The Mother of Music Hall (1848 or 1850 - 28 June 1896)
"If I were a Duchess and had a lot of money,
I'd give it to the boy who's going to marry me...."
Jenny Hill was the mother of music hall. She drew vast audiences long before female stars such as Marie Lloyd, Vesta Tilly and Bessie Bellwood became national treasures. Hill lived only to her late forties but was considered to be the most hard-working entertainer of her era, performing four or five nightly shows - a total of roughly 120 a month. She was recognised for her tireless energy and soon became known as The Vital Spark, the perfect turn for a listless audience. Hill was also the first-ever female performer to be termed as a “comedienne”.
Records show that Hill was born Elizabeth Jane Thompson in the Paddington/Marylebone area of London but the year of her birth is less definitive, given as both 1848 and 1850. Her father was Michael Thompson, a hansom cab hailer. He would run between Turnham's Grand Concert Hall on the Edgware Road, the Theatre Royal, Marylebone, (left) and the Rose of Normandy public house to bring taxis to waiting patrons. When Mr J. William Wallack (not to be confused with the American actor, James W. Wallack) became the Theatre Royal’s manager in 1853, he staged a new and highly successful pantomime, King Ugly Mug and My Lady Lee of London Bridge.
Thanks to this boost in patronage, Thompson increasingly found himself working at the Royal, and became acquainted with Wallack and his wife, Fanny Wallick, a leading actress.
An overheard conversation between Fanny and her daughter, Marie, revealed that the child did not want to appear as the goose in her father’s next pantomime. During the previous show, The Struggle for Gold and the Orphan of the Frozen Sea, she had been left floating on a block of ice. Thompson put forward his own seven year-old daughter, who was swiftly hired for Goody Goose.
Pressurised by her father into taking the part, Hill was paid five shillings a week - in 1855 this was a very good wage for a seven-year-old. She accepted the role apprehensively, relieved to remain anonymous under the huge goose head of her costume. However, during one performance the head was knocked off and a shocked Hill began to cry, which caused much hilarity in the audience.
The noise from the crowd stopped the child’s sobs and marked the moment when Hill realised performing could actually be enjoyable if not compelling for her. Alternative versions of this tale name Marylebone Music Hall and the Royal Aquarium (right) as the venue in question, but both are unlikely since their construction dates - 1856 and 1876 respectively - do not tally as closely with Hill’s age at the time.
At ten, Hill began work in a local factory where artificial flowers were made. For a few pennies a day, she would sing to her fellow workers as a welcome morale boost. Her father, keen to exploit her potential, secured Hill an audition at Dr Johnson’s Concert Room in Bolt Court, just off Fleet Street. (left)
She nailed the position and quickly became one of the venue’s most requested singers: on a good night she would regularly take home three shillings or more.
Dr Johnson’s had established itself as an important venue in the 1850s, hosting many of music hall’s brightest names. Its line-up regularly featured successful opera singer George Perrin, comic Sam Cowell, violin act The Brothers Holmes, music hall star Harry Fox and one of the most sought-after turns of the time, ‘The Literary Dustman’, Bob Glindon (right). The high quality of an evening at Dr Johnson’s underlines how extraordinary it was for a ten year-old girl to have won over its audiences.
When Hill reached the age of 12, Michael Thompson arranged for his daughter to begin working for Richard Farmery, a proprietor of many public houses and halls in the Bradford area. His properties included The London Hotel and The Turk’s Head in the Church Bank area (left), both drinking establishments with entertainment venues attached. Hill, still a child, was to learn both the domestic duties of pub work and the trade of serio-comic singer.
The combination of roles proved to be quite an ordeal for Hill. She would rise at 5am, clean floors, polish tankards, stock the ale bottles, cook the breakfast and make sure everything was ready for a 10.30am opening. At midday, she would begin to sing for market traders and farmers, and continue through the afternoon until about 5pm. Then there would be another session of re-stocking followed by dinner, a short rest and a return to singing and dancing until 2 in the morning. This pattern was repeated every day except Sunday.
It is not known exactly how long Jenny Hill stayed in the Bradford area. Her concurrent listing in the music bills of other venues indicates that she was also hired by local competitors. There are few details of Hill’s movements between 1861 and 1865 but during that period she dropped her birth name for the stage name Jenny Hill, and moved back to London.
