Most people reading this won’t have a clue who Gracie Fields is. That is unless you’re a massive fan of cinema from the 1930’s that is.
But let me tell you, she was a pretty big deal at the time – Sort of like the Angelina Jolie of the day – except with talent and without the vials of blood around her neck.
And thus, if you find yourself in Rochdale at any time, you’re likely to see a statue of her in all of her glory. Located right outside their stunning Grade I-listed town hall, ‘Our Gracie’ has finally returned home.
But who was she?!
Oh, only pretty much one of the biggest movie actress and singers in the world during the 30’s and 40’s. Her ‘rags to riches’ story is one of legend and her tireless charity and philanthropy went a long way to ensure she became known as “a forces’ sweetheart”.
Born above a fish and chips shop on Molesworth Street in Rochdale, Fields quickly rose up the ladders of fame, starring in many a West End musical and theatre production.
At one point during the mid-30s she was doing three shows a night in The Big Smoke, working with a whole host of performers and it wasn’t long until things started taking their toll.
By 1939 she became seriously ill with cervical cancer and she retired to her villa on Capri (the island in Italy that your dad’s old Ford was named after) and while there – war broke out. Talk about bad luck.
Deciding that she didn’t want to sit around while everything went to shit around her, she signed up for the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA) and got to work entertaining the troops. And entertain them she did. She quickly became the forces’ “sweetheart”, performing on the backs of open lorries, in war ravaged areas and was even the first artist to play behind enemy lines in Berlin.
By 1940, on the suggestion of Winston Churchill, she moved to California and continued to perform in aid of the Navy League and the Spitfire Fund.
She would still return back to Britain though (including Rochdale), while also travelling all around the world for the war effort – even travelling as far as New Guinea for the Australian and New Zealand troops stationed out there.
After the war she sort of calmed down a bit and returned back to the Isle of Capri only occasionally touring and performing in Britain. By the time of her death she had been Commander of the Order of the British Empire, as well as a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire – pretty good for a girl born above a fish and chips shop in Rochdale eh!?
Her statue was unveiled in 2016 and was the first statue to be erected in Greater Manchester in more than 100 years. Of course since then we’ve had Victoria Wood in Bury and Emmeline Pankhurst in St Peter’s Square.
So, there we have it. Of course, that’s not an extensive history of her – just enough so that when you see her statue you can tell your mates a few tidbits and look cool. Oh, and if you’re down there, head to The Flying Horse Hotel for a few bevvies – it’s a belting pub.