20th November 1863 - 22nd July 1950

Research by John Tilbury
(updated 17-08-07)

As Dylan Thomas said “To begin at the beginning”:

Zeffie’s mother

THOMPSON, Lydia [THOMPSON, Eliza Hodges] (b. London, 19 February 1838; d. London, 17 November 1908).

Lydia Thompson is one of the theatre's 'legends', and as in the case of other such legendary figures, the truth of her life and career has become, down the years, fictionalised to a stage where it was rather difficult to exhume the truth. But here it is. 'Lydia' was (in spite of all that has been written to the contrary) born in the parish of St Paul's, Covent Garden, the second daughter of Cumberland-born Philip Thompson, sometime publican of London's Sheridan Knowles public house in the now defunct Brydges Street, other-times an account agent, other-times probably something else, and his wife Eliza née Cooper, previously the widow Griggs. Philip and Eliza Griggs were married on 11th June 1834 at St. Paul Covent Garden, Westminster, London (IGI). Mythology says that mother Eliza was "a Quaker lady who was fond of the stage". She was, in fact, Quaker or not, a pub landlady. Mythology also says, with meaningful whiffs of a gentlewoman in tight straits, that "Lydia went on the stage after her father died". Well, that she certainly did, for Philip Thompson gave up the ghost in 1842, when Eliza junior was just four years old. Mother Eliza, however, with enormous promptitude, tied herself up with another publican, Edward Hodges of the Canonbury Tavern. Whose surname makes you wonder just whose child Lydia (like her younger brother, Alfred Hodges Thompson) really was. But the young Lydia wasn't so precocious as to hit the stage at four. She was actually quite fourteen years old (and not ten or eleven as often related) when she joined the dancing chorus at Her Majesty's Theatre in 1852.

She is said to have appeared thereafter with the kiddie-show the Living Marionettes at the Linwood Gallery (1853), which she may well have done, (only a few of the 20 children in the show were billed), but she first won critical and public notice playing the part of "Little Silverhair" (with pieces of silver thread woven into her hair) in the pantomime Harlequin and the Three Bears at the Haymarket Theatre at Christmas that year. In 1854 she featured at the Haymarket as a solo dancer in the Grand Oriental Spectacle of Mr. Buckstone's Voyage Round the Globe, before going on to play a season at the St. James's Theatre where her appearances included the burlesques Ganem, the Slave of Love and Thomas Selby's The Spanish Dancers in which she caused a small sensation with her imitation-cum-parody of the extraordinary Spanish dancer Perea Nina. She appeared in The King's Rival, danced some more in Beauties of the Harem, and at Christmas — fresh from a breach-of-promise suit — played at the Haymarket in the title-rôle in the pantomime Little Bo Peep, before returning to finish the season at the St. James's (Cupid's Ladder, The Swan and Edgar).

In 1855 she crossed to Europe and for more than three years performed her dances before audiences which, if the reports are to be believed, included both Russian and German students who pulled her unhorsed carriage through the streets of Moscow and Berlin respectively in homage to her talent and/or sex appeal. She appeared billed as "first danseuse of the Drury Lane Theatre, London", with obvious success both as an act and also as an interpolated item in such theatre pieces as Karl Gross's Eine kleine Kur in Hungary (Budai Színkör), Russia (where she was "personally introduced to the Emperor" and the St. Petersburg Theatre burned down publicity-worthily during her stay), Germany (Berlin went mad for her "saylorboys dance"), Austria (where the 'Theater an der Wien' produced a 'Schwank' called Miss Lydia in memoriam), France, Scandinavia — Miss Lydia Thompson the danseuse formerly well known in London has after a most wonderfully brilliant tour of Germany, visited Copenhagen (Casino), Stockholm (King's), and lately astonished the good people of Riga, Finland, with her Highland fling, hornpipe &c. She is a favourite wherever she goes but Germany appears to be her trysting place... — and as far afield as Constantinople, before eventually returning to London.

