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7 May 2020

Postcards for Peace

Written by Martha Graham, Visitor Services Assistant at the Tenement House
A sepia photograph of Agnes Toward. It is a head-and-shoulders shot. She wears a velvet top and a double string of pearls.
Miss Toward lived at the Tenement House from 1911 until 1965.
Inside Miss Agnes Toward’s former home in Glasgow, there are postcards that offer thoughtful reflections on wartime life in London.

Pictured below is a souvenir postcard of the music hall performer Vesta Tilley, which was the stage name of Matilda Alice Powles (18641952). She was one of Britain’s most prominent male impersonators or, to use a modern phrase, ‘drag kings’. The profits from this card and other designs were donated to war-related charities by Vesta Tilley during WW1.

Having started performing with her father as a young girl, Vesta Tilley’s career flourished in the outbreak of war. She sang patriotic and upbeat songs about the war and even had men enlist with her on stage. This earned her the nickname of ‘Britain’s greatest recruiting sergeant’. The war office also used one of her song titles, ‘The army of today’s all right’ on a recruitment poster.

A black and white postcard of a young lady dressed as a sailor with a barrel and ropes behind her. The text at the bottom of the postcard reads: Brown, Barnes & Bell, L’pool.
Music hall performer Vesta Tilley, the stage name of Matilda Alice Powles

Among the many, many papers that Miss Agnes Toward left in the Tenement House are letters sent to her by an ex-colleague and friend Mr J R M Collins, who moved to London from Glasgow. He wrote to her throughout the First World War with many thoughtful reflections on wartime life in the capital.

In 1916 Mr Collins described the air raids to Agnes, explaining that the zeppelins are there ‘almost every night’ and that the damage and loss of life is ‘much worse than the papers make out’. A year later, his words paint a grim picture of life in wartime London:

‘After a raid, for nights the people stand round their doors looking for [airships] and afraid to go to bed. It is anything but a pleasant sensation. It has got to be experienced to be realised. The only nights we really feel safe is when it is blowing a gale. We don’t grumble now if it is a stormy night.’

In her 1934 autobiography Recollections of Vesta Tilley, written under her married name Lady de Frece, Matilda describes her own experience of the air raids in London. Having had her performance that evening interrupted by the sirens, she was now back in her hotel room:

‘I saw quite plainly a machine flying overhead. At the same moment there was a terrific explosion and I was hurled across the room as the windows cracked and blew in. Luckily I was not hurt, just bruised.’

Most of Vesta’s songs were patriotic, though she did allude to the realities of war. One of her more renowned renditions is about being home on leave with a ‘bit of a blighty one’ – an injury that didn’t kill you but got you sent home – and feeling very glad to be away from the trenches:

‘When I think about my dugout
Where I dare not poke me mug out,
Oh, I'm glad I've got this bit of a blighty one.’

(Herman Darewski and Arthur Wimperis, 1918)

Similarly, in a letter from 1916, Mr Collins talks about a mutual friend, William, being home from the front: ‘He has had all he wants of soldiering and won’t be sorry when it’s all over’.

A black and white photograph of a lady standing in front of a large stone war memorial, with statues of soldiers on top. Metal plaques list the names of fallen soldiers.
Miss Toward in front of the Largs war memorial, c1939 (© National Trust for Scotland, Tenement House)

We’re fortunate to have these first-hand accounts from both the famous and the ordinary people to help us understand wartime Britain. As we go through our own new and difficult circumstances, this quote from Mr Collins in March 1917 perhaps resonates a little: ‘It doesn’t seem as if the war would ever finish, but I suppose it can’t go on forever’.

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