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Above - A postcard depicting a Marylebone supplier of alcoholic beverages to the Music Halls - Courtesy Barrie Nesbitt. If you know what this Company was called or have any further information on the card please Contact me.
Music Halls—The music-hall, as it is at present understood, was started many years ago at the Canterbury Hall over the water. The entertainments proving popular, the example was speedily followed in every quarter of the town. The performance in no way differs, except in magnitude, from those which are to be seen in every town of any importance throughout the country. Ballet, gymnastics, and so-called comic singing, form the staple of the bill of fare, but nothing comes foreign to the music-hall proprietor. Performing animals, winners of walking matches, successful scullers, shipwrecked sailors, swimmers of the Channel, conjurers, ventriloquists, tight-rope dancers, campanologists, clog-dancers, sword-swallowers, velocipedists, champion skaters, imitators, marionettes, decanter equilibrists, champion shots, “living models of marble gems,” “statue marvels,” fire princes, “mysterious youths,” “spiral bicycle ascensionists,” flying children, empresses of the air, kings of the wire, “vital sparks,” Mexican boneless wonders,” white-eyed musical Kaffirs,’ strong-jawed ladies, cannon-ball performers, illuminated fountains, and that remarkable musical eccentricity the orchestre militaire, all have had their turn on the music-hall stage. Strangers to the business may be warned that the word “turn,’ as understood in the profession, means the performance for which the artist is engaged, and frequently comprises four or more songs, however much or little of pleasure the first effort may have given the audience. Furthermore, as many of the popular performers take several “turns” nightly, it is undesirable to visit many of these establishments on the same evening, as it is quite possible to go to four or five halls in different parts of the town, and to find widely diverse stages occupied by the same sets of performers. Among the principal halls may be mentioned the Bedford, in Camden Town; the Canterbury, Westminster-bridge-road; the Foresters, Cambridge-rd, E.; Gatti’s, Westminster-bridge-road; the London Pavilion, at the top of the Haymarket; Evans's, Covent-garden; the Metropolitan, Edgware-road; the Oxford, Oxford-street; the Cambridge, 136, Commercial-street; Lusby’s Palace, Mile End-road; the Royal, High Holborn; the South London, London-road, SE. ; and Wilton’s in Wellclose-square, in the far east. Of these the Canterbury, the Metropolitan, and the South London have a specialty for ballet on a large scale. The Canterbury has an arrangement for ventilation peculiar to itself. A large portion of the roof is so arranged as to admit of its easy and rapid removal and replacement.
Left - Early Programme for the Bedford Music Hall - Courtesy Peter Charlton.
The entertainments at the other halls vary only in degree. The operatic selections which were at one time the distinguishing feature of the Oxford have of late years been discontinued. A curiosity in the way of music-halls may be found by the explorer at the “Bell,” in St. George-street, Ratcliff-highway, where, contrary to precedent, the negro element preponderates among the audience instead of on the stage. The hours of performance at most music-halls are from about 8 till 11.30, and the prices of admission vary from 6d. to 3s. Private boxes, at varying prices, may be had at nearly all the music-halls.
ONE of the most remarkable developments in Living London of late years is that of the modern music-halls - or Theatres of Varieties, as they are mostly called, except when they are described as Empires or Palaces.
Right - A Typical Music Hall Gallery. The photograph was taken at the "London" Music Hall, Shoreditch; the audience, who, at the time, were enjoying a chorus song, were not warned of the fact. - From 'The Playgoer' 1901 - Courtesy Iain Wotherspoon. - Click to Enlarge.
The variety form of entertainment now so prevalent is a real boon to those amusement-seekers who cannot, even if they would, indulge in playgoing at the so-called regular " theatres." Working hours have for many to be continued until it is too late to reach home in time to come out again to the play - especially for those who are only able to afford unbookable seats.
For these hampered toilers the music-hall or variety form of entertainment is the only thing of the show kind available. They can take or leave the entertainment at any hour they please - the programme given being, of course, everything by "turns" and nothing long. Besides all this - and it is an important factor - there is the chance of enjoying a smoke, a luxury prohibited in all theatres run under the Lord Chamberlain's licence.
The most striking examples of the modern variety theatres in London are the Empire, the Alhambra, and the London Hippodrome. Next to these would undoubtedly rank those other popular West-End resorts, the Palace Theatre, the Oxford, the Tivoli, and the London Pavilion.
The Empire is one of the most beautiful buildings, as regards its interior, to be found in the Metropolis. Its entertainment is of a high class, and its gorgeous ballets and other extensive and expensive spectacular productions are patronised not only, in addition to its large general audience, by our "gilded youth," but by all sorts of society folk, who need an hour or two's bright and ever changing entertainment after dinner.
The Alhambra - a huge Moorish building - is in its status and its style of entertainment, similar to the Empire, with the differeence that it claims - and rightly - precedence of all neighbouring places of the sort. Indeed, its own proud description is, Thc Premier Variety Theatre of London. This house was certainly the first to introduce the big ballet and spectacular form of entertainment. For many years a large proportion of visitors to the Metropolis made the Alhambra their first variety house of call. Nowadays, however, these visitors must perforce take in the Empire and the other important varied palaces.
A few steps from these huge halls is the London Hippodrome, one of the most remarkable buildings in the great city. Although so close to the Empire and the Alhambra, the entertainments and the audiences are of a totally different character. The Hippodrome programme is principally made up of equestrian, gymnastic, and menagerie "turns," plus a burletta or pantomime. This last must include at least one aquatic scene of some sort, in which the comedians (most of them expert swimmers) disport on or in the large lake which, by a wonderful mechanical process, when required, fills up the circus ring.
Left - Beneath the Arena at the London Hippodrome.
The Hippodrome's audiences are not of the lounging after dinner or "round the town" kind, but are in a great measure formed of family groups, headed by pater or mater, or both. Indeed, most of its patrons are of the sedate domestic sort. There is no doubt that the fact of the Hippodrome being, like so many of the new large variety theatres, forbidden a liquor licence, is in itself (however unfair it may seem) an attraction for most of those who take their youngsters to such entertainments.
