By Peter Frost in Britain:
From stage to picket line
Friday 10th January 2014
PETER FROST recalls Alec Hurley, famous music hall artist, socialist and trade union organiser, who died 100 years ago
Did you get to a pantomime this year, I did. “Oh no you didn’t,” I hear you shout.
Don’t you just love the rough and ready humour of pantomime. It’s the nearest thing we have these days to the wonderful old tradition of British music hall.
My visit reminded me of one of the real heroes of the music hall and a real working class champion – Alec Hurley, who died one hundred years ago.
Alec was often known as “Mr Marie Lloyd” but in fact he deserves to be remembered in his own right, both as a popular and talented performer and as a pioneer of workers’ rights.
In his teens this merchant seaman’s son from London’s East End had given up his job as a tea-packer and taken to the stage. By the time he was 20, in 1891, Hurley was already topping the bill.
Then he met perhaps the greatest music hall star – Marie Lloyd.
Marie was already married but that didn’t stop her and Alec falling in love and soon moving in together.
They became a double act. Marie divorced in 1905, allowing her and Alec to marry in 1906.
The couple shared strong socialist political principles. Together they would make an immense contribution to trades union organisation among stage performers.
The couple’s Hampstead home became a place for militant performers to meet, discuss and organise.
Marie had a well known reputation for songs and stories that told of the hardships of working class life, especially for working-class women.
Her risqué interpretations of the most innocent of lyrics led to frequent clashes with the establishment. When her song She Sits Among The Cabbages And Peas was banned she simply sang: “She sits among the cabbages and leeks.”
Despite her and Alec’s own success and relatively high pay the two of them had always supported other performers as passionate trades unionists.
Fellow female artistes voted Marie as the first president of the Music Hall Ladies Guild in 1906. In the following year she and Alec called a meeting to form an industry alliance. The National Association of Theatrical Employees and the Amalgamated Musicians Union joined with the Variety Artists Federation.
The VAF – it still exists as part of the actors’ union Equity – took strike action in 1907 to resist greedy music hall management attempts to make lesser known artists do unpaid extra matinee performances and to cut wages and perks.
Marie and Alec, as top of the bill performers were not directly affected by these worsening conditions, but they threw their weight behind the strike. Meetings were held in their home and the couple also made major financial contributions to strike funds.
One strike-breaker was Belle Elmore – a decidedly second rate performer – who was later murdered by her infamous husband Dr Crippen.
When Elmore crossed the picket line Marie, who thought little of Elmore’s talent, shouted: “Let her through, girls, she’ll close the music hall faster than we can.”
As Elmore came on stage, strikers told the audience that Marie Lloyd was singing for free on the picket line outside – the theatre emptied. The strike was won.
Sadly by 1910, Marie’s increasing drinking and infidelities had put a real strain on her relationship with Hurley.
She had met a young Irish jockey – he was 22 and Marie was 40 – and she moved in with him, leaving Alec to tour and live alone.
Hurley remained popular both on and off stage but his life was cut tragically short. Alec was taken ill on stage in Glasgow as the Christmas 1913 Panto season started. He died of pneumonia just a week later at the age of just 42.
The stage had lost a great performer, but wages, conditions and trades union organisation in the entertainment industry would never be the same again.
Lloyd remained true to her political principles and suffered for it. When the first-ever royal command performance was organised in 1912, her left-wing anti-establishment views ensured she was excluded.
Lloyd hired a nearby theatre on the same night. Placards proclaimed: “Every performance by Marie Lloyd is a command performance – by command of the British public.”
In 1922, aged just 52, Marie gave her final performance at London’s Alhambra Theatre. She collapsed on stage and died a few days later. Fifty thousand people attended her Hampstead funeral.