Music Hall Women: Who is Kitty?

This month Kitty Peck and the Daughter of Sorrow, the third book in my romping melodramatic murder mystery series, was published by Faber and Faber.  To mark its release, I thought I’d let you into a secret…


We often see Victorian women as meek, repressed creatures, their spirit crushed by complex whalebone corsetry and the iron will of men. Of course, the truth was different, but the suffocating stereotype persists.

Researching the world of Victorian music hall – and most particularly women in music hall – for my Kitty Peck series was a revelation, blowing away those dusty tropes with a blousy, brazen blast of fresh, but not entirely fragrant, air.

In a world where women often had limited control over their lives and decisions, it was fascinating to learn that working ‘the halls’ could offer both financial and artistic freedom.

Don’t be deceived by the cheery songs and bawdy humour, it was a hard life – and it could be a tragic one (alcoholism, consumption, venereal disease and prostitution were always somewhere on the bill), but this was also a place where women could achieve independence and autonomy, if they made the right choices.

The last years of the 19th century were a boom time for women in music hall. In the week before Christmas 1891, 76 sketches running in London starred female comics. I was surprised to discover not only that female performers were so numerous, but also that they outnumbered the men (at the same time 74 were male). I was heartened by a Victorian audience’s appreciation of funny females. In comparison, the ratio of women to men in comedy today is depressing.

I’m often asked if I based Kitty on a particular performer. The short answer is no, she’s entirely her own person, but a more honest reply would acknowledge the women whose fascinating stories I discovered as part of my research.

Tell truth, as Kitty often says, I suspect my lead character owes much to the remarkable Jenny Hill, also known as the ‘Vital Spark’.


Although she’s not well-known today, Jenny Hill was a hugely popular and pioneering performer, famous for her salty back chat and overtly political performance. The Boy I Love is Up in the Gallery was her song originally, although it’s now associated with Marie Lloyd, probably the most famous female music hall star.

There’s not room here to do Jenny justice, so a canter through her story will have to serve.

Born in 1848,  Elizabeth Jane Thompson (her real name) was the daughter of London hackney cab driver. The family was poor and ‘Jenny’ was sent out to work as a child performer. Her stage début was made at the age of six or seven, when she performed as the back legs of a horse in the pantomime Mother Goose at the Aquarium Theatre in Westminster.

In 1862, when Jenny was 14, her father Michael apprenticed her to a publican in Bradford whose spit and sawdust establishment was typical of the edgy, rowdy venues where music hall began.

It wasn’t a glamorous life. The waif-like girl (Jenny was always described as small and apparently frail) began work at 5am polishing the bar and pewter, washing glasses, scrubbing floors and bottling beer until her performances began at noon. She was then required to sing for the customers until the pub closed at 2am.

It must have been unbelievably harsh and dangerous work for a 14-year-old, even one as resilient as Jenny, and these early days were to have severe consequences for her health in later years.

It’s easy to speculate that the teenager might have sought comfort and perhaps protection in such a hostile environment. Certainly, at an early point in her performing career Jenny married an acrobat whose glorious stage name was Jean Pasta (actually, and more prosaically, she became Mrs John Wilson-Woodley.)

The marriage was short-lived. Jenny was barely out of her teens when the inglorious ‘Pasta’ deserted her, leaving her destitute with three children to support, including a baby girl, who later became music hall performer Peggy Pryde.

This could easily have been the beginning of a sad and desperately familiar tale, but the enterprising Mrs Wilson-Woodley seized her own destiny. She auditioned for a try out at the London Pavilion and her song stopped the show. The popular entertainer George Leybourne, famous for the music hall standard Champagne Charlie, is said to have led her, trembling, back into the limelight for an encore.

Jenny’s career as a female serio-comic took flight. For those unfamiliar with the term, these were performers whose acts included comic and serious songs and sketches, interspersed with patter and audience interaction. They relied heavily on satirical songs and their material can be seen as an embryonic form of stand-up comedy.

A versatile performer, Jenny sang, danced, gave her punters ‘the old chat’, and had a popular routine as a male impersonator – a music hall favourite and a theme I play with in the Kitty Peck series.

