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Chevalier, Albert Onésime Britannicus Gwathveoyd Louislocked

(1861–1923)
  • Simon Featherstone

Albert Onésime Britannicus Gwathveoyd Louis Chevalier (1861–1923)

by B. Knight [Mafekin' Night]

Chevalier, Albert Onésime Britannicus Gwathveoyd Louis (1861–1923), comedian and actor, was born on 21 March 1861 at 21 St Ann's Villas, Royal Crescent, Notting Hill, London, the eldest son of Jean Onésime Chevalier, language teacher, and his wife, Ellen Louisa Mathews; his name at birth was registered simply as Albert Chevalier. He was educated at Clanricarde College, Bayswater, and St Mary's College, Richmond. After leaving school he worked briefly as a clerk in a newspaper office and as a pupil teacher before gaining an introduction to a theatrical agent through the playwright Dion Boucicault. Chevalier's first professional appearance was at the Prince of Wales's Theatre, London, on 29 September 1877, and his subsequent theatrical career featured character and comic roles in popular drama, both in London and provincial theatres. He appeared in Arthur Pinero's The Magistrate (1885) and The Schoolmistress (1886) before becoming principal comedian in burlesques at the Avenue Theatre in 1889. During the 1880s Chevalier was also writing shows and songs, and his song 'Our 'armonic Club', written for the burlesque Aladdin, or, The Wonderful Scamp (c.1888), began the series of coster pieces which were to establish him as a star of London music-halls.

On 5 February 1891 Chevalier made his first appearance as a music-hall performer at the New London Pavilion, Piccadilly Circus. He appeared in character as a costermonger, and sang 'The coster's serenade', 'The nasty way 'e sez it', and 'Funny without being vulgar'. The performance drew upon an older music-hall tradition of the stage cockney established by Alfred Vance and others, and upon the London characters of Charles Dickens, particularly that of Sam Weller whom Chevalier had played in an unsuccessful touring show. However, Chevalier modernized the speech of Weller and the mid-century cockney performers, and recast the criminal coster of Vance as a sentimental version of a working-class Londoner. His decision to perform in music-halls was unusual for an actor at this time: it resulted in part from his limited success in the theatre, but also reflected the development of the ‘syndicate’ music halls, like the Pavilion, which sought to reorganize the industry and present a respectable entertainment to a wider audience than that of the older halls. Chevalier himself defended his decision in an article in the English Illustrated Magazine in 1893 where he argued that music-hall audiences had become 'ready to digest some sentiment, some traits of deeper human life' (Chevalier, On Costers, 487), and he was championed by literary figures such as George Bernard Shaw and the poet Arthur Symons. On 8 October 1894 he married Florence Isabel (b. 1868/9), daughter of the music-hall performer George Leybourne; they had no children.

Chevalier worked in the major London music-halls for seven years, often performing a 'turn' in three or four halls each night. He established a repertory of coster songs written by himself and his brother Auguste (who composed under the name of Charles Ingle). These included 'Wot cher!, or, Knocked 'em in the Old Kent Road', 'The future Mrs. 'Awkins', ''Appy 'Ampstead', and his most successful number, the workhouse-door melodrama 'My old dutch'. At the height of his career Chevalier was one of the best-paid music-hall stars, earning up to £450 per week. However, his brief venture in music-hall management, at the Trocadero in 1893, was disastrous, and resulted in debts of £10,000.

During the 1890s Chevalier interspersed his London music-hall appearances with shows elsewhere in Britain. These took place in concert venues as Chevalier refused to appear in provincial music-halls. After returning to Britain from a successful tour of the United States and Canada in 1896–7 he largely abandoned music-hall performances of any kind to concentrate on these 'recitals', as he termed them. He had come to dislike what he considered the unpredictability and inattentiveness of music-hall audiences, and he also faced rivalry from other coster entertainers, particularly Gus Elen, who had developed a more complex and bleakly comic version of the genre. In his recitals Chevalier presented other kinds of character sketches alongside his coster songs, including those of a rural vicar in 'Our bazaar', a failed actor in 'A fallen star', and a west-country peasant in ''E can't take a roise out of oi'. While none of these achieved the popularity of the coster songs, Chevalier maintained a successful solo career. His annual season of twice-daily recitals at the Queen's Hall, London, which began in 1899, ran to over 1000 performances.

Later in his career Chevalier also returned to the theatre. He played the title role in J. M. Barrie's Pantaloon (1906) and in the same year appeared with the French chanteuse Yvette Guilbert. He continued to write songs and drama, and his final play My Old Dutch, co-written with Arthur Shirley and based on his own song, had some success at the Lyceum Theatre in 1920 despite its by then dated sentimentality. Chevalier made his last London appearance in a revival of this play in November 1922.

Albert Chevalier was in some ways an innovative popular performer who established the coster style of performance, wrote his own material, and exploited the commercial opportunities of the developing music-halls in the 1890s. He made commercial recordings of his songs, and appeared in several early films, including one of My Old Dutch. He died at his home, Lake House, 38 Woodberry Down, Stoke Newington, London, on 10 July 1923, and was buried in Abney Park cemetery on 13 July. He was survived by his wife.

Sources

  • A. Chevalier, Before I forget (1901)
  • A. Chevalier and B. Daly, Albert Chevalier: a record by himself (1896)
  • A. Chevalier, ‘On costers and music halls’, English Illustrated Magazine, 10 (1893), 479–90
  • G. S. Jones, ‘The “cockney” and the nation, 1780–1988’, Metropolis London: histories and representations since 1800, ed. D. Feldman and G. S. Jones (1989), 272–324
  • L. Senelick, D. Cheshire, and U. Schneider, British music-hall, 1840–1923: a bibliography and guide to sources, with a supplement on European music-hall (1981)
  • b. cert.
  • m. cert.
  • d. cert.
  • The Times (12 July 1923)

Archives

Sound

  • BL NSA, performance recordings

Likenesses

  • B. Knight, photograph, repro. in Chevalier, Before I forget [see illus.]
  • photograph, repro. in Chevalier, ‘On costers and music halls’
  • photographs, repro. in Chevalier, Before I forget
  • photographs, repro. in Chevalier and Daly, Albert Chevalier

Wealth at Death

£7164 15s. 2d.: probate, 15 Aug 1923, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)
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