If you’d visited the Hippodrome in 1933 you may well have caught two Brighton-born twins, who’d taken America by storm.
Violet and Daisy Hilton were conjoined twins who, after many years of exploitation at the hands of their adoptive mother and a corrupt manager on the show-business circuit, managed to strike out on their own and become hugely successful stars of stage, vaudeville and film in the USA. In 1933 they returned to their home-town to top the bill at the Hippodrome. Today they are featured in the 100 Pioneering Women of Sussex blog series.
Daisy and Violet Hilton were born in 1908 in Riley Road, to unmarried bar-maid, Kate Skinner. Thinking that the twins, who were joined at the hip, was a punishment from God for giving birth out of wedlock, Skinner disowned them. Their being taken in by the midwife, Mary Hilton, who was also landlady of the Queens Arms off St James’ Street and later The Evening Star near Brighton Station, was not the compassionate gesture it may have first seemed. From the beginning Hilton did her best to exploit interest in the girls for every penny she could make, selling pictures of them from behind the bar and displaying them on international tours from the age of three.
In 1916 they were taken to Texas where they were to spend much of the rest of their lives. When Hilton died the twins were ‘bequeathed’ to her daughter and son-in-law, Edith and Meyer Meyers who, according to the twins’ biography, as well as ensuring they learnt dance, saxophone and other performance skills, kept them captive, beat them and kept all the money they earned. In 1931, by now well-known stars, the sisters managed to break free of the Meyers. From then on, holding the reins of their own careers, they remained successful celebrities. They returned briefly to Brighton in 1933 to headline a show at the Hippodrome, a visit which caused significant interest in the town.
The homecoming must have been bittersweet for the sisters, however, as they’d intended to track down their birth mother. Sadly Kate Skinner had died a short time after their birth. Returning to the USA, despite their appearance in films, ‘Freaks’ (1932) and ‘Chained for Life’ (1952) and making short lived marriages which were considered by many to be publicity stunts, the sisters faced dwindling popularity as other forms of entertainment became popular and audiences became less comfortable with staring at people who were born different.
The story goes that their last public appearance was at a drive-in in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1961 where, simply abandoned afterwards by their manager, they took on jobs at a local convenience store, dying in 1969 within a few days of each other of the ‘flu. Although established fixtures of show-business history in America where a Broadway show ‘Sideshow’ staged in 1997 and other plays and films have been made about their lives, they are less well known in their home town. This is about to change thanks to the efforts of local historian Alf Le Flohic who has been campaigning to raise funds to erect a blue plaque on the twins’ birthplace at 18 Riley Road. This was scheduled to take place on 29 May 2020 following a talk by Le Flohic ‘The Brighton United Twins’ at the Gladstone pub on Lewes Road, just a stone’s throw away from Riley Road where these talented twins were born 112 years ago. Sadly, at the time of writing, this has had to be postponed due to the ongoing Covid 19 situation. Look out here for it to be rescheduled.
This is an extract from Louise Peskett’s forthcoming book, Brighton Women, the Notable and the Notorious: A Guided Walk