During the First World War popular music hall star Miss Vesta Tilley inspired many men to sign up for the army and fight for their country.

But it wasn’t for her charms as a lady, Vesta was dressed as a soldier and earned the nickname ‘England’s greatest recruiting sergeant’ with her songs such as ‘Jolly Good Luck to the Girl Who Loves a Soldier’, ‘The Army of Today’s All Right’ and ‘Six Days’ Leave’.

Born Matilda Alice Powles in Worcester, she rose to stardom in early childhood.

In 1872 she launched her act as a male impersonator in the male-dominated world of music hall and then made a sensational London debut at the Royal, Holborn.

“She helped break down barriers of class and gender prevalent at that time and was very popular with male and female audiences”, said David Medina, a fan of the artiste.

Vesta impersonated dandies and fops and was a fashion icon for men.

One of her favourite character was Burlington Bertie, but she also dressed up as a policeman, clergyman and many others.

“She paid meticulous attention to detail and took over an hour to get ready.

Her long wavy hair was plaited into tiny braids and coiled around her head under a wig,” said David.

In 1890 she married Walter de Frece, the son of a theatre owner. When he took over as her manager after her father died two years earlier, she became one of the highest paid and most loved music hall performers.

“Vesta first appeared in her soldier’s uniform in 1912 at the Royal Variety Performance at the Palace Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue. It was a huge success”.

Invalided out of the Sportsman’s Battalion during the war Walter was appointed Honorary Organiser of the King’s Fund for the Rehabilitation of Discharged Soldiers and Sailors into Civilian Life. He organised entertainments for the forces and munitions workers and was regularly joined by his wife on visits to military hospitals, raising thousands for hospital funds and rehabilitation schemes.

About this time Walter de Frece was building a tour circuit by buying leases of theatres around the country which had fallen on hard times, including the Grand Theatre, Margate and the Prince of Wales at Southampton.

Between 1914 and 1918 Boscombe Hippodrome was leased by Walter de Frece. Formerly the Grand Theatre, it had changed ownership and reopened as the Hippodrome in 1905. They were all refurbished and renamed hippodromes with music hall productions run by his company ‘The South of England Hippodromes Ltd’, where his wife Vesta was a regular performer.

Dan Godfrey, in an interview about wartime music, said that entertainment was essential.

In 1917 he booked Vesta Tilley and George Robey, amongst others to appear at the Winter Gardens. She appeared again the following year.

After the war Walter was knighted and gave up his theatre interests, encouraging Vesta to do likewise.

Her farewell tour around the main towns of the country began in August 1919 and lasted a year with receipts benefitting local children’s hospitals and crippled children.

Sir Walter was elected MP for Blackpool in 1924. They retired to the French Riviera after ill health forced him to resign from parliament. He died four years later. Vesta lived in seclusion for 17 years, and died, aged 88, in London in 1952.