Music hall and variety theatre

The story of music hall

Music halls can be traced back to the taverns and coffee houses of 18th-century London, where performers sang songs whilst the audience ate, drank and joined in the singing. By the 1830s taverns had rooms devoted to musical clubs where they presented Saturday evening singsongs and 'free-and-easies' (informal entertainment from amateur and professional performers). 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, which served hot food and provided entertainment until the early hours of the morning.

Tavern entertainment or early music hall, drawing by George Cruikshank, about 1845, Britain. Museum no. S.43-2005. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The taverns, saloons and supper rooms would have been noisy and difficult places in which to perform. The audience would chat throughout the acts and could be very rowdy, often throwing things at the performers, such as bottles, old boots and even dead cats. In industrial towns, the favoured object to hurl was an iron rivet. In some halls bottles carried by the waiters were chained to the trays and the orchestra was protected from missiles by steel grilles stretched over the pit where they performed. While women were not allowed in the middle-class song and supper rooms, working-class women visited the taverns. In the early days of music hall they would often accompany their husbands and bring along their children and even babies.

The Green Gate Tavern, City Road, print from an engraving by T.H. Shepherd, about 1854, London. Museum no. S.981-2017. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

One of the most famous early music halls was The Eagle in London. The Eagle was an East End tavern on the corner of City Road and Shepherdess Walk that presented regular musical entertainment and was doing a roaring trade by 1854. Marie Lloyd, who would become one of the biggest music hall stars, first appeared there in 1885 at the age of 14. The Eagle was sold in 1883 to the Salvation Army and later demolished. Today a new Eagle pub can be found on the same site, which has a display of old music hall prints.

Eagle Tavern City Road, engraving by John Sherry, 1842, London. Museum no. S.278:3-1997. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The first purpose-built music hall was the Canterbury Hall in Lambeth, which was opened in 1852 by Mr Charles Morton. It held 700 people, who were seated at tables, with food and drink being served throughout the performance. Entrance was by a sixpenny refreshment ticket. The star performer at the Canterbury was the actor and singer of comedy songs, Sam Cowell. So great was Cowell's success that Morton had to build a larger hall on the same site. The more ornate hall, now with a capacity of 1,500, opened in 1856 complete with chandeliers, balcony and an art exhibition. Admission was sixpence to the floor and ninepence to the gallery (or £2 and £3 in today's money).

Canterbury Hall, Lambeth Upper Marsh, reproduced in The Illustrated London News, 6 December 1856. Museum no. S.1641-2015. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Morton encouraged women into his music hall, believing them 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.

Canterbury Hall ticket, unknown maker, 1874, London. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Inspired by the success of the Canterbury, music halls opened up across London, including Wilton's Music Hall (1853), the world's oldest surviving grand Victorian music hall. 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 means of escape and independence for working-class women. Many women achieved, if not stardom, a decent living on the halls.

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 halls the seating had been arranged like a regular theatre, with rows of seats facing a stage and the bar and refreshment rooms separated from the auditorium.

Alhambra Theatre programme, January 1898, unknown maker, London. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

As music hall became more popular, the main attraction for the audience became the entertainers rather than the food and drink. The big stars were so successful that they would perform in numerous halls each night, frantically crossing London in their carriages. By performing in several venues a night, the top stars could earn big money. They worked hard 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, which meant that popular performers no longer had to dash across London to appear in several halls in one evening.

Singing and the comic song remained at the heart of music hall, but gradually, from the late 19th century, all sorts of ingenious and strange speciality acts developed.

Discover a selection of music hall acts and their star performers in our slideshow below:

Variety theatre

In the early 20th century, new purpose-built theatres, many designed by the theatre architect Frank Matcham, sprang up across Britain. These were the Empires, Palaces, Coliseums and Hippodromes – beautiful Edwardian theatres with chandeliers, gold leaf decorations and red plush velvet seats with armrests. Unlike music halls where the audience sat at tables, the Edwardian theatres had proscenium arches, with fixed seats and a separate bar and auditorium. The traditions of eating and drinking during the performance disappeared. Audiences sat in rows in a darkened auditorium which discouraged their participation in the show. The old spirit of music hall gradually faded away and was replaced by variety.

Working drawings, plans for Hackney Empire, Frank Matcham, 1901. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Opened on 24 December 1904, The London Coliseum was the largest and most luxurious variety theatre. It was designed by the theatrical architect Frank Matcham for the impresario Oswald Stoll. Stoll started his career at the age of 14, assisting his mother in running the Parthenon Music Hall in Liverpool, and ended it owning a string of vast music halls. In many ways, Stoll was an unlikely music hall manager. He spent most of his life in a little suburban house in Putney in South West London. He didn't drink or smoke, and not only did he not swear, he had signs put up backstage prohibiting his employees from using any coarse language.

The Coliseum was at that time the only theatre in Europe that had lifts. It also had a marble staircase and a tea room on every floor. Oswald Stoll was a teetotaller who wanted to create entertainment for families. For the first time seats in the Coliseum could be booked in advance for performances. There were four performances of the variety show daily. As well as traditional music hall acts, Stoll introduced musical spectaculars, ballets (including the Diaghilev Ballet), and short dramatic plays with major theatrical stars like Sarah Bernhardt.

Poster advertising the variety show at the London Coliseum, for the week 7 February 1910. Museum no. S.1390-2010. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Royal Variety Performance

The first Royal Variety Performance, with King George V and Queen Mary in attendance, took place on 1 July 1912 at the Palace Theatre in London's West End. This was a lavish occasion with 3 million roses draped around the auditorium and over the viewing boxes.

Ticket to the Royal Command Performance, Palace Theatre, London, 1 July 1912. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The performers included music hall stars Alfred Lester, Gus Elen, Dan Leno, Vesta Tilley, Vesta Victoria and the great Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova, but with a few notable omissions, such as Marie Lloyd, whose act was considered too risqué for the Royal party. In defiance Marie Lloyd booked a performance for the same night at a nearby theatre. The posters for the event proclaimed: 'Every performance by Marie Lloyd is a Command Performance by Order of the British Public'. She played to a sell out audience.

The Royal party by all accounts enjoyed the show. The only embarrassment occurred when Queen Mary saw the male impersonator act by Vesta Tilley appear on stage in trousers and apparently buried her face in her programme. At that time it would have been considered most immodest for a woman to be seen in public wearing trousers. It was only with the onset of the First World War that women 'were allowed' to wear them.

The popularity of variety dwindled with the advent of the television. By the 1930s many theatres had closed or become cinemas. Other forms of entertainment, such as revue, had become popular and many variety performers now made their names through radio, film and later, television.