The Clapham Society Local History Series — 39
Marie Kendall, 1873 – 1964 – Penny Gaffs to Royal Performance
By Janet Johnson
This article first appeared in the South London Press on 1 June 2018
(Entitled: From Penny gaffs to Royal performances)
One of the most famous, and certainly long lasting, stars of the music hall era was Marie Kendall. She was born Mary Anne Florence Holyolme in Bethnal Green to part time opera singers of Huguenot descent. Thanks to her parents’ involvement in the entertainment world and her own talent she escaped the usual lot of working class girls (service or factory) and became world famous.
When she was just five years old her father took her to the local pubs as “Baby Chester” to sing heartrending songs, persuading the sentimental and drunk customers to put money in the collecting tin…. Her parents then sent her for singing lessons to J W Cherry’s music hall academy and she started singing in penny gaffs. These were low class cheap entertainment in the backrooms of pubs, often several shows a night catering mainly for young costermongers and their girls. – smutty songs and innuendo appealed to the audience but were regarded as immoral by the respectable.
Mayhew, the social historian recorded “ The audience is usually composed of children so young, that these dens become the school-rooms where the guiding morals of a life are picked up; and so precocious are the little things, that the girl of nine will, from constant attendance at such places, have learnt to understand the filthiest sayings, and laugh at them as loudly as the grown-up lads around her.”
Marie proved a success and by the time she was 15 she had toured with her parents in France and the UK as a male impersonator singing in both French and English. Back in England her name was changed to Marie Kendall (coach stops on theatrical tours provided names for several music hall artists) and she progressed rapidly in music hall and then to principal boy in panto in some of the major Halls in London. Her earnings rose to £5 per week, many times the wages of a domestic servant or factory worker. Aged 15 she was Dick Whittington at the Pavilion, Mile End and by 1889 she was Aladdin in Drury Lane.
She then took on female roles in panto, singing sentimental and suggestive songs, proving a great comedienne and taking top billing in major halls. I’m one of the Girls was her big hit at that stage which she sang for 16 weeks at Camden. Then playing up to seven halls a night she raised her income to about £100/week. (A very hectic life rushing about London all evening, performing to a high standard at each show)
She married singer songwriter Stephen McCarthy in 1895 and had four children Terry, Pat, Shaun and Moya at least two of whom had successful careers in the theatre.
She toured widely… Australia, USA, Europe and UK in the 1920s and 1930s. She was one of the original Star Vintage Company in 1931 and may have appeared at the first Royal Variety Show in 1912 before King George V and Queen Mary. Certainly in 1932 she appeared in the finale at the Royal Variety Show before the same monarchs with her most popular song Just like the Ivy.
She is also reported to have taken part in the 1902 theatrical strike, (singing loudly as she was escorted to a police van) in support of better conditions for the artists at the bottom half of the bill and the backstage staff.
Other songs she sang included Sweet Rosie O Grady and If I could see this for 1s 6d what could I see for a quid.
In 1934 she appeared as herself in a film Say it with Flowers along with other stars. The story was that when a flower seller, patronised by the stars, fell ill they were persuaded to put on a concert to raise funds for her. In the same film a clip of her singing Did your first wife ever do that? can be seen in Huntley Archives
Having performed non-stop into her 60’s Marie retired in 1939 and lived out her retirement in Clapham at Okeover Mansions, where in 2011 the Music Hall Guild of Great Britain and America erected a plaque to her.
Marie produced quite a theatrical dynasty – at least two children on the stage, and four grandchildren; the film star Kay Kendall renowned for her performance in Genevieve, and stage actors Cavan, Kim, and Fiona all very successful. Kim and Fiona attended the plaque unveiling.