Messages and Meanings: Words of War
Vesta Tilley (1864-1952)

Vesta Tilley
published by The Philco Publishing Co bromide postcard print 
NPG x138214
© National Portrait Gallery, London

ENQUIRIES:

  • Vesta Tilley was just one of the music hall stars performing in 1914. What was so shocking about her wearing military uniform? And trousers? Why was she so successful in getting men to join up? Does she, in your opinion, deserve the nickname ‘Britain's Greatest Recruiting Sergeant'? Why?

  • Look at the words on this postcard: who were 'Tommy Atkins' and' Jolly Jack'? Who do you think was raising funds, and why? Why was so much energy put into fund raising?

  • What were the messages conveyed in music hall songs at the start of the war and how did they change? Why do you think it was not possible to sing anti-war songs on the music hall stage? Do you think songs changed after conscription was introduced? Why?

How did a music hall entertainer become 'Britain's best recruiting Sergeant'?

Before the age of cinema, radio or TV, people relied on live entertainment in local music halls. Popular songs, comedy and variety acts were performed by the celebrities of the day to lively and enthusiastic audiences. During the war, music played an even more significant role in people's lives.

Vesta Tilley specialised in male impersonation. She played in pantomime and other comic roles, but it was her military characters that brought her most fame during the First World War. Postcards like this, showing Tilley in character, were produced in large numbers for her many fans.

At the start of the war, songs with military themes and catchy, rousing tunes filled the music hall theatres. These were taken up by soldiers (who substituted their own, far less respectable words) forming a musical link with the fighting front.

Music hall entertainments reflected the general optimism that the war would be over quickly. Songs with patriotic messages were used to boost morale and encourage more men to enlist in the army and navy. 

Dressed in her impeccable military uniform, Tilley appealed directly to the men in the audience to join up: she was nicknamed ‘Britain's Greatest Recruiting Sergeant’.

Like many other singers and comedians, Tilley travelled round Britain, visiting hospitals and factories, and fund-raising for the war.  Some performers went abroad to provide live entertainment for the troops. Scottish comedian, Sir Harry Lauder was the first popular entertainer to be given a knighthood for his war work.

After the disastrous military campaigns of 1915-6, and growing numbers of casualties, it was clear the war was not about to end.  Photographs and film footage of the Front had made people aware of the awful reality of the trenches. Recruitment drives were replaced by military conscription for all men aged between eighteen and forty-one.

Music hall managers did not allow open criticism of the government on stage, but the songs sung on stage inevitably reflected changing public attitudes to the war:  a growing cynicism, sadness, loss, and a collective longing for peace.

FOLLOW UP ACTIVITIES:

  • Look at the words of some popular music hall songs: (eg. 'We Don't Want to Lose You, but We Think You Ought to Go',  and  'Keep the Home Fires Burning')

Compare and contrast these with songs sung by soldiers in the trenches.

What do these songs tell us about [a] soldiers', and [b] civilians' attitudes to the First World War? Do these attitudes change as the war drags on?

Does the history of Wilton’s Music Hall help to explain how important they were in persuading men to join up? Was there a music hall in your local town? Can you find out what part it played in recruitment, and what happened to your local music hall after the war?

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