Matilda Alice Victoria Wood (12 February 1870 – 7 October 1922) was an English music hall singer, best known as Marie Lloyd. Her ability to add lewdness to the most innocent of lyrics led to frequent clashes with the guardians of morality. Her performances articulated the disappointments of life, especially for working-class women.
Born in Hoxton, London, her early interest in the music hall was fostered by her father John, who worked part-time in the nearby Royal Eagle Tavern. Marie formed her sisters into a singing group called the Fairy Bells Minstrels, singing temperance songs in local missions and church halls, costumed by their mother Matilda Mary Caroline Wood. In her teens, the younger Matilda Wood adopted the name Marie Lloyd and quickly became one of the most famous of English music hall singers and comediennes. Her first major success was The Boy I Love Is Up in the Gallery.
Lloyd's songs, although perfectly harmless by modern standards, began to gain a reputation for being "racy" and filled with double entendre, ("She'd never had her ticket punched before" for example) largely thanks to the manner in which she sang them, adding winks and gestures, and creating a conspiratorial relationship with her audience. She became the target of Vigilance or "Watch" committees and others opposing music-hall licences. She liked to claim that any immorality was in the minds of the complainants, and in front of these groups would sing her songs "straight" to show their supposed innocence.
In one famous incident, she was summoned before one of these committees and asked to sing her songs. She sang "Oh! Mr Porter"; and "A Little of What you Fancy" in such a sweet innocent way that the committee had no reason to find anything amiss. She then rendered the drawing-room ballad "Come into the Garden Maud" in such an obscene way that the committee was shocked into silence. She did herself no favours.
On another occasion, as legend has it, when the moralists objected to her song "I sits among the cabbages and peas", with its daring – for the context – reference to urinating, she transformed the lyrics, and sang instead "I sits among the cabbages and leeks" to the roars of laughter of her adoring audience.
The following year she made her first visit to the United States. Her "blue" reputation preceded her and she quickly gave an interview to the New York Telegraph newspaper that carried her quote:
They don't pay their sixpences and shillings at a music hall to hear the Salvation Army. If I was to try to sing highly moral songs, they would fire ginger beer bottles and beer mugs at me. I can't help it if people want to turn and twist my meanings.
Although popular enough to command her own fees, Lloyd backed and supported the 1907 strike for better terms by music-hall performers. She commented on her support:
We (the stars) can dictate our own terms. We are fighting not for ourselves, but for the poorer members of the profession, earning thirty shillings to £3 a week. For this they have to do double turns, and now matinées have been added as well. These poor things have been compelled to submit to unfair terms of employment, and I mean to back up the federation in whatever steps are taken.
Marie performed on picket lines throughout the strike, and in a fund raising performance at the Scala Theatre.
During the First World War, like most music hall artists, she enthusiastically supported recruitment for the army. The recruitment went on in the music halls themselves, often in the tone "Two shillings for the first man to sign up tonight". In particular she sang the song I didn't like you much before you joined the army, John, but I do like you, cockie, now you've got your khaki on. She also sang in many free concerts for the masses of wounded returning from the trenches.
Her private life was also controversial. Her first marriage to Percy Courtenay was a stormy one. Despite Marie giving birth to a baby daughter whom they named after Marie’s mother, Matilda, their marriage hit the rocks when Percy began drinking heavily and treating Marie badly. By 1893 they were living all but separate lives. Percy, however, did not wish to let Marie – or her money – go, and would constantly show up at her performances and attempt to get backstage. In the end, she notified the police, telling them she felt threatened by him. Percy was arrested, and in court, the Magistrate found against him. Their marriage ended in 1894.
Marie met and fell in love with the singer Alec Hurley and in 1901 they went to Australia, where they performed on stage together with tremendous success. She and Alec had lived together for four years before Percy Courtenay finally divorced her in 1905. They were married the following year.
By 1910 Marie and Alec’s marriage was becoming more and more unhappy, thanks in no small part to Marie meeting – and falling in love with – young Irish jockey Bernard Dillon. He was 22 and Marie was 40 and in no time Marie had left Alec and moved in with Bernard. A year later, after the Jockey Club revoked Dillon's license, his career was finished and he, like her first husband, Percy, turned to drink.
She first appeared in the USA in 1897, but she was refused entry in 1913 for "moral turpitude" when "Mr. and Mrs. Dillon" arrived together, but unmarried. After an enquiry, she was allowed to stay. Alec Hurley died two months later, and Marie and Dillon were married at the British Consulate in Portland, Oregon, on 21 February 1914.
Dillon began drinking heavily and abusing Marie and she began drinking as her own escape. In 1920 they separated. From then on, Marie Lloyd went downhill and although she still worked, it became more and more difficult to get her on to the stage in time. Her voice became weaker and her act shorter.
On 4 October 1922 she was appearing at the Empire Music Hall in Edmonton. During the last song in her act I'm One of the Ruins That Cromwell Knocked About a Bit, she staggered about on the stage. The audience laughed delightedly when she fell, thinking it was all part of the act. However, she was desperately ill, and died at home in Golders Green three days later on 7 October. More than 100,000 people attended Marie's funeral at Hampstead on 12 October 1922.