Bessie Bellwood (born Catherine Mahoney; 30 March 1856 – 24 September 1896) was a popular music hall performer of the Victorian era noted for her singing of 'Coster' songs, including "What Cheer Ria." Her on stage persona was that of an abrasive but loveable character with an ability to argue down even the toughest of hecklers.
Born in London, she made her music hall debut in Bermondsey, London. She became popular with cockney working-class audiences and went on to appear on the same bill as Jenny Hill at the Canterbury Theatre of Varieties and Vesta Tilley at Gatti's Charing Cross Music Hall. Off-stage, she became a popular figure in London for her many charitable donations 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.
Bellwood was born in London to Patrick Mahoney and his wife Catherine (née Ready), both of whom originated from County Cork in Ireland, and who had married in November 1849. The couple had four daughters: Mary, Ellen, Catherine and Ann Mahoney, as well as a son, James Mahoney.
In 1876, aged 20, Catherine 'Kate' Mahoney assumed the stage name Bessie Bellwood and made her music hall debut at Bermondsey in London, where she had been a rabbit puller, or skin-dresser, in a local factory. 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 a Catholic charity 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, which included paying for Masses for the dead and dying, giving away her own money and possessions, taking in laundry, cleaning homes and looking after children. On September 24, 1884 she married John Nicholson, a Commission Agent in the Register Office in Leeds. Little is known of Nicholson after the wedding and he does not seem to have played a major part in his wife's life.
Maurice Willson Disher (1893-1969), in his book Romance of the Music Hall, wrote of Bellwood:
"When Tony Pastor, the leading music hall manager of America, came over to arrange her visit to New York, she gave a great party there in his honour. In the midst of it, according to H. G. Hibbert’s account, Bessie Bellwood gave a shriek of delight when she heard a hawker crying winkles down the lane. "His stock on a japanned tea-tray slung round his neck was promptly commandeered. The shocked footmen, handing round tea, were despatched for pins, and the immortal singer of ‘Wot cheer, ‘Ria,’ whose real name was Mahoney, and who claimed to be a descendant of Father Prout,’ but who, most certainly, began life as a rabbit skinner in the New Cut, carefully divided her spoils among many applicants."
Of her popular song What Cheer Ria?, author Peter Davison notes: "Bessie Bellwood was one of the first of the great women characters of the music halls; and she was the kind of woman who epitomised the spirit of the halls. She had a magnificent gift of repartee, she could dominate a lively audience, and with her courage and humour went a deep generosity that became a byword. This was not limited to giving money to those out of luck... " Other songs in her repertoire included "He's Going To Marry Mary Ann", "Woa Emma!", and "Aubrey Plantagenet".
In 1890, Bellwood was briefly declared bankrupt as a result of lending a substantial amount of money to the Duke of Manchester which was never repaid. Bellwood later sued the Duke unsuccessfully.
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In the 1944 film Champagne Charlie starring Tommy Trinder as George Leybourne and Stanley Holloway as Alfred Vance, the part of Bessie Bellwoood was played by Betty Warren. In the 1975 film The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother she was used as an alias by the character played by Madeline Kahn (the film's title character immediately sees through the ruse and notes that Bellwood has been dead for over a decade by that time; in reality, Bellwood was still alive in the year the film was set, 1891).
Bellwood died of Cardiac Disease Exhaustion aged 40 on 24 September 1896 at her home in West Kensington, London. Her early death was generally attributed to her alcohol-fueled Bohemian life-style. Her funeral cortege passed along Fulham Road and onto Whitechapel Road and was witnessed by thousands of her fans, including her husband John Nicholson.
- Catherine Mahoney, FreeBMD, England & Wales, FreeBMD Birth Index, 1837-1915, volume 1d, p. 421
- Patrick Mahoney marriage to Catherine Ready, FreeBMD, England & Wales, FreeBMD Marriage Index: 1837-1915, Vol. 4, p. 541
- Bellwood in Frederick Denny's Encyclopaedia of the British Music Hall Archived 30 August 2011 at the Wayback Machine
- Le Roy, George Music Hall Stars of the Nineties British Technical and General Press (1952) pg 41
- Davison, Peter Songs of the British Music Hall Pub. Music Sales Ltd (1971) ISBN 0825600634
- Programme for the Canterbury Theatre of Varieties, 25 March 1889 via British Library Online Gallery; accessed 24 January 2018.
- "Miss Bessie Bellwood's Debts", Manchester Evening News, 13 May 1890, p. 2
- "The Duke of Manchester and Bessie Bellwood", Leeds Mercury, 23 June 1892, p. 5
- "Bessie Bellwood and the Duke of Manchester", Gloucester Citizen, 22 June 1892, p. 4
- Bellwood on the Footlight Notes website
- "Bessie Bellwood", London Daily News, 26 September 1896, p. 6
- "Bessie Bellwood's Funeral", Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advisor, 30 September 1896, p. 7
- UK Retail Price Index inflation figures are based on data from Clark, Gregory (2017). "The Annual RPI and Average Earnings for Britain, 1209 to Present (New Series)". MeasuringWorth. Retrieved January 27, 2019.
- "Bessie Bellwood's Estate", Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 17 Oct 1896, p. 8