Nelly Power: Blue plaque in Southgate Road puts spotlight back on ‘forgotten’ Victorian music hall star
- Credit: The Music Hall Guild of Great Britain and America
Theatre historian Matthew Neil introduces the Gazette to Nelly Power – the “forgotten” Victorian music hall, burlesque and panto star whose name will soon be familiar to anyone walking past 97 Southgate Road.
Nelly Power was such a popular entertainer in the Victorian era that some 3,000 mourners attended her funeral in Abney Park after she died of pleurisy, aged just 32.
Now the theatre heritage charity The Music Hall Guild of Great Britain and America – which has already restored the actress and singer’s grave – is putting the spotlight back on her.
A commemorative blue plaque has been installed outside the home she used to live in with her mother at 97 Southgate Road, on the border of Hackney and Islington.
Nelly was an immediate success with her first stage performance in 1862. She was eight and appeared in the panto Hop of my Thumb. By 13 she was a well-established solo performer, and was billed as a star act at all the major music halls and theatres in London and across the UK. Up to her death in 1887, she was rarely out of work.
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Matthew Neil, from the Music Hall Guild, told the Gazette: “Nelly Power is one of the most forgotten artistes. For us she represents a female music hall star in a male-dominated industry. She was a real force. The thing with music hall performers is they would need a talent and ability that would cut through an audience, and only the most successful could do that.
“She seems to have an engaging personality, and reports at the time call her a vivacious and gifted songstress. The audience loved her and she knew that.”
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While most provincial towns would have had music halls, London was where successful artistes would perform, and Nelly graced some of the most prestigious stages – such as the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane. Her large repertoire of songs, which would have been written by the biggest songwriters of the day, were very popular. But her most well-known – The Boy I Love is Up in the Gallery, written specially for her by her agent, George Ware – was used without her permission by another music hall starlet, Marie Lloyd.
“There was an exchange of some description, whether it was an exchange of letters or a physical exchange reminding her it wasn’t her song to sing,” said Matthew. “But unfortunately Marie Lloyd gets associated with it.”
Nelly was a “serio-comedienne” – a comedian whose work included more serious overtones – and would take on different characters in her songs. In La-di-da, Nelly would impersonate a man who boasted about having a lot of money but was broke.
“Dressing up, she certainly was an early exponent of the art of male impersonation, that’s for sure,” said Matthew. “It was part of her act, but it wasn’t a defining thing about her. She might wear a man’s hat or shirt or breaches, but you would still know it was a woman dressed as a man rather than someone trying to be a man.”
In 1874 Nelly married Israel Barnett, an apparently unscrupulous character who some historical sources believes may have stolen all her jewellery. At the time of her death 13 years later, Nelly lived in Essex Road, but the house is no longer standing, having either been bombed or cleared for new housing. So the group chose to put the plaque in Southgate Road, where she is known to have lived for a considerable time.
“Lots of music hall artistes found themselves passing away early,” said Matthew. “I think it’s an indication that even though she was on the stage, she worked very hard all her life. Absolutely it took its toll.
“Often they would work six or seven halls every night, and they wouldn’t just come on and do a three-and-a-half-minute act. They would perform every day, seven days a week. There was no welfare state there. If they didn’t perform they wouldn’t eat. Showbusiness is a fickle business now as it was then. If you are not in the public eye people forget about you no matter how big your talent.”