Vesta Tilley was one of the most successful performers of her era. She was a Music Hall singer, comedienne and is most famous for her male impersonation routines. These fine examples of Vesta Tilley’s stage costume are from the Worcester City costume collection.
Born on the 13th of May 1864 on Commandery Row (now Dent Close). Baptised Matilda Alice Powels at St Peters Church Worcester.
‘I was born in Worcester, England, that charming city (poor proud and pretty) with its beautiful cathedral on the banks of the Severn where daily life is a constant reminder of the charity and benevolence of our dear country…’
Matilda (Vesta) was the second child of 13 and daughter of William Henry Powels, an entertainer, a singer, a dancer and a multi-instrumentalist. He performed in places such as the Railway Well in St Martins, The Navigation which is now the Salvation Army building, and later the New Concert Hall in Corn market. Matilda accompanied him in his act as “The Great Little Tilley”.
As she grew, male impersonation became the main feature of her act and she adopted the name Vesta Tilley. She met with huge success in London and toured nationally. She was also one of the few British Acts to succeed in America.
At the outbreak of World War I, Vesta was 50 years of age, and transformed her act to raise morale, funds and recruitment into Britain’s Armed Forces. With new acts such as “Jolly good luck to the girl who loves a Soldier, Vesta became known as “England greatest recruiting sergeant”. One evening in Hackney led to so many recruits being enlisted, that they were comically termed the “Vesta Regiment”.
After 50 years on the stage, Vestas Husband Sir Walter De Frece encouraged her to retire. With much regrets she put on her final, 2 year sell-out tour. She filled venues in all major British cities and toured the provinces. She was presented with The Peoples Tribute which she is suggests contained nearly two million signatures.
Vesta retired to Monte Carlo where she lived until she was 88. On a trip to see London, the city in which she made her name, she passed away. She was buried in Putney Vale and in her will, left 10 000 pounds to each of her living siblings and their children. Vesta Tilley was one of the most unique, and talented individuals of her generation and is an inspirational individual. She conquered the stage, and the hearts her audiences, with her abilities and great generosity, and it is Worcester that can claim her as its own.
Fine examples of Vesta Tilley’s stage costume and a collection of her letters and personal ephemera, including the “Peoples Tribute” are preserved by Museums Worcestershire, and Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service at the Hive.