Lewisham’s famous women: Marie Lloyd (1870-1922)

Marie Lloyd, the greatest and most popular of the music hall artistes, lived for several years in Lewisham, between 1887 and 1893. The house where she lived, 196 Lewisham Way, called Lewisham High Road back then, no longer exists. The site was covered by the Breakspears Building of South East London College which also no longer exists. So, unlike Hackney borough we have nothing to hang a plaque on.

Marie’s early years

Marie Lloyd was born Matilda Alice Victoria Wood on 12 February 1870 at 36 Plumber Street in Hoxton, London. Her parents were Matilda Mary Caroline Archer and John Wood a part time waiter at the Royal Eagle Public House in City Road and an artificial flower maker. Marie was the eldest of nine children so there was little money to spare in the family.

Marie showed an early talent for performing and encouraged by her father she appeared with her sisters singing temperance songs in local missions and church halls. At the age of 14, she sang solo at the Grecian Music-Hall, which was attached to the Royal Eagle Pub, using the stage name of Della Delmere.

On 22 June 1884 she first used the name Marie Lloyd when appearing at the Falstaff Music-Hall and was spotted by George Belmont, a music hall impresario. Within six weeks she was singing The boy I love is up in the gallery at the Star Palace of Varieties, Bermondsey after Belmont secured an engagement for her. She was fourth on the bill and earning 15s per week.

At the beginning of 1886 she went to Ireland at £10 per week and by the end of the year she was playing several halls a night and earning £100 or more per week. At this stage of her career Marie was building up a repertoire of songs and because she was still so young she often appeared in the character of a child or young girl.

First marriage

In 1887, aged 17, Marie married her first husband Percy Charles Courtenay, a race course tout and they set up house at 196 Lewisham High Road. Marie was never a good judge of men and Courtenay proved to be an unreliable, womanising character.

Although the couple had a daughter, also named Marie, they did not get on and the marriage ended in violent scenes. A report in the Lewisham Independent for 22 January 1892, tells how Courtenay was charged at Bow Street with throwing champagne in his wife’s face and threatening her. On 23 January 1894 the couple were legally separated, but they didn’t divorce until 1905.

A little bit saucy

By the 1890s Marie was at the height of her career. Her stage persona was by now more mature and she wore elegant, glamorous costumes. Some of Marie’s songs had rather vulgar lyrics and were full of innuendo and double meaning. Because of this she ran into trouble with the licencing authorities.

Songs such as She’d Never Had Her Ticket Punched Before and Oh Mr Porter What Shall I Do appear to be innocent on first reading but could take on a very saucy interpretation when sung by Lloyd.

Laura Ormiston

One objector was feminist campaigner and chairperson of an organisation called the Purity Party, Laura Ormiston Chant. In 1894, Chant persuaded the London County Council to erect screens around the promenade outside the Empire Theatre in Leicester Square, where Lloyd was a regular performer. Chant believed that the lewd content of the music hall shows was making the area attractive to prostitutes, but the screens provoked outrage among the general public and they were swiftly torn down. Winston Churchill was among the objectors, and even used the occasion to make his first political speech.

After Chant made further public protests Lloyd was eventually hauled before the Licensing Committee to answer the charge that her material was vulgar. Never short of repartee, she acquitted herself ably, performing two innocent songs followed by a version of Alfred Tennyson’s Come into the garden, Maud, reportedly nibbling her pearls to emphasise each innuendo. Despite shocking the panel, she was able to continue her shows.

Second and third marriage

In 1906 Marie married Alec Hurley, another music hall artiste who she had known and lived with for some time. Hurley was a decent man but unfortunately the marriage collapsed when Marie fell in love with Bernard Dillon, an Irish jockey, eighteen years her junior. Dillon had won the Derby in 1910 but a year later he lost his jockey’s licence and after that he turned increasingly to drink.

In 1913, Marie sailed to America for a six-month tour. She took Dillon with her but they were stopped at Ellis Island and narrowly escaped being deported because they were not married. The incident upset Marie and when Alex Hurley died she quickly legalised her position with Dillon. The couple were married in Oregon in February 1914 and remained in the United States until June of that year.

After the First World War broke out in 1914, Marie visited hospitals and munitions factories to sing patriotic songs. Her marriage was not going well, Dillon was unfaithful and violent and as a result Marie began to drink too much. She took Dillon to court in 1920 for assault and shortly afterwards the couple separated.

After this Marie became increasingly unhappy, tired and ill. Her voice was becoming weak and she no longer played the best venues. Her decline was paralleled by that of the music hall which was losing audiences. Finally, Marie collapsed on stage during a performance at Edmonton and she died three days later on 7 October 1922.

Marie Lloyd’s cockney humour and sense of timing made her the most popular and celebrated performer in music hall. Some of the songs that she made famous such as My old man said follow the van are still well known. Below is a video of Marie’s singing that song taken from an LP issued in the 1960s.

The second video is a performance by Jessie Wallace, playing Marie Lloyd in the 2007 BBC documentary Miss Marie Lloyd, Queen of the Music Hall.

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Rebecca Manson Jones

One of my early jobs surviving in theatre was as an animator at the Theatre Museum. I always enjoyed telling the story of Marie Lloyd.