Arthur Lucan

Arthur Lucan (16 September 1885 – 17 May 1954) was an English actor who performed the drag act Old Mother Riley on stage, radio and screen, with a series of comedy films from the late 1930s to the early 1950s.

Early life

Lucan was born on 16 September 1885 in Sibsey, Lincolnshire as Arthur Towle, the third of seven children born to Tom Towle, a groom, and his wife Lucy Ann Mawer. When he was five years old, the family moved to nearby Boston, Lincolnshire, where Arthur later made his first acting appearance at the town's Shodfriars Hall. After leaving school, he left home to pursue a career in music hall. He gained a job with a family troupe called the Musical Cliftons, and later as sidekick to a comedian called Will Pepper.

Career and marriage

Arthur was appearing in Dublin when he met and married the 16-year-old Kitty McShane in 1913. The couple had one son, Donald Daniel Towle (b. 2 October 1915, Dublin d. 1970), and became a successful double act. They achieved some success with a sketch called "Bridget's Night Out". For this he first wore drag, and began to develop the character of Old Mother Riley. Whilst in Dublin, he changed his name to Lucan, and they continued to perform as 'Lucan and McShane'. The act was featured in the 1934 Royal Command Performance at the London Palladium, the most prestigious engagement of its time.

After the Royal Command Performance, there followed a film career, a radio series and even a strip cartoon in the Radio Times and Film Fun. In all, Arthur Lucan made 17 films as Old Mother Riley. In 1943, the Motion Picture Herald voted him the sixth biggest "money-making star" in British films.[1] However, his marriage proved to be a volatile union, and Lucan and McShane separated in 1951.


Lucan, as 'Old Mother Riley' was last seen on stage at the Theatre Royal, Barnsley on 14 May 1954 in a stage adaptation of Old Mother Riley in Paris as part of his national theatre and music hall tour. Lucan died, aged 68, at the Tivoli Theatre, Hull on Monday 17 May 1954. Ellis Aston was the first on stage to compere the forthcoming show. But Lucan had collapsed in the wings and died shortly afterwards in his dressing room.


The site of his death now houses a bakery and cafe, where there is a memorial bust of Arthur Lucan, together with various memorabilia from his career. He is buried in Hull's Eastern Cemetery.[2]

Following his death, Lucan's understudy Roy Rolland took on the role of Old Mother Riley, performing with Kitty McShane until her death in 1964, before then performing solo in cabaret, pantomime, theatre variety shows and summer seasons, until the 1980s when he retired.

In 1982, Alan Plater wrote a play, On Your Way, Riley, about the life of Arthur Lucan, with songs by Alex Glasgow.[3] This was also broadcast on ITV in 1985 with Brian Murphy and Maureen Lipman in the leading roles.[4]

A Greater London Council blue plaque, unveiled in 1978, commemorates Lucan at his home, 11 Forty Lane in Wembley.[5]

Lucan was a member of the Savage Club. In recent years, the club has held Old Mother Riley evenings, as a tribute to Lucan's talent.

There is a comedic line of descent from Old Mother Riley to Brendan O'Carroll's character and programme Mrs. Brown's Boys: "She was a larger than life character who's noisy, over the top, always getting into scrapes."[6] Berwick Kaler's Dame in the York Theatre Royal pantomime has also been likened to Old Mother Riley.


Actor (and writer where stated)


  1. Matthew Coniam (13 September 2009). "The 1944-45 Motion Picture Almanac". Movietone News. Archived from the original on 3 March 2014. Retrieved 3 March 2014.
  2. Arthur Lucan at Find a Grave
  3. "On Your Way, Riley" (playbill and details). The Queen's Theatre. 1983. Archived from the original on 7 May 2004. Retrieved 27 September 2007.
  4. On Your Way, Riley at the IMDb
  5. "LUCAN, ARTHUR (1887-1954)". English Heritage. Retrieved 20 June 2015.
  6. McMullan, Thomas (24 December 2018). "How Mrs Brown's Boys became a critic-proof hit". BBC News. Retrieved 24 December 2018.
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