Monday, August 24, 2015

Gaiety Girls

This is one of 1122 articles in my book Now and Then Again, The Way We Were and the Way We Are, second edition. The book is available from Amazon for $20.95 print and $9.95 Kindle and also as an ebook from Apple, Kobo, and Scribd for $9.95. It's fixed format so it's better with a tablet, laptop, or computer. There are more articles from the book on another blog here. And there is a book preview website.

Gaiety Girls

“The Latest fad of women, delicate little paintings on the shoulders when in evening dress, was started by the Gaiety Girls, who now set the London styles. Two of them appeared at a supper party given by a spendthrift young earl at the Lyric club dressed in extreme decollete gowns. And on each shoulder was a delicately painted, small but gorgeous butterfly. The work was exquisitely done by a prominent water color artist.”
— This article, titled The Butterfly Fad appeared in the Carbon County Sentinel, Gebo, Montana, April 5, 1901.

Gaiety Girls were showgirls who appeared in musical comedies at the Gaiety Theatre in London. The extravagant shows were produced by George Edwardes. The eponymous A Gaiety Girl premiered  at The Prince of Wales Theatre in 1893 and led to a series of hit “Girl” shows such as The Shop Girl, My Girl, and The Circus Girl at the Gaiety.

Gaiety Girls were respectable and admired. London fashion designers costumed them and this publicized their fashions much as red carpet movie galas do today. Consider that Gaiety Girl fashions were known even in a place as remote from London as  Gebo, Montana.

Edwardes arranged for the Gaiety Girls to eat at Romano’s Restaurant on the Strand, London’s theatre district, at half-price which made the restaurant the place to see.

The Gaiety girls attracted “Stagedoor Johnnies”, wealthy gentlemen who waited outside the stage entrance of a theatre hoping for a dinner date with a showgirl, many of whom then married into society or even the peerage.

One Stagedoor Johnny was George Charles Wentworth-Fitzwilliam, the 20 year old grandson of the 6th Earl Fitzwilliam. In 1886, he saw Daisy Evelyn Lyster (stage name Eva Raines) in Little Jack Sheppard, a burlesque about a thief famous for spectacular prison escapes in the early 18th century at the Gaiety Theatre.

The third time Fitzwilliam met her at the stage door, she announced that the show was closing and she would be going to Glasgow to appear in an operetta. Fitzwilliam followed her to Scotland and after seeing her performance in The Beggar Student, he proposed. But marrying a showgirl could imperil succession to the Earldom and Fitzwilliam aspired to join The Blues, Queen Victoria’s household cavalry guards. The Queen had explicitly stated that no officer in her household guards would be eligible if he married an actress.

In Scotland at that time was marriage by “mutual consent.” After a 22 day residency period a couple had but to proclaim that they took each other as husband and wife. George and Evelyn thus quietly returned to London as a married couple.

In 1888, George received his commission in the Blues and a son, George James, nicknamed Toby, was born. Worried about the legality of their Scottish marriage, they arranged a secret ceremony. Although the minister was sworn to secrecy, an elderly church usher who knew the family witnessed the ceremony and word of the marriage soon spread over London.

George was forced to resign his commission in the Blues and his family disowned him, suggesting divorce as the remedy, which the couple refused. But after two years, the Fitzwilliams relented and the couple and young Toby were accepted at Wentworth Woodhouse, the Fitzwilliams’ estate in Yorkshire, the largest private house in England, 250,000 square feet with a room for every day of the year and Toby was treated as the eldest son of a Fitzwilliam.

George was back in the family fold, being made High Sheriff of Northamptonshire in 1894 and Mayor of Peterborough in 1900. In 1904, a second son, Thomas William Wentworth-Fitzwilliam was born.

Toby’s 21st birthday in 1909 was celebrated with a lavish party with hundreds of guests. Toby was declared  the heir to the estate and titles by Debretts Peerage.

Evelyn died in 1925. Her husband George   died in 1935, having never become the Earl Fitzwilliam  which title had gone to a cousin. The cousin was killed in a plane crash in 1948 and George’s second cousin, who had no children, became the ninth Earl Fitzwilliam.

Daisy Evelyn Lyster as showgirl Eva Raines

In 1951, Toby, then 63, brought a “friendly” suit against his younger brother to clarify whether the irregular Scottish marriage of his parents would prevent him from inheriting the title and the $3 million estate. After 19 days, the judge ruled in favor of his younger brother Tom. In 1952, the ninth Earl died and Tom became the tenth Earl. Toby died in 1955. Tom died in 1979 without children and the title expired with him.

The Fitzwilliam fortune was made in coal mining, with 70 collieries in the Yorkshire coal fields that surrounded the estate. They were noted for treating their workers well in an era and an industry that was infamous for brutal exploitation.

In 1946 Britain nationalized the coal mines and Manny Shinwell, the Minister for Fuel and Power of the Labour government decided to mine the coal on the Fitzwilliam estate in what was widely seen as an act of class warfare. The grounds were despoiled almost up to the doors of the great house and mining under the house caused it to subside.

Wentworth Woodhouse was bought in 1999 by London architect Clifford Newbold for £1.5 million. He sued the Coal Authority for £100 million for funds to restore the house, now sagging so badly the door to “the original Thomas Crapper loo” couldn’t be opened. The courts have ruled in favor of Newbold and ordered a study in 2014 to determine damages in a trial in to be held in 2016.

The mansion opened for tours in 2015 and is on the market for $11.1 million. But it needs $42 million in repairs.

The Gaiety Theatre was torn down to widen the Strand in 1903 but was rebuilt in the district the same year. In 1939, the Gaiety closed, it being too expensive to remodel it to code. The interior furnishings were sold off and the empty building was damaged by German bombs in World War II.

The hulk was bought with the intention of restoration but this turned out to be not feasible and the building was torn down. A hotel being built on the site went bankrupt in 2008 and at the end of 2012 it was finished as apartments and a luxury hotel.

Copyright © 2020 Joseph Mirsky

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