Elsie Carlisle’s public persona was always that of a coquettish single girl. A 1935 human-interest piece begins with the sentence “Miss Elsie Carlisle, ace woman crooner, has no time for introspection, no time to marry...” (emphasis mine). Her friends and associates seem to have known little that suggested otherwise. Particularly poignant and somewhat intriguing is the comment that her frequent piano accompanist Bert Read made after her death in a letter to a magazine:
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., Prestwich (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.
- St. Edmund’s Roman Catholic Church in Prestwich, built as a chapel-of-ease in 1871, was closed in 2007 and almost completely demolished, although a small part of a wall survives. ↩
- 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. ↩
- Johnson, Memory Lane 174 (2012): 24. ↩