12 January 2016

Hove Plaques Index S - T

Listed below:- Flora Sassoon, Thomas Simpson, Sir Charles Aubrey Smith, George Albert Smith, Vesta Tilley,
Flora Sassoon (1859-1936)
Judy Middleton  (2003 revised 2014)

copyright © J.Middleton
Plaque - St Ann’s Well Gardens

Flora was born in Bombay, India and she was doubly a Sassoon because her mother was Aziza Sassoon; when Flora grew up she married Solomon David Sassoon and they were distant cousins. Flora’s maiden surname was not so romantic as she was born Flora Gubbay. She received an excellent education both in a Roman Catholic School and from rabbis brought over especially from Baghdad to instruct her in her Jewish heritage. She grew up to become a noted Judaic scholar and she was so steeped in learning and familiarity with obscure Jewish texts only available in the East that she was able to discourse with learned rabbis as an equal.

Flora also possessed a great facility in languages and by the age of seventeen she could speak Hebrew, Aramaic, Hindustani, English, French and German. This knowledge of languages was a great asset to an international trading family. When her husband died in 1894 she took over his business affairs and managed everything efficiently.

There were three children of the marriage. The firstborn was Rachel (1877-1952) who married David Ezra; David Solomon Sassoon (1880-1942) was the only son and he became the father of Rabbi Solomon Sassoon born in 1915; lastly there was Mozelle (1884-1921). Mozelle was a favourite name in the Sassoon family, which can lead to some confusion. For instance, there was a Mozelle Gubbay born in Bombay in 1872; then there was Mozelle Sassoon, the youngest of the thirteen children born to David Sassoon, Bombay trader, who became Mrs J.M. Hyeem and lived at Hove, firstly at 33 Third Avenue and then at 12 Wilbury Road for 60 years. This Mozelle was a great favourite of Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967) English poet and novelist. She was his great-aunt and he visited her at Hove when he was on leave from the Army in 1916 and in 1917. She knew a great deal about Sassoon family history and he loved to heat the details.

But Flora’s Mozelle was an invalid and it is thought Flora left India for England in order that her daughter might receive better medical attention.

Flora Sassoon had a house in town and the banquets she hosted there were legendary although she always followed the strict rules governing diet dictated by her religion.  

One source states Flora Sassoon left India in 1901 but the local Directories record that she was resident at 37 Adelaide Crescent, Hove, from 1894 to 1919; the house having previously been occupied by Frederick Sassoon and his wife. Flora’s brothers-in-law, Reuben Sassoon and Arthur Sassoon, were near at hand because both of them lived at Queen’s Gardens initially before Arthur moved to 8 King’s Gardens. To confuse things further, Reuben Sassoon also had a daughter named Mozelle.

Flora Sassoon owned a fabulous seven-strand pearl necklace, which she wore constantly. In that respect she was like our present Queen who is often photographed wearing her three-strand pearl necklace while Queen Alexandra once sat for her portrait wearing no less than eleven strands of pearls.

Flora Sassoon often walked along Hove seafront, a small, neat figure dressed in black carrying an ornate parasol. She also took a great interest in St Ann’s Well Gardens and was a major benefactor. In 1913 she acquired around one acre on the west side, which she presented to Hove Corporation. A commemorative plaque recording the gift is still to be seen on one of the gate piers to this day. But croquet lawns are no longer laid out on that piece of land.

Flora Sassoon made other gifts to St Ann’s Well Gardens but there was no official acknowledgement of these and details are to be found tucked away in Hove Council Minute Books. In 1908 she gave a 20-inch dial clock to adorn the Pump House; several items of interest to be displayed inside the Pump House in 1912; and two rustic summer houses, eight rustic chairs, a statue of the goddess Polyhymnia, a large ship’s figurehead and 39 decorated urns in 1913. All these items have since disappeared unfortunately.

Then there was the famous tale of the time she noticed a hot and perspiring Hove policeman on point duty in the summer. She told him the best thing to cool him down was a melon and having ascertained the number of policemen at Hove, she ordered six dozen of the best melons to be delivered to Hove Police Station.

copyright © J.Middleton
8 King’s Gardens

In 1908 she presented Chief Constable William Cocks with a silver cup inscribed Presented to Chief Constable Cocks (of Hove) by Mrs Flora Sassoon as a mark of recognition for exceptional services rendered during the daily visits of His Majesty King Edward VII to Mr Arthur D. Sassoon of 8 King’s Gardens, Hove, while His Majesty was resident at Brighton.’ No doubt on this occasion the King was staying with his daughter the Duchess of Fife in Sussex Square but he also stayed at King’s Gardens too and he preferred it to his daughter’s house.