There she was re-engaged at the St. James's Theatre under Chatterton, where her rôles included "A Mysterious Stranger" in Lester Buckingham's Virginus burlesque, "Valentine", the magician's son (who will introduce a Sailor's Hornpipe, les Juinea, grand Pas Seul, and Pas Demon) in the ballet-farce Magic Toys, "Dolly Mayflower" in the drama of Black-Eyed Susan and "Young Norval" in the ballet-burlesque My Name is Norval. In 1860 she appeared at the Lyceum where she played again in Magic Toys, as "Abdallah, Captain of The Forty Thieves" in the Savage Club burlesque, in the farce The Middy Asthore (the course of which she will dance her famous sailor's hornpipe), as "Fanchette" in George Loder's The Pets of the Parterre (Les Fleurs animées) and at Christmas as "Mephisto" in the fairy extravaganza Chrystabelle, or the Rose Without a Thorn. In 1861 the Lyceum cast her in the drama Woman, or Love Against the World and The Fetches, and as "Blondinette" in Little Red Riding Hood, and in 1862 she mixed the dances and the plays with an appearance in the Brough burlesque The Colleen Bawn, settled at last but, having married in 1863, she then took a little time off from the stage to give birth to the daughter who was to become the actress Zeffie [Agnes Lydia] Tilbury. She was widowed fifteen months after her marriage in January 1863 when her riding-master husband was rolled on by his horse in a steeplechasing accident. See the report below.

By that time, however, she was already back on the stage, playing in The Alabama at Drury Lane. In the years that followed, Lydia mixed London engagements with appearances, most often in burlesque, in the major (and some not so major) provincial towns. She made what would prove the most far-reaching such appearance at the Theatre Royal in Birkenhead in 1864, playing the burlesques Perdita and Ixion. The manager of that theatre was Alexander Henderson. She subsequently played at Henderson's new Liverpool Prince of Wales Theatre as Brough's "Ernani" alongside the "Iago" of Lionel Brough (1865) and as "Mercury in Paris" (1866), she played Ixion at Cambridge, appeared at the famous Prince of Wales Theatre with Marie Wilton performing a 'Rifle Dance' as "Max<" in the burlesque of Der Freischütz (1866), at the Strand Theatre in The Field of the Cloth of Gold and Blue-Beard, and as "Sophonisba" in Drury Lane's production of Delibes' Wanted Husbands For Six (Six Demoiselles à marier). At Christmas 1867 she again visited Henderson's theatre in Liverpool where she appeared as "Prince Buttercup" in The White Fawn, "Massaroni" in the burlesque The Brigand and "Prince Florizel" in Perdita. In early 1868 she returned to London and took up the rôle of "Darnley" in the burlesque The Field of the Cloth of Gold at the Strand Theatre. The show was a remarkable hit, but Lydia did not stay with it till its end. After 104 nights she quit the cast, and three days later she left England for America. Along with her went 'manager husband' Alexander Henderson and a cast of British burlesque actresses and comedians who within weeks would be famous.

After a well-publicized arrival, Lydia Thompson made her first appearance on the American stage under the management of local manager Samuel Colville and of Alexander Henderson at Wood's Theater, New York, on 28 September in Burnand's burlesque Ixion. She made an enormous effect with her extremely sexy (but never vulgar) performances, and what had been intended to be a six-month tour eventually developed into one of more like six years. Within nights, Lydia Thompson became the unquestioned burlesque queen of her period, leading her company of 'British Blondes' (several of whom were not one or the other) around the country playing pieces such as Ixion, The Forty Thieves, Bluebeard (see below), Aladdin, Robin Hood, Kenilworth, Mephisto, Lurline, Sinbad, La Sonnambula, Robinson Crusoe, Ivanhoe, a burlesque, La Princesse de Trébizonde and Pippin (i.e. Byron's "Rumpelstiltskin"). If the blondes' trademarks were short trunks and shapely thighs, many of them were, however, by no means devoid of talent and several, including Pauline Markham, Alice Atherton, Camille Dubois, Carlotta Zerbini, Eliza Weathersby, Alice Burville and Rose Coghlan went on to fine careers. From the male members of her company emerged such top comic talents as Willie Edouin and Lionel Brough. Nevertheless, the company thrived on a slightly scandalous reputation which Lydia and her managers fostered finely, winning nationwide publicity with the tales of her 'lesbian attacker' and of her public horsewhipping of the ungentlemanly proprietor of the Chicago Times who had published a piece reflecting on the virtue of the 'blondes'.

