The Story of Music Hall

The origins of Music Hall

Sam Cowell, mid 19th century. Museum no. S.146:581-2007, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Sam Cowell, mid 19th century. Museum no. S.146:581-2007, © Victoria and Albert Museum, 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 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.

Song and supper rooms

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.

Rooms like The Coal Hole, off the Strand in London soon developed a scurrilous reputation. At Evans’ Song and Supper Rooms in Covent Garden singers were paid £1 a week and free drink.

The star of Evans' Song was Sam Cowell who was most famous for his song, 'The Rat Catcher’s Daughter'. It was so popular that fellow performer Charles Sloman, who was famous for improvising lines off the top of his head, wrote an extra two verses.

Sam Cowell was brought up in America but came to Britain in 1840 where he worked as an actor in Scotland and then London.

After a few years of hard graft in the theatre, Cowell began to move into comedy character songs fashionable in the music halls. He was best known for his cockney songs such as 'Villikins and his Dinah' and 'Billy Barlow', but he also burlesqued serious dramas including a version of 'Hamlet' in doggerel.

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

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

While enjoying considerable popularity in Britain, Sam accepted an invitation to do a tour in America which turned out to be a disaster. Poverty, a harsh winter, and alcohol destroyed his health and he died young, as did many performers of his generation who drank. He was only 45.

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 favoured hurling iron rivets.

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.

While women were not allowed 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 became ‘a virtual nursery’.

The Green Gate Tavern

The Green Gate Tavern on London's City Road was a sort of Victorian pub theatre. Many public houses put on entertainment of one sort or another, usually involving music and comedy.

This image from 1854 shows a scene from a play called Paul Pry by John Poole. The play's central character was an idle, meddlesome anti-hero. Not many of the audience seem to be at all interested in what is happening on stage. Just opposite the Green Gate, a rival pub was the Eagle, one of the most famous early music halls which was doing a roaring trade by 1854.

The Green Gate Tavern, print, 1854. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Green Gate Tavern, print, 1854. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Borough Music Hall, photographic reproduction of a b/w newspaper print, around 1859. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Borough Music Hall, photographic reproduction of a b/w newspaper print, around 1859. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Borough Music Hall

The Borough Music Hall was built in Union Street, Southwark before 1850. In its early years it had been known as the Salmon Concert Room or Public House, the Alexandra Music Hall, and the Raglan Music Hall. It burnt down in 1871, was rebuilt in 1872, burnt down again in 1883, and was rebuilt again in 1887!

In this kind of smaller venue the audience could be very close to the performers and the chairman. This helped maintain an intimacy between regular visitors and the artistes, in keeping with the origins of music hall in song and supper rooms and public houses.

It is hardly a surprise that this venue burned down so many times, as fire regulations were lax. The audience were able to sit at tables, where they could eat, drink, and smoke whilst enjoying the entertainment.

The Eagle Tavern, black ink on newsprint, early to mid 19th century. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Eagle Tavern, black ink on newsprint, early to mid 19th century. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Eagle

The Eagle, on City Road, London, was an East End tavern on the corner of City Road and Shepherdess Walk that presented regular musical entertainment.

The nursery rhyme Pop goes the Weasel features the Eagle. It is about a father spending his weekly wage in the music halls and then having to ‘pop’ or pawn his ‘weasel’ to raise additional money. The ‘weasel’ is thought to refer to a piece of equipment in the tailoring industry. Tailoring was one of the main occupations in London’s East End.

The Eagle did a roaring trade as one of the first music halls. Marie Lloyd, who would become one of the biggest music hall stars there has ever been, appeared there in 1885, at the age of 14.

'Bravo' Rouse, as he was nicknamed, rebuilt the Eagle and renamed it the Grecian Saloon. The novelist Charles Dickens was a regular visitor and wrote about the experience in Sketches by Boz. The Eagle was sold in 1883 to the Salvation Army, perennial enemy of drink and the music halls. The building has since been demolished and the site now boasts a new Eagle pub which has a display of old music hall prints.

The first music halls

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

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

The Canterbury Hall

Mr Charles Morton, publican of the Canterbury Tavern in Lambeth, opened the first purpose built music hall, The Canterbury Hall, in 1852. It held 700 people. Audiences were seated at tables and food and drink was served throughout the performance, which took place on a platform at one end of the hall under the watchful Chairman, the vocalist, Mr John Caulfield.

