Writing in ‘The Melody Lingers On’ his book about the music hall, Walter Macqueen-Pope described Margaret;
Beautifully dressed, she would sail on to the stage …. Then she would seat herself, take off her elbow length gloves with great care and in the most leisurely manner, and then proceed to remove her numerous rings and bracelets, which she placed one at a time on the top of the piano. The audience watched spell bound. And then she would begin. … Although her voice was neither strong nor powerful, she had the knack of making every syllable heard, every word tell, even in the largest building; and that without a microphone, which she would have scorned.
Margaret Gernon Cooper was born on 28 June 1877, the daughter of James Cooper, a baker, and his wife Isabella Catherine Gernon. When she was baptised they were living at 403 Walnut Road, Newington, Peckham. In the 1881 census the family were still at this address and James was a baker employing four men. By the 1891 census he was still a baker but they had moved to 16 Chilworth Street in Paddington. James died 27 March 1909 and he had obviously done well, as the London Gazette for 1 June shows he had three shops at 16, 17 and 19 Chilworth Street. Margaret was left £4,827, worth about £420,000 today.
The following year, Margaret married Arthur Maughan Humble-Crofts. Arthur was born on 18 November 1883 in Waldron Sussex, the fourth son of the wealthy Reverend William John Humble-Crofts. Seemingly it came as a surprise for the Waldron community. One paper noted Margaret was ‘married as quietly as possible’ with only a few family members present. Margaret wore a grey satin dress, her father-in-law performed the ceremony and her mother-in-law played the organ. All the bell ringers were given a signed photograph of the bride. The couple met at a concert at a school where Arthur was teaching. They married soon after and Arthur gave up his work to support his wife’s career.
They moved to ‘Framba’ 103 Dartmouth Road and he is shown there in the phone books from 1911 to 1918. They didn’t have any children and in the 1911 census, Arthur described himself as ‘private secretary and agent to wife.’
Margaret was a very talented musician and composer, playing the piano, violin and organ. After attending the Royal Academy of Music, she worked as an accompanist and sang at concerts and dinners. But there were an awful lot of good performers. Her lucky break came when she was spotted playing at a charity concert by theatre manager Sir Alfred Butt. In the early years of the 20th Century most theatre managers saw songs at the piano as predominately a male act. But Sir Alfred realised here was the potential to attract a new audience to the Palace Theatre and approached Margaret. At first rather dubious about appearing on the variety stage, she took the plunge in October 1906 - and never looked back, ‘she was an instant and overwhelming success.’ When she appeared later that month in Bristol, she was billed as ‘The Latest London Sensation, in her Inimitable “Songs at the Piano”. Her largest fee was £100 for a single performance, which is equivalent to about £8,000 today.
There is sheet music online, including ‘Catch Me!’ (1915), with lyrics by Arthur and music by Margaret. ‘Waltz me around again, Willie’ was one of her best known songs.
Margaret’s career was helped by the parodies of her by H.G. Pelissier and his ‘Follies’. Pelissier impersonated her by exaggerating her preparations before starting to play: carefully placing a handkerchief and the book of words on the top of the piano, then meticulously adjusting the music stool.
|HG Pelissier performing|
World War One
During WWI Margaret entertained wounded soldiers in hospitals. All four Humble-Croft brothers joined up. Her husband Arthur joined the Royal Naval Air Service in 1916 as an Able Seaman and worked in the Admiralty Offices. He made Lieutenant in May 1917 and was sent to Dover that August, where he worked in joint charge of the Naval Exchange for the R.A.F. He died in the Military Hospital, Castle Mount, Dover the day after his 35th birthday, on 19 November 1918, from pneumonia following influenza. He is buried at All Saints Churchyard, Waldron, East Sussex.
What happened to Margaret?
The death of her husband Arthur in 1918 was a severe blow to Margaret and her appearances in the London variety theatres became less frequent. She died four years later from heart failure at 103 Dartmouth Road on 27 December 1922. Although she’d not been in the best of health after suffering breakdown a few months earlier and more recent asthma attacks, Margaret’s death was unexpected. She hadn’t made a will and her brother Alexander David Cooper inherited her £5,032 estate.
Margaret was cremated at Golders Green on 2 January 1923. The ‘vast congregation’ crowded into the chapel. There were many floral tributes from the musical world, including one from Henry Wood dedicated ‘to a great artist’ and the theatre tributes included those from Sir Oswald Stoll and Ellen Terry.
Margaret’s obituary in the Times 29 Dec 1922, says she established a reputation, ‘almost in a night’, for eminently ‘clean’ entertainment and succeeded in retaining this to the last. The many obituaries lamented the loss of a great performer with only a few mild criticisms. One reporter wrote, ‘her erratic behaviour off the stage led to some curious results on occasion’ but he gave no details, and ‘Miss Cooper never sang a song twice in the same way’, but the latter may have been part of her appeal.
Several obituaries agreed her death evoked a ‘peculiar pathos’ as Margaret was planning a new life, having agreed to marry actor and singer Harry Welchman in February 1923. But the related scandal that could have damaged Margaret’s image was something the papers chose to ignore, presumably out of respect for the lady.
Born in Devon in 1886, he went onto the stage immediately after leaving school. He was spotted at a pantomime in 1906 by Robert Courtneidge who went on to manage Harry and helped establish a successful career for the actor/singer.
At the time of Margaret’s death Harry was appearing to good reviews in The Lady of the Rose. Up to then, their engagement hadn’t been made public and there was a good reason for this. Margaret’s obituaries fail to mention the fact Harry was going through a divorce. In July 1922 his actress wife Joan, (professional name Joan Challoner), had been granted a decree nisi, on the grounds of Harry’s ‘statutory desertion and adultery’. This was made final in January 1923, a month after Margaret’s death. Her role is open to speculation, as she is never named in the newspaper reports as the ‘other woman.’ Harry later married the actress Sylvia Forde. He enjoyed a long stage and film career, was featured in the BBC’s series ‘This is Your Life’ (1960) and died in 1966, aged 79.