Essie Fox

This post was originally published here

Recently the VV was invited to take part in a spectacular event when, as one of 32 Londoners, she gave a talk on the London Eye. Her event was based on Marie Lloyd, a superstar of the London halls and theatrical entertainments, whose career spanned the later nineteenth, and early twentieth century. 

Below is a transcript of that talk –
Today there are many people who know nothing at all about Marie Lloyd – which shows how ephemeral fame can be, and how the years so often dim collective, treasured memories. Because, in her time Miss Marie Lloyd was known as ‘The One and Only, The beloved Queen of the Music Halls ‘- famed at home, and internationally, and who, at the time of her funeral was mourned by 100,000 fans who lined the streets of London, even though they’d never met her.
I wish I could have met her. I think she could have told some tales when I wrote my first novel, The Somnambulist, which is based on a fictional family who live in the East End of London – and who have strong links to the music halls, in particular to Wilton’s, in the Wapping/Whitechapel area. Wilton’s opens its doors to the public today for various shows, and also tours. If you happen to go there I’m sure you’ll agree that, despite the building’s state of decay, as soon as you enter the doors of the hall you feel as if you’ve travelled in time … right back to its Victorian heyday. You can almost hear the pop of champagne corks, the laughter and singing, the instruments playing. You can imagine the chandelier that once sparkled on mirrors around the walls. You can still see the cast iron barley twist pillars that hold up the single balcony – and the glorious papier mache frieze that laps around the front of that – from which you could reach down with your arms to touch anyone on the stage below. That’s how intimate the venue is.

And why am I talking about Wilton’s? Well, it’s simply because that music hall would not really have been all that different from the venues where Marie Lloyd performed at the very start of her career – so many of which no longer exist. I wanted to give you some idea of the setting and the atmosphere – with the costers and dockers, and West end swells who tipped top hats while ‘slumming it’ with the East End shop girls and prostitutes – and over whose whistles, shouts and laughs – through the fug of cigar smoke and fumes of gas, and without the aid of a microphone (which is something we take for granted today) Marie Lloyd would have had very little more than her natural charisma and confidence with which to reach out to that audience. And to have them eating out of her hand.
I don’t think Marie sang at Wilton’s – with the doors of that hall having been closed as early as 1888, for immoral behavior and decadence – which was not so long after the time when a cheeky East End girl made her debut in The Grecian Hall – which was situated in Hoxton, and only a street or two away from where the future Queen of the Halls had been born and spent her childhood.
Born on February 12, 1870, she lived at 36, Plumber Street (what is known as Provost Street today). Her father’s name was John ‘Brush’ Wood – Brush being a nickname that came about because he liked to be smartly dressed and always carried a clothes brush in his pocket. John was quite artistic too, employed in making artificial silk flowers. But he also boosted the family coffers by waiting on tables in halls and bars, of which there were very many around, with Hoxton being in the midst of the East End’s thriving theatrical world.
John’s wife was called Matilda, and she was a dressmaker by trade – with quite a talent for design – a talent inherited by her daughter, which came in useful later on, when Marie often designed and made the costumes that she wore on stage. But here, I am running ahead of myself…
This photograph can be viewed in the National Portrait Gallery. Marie is seated in the middle, to the right of her mother.
Matilda Alice Victoria Wood – more usually known as Tilley then – was one of eleven siblings, of whom nine survived to adulthood. A headstrong and determined child, she spent far more time playing truant from school than studying behind a desk. She preferred to help her mother at home, looking after the younger family members, or organizing singing games. Always dramatic by nature, she loved being the centre of attention – so much so that when still very young she often haunted the graveyards around, attending the funerals of strangers, where she wept and wailed so convincingly that every eye would turn her way. Eventually, her passion was more usefully directed into The Fairy Bell Minstrels – which was a family singing act. And while Tilley’s brother Johnny sold programmes to advertise the events, she and her other siblings performed – decked up in the costumes their mother made while appearing at the Nile Street Sunday School, and the Blue Ribbon Gospel Temperance Mission (yet another name for the Hoxton Hall when its ownership was more spiritual) where the children sang lyrics that warned about the evils of alcohol, such as – Throw Down the Bottle and Never Drink Again...’ which, as you will come to discover, proved to be somewhat ironic when considering Marie’s later years…
For then, Marie was still Tilley, and Tilley’s only addiction was a burning ambition to go on stage; an ambition encouraged by the fact that her mother’s sister once danced in halls – when Aunt Louisa was transformed into the glamorous Madame Patti. But, however stage-struck Tilley had been, encouraged by hardworking, respectable parents who knew how uncertain and perilous a life on the stage could be, she managed to find some employment elsewhere – in making shoes for babies, or curling feathers for dressing hats. But such employment did not last long, before she was sacked by the factory foreman for climbing onto the tables to sing and distracting all the other girls.
Tilley’s parents were very soon forced to agree that – in the words of their daughter later on: they couldn’t kick their objections as high as she could kick her legs! And so, John Wood arranged for his Tilley to take a turn at the Grecian Hall, which was served by the Eagle Tavern – which was where he happened to be employed, with both buildings being part of the same complex, on the corner of Shepherdess Walk – where it adjoins the City Road, very near to Old Street Roundabout.

