Tuesday, 13 May 2014

150 Years Ago

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of the music hall entertainer Vesta Tilley (1864-1952). Born Matilda Alice Powles, in Worcester, on 13th May 1864, she became a child star who earned enough by the age of 11 to support both her parents and her twelve siblings. Her father was Harry Ball, a comedy performer himself and theatre manager, who promoted his daughter’s career and wrote songs for her to sing. She first appeared in public at the age of three and a half, at her father’s theatre in Gloucester, and toured the provinces as ‘The Great Little Tilley’ from the age of six until she adopted the name of Vesta Tilley 1878.

As a child, she was initially billed as “The Pocket Sims Reeves”, for her impersonation of the famous singer, John Sims Reeves (1821-1900), and she went on to become the country’s most popular male impersonator. She dressed as fashionable young men in top hats and tail coats and, singing in her very feminine soprano voice, she entertained her working-class audiences by mildly satirizing the foppish manners of the rich in songs such as ‘Berlington Bertie’, ‘The latest chap on earth’ and ‘I’m a bachelor’.

In 1894, she made the first of several tours of the United States where she also enjoyed great popularity. She was at the height of her powers during the First World War and worked tirelessly for the war effort by singing patriotic recruitment songs. She retired from the stage in 1920 at the age of 56, drawing to a close a career which had lasted for over 50 years but thereafter making occasional charity appearances until her death more than 30 years later, in 1952.

The present anniversary is conveniently encapsulated in the title of the song illustrated here, one of dozens of Vesta Tilley song sheets in the Bodleian Library’s vast collections of music hall songs.