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Reeve, Adafree

  • Maggie B. Gale

Ada Reeve (1874–1966), by Bassano, 1900s

© National Portrait Gallery, London

Reeve, Ada (1874–1966), actress, was born Adelaide Mary Isaacs at 22 Jubilee Street, Mile End, London, on 3 March 1874, the eldest daughter in the family of five daughters and five sons of Samuel Isaacs (1843–1906), comedian, and his wife Harriet, née Saunders (1847–1924), who was also a stage performer. Her father performed as Charles Reeve, the surname she adopted. She began her professional career as a child in pantomime at the age of four in London’s Whitechapel Pavilion Theatre, one of the busiest East End venues of the time, and played child parts in London venues, and toured in pantomime before, in 1888 aged fourteen, singing in music halls in London’s East End. Her father managed her early career, giving her small amounts of spending money and investing the rest in his own name: in effect she supported her family from her earnings as a teenage performer.

Reeve graduated to musical comedy working for George Edwardes as one of his Gaiety Girls. Her first appearance in the West End, in November 1894, was at the Gaiety, in the leading role in Edwardes’ musical comedy The Shop Girl. These were followed by further West End appearances, at the Criterion (1895) in All Aboard and the Duke of York’s (1896) in The Gay Parisienne, and in productions such as Floradora at the Lyric Theatre in 1899 and in San Toy at Daly’s in 1901. She became one of the most popular performers of her generation, with a sequence of hit songs—such as ‘Susie-oo’ (1897) or the Paul Rubens composition ‘Trixie of Upper Tooting’ (1902). In the early decades of her career, she appeared on hundreds of publicity postcards and was able to command substantial fees for stage appearances and product endorsements.

Reeve was twice married, each time to men who took on a managerial role but failed to steer her career in the direction she wanted. At Nottingham register office, on 5 May 1894, she married the actor Bert Gilbert, who was Gilbert Joseph Hazlewood (1873–1937), son of Henry Colin Hazlewood, an actor and theatre manager, and grandson of the playwright Colin Henry Hazlewood. They had two daughters. Reeve and her husband went on tour to Australia but his blatant womanizing led her to bring proceedings for divorce in New South Wales in 1898. He repented but relapsed and she divorced him in 1900 and went on to marry at Maidenhead register office on 14 July 1902 a theatrical manager, Albert Wilfred Cotton (1872–1946), son of Edward Cotton, builder.

In the early 1900s Reeve went into management herself, producing successes such as Butterflies in 1908, a musical comedy about a conventional middle-class family who end up stranded with a group of Bohemian artists in France. She toured in South Africa in 1906, 1909, 1911, and 1913, and in 1913 brought out her first ‘souvenir’ autobiography, Pot-Pourri: Reminiscences at Random, based on her travels. On the outbreak of war in 1914 she was touring in Australia and returned to Britain in 1915, performing to convalescing troops and in fund-raising events to support the war wounded. In 1916 she embarked on a tour of Egypt, India, and the Far East, returning to Australia in 1917, where her wartime charity work included performances in military hospitals. Australian audiences dubbed her ‘Anzac AdaReeve, ‘the Soldier’s Friend.’. She toured in South Africa again in 1920, and Australia in 1922–4. Having separated from her second husband, who settled without her in East Africa in 1917 on an estate she had purchased, she made Australia her home from 1929. She returned to Britain in 1935 following the collapse of her investments in property. Her later work was built around cameo parts in films such as Mrs Batley in the film version of J. B. Priestley’s They Came to a City (1944) and the concierge in Meet Me at Dawn (1947). Her last film role was in 1957 as ‘Old Woman’ in The Passionate Stranger directed by Muriel Box.

Reeve’s career was not untypical of high-profile female performers of her generation both in its variety, its adaptation to different performance forms, and in its longevity. She appears to have been plagued by a series of financial mishaps, so that the overwhelming successes of her early and lucrative career in music hall and musical comedy were not enough to keep her financially secure into old age. Her 1954 autobiography, Take it For a Fact, evidences a life of extraordinary variety: she performed, managed, and produced her own shows, taught performance, travelled, and invested in land and property. The autobiography also gives the impression that while not ultimately keen on motherhood or family life (she did not see her daughters again after finally leaving Australia), she was an enthusiastic businesswoman, negotiating contracts and wages with an enhanced awareness of what might or might not work as a hit production.