In April 1909 Flora wished to present Hove Police with a collection of armour and pictures on condition the whole collection was to remain in the custody and possession of the police to adorn their headquarters. The projected gift comprised four shields, eight halberds, sixteen swords, three daggers, four gauntlets, four battle-axes, a spiked ball, a breastplate, a blunderbuss and a pistol; there were also 22 large pictures and 53 prints in gilt frames.   

It is obvious that Flora was an exceptionally generous person. Her philanthropy was not limited to one country either but was spread throughout the world. She received letters addressed simply to ‘Flora Sassoon, England’ from members of the Jewish community in financial difficulties and they were always safely delivered. She made it a rule to answer such letters on the day she received them.

Information from the late David Spector
Jackson, Stanley The Sassoons (1968)
Encyclopaedia of Hove and Portslade
Hove Council Minute Books
Internet searches

Middleton, J. A History of Hove (1979)

Copyright © J.Middleton 2014

Thomas Simpson (1825-1908)
Judy Middleton 2015

copyright © J.Middleton
Although it was hoped the Simpson plaque would be unveiled 
by December 2014, it was not actually placed at Connaught Road 
until the spring of 2015.

Thomas Simpson was born in Scotland and trained there as an architect. However, he went to Germany and was inspired by the sort of schools being built there. He made a fortunate move to Brighton in the 1860s and was in right place when new legislation required local authorities to be responsible for mass education. There followed a spurt in the building of new schools. Thomas Simpson, whose architectural practice was at 16 Ship Street, became architect to Brighton School Board when it was formed in 1870 and during the course of 33 years he designed no less than thirteen schools for Brighton. The first design was completed in 1870 for York Place and the last was for a school at St Luke’s Terrace in 1903. There is a full list of these schools in Timothy Carder’s Encyclopaedia of Brighton (1990). Today four of these schools are listed buildings.

Thomas Simpson married Clara Hart and they had two sons who both became architects and when trained assisted their father in his practice. From 1890 the firm at 16 Ship Street was known as Simpson & Son.

Ellen Street Schools

But Simpson did not restrict himself to Brighton because he also designed three schools at Hove. His first one was the Ellen Street Schools. This was not a direct commission but the result of a competition and the winner’s plan was published in Building News (17 December 1877). Simpson’s partner in this competition was Frederick W. Roper of 9 Adam Street, Adelphi. A note on the side of the plans stated ‘It is possible that in order to comply with requirements of the Local Government Board as to heights of buildings in new streets, the rooms may have to be reduced to 15 feet and 16 feet in height respectively instead of 16 and 17 as figured.’

The design of the building was in grand Queen Anne style with the long building embellished at intervals by four projections with two tall windows surmounted by gables. At either end of the building there was an even more elaborately decorated projection over arched doorways. A cupola in the centre, very tall chimneys and decorative ridge tiles completed the design.

The walls were built of picked stock brick, red brick was used for gables and groins while moulded red brick was used for cornices, string-courses and panels. There were brown tiles on the roof and the oak turret was covered in lead. The building was set back 10 feet from the street and there were wrought iron railings along the frontage. The firm of Hook & Oldrey were the builders. There was enough accommodation for 400 infants, 250 girls and 150 boys. The site cost £1,560 and the building and fitting-up cost between £6,000 and £8,000.

The schools were opened on 12 October 1879 and it was the first school to be erected under the auspices of Hove School Board. The school closed in July 1974.

Connaught Road Schools

copyright © J.Middleton
Connaught Road Schools have come full circle with the buildings once more housing a school

Thomas Simpson drew up plans for Connaught Road Schools and they were dated July 1882. The contractor was John T. Chappell, the well-known local builder and the materials used were red brick with terracotta dressings. Another drawing dated June 1883 shows a cupola and weather vane above the main entrance. The site cost £2,600 and the buildings cost £9,580.

The school opened at midsummer 1884 with 229 boys, 160 girls and 241 infants. But it was soon time to call upon Simpson’s expertise again and in 1893 his plans for a new workroom and science laboratories were approved and cost £1,332. Then in 1903 Simpson was busy designing a new cookery school.