In 1872 the young and handsome Grand Duke Alexandrovich Romanov, heir to the throne of all the Russias, went to America to hunt buffalo. While passing through New York he attended the musical comedy Bluebeard, and became infatuated with the young and beautiful lead actress Lydia. When she sang “If I ever cease to love” in the play he also fell in love with the song. The Grand Duke headed west but could not get Lydia out of his head or his heart. Later, when he learned that she was going to be in New Orleans, he decided to go there as well. As luck would have it, it was also carnival time.

When some of the local businessmen heard that the Grand Duke was coming to visit they became concerned that the city, still occupied by an indifferent carpet-bag government, was showing little interest in the visit. So 40 of the most prominent businessmen decided to stage a special spectacle in the Duke’s honour. The idea of the "Rex" (king of the carnival) was formed and a "King" was chosen to welcome the Grand Duke. Mardi Gras colours were selected — purple for justice, green for faith and gold for power. The carnival saw its very first daytime parade and, so that Alexis could enjoy the parade in comfort, the very first viewing stands were constructed. Carriages, wagons and more than 10,000 people participated in the procession. Word of the Duke’s romance with Lydia had spread and band after band played "If Ever I Cease To Love" !

The big romance seems to have fizzled out. At the end of the parade he had an engagement with Lydia but he broke it off. Maybe his dad had got wind of it and sent his son a discouraging email? Anyway, Alexis and Lydia are now distant memories but Mardi Gras’ colours, Rex and song live on! Quite what the Grand Duke saw in Lydia defeats my imagination. In all the pictures of her she appears to be a gaudily dressed middle-aged, heavy buttocked, tightly corsetted fat legged tart.

In 1874 Lydia returned with her company to Britain and played in London and the provinces in Bluebeard, Robinson Crusoe, Piff-Paff ("Le Grand Duc de Matapa"), Oxygen, The Lady of Lyons, Pluto!, Carmen and other burlesque entertainments, but in the years to come she made regular return trips to America, where she remained a popular and always newsworthy figure in the musical theatre.

Her days of playing in burlesque were done when in 1887 she took a turn in direction and mounted a revival of Alfred Cellier's comic opera The Sultan of Mocha in London, but her voice proved far from up to the task when she starred in the French vaudeville-opérette Babette (1888, Antonio) and in later days she found herself in no position to produce, and jobs harder to come by. Although she appeared in America in 1894 as actress in The Crust of Society, and George Edwardes, hearing of her plight, used her briefly the following year in An Artist's Model, she was badly enough off in 1899 for a benefit to be staged for her at the Lyceum Theatre. She made her last stage appearance in 1904. A phenomenon in the American theatre, where she has been credited with giving general popularity to a superior brand of girlie show with comedy which has remained popular ever since, at home she was just one of a number of fine burlesque actresses of the period. However, her skilful management, her adept casting of her troupe, her knack for publicity, her own charms and talents, and the fact that she spent the most blooming of her blooming years on the American stage, built a special place for her in American theatre history.

Lydia Thompson's name was connected with many men during her calculatedly 'scandalous' career, from the sixteen years-old breach-of-promise suit against "Mr. East, a well known figure in West End society", through her marriage to John Christian Tilbury on 3rd January 1863 at Old Church, St. Pancras (IGI), and her second one to Alexander Henderson on 28th July 1873 at St. James, Westminster (IGI) (she was said to be his fourth — genuine or de facto — wife) from whom she was allegedly subsequently estranged and/or divorced and/or separated. Yet, at his death, Henderson left his residual estate to his wife "Lydia Henderson" (after naming all his paramours and the mothers of his children by their real unmarried names). The newspapers married her off to several other gentlemen after her apparently amicable separation from Henderson, but in later life she lived alone, and she went to her grave as "Lydia Tilbury" *. So there is still a puzzle or two to be solved concerning the story of Liza Hodges Thompson. Alas, they might have been solved, for Lydia actually wrote her memoirs but, apparently, no copies survive — unless YOU know otherwise?

* It has been suggested that daughter Zeffie insisted on "Lydia Tilbury"
also that Zeffie may have known about the memoirs?

Zeffie’s father

TILBURY, John Christian

From The Times of 18th April 1864:

Fatal Accident at Steeplechase
On Saturday an inquest was held before Mr. C. C. Lewis on the body of Mr. John Christian Tilbury, aged 26, who died from injuries sustained by the fall of his horse apon him at the South Essex Steeplechase on Thursday last. The enquiry took place at the house of Mr. Campbell on whose farm the accident occurred.
Mr. John Tilbury of 9 Gloucester Crescent, Hyde Park, said "The deceased was my son. He kept a riding establishment and I acted as his assistant."