Jenny-hill-c1885   Jenny Hill as a principal boy

By 1871 she was earning the very respectable sum of £6 a week at the London Pavilion. The theatrical agent Hugh J. Didcott gave the pert, witty and vivacious performer the sobriquet ‘The Vital Spark’, which she used throughout her career.

Jenny swiftly became independently wealthy, buying an estate, The Hermitage, in Streatham, where she famously entertained in starry style. She was entrepreneurial too, becoming the proprietor of at least three establishments, while still performing comedy and musical routines and appearing as a popular principal boy.  As a name, she was occasionally booked to act in straight plays as well.

Jenny remained at the peak of her career until 1890, enjoying top-billing at music halls in London and the northern provinces. Appropriately, one of her best-loved songs was, If Only I Bossed the Show.

She clearly did.

Not to put too fine a point on it, Jenny became wealthy. An archive newspaper report from 1881 records that, on average, an actress in the ‘legitimate’ theatre would receive about two or three pounds a week, to live off and buy her own costumes for the shows she appeared in. At around the same time, Jenny Hill is documented to have received £80 for 12 nights at single venue, and (separately) to have appeared at three to four different halls a night, earning £30 for every performance.

(NB: It was common for successful music hall performers to perform at multiple venues in one evening. Rattling between halls in a hackney cab, they often resorted to alcohol and opiates to keep their strength up, and in winter to ward off the cold. As a result, many performers became addicts or alcoholics or both.)

A native cockney, Jenny was clearly a shrewd player. Early on, when she was engaged to appear at London’s Thornton’s Music Hall, the manager was shocked by her up-front demand for a fee of £40 for just one week of appearances. She was adamant that £40 was her ‘very lowest’. His telegram confirming this (then) enormous sum was subsequently displayed by Jenny herself, as an advertisement for a ‘no-expense-spared show’.

It seems that in addition to her talent as a performer she was a savvy early adopter of the art of self-promotion!

She was also something of an impresario and theatrical property magnate, although, admittedly, these ventures were less successful than her performing career.

In 1879, aged 31, Jenny purchased the Star Music Hall in Bermondsey and from July 1882 to 1883 she also kept a pub in Southwark. In July 1884 she bought the Rainbow Music Hall (later renamed the Gaiety Theatre), Southampton. Opening in September 1884 after refurbishment, it burned down in December of the same year – something I stole for Kitty Peck and the Child of Ill Fortune.

An established star in Britain, Jenny even appeared in vaudeville in New York. Punters across the Atlantic had trouble with her cockney slang, however, and she was never booked to return. This is something I can sympathise with. When I asked my publisher why the American rights to the Kitty Peck books hadn’t been sold I was told that it was probably due to the ‘narrative voice’.  Kitty relates her story in a strong cockney idiom.

By 1889, the poverty and hardship of Jenny’s early life were taking their toll and she was forced to cancel a number of theatrical engagements due to ill health. Following the death of her estranged husband in 1890, she married music hall manager Edward Turnbull, but by this time it was clear that she was suffering from consumption. Advised by her doctors to go to a warmer climate for the winter, she accepted an invitation to appear in Johannesburg, arriving there in December 1893.

By then her health was so poor that she could only be taken onto the stage in her wheelchair. There are touching reports that she did little more than shake hands with members of her audience. Returning to Britain in May 1894, she moved to the more moderate climate of Bournemouth for her health.

Like many music hall performers, Jenny Hill was relatively short-lived. She died in 1896 – aged just 48 – at the London home of her daughter, Peggy.

Jenny’s story has some very modern resonances. The press took a salacious delight in her life, loving her and loathing her in a way that is all-too familiar. She reminds me of a soap star or reality TV personality hounded by the ‘red tops’.

Lurid newspaper reports repeatedly insinuated that the stage was ‘bad for her health’ – code for ‘she’s an alcoholic’. She was often referred to as ‘a clever little thing’ (simultaneously patronising and suggestive), and it was consistently implied that her estate in Streatham was bought for her by someone else, hinting at the existence of a secret male lover, because, of course, no low-born woman could afford to pay for something like that herself.

