Vesta Tilley (1864-1952) was born Matilda Alice Powles in Worcester in 1864. Vesta was the second child of thirteen. Her father worked at the local pottery painting china. He was also a talented musician and entertainer, and gained local recognition in developing a speciality act with his dog. He eventually attracted the attention of provincial theatres and was offered a job to manage a Hall in Gloucester, which marked the start of his career in music hall. From an early age, and inspired by her father’s theatrical influence, Vesta, demonstrated a strong inclination towards acting, singing and performing. Her father was quick to appreciate her talent and presented her in front of an audience at the age of three.
Vesta achieved great success from her first appearance on stage and longed to perform in front of an audience from that point. Her fame spread quickly and before she was even four years old, Vesta was attracting large crowds to the theatre. Vesta was soon engaged to tour her act around neighbouring towns and was earning enough money to allow her father to give up his job at the theatre and travel with her. Although not an agent, he arranged all her theatre engagements and looked after her interests and safety, whilst also performing his own act. Vesta was billed as ‘The Great Little Tilley’ while her father appeared as ‘Harry Ball, the Tramp Musician with his dog Fathead’.
Vesta started her career performing as a female but by the age of four she felt that women’s clothes were a hindrance to her performance and she started experimenting with her father’s coat and hat pretending to be a boy. Although a risky career move, her father encouraged her to expand into this area of performance and bought her first set of male clothes, which she treasured for the rest of her life.
Although she occasionally performed as a woman, Vesta found her true vocation as a male impersonator. She liked to observe and study her male characters and mock their most stereotypical behaviours. Vesta enjoyed her new found male personas, they allowed her to experience a higher level of freedom to express herself on stage than women’s roles did and opened up opportunities to crossing traditional lines of social respectability between genders.
Her first appearance as a boy was at the age of five and although it met with a small degree of disapproval from some theatre managers, the act was an overall hit and by the time she was a teenager she was touring the larger theatres in London. Vesta portrayed popular characters of the time including policemen, singers, judges, soldiers and clergymen. Her shows were a socio-political reflection of her time and a satire of traditional male roles and behaviours. Many women identified with the storylines she played and saw her as a symbol of female emancipation, whilst working class men loved her satirical representation of the higher classes.
Vesta married Sir Abraham Walter de Frece in 1890. Walter was a theatre impresario turned politician. He was the son of Henry de Frece, the prominent theatre impresario, famous for being the first to introduce twice nightly performances in variety theatres. In 1914 Walter formed the holding company ‘Variety Theatres Controlling Company Ltd.’ which managed 18 theatres across the country.
Following the outbreak of World War I and before conscription, Vesta and Walter joined other peers from the entertainment sector on a campaign to support the war effort. They embarked on a series of fund raising activities for war related charities. They also set about actively recruiting men for the armed forces. During this period Vesta’s stage characters mainly depicted soldiers and all her songs were patriotic in nature. She played the role of ‘Tommy in the Trench’ and ‘Jack Tar Home from Sea’ and encouraged men in the audience to join her on the stage and enlist during her show. She also sang such songs as 'Jolly Good Luck to the Girl Who Loves a Soldier', 'The Army of Today's All Right', ‘A Bit of a Blighty One’ and 'Six Days' Leave'. At this point in her career, Vesta was a great music hall star acclaimed around the country, and she was very capable of influencing peoples’ opinion. Additionally, variety theatres were hugely popular and were often used as a hub for war propaganda.
Vesta chose to sing cheerful songs, not only with the aim of being patriotic but also to raise the morale of her audience. ‘The Army of To-day’s all right’ was especially successful in encouraging new recruits to join up the war effort and even the War Office used the title for a poster asking for volunteers.
