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Gus Elen

Gus Elen, mid 19th century

Gus Elen, mid 19th century Gus Elen, mid 19th century. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Gus Elen was the best known of the 'coster' comedians, who performed songs and sketches about being a Cockney. Elen dressed in the coster uniform of striped jersey with a peaked cap turned towards one ear and a short clay pipe in the side of his mouth.

Born in Pimlico in 1862, Elen had worked as a barman, a draper's assistant and had packed eggs for the Co-op before becoming a singer. At first he busked in the street and at small music halls.

His first big success was in 1891, when he performed cockney songs at the Middlesex Music Hall, with a song called 'Never introduce your Donah to a pal' ('donah' meaning girlfriend). The movements for each of his songs were carefully rehearsed so that the performances themselves were clean and precise. Each gesture was powerfully distinct and could be seen from the back of the largest theatre.

His songs were bitter and realistic and rooted in the poverty and life of the East Enders who were his audience.

Music sheet cover for 'If it Wasn’t for the ‘Ouses In Between' sung by Gus Elen, 1894. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Music sheet cover for 'If it Wasn’t for the ‘Ouses In Between' sung by Gus Elen, 1894. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Elen was a genuine cockney and his songs were truer to life than the more sentimental numbers of his closest rival, Albert Chevalier. As pictures of Elen show, his characters appeared bad tempered and pugnacious.

His most famous song was ‘If it Wasn’t for the Houses in Between’ about the cramped housing conditions of the East End. Other songs included ‘It’s a Great Big Shame’ which was about a tiny girl dominating her beefy husband: ‘Naggin at a feller wot is six foot three, And ’er only four foot two’. Another song told of a couple who could never marry because as soon as one came out of jail, the other went in: ‘When I came out I found that Liza was in prison still. For when ordering of ’er wedding cake she’d simply pinched the till’.

Unlike most performers, Elen kept meticulous records of his songs with notes about the gestures and emotions, props required and stage settings. He also wrote comments about how his gags were received.

That Elen lived to the relatively old age of 77 can probably be attributed to the fact that, apart from the occasional appearance on stage, he virtually retired in 1914 to devote himself to his passion – fishing.

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