Jenny Hill: Queen of the Halls

With great pleasure, we close out Women’s History Month, with a tribute to music hall star Jenny Hill (Elizabeth Jane Thompson, 1848-1896).

Hill is often described as a contemporary of Bessie Bellwood and Marie Lloyd, but the truth is that Hill was a bit older and arrived on the scene first. She was a pioneer. The daughter of a London cabbie, she made her stage debut at age seven in a panto of Mother Goose. She was 12 when she made her solo debut at Dr. Johnson’s Concert Rooms. At 14 she was apprenticed out to a pub, where she rose at dawn each day to prepare the place for opening, waited on customers all day, and then sang until two in the morning. This hard work and months without adequate sleep are thought to have adversely affected her health in later years.

A age 18 she married acrobat John Wilson Woodley, professionally known as Jean or Johnny Pasta. They had three children, one of whom, Peggy Pryde (1867-1943) went on to become a popular music hall performer herself.

Things turned a corner for Hill in 1871 when she became a sensation of the London Palladium. She was to be a major star of the hall for the next two decades, nicknamed “The Vital Spark”. Songs she popularized include “‘Arry”, “Maggie Murphy’s Home”, “The Coffee-Shop Girl “, “The Boy I Love Is In The Gallery”, “The Little Vagabond Boy”, I’ve Been a Good Woman to You” and “If I Only Bossed the Show.” Staring in 1879 she had amassed enough capital to begin purchasing and operating music halls and pubs of her own, though all proved to be money losers.

In 1889, her health started to fail, although she continued to perform professionally for another five years, often having to cancel engagements. In 1891, she toured American vaudeville (where audiences had a hard time understanding her slang and accent), and in 1893 she went to South Africa for the better climate. By 1894 she was retired, and by by 1896, at age 48, she was dead.

I’ve recently heard from her descendent and namesake, a professional musician, who made this wonderful biographical film about her, along with an announcement for an exciting new project. I hope you will follow her. Watch it here!

To learn more about vaudeville and music hall, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.