Jenny counteracted these barbs with adverts (like the one mentioned above), where she declared exactly how much she was being paid, specifically to demonstrate that she was earning this money for herself and by herself.

Performer Fanny Leslie, one of Jenny’s contemporaries, said: “I like to make my own successes, and I work hard to earn them, and I don’t like to be robbed of the fruits of my labour by other people’s incompetence. On the halls I choose my own songs, arrange my own business, and if I fail to make a hit it is a satisfaction to know that no one is to blame but myself.”

In Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the bawdy Wife of Bath – who surely would have been a music hall natural – reveals that what women want most is ‘maistrie’ – mastery and control of their own lives.

Women like Fanny and Jenny understood that if they worked the halls, they could achieve this. Yes, as performers – and worse still female performers – they were still regarded as morally and socially suspect, but if they made it they were adored by the masses, earned vast sums, travelled the world and experienced lifestyles that would never normally have been theirs.

When you add to this the appeal of a great many fringe benefits in the form of gifts from besotted admirers – diamonds in Jenny’s case – I think it’s fair to say that really, they probably didn’t give a stuff what people thought.

Put bluntly, women working the halls didn’t have a reputation to lose and so much to gain.

Jenny Hill’s colourful, theatrical story is one of a Victorian woman who took control of her own destiny. I’ve stolen elements of her ‘vital spark’, her ‘back chat’ and her entrepreneurial flair for Kitty.

In return – and I admit it’s a poor one – I’ve visited her grave in the gorgeously gothic Nunhead Cemetery in South London where she is buried along with many other music hall performers.

(NB: music hall artists were often buried in non-conformist cemeteries away from ‘respectable’, reputable people. I think Jenny Hill would laugh at that.)

Jenny Hill   Jenny Hill

Kitty Peck and the Daughter of Sorrow is published by Faber and Faber.

It is available from bookshops and from Amazon

Others in the series:

Kitty Peck and the Child of Ill Fortune (book 2)

Kitty Peck and the Music Hall Murders (book 1)

I always hold in having it if you fancy it
If you fancy it, that’s understood
A little of what you fancy does you good.


What Makes a ‘Good’ Villain?

A master at work

Vincent Price: A master of on screen villainy

I’m going to a school in Harrow tomorrow to present its 2016 Junior Book Award. I’ve been preparing some bits and pieces to (hopefully) interest and entertain the pupils aged 10/11.

One of the things we are going to think about is villains. I love a ‘good’ villain, don’t you?

Here’s something I wrote recently on the theme:

A couple of summers back I went to an outdoor screening of the 1958 Hammer film Dracula at the British Museum. It was chosen as one of three classic horror movies to launch the BFI Gothic Season and it was wonderful to sit beneath the flood-lit columns (or perhaps that should be ‘blood-lit’ as the front of the museum was bathed in vampire red) watching Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing battle it out in a climactic flourish of fangs.

There must have been more than 1,000 people there, some of them draped for the occasion in their best black velvet capes. The first appearance on screen of Christopher Lee as the eponymous count was greeted by a huge cheer and as I looked at the delighted faces around me I was reminded how much everyone loves a really ‘good’ villain.

Books need strong, sympathetic heroes and heroines and they also need a cast of colourful, recognisable supporting characters, but go on, think about it for a moment… it’s always the villain you’re waiting for, isn’t it? There’s an almost electric thrill when a truly satisfying villain takes the stage.

And I do mean ‘the stage’ for I think it’s essential for baddies – in children’s literature particularly – to be theatrical and extreme. Their menace should teeter on the edge of the ridiculous; their personality and, more importantly, their appearance should be a grotesque distortion of reality. It’s a way of signposting to a reader you’re okay really, you’re quite safe. This would never actually happen in real life, but go ahead and enjoy the show. There’s an element of cartoon to nearly all the best villains and that’s what makes them so entertaining.

Roald Dahl understood this completely.

