Vesta Tilley, Annie Hindle, Hetty King and Ella Shields – just a few of the incredible male impersonators who were the superstars of their day. In music halls across the world, from London to Baltimore, from South Africa to Australia, these pioneering women hit the heights of fame during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
In this special blog, we will celebrate the legacies of these early drag kings, exploring their art, the fame they attracted and the barriers they broke down. We shall look at how they were featured in the newspapers of the time, how they were celebrated in them, and how they deserve to celebrated now, in the twenty-first century.
Hint: Although we might call performers like Vesta Tilley ‘drag kings’ today, in the past they were known as ‘male impersonators.’
Annie Hindle – ‘The Original Male Impersonator’
Although women had played male roles for some hundreds of years, Annie Hindle was one of the first male impersonators to hit the heights of fame in both Britain and the United States.
It was in the music hall that male impersonators had their stage, dressing to minutely echo the men they were imitating, performing songs, dances and monologues.
And Annie Hindle, in April 1865, was billed to appear at the Metropolitan Music Hall at Edgware Road, Paddington, as a ‘Characteristic Comic,’ as advertised in the Morning Advertiser. Fast forward two more years, and she is making an appearance at the Fleur-de-Lis Music Hall in Sheffield, as reports The Era:
Fleur-de-Lis Music Hall – Annie Hindle (impersonator of male characters) is ‘the centre of attraction’ at this Hall, and receives five and six calls each turn.
Annie’s popularity is already evident by 1865. She had started out her career on the music hall stage at the age of six, and was by now in her twenties.
One year later, in July 1868, the Sheffield Daily Telegraph reports on the most ‘attractive entertainment in the town,’ namely the ‘Cream of Music Hall Talent’ to be found at the Canterbury Hall, Pinfold Street. Annie Hindle was the star of this particular line up, and ‘at the request of numerous patrons…she [was] re-engaged for one week longer.’
It was also in 1868 that Annie Hindle and her mother emigrated to New York, where she was to see even greater success than she had done back in the United Kingdom. After living in and travelling across the United States, it was announced in September 1876 by the London and Provincial Entr’acte that the music hall star ‘proposes shortly to return, and is expected to open in London about the middle of November.’
Indeed, she is labelled here as the ‘original male impersonator,’ whilst a follow-up article by the same newspaper in October 1876 describes how she had been ‘immensely successful‘ at the Front Street Theatre in Baltimore.
‘The Great Impersonator of Male Character’ was billed to open on 13 November 1876 at the ‘Sun, Cambridge and Oxford Music Halls,’ as reports the London and Provincial Entr’acte, after her ‘prolonged stay in America.’
But Annie Hindle did not stay in Britain for long, and afterwards returned to America. It was in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 1886 that she married her dresser Annie Ryan. Hindle had disguised herself as man, and the pair were married by a Baptist minister.
After a long, distinguished, and groundbreaking career, Annie Hindle passed away on 14 July 1897, having married again to Louise Spangehl, after her first wife passed away in 1891.
The World Turned ‘Upside Down’
Following on in Annie Hindle’s footsteps, male impersonators on the British music hall stage continued to flourish, inverting and parodying gender norms in way which delighted their audiences.
On 18 March 1877, The Era reports on how ‘two male impersonators, Miss Ella Wesner, the American, and Miss Bessie Stokes’ have been all the rage at the Bolton Theatre of Varieties. Ella Wesner was known as the most celebrated male impersonator of the Gilded Age, her career hitting the heights in the 1880s.
The Era goes on to describe the gender trickery that was taking place at the Bolton Theatre of Varieties:
…it appears the world has turned upside down, for, in addition to the two ladies donning male attire, there have been Mr. Louis Leoni appearing as an impersonator of the fair sex, Mr. J.B. Harcourt and Miss Kate O’Connor (with their clever and quick changes of character, Mr. Harcourt appearing in female attire and Miss O’Connor in male habiliments)…
Meanwhile, the London and Provincial Entr’acte reports on 5 October 1878 how ‘Miss Ella Wesner impersonates the male sex in a very effective manner, and is much approved of in her various songs.’ By 1891, the Toronto Daily Mail is describing her as ‘the Greatest Male Impersonator in the World.’
At the same time, there were other American imports taking Britain by storm with their male impersonations. The Hull Daily Mail reports on the appearance of the Richmond sisters at the Alhambra Music Hall, Hull:
The Sisters Richmond are perhaps the principal attraction here this week. They are good male impersonators, their dresses are of the best, and their dancing is exceedingly clever.
Josie and Lulu Richmond, like Ella Wesner, hailed from the United States, and were in 1886 labelled as England’s ‘greatest Male Impersonators’ by The Era. This newspaper describes them as the ‘dashing Sisters Richmond, the most accomplished of male impersonators and sand dancers of exceptional ability.’
