Bessie Bellwood (Catherine “Kate” Mahoney, 1856-1896), was one of the first and most influential of British music hall stars.
Born in London, she was the daughter of Irish immigrants to London, and began her working life as a rabbit skinner. She made her music hall debut at age 20, and was a rough contemporary of Jenny Hill, Marie Lloyd and Vesta Tilley. Her niche among the pack was that she was one of the crowd, a hard-drinking, tart-tongued working class girl renowned for her ability to give as good as she got with garrulous hecklers. She was not, then, a sweet-mannered Victorian stage idol nor even a parody of one. Once, when asked her business in a law court, she answered “To sing, dance, and laugh.” Her signature tune was “What Cheer, Ria?” and she was also associated with the songs “Woa Emma”, “He’s Going to Marry Mary Ann”, and “Aubrey Plantagenet.” The words to “Ria” (which she co-wrote with Will Herbert) give a strong sense of her act:
I am a girl what’s a-doing very well in the wegetable line
And as I’d saved a bob or two, I thought I’d cut a shine
So I goes and buys some toggery, these ‘ere wery clothes you see
And with the money I had left, I thought I’d have a spree
So I goes into a Music Hall, where I’d often been afore
I don’t go in the gallery, but on the bottom floor
I sits down by the chairman, and calls for a pot of stout
My pals in the gallery, spotted me, and they all commenced to shout.
Chorus: What cheer Ria! Ria’s on the job
What cheer Ria, did you speculate a bob?
Oh Ria she’s a toff and she looks immensikoff
And they all shouted ‘What cheer Ria!’
Of course I chaffed them back again, but it worn’t a bit of use
The poor old Chairman’s baldie head, they treated with abuse
They threw an orange down at me, it went bang inside a pot
The beer went up like a fountain , and a toff copt all the lot
It went slap in his chevey, and it made an awful mess
But gave me the needle was, it spoilt my blooming dress
I thought it was getting rather warm, so I goes towards the door
When a man shoves out his gammy leg, and I fell smack upon the floor.
Now the gent that keeps the Music Hall he patters to the bloke
Of course they blamed it all on me, but I couldn’t see the joke
So I up’d and told the govenor as how he’d shoved me down
And with his jolly old wooden leg, tore the frilling off my gown
But lor bless you! It worn’t a bit of use, the toff was on the job
They said outside! and out I went, and they stuck to my bob
Of course I felt so wild, to think how I’d been taken down
Next time I’ll go in the gallery with my pals, you bet a crown.
In 1893 Bellwood came to New York to play Tony Pastor’s and scored a hit, an interesting case of strange bedfellows given Pastor’s devotion to propriety and Bellwood’s connection to a specific local audience in her home country. She returned to play Koster and Bial’s in 1895.
In addition to Bellwood’s hard partying lifestyle she was known for her generosity, a natural outgrowth of her devout Catholicism. Indeed she was generous to a fault; when she had money, it went to those in need, and it gave her no end of financial difficulty, including occasional bankruptcy. She found herself hauled into court on at least five occasions: twice for debits and three times for assault. On one notorious occasion she went straight from meeting with a Catholic Cardinal on some charitable errand, to beating up a cabman in the street for insulting her friend. She is also known to have bitten a gentleman’s ear in anger, and to have sunk a straight pin into the leg of a snooty footman. She was only 40 when she died of heart failure in 1896, a demise generally attributed to burning the candle at both ends.
To learn more about vaudeville and music hall, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.
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