Was Tilley nervous that first night, when she performed as Matilda Wood, when even with her father nearby to keep an eye on everything we can only imagine the rush in her blood when she put on her costume while still at home and then made her way to the music hall. And we know exactly what she wore: a figure hugging bodice, and a skirt to show her petticoats, and on her head a mantilla of lace to drape around her long blonde curls – through which shone blue eyes, and large white teeth in a face, not conventionally beautiful. But she did exude charisma, and her personality set her apart when she stood behind the bright stage lights to brave whatever cacophony was going on in the hall below. She  sang a sentimental song entitled “In the Good Old Days” – which was probably rather slow and nostalgic for one so very young. And that was swiftly followed on by the ditty, My Soldier Laddie – after which she danced an Irish jig!
That debut performance went so well that new invitations came rolling in for the singer – now going under the name of Miss Bella Delamere – to appear at various halls around, such as the Collins Islington – and the Hammersmith Temple of Varieties – and the Middlesex Hall in Drury Lane. And despite some early controversy, when Bella stole ballads from other stars and was threatened with legal injunctions, somehow she had the wit and nerve to carry on and escape the worst – with her future finally ensured when performing at Bethnal Green’s Sebright Hall, where she met the composer, George Ware. George then became her manager, and he also gifted the girl with a brand new stage name – from then on to be known as Marie – Marie as in starry – which was thought to be more sophisticated – with the Ooh la la nuance of being French. And the surname of Lloyd was said to have come from a copy of Lloyds Weekly Newspaper – though it could just as well have been the name on a box of matches close to hand.

A sample of ‘The Boy I love’, from the 1966 documentary, ‘The London Nobody Knows’.
But, George Ware’s greatest gift of all was to give his new protégé a song: one that had previously been performed by the singer, Nelly Power, but never with the same success as when the sixteen year old Marie Lloyd performed The Boy I love... at the Falstaff Hall on Old Street. After that night her star was lit and her rise was meteoric, with earnings soon so lucrative that she could afford to pay other composers to create unique material – songs suiting her brazen, ad lib style such as Whacky Whack, and Tiggy Vous, andWhen you Wink the Other Eye – during which she would give what soon became Marie Lloyd’s trademark expression: a knowing smile and a cheeky wink, not to mention the high kicking dancing style designed to expose silk bloomers – of which the writer Compton Mackenzie who saw her perform when just a boy, wrote that he had been“amazed that any girl should have the courage to let the world see her drawers as definitely as Marie Lloyd.”

Perhaps she had been singing these lyrics from The Tale of the Skirt – which went:

“By correct manipulation, she her figure can display,
And the ankles, and the, er, well, it’s hard to turn the eyes away…
And she murmurs ‘Saucy Monkey’ when a rude boy shouts, What ho!…”

Well, whatever they shouted, the eyes of all would have been wide in amazement during a London pantomime when, egged on by her co-star, Little Tich, Marie knelt down to pray by a bed and then added some improvisation by reaching underneath it, as if in search of a chamber pot. The audience thought that hilarious, though Augustus Harris, the director, insisted his star never do it again. But hard to restrain Marie’s character and natural ebullience – and for that and other ‘vulgarities’, such as during one of Marie’s acts when she struggled with a parasol and then proclaimed when it was up, ‘Thank God, I haven’t had it up for months!’ – she was to offend more prurient souls, even if what was deemed outrageous then would be viewed as mild innuendo now.

