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.

The Oxford Music Hall in London, c.1875
Source: [public domain]

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.

Nelly Power, one of the female music hall performers popular with Victorian audiences
Source: [public domain]

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.

The stage at Wilton’s Music Hall, in east London, which is still putting on a varied programme for audiences today (Credit: Nell Darby)

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 . Her book on the Victorian theatre, Life on the Victorian Stage, is published by Pen & Sword.


If they had money in their pockets, the Victorians could find plenty of places to eat out, especially in the towns and cities. From rough-and-ready chop houses and public houses, elegant tea rooms and refreshment rooms, through to oyster bars and high-class restaurants, there was a plethora of eateries for different social classes and budgets.

In the mid-nineteenth century, women were a rare sight in restaurants. The American Stranger’s Guide to London and Liverpool at Table (1859) highlighted that in London and other cities, it was difficult to find restaurants where women could dine: ‘It is true that some have been opened where gentlemen may take their wives and daughters, but it has not yet become a recognised custom, although at Blackwall, Greenwich, Hampton Court, Windsor, Slough, Richmond, ladies are to be found as in the Parisan Cafes, and in London at ‘Verey’s’ in Pall Mall and Regent Street; but to give a private dinner with ladies, it is necessary to go to the ‘Albion’ or ‘London Tavern’ where nothing can exceed the magnificence of the rooms.’ By the 1880s, it had become acceptable for women and girls to eat out, even unaccompanied by men, and the male-dominated world of restaurants was no more.

For the middle classes, restaurants offering table d’hôte (set menus at a fixed price) were extremely popular. Pope’s Restaurant in Birmingham, called the ‘Vatican’ by its proprietor. offered table d’hôte between 5pm and 8.30pm for 3s 6d. The menu included olives stuffed with anchovies; soups (macaroni or hare); fish (boiled turbot and lobster sauce or fried eels); entrées (mutton cutlets and tomato sauce or sauti of rabbit); joints (roast gosling); game (partridge or wild duck); sweets (sweet omelette); savoury (devilled sardines on toast); and cheese and salad. It’s no wonder that indigestion remedies were part and parcel of daily life…

Kitchen scene at the Carlton (from Living London, 1901)

British restaurants were not known for serving high-quality food. In Notes on England (1872), the Frenchman Hippolyte Taine observed that:

‘excepting in the very best clubs and among continentalised English people, who have a French or Italian chef, [the cooking] is devoid of savour. I have dined, deliberately, in twenty different inns, from the highest to the lowest, in London and elsewhere: huge helpings of greasy meat and vegetable without sauce; one is amply and wholesomely fed, but one can take no pleasure in eating. The best restaurant in Liverpool cannot dress a chicken. If your palate demands enjoyment, here is a dish of pimentos, peppers, condiments, Indian vinegars: on one occasion I carelessly put two drops into my mouth. I might just as well have been swallowing a red-hot coal. At Greenwich, having had a helping of ordinary ‘white bait’, I helped myself to more but from another dish: it was a dish of curried whitebait – excellent for taking the skin off one’s tongue.’

By the 1890s, an increasing number of restaurants had developed a reputation for good food, and this even applied to eateries catering for customers lower down the social scale. According to the periodical Living London, Slaters’ in Piccadilly served lunches for ‘the people of modest incomes and half-an-hour to spare’. By the afternoon, it was frequented by ladies looking for tea after shopping, which had now become a leisure pursuit.

Slaters’ Restaurant, Piccadilly, Afternoon (from Living London, 1901)

The Trocadero Restaurant in London is a good example of the new style of restaurant designed to appeal to a wide range of customers. It was opened in 1896 by J Lyons & Co, famous for its tea shops which had been introduced two years earlier. The Trocadero Restaurant was built on the site of the old Trocadero music hall. According to advertisements of the time, it offered ‘the finest cuisine in London’ with a choice of wines. On the ground floor was the entrance hall with its marble staircase, a palatial dining hall in the style of Louis XIV and a grand saloon with decorations from the Louis XV period. Upstairs, there was a large banqueting hall and ‘charming suites of rooms’ for private dining for small and large parties, as well as for weddings, receptions and balls. The orchestra of the Coldstream Guards performed every afternoon and evening when the restaurant first opened.

The managers at the Trocadero were deliberately targeting customers with many different budgets, offering ‘luxury with economy’. Lunches (à la carte and table d’hôte) were 3 shillings while dinners cost 5 shillings; 7s 6d or 10s 6d; suppers were 3s 6d. For those of more modest means, there was the popular half a crown (2s 6d) table d’hôte grill in the Flemish-style grill room.

Table d’hôte at the Trocadero (from Living London, 1901)

You can find out more about the history of the Trocadero Restaurant, and the famous Trocadero music hall that preceded it, on the Arthur Lloyd website. There is also an amazing Trocadero Restaurant banquet book, owned by the Bennett family. Dating from the first few years of the restaurant’s existence, it lists hundreds of menus for banquets staged for individuals, companies and societies. Find out more at the Trocadero Banquet Book website.