Elizabeth Carlisle was born on January 28, 18961 in Manchester, England to James Carlisle and Mary Ellen Carlisle (née Cottingham). Elsie was not the only member of her family to show a knack for show business; her brothers James (“Jim”) and Albert (“Tim”) were both singers who worked with the great composer, publisher, and impresario Lawrence Wright. By her own account, Elsie was encouraged to learn singing by her mother, who paid for her to have lessons when she was only a small girl.2 It was her brother Jim who got her her first theatrical role at the age of 12,3 and by the time of her marriage in 1914 she could be described as a “musical hall artiste” on the wedding certificate. By 1919 she was appearing in the West End in a show whose cast included Betty Bolton, and the next year she merited her own show, entitled Elsie Carlisle – With a Different Style, in which she performed as a solo vocalist.
How “different” her style was would quickly be made known to larger and larger audiences. Her stage career grew, only to be eclipsed, starting in 1926, by her broadcasting and recording efforts. Elsie’s 38 recordings made with Ambrose and His Orchestra between 1932 and 1935 are among the best remembered, but one should remember that she made at least 342 recordings between 1926 and 1942 — a prolific output. The British public would have known her better still from her broadcasts on the BBC and Radio Luxembourg. She was often billed as the “Idol of the Radio,” a well-earned epithet. By the mid-1930s she was ranked amongst the top vocalists who could be heard on the British airwaves, and she had film and television credits to her name as well. Her dulcet delivery of themes both comic and plaintive continues to attract listeners over a century after her first performance in a Manchester music hall, and the world is much richer for her having lived in it.
January 28, 1896 is the date that Elsie Carlisle’s mother provided when she registered her daughter’s birth on March 3, 1896. The same birthday appears on Elsie’s baptismal certificate, which is dated April 15, 1896, so the date “21 January 1897” found on Elsie’s death certificate must be erroneous. People are not generally baptized before they are born, and one would assume that Elsie’s mother was a better source of information regarding her own daughter’s birth than Elsie’s son Wilfred, the informant for the death certificate. ↩
Ralph Graves. “Radio Sweetheart No. 1.” Radio Pictorial 251 (November 4, 1938): 8. ↩
According to Richard J. Johnson in “Elsie Carlisle (with a different style).” Memory Lane 174 (2012): 25. ↩
Off-stage she was a joy to be with; always cheerful, cracking gags, and telling very funny stories in a superb Mancunian accent. A great party-giver and a charming hostess she was at home in any company. Yet secretly, she was undoubtedly a far from happy woman, never having fully recovered from a romance that had soured some years before I met her. Such a wonderful person deserved to have a good marriage, but it would appear that didn’t eventuate – at least, not within the limits of my knowledge.
Bert Read alludes to some crushing disappointment in Elsie’s life that is impossible to identify now with any certainty. What is most fascinating, however, is the way that, writing a few months after her death, he qualifies the claim that she died a spinster with the proviso “not within the limits of my knowledge.”
Elsie Carlisle’s death certificate shows that Bert Read’s hesitation was well-placed. The certificate describes her as “A Theatrical Artist. (retired), Widow of Wilfred Malpas.” The informant who certified the document is one “Wilfred Ypres Carlisle, Son,” who signed his name “Willie Carlisle,” and who is presumably the same “Wilfred Y. Malpas” (mother’s maiden name “Carlisle”) found in the first-quarter birth registry for 1915 (the date of birth is listed as November 20, 1914). This son’s address given on the death certificate is identical to that of his mother: 8 Deanery Street, Elsie’s posh Mayfair apartment.
His father, the elder Wilfred Malpas, had married Elizabeth (“Elsie”) Carlisle on August 8, 1914 in St. Edmund’s Roman Catholic Church in Monsall St., Miles Platting (in Greater Manchester),1 “according to the Rites and Ceremonies of the Roman Catholics,” as the marriage certificate states. We know little about Mr. Malpas, other than that he is described on the certificate as a “House and Church Decorator Journeyman” (eighteen-year-old Elsie being described already as a “Music Hall Artist”). The couple’s fathers were both deceased by this time; Wilfred Malpas’s father had been some sort of musician. At the time of the wedding, Wilfred was 23, Elsie 18.
The sort of people who like to count the number of months between a marriage and the birth of a child might have tittered over the very short interval between Elsie’s nuptials and Wilfred Ypres’s2 birthday (November 20, 1914) — slightly over three months — but in that era of considerably less tolerance regarding premarital sex, a complicating factor would have been the couple’s already having had a child before they were married, one Basil Albert Carlisle, born June 16, 1913, well over a year before the wedding. Elsie had been only seventeen when Basil was born, and his father’s name appears nowhere on his birth certificate, although a small amendment appears in the margin of that document noting that he was “Re-registered under the Legitimacy Act 1926 on 5th February 1934” (the Legitimacy Act established that people born out of wedlock could be considered legitimate if their parents married subsequently). Indeed, Basil does appear a second time in the first-quarter birth registry for 1934 as “Basil A. Malpas” (with the mother’s maiden name being Carlisle).