The Hippodrome - the auditorium of which is a sight-resembles the Alhambra and the Empire in one respect, namely that not a few of its artistes are foreigners, and that many of its performances are in dumb show. Our photographic illustration on page 224 depicts a scene beneath the arena of the Hippodrome. Here are heavy wooden "properties" about to be conveyed above, while "supers" and stage hands are crowded together in readiness for their particular duties.
The Oxford, the Tivoli, and the London Pavilion are likewise sumptuous if somewhat smaller establishments. At these resorts, however, comic and "serio" singing, sandwiched with short acrobatic, dancing, and trick cycling "acts," and fifteen or twenty minutes' sketches, are the rule. The best available artistes are engaged at these three houses. Oftentimes the same "stars" appear on the same evening at the three halls, which I are virtually run by one syndicate. When a comic or a "serio" star books an engagement with this syndicate, he or she is required to stipulate by contract not to appear at any other hall within a radius of so many miles. This "barring out" clause, as it is called, has also of late prevailed in connection with certain of the larger music halls in suburban London.
The Palace Theatre, in Shaftesbury Avenue, is a beautiful building, which was opened by Mr. D'Oyley Carte as the English Opera House. In spite of such excellent operatic works as Sir Arthur Sullivan's Ivanhoe and André Messager's Le Basoche, Fortune frowned upon the enterprise. Ere long Sir Augustus Harris transformed it into a variety theatre, with its present name. Under Sir Augustus's successor, Mr. Charles Morton, who deserves special mention here as being " the father of the modern music-hall," the Palace Theatre was lifted into the high position it has since sustained. Its entertainment is one of the best of its class, not only as regards its singers and dancers, pantomimists, mimics, sketch artists, and others of all nations and denominations, but also its beautiful and realistic tableaux vivants and biograph pictures.
It is no wonder that the old-time stuffy music-hall has been killed by such places as the splendid variety houses just named, to say nothing of those other large and admirably conducted halls such as the Royal in Holborn, the Metropolitan in the Edgware Road, the Canterbury in the densely crowded Lambeth district, and the Paragon in the still more densely crowded Mile End region. Besides these resorts there have sprung up several vast "Empires" such as those respectively at New Cross, Holloway, Stratford and Hackney, all under the direction of the wealthy syndicate that runs the London Hippodrome and a number of "Empires" in the provinces.
If one should desire to get some notion of how the "toiling, moiling myrmidons "(as Béranger calls them) patronise these new "Empires," he has only to watch outside any of them just before the doors are opened for the first or second house. For be it noted that two entire performances are given at each nightly, and at small prices of admission. Moreover, the programmes always contain several highly-paid variety artistes - whether of the comic singing, acrobatic, canine, or sketch kind.
Indeed, it is not at all unusual to find here a favourite performer in receipt of at least one hundred pounds per week ; not to mention this or that leading serio-comic lady or "Comedy Queen" at a salary not much lower. Yet, in spite of such princely salaries, the prices of admission are small, ranging, say, from two shillings or eighteenpence in the best parts to threepence in the gallery.
That these "Empires," "Palaces," and similar halls are run not only with excellent programmes but also on strictly proper lines is proved by the fact that, moderate though the admission prices may be, the patrons come from some of the best parts of Hampstead, Stoke Newington, Catford, Blackheath, Woodford, and so forth. Here recreation-seekers may - and do - have placed before them all sorts of "turns" besides those above-mentioned, and comprising many examples, such as conjurers, acrobats, performing elephants, seals, bears, instrumentalists - comic and otherwise. Often will be found certain old stagers or juvenile performers of dramatic sketches made up of boiled-down plays - even of Hamlet, in a twenty- minutes version of that play.
To those amusement-seekers who may prefer to take their variety entertainment in a rough-and-ready form there are still such haunts as that Whitechapel resort fancifully named "Wonderland." In this big hall are provided entertainments of the most extraordinary description. They include little plays, songs, and sketches, given first in Yiddish dialect and afterwards translated into more or less choice English by, as a rule, a Hebraic interpreter. This interpreter often improves the occasion by calling the attention of kind - and mostly alien - friends in front to certain side shows consisting of all sorts of armless legless, skeleton, or spotted " freaks " scattered around the recesses of this great galleryless hall. When once the "freaks" have been examined, or the "greeners" and other foreign and East-End "sweated" Jew toilers have utilised the interval to indulge in a little light refreshment according to their respective tastes, the Yiddish sketches and songs - comic and otherwise - are resumed until closing time.
It is, however, on its Boxing Nights (which in this connection means Mondays and Saturdays) that "Wonderland" is to be seen in its most thrilling form. Then it is indeed difficult either to get in or to get out. In the first place it is hard to get in because of the great crowds of hard-faring - often hard-faced - East-End worshippers of the fistic art; several types of which are to be seen in our photographic illustration on page 223. In the second place, if you do contrive to get in you speedily find yourself so hemmed in by a sardine-like packed mob that all egress seems hopeless.
Several other extremely typical East-End variety resorts, each of a totally different kind, are close at hand. One is the huge Paragon Theatre of Varieties, further east in the Mile End Road. Another is the much smaller Cambridge Music-Hall, which is in Commercial Street, a little way westward from Toynbee Hall. There are also the Queen's Music-Hall at Poplar, the Royal Albert at Canning Town, and the Eastern Empire at Bow.
In spite of its cheap prices and its seething audiences, the Paragon entertainment is exactly on a par with those given in the West-End and South of London Variety Theatres. Indeed, the entertainment at the Paragon is mostly identical with that supplied at the Canterbury, Westminster Bridge Road, and is under the same syndicate. As for the Canterbury, the better class South London tradesfolk and toilers go there, excepting, of course, when they visit the newer and equally well managed South of London variety shows.
The Cambridge Music Hall, between Spitalfields and Shoreditch, deserves a few special lines. In point of fact, ever since the time when, years ago, it was converted from a synagogue into a music-hall, the Hebrew residents of the locality have made it a point of honour to attend the Cambridge. With them they often bring not only their wives, but also their black-curled, black - eyed infants, who may often be seen toddling calmly about the stalls - especially during the earlier of the two "houses" per night.
