The Vital Spark & the Harsh Master

Southgate

Jenny Hill was an successful mid-nineteenth century music-hall star. ‘The Vital Spark’ was the common soubriquet by which she was known, but I have also found her described as ‘the fascinating’ and ‘the queen of serio-comedy’. Although largely forgotten today she was immensely popular with the contemporary public who evidently regarded her with a great deal of affection. I am not in any way a scholar of the music-hall and its artistes, but there was a significant Bradford connection to her career which may illustrate the way in which young children might be abused in Victorian Britain. There are several problems in establishing the true facts of the ‘Vital Spark’s’ career. At various times in her life she was known by different names. She was seemingly born Elizabeth, or Elizabeth Jane, Thompson. After her marriage she was called Jane Woodley. Jane Hill or Jenny Hill were her stage names. I shall use Jenny for her. It seems quite likely that some of the stories told about her early career were embellished or invented. Her entry in the DNB written by Laurence Senelick gives her dates as 1848-1896. Richard Anthony Baker also deals with her career in his British Music Hall: An Illustrated History (2014) but the two authors do not agree in all points of detail, nor do they always provide references for all their information. The final problem is that I can confirm very few of her life’s events from the usual family history resources, and some that I can confirm seem rather puzzling. I would certainly welcome assistance from a more competent family historian.

It is said that Jenny was born in Paddington. Her father, Michael Thompson (1812/13–1881), was reported to be a watcher at a cab stand although I am not sure precisely what this involves. For what it is worth an Elizabeth Jane Thompson’s birth was registered in the St Pancras district in 1850, but I cannot guarantee it was the right woman. There is some debate about the nature of Jenny’s earliest appearance on the stage. One claim was that she first appeared in a pantomime called Goody Goose at the Marylebone Theatre in 1858. There are other candidates for the honour, but I don’t suppose it really matters very much. Of more importance was that Jenny married John Wilson Woodley, an acrobat who performed under the name Jean Pasta, on 28 May 1866. If this date is correct Jenny had already appeared on the Leeds stage prior to her marriage. The Leeds Mercury advertised her first appearance on March 18 1865 at Princess’s Concert Hall. Jenny’s first official performance in Bradford was delayed by nearly another decade. Adverts in the Bradford Observer state that Pullen’s New Music Hall offered patrons ‘the Queen of Serio-Comedy’ on May 19 1873. Jenny Hill appeared at the Alhambra on March 16 1874 and when she appeared again at the same theatre in October 1874 she was styled, the ‘greatest vocalist and dancer in Great Britain’. This cannot be the present Alhambra which was built in 1914. She was also seen at St Georges Hall but I cannot trace any further appearances locally after the mid-1870s. The Leeds Mercury takes further notice of her in March 1881 playing Aladdin at the Grand Theatre, this included a benefit performance. She was back in a Leeds pantomime two years later in 1883.

Jenny and John Woodley’s elder daughter, Lettie Matilda Woodley (b.1867), was known as Peggy Pryde and was a successful performer in her own right both before and after her emigration to Australia with her second husband in 1911. Another daughter, Jenny Woodley, was also intended for a stage career. It is quite commonly stated that Jenny was deserted by her husband at a relatively early stage, but I can find them living together at the time of the 1881 census. This is one of the few documents that I can trace as it happens. The enumerator records the family names as: J Woodley 38, J Woodley 31 (both performers music halls), Letty Woodley 13, & Jenny Woodley 4. They have a border and a visitor, and can afford a single domestic servant. They live at 9 Olney St, Lambeth.

From 1868 to about 1893 Jenny was a star of the London and north-country music halls. At the peak of her career she could apparently earn £30 per night from each hall, and might have contracts with several halls at the same time. She could sing, dance, and engage in repartee with the audience. It appears that she published 300 songs. When she was wealthy, after 1881 presumably, Jenny Hill bought a farm in Streatham called the Hermitage where she entertained and was known for charitable works. The Hermitage was noted for extensive gardens and sunny meadows, which sounds a little different from the Streatham I know today. After Woodley’s death on 8 January 1890, Jenny married Edward Turnbull, a music-hall manager. In the 1890s Jenny appeared in the USA and South Africa but evidently her heath was soon giving cause for concern.

The cause of Jenny’s death is recorded as consumption, pulmonary TB that is, which is perfectly credible. She was admitted to the Brompton Hospital at one time which was famous for the treatment of this disease. She returned to London in May 1894, but moved to Bournemouth for her health. Apparently needlework was her main hobby in those days. A stage newspaper called The Era recorded that in June 1895 Jenny was planning some private teaching. Early in 1896 her daughter Peggy Pryde (Mrs G S Hamilton) invited 100 people to meet her younger sister and ‘the Vital Spark’ at Gresham Hall, Brixton. Jenny had to stay in an invalid chair and this I am sure was the arrangement when her daughter provided a last outing in the form of a June picnic at Hampton Court where ‘special arrangements’ were made for Jenny’s comfort. Jenny Hill died at Peggy Pryde’s home in Brixton, London, on 28 June 1896 and was buried in Nunhead cemetery. Crowds of admirers attended her coffin to the cemetery. Her age at the time of her death is stated to be 46 years, which suggests that she was born in 1850 rather than 1848. At present I can confirm the date and place of her death, and the fact that her death was registered under the name Jenny Hill.