In one week alone, while performing in Hackney, she managed to enlist a whole battalion, ‘The Vesta Tilley Platoon’, supported by Mr Horatio Bottomley (1860-1933) the politician, self-proclaimed ‘Unofficial Recruiting Agent to the British Empire’ and credited with conducting twenty recruiting meetings and 340 patriotic war lectures across the country. The impact of her work during World War I gained Vesta the nickname of ‘Britain’s greatest recruiting sergeant’.
Her performances were also aimed at serving men, who often gave her tips on how to improve her military characters. Vesta enjoyed working with soldiers as she liked to appear as realistic as possible on stage. Throughout the war Vesta became a popular symbol of home for soldiers on the Front, who used to send her requests for her costumes and make-up to use in their own military concerts on war camps, and she was only too happy to comply.
Her role in support of the troops expanded outside the stage, as she made the effort to keep in touch with those men that enlisted. She sent them souvenirs and corresponded with them at the Front. She also sent special sound recordings, created in collaboration with the Columbia Gramophone Company, to give them comfort and performed in hospitals for wounded soldiers. Additionally, Vesta sold War Bonds and donated all the proceedings of the sale of her picture postcards to war charities.
The wartime period performances weren’t without risk, as the threat of air raids was always looming over her head. The shows in London were often interrupted by the sound of the dreaded maroons raising the alarm with a loud band and a flash of light. Vesta and other entertainers however, were resolute to stand defiant to the threat and often performed through the attacks amidst a sense of overwhelming uncertainty and fear.
On one occasion, whilst at Margate, Vesta witnessed the approach of German airplanes on their way to bomb a major city and she saw the charred remains of two German soldiers when their aircraft was taken down by the British air defence.
In 1919, Vesta’s husband, Walter, was awarded a knighthood and Vesta became Dame de Frece. Walter had been toying with politics for a while and eventually, abandoned his career in theatre to dedicate all his efforts to his political career and served in parliament between 1920 and 1931. Walter had been trying to persuade Vesta to retire for a while, but she refused driven by her indomitable love for the stage. Walter’s Knighthood, however changed the couple’s social standing and Vesta decided to retire at the height of her career in 1919 to support her husband’s political career and public role.
During her farewell tour, Vesta travelled the main cities of the UK and donated all the proceedings of her shows to the local children’s charities and hospitals. Additionally, she gave £500 in War Bonds to the mayors of Liverpool, Edinburgh, Manchester, Sheffield and Birmingham amongst other cities, to support charitable endeavours.
As a retirement gift, Vesta received a book containing two million signatures collected across all the theatres she had performed in. The book was named ‘The People’s Tribute to Vesta Tilley’ and included many messages of good will from her revered Tommies.
During her 53 year career as a performer, Vesta was acclaimed around the theatres of Great Britain and America and made a lasting impact on her audiences, not only as a superbly talented performer but also as a human being. She was very socially conscious and always strived to help the less fortunate. She did copious fundraising for children’s charities around the country and served as President of ‘The Music Hall Ladies’ Guild’, a benevolent organisation funded for the relief of female variety performers and one of the triggers of the first ever Royal Command Variety Performance, which raised the social status of the English variety theatre.
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Some of Vesta's most famous WWI song lyrics
The Army of To-day’s all right
|Six Days Leave
‘It’s a fine time for a soldier,
When he’s home on his six days’ leave,
Must see Aunt Maria, must see Uncle Jim,
Tell them what the General said, a
Ad what I said to him.
It’s a fine time for a soldier,
But with all due respect and regard,
Next time they want to give me six days’ leave,
Let’em give me six months’ hard!’
|A Bit of a Blighty One
‘I’ve a bit of a Blighty one, but nothing to speak of,
A bit of a Blighty one, that’s all.
All Through a splinter from a four point two
I’m in blue; but I’m never feeling blue.
I’m having a cushy time, for nothing to speak of,
I’m treated like a long-lost son,
When they bathe my brow with sponges,
And feed me on Blank Monges,
Then I’m glad I’ve got this bit of a Blighty One!’
Jolly Good Luke to the Girl that Loves a Soldier