Round the corner in Shoreditch is the London Music-Hall, wherein the stranger who pays his first visit will undoubtedly fancy for the nonce that he has lost his way and has by accident strayed into one of the best West- End halls.
Further north there are several more or less large and more or less classy variety houses for example, the new two "houses" per night resort, the Euston, opposite St. Pancras Station the Bedford, in Camden Town the still newer Islington Empire, next door to the Agricultural hall the old-established music-hall, Collins', on Islington Green and the still older Sadler's Wells, adjoining the New River Head in Rosebery Avenue.
The west-central district and southern suburbs are also well provided for in a music-hall sense. Among others, one notes the old Middlesex, or "Mogul," in Drury Lane; a Theatre of Varieties at Walham Green ; Empires at Balham and Deptford an Empress at Brixton ; a Royal Standard at Pimlico, and a Star at Bermondsey; and Palaces at Camberwell, the London Road (Southwark), and Croydon. Besides these may be mentioned Gatti's in the Westminster Bridge Road, another Gatti's at Charing Cross, and a Grand at Clapham Junction.
Like the halls themselves, tile agents who supply the managers with artistes at so much per cent. commission on the salaries have, too, not only much improved in character, but have in many cases migrated from their former dingy haunts in the York Road, Lambeth, to more commodious not to say palatial - offices in or around the Strand, the Haymarket, and elsewhere. Some few of them, however, still have their offices near a well-known tavern at a corner of York Road ; and at certain hours a large number of minor music-hall entertainers and their agents may - as shown in the above illustration - still be seen congregating near this old-established hostelry.
Music-hall "artistes " (as they love to call themselves) have also vastly improved. Not many years ago these were mostly shiftless and thriftless from the "stars" downward. Nowadays the music-hall ranks include large numbers of the worthiest of citizens. And, what is still better, they have combined together of late years to organise several protective associations, such as the Variety Club and the Music-Hall Railway Rates Association, as well as to found some excellent charities for benefiting their brethren out of health - or out of work - and to provide for the widows and orphans of comrades who have fallen by the way.
The chief of these charities is the Music-Hall Benevolent Fund, a very fine organisation, the committee of which consists of many of the most important and most honourable men to be found in any department of life. From time to time the smaller associations assist their parent fund, or the Music-Hall Home for the Sick and Aged, by arranging matinées or sports. In the case of the Music-Hall Railway Rates Association all the surplus of the money subscribed thereto for the purposes of getting the fares reduced for travelling "artistes" is handed over to one or other of the aforesaid charities.
Right - Photograph of Dan Leno playing in a celebrity cricket match. - Click to see the Feature this image originates from.
And though the members of the smaller music-hall societies delight to call themselves by such names as "Water Rats," " Terriers," and "J's," and to dress themselves as ostriches, savages, cowboys, Red Indians, and so on at their annual sports, or to disport as comic cricketers in all sorts of extraordinary costumes - what does it matter, seeing that they do it all for charity's sake? Thus, by drawing vast crowds of the general public, they add substantially to the funds of their excellent charities.
In these benevolent affairs Mr. Dan Leno is mostly at the head (as he is with regard to his profession) On such occasions he is indeed a Jack of all trades and master of most.
As will be seen from the photographic illustration on page 223, the "behind the scenes" life of Music-Hall London is not without its humours. In "Waiting to Go On" we have, indeed, a motley throng of variety "turns." These include a famous "serio" in Early Victorian "dandy" costume; a popular "comic" in the usual battered hat and ill-fitting clothes which such comedians always adopt a celebrated conjurer, a couple of clever descriptive singers, a noted strong man, and several others.
Left - Waiting to go on at the Royal Music Hall.
This "Waiting to Go On" represents, of course, quite a different state of things from the arrangements in a regular theatre, where every entrance and exit is fixed, and where the players have to report themselves, as a rule, some time before the curtain rises.
Music-hall entertainers must, if they wish to earn a remunerative amount per week, do three or four "turns" a night and in order to travel from hall to hall, a brougham - or in the case of a troupe, a private omnibus - has to be provided.
Right - Ready to Pass in at Wonderland.
As most music-hall entertainers start from home already "made
up," and even sometimes change in their vehicles en route, it does
not take them long to be ready for their respective "turns"
; and their punctuality is remarkable.
George R. Sims, Living London, 1902
Text and some images from the excellent website of Victorian London 'The Victorian Dictionary' compiled by Lee Jackson.
Music Hall and Variety Entertainments
From : London and its environs - a handbook for travellers.
Karl Baedeker. 1908. - Courtesy John Grice.
An Opinion of Music Halls, 1867
No institution has ever proved more thoroughly false to its early promise than has the Music Hall.
‘We were told, when the idea came first into notice, that its encouragement would assuredly exercise a beneficial influence over the progress of music amongst the lower classes; that many people, who now spend the hours of the night in dissolute indulgence at the public-house, would, in time, be weaned from their evil doings, and that the souls of our less wealthy fellow creatures would, in general terms, be ennobled through the gentle agency of art! In fact we were told all sorts of things, which perhaps, we did not believe, and which have, at all events, been proved by time to be not less fallacious than the great majority of predictions.
‘When the Canterbury Music Hall [in Upper Marsh, Lambeth, London, (opened 17 May 1852),] came prominently before the pubic, and set an example which has now been followed all over London - you may say all over England - the principal attraction which was put forward to catch the multitude was a musical selection from some well-known operatic work. The performance, we are free to confess, was somewhat coarse, but it was not wanting in a certain brilliancy and dash, and as there were one or two singers of passable merit engaged for these selections, we have no doubt but that with care and judgment the character of the entertainment might have been raised, and the taste of the public, as a natural consequence, improved.
‘Destiny has, however, willed it otherwise, and the Music Hall, as it at present stands, is mischievous to the art which it pretends to uphold. Operatic selections, it is true, are still to be heard, but they are, as a rule, so badly sung and vulgarly accompanied, that it were better for the cause of art that they should be omitted, and, in many cases, they appear to have died away - unheeded and unregretted - from the programme.
