Today we have a fantastic guest post from Ruby Cardona about the fascinating history behind the Victorian Music Halls which were a mainstay of entertainment for decades. We hope you enjoy reading!
The Victorian music halls were packed with exciting entertainments, visited by some of the most famous performers of the day and became notorious in the press for their debauchery. In the late 1800s they were the favoured night out for many middle-class Victorians, but by the second world war, they were non-existent. What happened?
Music hall culture arose from the informal entertainment that used to take place in the back rooms of urban coffee shops and taverns in the 18th century. Men would gather to chat, drink and do business with amateur performances taking place around them. But as the demand for entertainment in these places grew, an entirely new type of establishment emerged.
The first music hall was the Canterbury Hall in Lambeth, south London (pictured below) which opened in 1852 and combined the relaxed atmosphere of the tavern with the excitement of the new ‘variety show’ – a mixture of song, dance, comedy and dramatic performance. The idea spread quickly and halls soon popped up across the capital. By the 1870s there were at least 30 large halls with hundreds of smaller ones in the greater London area, serving a variety of audiences.
Historians are divided on the type of people that attended – some view the halls as centres of working-class entertainment were people could let go after a hard day’s work and be entertained by fictional figures like ‘champagne Charlie’ who mocked upper-class customs and excess. Other scholars believe the halls were reserved for middle class Victorians, especially later in the century when the halls were more established, and were respectable places where gentlemen could take their wives out on a Saturday night. The reality of the crowds’ origin was probably a mixture of the middle and slightly wealthier working class – the small entrance fees (around £2-3) would allow the majority to attend but probably made the halls an unaffordable luxury for the capital’s poorest residents.
Canterbury Hall in Lambeth Upper Marsh around 1856. Source: Wiki Commons.
One area historians largely agree on is the rowdy nature of the halls, confirmed by damning reports in local newspapers complaining of the audience’s boisterous behaviour. Unlike the theatre, the music hall became a space where the audience could constantly interact with the performers on stage. It was common for choruses and well-known songs to be sung by the whole room, or – if the performer was less popular with the crowd – for things to be thrown on stage.
Another central element of the halls was the prominence of its female stars which allowed a few women to break out of their traditional roles as wives and mothers, becoming celebrities and wealthy women in their own right. Probably the most famous of the era was Marie Lloyd who rose to fame in the 1890s and quickly became notorious up and down the country for her raucous performances. In her popular song The Boy I Love Is Up in the Gallery, she sung about a blossoming romance with a new lover, directing her words every time at an unsuspecting young man in the stalls.
Marie Lloyd in 1900. Source: Wiki Commons.
What was intriguing was how veiled these performances could be – as one observer said in 1883: ‘there was an unwritten language of vulgarity and obscenity known to music-hall audiences, in which vile things can be said that appear perfectly inoffensive in King’s English’. Historians have proposed that this use of double entendre was intentional and designed to perplex the censors of Victorian England in an era where sexual matters were supposed to be hidden. It was therefore left to the audience’s imagination to read between the lines of the text and take their cues from the body language of performers.
The lyrics were thinly-veiled however, as Lloyd soon received harsh criticism for the suggestive content of her songs. Her performances became particularly contentious in an era when women were not expected to express their sexuality. While prostitution was often regarded an accepted, although distasteful, fact of Victorian Britain, sexual matters rarely entered the public realm except from moral and religious teachings which centred around marriage. For a woman like Marie to perform her songs about sex, love and relationships night after night to the delight of London’s crowds was no small thing. But for this reason, they did not go unnoticed.
Saturday night at the Victoria Theatre, The Graphic, October 26 1872. Source: British Library.
The sexually suggestive content of the halls performances, combined with their rowdy behaviour, meant that they quickly caught the attention of nineteenth century moralists with concern for ‘public good’. Morality and respectability were contentious topics in Victorian public discussion and for a few moral campaigners the line between harmless entertainment and vulgarity had been crossed by music hall culture. The British Women’s Temperance Association, one of many public groups that ran in Victorian Britain to monitor moral behaviour, complained in 1896 about obscenity in Marie Lloyd’s hit music-hall song ‘What’s That for, Eh?’ to the London City Council. The Oxford, another major London hall, fought a court case over the ‘indecency’ of the performances taking place inside.
Dan Leno (1903) was another famous performer. Source: Wiki Commons.
The halls reached their peak around the 1880s up until the First World War when live entertainments gave way to the rise of cinema and then the television. Complaints from moralists who found the halls offensive and disputes over alcohol licenses at the turn of the 20th century made it harder for bosses to keep them open. The First World War saw a surge in popularity for the halls as performers were rallied to promote the war effort at home. Marie Lloyd’s love songs were replaced with patriotic calls to arms and morale-boosting songs like Keep the Home Fires Burning. Although some halls kept their doors open post-war, the interwar years saw a decline of the halls as the major form of entertainment and the tradition was lost by the Second World War. Also lost was a unique space in Victorian Britain where people were able to let loose and express themselves, challenging the ‘stiff upper lip’ stereotype of the era.
A big thank you to Ruby for writing such a great piece.
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V&A: Music hall and variety theatre
Dagmar Kift: The Victorian Music Hall: Culture, Class and Conflict
Peter Bailey: Conspiracies of Meaning: Music-Hall and the Knowingness of Popular Culture
Peter Bailey: Popular Culture and Performance in the Victorian City
The Express: ‘The good old days’
Marie Lloyd songs mentioned: The Boy I Love Is Up in the Gallery, What’s That For, eh?
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