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. 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'. The gender ambiguity of her name was causing problems for audiences, however, so 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', 'The Pet of Rotten Row', and 'Strolling along with Nancy', songs made popular by Reeves.
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.
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. Newspaper reports of her performances emphasised how popular she was throughout the country, drawing capacity crowds in England, Scotland, Ireland, the Isle of Man and Wales. Often, people were turned away from the theatre as all space, including standing room, had been allocated. In some cases, theatre proprietors were able to ('obliged to' in their parlance) raise ticket prices for her week-run in their theatre. As at the time ticket prices were set regardless of the performers arriving that week, Tilley's ability to sell out even when prices were raised indicates her immense popularity.
As a celebrated vaudeville star, she laid the foundation stone of the Camberwell Empire and Sunderland Empire Theatre in 1906. The Sunderland Empire survives and has a bar named in her honour across the road from 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 continued 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, Millie Hylton, and Fanny Robina. Once she became a household name, Tilley made an effort to underline her femininity off stage, to protect herself against criticism and allow her to continue to push boundaries in her career. She wore the latest fashions off stage, glamorously clad in fur and jewellery, as befitted her role. Another way she reinforced her femininity was through her ongoing involvement with children's charities in the towns and cities where she performed.
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, with a guarantee of £500 per city, Tilley making up the difference if necessary. She made her final appearance at the Coliseum Theatre, London, at the age of 56. When she gave up the stage, one of the main reasons she gave was that her husband wanted to become an MP, and her profession was not really respectable enough for such a milieu; arguably, she was too well known and outshone him as a public figure, which was a concern. For the rest of her life she lived as Lady de Frece, moving to Monte Carlo with her husband upon his retirement from politics.
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
- Photographs of Vesta Tilley, held by the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
- 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.