[Voluminous details of how the accident happened — basically the horse rolled on him.]

The wife of the deceased was Miss Lydia Thompson, the celebrated actress, by whom he had one child.

Will of John Christian Tilbury died 15th April 1864, Childerditch, Essex:

Address: 9 Glouster Crescent, Paddington
Occupation: Horsedealer and Ringmaster
Widow: Eliza Hodges Tilbury, 9 Glouster Crescent
Estate: under £1,500

John Tilbury, snr. & jnr. — Zeffie's Great-grandfather & Grandfather?

1851 Census, at 35 Gloucester Place, Marylebone:
John Tilbury, Head b. 1804/5 Middlesex - Coachmaker
Ann Tilbury, Wife
Harriet Tilbury, Dau b. c.1834
Charles Tilbury, Son b. c.1845

John Christian Tilbury in 1851:

He, aged 13, and his brother George aged 11, both born Marylebone, were at Hampstead Heath Academy which was being run by Alfred E. Ray (married, aged 40, born Lambeth). He had 19 students aged from 9 to 19 although the majority were in the 11-14 range; there was an assistant, and a French assistant. (from DeirdreT)

1852, Post Office London Directory (Small Edition):
John Tilbury, 48 Mount St, Berkeley Square - Jobmaster
John Tilbury jun., 35 Glo'ster Place, New Rd - Coachmaker

John Tilbury of Mount street was a "Job Master" — that means he hired out horses and carriages to the public (Sarah was probably his second wife). Seemingly the inventor of the "Tilbury" gig.

1861 Census for St. George Hanover Square, Middlesex
John Tilbury b. c.1804 St Georges, Middlesex (Head, spouse of Ann)
Ann Tilbury b. c.1804 ___, Surrey (Wife of John)
John Tilbury b. c.1838 Marylebone, Middlesex (Son)
Harry Tilbury b. c.1843 Marylebone, Middlesex (Son)
Charles Tilbury b. c.1845 Marylebone, Middlesex (Son)

From The Times of 5th April 1854:

Basinghall St. April 4th.
Before Mr. Commissioner HOLROYD.
Re: John Tilbury Junior.
The bankrupt, who was a coachmaker in Gloucester Place, New Road, applied for his certificate. Mr. Bagley supported; Mr. Bicknell, for the assignees offered no opposition, nor did any other creditor. The official assignees reported favourably of the bankrupt's conduct in assisting to wind up his estate since the bankruptcy was attributed to Tilbury's unfortunate connection with Count Dunin, at whose instance he accepted accommodation bills to a large amount.
His HONOUR, in giving judgement, said that he had looked over the balance sheet to see if the bankruptcy could have been avoided. He found, however, that it resulted from the bankrupt having accepted accommodation bills, putting his name most imprudently to them at the desire of Count Dunin, and being a security for him to an insurance office. Nothing could be more mischievous then to incur a liability of this kind.

[The judgement continues at some length — basically saying that John Tilbury was cheated and has learned his lesson.]

A 3rd class certificate was issued.

This John, aged 47, (hence born c.1804) was the John who exhibited his products at the Great Exhibition of 1851.

Zeffie herself


No wonder Zeffie had a taste for the stage! With her famous, probably illegitimate, (supposedly promiscuous and over sexed) mother in the theatre working ‘one-night stands’, continuously on the move, not only between British towns but also between continents - and her father crushed to death when she was a baby - it is a wonder that she had such a successful life.

She was born in Paddington, London on 20th November 1863. There is no record of her birth or christening in the IGI. Little (as yet) is known of her childhood until in two censuses she appears as boarder and scholar (in schools selected by Lydia?):

1871: 5, Victoria Road, West Derby
Elizabeth Barber Head Widow age 67 b. Bath, Somerset
Mary E. Barber daughter Teacher age 34 b. Liverpool
Emma F. Barber Daughter Teacher age 31 b. Liverpool
Carrie E. Henderson Scholar age 14 b. Sidney, Australia
Effie A. Henderson Scholar age 11 b. Adelaide, Australia
Zeffie A. Tilbury Scholar age 7 b. London

Carrie and Effie Henderson were to become her step-sisters.

