The Life and Work of Madame Walker
Nellie Victoria Eva Walker was born in the shadow of St. Mary's Church at 10 Alver Road, Fratton on 25 July 1882. Her father, William Henry Walker, was a draughtsman in the Dockyard, the second of the seven children of George Thomas Walker, a gentleman outfitter's assistant. Her mother, Ellen Elizabeth, was the only child of George James Miller, who worked as a shipwright in the Dockyard. By 1897 the family, which now included her brother George Herbert, had moved along the street to 22 Alver Road.
As a child and young girl Nellie trained to be a concert singer and she had a wonderful contralto voice. She had passed the examination of the Royal Academy and was considering her future. Her grandfather, to persuade her to stay at home, built a studio for her in the garden. It was here in 1899 that the seventeen year old Nellie started her Victoria Academy of Music, teaching singing and piano, with just two pupils. She was in great demand as a singer and was sometimes referred to as the "Second Clara Butt". In 1900 she was awarded the bronze medallion of the Society of Arts. She was also a Gold and Silver Medalist for Dancing. It is likely that around this time, or a little later, that Nellie became 'Madame Walker', the form of address by which she became universally known, and which is unfailingly used to this day by her former pupils.
On 9 February 1911 she was married in St. Mary's Church to Herbert James Peters, a manager for Foot and Milne Electrical Engineers of Victoria, London. Herbert had grown up in Littlehampton and they seem to have met at Portsmouth's South Parade Pier.
The activity of the Academy was increasing all the time and they soon moved next door to 20 Alver Road to free more space at No. 22.
It is not known when the Academy expanded into dance and stagecraft. Young pupils sang and played piano at charity shows. It is believed that Madame Walker became involved in teaching dance through requests from charity show organisers for dancers to augment the musical acts. It is likely that this development occurred well before the First World War and the Victoria Academy of Music began its transition to the Victoria Academy of Singing, Dancing and Stagecraft during this time.
By 1915 the Academy had expanded to premises at 7 Palmerston Road and 20 Elm Grove. In the midst of increasing work she also produced two children - Peggy and John - and maintained her interest in sport, especially horseriding which she loved. Of her two children, Peggy inherited her mother's talent for singing and dancing, becoming a fully qualified teacher and her mother's artistic associate in the work of the Academy, its branches and activities.
The Academy was active during the war with the demand for charity shows to raise funds for the war effort, shows to foster morale, shows for the Allied Forces and shows for hospitals.
The end of the First World War and increasing demand led her to look for bigger premises and the Victoria Academy moved to its well-known location at 2 Portland Road, Southsea, in 1920. It seems to have been created by converting two newly built homes to construct a large studio with accommodation above.
Herbert retired around this time and took control of the business side of the Academy. Her father, William, also helped out with the day to day running.
Research to date has not established exactly when she began to train professional troupes and acts for pantomimes, musicals, plays, variety and charity shows. However, she began to tour her troupes internationally in 1921. The earliest date mentioned for a Madame Walker troupe is 1918 when Jackie Shanks joined 'The Walker Juveniles'. Certainly the 1920s saw a rapid expansion of activity and by the middle of the decade her troupes, acts and individual performers, from children to adults, were in great demand. At the height of her activity, from the 1920s throughout the 1930s, she had as many as seventeen acts, from comedy tap trios to dance troupes of ten or more dancers, available for booking at any one time in Britain and on the continent. They accompanied the very best entertainers of the day and were often 'top of the bill' themselves. They appeared at major theatres in Britain, Ireland, Norway, Europe, North Africa, Egypt, South Africa and America. In Portsmouth, Madame had a special relationship with the New Theatre Royal, where she was ballet mistress for eleven years. Everywhere they received the acclaim of critics and audiences alike for the quality of their dancing, the novelty of their routines and their very fine costumes, designed by Madame and Peggy. Madame insisted on only the best for 'her girls'. She also expected the highest standards, but looked after her girls in return, providing decent wages for those depressed years.