But a home grown star was on the rise, and promised to be one of the most famous of the male impersonators of all time, and her name was Vesta Tilley.
A Star is Born – Vesta Tilley
The Sketch, 26 June 1912, tells of the birth of the ‘Best-Dressed Man on the Halls: Miss Vesta Tilley.’ The daughter of ‘the manager of a music-hall in Gloucester,’ the young Vesta Tilley (born Matilda Alice Powles on 13 May 1864 in Worcester) ‘naturally came very early into contact with theatrical people.’
Her powers of imitation were apparent from the early age of three, and after performing to a group of her father’s friends at that age, Tilley’s music hall career soon begun. But the three-year-old Vesta Tilley did not begin as a male impersonator, until one night, whilst on tour, she was caught by her father wearing his clothes. The Sketch picks up on the story:
One night, after [her father] had gone out, she got one of his coats and hats and dressed herself up and began singing like some male performer she had heard. In the middle of her entertainment to herself her father returned. When he saw her he was struck with a new idea. ‘How would you like to sing dressed as a boy?’ ‘I should love it,’ she replied.
For her fifth birthday, the young girl was gifted a dress suit. And then the was the matter of her name. Originally billed as ‘The Great Little Tilley,’ the accuracy of her act caused confusion amongst her audiences, as The Sketch relates:
She…was so realistic in her impersonation of male characters at the time that the [theatre] manager went to her father and said that the audiences could not make out whether she was a boy or a girl. He therefore proposed that she should be billed as ‘Lady Tilley.’
However, Tilley ‘declared most emphatically that she hated the idea of appearing as ‘Lady Tilley.” So her father, looking through a book of names, settled on Vesta. And so, Vesta Tilley was born.
The Antithesis of Daintiness
Vesta Tilley’s long career started in the 1860s. The Sketch tells of her early successes on the music hall stages of London, where her comic songs ‘set her listeners roaring with laughter.’ It notes her success in pantomimes, where she was cast as the principal boy aged only fourteen at the Theatre Royal, Portsmouth, and then played the Prince in Beauty and the Beast to Belle Bilton’s (who later became the Countess of Clancarty) Beauty.
But of course, Vesta Tilley was best known for her turns as a male impersonator, which The Sketch describes as follows:
As a male impersonator, Miss Tilley has represented a wide range of types, even the policeman, although her exceedingly dainty and slight physique is the very antithesis of the man in blue.
This was to be a theme throughout Vesta Tilley’s career. The accuracy of her male impersonations, when coupled with her appearance as a woman, was something her audiences found fascinating, that one person could somehow be both.
It is difficult to associate the slight girlish figure in rustling silken skirts with the smart, well-groomed boy we are accustomed to see on the stage. Miss Tilley is so essentially feminine in private life – so chic and dainty – that it is hard to imagine her transformed into a dashing ‘Johnnie.’
Indeed, the Bohemian Girl goes as far to examine Vesta Tilley’s wardrobe in attempt to overcome the gender disrupting juxtaposition:
Her dresses are all characterised by a dainty refinement and simplicity which are the acme of good taste. No stiff collars or hard shirt fronts, no horsy pins or startling waistcoats – but soft frills and chiffons, feminine flounces and fripperies – all in direct contrast with the tailor-made suits in which she sings her world-renowned songs.
This juxtaposition was no doubt a large part of her success. Her success would make her the largest earning woman in Britain during the 1890s, and one of the country’s biggest celebrities of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
‘The Most Remarkable Vaudeville Artiste’
By the time the Bohemian Girl was interviewing Vesta Tilley at home, the music hall star had a ‘remarkably well-stocked’ jewelry case, completed with ‘a great store of flashing diamonds’ including one which had once been owned by the Empress Eugenie. These were, in the main, gifts from her adoring public and testament to her popularity, as she travelled throughout Britain and America.
‘I do love Nottingham people,’ she told me. ‘Last night I could scarcely get into my cab. There must have been fully five hundred people round it. And how they cheered! It is very encouraging to get such a reception.’
The same article recalled a scene in Newcastle, where ‘her admirers [had taken] the horses out of the shafts and [dragged] her carriage to the hotel as if she had been a victorious General.’ Meanwhile, a week of performances in Canada were completely fully booked, audiences there not being able to ‘sufficiently express their good feelings towards an artiste from the old country.’
In 1908, The Tatler writes of how Vesta Tilley was ‘the most popular favourite on the music-hall stage at the present time,’ her appearance at a music hall in Douglas forcing her to ‘claim police protection from the demonstrative enthusiasm of her admirers.’
