Ellen Maria Langham (or Lingham, depending who you ask), marginally better known as Nelly Power, was a music hall and pantomime star in London in the late 1800s. Unfortunately, the only real reminder of Nelly these days is a blue plaque, used in the UK to mark places of historical significance, on her house in Islington – and she was only awarded this in 2017, by the wonderful people at the Music Hall Guild of Great Britain and America. Just saying “her house” brings me to the first reason this woman deserves a nod. In a time where the women’s suffrage movement in England was just beginning, Nelly Power owned multiple properties. In the gossip section of The Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette (11 September 1876), we see that Nelly kept hold of her properties in her divorce as well as taking out an early restraining order – a “protection order” – against her ex-husband, Roland Israel Barnett. He, incidentally, got a restraining order against her too.
Very little information exists about Nelly but when I started researching her, a friend with archive access sent me three newspaper articles, all from between 1869 and 1876. One, as I mentioned, covered her divorce as a gossip piece, one covering her more raunchy jaunt into burlesque and one short snippet claiming she saved a female bather from drowning whilst in Southend. (See the rather brilliant image from the “Illustrated Police News, 5th October 1872” below.) With this to go on, I started to form a very interesting picture of Miss Nelly Power.
Like a small handful of other women in music hall at the time, Nelly was a male impersonator having started in the theatre at an early age in the male roles in pantomime. Music hall and burlesque were very much a political art form in the Victorian era and allowed those involved to mock and satirise whilst being bawdy enough to maintain a more general public interest. She was a contemporary of the great Vesta Tilley who, onstage, was another male impersonator with a political anti-war agenda, and off stage was Lady de Frece, married to Sir Walter de Frece, a conservative MP knighted in 1919. Vesta Tilley is much better remembered and documented but in her autobiography, she recalls a time when she had second billing to Nelly Power in pantomime as “the one and only time I had played second fiddle”. This was the level of respect commanded by Miss Power.
Whilst it’s often noted that working class women had more autonomy than upper class women because they could work; the reality was that they worked to survive, a career woman was still incredibly rare. Nelly Power continued in the theatre after she was married. According to Life on the Victorian Stage by Nell Darby, this was more out of necessity due to her husband’s bankruptcy than through defiance or a desire to buck the trend. It seems so strange that there are women protesting on the streets, fighting to be heard and yet punters are paying to watch the women on stage mock badly behaved men and make astute observational caricatures.
I was keen to find out how a woman who went top billing at Drury Lane – almost unheard of at the time – to being almost completely forgotten. Much of her fall from the top seems to hinge on her relationship with her husband. Interestingly, she married outside her religion – her husband was Jewish – without converting. They had two weddings, one in the Hackney registry office and a Jewish ceremony in Paris. Over the course of their marriage, they appear to have “deserted” each other multiple times; she then took up with a man called Frederick Hobson from the infamous Raleigh Club; a place for rich male socialites. Nelly’s estranged husband, known as Israel, followed her and Frederick and tried to confront them; only to be punched in the face by Frederick who claimed Israel had been stalking them for days.
By all accounts, Nelly’s ex-husband was a real piece of work. Nell Darby mentions in her book that as well as stating in their divorce suit that Isreal had left her with a debt and venereal diseases, Nelly also mentioned he had tried to force her into prostitution to clear his debt. It’s hard to say where Nelly’s own money went – it’s marked that she died in debt; something that passed to her mother and her agent who survived her. There are multiple accounts of the statement she gave in the separation hearing that since knowing Israel, all her jewelry had been “swept away” – which has always struck me as a strange way of putting it. It gets a little clearer when you see an article from The Era on 10th of May 1874 describing a strange robbery at the music hall star’s house where nothing broken or forced and the house wasn’t unattended but all her jewelry was gone – all fingers pointed to her husband.
Along with her agent, George Ware, Nelly wrote a song called The Boy I Love is Up in the Gallery. It was a moderate success for Nelly and differed from her previous songs and acts because she performed it dressed as a woman. This song was very much meant to be her big come back as she returned to the theatre after a long illness. Unfortunately, a younger music hall star, Marie Lloyd, was found to be singing the song too, not long after Nelly premiered it. To add to the betrayal, it’s believed that it was Nelly’s agent who gave Marie Lloyd the song to sing.
Nelly unfortunately died of pleurisy at the age of 32 and is buried at Abney Park Cemetery next to fellow music hall star, George Laybourne – better known as Champagne Charlie. Laybourne was a lifelong friend and Power’s impressions of him had been the start of her career as a male impersonator. According to the Hackney Gazette (21 August 2017) over 3,000 people attended her funeral despite the fact she hadn’t really been active in the theatre in the lead up to her death, which speaks volumes for the impact she had.
Written by Jojo Leppink (she/her) from London via the Netherlands. Follow her on Twitter! Jojo has also written a play about Nelly Power, called Marie Lloyd Stole My Life – and you can find out more about that project by clicking here.
This project, Tales from Wo-Fan’s Land, is a series of stories written by Frank Turner fans, inspired by his new album No Man’s Land.