Entrance was by a sixpenny refreshment ticket and the star was Sam Cowell, who had been lured from Evans’ Supper Rooms. So great was Cowell’s success that Morton had to build a larger hall on the same site. The more ornate hall opened in 1856 complete with chandeliers, balcony and art exhibition. It held 1500 people. Admission was sixpence to the floor and ninepence to the gallery. Refreshments, now charged separately, were served at tables. Mr Chairman sat at a table on the stage.

Ladies’ Thursdays

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

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

Morton encouraged women into his music hall, believing it to have a civilising influence on the men. He introduced Ladies’ Thursdays, 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.

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 Royal Panopticon, later known as the Alhambra Theatre in Thomas Hayter Lewis's, 'The Builder' Vol.XII, No.580, 18 March, 1854. Museum no. NAL PP.20.A, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Royal Panopticon, later known as the Alhambra Theatre in Thomas Hayter Lewis's, 'The Builder' Vol.XII, No.580, 18 March, 1854. Museum no. NAL PP.20.A, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

West End music halls

Despite the apparent respectability of the West End halls, music hall was still associated with wild audiences and high living. The audiences were aristocratic young men and the working classes; the middle classes regarded the halls as vulgar places, full of risqué entertainment.

Most of the stars were working class, but such was the glamour of Music Hall that several married into the aristocracy. Managers like Oswald Stoll made a deliberate effort to make music hall respectable. The major West End music halls, like the Palace and the Coliseum, began to attract a higher social class, often wearing evening dress.

The Alhambra

The Alhambra and its rival the Empire, both in Leicester Square, were among the most famous and largest halls, but were also notorious for prostitutes who frequented the bars and promenades. In these theatres the seating had been arranged like a regular theatre, with rows of seats facing a proscenium stage and the bar and refreshment rooms separated from the auditorium.

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

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

As Music Hall became more popular, the main attraction for the audience was the entertainers rather than the food and drink. The big stars were so successful that they would perform in numerous halls each night, 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.

By the end of the 19th century, there could be as many as 20 acts per show and performances would last up to four hours. Soon music halls were presenting shorter, twice nightly programmes. Performers were now contracted for a period of time, rather than by performance. This meant that popular performers no longer had to dash across London to appear in several halls in one evening.

One of the biggest names in music hall was George Robey, famous for the song The Simple Pimple written in 1891. The song was about poor Maria, 'our Ria', who was instantly recognisable wherever she went because 'They know her by the pimple, the pimple on her nose'. He chose this song for his first ever tryout at a matinee performance at the Oxford Music Hall when he was 22. The clerical character and costume were to become his trade mark: a black coat with a small collar and a white vicar's collar underneath, a bald headed wig, reddened nose and cheeks and arched black eyebrows, like those of the great comic Dan Leno. His first performance at the Oxford brought the house down and earned him a 12-month contract.

Music Hall strike of 1907

Music Hall strike leaflet, 1907. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Music Hall strike leaflet, 1907. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

As Music Hall became more popular, the performers’ contracts became much stricter. The main complaint against theatre managers was the 'exclusivity clause'. This prevented performers from working in any other hall in the area within a year of their current contract, even though that contract might only be for a week. Contracts often stated that artists were not allowed to appear in any other theatre directly before or after a performance, nor could they perform in another theatre within a certain distance. This prevented artists appearing at more than one venue in an evening and limited the amount of money that they could earn on one night.

Most contracts included one matinee performance. Some unscrupulous managers announced additional matinees without any additional payments to the artists – one manager even announced four extra performances in one week.

In 1907 things came to a crisis and on 22 January at the Holborn Empire, artists, musicians and stagehands went on strike. Strikes in other London and suburban halls followed, organised by the Variety Artistes' Federation, which had been formed in 1906.

Artists picketed the halls, distributing leaflets declaring ‘Music Hall War!’ and demanding more payment for extra performances. The angry managers tried to keep the music halls open by booking little known acts or bringing performers out of retirement.

But even well paid stars such as Marie Lloyd refused to perform, declaring their solidarity with the striking performers. On one occasion Marie Lloyd sent a telegram to the Tivoli theatre declaring that she was tied up sewing a few flounces on her dress so she wouldn’t be able to perform that evening. 'Little Tich', her co-star, sent one saying that he was 'learning a new cornet solo. Cannot tear myself away'.

Theatre managers desperately tried to keep their theatres running by recruiting retired and unsuccessful acts. The strikers picketed the theatres to try to prevent this, although on one occasion Marie Lloyd told her colleagues not to stop Ms Belle Elmore: 'Don't be daft. Let her in and she'll empty the theatre.' Belle was more famous for marrying, and being the victim of the murderer Dr Crippen than as a performer.

Eventually the managements were forced to give in and additional payments for matinee performances were introduced.

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