The good old days: The story of Britain’s music halls
A scene from BBC TV’s The Good Old Days
IN THE BEGINNING…
Music halls can be traced back to the taverns and coffee houses of 18th century London where men met to eat, drink and do business.
Performers sang songs whilst the audience ate, drank and joined in the singing.
By the 1830s taverns had rooms devoted to musical clubs.
They presented Saturday evening singsongs and free and easies.
These became so popular that entertainment was put on two or three times a week.
For more middle-class clientele song and supper rooms opened in the 1830s.
They served hot food and provided entertainment until the early hours of the morning.
In London, there were three in particular that dominated; the Coal Hole, Evans’ Supper Rooms and The Cyder Cellars .
THE COAL HOLE
Described as “the oldest and most popular of the singing establishments”, this was home to JA Cave, the first singer to introduce the banjo in Britain.
The tavern lost its licence in 1862 and was later closed and demolished so that the Strand could be widened.
EVANS’ SUPPER ROOMS
The most important of the three, this was originally located in the basement of the Grand Hotel in the late 18th century and was later converted into its new role by W.C (William Carpenter) Evans.
His most popular entertainer was the character singer, Sam Cowell who used to be a big hit with the audience until he started turning up late for his own performances.
THE CYDER CELLARS
Favoured by the likes of country tradesmen, young apprentices, guardsmen and members of the House of Lords, Victorian novelist William Makepeace Thackeray was also said to be a regular, going twice in October 1848 to hear WG Ross to sing at two in the morning.
When Ross was performing it wasn’t unusual for people to be turned away at the door every night. His picture, priced one shilling (5p) could not be printed fast enough to keep pace with demand.
THE FIRST MUSIC HALL
With demand increasing for this new form of entertainment, it was decided it needed its own name.
So in 1847, when a singing room was attached to the Grapes Tavern at Southwark in south London it was renamed a music hall.
London’s first purpose-built music hall was the Canterbury in what is now Westminster Bridge Road.
When the manager and entrepreneur Charles Morton took it over in 1849, it had a room where free and easies were staged but by 1851, once it had been refurbished, Morton obtained a music licence and the amateur element of music hall melted away.
After the success of the first one, Morton who became known as the Father Of The Halls went on to build a second in 1855.
Despite spending his entire working life as either a licensed victualler or the owner or manager of music halls, Morton was teetotal, attributing his longevity to “a love of work and temperance of habit”. His greatest indulgence was a cup of cocoa and a biscuit.
English music-hall entertainer Marie Lloyd
NEW MUSIC HALLS
Inspired by the success of the Canterbury, music halls opened up across London.
These early halls including the Oxford on the corner of Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road.
By 1875 there were 375 music halls in Greater London, which meant a lot more performers were required.
Throughout the 1860s it became more common for women to perform in the halls.
Performing was a way of escape and independence for working-class women.
Many women achieved, if not stardom, a decent living on the halls.
Singing and the comic song remained at the heart of music hall, but gradually the acts increased in diversity.
All sorts of ingenious and strange speciality acts developed.
THE ALHAMBRA AND THE EMPIRE
These rival halls, both situated in Leicester Square, were among the most famous and largest, and were notorious for prostitutes who frequented the bars and promenades.
Like a regular theatre, the seating was arranged with rows of seats facing a proscenium stage and the bar and refreshment rooms separated from the auditorium.
It was here that you would see the big stars such as George Robey, famous for the song The Simple Pimple written in 1891.
So successful were they that it wasn’t unusual for them to perform in numerous halls each night, criss-crossing London in their carriages.
By performing in several venues a night the top stars could earn big money.
They worked hard and lived fast, but the stresses of this lifestyle meant that many died young.
Dan Leno was a leading English music hall comedian and musical theatre actor
BRITAIN’S EARLY SUPERSTARS
Originally a chimney sweep, Collins became one of the hall’s most popular singers in the 1840s.
Wearing a brimless top hat, a dress coat, knee breeches, worsted stockings and brogues, he made his way from one hall to another, his clothes tied up in a bundle and a shillelagh on his shoulder.
He specialised in Irish songs – his most famous being The Rat Catcher’s Daughter – and was one of Charles Morton’s first stars at the Canterbury.
He was successful enough to be able to buy a pub in 1858 and rebuild the adjacent music hall to accommodate an audience of 800.
Three years later, he took over the Lansdowne Arms in Islington which he converted into a music hall.
Named Sam Collins’ Music Hall, it opened in November 1863, 18 months before his death.
Later run by his widow, it remained Collins’ for nearly a century, and many people claim to have seen ghosts there.
Born Matilda Wood, Marie was the daughter of an artificial flower maker who made her music hall debut in 1855.
A star by the age of 20, she stayed at the top of the bill until her premature death 32 years later.
She sang a wide range of character songs that changed as she matured from pert young woman to plump middleaged matron.
She also sang saucy songs, made saucier by a wink and a naughty look.
Generous to the point of self-deprivation, she was unlucky in love, the victim of two husbands who beat her.
A small, wiry man with a permanently worried look on his face, Dan Leno vied with Marie as the most accomplished and popular entertainer in music hall.
Known as the Funniest Man On Earth, he was also one of the most popular pantomime dames of the 1890s.
Born in 1860 his real name was George Galvin and, like many music hall performers, his parents were also on the halls.
His first performance was at the Cosmotheca Music Hall in Paddington, London where he was billed as ‘Little George, the Infant Wonder, Contortionist and Posturer’.
A world champion clog dancer it wasn’t unusual for Leno to travel up and down the country, often giving 20 shows a night in different taverns.
He later expanded his act to include a comedy routine and in 1886 Leno played the dame in Jack And The Beanstalk at the Surrey Theatre.
Such was his success that he continued to play in panto for the next 15 years.
He died after a nervous breakdown at the age of 42. He had performed almost daily for 36 years of his life.
MUSIC HALL STRIKE OF 1907
With just a few proprietors controlling the majority of the halls, the owners attempted to extract the maximum work for minimum pay from the performers.
This lead to the formation of the Variety Artists’ Federation, which in 1907 organised the first music hall strike.
In 1912, music hall gained a level of respectability with the first Royal Command Performance.
END OF THE MUSIC HALL
After a series of fires in theatres and music halls, the London County Council finally banned eating and drinking in auditoriums in 1914.
From that time, the music halls simply had to be run on the same lines as theatres.
After this, music hall became known by its earlier name of Variety and, with the arrival of cinema and later radio, became extinct by the time of the Second World War.
FOLLOWING IN BRITAIN’S FOOTSTEPS
Although generally regarded as a particularly British institution, two other countries, namely France and the USA, also have a music hall tradition.
In France this was of a more sophisticated middle class nature, while in America vaudeville developed on parallel lines to music hall in Britain.
- To order British Music Hall: An Illustrated History by Richard Anthony Baker priced £14.99 (Pen & Sword Books). Please call the Express Bookshop on 01872 562310. Alternatively please send a cheque or postal order to: Music Hall Offer, PO Box 200, Falmouth TR11 4WJ or visit www.expressbookshop.com. UK delivery is free.