There was no doubt about it, Vesta Tilley was a celebrity, photographed and followed, just like the celebrities of modern times. It was no wonder, then, that the Bournemouth Graphic in December 1909 spoke with rapturous enthusiasm when she was engaged to appear in Boscombe:
She is one of the most remarkable artistes the Vaudeville stage has ever known, and there is not her equal upon the present stage. She is a consummate actress to her finger tips. She is a refined and subtle idyll, whose work is rich in shading and colour, whose vivacity is gay and spontaneous, and who is weaver of persistent delights and surprises. As a male impersonator she has no equal. All her songs and ‘business’ are the creations of a genius.
She was to gain the ultimate seal of approval when the then Princess of Wales, later Queen Mary, invited her to perform in a private recital. Performing in front of the Princess and ‘an assemblage of the nobility at the home of Lord Iveagh,’ Vesta Tilley did not disappoint:
The Princess was much interested, Miss Tilley says, in the way she did up her hair in braids so as to enable her to wear a wig that does not reveal by the bulging back that she is a woman. Her Royal Highness expressed surprise at the labour and care essential to Miss Tilley’s make up.
The Bournemouth Graphic concludes by stating how Vesta Tilley is ‘the idol, not of London alone, but of all England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales, not to mention the majority of the United States of America.’
‘Nuts and Swankers’ – Hetty King
But Vesta Tilley was not the only British male impersonator taking the world by storm in the early twentieth century. Hetty King, too, found fame in Britain and around the globe with her male impersonations.
Born on 4 April 1883, Hetty King began performing solo music hall acts in 1902. By 1906 the Penny Illustrated Paper is already labelling her ‘the Famous Male Impersonator,’ picturing her in a range of different roles, ‘in evening dress, as a sailor, a solider, and a policeman.’ Like Vesta Tilley, she also starred in pantomimes, but her range as a male impersonator was said to be even greater than her contemporary.
Seeing ‘phenomenal success in London and the Provinces,’ according to the South Wales Daily Post, September 1907, by 1912 Hetty King had cemented herself as a ‘well-known male impersonator.’ In July of that year, she wrote a fascinating piece for Pearson’s Weekly, explaining where she got her inspiration from, how she perfected her art, and how she had become an important fashion influence.
For example, a chance encounter with a type of young man known as a ‘Nut’ fuelled her interest in imitating him and his type. He had saved her from drowning after her boat capsized on an outing with her husband, and ‘from that moment [she] resolved to study this type,’ her ‘Nut’ impression becoming an important part of her repertoire.
Hetty King provides this wonderful anecdote on how she perfected her ‘Nut’ impersonation:
A short time back I followed a young guardsman in Hyde Park for over two miles to get hold of his military swagger. This type of soldier has an attractive springy stride, which he has cultivated from long acquaintance with the saddle.
And in contrast to the ‘Nut’ you had the ‘Swanker,’ identifiable by his ‘flash suits, gaudy socks, and weirdly coloured ties.’ Hetty King was unfortunate enough to be stung by a ‘Swanker,’ when she had in the past been saved by a ‘Nut.’ A ‘Swanker’ had begged to borrow an item of her clothing for a fancy dress ball, the request written on ‘costly gilt edged notepaper.’ Hetty obliged, but was stunned to receive a letter from the young man stating that he had pawned the waistcoat she had leant him, after his finances had run low.
Indeed, men around the world wanted to dress just like the famous male impersonator Hetty King. She writes how:
Every morning my post bag is crammed with letters from youths asking for the address of my tailor, but that is a secret I shall never let out. Several men have written to ask if they should wear corsets in order to get their coats to fit well into the waist. My advice to those who wish to dress well is to go to a good tailor, pay attention to details, and always put simplicity before exaggeration. The average woman always admires a ‘Nut,’ but she scorns an overdressed ‘Swanker.’
Meanwhile, Hetty King was also inspiring clothing trends. In America, the ‘Hetty King waistcoat’ was developed, which ‘consisted of a white evening waistcoat with the opening edged with a thin line of black.’ The new collar she had invented also took off there.
What is evident from this wonderful piece is the care and attention Hetty King put into her act. Not only was she paying attention to the mannerisms of the men she copied, the vivid detail that she gave to their costuming made her act a consummate art form, one that was copied by the very men she parodied.
Six Days Leave
By the outbreak of the First World War, Vesta Tilley, the ‘Peter Pan of Her Sex‘ (Leeds Mercury) had just entered her fifties, but what perhaps was to be her biggest role yet was to come. For she had created one of her best known characters, the character that made her, for better or for worse, ‘England’s greatest recruiting sergeant.’
It tells of the troubles and trials (far worse than the trenches) of a Tommy reaching ‘Blighty’ on leave. At the London Coliseum a few weeks ago this created quite a furore.
The newspaper advises that ‘You will be sorry if you miss it.’ Meanwhile, Vesta Tilley was also staring on the silver screen. In 1916 she appeared in silent film The Girl Who Loves a Soldier, adopting the role of a young woman engaged to a soldier on the front, and of course playing a role of a soldier, for which she was so famous. You can read more about Vesta Tilley’s foray into film here.
