music hall

Women wearing the pants

Viewed from the liberal-minded 21st century, it is interesting to look at the stifling attitudes of the past, particularly relating to clothing. Men have shed the waistcoats and stiff collars required at the beginning of the twentieth century and women have cast out the corset and voluminous underwear. Some schools today are moving towards non-gender specific uniforms and allowing their students to wear whatever style they are comfortable with.

Today it is common for women to wear trousers, but a little over a hundred years ago a woman wearing trousers in public was scandalous, unless it was for a breeches role, in which case it was hilarious. Following the tradition of a young man playing the female roles in Shakespearean theatres, a breeches role involved a woman playing the role of a young man.

This developed into male impersonation, which became a popular music hall entertainment from the mid-nineteenth century. Female actors would dress in masculine clothes and act in an exaggeratedly stereotypical male fashion. They would perform scenes, tell stories and jokes, and sing and dance, either on their own or as part of a group.

The Museum holds a collection of postcards sent to the Nixon daughters of Whanganui, which contains a number of collectible postcards of famous male impersonators of the time.

Miss Vesta Tilley, dressed as a dapper gentleman.
WRM Ref: 2008.33.1 47C

Miss Vesta Tilley is dressed as a dandy gentleman. Born Matilda Alice Powles in 1864 in England, she made her stage debut at age three and performed her first male character at age six. She preferred male roles, stating she felt she could express herself better in male clothing. She adopted the stage name Vesta Tilley at age 11, by which time she was so successful that she was solely supporting her family. She married Walter de Frece in 1890 and died in 1952 aged 88. The sender of this postcard has written on the back, “How do you like this style? This girl is the highest paid actress in England. What a well-fitting coat she is wearing.”

Miss Tittell Brune in military uniform.
WRM Ref: 2008.33.1 15B

Miss Tittell Brune is wearing a military uniform. Born Minnie Tittell in 1875 in San Francisco, she had her first acting role as Little Jim in Lights of London at age four. Following this her mother placed her in a convent for a year but she continued acting afterwards, taking both male and female roles. She married Clarence Marion Brune in 1899. Although not well known in America she was a major figure in Australian theatres with her career peaking between 1904 and 1909. Minnie often claimed she felt conflicted working as an actress, while maintaining her devout Catholic faith. When she was widowed in 1935, she joined the Order of St Francis and lived a quiet life until her death in 1974 aged 99.

Miss Gabrielle Ray as a sailor.
WRM Ref: 2008.33.3 70D

Miss Gabrielle Ray is dressed as a sailor. Born Gabrielle Elizabeth Clifford Cook in 1883 in England, she had her first role at age 10 in London’s West End where her acting, dancing and beauty were quickly noticed. After experiencing great success in male and female roles, Miss Ray retired from the stage and married Eric Loder in 1912, but divorced in 1914 after his unfaithfulness. She briefly returned to the West End in 1915 before opting for provincial theatres, retiring again in 1924. She suffered from depression and alcohol abuse that lead to a breakdown in 1936 when she was institutionalised. She died in 1973 aged 90.

Sandi Black is the archivist at Whanganui Regional Museum.

Fabulous Florrie Forde

At the Whanganui Regional Museum, a recent cataloguing project for the recorded music collection revealed some music hall treasures and raised some eyebrows. One such recording is the song Girls Study Your Cookery Books by Florrie Forde which contains the lyrics, “Every courtship from the kitchen / Always ought to start / They say that through man’s appetite / Is the way to reach his heart.” Sage advice.  So who was Florrie Forde?

1. Girls Study your Cookery Book

 The storage box which housed Florrie Forde’s cylinder recording of Girls Study Your Cookery Book. Ref: TH.3361

Florrie was born Flora May Augusta Flannagan on 16 August 1875 in Fitzroy, Victoria, Australia. She was the sixth of eight children born to Lott Flannagan and his wife Phoebe, who had two children from a previous marriage. Flora’s parents separated and her mother later married Thomas Ford, a theatre costumier, and they had another six children.

Flora and some of her siblings were sent to live in a convent but at the age of 16 she ran away to live with an aunt in Sydney. She altered the spelling of her name and made her first music hall appearances in 1892. Her efforts were well received with one reviewer stating her performance of the serious-comic song Yes, You Are was “a great attraction”.

Florrie loved the stage and took several dramatic roles but preferred pantomimes and audience interaction. She toured with Harry Rickard’s variety company and was encouraged by vaudeville star George Chirgwin, who invited her to tour with him in Britain.

She wanted to make it on her own, however, and at the age of 21 Florrie moved to London. She made her stage debut in August 1897, performing in three music halls on the same night: The South London Palace, The Pavilion, and The Oxford. She became an immediate star and was booked out by Moss & Thornton variety theatres for three years.

Music hall entertainment was at its peak and Florrie’s engaging stage presence and particular diction fitted in very. She specialised in songs that were partly serious and partly comedic and would invite her audiences to sing the catchy choruses with her, expertly calming them down before she moved on to her next piece.

2. Florrie Forde

Florrie Forde, early 2th century.  Image sourced under Creative Commons.

Florrie made her first recording in 1903. She recorded a total of 700 songs in between her stage appearances over the next three decades. She appeared in the first Royal Variety Performance in 1912, and during the height of her popularity in WWI, she made several popular recordings including It’s A Long Way To Tipperary and Pack Up Your Troubles In Your Old Kit Bag.

Known for her generosity as well as her great talent, she helped less successful performers, setting up her own travelling revue in the 1920s to launch new artists.

Florrie gave her last performance to patients at a naval hospital in Aberdeen on 18 April 1940, after which she collapsed and died of a cerebral haemorrhage, aged 64.

Someone in Whanganui’s past has been a fan of Florrie and left a number of her recordings to the Museum. As well as Girls Study Your Cookery Books, the Museum also holds copies of I Can’t Keep My Eyes Off the Girls, They Sang God Save The Queen, Are We Downhearted No-o-o?, and On The Banks Of The Rhine. Several of her recordings can be heard on YouTube.


Sandi Black is the Archivist at Whanganui Regional Museum.