Guest Blog – Arthur Lucan, ‘Old Mother Riley’

Posted: 7th February 2021

Humber Museums Partnership - Guest Blog – Arthur Lucan, ‘Old Mother Riley’

Drag, in all its forms, has been a popular source of entertainment across the centuries. When theatre first became part of the mainstream, women were not allowed to perform, and so young men often took on the female roles and thus drag was essentially born. However, it has, of course, developed over time to mean something different. It still entails the expression of gender; however, it has become much more than simply acting in scripted theatrical roles. Drag has developed into a serious form of entertainment and a way to express identity, both within and outside of the LGBTQ+ community. Drag has gained popularity throughout the years and has been instrumental in bringing discussions around gender, and an increased openness about gender, into the mainstream. This has been further heightened in recent years with the airing of RuPaul’s Drag Race both in America and the UK, demonstrating drag as an extremely stylised art form of gender expression and identity. Before the popularity of drag as we know it today, drag was used by many comedic actors and performers, particularly in the music halls across Britain in the Victorian and later Edwardian period. This is where Arthur Lucan comes into the picture.

Arthur Lucan was born in Lincolnshire in 1885. When he left home, he began working in the theatre and got his first acting role in 1899 establishing his career on stage. He eventually went on to meet his wife in the theatre, Kitty McShane and the pair formed a comedic double act. They toured around theatres and music halls across the country, with Lucan’s drag act becoming one of the most popular roles he performed and eventually what he became famous for. Lucan named this character ‘Old Mother Riley’, an Irish washerwoman, evidently a comedic, exaggerated stereotype of a working-class female.

These types of roles were particularly popular at the time, with men playing over-exaggerated characters that usually looked little like women at all; a far cry from drag today. Lucan performed this role for the rest of his life, it gained him popularity and notoriety. His connection to Hull is perhaps somewhat morbid. Whilst waiting in the wings of the Tivoli Theatre in Hull, Lucan had a heart attack and died. However, on a lighter note, his life continues to be celebrated and respected in Hull, and his grave located in the Eastern Cemetery is still well looked after and visited by fans.

Lucan’s act is significant, although his choice of entertainment was perhaps not controversial because he was a straight man and was allowed ‘comedic license’, he did allow for the growth of drag entertainment and expression. His drag performance is important to the history of the LGBTQ+ community. Granted, with significant social changes, the increased acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community has allowed drag to flourish into a diverse, glamorous, and extremely popular entertainment and art form. However, without people like Lucan its popularity may have been limited.

Written by University of Hull student Hannah Claridge.
I am a second-year student of History and Politics at the University of Hull. I am particularly interested in social and political history which I think are key to the Pride in Our City project. I would also consider myself a fan of drag queens and an ally to the LGBTQ+ Community and thought exploring its history would be interesting as well as educating, especially with the rise in the discussion of gender identity. I am interested in pursuing a career in journalism.

Tell Us What You Think

We’d love to know what you thought about our From the Stores blogs. Your responses will help inform our decision-making around programming of future works, both digital and in-person. Please help by completing our short survey Click here to Complete Survey

This guest blog is in partnership with –