Plaque tribute to Nelly Power, the forgotten music hall star
19th-century performer was ‘a really important female star in a male-dominated profession’
25 August, 2017 — By Emily Finch
Nelly died tragically young, only for song she performed to be made famous by Marie Lloyd. PICTURE: THE MUSIC HALL GUILD THEATRE ARCHIVE
A FORGOTTEN music hall star whose song was featured in a recent BBC drama was celebrated this week with the installation of a commemorative plaque at her former home.
Nelly Power graced the stages of Drury Lane and the Strand, becoming one of the most sought-after names of the 19th century, enthralling audiences with her voice and burlesque costumes.
Burlesque in the Victorian era was characterised by over-the-top dramatics and singing where performers spoofed serious plays or the politics of the day. It mostly appealed to working-class audiences.
Nelly began performing at the age of eight. By the time she died in 1887 at just 32 she was so popular that thousands lined the streets of Hackney and Islington for her funeral at Abney Park Cemetery in Stoke Newington.
But in the following decades she became virtually unknown, overshadowed by music hall stars who lived longer or were born later so their performances survived in audio recordings.
“She was a really important female star in a male-dominated profession. She held her own. When you look at the level of success she had or her profile, she was billed at the same level as the biggest men at the time,” says theatre historian Matthew Neil.
Now, her name lives on through a blue plaque installed at 97 Southgate Road, Canonbury, by The Music Hall Guild of Great Britain and America. Nelly shared the house with her mother, Agnes Power, in the 1870s. Following a failed marriage to an unscrupulous Israel Barnett, Nelly became devoted to her mother.
In separation documents, Nelly described Israel as someone who failed to support her and as having “great pecuniary difficulties”. Her other homes in Essex Road and Downham Road were destroyed by bombs or redeveloped.
As a young star, Nelly first performed in the panto Hop of My Thumb, based on a French fairy-tale in which a child abandoned by his family defeats a carnivorous ogre.
Similar to the hard-done-by people she played, Nelly lived a tough life, with her railway-clerk father dying before she was born while her two siblings passed away at the ages of two and three.
“You can’t underestimate how hard it was for these performers. There was no welfare state, so they always had to be able to deliver. If they didn’t perform, they didn’t eat. She worked hard and gave an awful lot for her art,” says Mr Neil, a chairman of The Music Hall Guild.
Following a bout of illness, reviewers described her comeback at Piccadilly’s Trocadero Theatre in the 1870s as “bright and dashing” while she “ensures a hearty reception wherever she appears”.
Nelly should have become famous for singing The Boy I Love Is Up In The Gallery, penned by her agent, George Ware, in 1885. But Nelly died just two years later and the song became associated with Marie Lloyd.
The tune uses rhyme to charmingly depict being in love but penniless and was featured in the BBC Two series Peaky Blinders, set in Birmingham just after World War I.
Nelly also performed in men’s clothes for the popular tune La-di-da, where she parodied a dandy – a stylish looking man who was in fact destitute.
“It was common to have cross-dressing at the time. Nelly played Sinbad in a pantomime on Drury Lane too,” says Mr Neill. He said the music hall era’s most famous male impersonator, Vesta Tilly, learnt how to cross-dress from Nelly.
Nelly died in mid-winter from pleurisy, a lung disease which had no cure at the time.