• Susana Aikin

LONDON’S MUSIC HALLS IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY

In my novel, We Shall See the Sky Sparkling, Lily is an actress working in London at the end of the 19th century, who travels to pre-revolutionary Russia during the reign of Tsar Nicholas II.
Read further below on London's Music Halls in the Nineteenth Century.

Wilton’s Music Hall of East London

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 while 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.


The Interior of Oxford Music Hall, London, late 19th century. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The taverns, saloons and supper rooms would have been noisy and difficult places in which to perform. The audiences chatted throughout the acts and could be very unruly, often throwing things at the performers – bottles, old boots, even a dead cat. Industrial towns favored hurling iron rivets.


Music sheet cover for "The Simple Pimple," color lithographic print, published by Francis, Day and Hunter, late 19th century. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Locals made up the vast majority of East End audiences. Charles Dickens described the Britannia's audience in 1860:

“Besides prowlers and idlers, we were mechanics, dock-laborers, costermongers, petty tradesmen, small clerks, milliners, stay-makers, show-binders, slop-workers, poor workers in a hundred highways and byways. Many of us on the whole were not at all clean.”

A pub in the late Victorian era, shown in "Behind the Bar" by John Henry Henshall

In some halls, bottles carried by the waiters were chained to the trays and the orchestra was protected from the missiles by steel grilles stretched over the pit.


An artist impression of trapeze performers in a Victorian music hall

Singing and the comic song remained at the heart of the music hall, but gradually the acts increased in diversity. All sorts of ingenious and strange specialty acts developed: contortionists, illusionists, acrobats, dancers, animal tamers, trick cyclists and ballet girls. The music hall bills had fabulous combinations of every form of entertainment imaginable.


Lottie Collins, the singer/dancer who could make any song popular throughout London

While women were not allowed initially in the middle-class song and supper rooms, working-class women went to the taverns. In the early days they would often accompany their husbands and bring along their children, and even babies. Charles Dickens declared in disgust that the pit had become "a virtual nursery."


Lady’s Thursdays

Later women were encouraged to attend the music halls, believing they would have a civilizing influence on the men. Ladies’ Thursdays were introduced, where women could accompany a gentleman to the hall. However gentlemen did not necessarily take their wives for a night out. Prostitutes would walk up and down the aisles of the auditorium touting for customers, and the halls developed a vulgar reputation.


Music sheet cover for "The Ratcatcher's Daughter", 19th century. Museum no. S.2768-1986, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

By 1875 there were 375 music halls in Greater London, which meant many 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, and such was the glamour of Music Hall that several married into the aristocracy.


The Kaufmann Troupe circa 1900

If music halls were first born out of the pub song and supper rooms in the 1830s, by the 1850s they had evolved into something quite different. Housed in great, ornate, built-for-the-purpose buildings seating 700 to 1500 people, music halls signaled the new style of mass entertainment, particularly for the working classes. They were the first wide spread mass entertainment to appear in Britain, they appealed to everyone, they drew in people from all walks of life.


Music sheet cover for "Bother the Men", sung by Mrs Howard Paul. Mid to late 19th century

But something else took place in these venues. Through topical songs they kept their audiences informed of parliamentary bills, changes in the landscape of London, political intrigues, as well as domestic relationships and trials. The songs were witty, clever and occasionally stolen from the poetry of great poets. But above all, they educated audiences about their rights and kept them informed about the current social and political situation. And this began to be viewed as highly dangerous.


Music Hall audience, by Thérèse Lessore

The last two decades of the 19th century saw steady efforts to control and regulate music halls; subversive tactics of alteration of song topics to drive them away from political information; enforcement of measures to reduce alcohol, the presence of prostitutes, and slowly introduced higher paying audiences.


Wilton’s Music Hall of East London

Today, walking down Graces Alley towards Wilton's Music Hall is a bit like stepping into another world – or rather back in time to the mid-19th century.


After World War I, and with the advent of cinema, radio, and eventually television, music halls began their decline and those that didn’t incorporate these new forms of new media, ended up closing down. But they will always be remembered as having had a special place in the history of mass media, and having influenced generations of comedians and performers.


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(c) Susana Aikin, 2020