‘Nothing is listened to no-a-days but the so-called "comic songs," and, in sober earnestness, we must express our astonishment that human beings, endowed with the ordinary gift of reason, should be found to go night after night in order to witness such humiliating exhibitions. It is quite impossible to name anything equal to the stupidity of these comic songs, unless, indeed, it be their vulgarity. A man appears on the platform, dressed in outlandish clothes, and ornamented with whiskers of ferocious length and hideous hue, and procees to sing, verse after verse, of pointless twaddle, interspersed with a blatant "chorus," in which the audience is requested to join. The audience obligingly consents, and each member of it contributes, to the general harmony, a verse of the tune which he happens to know best. It not unfrequently occurs that one of these humorous efforts is received with perfect silence, and under such circumstances, it might not unreasonably be supposed that the artist would refrain, from motives of delicacy, from making his re-appearance before an audience to whom his talents do not appear to have afforded unqualified satisfaction. We are all, however, liable to be deceived, and no matter how slender the amount of the success achieved, the gentleman who occupies the chair will announce, in stentorian accents, that "Mr. So-and-So will oblige again" - which he accordingly proceeds to do, in whiskers more alarming, and vestments, if possible, more hideous than on the previous occasion. This species of musical treadmill is continued until the exhausted singer has sung four songs, when (if he sternly refuses to sing any more) he is set free, and allowed to exercise, over other Music Halls, the improving influence of his talent.
'There are numerous other details connected with the entertainments offered to the public at Music Halls, which call for remark, but to allude to them, in the present notice, would take us beyond the limits of the space at our disposal. In another article [see below] we shall draw attention to the "serio-comic lady," whose performances are, on the whole, more maddening than those which we have endeavoured to describe.’
From 'The Tomahawk,' London, Saturday, 14 September 1867
Text courtesy John Culme, John Culme's Footlight Notes.
Further Remarks on Music Halls, 1867
MUSIC HALLS. Second Notice.
In the article on this subject which appeared
in our impression of last week [see above], we took occasion to deplore
the non-fulfilment of the rich promises which were held out when Music
Halls first came before the notice of the public. We also bestowed a
passing glance on the "comic singer," whose dreary and heart-breaking
performances form the staple of the Music Hall entertainment as it stands
at present. It might be fancied, after our remarks of last week, that
in hearing a song from one of these hapless sons of mirth we must have
reached the lowest pitch of jocular destitution; but this is not so,
for, however deep the pain we endure from the male comedian, the suffering
which we experience at the hands of the "serio-comic lady"
is even harder to bear. Her very title is assuredly a misnomer, for
there is nought of seriousness in her performance, whilst as for comedy
- Heaven save the mark! - she knows not the meaning of the word! She
appears on the platform and, with saucy bearing and shrill voice, howls
forth some ditty about "cards in the Guards," or some "swell
in Pall Mall," or, perhaps, she will tell you a domestic romance
in which omnibus conductors, or policemen, or costermongers, form the
important features. Wanting, alike, in point, grace, or humour, these
songs can have no purpose save to indulge the degraded taste of the
majority of those who nightly fill the Music Halls; amongst such of
the audience as have been attracted in the idea that they would hear
a rational performance, there can be but one feeling - pity.
‘Whilst on this subject, we are reminded, perhaps by contrast, of Madlle. Theresa, the diva of the Alcazar, in Paris, and, so far as regards pointlessness and stupidity, we are bound in truth to say that our remarks have no reference to her; she possesses that which, in a different walk of life, might have enabled her to obtain a high position as an artist. As it is, she is only a Music Hall singer - but such a one! No actor can see her, no musician can hear her, without marvelling at the rare amount of talent evinced by her. That her sphere of art is a low one - perhaps the lowest - no one will deny, but her pre-eminence in that sphere is also undeniable, and, at the risk of shocking some of our readers, we venture to think that many queens of song now before the public, whose names are cherished by lovers of the opera, will find themselves matched and outdone before Madlle. Theresa meets her equal.
‘But let us leave the heroine of the Alcazar. In England there are numerous representatives of her faults, but we shall seek in vain for anyone who can afford the least idea of her merits. We had a twofold object in alluding to the Parisian Café Chantant, and, although the French Music Hall is liable to reproach in certain matters, we think that some things might with advantage be transplanted in England. Imprimis you will find in most cases, a trim little orchestra of efficient performers, who rattle merrily through one or two overtures, a valse, or a march, and so forth, and who, if need be, are fit to play a better class of music in fair style. There are generally singers of some pretension who are equal to the proper performance of romances and operatic airs, and, in short, the class of entertainment is such as reasonable folks may take pleasure in hearing. We wish that as much could be said for our Music Halls! Until, however, the entire organisation of these places of amusement is remodelled, and until decent music and fair cultivation take the ground which is now occupied by buffoonery and vulgarity, no good result may be hoped for.
‘We have spoken our mind pretty plainly in this matter, and there are two and possibly more of these Music Halls which may not justly come under the strictures which we have passed upon the institutions in general. Of the exceptions which strike us, the Alhambra [Leicester Square], with its well-mounted ballets and capital scenery, may be cited as one, whilst the music rooms known as Evans’s, in Covent Garden, constitutes the other. In the latter case, the audience consists of men alone, and the entertainment is made up of songs, glees, and part songs, executed by a well-trained choir, in which will be found boys with fresh and lusty voices which it does one’s heart good to hear. There was, it is true, a funereal comedian there, whose name, we fancy, was Mr. Harry Sidney [otherwise Harry Sydney, 1825-1870, a popular comic singer of the day], but if we are right, he as taken his talents elsewhere, and at Evans’s the visitor will now chance to hear good music well executed. The establishment is admirably conducted, and as for the beaming proprietor, may his shadow never be less, and may his hospitable snuff-box never be empty!
