PETER FROST pays tribute to Music Hall star Alec Hurley who died almost exactly one hundred years ago.
Some remember Alec Hurley, who died one hundred years ago in November 1913 only as ‘Mr Marie Lloyd’.
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 Alec, a merchant seaman’s son from the 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. In 1901, the pair toured Australia with huge success.
Marie divorced in 1905, allowing her and Alec to marry in 1906.
Alec and Marie, with an unknown friend on holiday in Madeira
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 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 (VAF).
The VAF still exists as part of the actors’ union Equity.
The VAF 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 famous husband Dr. Crippen.
Elmore crossed the picket line. Strikers told Elmore not to be a blackleg.
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; she moved in with him, leaving Alec to tour and live alone.
Hurley however remained popular both on and off stage. But it was a life cut tragically short. In Glasgow on Friday 28 November 1913, Alec was taken ill on stage. He died of pneumonia just a week later. He was 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.
Marie remained true to her political principles and suffered for it. When the first-ever royal command performance was organised in 1912, Marie’s left-wing anti-establishment views ensured she was excluded.
Marie 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 the Edmonton Empire music hall.
She collapsed on stage during one of her best known numbers ‘One of the ruins Cromwell knocked about a bit’ As she staggered all over the stage the audience thought it part of the show and laughed and applauded. Marie died a few days later.
Fifty thousand people attended her Hampstead funeral.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star 10 January 2014