Nelly, Marie and music hall of fame

Stephen Griffin talks music hall and intellectual property with actor Charlotte Walker

Thursday, 29th August 2019 — By Stephen Griffin

Charlotte Walker credit Handwritten Photography

Charlotte Walker as Nelly Power. Photo: Handwritten Photography

ETHEL Merman was right: there’s no business like show business. However, the business we call show can be a capricious mistress – one day your name is up in lights, the next the printer’s name on the poster is bigger than yours.

And this is no modern phenomenon. Take Nelly Power, for example.

Nelly who?

Precisely. Who remembers poor Nelly, a huge star of Victorian music hall?

Well, luckily actor and Islington tour guide Charlotte Walker does. She’s spent the past year – and the past few weeks in Edinburgh – restoring Nelly’s celebrity.

“She was a massive, massive star,” says Charlotte somewhat protectively. “Vesta Tilley understudied Nelly Power.”

Nelly’s name might mean little but chances are you’ve heard of Marie Lloyd. Billed as the “Queen of the Music Hall” but known to Nelly as “that buck-toothed old cow”, she was the woman who appropriated Nelly’s signature song, The Boy I Love is Up in the Gallery, and became a star. It was the kind of sentimental ballad the Victorians loved and has turned up in everything from The Muppet Show to Peaky Blinders. This larceny might not sound such a big deal now but it was a huge hit at the time – a bit like Taylor Swift half-inching a Beyonce number.

How Marie stole the song is lost in the mists of time, says Charlotte. “All the turns had their own songs and no one stood on anyone else’s toes. But Marie Lloyd was a cheeky minx and she was only 15 but was obviously very business-minded and spotted the main chance and thought she’d have a little go and sing the song. And because she was young and sweet and innocent it was all rather lovely and she got her brother to sit in the gallery waving a hanky and that’s what did it. It catapulted her to stardom.”

The real Nelly Power

Born in the East End, Charlotte has always had a passion for music hall but it was when she trained to be a tour guide that she started developing a show, Marie Lloyd Stole My Life, which she is bringing to Islington Museum as part of their music hall exhibition.

Enormously popular – at one time there were 40 in Islington alone – real Victorian music hall was as far removed from the red velour womb of the BBC’s The Good Old Days as it’s possible to get: more akin to the Wild West, turns had to be loud and tough to compete with the ale.

But, says Charlotte: “It was one of the few areas where women could have independence and be powerful at that time. But the ladies who might have been working at night often had umbrellas with swords in them.”

And often changing in a cab, the turns went from hall to hall. “No one did one show a night, you did up to about five.”

But what of Nelly? Following a disastrous marriage to a wastrel called Israel Barnett, Nelly became devoted to her mother.

Rumour has it Barnett was behind the robbery of Nelly’s jewels, which were worth some £170,000 in today’s money.

She was living in Essex Road, Islington, when she died from pleurisy in 1887. She was just 32 when she was laid to rest at Abney Park in Stoke Newington.

Alas, Nelly not only lived in Marie Lloyd’s shadow, she died in it. “We say in the show everything Marie Lloyd went on to do she did bigger and better. She lived longer, she had more money, she had three divorces – Nelly only had one. She had 50,000 people at her funeral, poor old Nelly had 4,000.”

• A free exhibition, Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay! Music Hall in Islington, is at Islington Museum, 245 St John Street, EC1V 4NB, until October 22. Lottie will perform her show at the museum on September 5 and at the Old Red Lion on September 29. You can also join her as Nelly on an Islington music hall walk at 11am on September 14. Meet outside Angel tube. Free but book at

A little of what you fancy…

Collins music hall on Islington Green in 1906. It’s now Waterstones bookshop

THEY began as modest rooms at the back of pubs and went onto become huge Frank Mathcham-designed confections. For over 100 years, throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, music halls and the later variety theatres entertained generations. Their popularity spread like a virus and soon every town from Glasgow to Penzance was home to a music hall. And our neck of the woods had more than most.

Next time you pass the JobCentre in Camden High Street reflect that it’s built on the site of the old Bedford Music Hall, where Walter Sickert spent many hours capturing the turns and punters in paint and where Peter Sellers and his mother lived above the shop. And when you next browse the titles in Waterstones in Islington Green remember that as Collin’s Music Hall, it was where Norman Wisdom launched his professional career.

Nelly’s nemesis, Marie Lloyd, circa 1900

Marie Lloyd made her debut at the Eagle Tavern, off City Road; feats of daring and illusion were witnessed at the Finsbury Park Empire, where Harry Houdini escaped from near-impossible predicaments; and PT Selbit was credited with being the first person to perform the illusion of sawing a woman in half.

Audiences laughed at the comedy of Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy and Max Miller and marvelled at the amazing feats performed by fire eaters, trick cyclists and acrobats. Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay! at Islington Museum celebrates music hall and variety entertainment through a time when Islington was London’s undisputed “Parish of Pleasure”.

• The free exhibition runs until October 22. Details of related free events below and on the museum website:

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