Ella Shields

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Ella Shields
Ella Shields.jpg
Background information
Birth nameElla Catherine Buscher
Also known asBurlington Bertie
Born(1879-09-27)September 27, 1879
Baltimore, Maryland, U.S.
DiedAugust 5, 1952(1952-08-05) (aged 72)
Lancaster, Lancashire, England
GenresMusic hall
Years active1898–1952

Ella Shields (27 September 1879 – 5 August 1952)[1] was a music hall singer and male-impersonator. Her famous signature song, "Burlington Bertie from Bow", a parody of Vesta Tilley's "Burlington Bertie", written by her manager and first husband, William Hargreaves, was an immediate hit.[2] Though American-born, Shields achieved her greatest success in England.

Background and early life[edit]

Ella Shields was born in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1879.[3] Her true surname appears to have been Buscher (sometimes spelled Busher).[4] She was educated in South Bend, Indiana.[3] It is not certain when she adopted the stage name Shields. "Ella" might also have been a stage name.


Ella Shields performing her signature song "Burlington Bertie from Bow"

Shields began her career in 1898, doing a vaudeville song-and-dance act with her sisters.[3][5] In 1904 a talent scout lured her to London, where she was billed as the "Southern Nightingale".[3][6] In 1906 she married the songwriter William Joseph Hargreaves in Lambeth, London.[7] In 1910 she appeared at the opening night of the London Palladium.[3] It was at this time that she became a male impersonator. The story goes that one night in 1910 Shields was attending a party at which music-hall performers did their acts for one another. Half of a two-man musical act was out sick, and Shields put on trousers to fill in for him. This impromptu turn in trousers proved to be the turning point of her career and she rarely wore dresses on stage again.

With wavy auburn hair and dressed as a young man in evening dress, nervously fingering his white tie, she made a very charming and gay figure ... and though she adopted the tattered clothes and worn top hat of the traditional "broken down swell" act she did so with a difference, making of what might have been ordinary broad comedy something delicate and, in its way, almost moving.

— Obituary, The Times[3]

In 1915 Hargreaves wrote "Burlington Bertie from Bow", a comic ditty about a penniless Londoner who affects the manner of a well-heeled gentleman. It was a parody of an earlier song, simply called "Burlington Bertie", written by Harry B. Norris and made famous by Vesta Tilley.[8][9][3][10] Shields sang the song, dressed up in slightly battered top hat and tails, in the role of Burlington Bertie "himself". She toured the world in this role, including appearances at Baltimore's now-demolished Maryland Theatre in 1924 and 1926. The persona of Bertie haunted the rest of her life and she was known as Bertie as much as Ella. She and Hargreaves had separated in 1916 and they divorced in 1923.[11]

The Depression brought difficult times for many entertainers, and Shields announced her retirement in 1929.[3] She spent time working at a Macy's jewellery counter in New York. After a period of performing in obscurity, a music-hall reunion show called Thanks for the Memory put "Bertie" back in the spotlight. This show ran throughout England for over three years from 1947 to 1951.

Shields worked with many stars over the years, including a very young Julie Andrews in the late 1940s with whom she shared the same bill of a Royal Command Performance. Julie Andrews pays tribute to Shields in her own one-woman show and has recorded Shields' famous song "Burlington Bertie from Bow". It is possible that Julie Andrews used Shields as her role model for "Victor" in the film and stage musical Victor/Victoria.[citation needed]


In August 1952, a septuagenarian Shields performed in northern England. Her death was dramatic. Singing her trademark song, in what would be her final show, instead of the traditional opening line "I'm Burlington Bertie", she began with "I was Burlington Bertie". After finishing the song she collapsed on stage and died three days later, without regaining consciousness, at Lancaster in Lancashire, on 5 August 1952. Her body was cremated at Golders Green Crematorium in London. In the crematorium courtyard she shares a memorial plaque with music hall star Nellie Wallace.


Her repertoire of songs was related to her male-impersonation act, which was often in military attire. They included:


  1. ^ Ella Shields biography at BFI accessed 20 Jun 2007
  2. ^ Pegler, Martin (2014). Soldiers' Songs and Slang of the Great War. Oxford: Osprey. p. 256. ISBN 9781427804150.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h "Obituary: Miss Ella Shields". The Times. London. 6 August 1952. p. 6.
  4. ^ According to her obituary her father was Edward T. Buscher.
  5. ^ Her first stage appearance was in Altoona, Pennsylvania.
  6. ^ Her first English appearance was on 10 October 1904 at Forester's Music Hall.
  7. ^ See: England & Wales marriages 1837–2008, Volume 1D, Page 840, Line Number 150.
  8. ^ "Burlington Bertie". Victoria and Albert Museum: Explore the Collections. Retrieved 1 June 2011.
  9. ^ Bennet, Andy; John Stratton (2010). Britpop and the English Music Tradition. p. 50. ISBN 978-0-7546-6805-3. Retrieved 2 June 2011.
  10. ^ The song was allegedly intended by Hargreaves for a comic singer, J. W. Rickaby, who turned it down as too closely modelled on another.
  11. ^ "High Court of Justice". The Times. London. 8 May 1923. p. 5. Under the name Mrs Ella Hargreaves, Shields petitioned for divorce from William Joseph Hargreaves, claiming her husband had treated her with aggravated cruelty before deserting her in 1916. She admitted that subsequently, between August 1917 and 1918, she had entered an adulterous relationship with a Colonel Christie, which had now ended. After evidence was given in corroboration she was granted a decree nisi with costs.

External links[edit]