All of Madame's surviving 'girls' speak of her exacting standards, her warmth, humour and deep concern for all aspects of their wellbeing. She was never known to lose patience with a pupil, however awkward, and gave her individual attention not only to her 'stars' but also the not-so-talented, striving to realise the best in each of her pupils. In the 1920s fees were one guinea a term or 10/6d for half a term. Madame would often let pupils pay the full amount at the end of term. On many occasions, if a pupil could not afford the fees but had talent, Madame would charge no fees, but expect the debt to be repaid from the pupil's first professional fees. This practice continued throughout the existence of the Academy.
On occasion there were additional costs. Madame, for example, insisted that her young troupe 'The Walker Juveniles' wore smart uniforms when on professional engagements, which could often last for up to eight weeks.
In 1931, at the age of fifty-one, her husband collapsed and died suddenly after an evening at the theatre. Her father continued to help out and her loyal team of staff were magnificent at this difficult time.
In 1937, Madame supported Peggy in opening a dance school at Wadham Road, North End, which was run as a branch of the Academy. Peggy was a beautiful dancer and, like her mother, had a very fine singing voice.
The Academy thrived throughout the 1930s and Madame had an annual show at South Parade Pier in aid of the Red Cross and Guide Dogs for the Blind to advertise the talents of her pupils - three hours of non-stop variety. The 1939 show celebrated '40 Glorious Years' and though no one knew it at the time, it was to be Madame's final showcase. Quite a shy person, Madame had to be coaxed on stage where she, Peggy and all the pupils taking part were showered with flowers, chocolates and fruits.
With the political situation deteriorating in Europe, her troupes returned to England, the last being in mid-Channel when war was declared.
Madame's activities were severely curtailed. Initially, all the theatres were closed and evacuation affected the Academy. Peggy closed the North End school when her husband was called-up. Portsmouth took a severe pounding in the Blitz and on Good Friday, 11 April 1941 the by-now-closed Academy received a direct hit. The bomb went right through the building and exploded in the basement costume store. Tragically, there was a fatality - Ruth Whitmarsh, who was living in the top floor flat. Madame was staying in Cosham at the time.
Virtually all her possessions were lost. Fortunately Keith Peters was home in Portsmouth on leave and rushing to the scene of devastation managed to rescue several Competition Cups and an All England Dance Trophy plaque last won by Madame's pupils in 1937.
In spite of this terrible event, Madame, with Peggy's help, somehow managed to run her remaining troupes and acts until 1946, touring her girls to wartime theatres, producing shows for the Allied Forces and war-time charities.
After the war, Madame retired and lived in Hendon with Peggy, who was by then working as a milliner. They both moved to Eastbourne in 1971. Madame died in 1977 at the age of ninety-five and Peggy in 1994.
To the end of her life she kept in touch with many of her pupils and enjoyed a 90th birthday reunion with a number of her closest 'girls' and a smaller reunion for her 95th birthday.
Madame Walker was held in the highest esteem and with very great affection by her pupils and 'girls'. She made a major contribution to Portsmouth's theatre, music and dance life in the first four decades of the [20th] century. She established a wider reputation for the city, through the skills and creative talents of the thousands of Portsmouth young people she trained, a number of whom established reputations as solo artists, for example the ballet dancer John Gilpin and the actress Carol Raye.
She also established a tradition successfully continued to this day through the Dance Schools of several of her pupils, including Iris Barnes, Audrey Brown, Mavis Butler, Eva Hennen, Jean Hapgood and Joan Stoneham. Several are still thriving today.
From an unpublished booklet written to accompany an Exhibition of Photographs, Reminiscences and Memorabilia held at The Irving Room, The King's Theatre, Southsea from 13th to 15th July 2000. It was researched and compiled by Carole Carrell, Chris Carrell (City Arts Officer) and Ken Parry (Co-ordinator, 'Timesteps' project) in association with Madame Walker's nephew Keith Peters and former pupils and their relatives. Text written by Chris Carrell.