It is ironic to note that the very year Connaught Road Schools celebrated its centenary was the same year it closed in July 1984. It is also ironic that the reason for closure was due to a fall in numbers of schoolchildren whereas today there is a crying need for more schools.

The building was then used for adult education although there were rumours it might be demolished in favour of housing. Fortunately, it held on and today, after being declared a listed building and having a full refurbishment, it is a school once more.
Davigdor Road Schools

Hove School Board purchased the site from Sir Julian Goldsmid in August 1890 for £3,3138-5-6d. In similar fashion to the Connaught Road Schools, Thomas Simpson was the architect and J.R. Chappell was the builder. The original tender stated it would cost £11,409 to build but as often happens the final bill was £15,000. The buildings were of stock brick with red brick chimneys and the porch pediments were carved red brick.

It was an interesting site because the ground level was below the level of the road. Therefore the schools were erected on concrete piles. An innovative detail was the construction of a swimming pool in the basement at a cost of £642. It was matter of pride that it was the only board school in Brighton and Hove to have a swimming pool although naturally ratepayers thought Hove Council was being rather too liberal in spending money.

This school has been known by various names. When the site was purchased that part of the road was called Goldsmid Road and it did not become Davigdor Road until 1900. Originally, it was known as East Hove Board Schools but it was also known as Holland Road Schools. In 1904 the title was East Hove Council School and in 1906 it became Davigdor Road Higher Grade School. In 1929 the boys’ school closed. After the Second World War it became Davigdor Secondary Modern School for Girls and Davigdor Infants’ School.

The school was demolished in the late 1980s.

Clarendon Mission

copyright © J.Middleton
Clarendon Mission Hall was built in 1886.

Thomas Simpson had another string to his bow in designing non-conformist chapels and buildings. He designed several at Brighton but only one at Hove, which was built by Mr Sawle of Worthing.

The inspiration behind the establishment of the Clarendon Mission in Clarendon Villas was William Taylor of 62 Clarendon Villas and his close friend William Willett of 64 The Drive who was responsible for the construction of so many fine houses in Hove and London.

The Mission Hall had only just been completed at a cost of £4,700 when a disastrous fire on 20 November 1885 reduced it to charred ruins. The hall was rebuilt the following year but the final cost came to £7,200. In 1893 William Willett built the Sunday Schools adjacent to the hall to the designs of William Henry Nash of 42 Ship Street, the plans having been approved in September 1892.


Encyclopaedia of Hove and Portslade
Internet searches

Copyright © J.Middleton 2015 

Sir Charles Aubrey Smith (1863-1948)
Judy Middleton (2003 revised 2014)

copyright © J.Middleton
Plaque - 19 Albany Villas

Aubrey Smith was born in London on 21 July 1863. His father was a surgeon who lived for many years at 2 Medina Villas, Hove but later the family moved to 19 Albany Villas, Hove. Aubrey Smith was educated at Charterhouse and St John’s College, Cambridge. It is interesting to note that in his youth Aubrey Smith went to South Africa to make his fortune in a similar manner to Barnett Marks, later Mayor of Hove. But while Barnett Marks was interested in diamonds, Aubrey Smith went prospecting for gold. Like Marks too, he fell gravely ill and had to return to England. But in Aubrey Smith’s case, a doctor pronounced him dead from pneumonia, which was ironic seeing as he lived to the ripe old age of 85.

In 1887 at Hove the Green Room Club for aspiring actors was formed with rehearsals taking place at 56 Norton Road and performances staged in the Great Hall of Hove Town Hall. Both Aubrey and his two sisters were keen members of the Green Room Club.

copyright © J.Middleton

Aubrey Smith made his acting debut at Hove Town Hall on 8 November 1888 as Mr McAlister in a production of Ours. His last stage appearance at Hove was also at Hove Town Hall on 17 February 1894. He made his London debut on 9 March 1895 at the Garrick Theatre where he portrayed the clergyman in The Notorious Mrs Ebbsmith.

In 1915 Aubrey Smith embarked on his film career; he played the part of Wellington in Queen Victoria. Other notable films were Lives of the Bengal Lancers (1935) with Gary Cooper, The Prisoner of Zenda (1937) with Ronald Colman, Madeleine Carroll and Douglas Fairbanks, The Four Feathers (1939) with Ralph Richardson and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1941) with a star-studded cast including Spencer Tracy, Ingrid Bergman and Lana Turner.

