Today, I’m delighted to be hosting a guest post from Nell Darby, a crime and social historian, whose ancestors were Victorian performers. This post explores the phenomenon of Victorian music halls and how dangerous they could be, both for the audience and those taking part in the shows.
Queen Victoria’s unwarranted posthumous reputation for being ‘not amused’ has tarnished our view of the Victorians somewhat. Many perceive them as having been serious, moralistic individuals who demanded that table legs be covered up and that ankles were rather dangerous things.
Yet in reality, our Victorian ancestors wanted to be amused as much as we do today, and many enjoyed a naughty song lyric, or a knowing look, often enjoyed at the theatre. The development of a new type of theatrical entertainment from the mid-nineteenth century enabled many Victorians, including those from the lower echelons of society, to be entertained on a regular basis.
This new form of theatre was the music hall – an often bawdy, rowdy place where a variety of acts could be enjoyed. Audiences knew that even if they didn’t like a particular act, another would be along soon that might be more to their taste. Songs and comedy were key parts of the music hall’s programme of acts, that could be enjoyed alongside food and drink. To cater for the keen music hall patron, new theatres and halls were built or adapted, with bars and other facilities. The V&A has described these music halls as the successors to the taverns and coffee shops of earlier times, and it’s easy to see why: all were places where you could meet other like-minded souls, to chat, to drink, to learn what was happening in the world – and to escape that world, too. The music hall was a place of escapism, where you could laugh or shout away from the stresses of everyday life.
By the early Victorian era, many taverns, such as the Coal Hole, near Covent Garden, had started to put on musical entertainment several times a week, catering for the labouring classes, while supper rooms, for those in the middle ranks, served songs alongside food. Both men and women were catered for in the taverns, which could often be rather raucous places – the audience was not quiet during performances, and made their feelings known if they didn’t like a performer or act. Similarly, the new music halls had both male and female performers on their books, with entertainment providing women of few means with a way of earning their own independent living.
One of these women was Kate Garstone (referred to by some contemporaries as the ‘fascinating serio-comic’) who in the early 1870s was a regular at several of the London and provincial music halls. She performed, for example, at the Bedford and Marylebone music halls, where she sang her own adaptations of Offenbach’s operatic creations. She advertised her services in the newspapers, as did several of her contemporaries, making clear her adaptability and willingness to perform either multiple sets, or, alternatively, a single ‘turn’. In fact, one of the perhaps surprising aspects of some of the music hall bills of the late 19th century is the high percentage of female performers listed – for example, the Bow Music Hall, which later became Marlowe’s New Palace of Varieties, included in one programme a theatrical sketch show that included primarily women – actresses playing boys, duettists, vocalists, burlesque actresses, and so on.
The music hall – whether in London or the provinces – had a reputation for coarse acts, something many theatrical agents and music hall owners were keen to rectify. Performances would be publicised as offering ‘fun without vulgarity’, and stress the more salubrious places where entertainers had previously worked (‘New Music Hall, every evening, Mr WG Robson, Artiste, from the Philharmonic Hall’ read one 1860s advert in Lancashire). Yet alongside these efforts were descriptions of performers that read awkwardly to our modern eyes: Mr Taylor, ‘the funny little man’, and a female dwarf described as ‘the little wonder’, to name two examples. But the most popular acts were those in the middle of the camp: comics, impersonators, character singers and child actors.
The music hall, however, was not always a safe place to be. Some were built or adapted hastily, and did not have adequate facilities such as fire escapes or exits, and these resulted in some significant disasters, such as in 1868, when twenty-three theatregoers were killed at the Victoria Music Hall in Manchester. During a performance, somebody shouted, “Fire!” and the audience duly rushed for the staircase, forming a crush that resulted in panic-stricken audience members being crushed to death or suffocated. Music halls were also, pre-electricity, lit by paraffin lamps, and these could be dangerous both to audiences and performers. Of course, this was the same at home; in 1892, music hall performer William Amery Orr – known professionally as Will Lyons, and aged only 24 – died at his home, when a paraffin lamp exploded, pouring boiling oil on him. He had been due to perform on stage at Stockton a couple of days later, and so the music hall would have had to draft in someone else – or get an existing performer to do an additional ‘turn’ – to replace him.
Danger was not just inherent in how the music halls were constructed or managed – even performances could be dangerous. In 1881, when an accident at the Oxford Music Hall, or Theatre of Varieties, in Brighton led to a Chinese juggler, Ali Long Look (known as the ‘Great Chinese Salamander’), and his wife, Caroline, appearing at the Sussex Assizes, accused of a 15-year-old boy’s manslaughter at the theatre, during a performance. Ling Look had fired a cannon, as he regularly did, but the ball hit the boy, George Smythe, who was leaning over a rail to watch, and killed him. The accident took place just two days after Christmas. Both performers were found not guilty, though, with a charge against the music hall proprietor, Mrs Ellen Botham, being dropped earlier. You can read more about this case on the Benjamin William Botham Brighton Photographer and Music Hall Proprietor website.
Two years earlier, in a similar incident, John Holtum, known ominously as King of the Cannon, was charged at Leeds with unlawfully wounding labourer Elijah Fenton. 59-year-old Elijah had been an audience member at the Princess’s Palace Music Hall, watching Holtum. Holtum had offered to give £50 to anyone who could catch a ball shot from a cannon, having previously demonstrated that he himself could do this. Fenton accepted the challenge, but instead of catching the ball, it hit him on the forehead, resulting in a fractured skull. At the time of Holtum being charged, Fenton was described as lying ‘in the infirmary in a dying state’ and he did, indeed, die shortly after. Holtum’s immediate reaction was simply to say ‘he would not issue any more challenges’.
These accidents could be varied: some could not have been foreseen, whereas others were, perhaps, an inevitable result of risk-taking. In 1889, Madame Alphonsine, also known as the Queen of the Spiral, was seriously injured at a London music hall when she fell off a suspended ball, falling onto the spiral structure that was the heart of her acrobatics, and then slipping off that, falling 30 feet to the ground. As time went on, there were increasing calls for the buildings to be made safer, both for performers and audiences alike, but the newspapers continued to include tales of mishaps and mayhem, suggesting that these calls did not always result in improvements.
The music hall declined in popularity after World War 1, as entertainment tastes changed, and cinema proved an increasing competition for traditional entertainment – followed, of course, by television. Yet even into fairly modern times, we have been gripped by on-stage (or literal off-stage) dramas, with the deaths of performers such as Eric Morecambe and Sid James gaining increased attention due to the theatre locations where their collapses took place. Theatrical deaths, disasters and dramas have always been part of the entertainment, in a dark way; and in Victorian times, the dangers associated with performing in some music halls may have been part of the attraction for an audience always looking to see something different.
A big thank you to Nell for writing such a fascinating post! You can read more from Nell on her blog www.criminalhistorian.com . Her book on the Victorian theatre, Life on the Victorian Stage, is published by Pen & Sword.