The last of my posts about Rochdale from my tram trip up there a couple of weeks ago! On the plaza outside the beautiful town hall, there was this statue. It’s a statue of, possibly, Rochdale’s most famous person, Dame Gracie Fields.

Gracie Fields was born in Rochdale in 1898. By the age of 12 she was part time at school and working part time in the cotton mills that ringed the town. If things had gone for her the way they went for most girls of her age and class in those days, working full time in the mill until she got married would have been her lot. But Gracie had a good voice, a talent to amuse and acting abilities. She also had a pushy mother who wanted better for her children. A ‘Tiger Mother’ a century before the term was coined. 

She started working in the music halls and theatres around Manchester and earned herself a good reputation. When radio came in, and music hall began to fade, she became famous for her singing and by the 1930s she was one of the biggest stars in the country becoming one of the country’s first movie stars. She wasn’t just famous here, she travelled to Hollywood to make movies there as well. Here she is exuding some 1930s Hollywood glamour.

With the fame came money. There were houses in London, Santa Monica and on the Isle of Capri in Italy. Not bad at all for a former mill girl born  in a tiny, two up, two down, terraced house in Rochdale. Her star rose through the 30s. Here she is doing a meet and greet from the balcony of Rochdale Town Hall.

She was on the Isle of Capri with her new Italian husband when World War II began. They came back to the UK where Gracie worked for the war effort by entertaining troops and factory workers to keep up with their morale. Things change drastically when Italy entered the war on the side of Germany. Italian people, including her husband, were being rounded up and put into camps, many on the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea where the former holiday hotels were commandeered to houses the aliens. Gracie wasn’t having any of that and they moved to Santa Monica for the duration of the war. This didn’t go down well with some people who thought Gracie was abandoning war torn, bombed Britain for a life of comfort in her beach house in Santa Monica, California. It’s now been revealed that Churchill himself smoothed their passage to America saying Gracie could do war work from there. This she did, entertaining troops in the Pacific and the Far East. She was back in Europe for the end of the war and, somehow, managed to get into Berlin, and do a concert, ahead of the allied armies.

After the war she got into the new medium of television, singing her old standards and light opera. She remained a popular celebrity until her death in her villa on the Isle of Capri in 1979. As well as the statue, the local theatre has been renamed in her honour. Here she is in 1938 singing one of her most popular songs, ‘Walter, Walter, (Lead Me to the Altar).

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