The roll-call of actors with whom Aubrey Smith appeared sounds like a Hollywood Hall of Fame. Besides those just mentioned he also acted with Clark Gable, Maurice Chevalier, Elizabeth Taylor and Vivien Leigh. Aubrey Smith became the quintessential Englishman in tinsel town. He cut a figure that was instantly recognisable, not only because of his commanding height of six feet four inches but also because of his bristling moustache, bushy eyebrows and fierce glance. 

As well as being a famous thespian, Aubrey Smith was also a noted all-round sportsman, having gained his blue at Cambridge in 1882. He was known as both a batsman and a bowler. From 1882 to 1886 he played cricket for the Sussex team from time to time and was captain from 1887 to 1889. In 1889 at the Sussex County Cricket Ground at Hove, he made 142 for Sussex against Hampshire and in 1890 he took seven wickets for sixteen runs against the MCC at Lords. He earned the nickname of ‘Round the Corner Smith’ because of his angled run-up to the crease. Sometimes he began from a deep mid-off position, while at other times he appeared from behind the umpire. Even the redoubtable W.G. Grace admitted ‘It is rather startling when he suddenly appears at the bowling crease.’

When Aubrey Smith moved to Hollywood and lived in a house in Mulholland Drive, Beverly Hills, he recalled his famous bowling action by naming it either ‘The Round Corner’ or ‘Round the Corner’ (authorities do not agree). He also founded the Hollywood Cricket Team. He obviously did not think much of the grass available locally and imported turf from England to adorn his cricket pitch. He became rather dictatorial in his attitude to fellow British actors whom he expected to be available to play cricket whenever he asked. All the same, the Hollywood Cricket Club became a magnet for ex-pats and luminaries such as David Niven, Laurence Olivier, Leslie Howard and Boris Karloff were to be seen there. In David Niven’s hilarious autobiography The Moon’s a Balloon there is a photograph of the Hollywood Cricket Club in which both Niven and Aubrey Smith appear. 

Aubrey Smith was also keen on football, playing for such famous teams as the Old Carthusians and Corinthians. In 1944 he was knighted and four years later he died at the age of 85 in Beverly Hills. His ashes were brought back to England and laid in the churchyard of St Leonard’s, Aldrington to join his mother and sisters in the south-west corner. On the stone are inscribed the words with malice towards none; with charity for all.      

In May 1987 a blue plaque was unveiled at 19 Albany Villas to commemorate Sir Charles Aubrey Smith. Unfortunately, the weather has not been kind to it and the lettering is indistinct.

Encyclopaedia of Hove and Portslade
Internet searches
Middleton. J. A History of Hove (1979)
Marshall, J. Sussex Cricket (1959)
Niven, D. The Moon’s a Balloon (1971)
Porter, H. A History of Hove (1897)
Wisden’s Cricketer’s Almanack (1949)

Copyright © J.Middleton 2014
George Albert Smith (1864-1957)
Judy Middleton (2003 revised 2014)
copyright © J.Middleton
Plaque - 18 Chanctonbury Road

Early Years

George Albert Smith was born in London on 4th January 1864 but the family moved to Brighton after his father died so that Mrs Smith could run a boarding house on Grand Parade. In his youth Smith seems to have followed a variety of callings starting off with being a hypnotist in 1881, then he became an illusionist and a portrait photographer. He was also interested in spiritualism and astronomy and he gave lectures on the latter illustrated with lantern slides, which led to his fascination with the camera. Smith had unruly, curly hair, clear eyes and an extravagant moustache. At a comparatively young age he married Laura Eugenia Bayley at Ramsgate in 1888.

A turning point in his life came in March 1896 when he saw an exhibition of films by the French brothers Lumière at the Empire Theatre, Leicester Square. From then onwards his main preoccupation was animated photography and he soon became involved in their production.

copyright © J.Middleton

St Ann’s Well Gardens

He leased St Ann’s Well Gardens, Hove, from 1892 until 1904 and there he based his film making activities. At that time St Ann’s Well was still private gardens. In the spring of 1897 Smith turned part of the Pump House into a laboratory. He built his first movie camera in 1896 and produced 31 short films in 1897 including the comedies Weary Willie, Hanging out the Clothes and Making Sausages. The subject of the latter film was by no means an original idea as there was an American film on the same theme, which was most probably copied from Lumière’s similar film. Smith’s film showed live cats and dogs being fed into a machine and emerging at the other end as sausages. Apparently, it was very popular and the Victorians found it hilarious. Today such a film would go down like a lead balloon.

 copyright © Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove
George Albert Smith at his desk in the Science Museum. 
He is pictured with film measurer and Urban Bioscope camera. 
The original photograph was taken in 1900.

