Lily Florence Knight 1893-1952, seen here in 1940, around the time war forced her departure from the Palladium.
A number of Twitter users expressed interest when I tweeted recently about finding an obituary for my great grandmother, Lily Knight, in The Stage Archive (https://archive.thestage.co.uk).
Although my great grandmother was not on the stage, our family knew that she had always worked in the theatre world. Her daughter, my grandmother, grew up around the theatre, and Lily’s grandchildren were treated to notable performances at the London Palladium. The tradition continued when my cousins and I were taken for our annual trip to West End theatres during summer holiday visits to Grandma in London.
Lily adored her work: she became privy to all manner of backstage secrets and met the toast of the London stage. Her life in the theatre covered the music hall period from Marie Lloyd through the years of variety and the emergence of cinema, into the dance craze, the light comedies of Noel Coward, Repertory theatre, and the dominance of classical actors such as John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Peggy Ashcroft, Michael Redgrave and Alec Guinness.
The discovery of the obituary filled the gaps in my knowledge of Lily’s career, pinpointing the exact theatres in which she worked and identifying some of her colleagues and employers.
Lily Florence Knight began life in 1893, in a laundry in Stoke Newington. By the time of the 1911 census, Lily was working as a clerk in the establishment of a ‘Musical Agent’. Although Lily was just 17 years old, she had used all the intelligence, charm and looks at her disposal to make a career for herself away from the laundry. Her ambition was spurred by the contrast between the laundry she called home and the glamour of the early twentieth century stage.
The obituary revealed that Lily had begun her career even earlier than 1911, when she ‘in her early teens’, working in the office of a ‘William Henshall’ – the aforementioned musical agent. Around this time, Lily married Sydney Spencer and gave birth to two children. In order to keep working Lily retained her maiden name and was always known professionally as ‘Miss’. According to the obituary, Henshall gave up the agency in the 1920s and it was then that Lily began working as a secretary at the Alexandra Theatre in Stoke Newington. During the twenties, the Alexandra housed pantomimes, films (it had been an early cinema for a short period) and circus performances.
More details about this theatre can be found at the Music Hall and Theatre History Website: http://www.arthurlloyd.co.uk/AlexandraTheatreStokeNewington.htm Some of its posters and programmes 1897-1935 are held at Hackney Archives (currently being moved to a new location) http://www.hackney.gov.uk/ca-archives.htm
A few years later, possibly after the closure of the Alexandra in 1935, Lily transferred to the London Palladium – then one of the most celebrated theatres in the world, and in the heart of the West End. The Palladium was celebrated for its variety acts, and from 1935-39 saw a number of performances from the group later known as The Crazy Gang, which featured the composers Flanagan and Allen, as well as Jimmy Nervo, Teddy Knox, Charlie Naughton and Jimmy Gold. Here Lily worked as a secretary for the managers George Rhodes Parry and (later) Charles Hutchinson. Other acts of the 1930s who played the Palladium were the comedian Jack Benny, singer Paul Robeson, the musicians, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Cab Calloway, the actress Ethel Barrymore, the dancer and singer Josephine Baker, and the singer and entertainer Fats Waller (http://www.reallyuseful.com/theatres/london-palladium/history-1 ).
During this period that Lily worked closely with the man in charge of bookings and, from 1945, the Managing Director of the Palladium, Val Parnell.
Valentine Parnell (1892-1972), had begun his career as an office-boy, and later became a famous theatrical impresario and television producer. Val had been born in Hackney, and married firstly Dorothy O’Connell in 1913. In 1911 he was living with his ventriloquist father at 7 Wiltshire Road, Brixton. A biography and photographs of Val Parnell, can be seen at http://www.teletronic.co.uk/val_parnell.htm
When war intervened, leading to the temporary closure of the Palladium in 1940, Lily took a position at the BBC. A few years later, in September 1943, she moved to the head office of the theatre owners, Moss Empires, working for Charles Henry, the head of the Press department and the chief of production. From 1946, Moss Empires owned the London Palladium, enabling Lily to keep in touch with old friends. More detail on how Moss Empires was run by a small staff at Cranbourne Mansions in Leicester Square can be read at http://glasgow-empire.webs.com/howmossempiresworked.htm
Jack Sullivan, who had had been away serving in war, returned to Moss Empires and separated the Press department, taking Lily as his secretary. After he moved on, she continued to work for his successor John Carlsen.
However, this happy period was soon to end. In 1952, Lily was struck down by cancer of the oesophagus. Her obituary stated that, ‘After a short illness, during most of which she felt it her duty to carry on until it was impossible for her to continue, she was admitted to the Wanstead Hospital, where, after an operation, she died last Friday, May 23.’ Although it was known she was ill, she had been expected to return home after the operation. Lily’s death in hospital at the age of only 58 shocked her husband, children and grandchildren. And, as the obituary shows, Lily was to be mourned deeply by her beloved theatre world:
Her great knowledge of the business and unfailing helpful attitude to the many inquirers day to day were invaluable, and her loss is grievously felt. . . . Val Parnell said: ‘I knew Lily Knight personally for a great number of years. She was a most likeable person, and we shall all miss her very much indeed.’
The Stage, May 29, 1952, p4
Further Reading: Christopher Woodward, The London Palladium: The Story of the Theatre and Its Stars (Jeremy Mills Publishing, 2009)