From Vesta Tilley to Douglas Byng, Learn More About Early History of Nottingham’s Music Halls and the Stars It Created

Words: CJ Debarra
Photos: Sophie Elizabeth
Saturday 24 February 2024
reading time: min, words

When it comes to the theatre, Nottingham has no shortage of stages, from the Playhouse to Nonsuch to the Theatre Royal. But we don’t often think of the wonderful history of old music halls and their star performers… 


The music hall was a type of theatrical entertainment from the Victorian era through to just after World War I, when it was replaced by variety shows. Music hall wasn’t always about the music, as it could also be comedy, drama and… drag. While we tend to think of drag in its Ru Paul era, there is a long-standing tradition of female/male impersonators popping up in music halls and public houses across Nottingham as far back as the 1890s. 

The most notable music hall, and one still in existence in the city, is of course Malt Cross on St James’s Street. Opening in time for Goose Fair in 1877, it boasted live acts, music, food, ale, and according to an advert, “curiosities and specimens too numerous to mention.” The same advert mentioned some curiosities that would be considered offensive today - in a similar respect to some of the acts that used race as a performance in different halls across the city.

Acts included orchestras, character comedians and singers. Its major competition came from the new music hall which opened on the site of the old Theatre Royal on St Mary’s Gate. The Royal Alhambra Music Hall opened in 1863 when the Theatre Royal relocated, hosting performances such as ventriloquists, singers and bird imitators. The music halls did produce stars: two of the most famous Nottingham performers being Vesta Tilley and Douglas Byng.


Vesta Tilley was born in Worcester before relocating to Nottingham. She first appeared on stage at St George’s Hall at the age of four. Her father, also a performer, was quick to spot her potential going on to become her manager. She was only six when she began male impersonation. As an adult, she became so known for her excellent tailoring that it was said men would take pictures of her suits to their tailors to demand the same. Audiences loved Vesta turning out in their hundreds and often mobbing her when she left a venue. In turn, Vesta loved and never forgot a Nottingham audience. She told Football News Nottingham in 1898: “I do love Nottingham people. Last night I could scarcely get into my cab. There must have been fully five hundred people around it. And how they cheered! It is very encouraging to get such a reception.”

Interestingly, Vesta’s fame began at a time when Victorian women were challenging gender roles and campaigning for their rights. She was quoted that she felt she could express herself better dressed as a boy. She became one of the highest-paid stars of the time as well as being one of the first to use her name to sell everything from socks to cigars. ‘Nottingham’s idol’ performed across the city throughout her fifty year career most notably at The Empire on South Sherwood Street.

Douglas Byng was another performer, although much later than Vesta, who also made a career from appearing in music halls. Byng was born in Basford to a non-theatrical family who were not supportive of his interest in performing. It was not until the tail end of the music hall era, 1914, that Byng appeared on stage. His performances were known for camp characters such as ‘Milly the Messy Mermaid’. He transitioned from music halls to national theatres and even appeared on the BBC in 1977. Byng was described as a comedian with a “sense of burlesque second to none” in Nottingham papers; he was also a closeted gay man who enjoyed the freedom of theatre. 

As an adult, she became so known for her excellent tailoring that it was said men would take pictures of her suits to their tailors to demand the same

While some of the ‘impersonators’ such as Tilley were straight, others were not. The theatre gave them a way to explore gender and sexuality, as evident in one case that came before the court in 1910. Walter Machin was arrested for gross indecency with a man and brought before Nottingham Assizes, where their “feminine appearance, long hair and high falsetto voice” were noted. While Machin travelled as ‘Mysterious Mabel’ in music halls, this was his fifteenth arrest ‘on suspicion of being a woman.’

The interest in music hall performers and impersonators led to smaller music halls and public houses offering acts. There was fierce competition to find and keep talent. Varney’s Varieties opened on Weekday Cross as ‘the only establishment of its kind.’ The bill included comedians, burlesque artists and singers. 

The increasingly good business at Weekday Cross may have inspired Forest Tavern on Mansfield Road. ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’ at the Tavern began offering everything from gymnastics rooms to oddities and performers including female impersonators. Alongside the ‘cat with four perfect hands,’ audiences were treated to Francis Byron and Lola, two female impersonators who sang and did a short comedic act. The acts were so popular that they became nightly by 1892. 

By the start of the outbreak of war in 1914, the popularity of the music halls was changing. The Malt Cross experienced problems as it lost its licence in 1911 after it gained a reputation for ‘low women and convicted thieves.’ The hall fell into disrepair but was mostly preserved, forming the beloved pub we know today following a refurbishment in 1996. Other halls were not so lucky as the Forest Tavern faded away and Varney’s Varieties closed. The Alhambra closed in 1883 after being refused a theatrical licence. Even Vesta Tilley began leaving her ‘male persona’ behind, staging a goodbye at Nottingham’s Hippodrome on Goldsmith Street in 1910 as “cheer upon cheer rang out in the building.”

The shift to the Hippodrome marked the start of varieties taking over from music halls. Gone were the set-ups that allowed (usually) men to sit, drink and smoke while being encouraged to get rowdy. A new era of seated performance in theatres was ushered in, with the Hippodrome going as far as to state it would not sell alcoholic drinks at one stage. Still, there were many performers at the Hippodrome, most notably Harry Houdini the escape artist, who appeared in 1909 escaping from a straight jacket and being padlocked and submerged into a tank full of water. 

Many of the stars of music hall era performances went on to develop theatre acts but struggled to translate that into the silver screen when cinema took over in the 1920s. Numerous theatres, such as the Hippodrome that replaced music halls, were themselves replaced by cinemas, and today music halls live on in modern drag and variety shows around the city.

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