‘It will be seen that we have not touched upon the more serious question of the evil influence exercised by the majority of Music Halls as they are now conducted, and we have purposely refrained from doing so. If the morality of a Briton is to be attacked, the best course is to make, in the first place, an appeal to his common sense. We have endeavoured to point out the utter stupidity and worthlessness of the entertainments which are to be heard at these places all over London, and it remains for the public to contribute its quota towards a general reformation, so that, in time, the Music Hall may really furnish a home for music, instead of being, as at present, an insult to the art from which it has filched the name.’
From 'The Tomahawk,' London, Saturday, 21 September 1867
Text courtesy John Culme, John Culme's Footlight Notes.
...At the same time it must be admitted—shameful and disgraceful as the admission is—that it is not the music-hall of the vulgar Eastend or “over the water” that presents in special prominence the peculiar features here spoken of, and which, in plain language, are licentiousness and prostitution. He who would witness the perfection to which these twin curses may be wrought under the fostering influences of “music,” &c., must visit the west, and not the east or south, of the metropolis. He must make a journey to Leicester-square, and to the gorgeous and palatial Alhambra there to be found. What he will there discover will open his eyes to what a farcical thing the law is, and how within the hour it will strain at gnats, and bolt entire camels without so much as a wry face or a wince, or a wink even.
I speak fearlessly, because all that I describe may be witnessed to-night, to-morrow, any time, by the individual adventurous and curious enough to go and see for himself. There is no fear of his missing it; no chance of his fixing on a wrong night. It is always the same at the music-hall. Its meat is other men’s poison; and it can fatten and prosper while honesty starves. The bane and curse of society is its main support; and to introduce the purging besom would be to ruin the business.
At the same time, I would wish it to be distinctly understood, that I do not desire to convey to the reader the impression that the numerical majority of music-hall frequenters are persons of immoral tendencies. On the contrary, I am well convinced that such places are the resort of a vast number of the most respectable portion of the working-class. This, I believe, is a fact carefully treasured by music-hall proprietors, and elaborately displayed by them whenever their morality is attacked. They point to the well-filled body of the hail, the sixpenny part, where artisans and working-men congregate, and not unfrequently bring with them their wives and daughters; and triumphantly inquire, “Is it likely that the music-hall can be what slanderers represent, when it is so patronised?” And it is quite true that a very large number of honest and intelligent folk are attracted thither in search of harmless amusement. Let them bless God for their ignorance of the world’s wicked ways if they succeed in finding it. It is not impossible. Provided they look neither to the right nor left of them, but pay their sixpence at the door, and march to the seats apportioned them; and, still at eyes right, direct their gaze and their organs of hearing towards the stage, from which the modern “comic vocalist” doles out to a stolen tune feeble jingling idiotcies of “his own composing,”—if they are steadfast to this, they may come away not much the worse for the evening’s entertainment. But let him not look about him, especially if he have his wife or daughters with him, or he may find himself tingling with a feeling it was never his misfortune to experience before.
The honest believer in the harmlessness of music-halls would, if he looked about him as he sat in the sixpenny “pit,” discover in more quarters than one that which would open his innocent eyes. If his vision were directed upwards towards the boxes and balconies, there he would discover it. Brazen-faced women, blazoned in tawdry finery, and curled and painted, openly and without disguise bestowing their blandishments on “spoony” young swells of the “commercial” and shopman type, for the sake of the shilling’s-worth of brandy-and-water that steams before them, and in prospect of future advantages. There is no mistaking these women. They do not go there to be mistaken. They make no more disguise of their profession than do cattle-drovers in the public markets. They are there in pursuit of their ordinary calling, and, splendid creatures though they appear, it is curious to witness the supreme indifference to them of the door-keepers as they flaunt past them. It makes good the old proverb about the familiarity that breeds contempt; besides, as a customer in simple, the painted free-drinking lady is not desirable. I should not for a moment wish to impute without substantial proof so dastardly a feature of “business” to any spirited music-hall proprietor in particular; but I am positively assured by those who should know, that on certain recognised nights loose women are admitted to these places without payment. I know as a fact, too, that it is no uncommon thing for these female music-hall frequenters to enlist the services of cabmen on “spec,” the latter conveying their “fare” to the Alhambra or the Philharmonic without present payment, on the chance that she will in the course of the evening “pick up a flat,” who will with the lady require his services to drive them to the Haymarket or elsewhere. How much of extortion and robbery may be committed under such a convenient cloak it is not difficult to guess.The evidence not being quite so unobjectionable as it might be, I will not mention names; but I was recently informed with apparent sincerity by one of those poor bedizened unfortunates—a “dress lodger” possibly—that a certain music-hall proprietor issued to women of her class “weekly tickets” at half-price, the main condition attaching to the advantage being that the holder did not “ply” in the low-priced parts of the hall; that is to say, amongst those who could afford to pay for nothing more expensive than pints of beer.
But it is at the refreshment-bars of these palatial shams and impostures, as midnight and closing time approaches, that profligacy may be seen reigning rampant. Generally at one end of the hall is a long strip of metal counter, behind which superbly-attired barmaids vend strong liquors. Besides these there are “snuggeries,” or small private apartments, to which bashful gentlemen desirous of sharing a bottle of wine with a recent acquaintance may retire. But the unblushing immodesty of the place concentrates at this long bar. Any night may here be found dozens of prostitutes enticing simpletons to drink, while the men who are not simple-tons hang about, smoking pipes and cigars, and merely sipping, not drinking deeply, and with watchful wary eyes on the pretty game of fox-and-goose that is being played all round about them. No one molests them, or hints that their behaviour is at variance with “the second and third of Victoria, cap. 47.” Here they are in dozens, in scores, prostitutes every one, doing exactly as they do at the infamous and prosecuted Haymarket dens, and no one interferes. I say, doing all that the Haymarket woman does; and it must be so, since the gay patroness of the music-halls does simply all she can to lure the dupe she may at the moment have in tow. She entices him to drink; she drinks with him; she ogles, and winks, and whispers, and encourages like behaviour on his part, her main undisguised object being to induce him to prolong the companionship after the glaring gaslight of the liquor-bar is lowered, and its customers are shown to the outer door. If that is not “knowingly suffering prostitutes to meet together” for the more convenient prosecution of their horrible trade, what else is it? And yet the cunning schemes and contrivances for misleading and throwing dust in the eyes of the police are not practised here. There are no scouts and “bells,” the former causing the latter to chime a warning on the approach of the enemy. The enemy, the police, that is to say, are on the spot. In almost every case there will be found in the music-hall lobby an intelligent livened guardian of the public peace, here stationed that he may take cognisance of suspicious-looking persons, and eject improper characters. Should he happen, as is most likely, to be a policeman whose “beat” is in the neighbourhood, he will by sight be quite familiar with every loose woman who for a mile round in the streets plies her lawless trade. He recognises them, as with a nod of old acquaintance they pass the money-taker; he saunters to the bar, where the women gather to prime their prey, and he witnesses their doings, but he takes no notice, and never complains.
