John Low traces the stormy relationship between Irish jockey Bernard Dillon and arguably the most celebrated entertainer of the late Victorian and early 20th century era, Marie Lloyd
Marie Lloyd was a superstar and one of the highest paid entertainers of her day. Immodestly she called herself ‘The Queen of The Music Halls’ but she had a point: she commanded huge appearance fees, had a string of hit songs to her name, including The Boy I Love Is Up In The Gallery, Oh Mr Porter!, Don’t Dilly Dall On The Way and A Little Of What You Fancy Does You Good.
She performed all over the world, appeared in films, lined up at Royal Variety Performances, and was still treading the boards shortly before her premature death in 1922. It is estimated over 100,000 people turned out for her lavish funeral. T S Eliot wrote a eulogy for the church service. Marie was born Maria Victoria Wood in 1870 –nobody knows why she changed her name, but it’s thought she believed it sounded more ‘classy’ –in Hoxton in London’s East End the eldest of nine children. At an early age she demonstrated a precocious stage craft with a fine voice while appearing in a concert party that toured mission halls all over London denouncing the evils of drink. (Ironically drink had a part in her downfall and that of her third husband, the Irish Epsom Derby winning jockey Bernard Dillon).
Bernard Dillon was Marie’s junior by 18 years, having been born near Tralee in 1887. He learned to ride on the family farm and his hard-taskmaster father soon spotted his talent. At 14 he went to England to join the successful stable of W B Purifoy near Salisbury. A year later as an apprentice jockey he won his first
race. Over the following years, apart from the Epsom Derby in 1910, he won a number of prestigious races including The Two Thousand Guineas (twice), The Thousand Guineas, The Jockey Club Stakes, (twice), the Cesarewitch, The Coronation Cup, The Eclipse Stakes, the Grand Prix de Paris, The Cambridgeshire and the Liverpool Cup. He was also associated with one of the most brilliant fillies of all time, Pretty Polly, who won 22 of her 24 races and to this day a race is run in her memory every year at Newmarket. Undoubtedly, he
was one of the most successful jockeys of the early Edwardian period and his celebrity status was confirmed when he was characterised by society painter Sir Leslie Ward (‘Spy’) in Vanity Fair as well as being featured in one of the popular packs of cigarette cards.
Husband number one
While Dillon was still an infant Marie was marrying her first husband who was five years her senior. The marriage failed after a few years, but they had a daughter Marie junior.
If Marie’s private life had suffered, her career was going from strength to strength. She was indeed The Queen of the Musical and in the early 1890’s she took on a new challenge playing pantomime in Drury Lane with another musical legend of the day Dan Leno. The performances were a triumph and were supported by her loyal fan-base.
But she couldn’t wait to be get back to the halls. And she was soon again giving her loyal followers what they wanted and loved — her hugely popular songs, loaded with barely disguised innuendo, saucy introductory ‘patter’ and suggestive dance routines. Unsurprisingly she was never far from controversy
and clashed regularly with ‘purity’ movements who attempted to oppose the renewals of her musical licences. Her attitude was summed up perfectly in a newspaper interview: ‘They don’t pay their shillings and sixpences at a music hall to hear The Salvation Army. If I was to try to sing highly moral songs, they would fire ginger beer bottles and beer mugs at me. I can’t help it if people want to turn and twist my meanings’.
On another occasion, according to legend, when the ‘watch committees’ objected to her song ‘I sit among the cabbages and peas’ with its obvious reference to urinating she changed the lyrics and sang instead ‘I sit among the cabbages and leeks’.
Notwithstanding her run-ins with the ‘moral vigilante committees’ her fame was unstoppable and international– she successfully toured Australia, South Africa and the US.
Despite her success as one of the brightest stars in the entertainment world she never forgot the comparatively badly paid supporting acts of which she had once been one. In 1907 she gave her full support for a performers’ strike. She told a rally : ‘We (the stars) can dictate our own terms. We are fighting not for ourselves but for the poorer members of the profession, earning thirty shillings a week. For this they have to do double turns. These poor things have been compelled to submit to unfair terms of employment and I mean to back them up in whatever steps are taken’. The strike was successful, but many theatre managers did not forget Marie’s involvement and banned her from their premises.
In 1906 Marie married again, this time to singer Alec Hurley. The marriage only lasted four years and there were stories that after drunken sessions Hurley regularly beat her. But there were other claims that the marriage failed because Marie had met – some accounts record at her daughter’s wedding – Jockey Dillon and had started a relationship with him. Their tumultuous love affair was liberally fuelled by drink.
Dillon accompanied Marie on a well-documented trip to the US in 1913. At this point he had lost his jockey’s licence for gambling (jockeys were not permitted back horses) and drunken behaviour. On arrival in New York Marie was asked by an immigration official: ‘Is this man your husband?’. After Marie admitted that Dillon was not her husband they were ordered to return to the liner as ‘undesirables’. Dillon was charged with ‘moral turpitude’ for travelling with a woman not his wife. After protracted legal negotiations they had to agree not to cohabit during Marie’s nine-month tour of US vaudeville theatres where she was earning more than 1500 dollars a week.(Nearly 50,000 dollars in today’s money).
In the middle of the tour Marie heard that Alec Hurley had died, and she promptly married Dillon.
By the time they returned to Britain World War 1 had been declared and Marie signed up to entertain the troops and workers in armament factories. Dillon joined the army but typically he was always in trouble through drinking and going AWOL In 1917. He was sentenced to a month’s imprisonment for assaulting his wife and she even caught him in bed with another woman. In another drunken stupor he was arrested for attacking her father. The Lloyd/Dillon marriage was truly fertile fodder for the tabloids of the day.
For such a fundamentally decent, much-loved human being Marie certainly drew the short straw in her personal life, having married three abusive parasitic drunkards. After years of being physically attacked by him it seems likely Marie gave Dillon his marching orders in 1920. At this stage she was in decline, drinking
heavily and her voice getting weaker. She could no longer perform for two hours as she had done for many years in her prime. During a performance in October 1922 at The Empire Theatre, Edmonton, London she began staggering around the stage. The audience thought it was part of the act. She was rushed back to her house in Golders Green about eight miles away. She lapsed in and out of consciousness for three days and died on 7th October. She was 52.
It is estimated 100,000 attended the funeral at Hampstead which included 12 cars full of flowers. She was buried in Hampstead Cemetery with both her parents to be joined by her daughter Marie Junior who died in 1967. Dillon outlived Marie by nearly 20 years. His last job was as a hotel porter. He
died in May 1941.