31 MARIE LLOYD
The connection between Marie Lloyd and Jack the Ripper is remote. The famous music hall performer, though, is an important Victorian figure. Most of her life Marie Lloyd liked to visit the pubs of the East End and spend time with ordinary Londoners. There is no evidence to suggest she was involved with the Ripper or any of his victims but she will have known some of them by sight. In 1888 the year the Ripper murdered the five ‘canonical victims’ Lloyd was around eighteen years old and already a London celebrity. In 1910 the murderer Dr Crippen, the wife he killed and his mistress became famous. In 1907 Marie Lloyd encountered Belle Elmour the wife of Crippen during the two week Music Hall Strike. Performers and artists protested against conditions, reduced pay, an increased number of matinee shows and the removal of perks. Lloyd was well established and even in 1886, with more fame and success to follow, she was earning a £100 a week. The average wage for Victorians was less than £2 a week. In 1907 Lloyd was able to negotiate her own individual terms but, like some other leading music hall performers, she was class-conscious and had left-wing politics. During the Music Hall Strike, Marie LLoyd stood on picket lines and entertained the passing public and the other pickets. Belle Elmour was the stage name of the wife of Crippen. She was not quite as principled as Marie Lloyd and nowhere near as affluent. The Crippen household always suffered from a shortage of money. Whatever her reason Belle Elmour crossed the picket line. Marie Lloyd shouted to the rest of the pickets, ‘Let her through, girls. She’ll empty the music hall faster than we can.’ Left wing she may have been but a pacifist Lloyd was not. She participated in the First World War recruitment campaign. Her song ‘Now You’ve Got Your Khaki On’ described how an army uniform could add sex appeal to the plainest of men. Later they advertised cigarettes in the same way.
Marie Lloyd died in 1922 at the age of fifty-two years and a few days after she had performed at the Alhambra Theatre in London. Both her short life and career embraced the birth of 19th Century capitalism and the arrival of 20th Century modernism. Her success and the connections of the modern world enabled Lloyd in the 1890s to tour France, the USA, Australia and Belgium. The same internationalism was responsible for Lloyd, and whoever was available of her nine siblings, making their debut as a minstrel troupe in 1880. Lloyd was ten years old and the eldest of the performers, which helps explain why they were called the Fairy Bells. The troupe entertained the poor in the doss houses of Whitechapel and possibly some of the women who were to become victims of the Ripper.
The visit of Marie Lloyd to the USA caused a scandal. She arrived alongside her partner Bernard Dillon. Her immigration papers stated they were married but Lloyd had not yet divorced her second husband Alec Hurley who was a Catholic. She married Dillon as soon as Hurley died. The American authorities considered that Lloyd be deported for ‘moral turpitude’. Dillon was charged under the White Slave Act. Eventually the nonsense ended and Lloyd and Hurley were admitted into the United States. They each had to pay a surety of $300 and vow not to live together while Lloyd was in the States. It is a pity that the marriage between Lloyd and Hurley failed because he was the only one of her three husbands that did not abuse alcohol and escalate rows into violence. Her first husband Charles Courtenay followed Lloyd to the Empire Theatre in Leicester Square and attacked her with a stick. Courtenay was forgiven for his excess but Lloyd was sacked by the manager of the theatre. The manager feared other incidents. Courtenay must have been angry because he said to Lloyd, ‘I will gouge your eyes out and ruin you.’ This is more than a wild irrational phrase. The flirtatious eyes of Lloyd were a key element in her theatrical success. The ambiguous promise in her fluttering eyes may have also been a contributing factor in the decline of her marital relationships.