Vincent Price, the American actor who spent the latter half of his life on screen playing a succession of wonderfully camp, slightly English villains, wrote: “Another reason you prefer the evil ones is that the hero seldom causes anyone, least of all himself, to laugh. The villain, through his ability to make you and his fellow characters lose control of emotions, brings about all the fun.”

I was on a panel at a literary festival in Devon recently and I described Lady Ginger, the ‘villain’ in my Kitty Peck series for adults as ‘the love child of Vincent Price and Miss Havisham, with a dash of Fagin thrown in for charm.’

Now, there’s an image to conjure with? But I have to admit that I love writing scenes where she’s centre stage.

When I was working on The Jade Boy, my first book for children, the parts I most looked forward to writing involved my villain Count Cazalon. It’s clear that John Milton felt very much the same when he was writing Paradise Lost. You can tell that he’s not really interested in the prosaic lives of Adam and Eve – no, he’s champing at the bit to get back to writing lines for Satan, who is both seductive and fascinating.

(Please don’t imagine I’m comparing myself to Milton! I just think he brought one of greatest villains in English literature to the page and promptly fell in love with his own creation.)

Coincidentally, the action in my children’s book takes place at about the same time Milton was dictating Paradise Lost to his daughters. The Jade Boy is set in London in the year of the Great Fire 1666 (there’s a spoiler!) and my lead characters – Jem a servant boy, Tolly an enigmatic African page and Ann an apprentice witch – find themselves battling to thwart Cazalon’s sinister schemes.

The 17th century gave me the chance to dress my villain in the most extraordinary range of towering wigs, cloaks and face paint – a distinctive and hopefully unsettling image that sticks in the reader’s mind. If you’re watching the current series of The Musketeers, Rupert Everett’s wonderfully twisted Marquis de Feron gives you a general idea of the look I was aiming for.

I’m a thwarted thespian. Often I found myself reading aloud the lines I had written for Cazalon in my best ‘villain’ voice to test that they worked. The neighbours probably thought I was going mad as I swirled around the dining room, pretending to have a limp and lisp, loudly declaiming lines like: ‘I have travelled the earth in search of knowledge and the power that knowledge can bring. These books are my children, Jeremy Green… and my insurance.’

In my mind I sounded like the late Alan Rickman (in barn-storming Prince of Thieves, Sheriff of Nottingham mode c.1991), but actually to my neighbour I probably sounded like the batty woman next door talking to her cat.

British actors are always at the head of the queue when it comes to casting a screen villain. There’s something about the silky-soft, cultured quality of a stage-honed voice that immediately says ‘wicked’.

In Hollywood, I suspect the British accent – unaccountably – also whispers ‘intelligence’, and that’s a very important quality for a successful, satisfying villain.

If you don’t believe for a moment that Ian Fleming’s Dr Julius No would be capable of building an underground lair from which to disrupt an American space launch with a radio beam, you don’t really have a plot. It’s the same for other arch baddies – Moriarty, Goldfinger, Blofeld, even Count Dracula, who in Bram Stoker’s original is portrayed, initially, as very elderly, cultured man with an enormous library. In Peter Pan, old Etonian Captain Hook plays the harpsichord (it’s best not to think too deeply about how) and loves Wordsworth and Coleridge!

Don’t get me started on zombies – I’ve never been able to see the scream-appeal of an animated corpse with a mound of compost where its brain used to be. Villains need to be able to think, they need to make grand plans, they need to speak and they need to be witty, clever and dangerously charming. These are all qualities that zombies lack.

Some of the most terrifying villains are women. I’m thinking of the embittered Mrs Danvers in Rebecca, cunning (bald) Miss Slighcarp in Joan Aiken’s marvellous Wolves of Willoughby Chase and of Jadis, the charismatic and manipulative White Witch in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, cleverly tempting unwary Edmund with Turkish delight.

My own Lady Ginger, a raddled, opium-addicted crime baroness operating from a frowsy, silk-draped nest in the back streets of Victorian Limehouse, is, hopefully, chilling and utterly disgusting in equal measure.

Mrs Coulter in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is one of the most truly chilling villains to stalk the pages of a children’s book. A brilliant scientist, she seems to have shed every last shred of maternal feeling. Pullman created a monster here by ripping up the rules. There’s something bleakly real about Lyra’s heartless, ambitious mother. That’s why she is so disturbing.