Still, a woman called Laura Ormiston Chant, a sort of Mary Whitehouse figure, became so shocked and scandalised that she successfully campaigned to have Marie Lloyd hauled up before the Theatre’s Vigilance Committee; specifically in relation to the scatological inferences in the lyrics of her popular song: ‘I sits among the cabbages and peas’. 
That song alluded to outside lavatories which were built at the bottom of gardens, and where – as the lyrics quaintly describe – a young woman, “sits and shells with ease. Till the pretty little peapot’s full of peas.” Imagine singing that too fast…and how sits and shells might get confused! But, Marie was clever and worked her charm, offering to change the words around – to cabbages and leeks instead – which really was taking the …
Well, I think you must see what I mean…but while still up before the Committee, Marie sang, ‘Oh, Mr Porter!’ (A song about going too far on a train – and too far in other ways as well) – and “A Little of what you fancy does you good’ – and both so coy and demurely done that no-one could find a thing to condemn. And, finally, in an act of defiance she sang the lyrics of Tennyson’s poem, ‘Come into the Garden Maud’ with such a carnal knowing air at every utterance of ‘come’ that everyone present was stunned into silence – because Marie Lloyd had made her point. Obscenity was all in the mind – and her career could not be stopped by Orniston Chant, or anyone else.
Rather than being banned from the stage, she went on to receive such rave reviews as this one from Black and White Magazine when, at the age of 29, Marie had the starring role in the Pantomime, Dick Whittington:


Firstly, Miss Marie Lloyd is the Dick, and a better Dick, a more kindhearted, jolly young blade you will not find in London Town this season. Apart from her natural gift of jollity, which no one can deny, Miss Lloyd has serious claims to be considered an artist. I fancy some of my superior readers lifting their eyebrows and exclaiming: “What! Marie Lloyd an artist!” Yes, indeed! If you have one scrap of appreciation for art in your soul…you roar when she sings and winks that roguish eye of hers: you roar so heartily that you forget to ask why you roar and how she makes you roar. Her songs are often, alas! mere badly rhymed strings of inanities, her speeches silly punning “lengths,” but it is not exactly what she says, it’s the clever way she says it, that brings an audience to her feet. She knows when to be restrained, when to be ebullient; she may be vulgar at times, but she is always humorous…and she has the faculty of captivating her audience by talking and singing to them – taking them into her confidence – rather than at them. Then she can make her brilliant white teeth flash on you so suddenly that you are dazzled; her wink tickles you; her smile warms you; her chuckle rouses you to responsive merriment. But it is useless trying to set down in the space of a half-column the multifarious delights of Miss Lloyd’s art. She is great, and she must be seen to be appreciated. You go doubting – you come away her slave.


This view was shared by ‘superior souls’ such as T S Elliot who insisted that Miss Marie Lloyd “had the capacity for expressing the soul of the people – which made her something quite unique.”
Well, Marie was certainly unique, unashamedly singing her risque songs, all delivered with guts and gusto – and her fans far less prudish than we might suppose, for they liked nothing more than to have some fun. And Marie dished out the fun in spades – truly leaving the audience her slaves.
But, for every conquest made from the stage during the height of her career, Marie’s love life was never such a success.
She was first married at seventeen, when her private life might have mirrored her act – when she might have gazed up at the balcony, while singing the words of this famous song:

“The boy I love is up in the gallery,
The boy I love is looking now at me,
There he is, can’t you see, waving his handkerchief, 

As merry as a robin that sings on a tree.”

