Posted on 07/05/2014

Photo taken on June 1, 1898

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Amy Height
African American Woman
photo circa 1898
Gained her fame in Europe

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Photo replaced on July 12, 2014
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Amy Height

Amy Height
Amy Height (circa 1866 – 1913), was born in Boston, Massachusetts. No information has come to light about her arrival in Britain, but in July 1883 her name first appeared in The Stage newspaper, when she was credited as a member of the cast of a variety show at the Surrey Music Hall in Barnsley. Thereafter theatre critics often singled her out for praise. For example, when she appeared as Topsy, ‘Friday's Squaw’, in the pantomime Robinson Crusoe at the Grand Theatre in Islington in 1886, The Stage noted that she ‘displays considerable humorous power and command of expression, whilst in the vocalization of her songs she uses a clear and musical organ with considerable skill and effect’ (Dec. 31, 1886).

In 1888 Height joined the first provincial tour of the African-American Bohee Brothers, who were billed as ‘banjoists to the Prince and Princess of Wales’. When she appeared on the London variety stage in Hoxton in 1891, The Stage noted that she put ‘much vitality and go into her songs and actions, and scored a distinct success’ (Oct. 8, 1891). In 1894, at Hammersmith's Lyric Opera House, she made the first of several appearances as the slave Aunt Chloe in the melodrama Uncle Tom's Cabin. The Stage acknowledged her ‘original and clever reading’ (Dec. 6, 1894). Later that year she was praised for her role as the Princess in another pantomime, Dick Whittington and His Cat, staged at the Elephant and Castle in London. In 1895 she shared the bill with the music hall comedian George Robey at the Royal Standard in Pimlico. In 1898 an article in The Stage mentioned Height alongside two other music hall legends—Marie Lloyd and Vesta Tilley—when a female impressionist publicly thanked them for permitting her to impersonate them. In 1899 she enjoyed one of her biggest successes as Princess Lulu in ‘a bright and tuneful musical farce’ called The Gay Grisette in London and then on tour. The Stage described her as ‘the cleverest coloured lady we have seen. She is a born comedienne, can sing, and introduce patter and gag, and makes herself a general favourite on her first entrance’ (Aug. 17, 1899). In 1900 the New York Times published a report on an African-American who had made a successful transition from singer to ‘straight’ actress in London in the play Madame Delphine. The newspaper noted that Height, whom they described as ‘a colored actress from Boston’ had made a ‘hit’ with Londoners as ‘a negro mammy, which is quite new to the English stage, and proved the chief artistic success of the play’ (New York Times, July 22, 1900). In 1901, at London's Tivoli, she appeared in the same variety show as the African-American music hall artiste Belle Davis.

In the 1891 census Height described herself as a thirty-year-old ‘Theatrical Singer’, born in New York. She was living in Lambeth. In the 1901 census she described herself as a singer, again aged thirty. By then she was living in theatrical digs in Swansea. She entered her place of birth as America. When she appeared in the 1911 census, she described herself as a music hall artist from Boston, America, now aged twenty-nine. She was then living in Farnham, Surrey. Her last recorded appearance in The Stage was in January 1913 when she appeared at the Royal in Smethwick in Aladdin. She was still captivating audiences: she ‘sings and dances herself into favour as Smut-Tee, the servant’, the paper reported (The Stage, Jan. 16, 1913). By now living at 90 St George's Road, Southwark, she died from pneumonia on March 21, 1913 in the Southwark Infirmary in Camberwell. Her age was entered on the death certificate as forty-six, but this is likely to have been an underestimate.

In the late Victorian era, and throughout the Edwardian era, Height was a popular entertainer in music halls, but she also made a number of appearances in pantomime, and there is evidence of a successful transition to ‘straight’ theatre. Her success was unusual for a black woman in Britain at that time. The public's contact with black women in the world of theatre was minimal in the Victorian era, but the versatile Height helped open doors for others, including her fellow American Belle Davis.

Source: Stephen Bourne Collection
Bio: The Stage (1883–1913); New York Times (July 22, 1900)