So far I have found little record concerning Wilfred Malpas’s and Elsie Carlisle’s married life. Elsie had great success as a musical theater artist, at first just in Manchester, but by 1919 she had established herself as a London actress — and as an apparently single woman. Malpas disappeared from the picture entirely, although he and Elsie must have remained legally married for her to be described as his widow when she died in 1977 (he had passed away in 1962).3 The two boys were raised by Elsie’s mother, Mary Ellen Carlisle, and attended St. Edmund’s Roman Catholic Primary School in Miles Platting, Manchester.4 Elsie meanwhile led an extraordinarily private life for such a visible person.
The potential for scandal was great, however, especially at a time when the BBC, Elsie’s main source of income, was under the direction of the infamously prudish Sir John Reith. When, in the mid-1930s, Elsie’s sons came to London, she began to refer to them as brothers,5 and the press followed suit. Wilfred Ypres Carlisle appears in British newspapers of the 1930s-1950s as Billie, Billy, or Willie Carlisle, brother of the more famous Elsie Carlisle, although he himself had a successful stage career. I have discovered less about Basil’s life; his 1940 marriage is indexed both under the name Malpas (probably out of legal necessity) and under Carlisle, the latter name being the one he used. Both sons went by Carlisle; they had to in order to keep up the ruse that they were Elsie’s brothers. It was Wilfred who acted as Elsie’s partner in the hospitality and ballroom business after she retired from music, and, as we have seen, he lived with her in the 1970s, when she was suffering from cancer. Wilfred died in 1993, Basil in 2000.
What stands out to me as most remarkable is not Elsie Carlisle’s teenage motherhood and the threat it later posed to her career — the former is a common enough occurrence, and the latter a function of the unfortunate mores of the times — but rather the awkwardness of the ruse she adopted, of having her sons pose as her brothers. Yet we shall probably never know the nature of her relationship with Wilfred Malpas or the complexities of her family life even before her ambitious and wildly successful public career had started. Her narrative, full of gaps and silences, begins with the pregnancy of a sixteen-year-old girl who not only achieved greatness but also had a reputation for being charming and charitable. That she ended her days in the care of one of her sons is perhaps more meaningful than anything else.
One should note that Wilfred Ypres Malpas was born only hours before the Allies won the month-long Battle of Ypres in Belgium, so he was probably given his middle name out of patriotic motives. The Battle of Ypres was the beginning of trench warfare in World War I, a war in which Elsie would lose her brother Arthur. ↩
Elsie Carlisle biographer Richard J. Johnson suggests that “[i]t is possible that the marriage had failed but as a Catholic divorce was no option.” (“Elsie Carlisle [with a different style].” Memory Lane 175 : 39). I would note that Elsie was baptized in the Church of England, but she must have converted to Roman Catholicism in order to have a Roman Catholic marriage. ↩
I want to offer my special thanks to Elsie’s great nephew Alan Carlisle and to his late uncle James Carlisle for clarifying many details of Elsie’s sons’ upbringing. Incidentally, Basil and Wilfred’s time at St. Edmund’s may have overlapped with that of the future author and composer Anthony Burgess, whose father was known to play piano accompaniment to the singing of Elsie’s brother, Albert “Tim” Carlisle. My thanks to Simon Johnson for pointing out the family connection. ↩
Elsie Carlisle passed from this world on September 5, 1977, dying of cancer at the age of 81 in the Royal Marsden Hospital, Chelsea, London. The informant who signed the death certificate was Wilfred “Willie” Ypres Carlisle, one of her two sons, who gave as his own address the same one that she had been living at for the previous four decades, 8 Deanery Street, in the posh Mayfair district. She is described in the document as “A Theatrical Artist (retired)” and “Widow of Wilfred Malpas.”
The era of British dance band music was long over, and she had lived in great privacy for many years. It was four days before the London Times took notice of Elsie Carlisle’s death, when they printed an abbreviated eulogy:
Elsie Carlisle, who was a notable crooner of the 1930s, has died. Born in Manchester she was an established name by the time she was 16. She appeared in many Royal Command performances, among her song title hits being “No, no, a Thousand Times, No!” and “Little Drummer Boy”. For four years she was partnered by Sam Brown [sic] but they split up in 1935.
By contrast, during the interwar years the praise showered upon Elsie’s talent and winning personality was far more effusive. In 1921, almost five years before Elsie made her first radio broadcast, she earned the following review from the Angus Evening Telegraph for her performance in a Dundee production of the play French Beans:
An ideal Cupid is Elsie Carlisle, who entertains as much with her bewitching personality as with her charming voice. She has a knack of getting to the heart of her audience, and it seemed as though she were not to be allowed to make her bow last night.