James Greenwood, The Seven Curses of London, 1869
From the excellent website of Victorian London 'The Victorian Dictionary' compiled by Lee Jackson.
The “variety’ theatre” or “music-hall” of to-day developed out Of the “saloon theatres” which existed in London. about 1830—1840; they owed their form and existence to the restrictive action of the “ patent “ theatres at ‘that time~ These theatres had the exclusive right of representing what was broadly called the “legitimate drama,” which ranged from Shakespeare to Monk Lewis, and from Sheridan and Goldsmith to Kotzebue and Alderman Birch of Cornhill, citizen and poet, and the founder of the turtle-soup trade. The~ ‘patent houses defended their rights when they were attacked by’ the “minor ‘~ and “saloon” theatres, but they often acted in the spirit of the dog in the manger. While they pursued up to fine and even imprisonment the poachers on their dramatic preserves, they too often. neglected the “legitimate .drama” for the supposed meretricious attractions offered by their illegitimate competitors. The British theatre gravitated naturally to the inn or tavern. The tavern was the source of life and heat, and warmed all social gatherings. The inn galleries offered rather rough stages, before the Shakespeare and Alleyn playhouses were built. The inn yards were often made as comfortable ‘as possible for the” groundlings “by layers of straw, but the tavern character of the auditorium was never concealed. Excisable liquor was always obtainable, and the superior members of the audience, who chose to pay for seats at the side of the stage or platform (like the “ avant-scene” boxes at a Parisian theatre):, were allowed to smoke Raleigh’s Virginian weed, then a novel luxury. This was, of course, the first germ of a “smokingtheatre.”
While the drama progressed as a recognized public ‘entertainment in England, and was provided with its own buildings;in the town, or certain, booths at the fairs, the Crown exercised its patronage in favour of certain individuals, giving them power to set up playhouses at’ any time in any parts of London and Westminster. The first and most important grant was made by Charles II. to his “trusty and well-beloved “Thomas Killigrew “and Sir William Davenant.” This was a personal grant, not connected with any particular sites or buildings, and is known in theatrical history as the “Killigrew and Davenant patent.” Killigrew was the author of several unsuccessful plays, and Sir William Davenant, said to be an illegitimate child of William Shakespeare, was a stage manager of great daring and genius. Charles II. had-strong theatrical leanings, and had helped to arrange the court ballets at Versailles for Louis XIV. ‘The Killigrew and Davenant patent in course of time descended, after a fashion, to the Theatres Royal, Covent Garden and Drury Lane, and was and still is the chief legal authority governing these theatres. The “ minor “ and outlying playhouses were carried on under the Music and Dancing Act of George II., and the annual licences were granted by the local magistrates.
The theatre proper having emancipated itself: from the inn or tavern, it was now the turn of the inn or tavern to develop into an independent place of amusement, and to lay the foundation of that enormous Tniddle-class and lower middle-class institution of interest which we agree to term the music hall. It rose from the most modest, humble and obscure beginning—from the public-house bar-parlour, and its weekly “sing—songs,” chiefly supported by voluntary talent from the “harmonic meetings:” of the “long-room ~‘ upstairs, generally used as a Foresters’ or Masonic ‘club-room, where one or two ‘professional singers, were engaged’ and a regular chairman was appointed, to the “assembly-room “ entertainments at certain hotels, where private balls and school festivals formed part of an irregular series. The district “ tea-garden,” which was then an agreeable feature of suburban life—the suburbs being ‘next door to the city and the country next door to the suburbs—was the first to show. dramatic ambition, and to erect in some portion of its limited but leafy grounds a lath-and-plaster stage large enough for about eight people to move upon without incurring the danger of falling off into the adjoining fish pond and fountain. A few classical statues in plaster, always slightly mutilated, gave an educational tone to the place, and with a few coloured oil-lamps hung amongst the bushes the proprietor felt he had gone as near the “Royal Vauxhail Gardens “as possible for the small charge of a sixpenny refreshment ticket. There were degrees of quality, of course, amongst these places, which answered to the German beergardens, though with inferior music. The Beulah Spa at Norwood, the White Conduit House at Pentonville, the Yorkshire Stingo in the Marylebone Road, the Monster at Pimlico, the St Helena at Rotherhithe, the Globe at Mile End, the Red Cow at Dalston, the Highbury Barn at Highbury, the Manor House at Mare Street, Hackney, the Rosemary Branch at Hoxton, and other rus-in-urbe retreats, were up to the level of their time, if rarely beyond it.
The suspended animation of the law—the one Georgian act, which was mainly passed to check the singing of Jacobite songs in the tap-rooms and tea-gardens of the little London of 1730, when the whole population of the United Kingdom was only about six millions—encouraged the growth eventually of a number of “saloon theatres” in various London districts, which were allowed under the head of “Music and Dancing” to go as far on the light dramatic road as the patent theatres thought proper to permit. The 25 Geo. II. C. 36, which in later days was still the only act under which the music halls of forty millions and more of people were licensed, was always liberally interpreted, as long as it kept dear of politics.