Smith’s cashbook is now in the National Film Archive and some idea of his activities can be gauged from it. For instance on 7th January 1897 he purchased four square ruby and four orange pieces of glass for £1-1-2d, four wooden developing trays for £2-3-6d and six brass wire developing frames for £2-5-0d, besides nails, screws and bolts.

In May 1897 a reporter from the Hove Echo went to St Ann’s Well Gardens to interview Smith on the subject of ‘Animated Photographs’. The reporter wrote, ‘Mr Smith was discovered near his laboratory, and on learning his visitor’s errand, immediately asked him into that mysterious chamber. A glance around the apartment was quite sufficient to impress one with the fact that the various appliances were there for practical use and not for show. The mechanical contrivances, baths containing solutions etc all served to impress the uninitiated with a certain awe inseparable from that which is not understood.’

Smith explained to the reporter that the easiest rate for taking photographs was 20 per second, which came to around 1,200 a minute, the standard rate at which they worked. The films were mostly shot in spring or summer as strong sunlight was essential. Every completed film was composed of around 25 yards of film with the photographs measuring about one inch across (the size of a postage stamp) with perforations on either side. It cost one sovereign every time a negative was taken and of course there were yards of wasted material. The images were thrown upon a sheet in the same way as a magic lantern operated. Smith explained how difficult it was to film a football match because the players soon ran beyond the range of the camera but he had just produced the first one ever exhibited. It starred his friend Tubby Edlin who later became a well-known comedian.

Smith’s workforce consisted of two people – an assistant Axel Holst, and Lizzie Shaw who cleaned and polished his films in 1897 and 1898. Axel Holst was paid £3 a week for his efforts, which was indeed a handsome wage for those days. But Smith relied heavily on family and friends, and his wife and children appeared in many films. Then there was his sister, Mrs W.H. Attwick (wife of the former proprietor of the Brighton and Hove Herald) whom he filmed attempting to ride a bicycle and falling off unexpectedly. Although this film was not publicly released, Smith included it in a private viewing for Queen Victoria, who was amused. Tom Green, who was the resident comedian at the Hippodrome, appeared in many films including Comic Shaving, The X Rays and Love on the Pier while the stars of Hanging out the Clothes and Weary Willie were none other than Mr and Mrs Tom Green.


Besides using St Ann’s Well Gardens for filming, Smith also utilised the gardens to raise revenue for his activities and arranged special events for sightseers. For instance in June 1894 almost 4,000 spectators flocked to the gardens to watch Neil Campbell’s balloon ascent. While the balloon was slowly inflated, the crowd were entertained by music from a band.

Naturally, there was always the chance of events not going according to plan. In September 1894 a model balloon escaped from the gardens and nothing was heard of it for a week. Then Smith received a letter from a village near Faversham where the balloon had landed giving the agricultural labourers such a fright that nobody would venture near it for days. In May 1895 a model balloon was again up to ‘its entertaining pranks’. It was calmly sailing over the town on the end of its thousand feet of line when a sudden squall gave it a severe buffeting. The balloon burst and fell at great speed onto The Level where its descent was watched by hundreds of people with great interest.

Eustace Short made several balloon ascents from the gardens in 1901, the first one being on 22nd June. The three brothers Eustace, Oswald and Harold Short were involved with the Memlo Laboratories in Hove (location unknown, unfortunately). Horace was an inventor and was sponsored by no less a person than Thomas Edison. Horace was not into ballooning but he allowed Eustace and Oswald to construct their first balloon in a loft on the premises. The balloon was finished by May 1901 and it was capable of holding 38,000 cubic feet of gas.

These balloon ascents from St Ann’s Well Gardens attracted a great deal of attention – for example here is a report from the Brighton Gazette (6 July 1901). ‘The balloon, keeping in the lower air current, was carried eastward and not far inland. Sailing along gallantly – a conspicuous object over our town – for somewhat over an hour and a half, the balloon was carefully brought to terra firma at Willingdon, near Eastbourne about half-past seven … it may be added that the grounds of St Ann’s Well are open all day, so visitors may witness the interesting process of inflating the balloon.’ Sometimes the balloon ascended high enough for one of the occupants to make a parachute descent to the fascination of the watching crowds.

