MARTIN Greenwood’s new book Every Day Bradford provides a memorable story for each day in the year about people, places and events from Bradford’s rich history, from the Middle Ages to the present.

Bradford-born Martin was inspired by the research he did for his first book, Percy Monkman: An Extraordinary Bradfordian - a biography of his grandfather, a well known artist and actor - to look at other remarkable people from the district.

He has, he says, been “constantly amazed” by the stories of people and places he has discovered for Every Day Bradford.

Martin is writing a series of features for the T&A about some of the stories he has uncovered that have surprised him the most.

Last month he looked back at the life of Joseph Wright from Idle who, illiterate until the age of 15, ended up as a highly respected Oxford professor of philology, who taught Lord of the Rings author JRR Tolkien.

Here Martin looks at another remarkable ‘rags-to-riches’ story from humble Bradford upbringings - Gertie Millar:

Born 14 years later than Joseph Wright, Gertie first appeared on stage as a 10-year-old. She can scarcely have imagined that she would die a countess and a rich widow, and one of the most photographed women of the Edwardian Age.

Gertie Millar (1879 -1952) was born in a back-to-back house in Manningham, a stone’s throw from the Theatre Royal on Manningham Lane. She was the third daughter of a 30-year-old worsted-stuff worker and dressmaker, her father’s name not appearing on her birth certificate.

Aged 10, she first performed successfully as Little Lord Fauntleroy at an entertainment in Pudsey and then in Saturday evening entertainments at Bradford’s Mechanics’ Institute. Her mind was firmly set on a stage career.

Two years later she appeared as the baby girl in a Manchester production of the pantomime Babes in the Wood. Further engagements followed before her Christmas Eve debut in 1898 as principal girl in Dick Whittington at Bradford’s Prince’s Theatre.

It was, in fact, an inauspicious start to her career as leading female in musical theatre. The opening review was generally favourable without being ecstatic. ‘Whether...(it) popular remains to be seen, when Dick and fellows settle into their places, develop their business, and eliminate much that at present is superfluous...Viewing the pantomime as a whole, its main defects are a lack of cohesive incident, an absence of anything rising above the commonplace’. In the only reference to Gertie, her performance is ‘mainly satisfying’, according to the Bradford Daily Telegraph on December 27, 1898.

Hardly a ringing endorsement of the production or its rising star! Two weeks later, the reviewer returned. This time, ‘A prosperous run is now assured. Several acceptable changes have been made since the commencement...Miss Gertie Millar...has also been securely in public favour, and for her dainty rendering of Baby Sweetheart is receiving nightly encores’.

The next critical moment in Gertie’s life occurred two years later when she returned to Bradford, this time at her local Theatre Royal. Here, a 30-year-old and well-connected producer, Lionel Monckton, was struck by the local singer with a rising reputation, who sang a song he had composed. He persuaded his boss at the Gaiety Theatre in London to watch her. Gertie was immediately placed in a West End musical.

Overnight she became a superstar; Lionel fell in love with her and they married in December 1902. The theatre was due to be demolished, but her success in the final production delayed the event by two years.

When it reopened, King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra came to see her in The Orchid, a new musical play, in the new role of a Yorkshire mill girl in clogs and shawl with songs written by her new husband. Those who saw her could not believe that she had never worked in a mill!

This production ran for 559 performances. Thereafter, Gertie reigned as one of London’s outstanding musical-theatre favourites, as she was cast in a run of shows at the Gaiety.

With a succession of different popular productions, the couple continued to prosper - Lionel as a producer and songwriter and Gertie as the ‘gaiety girl’. Her most popular role was as a Yorkshire shop girl in Our Miss Gibbs, which ran for 636 performances.

The hit song of the show was Moonstruck - “Moon, moon, aggravating moon, why do you tease me so” - written by Lionel especially for his wife.

Gertie’s sweet nature made her universally loved by those she worked with. However, public tastes were changing; cinema was on the rise and her husband was in poor health. She decided to retire before she reached her 40th birthday, but not before a final appearance in Bradford. This took place in 1918 at the Alhambra. Typical of her generosity, Gertie presented her faithful dresser with the deeds of a house and an annuity.

She retired, but soon after her husband died before they could celebrate their happy marriage with a silver wedding. Gertie received a generous bequest. Within a year, in Paris she re-married. Her new husband was William Humble Ward, who before the First World War had been the Governor-General of Australia and was also the second Earl of Dudley - so Gertie became the new Countess of Dudley.

Eight years later after another happy marriage, she was widowed again.

Gertie decided to settle in Le Touquet but with the outbreak of the Second World War she had to return in a hurry to England, being one of the last to do so in 1940.

She never returned to France. For the rest of her life she lived in comfort in Surrey until her death after an 18-month illness in 1952. A true ‘rags-to-riches’ story.

* Every Day Bradford by Martin Greenwood (2021) is available online from Amazon, Waterstones, Blackwells and WH Smith and from bookshops including Waterstones and Salts Mill.


* Bradford Remembrancer, Horace Hird (1972)

* Oxford Dictionary of National Biography