Matilda Alice Powles (13 May 1864 – 16 September 1952), known professionally as Vesta Tilley, was a popular English music hall performer and one of the most famous male impersonators of her era. Starting in provincial theatres, and managed by her father, she performed her first season in London in 1874. She typically performed as a dandy or fop, but also played other roles, including some success as a principal boy in pantomime.
By the 1890s Vesta was Britain’s highest earning woman. She was also a star on the vaudeville circuit in the United States, touring a total of six times. At a Royal Command Performance in 1912, she scandalised Queen Mary by wearing trousers, but during the First World War she became known as “Britain’s greatest recruiting sergeant”, singing patriotic songs dressed in military khaki fatigues and promoting enlistment drives.
After becoming Lady de Frece in 1919, Vesta decided to retire and made a year-long farewell tour from which all profits went to children’s hospitals. Her last ever performance was in 1920 at the Coliseum Theatre, London, after which she supported her husband when he became a Member of Parliament, and moved with him to Monte Carlo when he retired. Vesta died in 1952 on a visit to London; her life story was commemorated in the 1957 film After the Ball.
Matilda Alice Powles was born at Commandery Street, Worcester on 13 May 1864. She was the second of thirteen children, and shared her first name with her mother, Matilda Powles (née Broughton). Her father, Henry Powles, known as Harry Ball, was a musician who became master of ceremonies at the Theatre Royal, Gloucester, and later the St George’s Hall in Nottingham.
Vesta began her professional career in 1869, at the age of five, managed by her father, and she continued to perform until 1920. In 1872 she introduced elements of cross dressing into her act, which resulted in what some worried was an element of doubt among her audiences as to her true gender. Vesta performed initially under the stage name of the Great Little Tilley, but adopted the name Vesta – after a popular brand of matches advertised as “a bright spark” – in 1874 to address those concerns. Vesta soon developed a predominantly female fan base, “who seem to have enjoyed both the childish precocity and the mocking of masculinity which Vesta Tilley offered”. She went on to perform exclusively male roles, saying that “I felt that I could express myself better if I were dressed as a boy.” Women saw her as a symbol of female emancipation, and working-class men as satirising the higher classes.
Vesta’s success continued into the 1880s, and she was able to command ever higher fees for her performances. As a male impersonator she typically performed as a dandy or a fop, a famous character being “Burlington Bertie”, although she also played other roles including policemen and clergymen.
The death of Vesta’s father in 1889 was the trigger for the development the act she subsequently became famous for. In particular, she became more sophisticated in her male characterisations:
Instead of merging her own personality into that of the character, she brought her wits to bear on him critically … we had to see them, ourselves, not as we could see them in real life, but as they were when viewed through a clever woman’s eyes.
Vesta toured extensively in Britain, becoming the highest paid woman in the country during the 1890s. She also played the vaudeville circuit in the United States very successfully on six separate visits; one theatre in the US offered her a salary of $600 per week.
On 16 August 1890 Vesta married Walter de Frece (1870–1935), a theatrical entrepreneur, with whom she enjoyed “an ideally happy, if childless, marriage”. Together they, and other theatrical entrepreneurs such as Oswald Stoll and Edward Moss succeeded in raising the status of music hall to such an extent that in 1912 there was a royal command performance in front of Queen Mary. Vesta may well have had mixed feeling about the success of the event however, as during her act the Queen and her ladies-in-waiting hid their faces behind their programmes to avoid having to look at a woman’s legs in trousers.
By 1914 Vesta’s career was entering a decline, but the outbreak of the First World War provided her and her husband with a new public role. They ran many military recruitment drives and she sang at charity events, especially those supporting wounded soldiers. Vesta was nicknamed “Britain’s greatest recruiting sergeant”, as young men were sometimes asked to join the army during her show. Over the course of a week in Hackney, she enlisted an entire battalion, which became known as “The Vesta Tilley Platoon”. Among the songs she performed were “Jolly Good Luck to the Girl Who Loves a Soldier”, “The Army of Today’s All Right”, “A Bit of a Blighty One” and “Six Days’ Leave”.
Walter de Frece was knighted in the 1919 King’s Birthday Honours List for his services to the war effort, and Vesta became Lady de Frece. Walter decided to run for parliament and Tilley chose to end her stage career in view of her new social standing. Her farewell tour ran for a year, between 1919 and 1920, all proceeds going to local children’s hospitals. Vesta made her final appearance at the Coliseum Theatre, London on Saturday 5 June 1920 (at the age of 56). In its review, The Times called it a “wonderful night” and commented that at the end she was “gradually being submerged under the continuous stream of bouquets”.
As a retirement gift, Vesta received a book containing two million signatures collected from the theatres she had performed in, The People’s Tribute to Vesta Tilley. She continued to raise funds for children’s charities around the country, and served as president of The Music Hall Ladies’ Guild, a benevolent organisation for the relief of female variety performers.
Walter de Frece became a Conservative Member of Parliament, first for Ashton-under-Lyne and later for Blackpool. Following his retirement in 1932, the couple moved to Monte Carlo. Vesta remained in Monte Carlo after her husband died in 1935, but died on a “rare” visit to London on 16 September 1952, aged 88. She was buried at Putney Vale Cemetery, and her life story was commemorated in the 1957 film After the Ball.