Variety Artiste and Pantomime Principal Boy.
Lilian Alice Hassall, ‘Lillie’, was born on 22nd October 1884 and lived with her parents and three older brothers above the family greengrocers shop at 64 Whitehorse Road, Croydon, London. The whole family was involved in running the shop as Lillie’s mother, Julia kept the accounts and Lillie’s brothers helped their father with the deliveries of vegetables and coal. In those days it would normally have been expected that Lillie would probably have only basic schooling and continue to work in the family shop until she married and left home.
It was apparent however, that Lillie’s mother Julia (nee Slatter) had other plans for her only daughter, having herself come from a very educated middle class family in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire. Julia’s father was a music teacher as well as District Registrar in Beaconsfield; her grandfather was also a Professor of music as well as a businessman so the family had a very strong musical background and interest. Julia had also been well educated and worked for a time, as a young woman, at Hughendon Manor at Beaconsfield, the home of English Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli where it is believed that she met Lillie’s father Edwin as he worked as a coachman and later as a gardener. A mystery surrounds Lillie’s older brother George Bertram (known as Bert) born in 1870 when Julia was a single girl living with her father and aunt (Julia’s mother died when she was a child). It appears that despite the stigma attached to single mothers at that time, Julia and her young son Bert were cared for by the family and continued to live with them for seven years until her father died after which she married Edwin and together they set up the greengrocers’ shop. The identity of Bert’s father remains a mystery to this day.
It is very likely that due to Julia’s own difficult experiences she had great ambitions for her daughter Lillie to ‘marry well’ and rise above her working class roots. Julia ensured that Lillie was well educated attending school well into her teens and learning French and Latin and etiquette. Her school books are very neat and beautifully written in a flowing hand and decorated with flowers and trims showing her artistic flair. From a very young age Lillie was taught to sing and dance, she was very fit and nimble and could do “the splits” and ‘contortions’ wrapping her foot around her neck. Later in life Lillie said that her mother always encouraged her to ‘look after her teeth’ and it is clear that she followed this advice as her photos are very different to most of that era because she is almost always seen smiling and exuberant. She had a very vibrant and extroverted personality and displayed an early aptitude and delight in performing in public. The Music Hall was very popular at that time, and around the late 1890s child performers were in great demand, it is likely therefore, that Julia saw this form of entertainment as a great opportunity for Lillie to begin her career.
According to the story handed down by Lillie, when she was about twelve years old she was ‘discovered’ by a theatrical agent who heard her singing upstairs when he was making a purchase in the greengrocer’s shop. She was signed up on the spot and adopted the stage name “Lillie Lassah” by taking her last name ‘Hassall’ and turning it back to front and dropping one ‘L’. Lillie’s career began thus around 1896, singing and tap dancing in London theatres always chaperoned carefully by her mother Julia who later travelled the country with Lillie to all her shows.
Lillie performed many of the popular Music Hall songs of the time which were appropriate to her age and had some written specially for her as her popularity grew. ‘Will you be my Hollyhock’ and ‘Hello Hello who’s your lady friend’, were two of her favourites and she often dressed as characters such as a ‘London tramp’ wearing a battered top hat and tails while she sang a song about being down on his luck by Big Ben, many years later she still knew all the words and delighted in singing them to her grandchildren. When she was in her early 20s, Lillie met Jim McCarthy, a charismatic Irish immigrant and theatre manager and promoter in London. Jim worked for the McNaughton’s Music Hall Company. Love blossomed and the pair married in 1908 and had a daughter in 1909 and a son in 1913. Lillie incorporated many Irish songs into her performances “My Irish Molly” which was one of her favourites, “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” and “Mother Macree” which were all very popular. She would adopt an Irish accent or cockney accent according to the song she was singing.
Lillie loved performing and was very hardworking, at times being the main ‘breadwinner’ in the family as Jim’s employment had its many ups and downs. Lillie performed for the troops in the first world war singing the famous songs of the time “Take me back to dear old Blighty” etc. Lillie’s career expanded as she became a pantomime ‘principal boy’; her colourful costumes included beautiful crushed velvet shorts and jackets in purples, greens or browns with tamoshanter hats and thigh high boots in gold or silver. Aladdin was one of her favourite pantomime roles and her performances were very popular with young and old alike.
Lillie had many amusing tales to tell about her performances in the theatre. In one such tale retold many years later she described how she was in the middle of a song when the stage trapdoor on which she was standing became faulty and the platform suddenly lowered her out of sight of the audience. Like the trouper she was Lillie continued to sing the words of the song “Hello, Hello, it’s a different girl again!” as the platform raised her back to the stage level – the audience loved it and applauded loudly thinking it was all part of the act.
As Lillie’s popularity grew she toured the country, usually accompanied by her mother. She performed at provincial theatres where she was always well received and later, during the second world war, at working men’s clubs. Lillie received many fan letters and much attention while on tour but always her heart remained with her husband and family in London. When touring she would keep in touch with Jim and the children in London by daily letters or telegram. According to her son, Lillie had several opportunities to travel overseas to further her career in the US and Europe but she chose not to pursue these as she was devoted to her husband and family and preferred to be close to home.
Jim McCarthy, Lillie’s husband, was Theatre Manager at the Battersea Palace Theatre around 1912 and then the Granville Theatre in Walham Green, Fulham in the early 1920s as well as several other London Theatres. Several photographs show the entire ‘Star Company’ cast outside the Granville Theatre and also the ‘Star’ Company troupe on a trip to the seaside. Lillie and Jim were a colourful couple and very popular socially with the theatrical set in London – they entertained many well known ‘society’ people of the time. Lillie was always stylish and elegant, with a flair for fashion and loved to decorate her home with many antiques and interesting memorabilia collected over the years.
Eventually Lillie’s performing days were over and she retired to live at Clapham, London however she still maintained contact with many of her friends from the Music Hall days such as Marie Kendall, who lived close by and whom she visited with her granddaughter for afternoon tea. Ida Barr was also an old friend who kept in touch and Lillie remained an avid reader of “The Stage” for many years.
Lillie’s last public performance was on the Wilfrid Pickles TV show in the 1950s - it was a special Music Hall event bringing together many of the old “variety artistes’ of the past. She continued to sing her songs and entertain the family for many years and never lost her love of music.
Lillie Lassah died in 1973 and now rests in Streatham Park Cemetery with her much loved husband Jim (James McCarthy) and son Jim (Edwin James McCarthy).
Details supplied by Mary McCarthy, Lillie’s Granddaughter
28th September 2011
Copyright is retained by Mary McCarthy in relation to this document and accompanying photographs of Lillie in their original or modified forms.
Permission is given to The Music Hall Guild of Great Britain and America to publish the above in this Database