Sunday, 11 August 2013

Samuelson and Son (and Vesta Tilley)

So, the latest in the research is to look for details about Vesta Tilley's tailor, Samuelson and Son (later 'and Lilley') of 49 Maddox Street, off Bond Street, London.

We know that they were her tailors of choice from her autobiography Recollections of Vesta Tilley, and also from an examination of her costumes as held by the Worcestershire County Council museum service.

However, besides entries in the directories of the time, I've yet to find more information about the firm - how long they existed, or anything of their business records - in any publicly held format.  So, off to the census I went, equipped with the name of Samuelson Sr, courtesy of a search in the London Gazette.  From this I know he died in February 1901, and that in 1914, there was a Chancery court case about his estate, for which I will have to hit up the National Archives.

Hitting up the censuses, though, is where things got odd.  What I got was an entry from 1891 - the only verifiable entry in England of Elias Samuelson - with the strangest annotations I've seen thus far.

The text reads:
Elias Samuelson - wid[ower] - 64 - tailor
Alice ditto - dau[ghter] - s[ingle] - 26 - nothing good
Hortense ditto - dau[ghter] - 1/2 s[ingle] - 24 - professional singer

Has anyone ever seen an entry like this?  From the rest of the page it seems that the census-taker transcribed verbatim what people said.  Is that accurate?  I'm fascinated by the entry, though it has v little to do with his tailoring business!

Separately, of course, I'd love if anyone had any intel about Samuelson and Son [and Lilley].  The 'son' part of the name seems to be Rudolph Samuelson, but I can't seem to find him in the census at all.

Any and all advice and comments gratefully received!

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Louisa's letter, part 1

The analysis of Louisa's letter is the most in depth I've done to date.  The kind of close genealogical investigation of her life is what will allow me - eventually! - to get an understanding of the range of women who formed Vesta Tilley's audience.

Close textual analysis of the original document is the first step.  The letter offers some genealogical material for consideration: the data about her father, her sons, her cousin, all help the researcher on Ancestry.  She was not writing with me in mind, however!  Her discussion of kinship is part of how she writes Vesta into her family.  'My dear Vesta' is proprietary, and discussions of how the rest of Louisa's family know Vesta as well makes the claim more total.  Between Vesta knowing, courtesy of this letter, about Louisa's family, and also by Louisa explaining who else she knows in Vesta's - Vesta's brother and sister, Vesta's husband via her cousin - the ties go both ways.  Making Vesta 'part of the family', gives Louisa's letter a validity she needs to send this message across the boundary between fan and star.  

But it's not just kinship she uses to validate her writing.  She also namechecks many important touchstones in the music industry, both in Liverpool and also nationally.  First, she tells Vesta that she could have been on stage, bar the intervention of her father.  'I am one of you' is implied, and reinforced when she describes her son asking her to perform Vesta's songs for him.  Second, the venues she mentions were among the major stops on the music hall circuit, over the nearly 40 years in which Vesta was performing in them, and Louisa was in the audience.  The fact Louisa can name the changes from Alexandra to Empire, and the arrival of the Hippodrome further demonstrates her commitment.  Third, she namechecks the proprietors of these venues - Mrs Saker of the Parthenon, Mrs Stoll and her son (Oswald) - to imply again that she and Vesta share the same network of associates.  Louisa is not just coming for the show.  She is also part of the community.

The Parthenon, as represented in their letterhead!

Oswald Stoll (V&A photo) - wiki here.

It's a common human trait, seeking commonalities with those with whom you want to interact.  Most of the commonalities Louisa puts in her letter, and I've described above, are fairly shallow.  'I've been to many performances' does not create parity between star and audience member.  However, what could be written off as overstretching, as contrived when described as above, is tempered by the interjections that show us just how big of a gap there really was between Louisa and Vesta.  It's at its most poignant when she says, one sentence on from claiming Vesta as her friend, that the one time she tried to speak to her, 'a Lump came in my throat + I couldn't manage it.'  For all that Vesta means to Louisa, there is still a gap between stalls and stage which remains unbridged.  Louisa tells us so, with her speechlessness.

I'll come back to the content of the letter in a further post, once I've told you what I've found out about Louisa's life through genealogical research.  Get ready for maps and old pictures!

Friday, 29 June 2012

Louisa Charlotte Bramwell

As some of the analysis will get slightly long on some of these letters, and this one in particular has a lot of background material, I'll start off just posting this letter.

A transcription follows the images.  The original letter is at the archives in Worcester.

Friday Sept 12, 1919
21 Upper Stanhope St South Lpool

My Dear Vesta,

I hope you will forgive me taking this privilige [sic] of writing you but I feel I 

must get a word somehow to you I have done my best to secure two seats but 

every seat seemed Booked up therefore I must let you pass out of my life 

without looking once more at your dear face. The first time I saw you was at 

the old Alexander [Alexandra] where you played Alladin when Mrs Saker was 

there. I was engaged for the chorus however my Dad objected + I couldn’t go.  

