Daisy Dormer

“…the dainty little lady with the bewitching ways, who is here with all her latest songs”

Having inherited no discernable theatrical talent of my own, I have been dining out on tales of my music hall family for some years. I have been basking in the reflected glory of having a great grand aunt who once trod the boards of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Her name was Daisy Dormer and in her day she was Portsmouth’s equivalent of a 21st century Cheryl Cole, and by far the most successful member of my music hall family troupe.

She was a great beauty as can be seen in these photos, and at the time of her death in 1947 her funeral cortege brought Streatham High Road to a standstill. Her name lives on today by a housing development in Brixton – Daisy Dormer Court on the Trinity Gardens estate (not far from Morley’s Department Store). Like many music hall stars she spent her final years in Clapham and Brixton, drawn to the area by the quick and easy access tram travel provided to the theatres of the West End.

“Dainty” Daisy was born Kezia Beatrice Stockwell on 16 January 1883 in Southsea, Portsmouth and died at her home in Clapham, London on 13 September 1947, aged 67. I often wondered how she got her stage name until I read that Daisy Dormer is old English slang for a bottle warmer! Her rise from working class poverty in Portsmouth, where her father was a riveter in the Dockyard, was common to many young girls who saw the music hall stage as a way to get out and on in the early years of the Twentieth Century. Sarah Water’s character Nancy “Nan” Astley in Tipping the Velvet makes a similar escape from her life as an oyster girl in Whitstable.  And what a life Daisy had. From a pantomime debut at the Theatre Royal, Portsmouth in 1894 she was soon appearing at all of the leading London music halls and those in Birmingham, Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds. In 1912 she was the Principal Girl in the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane pantomime, under Augustus Harris, whose lavish productions were trailblazers for what we now think of as modern pantomime.

Daisy had many hit songs (I have traced over 40) but the song that is reported to have launched her career was “I Wouldn’t Leave My Little Wooden Hut For You” by Charles Collins and Tom Mellor (1905). It is a tale of a ‘pretty Southern Maid’ seeing off a suitor, with a rousing chorus:

I wouldn’t leave my little wooden hut for you-oo

I’ve got one lover and I don’t want two-oo

What might happen there is no knowing

If he comes around so you’d better be going

Cause I wouldn’t leave my little wooden hut for you

Unfortunately Daisy didn’t make many recordings of her songs and the quality of those that survive is poor. She also made a couple of films, neither of which survive. In the absence of sound and vision I can only conjure up her stage persona from the many glowing reviews she garnered, here are a couple of examples:

“Miss Daisy Dormer, a comedienne who is full of real ability and artistic intelligence”

“a charming artist who not only has a most captivating way but is a really magnificent dancer”

My Dad and his brother often visited Daisy in Clapham and recalled her cart-wheeling around her sitting room when well into her mid-50s, voluminous undergarments flowing, much to the embarrassment of a couple of eight and nine year old boys.

Kenneth Williams talked of his beloved mother Lou’s admiration for Daisy – he wrote to my Grandmother to say as much and he recounted a story in this 1985 article where he claimed Daisy asked his mother to be her dresser.

In 1908 Daisy married Albert Jee, better known by his stage name Albert Egbert of the Brothers Egbert (“The Happy Dustmen”).  Now that is a story for another day.

Welcome to Music Hall Alice!

Silver Jubilee Music Hall with friends

Silver Jubilee Music Hall with friends

My Grandma had been an actress and dancer.  Her mother, father, aunts and uncles had all been on the Music Hall stage. Visits to Grandma as a child always involved some element of sing-a- long or musical recital – whether it be Grandma on the piano, my sister on the violin or Uncle Paul on his guitar.  Grandma would bash out the old tunes – My Old Man, Daisy Bell, I’m Henry VIII I am I am.  I was bewitched and would happily sing along. She died when I was 10 years old but the memories and the melodies linger on.  This blog is an exploration of that now largely forgotten era – an era before the advent of television and the TV talent contest; an era when a Portsmouth docker’s daughter with daydreams of theatrical stardom could – with a good song or comic lines, some talent and a fancy costume – travel the length and breadth of the UK performing that turn, and even to the far out reaches of the British Empire, South Africa and Australia.  This blog is an exploration of the people and places on that journey from Portsmouth and beyond.