If you walk north along Southgate Road from the Rosemary Branch pub, you could easily miss the plaque at number 97. It marks the house where Nelly Power, once a famous 19th century music hall singer and actress, lived and died.
Lottie Walker, a member of Islington Guided Walks and herself a performer, discovered Nelly Power’s existence while researching the life of the more well-known Marie Lloyd for a Clerkenwell and Islington Guiding course project. Lottie was intrigued to discover that one of Marie Lloyd’s most famous songs, The Boy I Love Is Up The Gallery, wasn’t intended for her, but was written for Nelly. Following up this discovery, Lottie switched her focus to the lesser-known artist to uncover her story.
Nelly was born Ella Maria Lingham in 1854 in St Pancras but after the death of her father, she was despatched to live with relatives one of whom had connections with the music halls and so Ella was transformed into Nelly Power and began her career on the stage at the age of 8. From this beginning, she became an actress, appearing in burlesque, musicals and pantomime and then having made her name, she became a solo performer of comic songs. But because she worked before the age of recording or film, there’s no archival material of her performances, and, despite her fame, she, like many other fellow artists of her time, slipped into obscurity.
With help from the British Music Hall Society, Lottie found that Nelly appeared on the bill for the opening night of Collins Music Hall on Islington Green which would have been at the age of 9. Her performances mimicked the style of ‘Champagne Charlie’ George Leybourne, another Islington resident, and so she was cast in various popular comic musical productions on the London stages. She was one of the earliest male impersonators on the halls. These were the days of the music hall circuit, when performers would be appear at several halls on the same evening with horse-drawn cabs taking them from one theatre to another. They often changed their outfits en route.
Before the arrival of gramophone records and the cinema, artists and songwriters made their fortunes from the sales of sheet music. As a soloist, Nelly performed long narrative songs with many verses, often parodies of the upper class like La Di Dah with a catchy chorus that she would get her audience to join in with, and hopefully they would leave the hall humming the tune and buying the sheet music to sing at home.
In the 1880s she had the title role in a panto at Drury Lane Theatre – Sinbad the Sailor, where she was understudied by Vesta Tilley. Elsewhere she starred with Dan Leno and other big names of the music hall stage at that time.
The Rosemary Branch, the pub at the end of Southgate Road, was also a music hall in Nelly’s time and Lottie thinks she may have performed there, and would surely have been customer since it was so near her home. (Marie Lloyd certainly did – the pub now has a room named after her.) Lottie tells a story that a friend of Nelly’s, having just heard the young Marie Lloyd sing Nelly’s ‘greatest hit’ The Boy I Love, rushed round to tell her this piece of gossip. but Nelly’s reaction was ‘Oh, let her have it’, thinking that nothing would come of it – how wrong she was!
Nelly got plenty of notices for her shows, but she became a darling of the popular press – not so much for her performance as for her personal life. She had married very young and was divorced by age of 20. Her abusive ex-husband had run off with her valuables said to be worth £200,000 in today’s money. During her divorce suit she claimed the only thing her husband had given her were ‘debts and venereal disease’. He had been involved in a brawl outside her house with her lover and her brothers. She was also said to have rescued a drowning woman at Southend – all providing plenty of column inches in the newspapers of the time.
Tragically, Power died from pleurisy in 1887, aged only 32, and was buried at Abney Park cemetery in Stoke Newington – her grave is near that of George Leybourne. Her funeral attracted nearly four thousand mourners and a further great crowd at the start of the procession from her home at number 97. where a blue plaque was erected in 2017 by the Music Hall Guild of Great Britain and America.
After discovering Nelly, Lottie Walker devised a show based around Nelly’s life and songs, which she debuted at the 2019 Edinburgh Fringe, originally as a last-minute replacement for another production, but this show proved to be very successful. It’s entitled Marie Lloyd Stole My Life – a reference to Nelly losing her ownership of her hit song to the younger woman.
Lottie found that there were few or no recordings of Nelly’s songs so decided to fill the gap with a CD of Nelly’s ‘greatest hits’. She had no idea how they were performed so set out to re-create the kind of atmosphere of a typical musical hall. Performers really had to belt out their songs in those days. Drury Lane Theatre, for example, could seat 3,000 people and there were no microphones then!
Lottie has a busy year ahead for Nelly. She will be performing at the Tea House Theatre in Vauxhall on 11 January, and then there are shows in Brighton, Ludlow, Penzance and other venues including the Edinburgh Fringe again in August. Full details and bookings at https://linktr.ee/BlueFireTheatreCo The CD Nelly Power’s Songs to the Gallery is available to buy and also on Spotify. There’s a podcast, too, at www.bluefiretheatre.co.uk/podcast
She’s also planning a revival of her Islington Music Hall walk for the future. Check the walks page on this website.
Post by John Finn