More Film-making

In around 1900 Smith joined the Warwick Trading Company (the largest film producing company in Britain) headed by the American Charles Urban. Smith’s title was the Manager, Brighton Studio and Film Works. It was the company that built the glass film studio in St Ann’s Well Gardens on a slope facing towards the Furze Hill approach. The exterior of the building resembled a Greek temple but it was constructed of glass to admit as much light as possible. There was a conventional stage but at floor level there were railway lines to enable Smith to move his camera closer to the actors as smoothly as possible. This was only the second film studio in the whole country. In 1903 Urban left the company and he and Smith collaborated to produce Kinemacolor – the first commercial colour film process, which was patented in 1906.

Smith has been credited with a number of firsts. In 1897 he made a film with the alternative titles Comic Face or Man Drinking, which showed a study of Tom Green drinking a glass of beer and it was in fact the first close-up. In the film Mary Jane’s Mishap or Don’t Fool with the Paraffin Smith produced the earliest known wipe. By this device a line moved across the screen wiping away poor Mary Jane who was being blown out of the chimney and substituting it with a shot of her grave. Two other Smith firsts were the earliest British example of a double exposure in The Corsican Brothers and the earliest known multi-shot scene in The Little Doctors where within a single scene different camera positions were used.

copyright © J.Middleton
This object was officially called Brighton Sea-going Electric Car but locals dubbed it Daddy Long Legs or Brighton Spider.

Local Interest

Many of Smith’s films have a particular local interest. These include Brighton Sea-Going Electric Car(popularly known as Daddy Long-Legs) and Passenger Train in which people were filmed alighting from a train at Hove Station, followed by other people boarding. Walking the Greasy Pole was shot at Southwick while The Miller and the Sweep was filmed at Race Hill, Brighton, featuring a windmill that was blown down on 16th May 1913. During the course of the latter film, the sweep becomes covered with flour while the miller is doused with soot.

Historic Events

Although Smith concentrated on comic films, he also recorded historic events such as Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee Procession in 1897, Edward VII’s funeral procession entering St George’s Chapel, Windsor, and the Prince of Wales’s tour of India.

Recognition at Last

Belated recognition came in old age when at the age of 91 the British Film Academy awarded him a Fellowship. He lived at 18 Chanctonbury Road, Hove, from 1940 until his death in 1959.

In May 1992 the Mayor of Hove, Audrey Buttimer, unveiled a plaque on the house, which read ‘George Albert Smith 1864-1959 cinematograph pioneer lived here’.

In 1996 the Centenary of the Cinema was celebrated and a special plaque was erected on one of the four redbrick entrance piers at Somerhill Road. The inscription reads, ‘St Ann’s Well Gardens Site of the Film Studio 1897-1903 created by George Albert Smith’. Many of Smith’s films can be viewed at the refurbished Hove Museum, which reopened in February 2003.

copyright © J.Middleton
Brighton Gazette (6 July 1901)
Early Film-makers of the South Coast booklet
Encyclopaedia of Hove and Portslade
Gray, Frank & Cushan, Ewan Hove to Hollywood (ND)
Gray, Frank, editor The Hove Pioneers and the Arrival of Cinema (1996)
Hove Echo (May 1897)
Internet searches

People interested in early films are urged to visit Hove Museum where there are rooms devoted to Hove’s early film-makers. As well as some films being played on a continuous loop, there is a tiny cinema where longer films can be viewed. The exhibition also includes old camera equipment.

Copyright © J.Middleton 2014
Vesta Tilley (1864-1952)
Judy Middleton (2014)

copyright © J.Middleton
8 St Aubyn’s Mansions, Hove

She was born at Worcester and was named Matilda Alice Powles, the second offspring in a family of thirteen children. Her real name was not sprinkled with stardust but she did hang on to part of it for her stage name. Probably she had difficulty in childhood pronouncing Matilda and referred to herself as Tilley. 

