Prothero Lecture examines the birth of celebrity

Published: 1 July 2022 at 14:00

Professor Rohan McWilliam

How our modern obsession with fame began in London’s fashionable West End

The birth of celebrity and our obsession with fame will be the focus of the Royal Historical Society’s annual Prothero Lecture on Wednesday, 6 July.

The prestigious public lecture, which can be watched either in person or online, will be delivered by Rohan McWilliam (pictured), Professor of Modern British History at Anglia Ruskin University (ARU) and the author of the first ever history of London’s West End.

In an age when musicians such as Harry Styles and Taylor Swift have tens of millions of followers on social media, and Hollywood actors surround themselves with publicists, stylists and agents, Professor McWilliam will discuss how our current culture of celebrity first began.

He will explain how our obsession with fame started at the end of the nineteenth century and specifically in one place: London’s West End. London had previously been home to well-known actors, such as David Garrick, but it was during the nineteenth century that people became increasingly fascinated by the lives of the actors, as well as their performances, with audiences collecting their images and wanting to know what they were like as people.

London’s West End was at the centre of this new world of fame and celebrity. By the end of the nineteenth century it had established itself as the world's leading pleasure district, at the same time helping to reshape British culture. The West End was increasingly saturated with theatres which developed links with restaurants, hotels, department stores and, importantly, the fashion industry.

Professor McWilliam explained:

“Part of the appeal of West End plays was increasingly not just the plot or the acting but the way they looked. Theatres showed off the coming trends in fashion, and stage costumes were being created by the leading dress designers. The West End felt fashionable and up to date, with shows characterised by sexual sophistication.

“The pleasure district provided a strong package for a night out, offering theatre, food, and hospitality. It was also connected to the growth of pictorial magazines and picture postcards which produced iconic images of the latest stars which fans could share and preserve as souvenirs.”

The talk by Professor McWilliam, a former President of the British Association for Victorian Studies, will focus on two iconic figures who emerged from the West End at this time: the matinee idol and the Gaiety Girl.

Professor McWilliam said:

“Matinee idols were usually actors who appealed to a strongly female audience. They included now-forgotten figures like Lewis Waller who was the first actor to have his own fan club, and Gerald du Maurier, the father of the novelist Daphne du Maurier. 

“The Gaiety Girl flourished in the musical comedies of the Edwardian period, especially those at the Gaiety Theatre on the Strand, which was eventually demolished in 1956. During the years before the Great War, producer George Edwardes was the Cameron Mackintosh of his day. Edwardes developed an entertainment empire in the West End and was the person who linked the Gaiety Theatre to images drenched in sex appeal.

“Men became obsessed with the actresses there and crowded round the stage door hoping for an autograph or to take them out for dinner. A large number of Gaiety Girls ended up marrying into the aristocracy. Thousands more bought postcards of Gaiety stars like Gabrielle Ray, who enjoyed a girl-next-door appeal. The look of these figures and their celebrity status went on to shape the world of film stardom, as movies took off in the twentieth century.”

The Prothero Lecture was first delivered in 1969 and this year’s Lecture marks the centenary of the death of George W. Prothero, former President of the Royal Historical Society. Historians to have previously delivered the Lecture include Hugh Trevor Roper, Natalie Zemon Davis and Keith Thomas.

To book a free place for the Prothero Lecture, which will take place at University College London at 5pm on Wednesday, 6 July, please visit A link to watch the event online will be available for those unable to attend in person.