Finally, villains must always have the best names as proved by Cruella de Vil (look closely at that spelling). Although I knew exactly how Count Cazalon looked, what he was, and how he spoke, I didn’t know his real name for a very long time. In fact, I spent sleepless nights wondering what to call him.

Good villain names have hard consonants, perhaps a ‘V’, a ‘D’ or a ‘Z’? They must sound slightly exotic or other-worldly. Very few villains are called Freddie, Gary or Cheryl.

I am indebted to a Mr Casalon who called me at work one afternoon for providing me with the final solution. I didn’t want his premium advertising space, but I snapped up his name.

Equally, Lady Ginger seemed to have spicy, fox-like ring to it.

Creating two villains has been a guilty pleasure and I hope that readers enjoy Lady Ginger and Count Cazalon as much I do.

I’ll leave the last word to the master. When asked why he loved playing evil characters on screen Vincent Price summed it up perfectly: “BOO! It’s as much fun to scare as to be scared.”

Delusions of Grandeur?

St Anne Street Limehouse residents early 1900s

In the previous post I mentioned the photograph that crushed any lingering ‘Downton’ delusions of grandeur I might have harboured about my family.

Well, here it is! Both of my great-grandmothers are here – one seated at the front (the upright woman in black dress) and the other is the tiny, slightly haunted, woman with a large hat (three in from the left).

The photograph shows the residents of St Ann’s Street, Limehouse where the Kellys and the Becks (both sides of my maternal family), lived in the last  half of the 19th century and into the first decades of the 20th.

As you can see, St Ann’s Street was not prosperous. Most of the people who lived there worked ‘on the docks’  – and that’s if they were lucky enough to pick up a job.

I’m not sure of the reason for this gathering of the clans, but I do know that I like the look of my grandfather, Michael Kelly, (always known to his children and grand-children as ‘Timo’). He’s the bold boy with the teacup on the far left of the photograph – and I rather think he resembles Terence Stamp.



If you’ve come to these pages after reading either of my Kitty Peck book, you might like to know where she and her world came from…

As a child I thought it was wildly romantic that my mother’s family lived in Limehouse at the back end of the 19th century. They were proper Victorians, I thought, just like the ones off the telly!

I’d like to be able to say that a precocious appreciation of a Moroccan-bound, boxed set of the collected works of Dickens was the inspiration for my books set in the London of the 1880s, but I have to admit that it was probably the box balanced on a G-Plan cabinet in the corner of our orange and brown living room.

I blame the weather: it seemed to rain a lot during the late 1970s. During the summer holidays, as I basked in the flickering glow of the cathode ray tube while the garden turned to a swamp and moss grew on the Space Hopper, my idea of how my antecedents must have lived was formed, largely, by watching TV for hours on end.

In days of yore – that’s back in the day – the BBC stopped broadcasting after lunch, but over on ITV a selection of black and white period films filled the gap between Mavis Nicholson and Magpie. I watched them all, over and over again, a televisual diet of mild jingoism, casual racism, alarming sexism and eye-popping violence. All before teatime.

From my extensive viewing, it seemed to me that Victorian London was a city of swirling fogs, galloping horses, gas-lit alleys and cloaked criminal masterminds. It was a beautifully dressed, lavishly mounted and compulsively watchable stage where sweet-faced, angel-voiced ingénues met grisly fates at the hands of unspeakable, but nicely dressed, villains.

In short, it was a wonderfully theatrical, completely artificial world where right always triumphed and the shadow of the hangman’s noose dangled satisfyingly over the closing credits to show that the wicked got their just deserts.

I had a particular fondness for anything produced by Gainsborough Studios and starring James Mason – Fanny by Gaslight was particular favourite. In addition, Basil Rathbone’s monochrome Hollywood incarnation of the great detective, Sherlock Holmes, was a regular post-lunch pleasure. When my father relented to pressure and rented a new TV, the multi-coloured, if not multi-cultural, London of Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu, brought thrillingly to the screen by Christopher Lee, cemented a newly vibrant and decadent image of Limehouse and the East End into my mind that was difficult to shift.