At first her father earned a living as a painter on china in the local pottery works. But he was also a clever musician and in his spare time he enjoyed entertaining friends with selections on violin or piccolo. The family also owned a remarkable dog called ‘Fathead’ who was capable of performing many tricks. Eventually, Mr Powles became Harry Ball, the Tramp Musician, and took part in entertainments and benefit concerts. Then he graduated to becoming manager and chairman of St George’s Hall, Gloucester. Before he left for a better post in Nottingham, the owner of the Gloucester venue gave him a benefit concert and it was here that Vesta Tilley made her stage debut before she was four years old. After her act, her father presented her with a doll’s house as big as she was. Performing before an audience was a defining moment for the youngster. She wrote later ‘my peace of mind was gone. I longed to appear before an audience again.’ Thus began a very successful career spanning 50 years.

Her career also weathered the transformation of Music Hall from a downmarket, working man’s entertainment to a respectable and fashionable place to visit. In the early days, as Tilley remembered, the halls reeked of tobacco smoke and the fumes of beer, there was sawdust on the floor and if there were any seats, they were usually hard wooden benches. At the height of her career, a newly built Music Hall would be beautifully fitted out with ornate decorations and lighting, comfortable seats and the majority of her fans were women who would never have ventured into the old halls. 
 copyright ©
 Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove
1916 Brighton Graphic advert

As Tilley’s father was involved in the Music Hall business, she often accompanied him and thus saw a variety of acts. One night after they arrived home, she took her father’s coat and hat up to her bedroom, put them on and stood in front of the mirror singing a song she had heard a man sing. Her father heard her singing and asked her if she would like her own suit of boy’s clothes. Of course she would! This started her at an early age on the road to becoming the most successful male impersonator of her time.

She was so convincing in her male roles that the audience was confused as to her true gender. She was billed as ‘The Great Little Tilley’ or ‘The Pocket Sims Reeves’. At the time Sims Reeves was at the height of his fame as a fine tenor and his song The Anchor’s Weighed first caught Tilley’s attention; she also enjoyed singing Come into the Garden Maud and My Pretty Jane. Performing these songs in her miniature evening dress suit, her lip adorned with an enormous black moustache, she was able to command a fee of £5 a week at the age of five. She always kept that first jacket as a sentimental souvenir, marvelling she was ever small enough to wear it. By this time her father had given up his work in order to tour with his daughter and there was a close bond between them
The matter of choosing a new stage name was much discussed between her father, the management and Tilley. The others thought ‘Lady Tilley’ would do the trick but Tilley did not like it. Her father then scoured a dictionary looking for a suitable name and came up with three, which he wrote on slips of paper and placed inside a hat. Tilley was invited to pull out a slip and the one she chose had ‘Vesta’ on it. This story comes from Tilley’s own memoirs although it is often stated she was named after Swan Vesta Safety Matches but these only originated in 1883, long after Tilley was established in her career.

Tilley felt a certain freedom in men’s clothing and it certainly extended her repertoire. But she took endless trouble to perfect her act and rehearsed it down to the last detail. She paid great attention to all the components of her male attire. Everything had to be absolutely correct even down to the cufflinks when impersonating an upper-class gentleman or the white webbing belt worn by a soldier.

It took Tilley a considerable time to make herself ready for her male impersonations and she started off by putting on masculine undergarments. She had lovely, wavy hair, which she refused to cut short. This meant she spent ages doing her hair in a quantity of small plaits close to her head and then she donned the famous wig. This wig caused endless fascination because her male hairstyle looked so authentic. On one occasion after her usual performance at the Pavilion and Oxford Music Hall, she went by special invitation to a nobleman’s house in Grosvenor Square. There she sang Following in Father’s Footsteps, as she had been requested to do, and then one of her soldier songs. King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra were amongst the select group of guests seated on gilded chairs. Afterwards, Prince Francis of Teck came to thank Tilley and said the Queen was curious to know if she wore a wig or if her hair was naturally short. Tilley removed her wig and explained the mystery. There was jovial laughter and delightful compliments before the prince left to reveal all to the inquisitive Queen.  

copyright © J.Middleton
King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra.

Tilley also took part in pantomimes as a principal boy but for those roles she only needed to worry about tights rather than trousers. Her favourite pantomime part was Dick Whittington. She did not perform in pantomime until she was thirteen years old and it took place at the Theatre Royal, Portsmouth. The following year she appeared in the pantomime Queen of Hearts at the Theatre Royal, Brighton, then under the management of ‘dear Mrs Nye Chart’.

