Queen of the Music Hall

Marie Lloyd died on the 7th October 1922. Her funeral a few days later was attended by thousands of mourners, and was described by T. S. Eliot as “a ceremony which surprised even warmest admirers”. To mark the centenary month of the ‘Queen of the Music Hall’, today on MusiCB3 we will look at her life through the lens of some of her songs which are held at the UL.

Matilda Alice Victoria Wood was born in Hoxton in 1870. The eldest of nine children, her first taste of performance was through entertaining her siblings, and later organising shows for herself and her siblings to put on, including a turn as the ‘Fairy Bell Minstrels’ which consisted of the nine year old Matilda and several of her younger brothers and sisters. After several unsuccessful efforts to find a suitable job as a teenager, she announced to her parents that she would “become a a music-hall artiste”. Matilda made her stage debut in 1885 at the age of fifteen, and most accounts hold that on that occasion she performed In the Good Old Times, a song purloined from Jessie Acton, the performer for whom it was written. This song arrived in the UL under the legal deposit act in 1885, and shows Jessie Acton in character on the title page.

This was not the only time a song was ‘borrowed’ from another performer. By 1886, Marie was performing to bigger audiences at the Sebright Music Hall under the stage name of Bella Delmere, and was growing her repertoire of songs. Her first really successful song, The Boy I Love is up in the Gallery, was sung without the permission of the original performer, Nelly Power. Marie managed to mollify both Nelly Power and Jessie Acton with the plea that she knew no better. This all probably did Marie a great deal of good though, as it was at Sebright’s that the composer of The Boy I Love, the music hall agent George Ware, spotted Marie and decided to take her on. Ware thought that Bella Delmere was not memorable enough for a stage name, and so at his suggestion she adopted the name Marie Lloyd.

Jumping forward a few years, next in our music list we have two pieces of piano music inspired by Marie’s song Wink the Other Eye. These pieces arrived in the library in 1891, and by this time Marie is an established performer, and definitely seems to have found the rather risqué performing style for which she would become known. Wink the Other Eye was written for Marie by the prolific song composer George Le Brunn. In her biography of Marie Lloyd, Midge Gillies describes the costume for this song as “a tight, sleeveless bodice with a deeply plunging neckline and bow falling over one shoulder. She wore her hair down, in tumbling curls, topped with an extravagantly plumed floppy hat that made her look like a circus bareback rider.” Satisfyingly, we seem to have an illustration of that exact costume on the title page of Edward St Quentin’s Wink the Other Eye Waltz. Marie appears in a very different but no less extravagant costume on the title page of the Wink the Other Eye Polka:

By this time Marie is something of a celebrity – 1891 saw her playing to packed theatres in the West End, such as the Alhambra Theatre, and as well as Wink the Other Eye she sang other hit songs in this year, many of these also written for her by George Le Brunn. Other aspects of her life were more complicated however. She was by now married to Percy Charles Courtenay, and had a daughter, Marie. Courtenay was jealous of her professional success however, and this was the first of what would be three disastrous marriages. Being a well known performer also came with its challenges – Marie was so much celebrated that news of her risqué performances often preceded her, and she sometimes had to defend her songs in order to be allowed to perform them. Whilst many of her songs were full of innuendo, and performed as such, they were often also possible to perform completely straight and interpret as perfectly innocent. Appearing before a concerned committee on one occasion, Marie performed a toned-down version of some of her racier songs, and remarked that the audience’s interpretation was up to them.

Our last couple of songs arrived in the library in 1911. By this time Marie would often be playing “someone’s mother rather than their sweetheart.” A Little of What you Fancy finds her as a middle aged lady sharing a railway carriage with a honeymooning couple – their motherly companion obligingly settles down for a nap and recalls her own honeymoon. In Let’s all go Round to Mary Ann’s, we have the character of a hostess who can be relied upon to carry on the party once the pubs close.

Marie died in October 1922, a couple of days after collapsing on stage after singing one of her best known songs, One of the Ruins that Cromwell Knocked Abaht a Bit (it is often reported that this was met with much applause from her audience, who assumed it was part of the act). Hers was a sad life in many ways, with three abusive marriages, frequent money worries and illnesses. She was loved by audiences till the end however, and one newspaper estimated that there were 50,000 more mourners lining the streets of her funeral procession. In his London Letter of November 1922, T. S. Eliot wrote “I am thinking of Marie Lloyd […] Although I have always admired her genius I do not think that I always appreciated its uniqueness; I certainly did not realize that her death would strike me as the most important event which I have had to chronicle in these pages. Marie Lloyd was the greatest music-hall artist in England: she was also the most popular. And popularity in her case was not merely evidence of her accomplishment; it was something more than success. It is evidence of the extent to which she represented and expressed that part of the English nation which has perhaps the greatest vitality and interest.”


Quotations from Midge Gillies Marie Lloyd : The One and Only (M501.c.95.631) and T. S. Eliot ‘London Letter’, The Dial, November 1922.

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1 Response to Queen of the Music Hall

  1. Nigel. Brown. says:

    Google Bessie Cohen and see the music hall artist who was my aunt….

    Liked by 1 person

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