A Short History of the Music Halls: Or, Why Do the Middle Classes have to ruin everything?

The British Music Halls occupied a special place in the history of mass entertainment. They influenced generations of comedians, give birth to the genius of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel, and the singing stars of Vesta Tilley and Gracie Fields. Born out of the pub song and supper rooms of the 1830s, the music halls were officially recognised by the 1843 Theatres Act, setting them aside from the ‘theatre proper’, ballet, and opera. This meant they could be licensed, controlled and regulated by the government.  But in the early days the music halls were not really seen as a controversial space, they were primarily a male dominated space, holding ‘harmonious gatherings’ in places such as Evans Music and Supper Rooms, The Coal Hole and the Cyder Cellars. They were pretty much exactly as stated – a hall for music, attached to a pub or hotel. Public houses were everywhere, they occupied the poor, why not allow them to have a hall alongside?

But by 1852 they had evolved into something quite different, something special, something unexpected.

The halls of the 1850s were a new breed. Led by the self-styled ‘Father of the Halls’, Charles Morton, – a title also claimed by the 1844 manager of Evans, Paddy Green – the new music halls were purpose built buildings, seating between 700-1,500 people each night. The Canterbury Music Hall was the first of these, opening in 1852, and then again in 1856, after a significant rebuild to increase seating capacity. Morton built this hall at 143 Westminster Bridge Road, and it signalled the new style of entertainment, specifically for the working classes, in the heart of the city of London. It was a marvel to behold: opulent ceilings, chandeliers and a carpet that had reportedly cost 1000 guineas. The middle classes were shocked, why was Morton going to such expense just to provide entertainment to the masses? Elegant designs and exteriors belonged to those who could afford to have them at home, not just to be visited for pleasure.

But this is where the very core of the entire music hall industry ideal exists. It was a world of fantasy; it attempted to create perfection and sold it to the people who would never have enough money to obtain it. It was the modern day celebrity gossip magazine and reality TV star world rolled into one, and appearing twice nightly just down your road. Historians have argued that the music halls are the first appearance of a commercial mass entertainment to appear in Britain, they appealed to everyone. In a world that was solely orientated along class and gender lines, the music halls were a place that drew in men and women, old and young, from all walks of life. Until the 1880s they were a primarily working class space, with audiences made up of tradesmen, clerks and the occasional ‘toff ‘or ‘swell’ looking to rough it amongst the common people. Through topical songs they kept their audience informed of parliamentary bills, changes in the geographical landscape of London, political intrigues, as well as domestic relationships and trials. The songs were witty, clever, and occasionally stolen from the poetry of the greats like Byron or Keats. Above all, they educated their audience about their rights and situation. And this was viewed as highly dangerous.

By the later half of the nineteenth century, there were over 300 music halls licensed in London alone. Syndicated groups began to appear, opening music halls in towns and resorts across the country, and later the world. Their influence over the tastes and ideas of their audience was unlike anything that had ever been seen before. National stars were created, Marie Lloyd, Mark Sheridan and Little Tich all represented the ‘true working class’ and packed houses to the roof night after night.

Marie Lloyd singing ‘A Coster Girl In Paris’

This combination of mass congregation and the popular masses was too much of a threat to the intellectual elites, who watched in horror as, across the water, the European working classes began to replace and rebel against their former masters. Keen to stop any social unrest from occurring in Britain, the elites and middle classes managed to take hold of the one weapon that could have radicalised and revolutionised the British working class – the music halls.

Through a steady process of regulation, and subversive tactics of a slow alteration to song topics – goodbye political information, hello ‘Ere, ‘e’s got an awful big carrot in ‘is barraaa’ *wink* *nudge nudge* – the music halls altered from an expression of the working classes, to a middle class stereotype of working class character. This happened slowly over a period of about twenty years, from the 1870s to the 1890s. Previous historians often lay the blame on a capitalist-driven social-climbing management, who bowed to the new measures – less alcohol, no prostitutes, no innuendo – to insure a higher paying audience. The halls themselves altered, getting rid of their promenades – even though this resulted in vandalism by the patrons, included a young Winston Churchill – and seating 5000 people in grand buildings more like cathedrals than the simple churches of entertainment from the 1850s. Electricity came in to replace the dangerous gas lighting and the ‘Palaces of Variety’ were born.

Harry Champion singing ‘I’m Henry the Eighth, I am’

But while this social manipulation took hold, there was one area of the music halls that saw little alteration, and that was in its performers. They came from the true working class: singers, contortionists, illusionists, acrobats, comic duos, dancers, animal tamers, trick cyclists, and ballet girls. The music hall bills were a combination and mutation of every form of entertainment you could think of.

John Davidson’s 1891 poem, In a Music Hall, gives some idea of the audience’s attraction to the halls:

“I did as my desk fellows did;

With a pipe and a tankard of beer,

In a music hall, rancid and hot,

I lost my soul night after night.

It is better to lose one’s soul,

Than to never stake it at all.”

In the early days, a bill would consist of 9-10 acts, of differing appeals with a Chairman, who sat on stage, sometimes in almost a grand throne, and acted as general overseer and organiser of the night’s entertainment. Mid-way through the changes, and certainly by the late 1880s, the role and office of Chairman had almost totally died out, the tables that had filled the auditorium had been removed, and a pit for the musicians had been created, but the bills remained the same.

And so did the pay and situation between artists, agents and mangers. By 1907, it was the artists who were really suffering. The long hours, contracts that would ban you from working within a ten-mile radius of any hall for six months after an appearance, and little pay had taken their toll. The acts went on strike. The ‘Music Hall War’ affected performers across the industry, from the highest paid stars to those scraping a living. The formation of unions such as the Variety Artists Federation (which went on to become Equity) show that the industry had begun to regulated itself, inside as well as for outside appearances. The success of the campaign was another demonstration of how far the music halls had come from their working class origins. And this was no more apparent than at the first Royal Variety Show (yeah, it’s from the music halls!) in 1912, then called the Royal Command Performance.

