Waiting at the church

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This week’s Friday funny is brought to you, as ever, by author, journalist and all round historical comedian Eugene Byrne. Eugene tells the story behind a hugely popular music-hall song dating back to 1906 and takes a look at the tune in its various forms – from Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan to music hall star Vesta Victoria

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The song

There was I, waiting at the church,
Waiting at the church,
Waiting at the church;
When I found he’d left me in the lurch,
Lor’, how it did upset me!
All at once, he sent me round a note
Here’s the very note,
This is what he wrote:
“Can’t get away to marry you today,
My wife won’t let me!”

The story

Assuming you know the song, you’re now going to be humming it to yourself all day. And if you don’t know it, you can find plenty of different versions on YouTube. (BBC History Magazine is not responsible for the content of external websites).

This was a hugely popular music-hall song dating back to 1906 but still a favourite for cheerful, raucous singalongs well into the 1940s and beyond. Most people nowadays, if they remember it at all, will recall Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan’s rendition at the 1978 TUC conference.

Callaghan was using it to dampen speculation that he’d call a general election that autumn. In the event, of course, he held out, but instead of the hoped-for economic recovery, there was a huge wave of strikes (the ‘Winter of Discontent’). Mrs Thatcher’s Conservatives won a convincing majority when Callaghan was forced to go to the polls the following May.

With hindsight, it was unwise for Mr Callaghan to delay the election, but his tuneless delivery made it clear that giving up the day job would have been an even worse option.

Addressing the audience in Brighton, the Prime Minister misattributed the song to Marie Lloyd (1870-1922), when in fact it was written for and originally sung by a less well-known but equally fascinating music hall star.

Vesta Victoria (1873-1951), real name Victoria Lawrence, came from a working class background in Yorkshire, and got the stage bug from her father, whose act involved blacking his face and singing while standing on his head. Erm, I guess you had to be there.

First performing as a child, she was a big success by her late teens, regularly topping music hall bills in Britain. She also toured the US, selling out vaudeville shows. In 1892, she had her first big hit with Daddy Wouldn’t Buy Me a Bow-Wow.

As she grew older, her act was more knowing, with plenty of songs based on the disappointments of courtship and married life, and the tribulations of working class women. Waiting at the Church, written for her by Fred Leigh and Harry Pether, was typical of these.

The key to it was its cheerful tone; while women’s lives were full of let-downs, Vesta Victoria’s act was all about refusing to be crushed. There’s also a nice tone of defiance, for instance, in ‘Poor John’ in which she’s being looked over by her prospective mother-in-law:

Then all at once she gave a sigh and cried, “O Lor’
I wonder what on earth he wants to marry for?”
That was quite enough! Up my temper flew;
Says I, “Perhaps it’s so that he can get away from you.”

Her own personal life is rather enigmatic, though it plainly had its ups and downs. Marriage to an actor named Herbert Terry ended in divorce in 1926, but of her children we apparently know little, although there was at least one daughter. She retired in 1918, living on a houseboat near Hampton Court, but she later returned to the stage, appearing in several movies and touring the United States. She finally retired after appearing at the Royal Variety Performance in 1932.

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Read more of Eugene’s historical jokes and amusing tales at www.historyextra.com