Mrs Saker Buried in St James Cemetary where I have two sons laying. I 

saw you at the Partheon [Parthenon] where you sang Before the lamps are 

lit[,] - The Shamrocks appeal to the Rose[,] Mary + John. I presented you from 

the gallery with a Bouquet of flowers + you where presented from the Boxes 

on the stage with a Basket of Red Roses Happy days 33 years ago I well 

remember Mrs Stoll + her son + remember how excited I used to feel when My 

Vesta was about to appear you know all us girls loved you + I want to ask you 

to keep this letter private has I am writing it entirely from the Bottom of my 

Heart + I want you always to think Dear old Friend wherever you are in this big 

world I will always remember you. I saw you at the Hippodrome about 3 years 

ago + I felt I would like to speak to you.  I was very near you being in the front 

row but a Lump came in my throat + I couldn’t manage it when my Boy came 

on leave from the Navy he would always say, come on Mother[,] give us Angels 

without wings or some of your old songs[,] how happy I was then.  But I lost 

my boy in the Great Jutland Battle 1916 on the HMS Invincible God Bless him 

after serving his King 12 years I had 3 sons fighting the other two are safe 

thank God.  I remember your Brother Harry also your sister at the Partheon 

[Parthenon] + Now Dear old Friend I want to ask you for the sake of the old 

boys if you will let me have if it is only a little card with your name on please 

Vesta oblige + I wish you Health[,] Wealth + Prosperity wherever you go also 

your Husband.  My cousin Hetty Bramwell lived with your Husbands people I 

think in Bedford St some years ago + Now God Bless you Vesta From one of 

your old Gallery Girls

Louisa Charlotte Bramwell

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Vesta Tilley

Before getting in to the material in Vesta Tilley’s scrapbooks, I think it’s probably important for me to say something about who she was, and provide a bit of context for the forthcoming letters.

The usual biographical detail is readily available on Wikipedia; I’ll sum up (and embellish) a few of the key points here.  Vesta Tilley was one of the best known of the British ‘Golden Age’ music hall stars.  She was born Matilda Powles in 1863 in Worcester, and started perform on stage at the age of 3, as her father, Harry, was the chairman (the master of ceremonies, say) of the local music hall.  By day, he was a ceramics painter, because even then, the local entertainment scene didn’t necessarily put food on the table.  The Powles family - or Ball, as they sometimes called themselves - were working class in their circumstances, living in cramped inadequate housing, moving around the country as the family grew and Vesta’s career became the chief source of income for them all.  Harry served as Vesta’s manager, as well as performing on the same bill as her with Fatso, the family dog, who could apparently do tricks.  Later, several of Vesta’s siblings would join her on stage, always billed as such.  She was, throughout her career, the star of the show.

Now, to talk a bit about the show.  Vesta’s act - or turn, in the parlance of the time - was that of a male impersonator.  That is, she dressed up in men’s clothes, and then sang songs which were from the man’s point of view while doing some limited choreographed movement.  

(above two images courtesy Worcester County Archives Vesta Tilley collection)

While she was extremely particular about every aspect of her costume, down to the cufflinks, and her hair was always covered by a wig, she made no effort to alter her voice.  The University of California Santa Barbara Library has made some wax cylinder recordings available, if you'd like to hear her!

I have to quickly point out, first of all, that while this drag act did not mean anything like what a drag act would mean now, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t ‘queer’ in the old-fashioned sense of being a bit odd.  While British society perfectly accepted cross dressing as part of entertainment - some have even said that it seems to be a peculiarly British obsession - there is nonetheless something odd that happens with Vesta in particular, and impersonation acts in general.

In Vesta’s case, the odd thing is just how her fans react.  For reasons that have not been fully explained, Vesta’s fan base was notably dominated by working class women, a fact which Vesta prided on sharing in interviews in newspapers, and reflects her collection of fan mail, which is heavily weighted towards that group.  Arguably, Vesta’s historically working class roots made her connect more with those fans, and those fans in turn, connect with her.  But there’s something about how Vesta takes on the roles of these men - clerks trying to be a Big Noise while on holiday, messenger boys, rich dandies, soldiers, sailors - on stage, where she parodies their mannerisms and pokes (gentle) fun at them as a group - which can be read as quite empowering for the women in the audience.

Just to be clear - Vesta Tilley was very very very good at what she did, and in her time, Madonna levels of famous.  In the 1890s, she was the highest paid woman in Britain and she toured the US six times (ODNB).  While there is very obviously a transgressive element to her performance, she stayed on the right side of the line in terms of comedy, and causing offence.  In part, this was helped by her very strict view as to innuendo - comparing her material to her peers (such as Marie Lloyd) her songs had none - and her equally strict adherence to feminine attire off stage.  It was basically impossible for anyone to criticize her choices - in comportment, in performance, in choice of career.  Though she never had children, she comes quite close to ‘having it all’, as we modern women are meant to do.

Returning to her fans, then… it’s quite clear that they were inspired by her career and life.  Her autobiography notes that many of them named their daughters after her, and the correspondence supports this.  Others talk at length about how they - her female fans - made sure that their daughters knew about Vesta Tilley.  Many more still talk about going to see her perform with a group of other women, coworkers in a number of cases, no doubt friends in many others.

For here was a woman - who no one doubted was a woman, who everyone understood as feminine - who simultaneously set her own agenda and was emphatically the primary agent in her own life.  That she did this by (literally) taking on masculine roles - and then making fun of them - even today sounds incredibly daring and subversive.

In the end, Vesta had more than fifty years on the stage, retiring in 1920 at the age of 56.  She lived another 32 years, half the year in Monaco, half the year in London, relaxing and compiling the scrapbooks which now form the basis for my research into her fans.  She’s buried in Putney Vale Cemetery in Wimbledon. 

(Feel free to ask for further details and/or clarification on anything about her life.  88 years in 800 words means I’ve left quite a bit out!)