I recently watched a BBC documentary with Julian Fellows proclaiming that the attendance of Royalty at the show signified just how close to the people the King and Queen had become, how much they felt a kinship with their subjects and how greatly they enjoyed it when Vesta Tilly appeared on the stage. They didn’t. It may have been a good piece of public relations, but when Vesta Tilly appeared on stage, in her male attire and began to sing, Queen Alexandria was so shocked that she turned her face away and ordered the entire court to do the same. If anything, this single moment signifies just how great the social divide still was between the monarchy and the attitudes and beliefs of the common people. But here they all were, brought together under the banner of the music halls.

So what happened to the music halls? Where did this brilliantly inclusive and entertaining for of theatre seem to die out? Traditionalist historians say it was with the advent of the First World War, and the combined threat of cinema and radio. Revision historians disagree, the halls evolved to incorporate both these new forms of media, creating ‘cine-variety shows’ and live performances on the BBC. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s new music halls were still being built and acts achieving international success. It is clear though, that the one threat it could not survive was television. Even ‘Saturday Night At The London Palladium’ became the last vestige of a dying art form. One of the most poignant films to capture this sense of loss was by one of the most famous stars of the music halls. Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight, (1952), has an overwhelming ache for times gone by, and performances past.

So there you are, a brief history of the music halls. And this is just the short version; I haven’t talked about the prostitutes, the serial killers, the spies, the alcohol or any of the other equally fascinating and exciting parts of its history. There isn’t enough time to cover everything. But the next time you hear a stand up comedian, or watch a new avant-garde comic duo, remember that without the music halls, they would never have existed. The legacy of the halls echoes through time, and deserves far more attention than we currently seem to give.

Songs for the Masses: Political Expression in the Victorian Music Hall

*This is guest blog post that I contributed to the brilliant publishing house I.B Tauris, original post available here:  http://theibtaurisblog.com/2012/08/07/songs-for-the-masses-political-expressi…

The Victorian Music Halls played an essential role in both advancing and retarding the collective interests of its public during the nineteenth century. In a time when there had been widespread social revolution by most of the lower classes in Europe, the new mass commercial culture of the British music halls was used to control and dismiss similar feelings of discontent and revolution in its working class audience. This subversive role – promoting old fashion Toryism and patriotism over radical politics and the possibility of reform – did not draw attention to the horrific social and economical difficulties facing the working classes but, instead, distorted the true issues by reducing them to a humorous level.

From the 1870s onwards the music halls were manipulated by an increasing level of middle-class control, which sort to neutralize any form of working class political discontent. They were used as a conduit for propaganda, and instead of speaking for the people the halls moulded their political temperament through increased patriotic fervour and a focus on domestic life.

The unique relationship between the audiences and the performers on the stage gave the working classes a specific place that could collectively unite them and form an identity. Instead of the revolutionary nature feared by the middle classes, it was a severely patriotic, conservative sense of self that was created. The energies of the working classes, which could have previously been directed to changing their own circumstances was rechanneled by the halls middle-class managerial structure into an advancement of the Empire and the ideology of nationality.

By the 1880s, music hall song – which had previously been used to inform the masses of Britain’s role in world affairs, local government procedures, and the impact of laws and regulations passing before parliament – now focused on the patriotic notions of Country, Queen and Empire. For the masses, it was the music halls that would sell them the ideology of the British Empire, and it was the comic singers that became the salesmen. One of the most influential singers of the period was ‘The Great Macdermott’. Well-known through out his career, it was in 1877 that Macdermott achieved true notoriety with his pro-war song,

‘We Don’t Want to Fightmemorable for adding the word ‘jingo’ to the English language.

‘We don’t want to fight but by jingo if we do,
We’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men, and got the money too!
We’ve fought the Bear before and while we’re Britons true,
The Russians shall not have Constantinople.’

This song highlights the success of the new patriotic class consciousness that was being created in the music hall, re-enforced through both audio and visual methods:

‘A popular device for rousing the combative tendencies of the audience, and, what is better, drawing them in crowds, is to introduce emblematic figures with flags of different countries. Those are hissed, hooted and cheered accordingly to taste or prejudice.’

The experiences of war made a lasting impression on the collective popular consciousness of the working classes, and this was kept alive by its continual re-working in the halls. By the turn of the century the music halls were deliberately used as agents of propaganda to both eradicate any form of possible class antagonism at home, and to form a growing sense of nationalism. By the end of the Victorian era, the patriotic influence of the songs had become so great that any earlier balance of cynicism and idealism had been lost, leaving the halls recruiting for a war that was potentially against the attitudes and beliefs of a large part of its audience. It is clear that through both visual and audio means the working classes were being moulded into a singular patriotic collective, to be called upon in times of war. One witness described a nightly performance at the halls:

‘Indeed, at music hall audience are ever patriotic, and love to be thus stimulated. On the occasion of one of our wars, little or big, or at national excitement… there is secured some stalwart women of strident voice, who carries a flag, and who, to plenty of brass and trumpet, proclaims, or shrieks out –

“Britain’s our Isle of the Sea!
Yes, Britain’s the Isle of the Sea!
With Scotland, Ireland, Wales,
She never, never fails,
And shouts throughout the world for Libertee!”

The halls could have heralded in social revolution and a dynamic working class political entertainment. Instead, entertainment was used to restrain and reduce any political awareness that existed. A tool, I think, that is still being used today.