In 1881, aged 17, Zeffie is listed among the pupils of Mrs. Georgina Beand’s school at 75, Ladbroke Grove, Kensington, London. There were 11 other female boarders aged between 12 and 19, most of them from abroad. All the teachers in the school were stated to be teachers of English, music or art. No science or mathematics for them!

The National Archives (General Record Office) index of marriages shows her marrying a Mr. Woodthorpe in Lancashire in the June quarter of 1887 when she was 24. She obviously retained her maiden name for her film career. There are no records of her ever having any children but my friend Steve Tilbury in Canada reports having had a contact with one of her descendants. The California death index shows her as "Zeffie A. L. Woodthorpe".

Zeffie appears in the 1901 census as "Zeffie Lewis", born London, Paddington and living in the parish of St. Giles in the Fields and St. George in Bloomsbury. She gives her occupation as an actress but her age as 32 ! The 1901 census shows no other Zeffies living in London. There seems little doubt that she had either been lying about her age or simply didn’t know her age. Was "Lewis" a stage name or was she now re-married or was she still Mrs. Woodthorpe??

She entered the U.S.A. as Zeffie Tilbury at Ellis Island on 27th April 1903 on the "Minnetonka" from London. She is shown as being married and aged 32 again! It thus seems very likely that either "Lewis" was her stage name OR she had married and then been widowed or separated. Again it appears that she was lying about her age. Her true age in April 1903 would have been 39.

Zeffie appeared in at least 68 films between 1917 and 1941. These were all made in the U.S.A. so she must have settled there before 1917. By this time she was aged 54 so it is highly likely that she had many years experience acting on English and American stages before getting into the film world. She may well have gone to the U.S.A. around 1894 when her mother made her last (?) appearance there. Quite what Zeffie was doing before her entry into the film world at the rather advanced age of 54 remains a mystery.

Zeffie’s first named film role was as "Mrs. Guerton" in the silent film Blind Man’s Luck produced in 1917. Her last (?) as "Granny Carson" in The Sheriff of Tombstone in 1941. There seems little doubt that her speciality roles were old ladies and that her most famous was the part of the pipe smoking "Grandma" in the highly acclaimed 1940 production of Steinbeck’s Grapes Of Wrath.

Although she seems to have had nothing like the flair for self publicity, inventiveness and daring of her mother, Zeffie still lives on in the video reproductions of her many films. Many are easily available and well worth seeing — particularly The Grapes of Wrath.

She died in California on 22nd July 1950. I was only 12 at the time but would love to have met her!

John R. Tilbury                     
March 2002 — August 2007


Some additional details above from D. Tilbury.

IGI = International Genealogical Index

The Theatre by Deshler Welch, 1893 [Letter]
"September 14, 1886. To the Editor of 'The Theatre':
... wherein you state that Miss Zeffie Tilbury was dying of consumption. Will you be good enough to correct this ... Miss Tilbury is in excellent health ... she is engaged to be married to Your obedient servant, ARTHUR LEWIS."

Candid Chronicles: Leaves from the Note Book of a Canadian Journalist by Hector Willoughby Charlesworth, 1925 [page 379]
"... an adaptation of Dumas's Demi-Monde called The Crust of Society, was memorably fine. The production was deeply interesting because her associates included the famous blonde idol Lydia Thompson once noted as a star in legitimate burlesque, who in this production proved a quiet and dignified dowager. Zeffie Tilbury, a clever daughter of the latter, was also in the company with her husband, a brilliant actor, Arthur Lewis."

Lydia Thompson, Queen of Burlesque by Kurt Gänzl
"Lydia Thompson ... American stage ... 1894 ... Dumas's Le Demi-monde as 'Mrs. Chapel' ... production was mounted by Mr. & Mrs. Arthur Lewis & their own company under the management of J. P. Lewis ...."

Who was who in the Theatre, 1912-1976 (1978, Gale Research Co.)
Gives Arthur Lewis as Zeffie's first husband.

Shakespeare on the Stage 2nd series, by William Winter, 1915
"Tilbury, Zeffie (Mrs. Arthur Lewis, Mrs. L.D. Woodthorpe: 1862—19__)"

The Death Index entry for Zeffie mentions
"Tilbury, Zeffie, Female, 20 Nov. 1863, 22 Jul. 1950, other country, Los Angeles ...
Thompson, Tilbury, Woodthorpe"
There is no "Lewis"


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