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Born in Worcester in1864, Matilda Alice Powles, known as Vesta Tilley, was a Music Hall performer. She toured the music halls from the age of four, first with her father then as a solo singing and dancing act. It became fashionable for female music hall artistes to perform as male impersonators with songs such as Burlington Bertie from Bow and other ‘Masher’ songs. It was a way for women to show their independence – and perhaps an act of defiance - showing their legs as Principal Boys in pantomime and also as so-called ‘Dandys’ which provided opportunities to mock the aristocracy - both performers and audiences, certainly in the earlier days of Music Hall, were from the working class. Vesta was one of the best known who had success with this type of performance and, working for over five decades, across the UK and in America, she became the highest paid female performer in the UK, ever. 

Although retired with her husband, Walter de Frece, theatre manager and songwriter, in the first decade of the 20th century, she came out of retirement to give performances to recruit young men to fight in WWI. Her songs, including Jolly Good Luck To The Girl Who Loves A Soldier and The Army Of Today's All Right, and her campaign, encouraged so many men to enlist that she was called 'England's Greatest Recruiting Sergeant'.

She would sign them up, there and then, on stage during a performance.

This performance piece shows Vesta as an entertainer and also her understandable naivety as to the perilous mission on which these young men were so readily embarking. Vesta, and other stars such as Marie Lloyd and Ella Shields ceased their recruiting activities sometime in 1916 on realisation that many of those young men did not return home.

In sharp contrast to her songs of we hear the words of poet, Wilfred Owen cutting through her jollity and enthusiasm with eloquent, brutal realism: 

‘If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori.’


 This is the second in a series of one woman shows written and performed by 

Catherine Hawkes. With Jack Gonzalez-Harding accompanying on the piano.