A woman who became a Hove resident later in life was music hall star and celebrity, Vesta Tilley. She had visited Brighton and other places in Sussex many times in her career, performing in particular at Brighton’s Hippodrome and the Theatre Royal, regaling audiences with her cheeky drag act.
One of the most popular and successful stars of the Edwardian music hall, her trademark act was to appear on stage dressed as a variety of male characters, a judge, a policeman, a soldier, or the dimly-witted, upper-class ‘Burlington Bertie’ a well-dressed yet idle toff about London who lays in bed until late in the morning and fritters away his inheritance, making audiences laugh with her comical skits and songs. Phenomenally successful, Vesta was the most highly paid female entertainer on the British stage before the First World War.
Born to a large working class family in Worcester, Vesta’s real name was Matilda Powles (1864 – 1952). She first appeared on stage in Gloucester at the age of three. By age five her act had expanded to impersonating a boy and she was so good at perfecting the boyish swagger she was her family’s main breadwinner by eleven. It stood to reason that, as she grew up, she would take her brilliant comic timing into the thriving world of the music hall, changing her name to the more memorable ‘Vesta’ – named after the popular match brand – as she went.
Other female cross-dressers trod the boards and found fame, such as Bessie Bellwood, Ella Shields, Hetty King and Millie Hylton, but none became as huge a star as Vesta, whose rare kill in connecting to audiences and making them warm to her – honed from age three – was legendary. The sight of Vesta, who never tried to hide her womanly singing voice, swaggering confidently on stage in trousers was notorious enough to send a frisson through the audience without straying too far from the boundaries of the double-entendre ridden, saucy music hall milieu. Yet, however popular, Vesta did have a few critics.
Apparently, during the 1914 Royal Command performance, Queen Mary and the women in her entourage preferred to look away during Vesta’s performance rather than watch the shocking sight of a woman in trousers. In 1879 she made a rare appearance as a female character, playing the Queen of Hearts at Brighton’s Theatre Royal.
During the early days of the First World War, Vesta, dressed as a soldier, put her act to the service of army recruiting, singing songs such as ‘We Don’t Want To Lose You But We Think You Ought To Go’, sometimes urging men to come onto the stage and join up there and then. So successful, she was even described as ‘Britain’s Best Recruitment Sergeant’.
In 1919 Vesta decided to hang up her trousers for good. In 1890 she had married entertainment entrepreneur, Walter de Frece. Knighted for his services to entertainment during the war, de Frece was determined to have a political career, so Vesta, knowing music hall star wasn’t a suitable career for a politician’s wife, and wanting to help him, embarked on a year long farewell tour, the proceeds of which were donated to children’s charities. With her husband the newly elected Conservative MP for Ashton-under-Lyne and later Blackpool, the new Lady de Frece spent much of the rest of her life at her house in Monte Carlo. Sadly her husband’s career in politics wasn’t to be as stellar as hers on stage. Following her husband’s death, Vesta returned to the town which had always given her a warm welcome and settled in a seafront apartment in St Aubyn’s Mansions. Now in her eighties, it would be good to think that Vesta, on stage since the age of three, could finally relax. St Aubyn’s Mansion was also chosen as a retirement home by another local entertainment Great, Clara Butt. Blue plaques commemorate both women today.
Written by social historan, Louise Peskett