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Pioneers of Drag

Drag was a staple of seaside venues and music halls in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, mainstream entertainment that subtly challenged the ways men and women were often seen. Billie Manders and Vesta Tilley were two British actors who embraced drag and performed across the country, including venues in the Tees Valley.

Billie Manders and Vesta Tilley. Image courtesy of Preston Park Museum and Grounds.

It is thought that Drag could have started as far back as the late 16th century when women weren’t allowed to work as actors, and it was expected that male actors undertook the female roles. This allowed men to express a different side of themselves and was especially liberating for any who were unable to live as their authentic selves due to criminal laws.

In the late Victorian era and leading into the 1930s, actors who performed in drag became more commonplace in seaside towns where there were often more tourists. Audiences liked to see certain actors as well and regularly came back each year to see new performances by touring actors.

This blog will focus on two drag performers, Billie Manders and Vesta Tilley, who performed in cross-dress and presented characters who were stylish and charismatic.

Billie Manders

William Manders was born in Birmingham in 1887 to a large family, the seventh of ten children. His father was an upholsterer, a profession that his oldest brother George also went into. For a time, William worked as a clerk for a metal merchant but it was not work that he intended to do for the rest of his life.

In the 1910s he met Gladys Elizabeth Fox, the daughter of Will Catlin, the founder and manager of the seaside performers Catlin’s Royal Pierrots. The troop of all male performers started in Scarborough but also toured the country entertaining locals and tourists alike. It may have been through Gladys and Will Catlin’s influence that William felt more drawn to the stage. During his military service in the First World War, he would entertain his fellow soldiers through improvisation. Following his marriage to Gladys he threw himself into becoming a performer, adopting the stage name Billie.

Billie Manders. Image courtesy of Preston Park Museum and Grounds.

In the Summer of 1921 Billie Manders came to the seaside town of Rhyl in Wales and became a manager of the Amphitheatre seated on the pier. The Amphitheatre had been built in 1907 to replace the Pavilion Theatre that had burned down years prior, and it was to be a new place for beach side entertainment like pierrots. It was here that Billie formed the Quaintesques, a troupe of entertainers. Their performances ranged between comedy, music, ventriloquism, and dancing.

Billie would always perform in drag with his troupe. Female drag at the time was often quite exaggerated and relied on heavy makeup, but Billie intended for his drag to be glamourous. His characters were described as convincingly female and the dresses he wore were stylish.

Performances for both Billie and the Quaintesques were arranged to be different every night, allowing their audiences a different experience every time they went to a show. Through Billie’s management, work was provided throughout the year for the Quaintesques and they performed for 44 consecutive seasons at the Amphitheatre, which was unheard of for most theatre performers in the early 19th century.

Billie Manders performing in drag alongside another member of the Quaintesques. Image courtesy of Preston Park Museum and Grounds.

But Billie and the Quaintesques did not always perform in Rhyl – they toured the country and performed at popular seaside destinations. Redcar in the 1920s saw the group perform at their old Arcadia and Empire Theatres, and a reporter for the South Bank Express praised Billie Manders and claimed that his “characters are both clever and artistic”.

Following Billie’s death in 1950 The Quaintesques continued to perform at the Amphitheatre until 1964 when they disbanded. In their final years a new member to their company was Johnny Dallas, who also performed in drag. The Amphitheatre was rebranded as The Gaiety Theatre and continued on until the building was demolished 1991.

Billie Manders. Image courtesy of Preston Park Museum and Grounds.

Vesta Tilley

Matilda Alice Powles was born in Worcester in 1864. She was the daughter of a musician and theatre chairman, Henry Powles, who often went by the stage name Harry Ball. He had her performing on stage in men’s attire when she was only 5 years old.

She took to the stage whole-heartedly and preferred to perform as male characters in men’s clothes, stating once that she performed better when she was dressed as a boy. Controversially she became the sole supporter of her family when she was eight, with her father becoming her full-time manager and quitting his own job in order to do so. The family were also living in poverty and unable to enable her any schooling, relying on her to bring income.

In 1878, at the age of 14, Henry settled on the stage name of Vesta Tilley for his daughter, who up until this point had been performing as ‘The Great Little Tilley’. As she was also touring the country, it was around this time that Vesta Tilley made her very first appearance in West Hartlepool, performing at the Star Theatre and staying the night in the house of the theatre’s manager, Mr. Ilderton.

Vesta Tilley in men’s attire, usually portraying ‘dandy’ characters. Image courtesy of Preston Park Museum and Grounds.

Following the death of her father in 1888 Vesta met and later married Walter de Frece, who had been born into theatre management and was the owner of many venues across England. This effectively became a way of enabling her constant work as Walter would book in his famous wife for performances. Vesta also toured the world, and through her dedication to stage work, hardly taking time to rest, she became one of the highest earning women in Britain.

Vesta played ‘dandy’ characters, or men who were well dressed and put together but were often a satire of out-of-touch upper-class men. These performances attracted working-class men, but also women who saw her as an icon of independence. She also made her performances family-friendly, so that a large audience could enjoy her work.

Vesta Tilley in First World War performance costume. Image courtesy of Preston Park Museum and Grounds.

Vesta Tilley was 50 when the First World War broke out and she was enduring a decline in the interest in music halls and as a result her work. She instead began performing for recruitment drives, encouraging young men to sign up as soldiers. She would wear traditional army uniform and sang songs her husband wrote, including one of her most popular, “We Don’t Want to Lose You, but We Think You Ought To Go”.

After the end of the War, Vesta decided to retire from the stage and undertook one last tour across the country, culminating in her final appearance at London’s Coliseum Theatre in 1920. Her husband had been knighted a year before as part of the King’s Birthday Honours, and she was known afterwards as Lady de Frece. She lived the last years of her life in Monte Carlo with her husband and passed away in 1952.

Billie Manders and Vesta Tilley may be a far cry from the colourful and creative drag performances we see today, but for many people they were an important start on the road to acceptance. They were examples of people who broke the rules of gender ambiguity, portraying glamourous women and satirised men, and inspired generations of actors and people to live as their genuine selves.