Vesta Victoria (Victoria Lawrence), 1873 – 1951
‘Queen of the Music Hall’

Vesta Victoria (Victoria Lawrence), 1873 – 1951Victoria Lawrence first stepped on stage when she was four, billed as ‘Baby Victoria’, singing and dancing alongside her comedian father and her mother, a singer. Her family roots were deeply embedded in Leeds working class life, but like her parents she was to seek fame and fortune elsewhere. Audiences in the raucous music halls of the day loved her slightly saucy comic songs, delivered in cockney style with rousing choruses. She became an international vaudeville star, ‘England’s premier comedienne’, commanding a record salary when she came back to perform at the City Varieties. Like her best known songs, her personal life was tinged with naughtiness and scandal, giving the newspapers scope for titillating headlines!

She was born in Holbeck in 1873, the second child of Joseph Lawrence, working then as a mechanic, and Emma, a cloth weaver. Joseph had been brought up in the old, grim Holbeck workhouse, while Emma had worked in the flax mills since childhood. They married in 1870 when 20-year-old Emma was pregnant, and found they could escape their wretched past and the daily grind by performing together, perhaps first in pubs and then at the new music halls springing up around Leeds. Joseph (‘Joe’) developed a comedy act which now seems bizarre but was very popular: blacking his face and singing upside-down, waving his legs like arms while a model head was held on top – billed as the ‘amazing double-headed electric-footed negro’! Emma took the name Marion Nelson, and sang character songs. When pretty little Victoria arrived, they took her along as an added attraction. Constantly on tour, with little chance of schooling, she was destined for the stage.

After graduating from ‘Baby’ to ‘Little Victoria’ at nineteen she took the name Vesta Victoria and went solo, while Joe moved into theatre management and Emma looked after the growing family, based in London now. This was the great era of music hall and variety, theatres packed every night for two performances, changing every week, with prices from 3 pence. Victoria toured the country, always on the move. Her signature song was ‘Daddy wouldn’t buy me a bow-wow’, written specially for her – it was an instant hit, sung and whistled everywhere. She made other songs her own: ‘Waiting at the church’, ‘Poor John’, ‘Our lodger’s such a nice young man’, enjoyed for their sly innuendo. Small and vivacious, with a teasing deadpan delivery, she was adored by her audiences, who roared out the catchy choruses.

 From the 1890s onwards she regularly toured the vaudeville circuit in the USA and was a huge star there, winning rave reviews – and, she said, showers of love letters and jewellery! She topped the bill wherever she went and could demand big money - £50 a week. A spirited fighter for her rights, she won substantial damages from the powerful Moss Empire in 1914 over the terms of her contract.

Her personal life was less successful. In 1897 she married a theatrical manager, Frederick McAvoy – she was already expecting her first child. Six years later she divorced him for adultery and cruelty. In 1912, on tour in America, she married her manager, Herbert Terry, and had a second child, but it turned out that his wife was still alive, so the marriage was bigamous (a disconcerting echo of the punch-line from ‘Waiting at the Church’ – ‘Can’t get away to marry you today, My wife won’t let me!’). When Terry’s wife died in 1920 they married again, legally, but he left her a few years later, and she divorced him for desertion. The newspapers had a field day.

She retired from the stage during her years with Terry, but after her divorce in 1926 staged a comeback, sometimes appearing with her brother Lawrence Barclay, a song-writer and actor. But tastes were changing and she was ageing. By the early ‘30s she was no longer top of the bill, though she appeared at the Royal Variety Performance at the Palladium in 1932, as one of the stars of ‘the good old days’. She still made occasional appearances in Leeds at the Hippodrome, City Varieties and other halls, and figured in a couple of films and on the radio into the 1940s.

She died in 1951 at her London home, still a wealthy woman. Alongside money and jewellery she left the old wicker basket that had always accompanied her on tour, and the originals of some of her famous songs, which found wry humour in the trials of ordinary people, especially women at the hands of men – reflecting the story of her own life: ‘It ain’t all honey and it ain’t all jam’!

Eveleigh Bradford
July 2017