In 1926, Elsie began both to sing on the radio and to make records, and her increasingly nationally recognized celebrity attracted ever more fanciful epithets. In 1927 she was a “charming microphone personality.” By 1934 she had become “the champion mezzo-soprano crooner” and “Your Radio Favourite.” In 1936, surveys showed her to be the public’s favorite female radio singer, and she earned the oft-repeated title “Idol of the Radio,” a status she enjoyed for several years. In November 1939, Radio Pictorial famously dubbed her “Radio Sweetheart No. 1,” and in 1941, the penultimate year of her making records, the Hull Daily Mail was still calling her “the charming songstress of the radio.”
In 1940-1941, nearing the end of her professional career, Elsie toured the country with a troupe of younger entertainers. The draw that her name exerted is attested by the fact that the group called itself “The Carlisle Express.” She stopped making records in 1942, but she was still on stage and continued making broadcasts through 1945. After this point she almost completely dropped out of the public eye, but it is worth noting that that was true of most dance band personalities; the genre did not really survive the war. Her attention shifted to business ventures, including a ballroom in London and an inn in Berkshire.
It was not only for stage, broadcasting, and recording that Elsie was known; she also worked in other media. In addition to making short but amusing appearances singing in a number of films, Elsie was an early television star, appearing first on the crude Baird system in 1930, and she continued to pop up on TV as the technology improved during the 1930s. In the early 1950s, she did a television interview accompanied by Ambrose and then disappeared utterly from public view until 1973, when she appeared on the Denis Norden program Looks Familiar. She was to return to that show in 1975. 1
An erstwhile child actress who rose to striking celebrity and dominated the airwaves for nearly twenty years, Elsie Carlisle ended her days in comparative obscurity, but those who had worked with her remembered her not just as a great musical talent, but as a warm, fun, and charitable person. In the words of accompanist Bert Read, writing in the months following her death: “I shall always retain the warmest memories of a fine artiste and a gentle, compassionate, woman. R.I.P.”
David Weavings tells me that he saw the 1973 appearance of Elsie Carlisle on Looks Familiar, and that Denis Norden was able to convince Elsie to sing the first line of “My Man o’ War.”↩
Radio Pictorial, a weekly publication for wireless aficionados, carried in its October 15, 1937 issue the final installment of an interview with Elsie Carlisle entitled “Crooning to You…” House style seems to have demanded that it take the form of redacted answers to suppressed questions; it is Elsie who does all the talking, and she appears to prattle on endlessly without any prompting, which was no doubt the intended effect. One may divine the glorious sort of fluff included in the item from highlights printed in bold at the top of the page:
★ When I Was Electrocuted—But The Show Went On :: Footballs Are SO Hard ! :: My Greyhounds :: Off to America
And who could argue with Elsie regarding the famed hardness of footballs, when — what, electrocuted??? Actually, that was rather a favorite story of Elsie’s, or perhaps of the magazine’s editors, for it would appear again in the 1938 Ralph Graves article “Radio Sweetheart No. 1.” The salient points of the interview are that
Elsie Carlisle is a normal human being, like you or I. She has nightmares about plane crashes — that sort of thing.
Elsie is an absurdly resilient performer, utterly loyal to her fans. She insists that “[t]he show must go on,” even after a car accident or an accidental electrocution; regarding the latter she reports: “I got through the broadcast somehow, and I flatter myself that no listeners noticed any difference in my performance. But, it is a fact, I was in a coma the whole time.”
She is comically impractical: “Nothing, however, could have been so painful as the first time I ever kicked-off at a football match. I was asked by the Variety Artistes Ladies’ Guild to start a match between Dick Kerr’s Ladies’ Football team and a team of French lady footballers. I went along in a small pair of silk shoes, and under-estimated the hardness of a football. I gave it a good kick, and for the rest of the day I could hardly feel my toes.”
She is “passionately fond of dogs.” She tells a very sad story of one of her dogs being hit by a bus. She has started to keep greyhounds but is usually too busy performing to see them race.
After a decade of turning down offers to come and perform and America, she…actually, it is hard to piece together if she has agreed to anything specific. “[I]f nothing crops up to frustrate my present plans, I shall soon be on my way to America,” she claims. She expresses hopes that the American public will be as welcoming to her as the British one, but that is as much as we get, and I have never seen anything to suggest that she ever did travel to America.
This is a fundamentally very silly article overshadowed by a not-very-flattering disembodied Elsie head — which is to say that it is exceedingly fun! Elsie seems to have been just as good at working the press as she was at singing, and she clearly worked hard to earn such commonly repeated epithets as “Idol of the Radio,” “Radio Sweetheart No. 1,” and, on a rare occasion when she was not feeling up to talking to the press, “Distinguished Woman Invalid” (The Dundee Evening Telegraph, January 4, 1939).
"The Idol of the Radio." British dance band singer of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s.