The Thong Birds
The Thong Birds (or Thongbirds) were a female chorus line formed in Upperthong in 1929 by the Rev. H.G. Wilks.
They gained a degree of national notoriety, particularly when at least two Yorkshire men sent proposals of marriage to the entire troupe.
According to an article published in the Yorkshire Evening Post in November 1930, the chorus line was the idea of the Rev. H.G. Wilks, Vicar of Upperthong. Needing to raise funds for the church, Rev. Wilks — who appears to have been theatrically minded and was known as the "Panto Vicar" — felt that the parish's previous fund-raising entertainment events had lacked "vitality and brightness":
Left alone, I thought long into the night. One by one I discarded the traditional methods of wheedling money from the pockets of long-suffering parishioners. In my own mind I felt that, good cause or bad cause, people nowadays demanded something for their money: if they paid to be amused they expected amusement, not boredom.
The troupe reportedly was comprised of around 20 members of the Upperthong Sunday School, many of whom worked in local mills or as shop assistants during the day.
Former member Mary Green (née Bray) later recalled that they were taught dance by Charles Vernon Sykes (often referred to as C.V. Sykes).
The earliest reported performance was in "Speed Limits", a "home-made" revue produced by brothers J.R Sykes and C.V. Sykes of the Holmfirth and District Amateur Operatic Society at the Holmfirth Drill Hall during April 1929, in which the Rev. Wilks took a performing role. The Yorkshire Post reported that it contained "dancing and burlesque" and was "attracting much attention in the Holme Valley".
In February 1930, the Leeds Mercury reported that the Thong Birds — "comprised principally of girls employed in the woollen and worsted mills of the district" — would be one of the "chief features" of an upcoming pantomime production of "Dick Whittington":
These girls, pretty and vivacious, have sweet voices. Often at lunch time, on quitting the looms they may be seen practising the high-kick and the "splits." Even while busily occupied with their work their soprano voices can be heard above the din of the machinery in the strains of pantomime songs.
Perhaps inspired by their successes, the Rev. Wilks penned his own short stage-thriller entitled "Karlstein" (performed as part of the Skyes' "Joy Flights" revue) in which he took the lead role of the "German scientist-criminal" who tries to swindle his young ward (played by Mrs. Wilks) out of her fortune. When he fails, he poisons her and conceals her body in a standing coffin "behind a sliding panel in the wall", before proceeding to kill off several other characters. Presumably using a variant of the Pepper's Ghost illusion, the audience was astonished when the body was later revealed as a skeleton only for it to apparently regrow human flesh upon the bones. The reporter from the Sheffield Independent noted that he heard one audience member say, "it fair gives me the creeps!"
Despite the vicar taking the opportunity to "murder" his own wife and several of the churchwardens in his short play, it seems the the "bare-legged" Thong Birds who "contributed a number of graceful dances, and sang popular hits" proved to be the most popular feature of the revue:
Undoubtedly the "star" turn of ["Joy Flights"] is that indispensable and attractive band of dancers known as "The Thongbirds." This chorus of twenty odd maidens from the Upperthong parish perform all the high kicks and contortions of the professionals with amazing vigour and precision.
By April 1931, the Thong Birds were staring in the Hepworth Church Operatic Society's "Florodora", produced by Randall Sykes.
In September 1931, the Sheffield Independent reported that the troupe's fame had reached London and the Gaumont Film Company Ltd. were in talks to make a "sound film of the beauty chorus in a short cabaret number". When interviewed by the Leeds Mercury, the Rev. Wilks responded:
The modern girl would rather kick a leg than stitch a hem. Parish theatricals are to me a great tonic. The danger light to modern youth is boredom and selfishness. Let them get out of themselves. Acting is by far the best safety valve for pent-up emotions. The Church must cater for youth. Just as the individual must be sacrificed to the herd so must prejudiced old age and middle-age go by the board for the youth.
Sadly, it seems the proposed short film was not made.
By December 1931, the Rev. Wilks had stepped down from being the Thong Birds' producer. The Sunderland Daily Echo reported that "Holmfirth's mill girl beauty chorus [...] had overcome their dismay" and were busy rehearsing for the pantomime "Cinderella" to be performed in January 1932.
Many [of the troupe] go to work before 7 a.m. but they are so enthusiastic that their dancing practice often lasts until 10 p.m.
