Template:Infobox performer Matilda Alice Powles (May 13, 1864 in Commandery Street, Worcester, Worcestershire – September 16, 1952), was an English male impersonator. At the age of 11, she adopted the stage name Vesta Tilley becoming the most famous and well paid music hall male impersonator of her day. She was a star in both England and the US for over thirty years.
Her father was a comedy actor and sometimes theatre manager, and 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 under the name Pocket Sims Reeves, a parody of then-famous music hall singer Sims Reeves. 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". At the age of eleven she debuted in London at the Canterbury Hall the name Vesta Tilley. "Tilley" being a nickname for Matilda, and "Vesta" referring a brand of safety-matches.
Vesta Tilley married Walter de Frece, the son of a theatre owner, at Brixton Registry Office on August 16th, 1890. By then she was already a famous entertainer, and her career would continue to blossom. Walter de Frece founded a chain of music halls called The Hippodrome where Tilley was a regular performer. 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. As a celebrated vaudeville star, she laid the foundation stone of the Sunderland Empire theatre in 1906, and as a result, has a bar named in her honour within 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 reached its all-time high point 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. ("A blighty one = a wound which sends you back to England").
"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. Her husband was knighted in 1919 for his own services to the war effort, with Tilley becoming Lady de Frece. He was elected Conservative MP for Blackpool from 1924 to 1931.
Tilley made her last performance in 1920 at the Coliseum Theatre, London, at the age of 56. For the rest of her life she lived as Lady de Frece, moving to Monte Carlo with her husband when her husband retired. She moved back to England after her husband's death in 1935. Her autobiography, Recollections of Vesta Tilley, was published in 1934. Vesta Tilley died in London in 1952, aged 88. Her body was cremated, at Golders Green Crematorium, and the ashes buried under a lilac tree there.
- ↑ Vesta Tilley, Sarah Maitland 1986 Virago. p14 ISBN 0-86068-795-3
- ↑ Music Hall burials accessed 11 Feb 2007</span> </li></ol>
- Biography on Collectors' Post
- Biography on Women of Brighton
- Biography on People Play UK
- Mike Casselden's Vesta Tilley website
- Vesta Tilley cylinder recordings, from the Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara Library.
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