The Bradford connection arises from Jenny Hill’s father who seemingly decided that it would be desirable for his daughter to learn the trade of a ‘serio-comic’ and accordingly apprenticed her to a Bradford publican. This story, and the phrase ‘Bradford publican’, seems to have had its origin in an interview Jenny gave to The Era in 1893. She showed her indenture of apprenticeship to the journalist so the story could hardly be an invention. At the age of 12 years, say around 1862, Jenny was promised to the publican for 12 months. She and a companion had to get up with the lark in order to scrub floors, polish pewter and beer bottles until the performance for the early afternoon drinkers began at noon. Often they had no breakfast. After the evening performance was over the artistes had to stay up all the time a patron might buy them a glass of wine. She was even expected to make and bottle ginger beer. The authorities would surely take an extremely dim view of such harsh treatment today? Eventually her ‘amiable employer’ began to loan her to other halls. Why did her father send Jenny so far away since there must have been many premises in London which taught the same skills?

Naturally I wondered which was the Bradford pub concerned? Richard Anthony Baker, in his British Music Hall: An Illustrated History states that it was called the Turk’s Head but doesn’t explain how he came by this information. In 1865 the Bradford Observer contains a small advertisement to the effect that the remaining 12 years of lease on the Turk’s Head, ‘a well-known and well-accustomed tavern and music hall’ was being auctioned by Mr J Buckley-Sharp. The holder of the lease is not mentioned but the tavern is located at the top of Southgate. Today Southgate is a turn off Sunbridge Road downhill towards Thornton Road. About 10 years ago historian Mike Priestly also mentioned Jenny in an article he wrote for the Bradford T & A. He recorded her performances at Pullan’s Theatre in Brunswick Place. He mentioned that she had been seen in singing rooms before that, appearing at the London Hotel at the top of what is now Sackville Street but was then, before Sunbridge Road was made, ‘part of Southgate which ran between Westgate and Sunbridge Road’. The geography of Bradford has changed greatly since 1860 but I assume the same establishment is being described. In 1860 a ‘Mr Farmery of the Turk’s Head, Southgate’ applied for a wine licence. Looking at the 1856 Lund’s Directory of Bradford I can confirm that Richard Farmery, beer-seller, lived at 10 Southgate so presumably he was the remorseless holder of Jenny’s indenture.

Mike Priestley believes that Jenny acquired her stage nickname of ‘The Vital Spark’ from Jack Nunn, a director of Bradford City FC and a member of a theatrical family. He recorded Jenny’s last visit to Bradford being around 1895 when she came to stay with her daughter, Peggy Pryde, who was appearing as principal boy in Babes in the Wood at the Theatre Royal on Manningham Lane. Even successful entertainers in Victorian Britain could have lives which were hard, short and soon forgotten.

 

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2 thoughts on “The Vital Spark & the Harsh Master

  1. Fascinating story. I think Mike Priestley’s reference to the London Hotel being at the top of Southgate may be in error as the London Hotel was on Lister Street in the Bermondsey area of Bradford (i.e. near Cheapside before the extension of the Midland Railway station). From the rest of your research, it would appear Mike has the right location, but the wrong pub/music hall name.

    The Alhambra referred to was on Canal Road, very near the town end (the 11 December 1873 Bradford Observer refers to an auction taking place on “the vacant ground opposite the Alhambra Music Hall and the Midland Railway Station, Canal Road”.

    The Bradford Observer of 2 December 1876 has an advert which shows Jenny Hill as topping the bill at the Star Music Hall, Manchester Road. The Star had opened the previous year. She seems to have been a regular there as I can find many other adverts.

    She continued to appear in Bradford well into the 1880s – the Bradford Daily Telegraph of 25 November 1887 has an advert for another appearance at the Star and there are a number of appearances in that decade at Pullans.

    One of the latest Bradford appearances that I can find for Jenny Hill is reported in the Bradford Daily Telegraph of 18 September 1893 which said “The extraordinary popularity enjoyed by Miss Jenny Hill was once again attested on Saturday evening by the large audience she drew to St George’s Hall. ‘The Stowaway’, ‘That’s Bill’ and ‘A Coster’s Courtship’ were amongst songs she rendered. Shortly she sails for the Antipodes.”.

    The Bradford Daily Telegraph of 11 December 1894 reports that Peggy Pryde was to take the part of principal boy in that winter’s pantomime at the Theatre Royal but also mentions that Jenny Hill has “now retired from the stage”.

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    1. Thank you Kieran for you expert comments. I’m so pleased that you found Jenny’s story to be of interest. I try to find topics from the history of Bradford that are relatively unfamiliar. I allow myself about a week to research each topic. I try to be as accurate as possible but I will make mistakes as you have found out. I’m always very happy to have those pointed out.

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