My mum came from a large, close-knit family and nearly every Sunday there was a raucous gathering of the clan. When I looked at my grandmother – a small and sturdily pragmatic woman only ever glimpsed out of her floral housecoat at weddings, christenings and funerals – I found myself thinking about her childhood. Born in 1898 and raised in St Anne Street, smack in the heart of Limehouse, I wondered if her early life had ever resembled the world I’d seen on screen – the glorious, gaudy confection of cobbled streets, rumbling hackney carriages, music halls, opium dens and fan tan gambling parlours?

The answer is a guarded yes, and, of course, no.

I often wish I’d asked nan (that’s we all called her) more about her own childhood – her real childhood, I mean, not the one I imagined. I never got the chance during all those Sunday lunches. There was something about the jut of her chin as she doggedly boiled those cabbages into a sludge of submission that suggested memory lane was the very last place she wanted to visit.

I’ve noticed that many people who have reached a mid point in life become interested in the history of their families. It’s especially true, I think, of those who are childless, perhaps because they know they are a sort of end point in a line. I don’t have children and I certainly recognise that impulse in myself.

When my mum died a decade ago, another link with the past was broken. I bitterly regretted that hadn’t asked her more about her own childhood and the stories passed down to her. It was a catalyst and I started to talk to much older cousins who are the current guardians of the family ‘archive’. In fact, I sought them out determined not to allow my personal history to slip even further from my grasp. Luckily they were happy to share their knowledge and research.

Any romantic illusions I ever harboured about my Limehouse roots were firmly dispelled when I was given a photograph of the residents of St Anne Street taken in about 1909. My youthful grandmother is there along with assorted siblings and my great grandmother. The smiling faces and bold postures presented to the camera cannot hide the fact that these people were poor.

Over to the right of the image the faded face of my great-grandmother is sad-eyed and exhausted. It’s not surprising she looks defeated. Even though she was probably in her mid-40s when the photograph was taken, her life had been almost unbearably hard. Widowed with several children to support she had to find a way to feed them and keep them together under a single roof.

In the closing days of Queen Victoria’s reign, my tiny great grandmother (women aren’t tall in my family, I’m only 4ft 10ins and she was even smaller!) queued at the docks for casual shift work every morning alongside men who were twice her size and half her age. No wonder she looks like a shadowy wraith in that photograph; she was literally wearing away.

More prompting revealed atmospheric family tales that echoed my fantasy: visits to the music halls to see favourites Marie Lloyd, Vesta Tilley, Albert Chevalier and Little Titch; the Chinese men with the pigtails who lived three houses down; my grandmother and her two sisters lying awake in a shared bed frightened by the eerie sound of the wind whistling through the ropes of the tall-masted ships moored on the Thames.

Nothing, however, could hide the fact that the Limehouse of my childhood imagination bore about as much resemblance to the streets where my family actually lived as a dish of lobster Thermidor to a mug of jellied eels.

I began the first book in the Kitty Peck series in 2013 as my entry to the Faber and Faber / Stylist Magazine crime fiction competition. Although I’d worked as a journalist for years and latterly in PR, I’d never written fiction before and I wanted to test myself. The only rule was that entries should feature ‘a strong female protagonist’.

I was certain I knew what the judges, who included Ruth Rendell, would be looking for – a woman in a tough contemporary setting, someone juggling an impossible life with a demanding job, probably in the police force. Something a little bit edgy, dark with a hint of Scandi maybe?

I sat down, opened my lap tap and stared at the screen.

Two hours later I had written a scene set in Limehouse towards the end of the 19th century. To be honest I was astounded, but I recognised the richly inventive speech patterns of my mum’s family, the aching poverty, the squalor of the cobbled streets and the stench of human waste tumbling through those foggy passages. I also the recognised the heightened reality, melodrama, glamour and romance of those films that riveted me to the sofa through those rainy afternoons in the 1970s.

Kitty Peck’s world is my homage to my family and the almost Proustian power of light entertainment.