The “saloon theatres,” always being taverns or attached to taverns, created a public who liked to mix its dramatic amusements with smoking and light refreshments. The principal “saloons” were the Effingham in the Whitechapel Road, the Bower in the Lower Marsh, Lambeth, the Albert at Islington, the Britannia at Hoxton, the Grecian in the City Road, the Union in Shoreditch, the Stingo at Paddington and several others of less importance. All these places had good companies, especially in the winter, and many of them nourished leading actors of exceptional merit. The dramas were chiefly rough adaptations from the contemporary French stage, occasionally flying as high as Alexandre Dumas the elder and Victor Hugo. Actors of real tragic power lived, worked and died in this confined area. Some went to America, and acquired fame and fortune; and among others, Frederick Robson, who was trained at the Grecian, first when it was the leading saloon theatre and afterwards when it became the leading music hall (a distinction with little difference), fought his way to the front after the abolition of the” patent rights “ and was accepted as the greatest tragi-comic actor of his time. The Grecian saloon theatre, better known perhaps, with its pleasure garden or yard, as the Eagle Tavern, City Road, which formed the material of one of Charles Dickens’s Sketches by Boz, was a place managed with much taste, enterprise and discretion by its proprietor, Mr Rouse. It was the “ saloon “where the one and only attempt, with limited means, was ever made to import almost all the original repertory of the Opéra Comique in Paris, with the result that many musical works were presented to a sixpenny audience that had never been heard before nor since in England. Auber, Hérold, Adoiphe Adam, Boieldieu, Grétry, Donizetti, Bellini, Rossini and a host of others gave some sort of advanced musical education, through the Grecian, to a rather depressing part of London, long before board schools were established. The saloon theatres rarely offended the patent houses, and when they did the law was soon put in motion to show that Shakespeare could not be represented with impunity. The Union Saloon in Shoreditch, then under the direction of Mr Samuel Lane, who afterwards, with his wife, Mrs Sara Lane, at the Britannia Saloon, became the leading local theatrical manager of his day, was tempted in 1834 to give a performance of Othello. It was “raided “ by the then rather “new police,” and all the actors, servants, audience, directors and musicians were taken into custody and marched off to Worship Street police station, confined for the remainder of the night, and ~fined and warned in the morning. The same and only law still exists, for those who are helping to keep a “disorderly house,” but there are no holders of exclusive dramatic patent rights to set it in motion. The abolition of this privileged monopoly was effected about this time by a combination of distinguished literary men and dramatists, who were convinced, from observation and experience, that the patent theatres had failed to nurse the higher drama, while interfering with the beneficial freedom of public amusements.
The effect of Covent Garden and Drury Lane on the art of acting had resulted chiefly in limiting the market for theatrical employment, with a consequent all-round reduction of salaries. They kept the Lyceum Theatre (or English Opera House) for years in the position of a music hall, giving sometimes two performances a night, like a “gaff” in the New Cut or Whitechapel. They had not destroyed the “star” system, and Edmund Kean and the boy Betty—the “Infant Roscius “— were able to command sensational rewards. In the end Charles Dickens, Sir Edward Buiwer-Lytton, Sir Thomas Noon Talfourd and others got the patents abolished, and the first step towards free trade in the drama was secured.
The effect of this change was to draw attention to the “saloon theatres,” where during the performances smoking, drinking, and even eating were allowed in the auditorium. An act was soon passed, known as the Theatres Act (1843), appointing a censor of stage-plays, and placing the London theatres under the control of a Crown officer, changing with ministries. This was the lord chamberlain for the time being. The lord chamberlain of this period drew a hard-and-fast line between theatres under his control, where no smoking and drinking were allowed “in front,” and theatres or halls where the old habits and customs of the audience were not to be interfered with. These latter were to go under the jurisdiction of the local magistrates, or other licensing authorities, under the 25 Geo. II. c. 36—the Music and Dancing Act—and so far a divorce was decreed between the taverns and the playhouses. The lord chamberlain eventually made certain concessions. Refreshment bars were allowed at the lord chamberlain’s theatres in unobstrusive positions, victualled under a special act of William IV., and private smoking-rooms were allowed at most theatres on application. All this implied that stage plays were to be kept free from open smoking and drinking, and miscellaneous entertainments were to enjoy their old social freedom. The position was accepted by those “saloon theatres” which were not tempted to become lord chamberlain houses, and the others, with many additions, started the first music halls.
Amongst the first of these halls, and certainly the very first as far as intelligent management was concerned, was the Canterbury in the Lower Marsh, Lambeth, which was next door to the old Bower Saloon, then transformed into a “minor theatre.” The Canterbury sprang from the usual tavern germ, its creator being Mr Charles Morton, who honourably earned the name of the “ doyen of the music halls.” It justified its title by cultivating the best class of music, and exposed the prejudice and unfairness of Planché’s sarcasm in a Haymarket burlesque—” most music hall—most melancholy.” Mr Charles Morton added pictorial art to his other attractions, and obtained the support of Punch, which stamped the Canterbury as the “Royal Academy over the water.” At this time by a mere accident Gounod’s great opera of Faust, through defective international registration, fell into the public domain in England and became common property. The Canterbury, not daring to present it with scenery, costumes and action, fo,r fear of the Stage-play Act, gave what was called “An Operatic Selection,” the singers standing in plain dresses in a row, like pupils at a school examination or a chorus in an oratorio at Exeter Hall. The music was well rendered by a thoroughly competent company, night after night, for a long period, so that by the time the opera attracted the tardy attention of the two principal opera managers at Her Majesty’s Theatre in the Haymarket and Covent Garden Theatre, the tunes most popular were being whistled by the “man in the street,” the “boy in the gutter “ and the tradesman waiting at the door for orders.
With the Canterbury Hall, and its brother the Oxford in Oxford Street—a converted inn and coaching yard—built and managed on the same lines by Mr Charles Morton, the music halls were well started. They had imitators in every direction—some large, some small, and some with architectural pretensions, but all anxious to attract the public by cheap prices and physical comforts not attainable at any of the regular theatres.
