Gertie Gitana was a hugely popular star of Music Hall, frequently referred to as ‘the star who never fails to shine.’ As is the case with many performers from that era, she is very little known today. She was born Gertrude Mary Astley in Stoke on Trent (her father worked in the potteries) and like many a music hall pro she was treading the boards from an early age. In those formative years, she toured the country as part of Tomkinson’s troupe of ‘Royal Gypsy Children.’ It is clear from early reviews that she possessed an extremely strong and charming voice and was also a good dancer and musician – she often incorporated playing the saxophone into her ‘turn’. She first appeared as ‘Little Gitana’ (gitana being the Spanish word for gypsy), developing into ‘Little Gertie Gitana’ and then as age advanced, she was simply ‘Gertie Gitana’. She became popular for her sentimental ballads often featuring a girls name in the title – usually a Molly or a Nellie.
Her delicate and slight appearance (she was 1.55 metres (5ft 1in) as an adult), enabled her to carry the ‘child vocalist’ moniker for some years beyond childhood. One can see from this image that she had an innocent and winsome look. I estimate that she was well into her twenties when these images were taken:
In December 1915, Gertie was the recipient of a postcard of herself sent from ‘the firing line’ in France by Gunner CP Witten of the British Expeditionary Force, addressed in beautifully neat and precise handwriting to:
Miss Gertie Gitana
England’s Premier Singer of favourite songs
Some Music Hall in England
The reverse and front of the card are reproduced here – you will note the pink-red triangular stamp of the censor, having ‘passed’ the content:
The card may have found Miss Gitana at any one of the Southport Palladium, Newport or Chiswick Empires where she was billed to appear for December 1915. Witten tells Gertie that the card was sent to him by his brother in Sunderland, “which town I assume you have recently visited much to my sorrow as I think you should have waited until I got my leave.” Gertie had indeed visited Sunderland in October 1915 with a week’s booking at the Empire, South Shields. She had been at the Empire, Newcastle in the previous week where she had tried out her new Mills-Scott penned number, “Molly McGlory,” and The Era tells us it was a great success, “henceforth Miss Gitana will sing it at all her engagements.”
In keeping with many music hall artistes, Gertie was keen to be seen to be doing her bit for the war effort (I wrote of some of those efforts in this blog post) and during her engagements was selling autographed postcards to contribute to local military funds. It is more than likely that it was one of these cards purchased by Witten’s brother at the South Shields Empire that found its way to France and then on a return trip back to Gertie in England. The letters page of The Newcastle Journal reports that during her Newcastle week Miss Gitana’s “proceeds of sale” were £32 and in accordance with her wishes, the money was to be dispensed on “cigarettes for the wounded soldiers at Armstrong College and Northumberland War Hospitals”. £32 translates today to around £1800 – that’s a considerable number of cigarettes and one hopes they provided some pleasure for the wounded.
In a touching sentence, Witten writes, “when I saw your sweet face it brought back to me pleasant memories of the past” and how he had “always” [been] ensured of a pleasant evenings entertainment when you were at the Empire and the old ‘Palace’.” The Empire in South Shields had been declared open on 1 July 1907 by male impersonator Vesta Tilley. The old “Palace” Witten refers to is most likely the Palace Theatre of Varieties which had closed down by 1909 – it was almost opposite the new Empire and couldn’t compete. Gertie was a regular performer at both palaces of entertainment. Reviews of Gertie during this period confirm the impression she had made on Witten – they speak of her “remarkable voice,” and “a marked ability to capture the soft spot which audiences invariably show for an attractive melody.”