Reeve was unusual, however, among her generation of actresses, especially from the popular theatre, in that she kept so many records of her contracts and correspondence: her autobiography is layered with rich details of performances and professional associations, as well as anecdotes and critiques of new acting styles and the impact of inadequate directors. She was a formidable and demanding colleague who took no nonsense from actors who might try to upstage her, or producers for whom she had no respect. Her archive of papers survived largely because of her friendship with the theatre collectors Raymond Mander and Joe Mitchenson later in life. They helped to find her a publisher for her autobiography, which was originally turned down by many potential publishers who did not believe people were still interested in her ‘story’. The two collectors also secured her a basic pension from theatre charities. She died at St Charles Hospital, Kensington, London, on 25 September 1966 and was cremated.


  • The Times (26 Sept 1966)
  • A. Reeve, Take it for a fact: a record of my seventy-five years on the stage (1954)
  • Ada Reeve papers, Mander and Mitchenson collection, theatre collection, University of Bristol
  • J. Parker, ed., Who’s who in the theatre (1912); 7th edn (1933); 12th edn (1957)
  • M. Lipton, ‘Tactical agency in war work: “Anzac Ada” Reeve, “the soldier’s friend”’, Popular Entertainment Studies, 3/1, (2012), 7–23
  • M. Lipton, ‘Memorialisation, memorabilia and the mediated afterlife of Ada Reeve’, New Theatre Quarterly, 29 (2013), 132–45
  • UK civil divorce records, Hazlewood v Hazlewood (1900)
  • census returns, 1881, 1891, 1901


  • Mander and Mitchenson collection, theatre collection, University of Bristol


  • performance footage, BFI NFTVA


  • performance and documentary recording, BL NSA


  • Rapid Photo Co., matte bromide postcard print, c.1896, NPG
  • Ogden’s, cigarette card, c.1896, NPG
  • H. J. Whitlock, bromide postcard print, 1900s, NPG
  • Ralph Dunn & Co., matte bromide postcard print, 1990s, NPG
  • Bassano, matte bromide book postcard print, 1900s, NPG
  • Bassano, postcard print, 1900s, NPG [see illus.]
  • matte bromide postcard print, 1896–1949, NPG
  • Henry Moss & Co., matte bromide postcard print, 1900s, NPG
  • J. Beagles & Co., bromide postcard print, 1900s, NPG
  • Foulsham & Banfield, postcard print, 1900s, NPG
  • halftone reproduction, 1900s, NPG
  • L. Charles, matte bromide postcard print, 1901, NPG
  • postcard print, 1903, NPG
  • W. Whiteley, bromide postcard print, c.1904, NPG
  • A. Ellis & Walery, matte bromide book postcard print, c.1904, NPG
  • Universal Pictorial Press and Agency, bromide press print, 1949, 1954, NPG
  • photograph, 1946, Fox Photos/Getty Images
  • photograph, 1954, Hult. Arch.
  • colour print, c.1902, Print Collector/Getty Images
  • G. F. Scotson-Clark, cartoon, repro. in Scotson-Clark, The halls (1900)
  • photograph, 1903, Print Collector/Getty Images
  • photograph, c.1901, Bettmann
  • B. Hardy, photograph, 1943, Picture Post/Getty Images
  • D. Farson, photograph, 1952, Picture Post/Getty Images
  • photographs, 1945–7, Everett Collection
  • photograph, 1954–7, Associated Newspapers/Rex Features
  • D. Weston, photographs, 1956, Associated Newspapers/Rex Features
  • print, c.1900, American Vaudeville Museum
  • photograph, c.1880s, LPSCo Photography, Footlight Notes

Wealth at Death

£549: probate, 22 Nov 1966, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

British Film Institute, London
Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]
marriage certificate
British Library, National Sound Archive
birth certificate