In 1919 Vesta Tilley had made the decision to retire. Her husband Walter de Frece had received a knighthood for his ‘war services at the Ministry of Pensions’ and he had decided to make a move into politics. The Sketch reports how Vesta Tilley decided ‘to make a farewell tour of the country before retiring.’
Taking a year to complete, with the profits going to children’s charities, Vesta Tilley retired after her long and celebrated music hall career. Now Lady de Frece, and the wife of an M.P., she was presented to court before she and her husband eventually retired to Monte Carlo. She died on a visit to London in 1952, aged 88.
The Return of Hetty King
Whilst Vesta Tilley had retired, her one time rival Hetty King was still going strong. The Market Harborough Advertiser and Midland Mail reports on her return to Leicester in 1926, after she had made ‘a 37,000 mile tour of the British Empire, winning triumphs everywhere.’
She maintained her striking popularity, recalling how:
‘In Australia,’ she says, ‘they would meet me at ‘stops’ bringing flowers, and conversing as if they had known me all my life.’
And the Market Harborough Advertiser and Midland Mail was quick to praise her ‘jocular and convivial’ characters, and her songs which were complete with ‘rollicking choruses.’ But by the mid 1920s, the music hall was beginning to fall out of fashion, as the big screen of cinema began to edge out the older and more traditional form of entertainment.
Indeed, in February 1928 the Sheffield Daily Telegraph writes of how ‘A variety programme of an old-fashioned sort is being shown at the Hippodrome.’ One of its stars was Hetty King. But she was still possessed of ‘that ‘snap’ and brightness’ which made her a favourite of many, and the Sheffield Daily Telegraph concludes:
Her songs are catchy and tuneful, and while remembering some of her old numbers with pleasure, one is bound to admit that the new ones are just as good.
So with the fading of the music halls, came the fading of the stars of male impersonation. But this did not stop Hetty King, as she continued to perform her act for years to come, even into the 1970s. You can watch a wonderful video of Hetty King and her sister filmed for a documentary in 1970 here, as the veteran star gets ready to perform. Hetty King passed away in 1979 aged 89.
A New Kind of Act – Ella Shields
But there is still one more star of male impersonation that we must mention here, and that is Ella Shields. Born in Baltimore in 1879, she moved to London in 1904 and in 1910 began her career as a male impersonator. She was best known for her song ‘Burlington Bertie From Bow,’ which was in fact a parody of Vesta Tilley’s song ‘Burlington Bertie.’
Burlington Bertie is not be found anywhere except in such places as Miss Ella Shields chooses to personate him. Nevertheless, the public are intensely conscious of his existence. He has become part of everybody’s experience in life, and has a place in every family’s affections. How many mortals achieve so much in life? Anyhow, he will not die.
Speaking to The Era in June 1930, Ella Shields described the process of becoming the famous character:
‘Burlington Bertie’ is not a song, he’s a character. People often ask me how I get the voice and the walk. All I can say is that on the stage I feel I am Burlington Bertie, a well-bred man who has seen better days and who has no intention of letting the world realise that he is finished, ‘down and out.’
In fact, she relates how she had not ‘specially wanted’ to sing the song, which was written for her by her then husband William Hargreaves. But she was contractually obliged to sing something new, ‘Burlington Bertie’ was settled on, and the rest was history.
But Ella Shields in her June 1930 interview seems very aware that her type of act might soon be consigned to history too, as she describes how she must discover new material in order to keep her act up-to-date:
The old-time police-constable with his flirtation with the cook, and the soldier who in Hyde Park used to dally with the nurserymaids are types of the past. They have been replaced by alert young men of the world who, out of uniform, look just like the others; and who spend their evenings at a Palais de Danse, or perhaps taking a technical course somewhere. Similarly the ‘I say, old fellah’ type of West End masher has gone. It’s no use introducing people like him on the stage anymore. People would not be familiar with his kind.
Sadly, after 1930 Ella Shields’s career did go into decline, although she worked with a young Julie Andrews in the 1940s. But she died as she lived, as a male impersonator. Her final performance was in Lancaster, where she began by singing ‘I was Burlington Bertie,’ instead of ‘I am Burlington Bertie.’
Tragically, after finishing the song the 72 year-old entertainer collapsed. Three days later, on 5 August 1952, she passed away.
Vesta Tilley, Annie Hindle, Hetty King and Ella Shields – all four women and the other performers like them, were trailblazing, indomitable, creative spirits, who lit up the stages they performed on from the 1860s through to the 1970s. They may not be household names now, but they certainly were then, and as such, it is our honour and pleasure to celebrate their stories here, and tell them through the pages of our newspapers.