By this time Tilley’s diary was so booked up, that it was difficult for other theatre managers to get a look in. One such was Andrew Melville, proprietor of the Grand Theatre, Birmingham, who would have loved to have her appear in his pantomime at Christmas. But he was obliged to compromise by putting on a special Easter pantomime for her to star in. Incidentally, Andrew Melville’s son, another Andrew, became the owner of the Grand Theatre, North Road, Brighton, and lived at Whychote opposite Portslade Village Green.

During the Great War Tilley was on the stage at the Hippodrome, Brighton. When the show ended she and her maid, who assisted her with costume changes, had to feel their way in pitch darkness from Middle Street to the Metropole Hotel. Tilley found the best way was to catch hold of the railings. But on one occasion, they latched onto a railing that went around a small open space and found themselves going in circles until they realised something was not right.   

copyright © J.Middleton
In this male attire, Vesta Tilley sang Six Days’ Leave
one of her most successful Great War songs. 
In fact it was second only in popularity to 
The Army of Today’s All Right.
Tilley wore a soldier’s uniform during the Boer War and imitated a Tommy in the Trench in the Great War. In the latter conflict she was such a success in influencing young men to volunteer for the armed forces that she became known as Britain’s best recruiting sergeant. On those occasions she would sing The Army of Today’s All Right and the War Office used the title in one of their recruitment posters. An example of her influence occurred in the Music Hall at South Hackney when one night’s performance resulted in 300 recruits coming forward to volunteer.

The second most popular recruiting song was Six Day’s Leave. A postcard was published showing her dressed in the extraordinary garb she wore to sing this song with a locomotive in the background. At first glance it would seem she was depicting a scene from railway life. But a clue lies in the Picklehaube she is holding; it is a German helmet and a prized war trophy; not something to be found on the railways. The equipment she carries suggests she was impersonating a sapper. 
Another famous wartime song was Jolly Good Luck to the Girl who Loves a Soldier. She did not neglect the Senior Service either and her song for them was Jack Tar Home from the Sea.

It was because she played such convincing male characters that she took the greatest care in ordinary life to dress in an ultra feminine style. There are postcards of her looking like a femme fatale wearing a large, decorated hat tilted at a becoming angle, a high-necked dress with frills on the bodice, and a small waist, a full skirt with plenty of flounces, the ensemble topped off with a frilly parasol. In the evening she liked to sparkle in jewellery and wore expensive furs. She could well afford to dress like this because at the height of her fame she was earning £500 a week, which was a fortune in those days. Indeed, at the age of eleven, she was already supporting her parents and siblings with the money she earned.   
copyright © J.Middleton
Vesta Tilley in feminine mode. However did 
she manage to pull a wig on over all that hair?
Tilley met Walter de Frece at the Alexandra Theatre, Liverpool. His father was a prominent theatrical proprietor and also a great friend of Tilley’s father. The couple married on 16 August 1890 at Brixton Registry Office by special licence and spent their honeymoon fortnight at Brighton. They were married for 45 years but there were no children. She was his senior by a few years.

In July 1919 Walter was knighted for his services to the war effort and Vesta thus became Lady de Frece. Walter harboured ambitions to enter the Palace of Westminster and it was then Vesta decided to leave the stage. He was keen for her to retire while she was still at the top of her profession.  She went on an emotional farewell tour and Sir Walter served as a Conservative Member of Parliament from 1920 to 1931. Tilley enjoyed embarking on the canvassing trail when her husband was seeking election. She must have been an invaluable asset. She often found she was able to talk to people in ordinary circumstances and whereas they might blanche at holding a conversation with Lady de Frece, all barriers melted at the discovery she was Vesta Tilley.

 Apart from the excitement of election campaigns, Tilley found it difficult to adjust to the pace of a routine day. She found the evening time around 8 p.m. particularly difficult because she was so accustomed to getting ready for her stage appearances at that hour. 

Tilley had expended so much energy on her many performances that her health began to give way once she retired and she could not stand the English winter; doctors thought it best if she wintered on the French Riviera instead. Her husband did not wish to live apart from her and so he decided to retire from politics. In the event it was Sir Walter who died first in 1935 while Tilley soldiered on until 1952 when she died in Monte Carlo. In her final years she also lived at 8 St Aubyn’s Mansions, Hove, where a plaque in her honour was unveiled on 25 August 2011. 
copyright © J.Middleton
St Aubyn’s Mansions is the only residence in Hove to sport two blue plaques. Vesta Tilley’s one is on the right.

Lady de Frece Recollections of Vesta Tilley (1934)

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