The boy who gazed back at Marie was most likely her brother, Johnny, who, at that cue would smile down and wave his handkerchief about. But I like to think that, now and then, it would have been Percy Courtenay – the silver-tongued Stage Door Johnny, and race course ticket tout, of whom we hardly know much more; except that he hailed from Streatham, and managed to steal Marie’s heart – and also her virginity.
A baby daughter, Myria, was born six months after the wedding day. The newly weds had a marital home in two rooms in a house in Arlington Square, which is just off the New North Road. But this was far from a dream come true. Marie’s pregnancy left her shell shocked, fearing her career was lost. And she also discovered she’d married a drunkard; a man who frequently gambled their money, and was jealous of his wife’s success, resenting her friendships with theatre friends such as Dan Leno, and Little Tich, Lottie Collins and Albert Chevalier – the friends who, like her family, were welcomed at any time of day, with her home run more like an informal hotel. The rift between Marie and Percy was soon irreparable. She exhausted herself with theatre work, throwing herself into pantomimes which were lucrative and near to home, but physically demanding, with the runs going on for months on end. So, perhaps it is little wonder that Marie’s second pregnancy resulted in a miscarriage.
Marie was only nineteen years old, but she was determined to carry on, and carry on she did with style – at The Empire, and Alhambra in Leicester Square, The Trocadero off Shaftsbury Avenue, and the Royal Standard in Victoria. It was during the pantomime,Little Bo Beep, that Percy Courtenay – entirely drunk – broke into her Drury Lane dressing room and attempted to slash at his wife’s throat with a sword that was used as one of the stage props. There was also another occasion when he beat her with a walking stick, screaming in the street for all to hear, ‘I will gouge your eyes out and ruin you!’ Enough was enough. Marie left their home to embark on a tour of America, and when she returned to England again a restraining order was enforced to prevent her husband coming near – by which time she was otherwise involved with the singer, Alec Hurley.
Alec Hurley was a gentle bear of a man who’d been raised just a mile or two from Marie’s own Hoxton family home. Solid, and dependable, the ex-costerman and tea store clerk was often to share his lover’s stage when, during a ten year courtship, the handsome ‘cockney couple’ travelled as far as America, Australia, and South Africa. They shared many other interests – such as their trips to the races, for which they kept houseboats on the Thames, to be nearer to their favourite tracks. Sunbeam was used during the day, and Moonbeam in the evenings, and there was much talk of their owners often ending up in the river too when a meet had gone particularly well. They shared a home in Hampstead, but never forgot their East End friends – proud of being working class right down to their very bootstraps. They showed great support and gave monetary aid when the Amalgamated Musicians Union went on strike for fairer pay; when Alex Hurley and Marie helped to fund the Music Hall War of 1907 – and that just a year after they wed, when Marie’s divorce at last came through.

But, by then, there were wars at home as well, and the lyrics that Alec was famous for, ‘I aint nobody in perticuler,’ reflected the fact that many now addressed him as Mr Marie Lloyd – or the star who had married a planet. And when on the verge of bankruptcy, due to gambling and failed business interests, Marie upped and left all their troubles behind for a new and passionate affair – this time with a jockey, half her age!
She left Alec – some say – when he needed her most – and moved to a house in Golders Green to live with Bernard Dillon, who was famous for his Derby wins, as well as the 1000 Guineas stakes – who was lauded in the music halls, and a sporting pin up for Vanity Fair. But Dillon was also infamous as a drinking, bullying, gambling man, who’d lost his riding license when involved in a betting scandal. This new relationship was doomed, just as the other two had been, with Dillon resenting the fact that his fame was eclipsed by his wife’s flamboyant charm. More scurrilous members of the press wrote of their troubled private life, and perhaps this affected her public persona when, in 1912, she was not asked to play a part in the very first Royal Command Performance. Some said that was due to her scandalous life, some to her crude performing style, and others because of her politics – because of the enemies she’d made amongst the theatre managements when supporting the musician’s strike.
But whatever the reason for the slight, Marie – though inwardly furious – refused to be cast aside, performing herself on the very same night where the London Pavilion posters announced: Marie Lloyd, Queen of the halls; and placards outside the theatre proclaimed: “Every performance by Marie Lloyd is a command performance – by command of the British public!’
It was a great success, but the gossiping press had a field day again, and worse was to come when the couple embarked on a trip to tour America – when before they’d even left the ship, someone informed the authorities that, although they’d shared a cabin on board the SS Olympic, she and Dillon were not wed. When detained as ‘Undesirables’, and accused of ‘moral turpitude’, the farce was only to carry on when Dillon was arrested on charges of importing Lloyd as a product of the white slave trade! The affair may seem almost laughable now, but Marie was at the end of her tether and later admitted she’d never forget ‘the humiliation to which I have been subjected …I shall never sing in America again, no matter how high the salary offered.’
I wonder if that humiliation was made worse by the fact that her sister, Alice (who had also followed a singing career, as many of her siblings did), was far more popular in New York. By contrast, when Marie’s tour went ahead, even though she played to packed houses, some reviews were very cruel. Her pride was hurt, and her guard was down, and perhaps she was trying to hide her pain when the news came from England that Hurley had died of pleurisy and pneumonia. He was only 42 year old, and – according to many friends, still professing his love for her up till the end – whereas she responded with the words: “with all due respect to the dead, I can cheerfully say that’s the best piece of news I’ve heard in many years, for it means that Bernard Dillon and I will marry as soon as this unlucky year ends.”
But Bernard Dillon brought no luck. The man who Marie then legally wed at the British Consulate in Portland, Oregon, in the February of 1914 was nothing but trouble from the start. At least when back in England, nearer to friends and family, Marie felt on safer ground, resuming some provincial tours. And then, in 1915, at the age of 45, she was rolling up her sleeves, involved in the First World War Effort. She travelled around the country to visit hospitals and factories, and entertained the frontline troops with, ‘Now You’ve Got your Khaki on’ – that hit performed to 10,000 men in the Crystal Palae in South London. And what a show it must have been, with all of those soldiers cheering her on.