One wonders what experiences Witten had been through by this stage of the conflict. Charlton Potts Witten had signed up within a month of the outbreak of war in 1914 to join “Kitchener’s Army”, responding to persistent pleas in the Sunderland press for general service recruits. He described himself as an ‘architect’ and this would explain his beautifully neat, draughtsman-like handwriting. At the age of 36, he was in the upper age category for signing up. His first few months of training were all on home soil and yet in February 1915, he was discharged from Deepcut Barracks due to a knee injury. By April 1915, he was back at the recruiting office in Sunderland – this time signing on as Charles Potts Witten and no-one seemingly checking his paperwork. Maybe his knee had recovered? Witten was clearly a man determined to sign up – he was not alone, by the end of 1915 some 2 million men had volunteered.
Witten jokes about the state of the war in racing terms and suggests Gertie should ‘back the Allies to win’ and ‘take it from a man on the course, we cannot Loos’. This was a reference to the Battle of Loos which had taken place from September to October 1915, notable as the first use of poison gas by the British. Witten survived the course and returned to life in Sunderland. He died in 1929 due to heart disease and “excessive indulgence in alcoholic beverages” with his wife reporting that he had been in poor health, which she attributed to those gas attacks during the war.
With increasingly grim circumstances on the front line one can see why Witten and his fellow conscripts were seeking comfort in memories and melodies from happier days. He tells Gertie, “All the boys hum your songs over daily.” He mentions You Were Coming Through the Corn, Molly Dear, a hit for Gertie in 1910.
This song was a sentimental tale of young love during harvest time when ‘the waving corn ting’d the fields with all its golden hue,’ and the acquaintance of the young lovers ‘ripens like the corn,’
You were coming through the corn Molly dear, When I fell in love with you;
There were poppies in your golden hair, And love in your eyes of blue.
Witten tells Gertie they are “songs that will live for ever.” Although her songs provided great solace and raised the spirits of Witten and the other men on the Front, he might be a little disappointed to learn that Gertie’s songs have not remained in popular consciousness, unlike others from that period. But even though they have not shown longevity, Gertie certainly managed to capture the “soft spot” for this Sunderland man transported some way from home.
In the years after the First World War, Gertie continued to be a star that shone, and moved seamlessly to ‘revue’ which had grown in popularity during the war. During one such production, she met dancer Don Ross and they married in 1928. Although she performed throughout the 1930s, she gradually retreated towards the end of the decade. However, in 1948 she was encouraged out of retirement by Don and his inventive ‘Thanks for the Memory’ touring show. Several retired music hall stars were lured back to the footlights – Ella Shields, Nellie Wallace (who passed away during the tour and was replaced by Lily Morris), GH Elliott, Talbot O’Farrell and Randolph Sutton. The show opened at the Brixton Empress in February 1948 and a whirlwind 21 months ensued, including a triumphant appearance for the old-timers at the 1948 Royal Variety Performance. Gertie gave her final performance back at the Brixton Empress on 2 December 1950. She had been performing for over 50 years at this point and her performances during this final hurrah were reviewed as positively as they had been in the early days of her career – she was as captivating and bewitching as Gunner Witten recalled. And although her output is little sung or recalled today, her name lives on in Gitana Street in Hanley, Stoke on Trent which was re-named after her in the 1950s.
Gertrude Mary Astley b. 1887, Stoke on Trent; d. January 1957; m. Don Ross. No issue.
Charlton Potts Witten b. 1879, Easington, Durham; d. December 1929 Sunderland; m. Isabella Watson. No issue.
Of the theatres referred to in this article, only the South Shields/Sunderland Empire remains standing.
With many thanks: Rick Blackman for sharing Gunner Witten’s postcard from his collection with me; the British Music Hall Society Archive for permission to use the Gertie Gitana images from their archive.
Ancestry/Find My Past
British Newspaper Archive:
Sunderland Daily Echo, 4 September 1914, 12 November 1929
The Newcastle Journal, 28 September 1915, 9 October 1915
Edinburgh Evening News, 12 October 1915
The Stage, 16 December 1915
The Stage, 26 February 1948
The Stage, 7 December 1950
An excellent book covering various aspects of theatre during World War 1 is ‘Till the Boys Come Home: How British Theatre Fought the Great War’ by Roger Foss (The History Press, 2018).