Neither the songs nor the talent of Marie Lloyd should be underestimated. The songs are packed with wordplay and wry humour. The subjects reflect working class hardships and defiance. It is stretching a point but her songs anticipated the ambitions of subsequent rappers. Both music hall and rap have contempt for authority. The Boy I Love Is Up In The Gallery argues that the man and woman can live on love and kisses. The other songs are less romantic and they glory in rebellious life and cunning although there is always a hint of danger. The sex suggested by Lloyd is naughty but nice. That common phrase began as the name of a music hall song. The titles of the songs sung by Marie Lloyd are loaded with hidden meanings, Wink The Other Eye, A Little of What You Fancy Does You Good, It Didn’t Come Off After All, What’s That For Eh? One Thing Leads to Another. Nothing, though, is quite like I Sits Among The Cabbages And Peas, which underneath the double entendre is a song about a girl urinating. Because this caused outrage, Lloyd substituted leeks for peas in the title. The censors failed to realise that amongst the English working class the word leak is another euphemism for urinate.
Both T S Eliot and Virginia Wolfe were fans of Marie Lloyd. Eliot was an admirer of the Victorian music hall, and its influence is apparent in The Waste Land. Eliot argued that Lloyd was the best of the variety performers. Virginia Wolfe saw Lloyd in 1921 when the performer was in a decline caused by alcohol and broken marriages. Lloyd had twelve months left to live. To reflect or manage her waning powers she had added to her act the song, I’m One Of The Ruins That Cromwell Knocked About A Bit. Wolfe wrote this about the performance she witnessed, ‘A mass of corruption – long front teeth – a crapulous way of saying ‘desire’ and yet a born artist – scarcely able to walk, waddling, aged, unblushing.’ Fans of Elvis Presley will find chilling echoes in that description as they will in these words that were written in the biography of Lloyd by MacQueen Pope. ‘She was going downhill of her own volition. The complaint was incurable, some might call it heartbreak, perhaps a less sentimental diagnosis is disillusionment.’
If approval for Lloyd came from literary giants, those in authority were unimpressed. She was obliged to sing her songs in front of Council Licensing Committees that were empowered by the UK Theatres Act of 1843 to close theatres and shows that contained indecent performances. On these occasions Lloyd would sing the songs without the knowing winks and suggestive gestures and sometimes, when irritated by the procedure, perform innocent material as if it had obscene implications.
Some of the lyrics of the songs were rooted in the language that prostitutes used to avoid breaking the law when they tried to entice customers. Rather than issue direct invitations to potential customers the prostitutes would use trains and railways as euphemisms. Customers would be invited to go to the next station. Such language inspired the Marie Lloyd song, What Did She Know About Railways? This had the infamous line, ‘She’s never had her ticket punched before.’ The language of prostitutes crept into the conversation of the British and moved around the country. In Liverpool the phrase ‘getting off at Edge Hill’ refers to the railway station just outside the city centre but it is also amongst Liverpudlians a reference to coitus interruptus.
No doubt the presence of prostitutes seeking customers in the audiences of music halls would have also added to the ribald atmosphere. They would have joined along in the chorus. The Tuner’s Oppor-tuner-ty is not a song from the Lloyd repertoire but it would have suited her theatrical personality. This is the chorus.
At first he’d tune it gently, then he’d tune it strong,
Then he’d touch a short note, then he’d run along,
Then he’d go with vengeance enough to break the key
At last he tuned whenever he got an opor-tuner-ty
Marie Lloyd may have been feisty and confident but independence was beyond her. Biographer Midgie Gillies writes about the yearning of Lloyd to be a sweetheart. Dillon her third husband, like the first, was violent when drunk. When the police intervened to rescue a bloodied and bruised Lloyd, Dillon assaulted one of the policemen. He was sentenced to a month in prison. Like Elvis again, in her final years the decline of Lloyd did not prevent her earning large sums of money, and she spent more than she earned. Lloyd liked to indulge family and friends. She died almost penniless. 50,000 people witnessed her funeral and remembered the lost glory. Today her most famous song is My Old Man Said Follow The Van. The lyrics are about a penniless family abandoning their home in order to avoid paying rent arrears. Her friends might have said that Marie LLoyd never forgot her roots. The critical will argue that she had more heart than sense. Either way she is entitled to respect and admiration.
Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.