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The Extraordinary Vesta Tilley - by Ray Sturdy: Event


24 February 2022

Vesta Tilley was born Matilda Alice Powles, the second of 13 children, in Commandery Street Worcester in 1864. It was thus that Ray Sturdy began the February talk to the Vale of Evesham Historical Society about a local girl who rose from humble origins to become a world-famous performer.

Vesta’s father, Harry, supplemented his income from his job as a gilder working for the Worcester Porcelain Company by performing in the various Worcester music halls of the day, under the stage name Harry Ball.  Matilda used to accompany her father and, fascinated by the performers and anxious to be one of them, she made her first stage appearance at the age of 3. She performed dressed as a boy at the age of six, and by 1872 her father had quit his job and become her manager.  She first performed under the name of the “Great Little Tilley”, Tilly being a diminutive of Matilda.

In London, she was a roaring success, eventually changing her name to Vesta Tilley (Vesta after the Swan matches and the Roman Goddess).  Among the songs she made famous as a male impersonator were “I’m following in Father’s Footsteps” and  “Burlington Bertie”.  Vesta’s father died in 1888, and in 1890 she married Walter de Frece, a theatre impresario who became her manager.  They set up home in London, where Vesta soon became the highest paid performer in the country.  She never forgot her family, however, and always sent money home to them.

She was also a star of Vaudeville in the USA, visiting that country several times and touring in various cities.

Ray’s listeners were amused to hear that Vesta was so famous that in 1912 a Royal Command Performance was organised, the first Royal Variety Show in fact, at which Queen Mary was so scandalised by the sight of a woman in trousers that she refused to look. 

During WWI she and Walter were of great assistance to the war effort, Vesta dressing as a Tommy and singing songs such as “Jolly Good Luck to the Girl who loves a Soldier” (a recording of which Ray played for us at the end of his talk).  Many young men signed up because of her recruiting efforts. After the war, Walter received a knighthood, and on his wishing to become an MP, Vesta turned her efforts to assisting him. At the same time she decided to retire as a performer, her very last performance being at the Coliseum in 1920. Walter became Conservative MP first for Ashton-under-Lyne and later for Blackpool.

On his retirement in 1931, the couple moved to Monte Carlo.  Vesta died in 1952, aged 88.

Although world-famous and wealthy, she never forgot her humble origins, supporting her family and funding hospitals and homes for sick and handicapped children.  Vesta Tilley memorabilia can be seen at the County Museum in Hartlebury.

This was an interesting and thoroughly entertaining talk, illustrated by many superb photographs, not just of Vesta, but of 19th century Worcester.

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