When I’m not in Cambridge lurking behind the scenes of MusiCB3, another of my haunts is Worcester. Back there last week for the longest time in a while, I noticed quite a few changes around the town that had sprung up since my last proper visit. Elgar’s statue has a shiny new plinth, and he is keeping a watchful eye on the building works going on opposite the cathedral. In another part of town four new statues have appeared – walking through the Cornmarket one day on my way to Asda I was greeted by Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway, King Charles II, Woodbine Willie, and another musical Worcester character, Vesta Tilley.
Matilda Alice Powles was born in Worcester in 1864. The daughter of a songwriter and music hall performer, she was known as ‘The Great Little Tilley’ during her earliest years on the stage, and later adopted the stage name of Vesta Tilley, after ‘wading through the dictionary to find a striking name’.
Becoming well known as a male impersonator, Vesta’s characters were often foppish young men, or ‘swells’, and she popularised songs such as ‘Following in Father’s Footsteps‘ and ‘Burlington Bertie‘ (the original song by Harry B. Norris, rather than the better-known spin-off ‘Berlington Bertie from Bow’). Later on in her career she became known as ‘Britain’s best recruiting sergeant’ for her singing of recruitment songs during the war years.
Naturally on my return to Cambridge I raided the unbound sheet music in the UL in search of Vesta. It turns out that we have quite a few of her songs…
‘An Order for the Play’. Chromolithograph by Alfred Concanen. In which a free trip to the theatre turns into a rather expensive evening.
‘Oh Caroline’ features Tilley as a lovestruck young man complete with cane, gloves, pince-nez, and hat.
Tilley was also well known in America, where she was able to ‘command a very high salary’. This copy of ‘The Boys of the Racketty Club’ was published in New York in 1894.
This cover of ‘Friends of my Youthful Days’ shows Tilley in women’s clothing for a change.
‘Clamber Closer Clara’. This later, more photographic, image of Tilley shows her as dandy-ish as ever.
‘For the honour of old England’. You can see the wig a bit better in this one – Tilley would have her real hair twisted underneath ‘into innumerable small plaits’.
Worcester is also home to the Vesta Tilley Collection archives, so Vesta’s statue is in good company – I just hope she gets along with Shakespeare and Elgar!
UL books about Vesta Tilley:
Recollections of Vesta Tilley / by Lady De Frece [Vesta Tilley] – 457.c.93.357
Vesta Tilley / by Sara Maitland – 9415.d.2032
The great little Tilley : Vesta Tilley and her times : a biography / by Gwynedd Sudworth – 9415.d.1995
(Quotes from Recollections of Vesta Tilley, pages 46, 189, 148.)