Vesta Tilley was considered to be the greatest male impersonater in British Music Hall. Born Matilda Alice Powles (13 May 1864 – 16 September 1952), 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 Britain and the United States for over thirty years.
Tilley was born in Worcestershire in 1864. 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 opera 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. "Vesta" referred to a brand of safety matches, and "Tilley" is a nickname for Matilda.
Tilley began to be known for her singing of comic numbers,including "Girls are the Ruin of Men" and "Angels without Wings", both by George Dance. 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. "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. 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 upon his retirement. She moved back to England after her husband's death in 1935. Vesta Tilley died in London in 1952, aged 88. Her body was buried alongside her husband, at Putney Vale Cemetery.
When the right girl comes along - Vesta Tilley