 July 2013.
- 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 15 February 2011.