Matilda Alice Powles, the daughter of a theatre manager, was born in Worcester in 1864. She made her stage debut in Nottingham at the age of three and four years later was appearing regularly as the Great Little Tilley. She added Vesta (a popular brand of matches) to her name and was billed as the goddess of fire. Vesta Tilley also began to dress as a man and by the aged of nine, was a leading star in London.
On the outbreak of the First World War, Tilley became involved in recruiting men for the armed forces. Singing songs such as Jolly Good Luck to the Girl Who Loves a Soldier, The Army of Today's All Right and Six Days Leave, she became known as "England's Greatest Recruiting Sergeant". Her husband, Walter de Frece, a Conservative MP, who wrote most of her recruiting songs, was knighted for his wartime services.
Tilley's autobiography, Recollections of Vesta Tilley, was published in 1934. Vesta Tilley died in Monte Carlo in 1952.