Irreverent, generous, bold and mischievous, Marie Lloyd exemplified the gusto of the Music Hall, the one place in Victorian England where a woman could be in control. She spanned the peak years of this unique form of entertainment from her first appearance at the age of 15 until her death in 1922. Loved by her audiences she counted Edward VII, George Bernard Shaw and TS Eliot among her fans. In contrast, her private life was often unhappy; three times married she suffered humiliation and domestic abuse. Something passed out of the Music Hall when she died; it was dying itself, but her songs linger on with ‘The Boy I Love Is Up in the Gallery’, ‘My Old Man (Said Follow the Van)’, A Little of What You Fancy’ and ‘Oh Mr Porter What Shall I Do’ – Victoria & Albert Museum.
2020 marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of the legendary music hall performer Marie Lloyd and I think she would have appreciated the lecture about her colourful life and spectacular career that Alison Young and Christine Padwick, from the British Music Hall Society, delivered at the Victoria & Albert Museum.
I can remember my grandparents singing along to ‘My Old Man’, although whether they appreciated quite how dark its lyrics are is another matter. But then, that was the beauty of Marie Lloyd: the way she blended sadness with wit; comedy with tragedy. She was, the brilliant Young and Padwick told us, in turns charismatic, mischievous, irreverent, bold, hardworking, opinionated, insecure, edgy and nervous. Adored by the Victorian public, Lloyd’s catchphrases, including “Don’t dilly dally” and “A little of what you fancy”, linger on to this day.
Lloyd’s funeral, on 12 October 1922, saw thousands of mourners line the streets of Golders Green to pay their respects as her cortege passed by, to the point where the service had to be delayed, because of crowd control issues. Three days later, lengthy queues remained outside Hampstead Cemetery and theatrical weekly The Era estimated that 120,000 people had visited her grave. Floral tributes were left by celebrities and the British public – taxi drivers, maids, boxers, pub landlords and Lloyd’s jockey friends. Her appeal was ubiquitous: “She was one of us”, wrote TS Eliot.
A poignant end to an incredible life, albeit one cut short at the age of 52. But who exactly was Marie Lloyd – and how did she become one of the biggest stars of her day?
Matilda Alice Victoria Wood was born in Hoxton, north London, in 1870. The future Marie Lloyd harboured ambitions from a young age to be a music hall performer and made her first appearance on stage aged 15. Before long, “Marie”, as she was now known, had “stolen” George Ware’s song ‘The Boy I Love is Up in the Gallery’, which Ware had written for Nelly Power. This was not the done thing; one good song could guarantee six months’ work – and Power was furious. Yet, having marched round to Lloyd’s home to confront her, she found herself placated by her competitor’s winning ways.
Within a couple of years Lloyd had established herself as a quality act, playing all of the London and provincial music halls. Having embarked upon a relationship with a ticket tout, Percy Courtenay, she found herself married, aged 17, with a baby daughter on the way. However, Courtenay would prove to be a violent drunk and within six years the couple were living apart.
By the age of 21, Lloyd was performing in pantomime alongside stars including Dan Leno. Her versatile, relaxed style delighted audiences; here was a performer who sang songs about subjects ordinary people understood: booze, and bailiffs. Lloyd would comment that she understood that people had difficult lives – and that she offered them escapism.
Lloyd was a born actress and each gesture she made was instinctive, yet crafted to make her point. As her act developed, Marie’s style became racier, offering more innuendo which she expressed through pauses, sidelong looks, a wink and vocal inflections. It wasn’t so much what she said, as the way in which she said it.
Inevitably, there was a backlash; Lloyd did sometimes overstep the limits of discretion and some of her peers considered her blue in the extreme. With mutterings in the press about her “coarse” humour and with friends warning her against vulgarity, Lloyd’s response was that she “giving the people what they wanted.” The way she saw it, the protestors just added to the fun.
At the height of her career, Lloyd had achieved international fame, touring South Africa, Australia and America – although American audiences were left baffled by her Cockney accent and some of the characters she played. Lloyd rose to the challenge, keen always to prove herself.
She was also happy in her personal life, having remarried to a professional singer, Alex Hurley. The pair had met early on in their careers and became lovers during the mid-1890s, unusually for the time living together before they married. They were from similar backgrounds and Alex was kind, steady and deeply supportive of his massively successful wife.
The 1907 Music Hall Strike revealed another side to Lloyd’s character. Discontent had been brewing between performers and theatre managers for years and, while Lloyd was in a position to command her own terms, she always supported her fellow artists and threw herself into the strike with gusto.
This generous and large-hearted personality enjoyed her wealth and status but had no interest in social climbing. A multi-millionairess, she gave away much of her fortune and there are numerous recorded incidents of her generosity. On the flip side, Lloyd found it difficult to hide her emotions and often wrote critical, bitter letters to the press challenging incorrect stories.
Sadly, Marie and Alec’s marriage did not last and by 1910 Marie was living with the jockey Bernard Dillon. Their relationship marked a downturn in Lloyd’s overall circumstances: in 1912 she was conspicuously left out of a stellar line-up for the first-ever Royal Command Performance. Reeling from this crushing blow, Lloyd staged her own show, at the London Pavilion, on the same night as the Royal Command – but there was no doubt that she was deeply wounded.
Further humiliation was to follow. In 1913, Lloyd and Dillon embarked upon a six month tour of America, travelling across the Atlantic on RMS Olympic, the Titanic’s sister ship. When the Olympic docked, she and Dillon found themselves barred from disembarking because they weren’t married and accused of “moral turpitude”. Following much wrangling and further humiliating accusations, the couple were allowed into the country, but made to stay in separate hotels.
Midway through the American tour, Alex Hurley died and Lloyd and Dillon got married. Sadly, her third marriage would fare no better than her others. After Dillon’s jockey licence was cancelled he began drinking heavily – and assaulting Marie, who began drinking herself. Neither Dillon nor Marie’s first husband, Courtenay, had been able to cope with their wife being the breadwinner or live with her level of success.
As Marie and Dillon’s marriage deteriorated, so did her health. Only in her early 50s, Lloyd was afflicted by arthritic pain, stomach pains and mental health problems; the more ill she grew, the shorter and more infrequent her stage act became. Four nights before she died, she collapsed on stage at the Alhambra Theatre, doubled up in pain. She returned home, where she died from heart and kidney failure. “The whole country grieved” stated Young and Padwick, as they concluded this enthralling lecture.