A very old recording of Marie Lloyd singing ‘Now You’ve Got Your Khaki On’.
But Dillon was less supportive. He might have joined the army too, but then spent every moment trying to leave, either claiming to be too obese to be fit enough for army life, or that he was needed to go and care for his family back in Ireland. His behaviour was often shameless, such as on the occasion when Marie came home to find her husband in her bed, making love to another woman! She endured so many beatings when Dillon was out of his wits with drink that it became quite commonplace for the police to have to intervene – and with Dillon eventually sentenced to work a month’s hard labour. But, only when he assaulted her father – with John Wood by then very old and frail – did Marie make a final break.
Emotionally and physically, she was a wreck, often drinking herself to ease her woes. And yet she still achieved success with ‘My Old Man Said Follow the Van’, when she stood on the stage in a costume of rags and carried a bird cage in one hand, to show the plight of the homeless poor – those forced to do a midnight flit when they hadn’t the money to pay the rent. And ironically, as so often before, this song was to mirror Marie’s life. Not that she was homeless as such, but she was always travelling about, and despite having earned what were then vast sums – as much as £11,000 a year – her handouts to husbands, family, and friends, meant that Marie ended up in debt.

My Old Man – sung by Jessie Wallace, from the BBC dramatisation of the life of Marie Lloyd
Forced to sell the marital home, she went to live in Woodstock Road – another house in Golders Green, owned by her sister, Daisy – and one one which Bernard Dillon could have no monetary claim. Still, it was hard to make a new start. Marie was being side-lined by other, more popular music hall acts. And caught in a downward spiral of grief, the woman who’d reached her half century was no longer so young or resilient. She became less and less reliable, very often not showing up for work – as illustrated by the night when booked for the London Palladian, when instead of walking onto the stage she stayed at home to write her will; and wrote her husband out of it.
Her act was unpredictable too, often stumbling into scenery, or else supported by the hand of someone behind the stage curtain. Many times her performance was curtailed, such as on the night in Cardiff when she lasted only six minutes before heading back to her dressing room. And then, there was the occasion, cruelly described by Virginia Wood who saw her at Camden’s Bedford Hall, and afterwards went on to write about:“A mass of corruption – long front teeth – a crapulous way of saying ‘desire’, – scarcely able to walk, waddling, aged, unblushing…”
A shadow of her former self, Marie’s frame was so shrunken, her face so drawn, some said that she looked like a man in drag. And perhaps severely blackened teeth were the proof that she’d had to use mercury to contain the symptoms of syphilis, caught from her promiscuous husband. When on the stage of the London Alhambra she sang with a greatly weakened voice, “It’s a bit of a ruin that Cromwell knocked about a bit” – and then collapsed onto the boards, as if in a drunken stupor. The audience roared with laughter and thought this was simply a part of the act, when all along she was dying before them, exhausted and ravaged by alcohol. Three days later, at the age of just 52, Marie Lloyd was pronounced as dead. On the death certificate, it said: Mitral regurgitation, 14 months. Nephritis, 14 months. Uraemic coma, 3 days. In short – heart and kidney failure.