On the 28th May 1866 she married John Wilson Woodley, an acrobat whose stage name was John Pasta. Woodley taught his new wife how to tumble and balance, with the intention of creating a double act. Unfortunately, the birth of their daughter, Letitia Matilda in 1867 ended both the marriage and the couple’s shared aspirations.
Now a single parent, Hill found a room in Waterloo Road, close to the supper rooms of Kennington and the local Stamford Street offices of some entertainment booking agents. Work was becoming hard for Hill to find: her sweet ballad renditions did not fit the demands of south London venues seeking loud and bawdy performances such as the popular Lion Comique, GH “The Great” Macdermott (bottom right), Alfred Vance (top right) and George “Champagne Charlie” Leybourne.
By the time Hill was twenty, she was struggling to survive. Motherhood did not mix well with late-night working hours but Hill was determined to remain a performer. She travelled daily to Stamford Street, appealing to every agent for a chance to prove herself.
A comic singer-turned-booker, Ambrose Maynard (left), found Hill still sitting in his corridor one afternoon after she had pleaded with him for work that morning. Apparently moved by her situation, he gave Hill a sealed envelope and told her to report to Emil Loibl, the manager of the Pavilion Music Hall.
After leaving her daughter with a neighbour, Hill ran straight to The Black Horse Inn in Tichborne Street, Westminster, home of the Pavilion Music Hall. She was both hungry and tired when she arrived at the venue but still found the energy to smile as she handed the envelope to Loibl. “What can you do, sing? Dance?” he asked. Hill’s answer must have been convincing because she was offered a spot for the show that was actually in progress. George Leybourne was, as usual, running late, and an act was needed to entertain the restless diners. A note was passed to the band and they struck up ‘Old Brown’s Daughter’.
Hill knew this was the chance she had been waiting for: she put so much passion into the song that the adoring crowd joined in with her. George Leybourne had arrived in time to hear their calls for an encore, but emotion and exhaustion caused Hill to faint on stage before she could perform one. Leybourne (left) rushed on and lifted her to his shoulder, an unexpected finale for which he - and she - received huge cheers.
After a reviving glass of port, Hill was asked by Loibl if she were one of Ambrose Maynard’s hires. When she said no, he handed her Maynard’s letter of recommendation. “Dear Emil” it read, “don’t trouble to see the bearer. I have merely sent her up to get rid of her. She’s troublesome. Yours, Ambrose”. Hill was unsure which shocked her the most - the letter’s content, or Loibl’s decision to ignore it and hand her his stage. Loibl then offered Hill a contract on the spot. There are several versions of this sequence of events but this seems to be the most plausible.
Whichever story is true, the Pavilion contract was a turning point for Hill. It gave her the opportunity to grow, learn and take chances. Her repertoire of songs swelled. Dressed in evening attire or as a working girl, she performed numbers such as Maggie Murphy’s Home, The Coffee Shop Girl, I’m A Women Of Very Few Words and the classic The Boy I Love Is Up In The Gallery. Her eccentric acrobatic dance moves - the upshot of all that husband-and-wife practice - were also much enjoyed by audiences.
During the 1870s Hill topped the bills in most of the country’s major music halls. Her energy on stage was astounding. Noted for overrunning her allotted time, she often sang five or six numbers. Theatre managers did not complain: the crowds loved it and her extended spot was equivalent to an extra (unpaid) act. Hill brought such enthusiasm and zest to the stage that it raised the crowd’s spirits even when the rest of the bill was humdrum. In recognition of this exuberance, Hill was quickly nicknamed The Vital Spark.
Despite lengthening her act for the sheer joy of it, Hill’s liked to spin her work ethic. The main theatrical publication of the time, The Era, often ran articles on the numerous Jenny Hill shows taking place in a single night. Her talent for self-publicity is also evident in her innovative stance as the first act to place what she called a ‘Card’ in The Era - a box at the top of the first column on the back page informing the public of her activities and appearances that week. Hill continued this practice for nearly twenty years.
She also turned her hand to legitimate theatre and the upmarket gaiety circuit, and performed regularly as principle boy in pantomime. One year, while playing the title role in Aladdin at the Prince of Wales Theatre in Birmingham, she was floored by a cabbage thrown from the balcony.
Returning to her feet, she berated the crowd like a mother to her children. Hill then learned the missile was meant for the actor, Mark Kingbourne, who was playing the Emperor. After pointing out the difference between herself and Kingbourne, Hill passed the cabbage back to its owner and invited a second attempt.
