top of page

H.G. Pélissier

Family Background


Harry Gabriel Pélissier was born on 27th April 1874, at Elm House, Church End, Finchley in Middlesex. He was the youngest of seven children and the second son of Jean Frederic Antoine Pélissier, a well to do émigré Franco-German diamond merchant from Hanau, a town to the west of Frankfurt in Germany. He was also the great nephew of the Maréchal Pélissier, Duke of Malakoff and French Ambassador to London.

He was educated at Highgate School in North London and at finishing school in Switzerland. none of which he took seriously. “Though I went to several schools – Folkestone, Highgate, and Scarborough – I managed to absorb about as much learning as most boys, possibly less, and was usually at the bottom of my class.”

He won a prize for good handwriting ‘by fraud’. “I pocketed the five shillings without a qualm. Like all my money in those days, it was expended on comic songs and theatrical newspapers. The ERA and the STAGE were my favourite reading, and I perused them rigorously, advertisements and all, casually wondering why a ‘tall hat’ was ‘indispensable’, and ‘drunkards save stamps”.

Harry had no intention of working at his father’s diamond business in Berwick Street and living a life of middle-class respectability. Encouraged by the productions he put on in the drawing room of the family home, all he intended to do was compose and perform.


© JG Pélissier

Harry in his 30s

The first ever biography of H.G. Pélissier, satirist, composer and bohemian – one of the most famous Edwardians before WW1. A visionary forerunner of The Goons and Monty Python.

Recommended in The Times Writers' Favourite Books of 2022 by Quentin Letts.


Harry the Pierrot

©JG Pélissier


© JG Pélissier

The Pierrot


Harry was 19 when he made his first appearance on a music hall stage in 1893. First, the Peckham Varieties then the boisterous 800-strong London Cockney and Irish working-class audience at the Marylebone Music Hall. At his first appearance, he finished his number only to hear someone shout from the back, “When they goin’ t’burn ya?”

I was a ghastly failure at both places, which astonished me much at the time. I do not wonder at it now, for I sang them songs of my own, which, if some of them, notably ‘My Fatherland’ and ‘If It Wasn’t For the Likes of Us’ , have since become popular, were at that time really unsuited to the audiences I inflicted them upon.”

As he was paying everybody and nobody was paying him, he joined an amateur South London pierrot company called The Baddeley Troupe.


From the very start Harry made a huge impression arriving with a wealth of talent to contribute. Not only was he a fine pianist and composer, but he could sing and act, play comic roles, write comic lines and lyrics and with his larger than life physique and personality, provide an all-round hub to the programme. 

From September 1896 to August 1897 Harry toured coastal resorts and provincial towns, receiving his first press review from The Worthing Intelligencer on 8th August 1896. “The performance is distinctly original and clever…Mister H.G. Pélissier has written much of the music...vastly superior to the ordinary comic song of the day.”

What stood out for the critics and the audiences, were Harry’s renditions of his own pieces, A Dog Song and The Drone and the Bumble Bee. 


Harry, top right, with The Baddeley Troupe 1895

The Baddeley Troupe, 1895

The Composer 

Harry was as passionate about music and about playing the piano as he was about his comic writing; if not more so. It was at the piano that he made his first ventures into music hall with compositions like A Dog Song and Mein Faderland, early pieces that remained part of The Follies repertoire throughout his career. And it was at the piano that he scored his biggest comedic hits with sharp parodies of Wagner and Take-offski. 

In all, he published well over 60 songs and quite probably devised many more unpublished and impromptu numbers. It was at the piano that he proposed to Fay Compton, improvising a comic duet that expressed his marital intentions. And he applied himself diligently to the task of composition. It was his habit to work late into the night, only to re-surface feverishly at break of day to work on a new tune or lyric

Harry dipped his amateur, untrained, dilettante hand into a variety of musical styles but above all his passion, his imagination and his dedication. In doing so he came up with something so distinct and original that it formed a significant bridge between the Victorian world of music hall and operetta and the recognisably modern world of musical theatre.

“It was in January 1904, that Pélissier first demonstrated fully the possibilities of himself and his company on more ambitious lines, when he produced at the Palace Theatre his brilliant skit on the conventional Christmas pantomime, entitled ‘Bill Bailey’.” 

Fitzroy Gardner 
Memoir of 1910, ‘Pure Folly’

The Folly 


In 1895, Harry bought out The Baddeley Troupe from its owner Sherrington Chinn and renamed it ‘The Follies.’