With the growth and improvement of these “Halls,” the few old cellar “singing-rooms” gradually disappeared. Evans’s in Covent Garden was the last to go. Rhodes’s, or the Cyder Cellars in Maiden Lane, at the back of the Adelphi Theatre; the Coal Hole, in the Strand, which now forms the site of Terry’s Theatre; the Doctor Johnson, in Fleet Street (oddly enough, within the precincts of the City of London) disappeared one by one, and with them the compound material for Thackeray’s picture of “The Cave of Harmony.” This “Cave,” like Dickens’s “Old Curiosity Shop,” was drawn from the features of many places. To do the “ cellars “ a little justice, they represented the manners of a past time—heavy suppers and heavy drinks, and the freedom of their songs and recitations was partly due to the fact that the audience and the actors were always composed of men. Thackeray clung to Evans’s to the last. It was his nightly “ chapel of ease” to the adjoining Garrick Club. In its old age it became decent, and ladies were admitted to a private gallery, behind screens and a convent grille. Before its death, and its revival in another form as a sporting club, it admitted ladies both on and off the stage, and became an ordinary music hail.
The rise and progreas of the London music halls naturally excited a good deal of attention and jealousy on the part of the regular theatres, and this was increased when the first Great Variety Theatre was opened in Leicester Square. The building was the finest example of Moorish architecture on a large scale ever erected in England. It was burnt down in the ‘eighties, and the present theatre was built in its place. Originally it was “The Panopticon,” a palace of “recreative science,” started under the most distinguished direction on the old polytechnic institution lines, and with ample capital. It was a commercial failure, and after being tried as an “American Circus,” it was turned into a great variety theatre, the greatest of its kind in Europe, under the name of the Alhambra Palace. Its founder was Mr E.T. Smith, the energetic theatrical manager, and its developer was Mr Frederick Strange, who came full of spirit and money from the Crystal Palace. He produced in 1865 an ambitious ballet— the Dagger Ballet from Auber’s Enfant prodigue, which had been seen at Drury Lane Theatre in 1851, translated as” AzaëL”
The Alhambra was prosecuted in the superior courts ‘for infringing the Stage-play Act—the 6 & ~ Vict. c. 68. The case is in the ‘law reports—Wigan v. Strange; the ostensible plaintiffs being the well-known actors and managers Horace Wigan and Benjamin Webster, supported by J. B. Buckstone, and many other theatrical managers. A long trial before eminent judges, with eminent counsel on both sides, produced a decision which was not very satisfactory, and far from final. It held that, as far as the entertainment went, according to the evidence tendered, it was not a ballet representing any distinct story or coherent action, but it might have been a “divertissement “—a term suggested in the course of the trial. A short time after this a pantomime scene was produced at the same theatre, called Where’s the Police? which had a clown, a pantaloon, a columbine and a harlequin, with other familiar characters, a mob, a street and even the traditional red-hot poker. This inspired proceedings by the same plaintiffs before a police magistrate at Marlborough Street, who inflicted the full penalties—~2o a performance for 12 performances, and costs. An appeal was made to the Westminster quarter sessions, supported by Serjeant Ballantine and opposed by Mr Hardinge Giffard (afterwards Lord Chancellor Haisbury), and the conviction was confirmed. Being heard at quarter sessions, there is no record in the law reports.
These and other prosecutions suggested the institution of a parliamentary inquiry, and a House of Commons select committee was appointed in 1866, at the instigation of the music halls and variety theatres. The committee devoted much time to the inquiry, and examined many witnesses— amongst the rest Lord Sydney, the lord chamberlain, who had no personal objection to undertake the control of these comparatively young places of amusement and recreation. Much of the evidence was directed against the Stage-play Act, as the difficulty appeared to be to define what was not a stage play. Lord Denman, Mr Justice Byles, and other eminent judges seemed to think that any song, action or recitation that excited the emotions might be pinned as a stage-play, and that the old ‘definition—” the representation of any action by a person (or persons) acting, and not in the form of narration” —could be supported in the then state of the law in any of the higher courts. The variety theatres on this occasion were encouraged by what had just occurred at the time in France. Napoleon III., acting under the advice of M. Michel Chevalier, passed a decree known as La Liberl~ des théatres, which fixed the status of the Parisian and other music halls. Operettas, ballets of action, ballets, vaudevilles, pantomimes and all light pieces were allowed, and the managers were no longer legally confined to songs and acrobatic performances. The report of the select committee of 1866, signed by the chairman, Mr (afterwards Viscount) Goschen, was in favour of granting the variety theatres and music halls the privileges they asked for, which were those enjoyed in France and other countries.
Parliamentary interference and the introduction of several private bills in the House of Commons, which came to nothing, checked, if they did not altogether stop, the prosecutions. The variety theatres advanced in every direction in number and importance. Ballets grew in splendour and coherency. The lighting and ventilation, the comfort and decoration of the various “palaces” (as many of them were now called) improved, and the public, as usual, were the gainers. Population increased, and the six millions of 1730 became forty millions and more. The same and only act (25 Geo. II. c. 36), adequate or inadequate, still remained. London is defined as the “administrative county of London,” and its area—the 20-miles radius—is mapped out. The Metropolitan Board of Works retired or was discharged, and the London County Council was created and has taken its place. The London County Council, with extended power over structures and structural alterations, acquired the licensing of variety theatres and music halls from the local magistrates (the Middlesex, Surrey, Tower Hamlets and other magistrates) within the administrative county of London. The L. C. C. examine and enforce their powers. They have been advised that they can separate a music from a dancing licence if they like, and that when they grant the united licence the dancing means the dancing of paid performers on a stage, and not the dancing of the audience on a platform or floor, as at the shortlived but elegant Cremorne Gardens, or an old-time “Casino.” They are also advised that they can withhold licences, unless the applicants agree not to apply for a drink licence to the local magistrates sitting in brewster sessions, who still retain their control over the liquor trade. Theatre licences are often withheld unless a similar promise is made—the drink authority in this case being the Excise, empowered by the Act of William IV. (5 & 6 Will. IV. C. 39, S. 7).
The spread of so-called “sketches “—a kind of condensed drama or farce—in the variety theatres, and the action of the London County Council in trying to check the extension of refreshment licences to these establishments, with other grounds of discontent on the part of managers (individuals or “limited companies “), led to the appointment of a second select committee of the House of Commons in 1892 and the production of another blue-book. The same ground was gone over, and the same objections were raised against a licensing authority.
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