She must have suffered terribly, but she never wanted pity. Right up until the very end, she preferred to put a brave face on things, saying: “Let them think I died of good living – don’t leave them crying.” This sentiment was echoed by the words inscribed on her gravestone:

Tired she was, although she didn’t show it, 

Suffering she was, and hoped we didn’t know it, 
But He above – and understanding all, 
Prescribed “long rest, and gave the final call.

Marie Lloyd’s funeral procession – the funeral was conducted by A. France & Son Funeral Directors
But, Marie did leave them crying – and she still had one performance to make, which was to be her funeral, with an audience larger than ever in life, with 100,000 of her fans coming out to line the London roads on Thursday, October 12, in the year of 1922. T S Elliot was so distraught that he wrote an open letter saying that he would not be attending any literary events for the next two months. Max Beerbohm, the famous essayist wrote that London had not seen such a funeral since the death of the Duke of Wellington. Today, we can only compare those scenes with the intense outpourings of grief that were shown for Diana, The Princess of Wales – when so many people had the sense that this was a woman who’d touched their hearts, who felt they’d lost a personal friend.
Mourners came from near and far, with huge crowds having gathered in Woodstock Road – to where Old Kate, a race card seller, had walked the 75 miles from Newmarket. An empty floral birdcage was to signify that in ‘My Old Man…” but no hope of the hundreds of tributes sent being able to fit on the coffin lid – a coffin so small that none could believe it contained the great Marie Lloyd. The hearse left the house at 11am, topped with Marie’s old stage prop, of an ebony cane wreathed in orchids. At the cemetery in West Hampstead, mourners stood twelve deep around the grave, and the cemetery gates had to be closed before the internment could take place.

So many wept that autumn day for a woman they said could not be replaced – and whether or not she ever was, the music hall era had entered its twilight: all the crowds who once laughed and drank in halls no longer so keen on saucy songs, preferring to dance to jazz instead, or else flocking in droves to cinemas to enjoy the cult of silent film. And after the horrors of World War 2, many more stayed at home with their TV sets – upon which they might have been content to watch programmes like The Good Old Days – that title to echo the very first song that their Queen once sang in the Grecian Hall.

The BBC’s 2007 dramatisation of the life of Marie Lloyd which stars Jessie Wallace is available to buy here, or various clips can be searched for and viewed on Youtube.

Finally, if you would like to read more about the life of Marie Llloyd there is much to be found online, and the VV also recommends these sources –

Midge Gillies’s biography Marie Lloyd: The One and Only, published by Orion. This may no longer be in print, but the VV did manage to find a copy on Amazon Marketplace.
There were biographies by Naomi Jacobs and Walter Macqueen-Pope, who published their personal reminiscences concerning Marie Lloyd’s earlier years
Daniel Farson has written about the violence in Marie’s life – particularly in respect to the behaviour of Bernard Dillon during her final years.
Richard Anthony Baker, a writer and presenter with BBC radio, has drawn on contemporary press accounts regarding the life of Marie Lloyd. Marie Lloyd: Queen of the Music-halls was published by Hale in 1990

essie fox pic

Essie Fox was born in Herefordshire, but now lives in Windsor, and Bow in East London with her husband and Jack Russell Terrier. She has worked on the editorial side of magazine and book publishing, and also as a commercial designer. These days she is a full time writer, creating dark Victorian novels with a distinct feminist perspective, all of which are published by Orion Books.

The Somnambulist, her debut, which features the London music halls, was shortlisted for the 2012 National Book Awards. Also featured on Channel 4’s TV Book Club, the novel has now been optioned for TV/film by Hat Trick Productions.

Elijah’s Mermaid (which is set in the Victorian demi-monde, with artists, whores and freak show tents) achieved excellent critical reviews. And now The Goddess and the Thief explores the exoticism of India – and also the cult of spiritualism – with deposed Maharajahs and Hindu gods, sacred diamonds, and candlelit seances.

For much more information please visit Essie’s website:, or her historical blog: The Virtual Victorian:

You can also find Essie on Twitter as @essiefox, and on Facebook as Essie Fox Books.