Sunday 19 May 2024

Vesta Tilley - stage name of Matilda Alice Powles (1864 - 1952) – British music hall star - one of the best-known male impersonators of her era.

With thanks to John Daniel for this information 

Matilda Alice Powles was born in Worcester on 13th May 1864. She was the second child of thirteen children born to Henry Powles, a musician known as Harry Ball, and his wife, Matilda Powles (nee Broughton).

With her father's encouragement, Matilda made her stage debut when she was three years old.  By the time she was six, she was performing songs dressed as a man. She began her professional career in 1869. – her first character of note was "Pocket Sims Reeves", spoofing the act of the then-famous opera singer Sims Reeves by performing his songs such as "The Anchor's Weighed". 

She was billed as Vesta Tilley for the first time in April 1878 when performing at the Royal Music Hall in Holborn, London. As a male impersonator, Alice performed as a dandy or a fop, a famous character being "Burlington Bertie", although she also played other roles such as policemen and clergymen.

In 1890 Alice married Sir Abraham Walter de Frece (7 October 1870 – 7 January 1935) - a British theatre impresario, and later Conservative Party politician, who served as a Member of Parliament (MP) from 1920 to 1931.

Alice and her husband ran military recruitment drives during the First World War and Alice sang at charity events dressed in khaki fatigues  performing numbers written by her husband such as "Jolly Good Luck to the Girl Who Loves a Soldier", "The Army of Today's All Right", "Six Days' Leave", and "Your King and Country Want You" (also known as "We Don't Want to Lose You but We Think You Ought to Go"). She was nicknamed "England’s greatest recruiting sergeant" since young men were sometimes asked to join the army during her shows. Over the course of a week in Hackney, she enlisted so many people they became known as "The Vesta Tilley Platoon".

After the war, music halls declined in popularity. Walter de Frece was knighted in the 1919 King's Birthday Honours List for his services to the war effort, with Alice becoming Lady de Frece. Walter decided to run for Parliament and Alice chose to end her stage career. Her farewell tour took a year to complete, between 1919 and 1920. All proceeds were given to a local children's hospital.  She made her final appearance at the Coliseum Theatre, London on Saturday 5th June 1920. In their review, "The Times" newspaper called it a "wonderful night" and commented that at the end she was "gradually being submerged under the continuous stream of bouquets".

Alice died in St James's, London on 16th September 1952, aged 88. Her body was buried alongside her husband, at Putney Vale Cemetery.

Image:  A postcard of Vesta Tilley dressed in Army uniform during WW1.  These cards were sold in aid of the War Relief Funds.

Music Hall in WW1

The First World War may have been the high-water mark of music hall popularity. The artists and composers threw themselves into rallying public support and enthusiasm for the war effort. Patriotic music hall compositions such as "Keep the Home Fires Burning" (1914), "Pack up Your Troubles" (1915), "It's a Long Way to Tipperary" (1914) and "We Don't Want to Lose You (but we think you ought to Go)", were sung by music hall audiences, and sometimes by soldiers in the trenches.

Many songs promoted recruitment ("All the boys in khaki get the nice girls", 1915); others satirised particular elements of the war experience. 

Sources: Information supplied by John Daniel, 

Additional sources:

Find my Past, FreeBMD, Wikipedia