A number of newspapers reported in December 1931 that Harold Simpson of Sheffield and an unnamed man from Wakefield had written to the Thong Birds with offers of marriage to any of the chorus line who would consider them. Simpson, who stated that he would "like a suitable West Riding girl for a wife", reportedly received replies from three of the Thong Birds, but the troupe "ignored the proposal of marriage from Wakefield".
Interviewed by the Sheffield Independent, the Rev. Wilks was less than impressed with the suggestion that he could act as a go-between for Simpson:
Many men have written to me, asking me to find them wives. Quite as many have consulted me on how to get rid of them. No sane man would act as a mate-finder for any person. There is enough ready-made trouble in the world without manufacturing it.
The publicity surrounding the proposals of marriage appears to have led to the church committee deciding to cancel the planned production of "Cinderella", much to the consternation of its producer J.R. Sykes, the Rev. Wilks, and the Thong Birds. One of the dancers was quoted as saying:
We have been informed that the show will not take place, but the reason for this step has not been explained to us. Preparations for the pantomime have been abandoned, but we are proceeding with our dance practices, for we may present a revue after Easter. We are all bitterly disappointed. We have sacrificed dozens of hours of our spare time to rehearse for the show, and now this is almost all waste.
Although a number of the chorus line threatened to quit, it seems they did not disband and were photographed in February 1933 by the Leeds Mercury whilst rehearsing for an upcoming pantomime in Holmfirth.
The Rev. Wilks left Upperthong in 1937 to take up a position at Holy Trinity Church, Keighley.
A captioned photograph of the dancers published in Upperthong: Then and Now (2002) named the following as members:
- Kathy Battye
- Mary Bray
- May Brook
- Mary Bullock
- Mary Cartworth
- Lily Clarkson
- Mary Clarkson
- Zena Haworth
- Mildred Higginson
- Nellie Moodycliffe
- Edith Moorhouse
- Mary Moorhouse
- Nellie Pearson
- Elsie Ridgwick
- Edith Roberts
Notes and References
- ↑ Wilks was born 27 January 1896 and died 18 July 1961 in Buxton.
- ↑ Charles Vernon Sykes was born 24 November 1906, the son of Lister Sykes (born 17 July 1874) and his wife Lydia Elizabeth (born 9 June 1876). His occupation was recorded as "actor" of Hill Croft, Greenfield Road, in the 1939 Register. Together with his brother, John Randall Sykes (1901-?), he wrote a number of plays that were produced locally.
- ↑ "Amateur Revue" in Yorkshire Post (15/Apr/1929).
- ↑ "Mills Girls in Pantomime" in Leeds Mercury (05/Feb/1930).
- ↑ The Leeds Mercury (12/Jan/1931) reported that Rev. Wilks had witnessed the coffin illusion in Blackpool and hired the illusionist to come and perform it in Holmfirth.
- ↑ "Horrors at Holmfirth: Vicar's Weird Thriller" in Sheffield Independent (12/Jan/1931) and "Holmfirth Shudders" in Leeds Mercury (12/Jan/1931).
- ↑ "Vicar Acts in Own Thriller" in Yorkshire Post (12/Jan/1931).
- ↑ Leeds Mercury (08/Apr/1931).
- ↑ "Vicar's Cabaret for Talkies?" in Sheffield Independent (04/Sep/1931).
- ↑ "Mill-Girls for the Talkies" in Leeds Mercury (04/Sep/1931).
- ↑ Mill Girl's Panto" in Sunderland Daily Echo (01/Dec/1931).
- ↑ "Thong Birds Wooed by Post" in Sheffield Independent (14/Dec/1931).
- ↑ "Thong Birds Pantomime Mystery" in Leeds Mercury (06/Jan/1932).
- ↑ "Rehearsing a Pantomime" in Leeds Mercury (03/Feb/1933).
- ↑ "New Vicar of Upperthong" in Leeds Mercury (02/Nov/1937).
- ↑ Possibly the Mary Bray (born 15 May 1904) listed in the 1939 Register as married to Joe Bray (born 24 May 1901) with daughter Maureen (born 5 October 1935) at Thongsbridge.
- ↑ Possibly the Mildred Higginson who married Roland Moulson in 1936.
- ↑ Probably the Nellie Moodycliffe born 1912 who married James W. Tinker in 1940.
- ↑ Possibly the Elsie Ridgwick born locally in 1909 and who died (unmarried?) on 14 July 1995 in Honley. The 1911 Census recorded her family residing at the Workhouse in Holmfirth.