© JG Pélissier

In 1900, The Follies had their first big break, an invitation to make their first appearance in the West End, at the Queen’s Hall, Langham Place. From now on the name of The Follies featured in the national press, and as their fame spread and their popularity grew, their unique style of showmanship beguiled both critics and audiences alike. 

Their appearances at the Queen’s Hall came in a sequence of sell-out shows organised by the great music hall artist, Albert Chevalier. These were a major breakthrough and a significant step-up from their grinding provincial tours. From the Queen’s Hall they moved to the Tivoli on the Strand and then the vast, 2,000 seat Alhambra Theatre, Leicester Square. 

In 1904, only four years after they had made their debut, The Follies had scored such a hit with the public that they were invited by King Edward VII to give a ‘Royal Command’ performance at Sandringham.


The occasion was Queen Alexandra’s birthday when by Royal Command their Majesties were entertained by Harry's Oh! Pierreta! (a love duet), In Our Canadian Canoe and his wildly popular parody of Wagnerian Opera.

“….at any time of the day or night one was likely to be wakened by the sound of a piano, an organ, a spinet, or some unknown instrument, for Harry slept so badly he often spent more than half the night playing and improvising.” 
Sir Compton Mackenzie 

©JG Pélissier

©JG Pélissier


A good deal of the political and social satire comes across with the help of his lyricists. Writers such as Arthur Wimperis and Arthur Davenport and later on Compton Mackenzie.

The Satirist

There was always an element of mimicry, pastiche and downright silliness in Harry’s songs but from 1904 he began to create longer and more highly developed sketches. Ones with an extended narrative in which the songs and characters were linked and a specific target to the jokes.


Bill Bailey (1904), was the first, a mock Christmas pantomime, a show ‘gone wrong’ and it was to remain a regular feature of The Follies programme for the next seven years.

Harry became notorious for the speed and wit with which he would create satirical parodies or ‘potted plays’ of a hit West End production.

  • Baffles - Peter Pan merged with Raffles aka a 'Peter Pantomime'

  • Hamlet - with the Prince of Denmark as a dipsomaniac

  • What Every Woman Knows - a send up of the suffragette movement and liberal hypocrisies

  • The Christian, a religious melodrama by Hall Caine

  • The Merry Widow and The Girls From Gottenberg  - light comic operas for which Harry wrote his own pastiche score 

  • Henry of Navarre and Faust

  • Salomé - uninhibited and modern dance in the style of Maud Allan

Even music hall and its star performers such as Gus Elen (Gus Squealin’) and Harry Lauder were not spared.


Harry as the Lady of Vrillac  

The Rebel

In March 1909, the Parliamentary Select Committee was created to question the role of the Lord Chamberlain and of theatre censorship in general. Harry and his intended parody of a patriotic play by Guy du Maurier called ‘An Englishman’s Home’ were the catalyst. Had it not been for the fevered atmosphere of the months leading up to the Great War, what resulted may well have brought about a change in censorship law half a century earlier than was the case.


John Bull's 1909 cartoon of Britannia Villa

© JG Pélissier


H G Pélissier, Sir John Collier, 1912

His Death

Harry Pélissier died at 1, Nevern Square, Earls Court on 25th September 1913. Anthony, his son, was barely a year old and Fay was a widow at the tender age of 19. The cause of death was given as cirrhosis of the liver and heart failure. He was just 39 years old. The years of high-living, touring, brandy and cigar smoking had taken their toll. A decline that seemed to mirror his battles with theatre owners, the censors and his constant quest to challenge convention and entertain. 

The funeral service took place at Golders Green Crematorium, not far from his house in Finchley. A dedication from the rest of The Follies was made to “the great white chief” of a floral tribute of white flowers in the shape of a pierrot cap with black buttons down one side. His final resting place was in his mother’s grave at Marylebone Cemetery. 

The executors of Harry’s Will were his brother and the family solicitor, the Hon. Charles Russell. The gross value was £13,098.14s.4p; over a million pounds in today’s money. In recent years, his published music earned him in excess of £1,000 a year, while for six years his constant touring and seasons at The Apollo accumulated an income of over £6,000, in one year reaching the grand sum of £12,000.

© JG Pélissier

The first ever biography of H.G. Pélissier, satirist, composer and bohemian – one of the most famous Edwardians before WW1. A visionary forerunner of The Goons and Monty Python.

Recommended in The Times Writers' Favourite Books of 2022 by Quentin Letts.

bottom of page