Monday 24 October 2011


By Essie Fox

My novel, The Somnambulist, opens up in a Victorian music hall – in Wilton’s to be precise – a hall which is situated in Grace’s Alley in London’s East End and which still opens its doors for productions today. I really do recommend a visit, especially for one of the conducted tours which tell all about the hall’s history. And do prepare to be utterly charmed by the crumbling beauty of the place in which you can very almost ‘taste’ the glamour and 'bang’ of a bygone age.

The entrance doors to Wilton's hall

When I entered Wilton's entrance doors for a performance of Handel’s Acis and Galatea, I was entirely seduced by such an intimate theatrical space, where the frieze-fronted balcony of papier mache is supported by brass sugar-barley-twist posts.

Inside Wilton's music hall

Sitting in the darkened hall and seeing those metal posts sparkle when reflecting the glint of the stage lights, I imagined them as mirrors into the past, and however blurred and distorted those reflections might happen to be, I wondered what stories they might have to tell – what glorious pictures they might have to show from Wilton’s in its heyday.

One of Wilton's most famous faces - and one who appears in my story too - was the singer George Leybourne whose career really took off when he co-wrote That Daring Young Man on his Flying Trapeze, a song based on the acrobat Jules Leotard who was also quite a star, and after whom the item of sports clothing - the leotard - was named.

Jules Leotard

But it was the song, Champagne Charlie that really brought George Leybourne fame, when he appeared as a West End swell, very elegant in his topper and tails and carrying a silver-topped cane in his hand. Soon he was being sponsored by the champagne producer, Moet and Chandon – thereafter almost always seen with a bottle of Moet in his hand. which probably did more harm than good as George died in his early forties from what might well be described as a surfeit of the ‘the high life’ and 'the phizz'.

Wilton’s would have hosted many different kinds of act – from performing dogs to acrobats – and to continue with this month’s blog theme of ‘cross-dressing’ I’ve no doubt there would also have been ‘Drag Kings’ – acts in which women dressed up to imitate men such as Leybourne which (despite the sense of the Victorian age being one of repression and prudery) was always a popular turn – as were many of the songs  performed, full of 'sauce' and double entendre.

Two of my favourite Victorian male impersonators, or ‘mashers’, are the fictional Nan King and Kitty Butler from Sarah Waters’ wonderful novel, Tipping the Velvet which, whilst being very entertaining and providing a vivid picture of the Victorian music halls, is a fascinating commentary on gender and sexual acceptance, as well as the politics involved on the road to social justice and suffrage.

Vesta Tilley in drag costume 

One such real life character was Vesta Tilley who was born into a theatrical family in Worcester, England, in 1864. Vesta often appeared on stage as a child and from very early in her career preferred to play a boy or a man, saying, ‘I felt that I could express myself better if I were dressed as a boy.’ Vesta’s attention to the detail of her stage costume was such that she became a fashion icon for men. But, the females in her audience also adored her – enjoying the wry nods to illustrate men’s foibles and eccentricities to which her songs often alluded. 

She performed as a swell, a judge, a clergyman and a soldier – and to such acclaim that when she retired in 1920, nearly two million people signed the People’s Tribute as a mark of their thanks and respect. 

I think it both ironic and somehow rather touching that this woman who preferred to act as a man had a husband who went on to receive a knighthood, which meant that Vesta Tilley was thereafter known as 'Lady’.

Vesta Tilley as 'herself'


michelle lovric said...

Lovely post, Essie. Thank you for all the pictures too, especially of M. Leotard in his glory (and tiny skirt?). I also loved The Somnabulist, and look forward to your next very much indeed.

Caroline Lawrence said...

Wow, I adored this post and am off to Wilton's post haste. (Also off to order the Somnambulist!)

Linda B-A said...

This was fascinating and touching - two million people signing a tribute for a music hall artist! Vesta Tilley in male dress looks splendid, indeed, and how interesting that she became a fashion icon for men. Thanks for a great post.

mary hooper said...

How fascinating, thank you. I must go to Wilton's too!

adele said...

Super post! Thanks Essie.

Essie Fox said...

Thank you so much...Wilton's really is an amazing place and there's so much to discover about the music halls.

This site is a great resource if anyone wants to dip in and learn a little more -

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Fabulous photographs Essie and great post. How glamorous they all are... particularly Vesta Tilley! Thank you!

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

And thank you Virtual Victorian too. Went to your Arthur Lloyd site. It's fantastic esp London's Lost Theatres. I had a marvellous time finding all the old theatres around where I live and discovered my local cinema in the Fulham Road was first opened as a theatre in 1897. So saluted it this morning as I passed on my way to the gym. Thank you!

Michelle P said...

What a great post - and such wonderful images too. Thank you, I thoroughly enjoyed this.

Sue Sedgwick said...

Lovely post, and very instuctive. Music hall is a setting which tempts me, and it's great to know about this one that can be visited. I find I write with much more confidence about settings that are real for me - i.e. real, or based on a real equivalent. Thank you.

Leslie Wilson said...

I did enjoy this post, Essie!