The end of the nineteenth and the first two decades of the twentieth centuries was the heyday of the Music Hall. It was in these institutions that one could see the greatest entertainers of the Victorian years; entertainers like Dan Leno, Albert Chevalier, Little Tich, Marie Lloyd and Vesta Tilley. Although the Victorian Music Halls may have declined from the 1920s on, their influence was to be felt much longer. One need only think of great entertainers who carried the tradition forward; entertainers like the indomitable Gracie Fields and the amazing Stanley Halloway! Who hasn’t heard and loved recitations like “Albert and the Lion,” and songs like “The Biggest Aspidistra in the World,” and “Walter, Walter, Lead me to the Alter and I’ll show you where I’m tattooed!”
The Music Hall as we generally use the term can be dated from the first decade of Victoria’s reign. Peter Bailey, one of the best of social and cultural historians dealing with nineteenth century Britain, comments that
“Music hall” refers to both a popular form of miscellaneous entertainment and the institution that housed and promoted it.
The Music Halls fulfilled much of the entertainment needs of the urban population, and particularly the needs of the lower and labouring classes. It was, at least marginally, a safer environment than the Penny Gaffs so beloved of the coster lads and lasses. In the middle years of the century, although still a place for drinking as well as being entertained, Music Halls were becoming establishments in their own right with purpose-built premises. Nonetheless, their clientele, at mid-century, remained largely single young males and some young women.
By the 1870s some of the Music Halls, particularly those in the West End were moving away from their traditional working-class origins. Improved public transportation meant that those in the upper working and lower middle classes, now living in the suburbs of the great metropolis, could come into the West End for a night’s entertainment. Suddenly Music Hall had become family entertainment.
Nonetheless, many such places of entertainment were considered inappropriate for young women of the better classes. Even as late as 1908, the Baedeker Guide To London advised that as far as Music Halls were concerned, “ladies may visit the better-class West End establishments without fear, although they should, of course, eschew the cheaper seats.”
In the multitude of Music Halls, the performances were basically the same and in a large city, like London, it was not uncommon for performers at one theatre to finish their turn and then go to another theatre where they repeated it. Charles Dickens (Jr.) in his 1879 edition of the Dictionary of London, pointed out that it was
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.
In the 1870s and ‘80s, if one attended performances at any of the brilliant Music Halls in London, the shows would have been very much the same, differing only in their greater magnitude from those seen in other cities and towns and in the appearance of more illustrious performers. The “bill” would usually include a variety of items including gymnastics, ballet and the always-popular comic singing. In fact, when one thinks about Music Hall, it is this latter “turn” that tends to characterize it for us. We forget the performing animals, sporting celebrities, strong-men, magicians, ventriloquists, and all the other forms of entertainment too numerous to mention.
Raucous, licentious, loud, and fun, can all be used to describe the Music Halls of the second half of the nineteenth century. The music and performances also encouraged a level of Jingoism and patriotic fervour. Much that today would be considered unacceptable made up the pleasures of the Music Hall, particularly for those in the lower and the labouring classes. But the Music Halls presented what the people wanted. And it was what the people wanted that kept entertainers like Marie Lloyd at the top of the bill. Interviewed in the United States by the New York Telegraph she was quoted as saying,
They don't pay their sixpences and shillings at a music hall to hear the Salvation Army. If I was to try to sing highly moral songs, they would fire ginger beer bottles and beer mugs at me. I can't help it if people want to turn and twist my meanings.
It was highly unlikely that audiences had to twist the meaning of lines such as:
“She’d never had her ticket punched before”
“I sits among the cabbages and peas”
when delivered with the fine sense of innuendo that this marvelous entertainer was capable of mustering.
Growing out of the Penny Gaffs and originally an entertainment for the masses, Music Hall soon became the dominant form of amusement in the second half of the nineteenth century. Many contemporary entertainers owe a debt to the great entertainers it produced; carrying on the tradition whether in films, television or on the stage. Surely the goons, Frankie Howard and Charlie Chaplin all owed a debt to Music Hall as, in an even more direct sense did performers of the first half of the twentieth century like Gracie Fields and Stanley Holloway.
Among the many great performers of the Music Halls was Little Tich. I'll say more about him in a later blog, but to see a performance of his famous shoe dance, recorded around 1900, click here.