“The most photographed woman in the British Empire”
Looking through my collection of Postcards of Edwardian actresses the most striking model is undoubtedly, Lily Elsie. Her looks and demeanour immediately reminded me of the present day actress Rachel Weisz and if you google those two names together you will find many people agree.
She was born Elsie Hodder in Leeds in 1886. Her mother (Charlotte) Elizabeth Hodder was an unmarried dressmaker. In 1891, Elizabeth Hodder married William Cotton, a theatre “luggage man.” Elsie became a child star in the Manchester music halls, under the name, “Little Elsie” and her mother accompanied her. Although painfully shy, the quality of her singing was remarkable. Aged 10, she starred in a production of Little Red Riding Hood which toured the country. Her first performance in London was in 1898.
By the 1901 census, she had adopted the name Lily Elsie and aged 17, she joined George Edward’s company at Daly’s Theatre. As she was prone to giggling, Edwards fired her two years later, for insubordination, but on hearing that she had no work, he re-employed her in small parts. Lily’s career really took off in 1907 when George Edwards took her to Berlin to see “The Merry Widow”. He intended to put on an English version in London and he wanted Lily to star as Sonia. Lily felt that her voice was too weak for the operetta, but George persuaded her to take the part. She came under the wing of Lucy, Lady Duff, who designed all the costumes for the production. Lady Duff became Lily’s style consultant, and she gave Lily her distinctive hairstyle which fitted so well beneath the large plumed hats of the Merry Widow.
Despite still being shy and insecure, Lily Elsie was a huge success, as the audiences loved her. The fashions were copied by those who could afford them and Lady Duff used Lily to advertise the clothes. Her face also appeared on beauty products and sweets, while portrait postcards were widely collected. But Lily found fame overwhelming and she often missed performances due to ill health.
Lily was generally unimpressed by her male fans and did not treat them well. Her half-sister, Maudi Darrell, had married Major Ian Bullough, the son of a millionaire, but sadly Maudi died within a year, of complications after an appendicitis operation. Subsequently, in 1910, Lily married Ian Bullough and a year later she retired from the stage. She returned to the theatre, in 1916, to help the war effort, but had another break from 1920 until 1927. Their marriage was not happy; Lily was frequently ill and Major Bullough drank too much. They divorced in 1930.
For the rest of her life, Lily stayed in nursing homes and Swiss Sanatoriums. She finally moved to St Andrews Hospital in London, where she was said to be happy, until she died in 1962.
To see more pictures of Lily Elsie, please go to my Pinterest board Edwardian Actors and Actresses