Hill’s version of principle boy was impressive. It led her to become an early adopter of a new variety style in the music halls, that of male impersonator. Hill would dress as both upper- and working-class men, executing the mannerisms of their respective status to perfection.
She employed many composers to write her the perfect stage song, the most notorious of which was E.V. Page’s costermonger number, ‘Arry’, a simple ditty about a cockney on holiday which would become an audience favourite.
In general, her act was centred on the struggles and problems of women which were easily relatable to the many working-class wives and mothers in the audience.
Her songs resonated with the domestic service girls, the shop and factory women, and even those in the lower ranks of the entertainment industry. Few of these songs survived as they were considered too bawdy for Victorian music publishers. Offense was taken by lyrics such as:
He’s out on the fuddle with lots of his pals,
Out on the fuddle, along with other gals,
He’s always on the fuddle
While I’m in such a muddle
But I mean to have a legal separation.
Another innovative move was Hill’s incorporation of melodramatic sketches alongside her songs: The Little Stowaway was a particular favourite with audiences. Some disapproving theatre managers believed that this mini-melodrama with scenery stopped the flow of a show, and should not be combined with songs.
The owners banded together to seek the playlet’s suppression by the Licensing Committee, and for a short time the sketch was banned. The Era came to Hill’s defence saying: “The theatres make a great mistake if the think the sketches in the music halls do them any harm. They don’t. They stimulate the taste for a better class of entertainment then is usually given in the music hall.”
The Licensing Committee did not think the complaint worth upholding. After seeing The Little Stowaway they declared it “one of the most admirable pieces ever presented on stage”. Since the publicity caused even greater audience demand, the ambush backfired.
Jenny Hill’s agent at the time, Maurice de Frece, also grabbed the opportunity to move his client up a rung in her ‘bill matter” (act descriptor). He chose a French term to dub her a “comedienne”, another first in the sector.
By the late 1880s, Hill was a big name, drawing enormous audiences and making a substantial wage. She decided to invest in the music hall circuit that had made her, and became the proprietor of three theatres. Hill was not the business women she’d hope to be. The Albert Arms in south-east London was declared bankrupt, the Rainbow Music Hall in Southampton burnt to the ground.
She gave the Star Music Hall in Hull to her ex-husband to manage: this also went bust after he disappeared at the end of his first week in charge. Her one business success was The Hermitage, an 80-acre farm in Streatham (which can still be seen today). This produced both good harvests, and every Sunday, a lavish theatrical soiree for her devotees.
In 1890, Hill was booked to play New York by Anthonio Pastor (right), the American impresario. Despite having some difficulty understanding her accent, the crowds adored her. Hill’s initial six-week engagement ran to an eight-month US tour. On her return to England, Hill was exhausted, and doctors advised she would probably not perform again but in 1893 she was back at The Oxford to premier two new songs, That’s Bill and The Southend Picnic. The crowd went crazy for it. Male patrons who previously propped up the bar during her set came to cheer and throw flowers at the front of the stage. It is believed that this is where the expression “to bring the house down” originated.
In December of that year, Hill was booked for pantomime in South Africa. She became ill during the journey and her health deteriorated from this point. Hill was seen thereafter only in a wheelchair, brought on stage to give the occasional wave to the crowd. She went to live in Brixton Road, south London, with her daughter who was now performing in music hall successfully under the name of Peggy Pryde (left).
Jenny Hill died on 28 June 1896 at the age of 46 or 48. Her obituary in The Era on 4 July 1896 perfectly summarised her appeal:
“The secret of her success lay quite as much in her ready wit as the unflagging spirit with which she rendered her ditties….she could reproduce to a nicety, interspersing comments adapted to the quarter of the Metropolis in which she was for the moment appearing.”
This skill is now the norm for circuit comedians who make themselves welcome by researching and introducing local references to their set. Thanks to Jenny Hill, the technique of good-humouredly showing an audience their own community and cultural quirks has become a rewarding live device.
Sources and Suggested Reading
Baker R A British Music Hall: An Illustrated History (2005)
Banks M & Swift A The Jokes On Us (1987)
Stuart C D The Variety Stage; A History of the Music Halls From the Earliest Period to the Present Time (1895)
Hudd R Music Hall (1976)
Dafydd G Stand Up & Sock It To Them Sister (2016)
MacQueen-Pope W The Melody Lingers On (1950)
Busby R British Music Hall: A Who's Who from 1890 to Present Day (1976)