VICTORIAN MUSIC HALL MAYHEM

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: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Music_hall#/media/File:1875_Oxford_Music_Hall.jpg [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: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nelly_Power#/media/File:Nelly_Power.jpg [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 www.criminalhistorian.com . Her book on the Victorian theatre, Life on the Victorian Stage, is published by Pen & Sword.

VICTORIAN SERVANTS SPEAK OUT

After a lengthy break, I’m relaunching my A Visitor’s Guide to Victorian England blog on a more responsive platform. Hopefully, it will make the content easier to navigate and search, and be more reader-friendly.

To mark International Women’s Day, this post is about the unsung heroes of Victorian society, without whom the wealthy and middle classes could not manage their daily lives: domestic servants. The rich rarely had issues attracting and retaining staff since working in gentlemen’s service was considered the pinnacle of a servant’s career. However, for smaller households employing just one or two servants, it was a very different matter.

Throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, the newspapers were full of complaints about the ‘servant problem’ – the apparent inability of employers to obtain and keep good servants. Countless opinions were offered as to the cause and the remedy, including that given by Mrs Panton in From Kitchen to Garret: Hints to Young Householders (1888). In her manual, she offered what appears to be common sense advice but it was contrary to the way many mistresses viewed their servants: ‘If we treat our maids just as we treat ourselves we shall find our trouble almost disappear. I invariably leave my maids a good deal to themselves about their work; and once they know what has to be done, I find it is done without my constantly being after them…’

‘Morning Wear’ in Cassell’s Household Guide

Part of the ‘servant problem’ was attributed to the increasingly wide range of employment opportunities for working-class girls who had traditionally gone into domestic service. Jobs in shops and factories were more attractive because of the fixed working hours, whereas servants were at the beck and call of their mistresses at all hours of the day. After 1880, working-class girls were educated for longer and to a higher standard. The most intelligent could now aspire to enter the professions of teaching and nursing, while clerical work offered further opportunities away from domestic service.

This increase in literacy among servants led many to air their grievances by writing to their local newspapers; this was one of the few ways they could express themselves publicly. While researching my book Servants’ Stories, I came across an exchange of letters on the British Newspaper Archive. They were sent to the Western Mail in November and December 1892. The first letter was a request from ‘A Servant’ of Swansea for ‘protection against tyrannous mistresses’:

Will you insert a servant’s complaints of the way in which the majority of that much-abused class are treated? No one seems to heed our long hours or our holidays, which are (like angels’ visits) few and far between. There seems no other class working at a greater disadvantage. For instance, no servant can expect a situation who had not got a good reference and a long one from where she last lived. It often happens she has been living with unprincipled people, who think not half so much of their servants as they do of their dumb animals. What is it to them if the girl does not get a situation? She has offended them in some way or other. Perhaps she had had more than her share of work, bad food, and other things too numerous to mention, and she has spoken too plainly to please them. That, of course, is considered impertinent, for, according to many mistresses’ opinion, a servant is a being made expressly for them, and she has no rights whatever, and she is told she need not expect a character. What are servants to do under these circumstances? They may be out of a situation for months – perhaps something worse. Do the mistresses think we have no spirit, and that we must bear quietly the petty tyranny they have it in their power to use in a hundred ways? My two last situations have happened to be places where it is impossible for servants to live, I being the sixth servant in three months, and yet we have nothing and no one to warn us of places of this sort. I think it is a serious matter that our character (I may say our livelihood) is at the mercy of such people. Why cannot something be done to benefit servants as well as other working classes? Servants ought to know what kind of places they are going into, as well as the character of the people they are to live with.

Maid of all work (Living London)

In the days that followed, other maids wrote to the Western Mail listing their own problems with their employers. ‘A Poor Servant in Pembrokeshire’ added:

I am only grieved to say that we servants are worse treated than pet animals. They are studied with fresh air every day, but we do not need it once a week even. Are we allowed sufficient time to eat the food we get, which would not be often given to their pets? When we enter into an engagement with a lady we are asked if we can obtain a good character. Should there be a little spot, “Oh you won’t suit me.” Should the lady’s character be inquired into as closely as the servant’s, I wonder which would prove the most just. You are asked if you are honest. Is it needed where everything is locked. You are expected to be clean. Can you be clean in some ‘houses’ where you have a piece of soap locked from you?

Lack of trust between mistress and maid was a constant source of frustration and anger. Employers also wrote in to have their say during this discussion. ‘A Mistress’ of Park-place, Cardiff commented:

I do not doubt that among servants, like every other class, there are some who are badly treated, but … what of the gross carelessness and wicked wastefulness of servants, and what of their growing antipathy to doing the ordinary work of a household? Servants, nowadays, are not to be compared to the honest and industrious worker of a few years ago, and their grievances are entirely of their own making.

This letter provoked an impassioned reply from to ‘A Servant’ of Newport:

I have heard many say that modern servants are not like the old-fashioned ones, but mistresses of the present day are very different from what they were then. Mistresses used to respect their servants and were looked up to in return, but such mistresses now are few and far between. There are so many ‘ladies’ who have been domestics themselves that we cannot expect them to make good mistresses. I should think that to have a good place we should have a kind mistress. This is the chief thing; then the girl would find it a pleasure to be industrious.

‘In a Servants’ Registry Office’ (Living London)

A butler with 17 years’ experience wrote:

I respectfully contend that servants are far more honest now than they were years ago, when many of them had little or no wages more than their food. No, servants are not what they were years ago. They, like other branches of the community, have improved with the times, and are still improving. But why is it they meet with so little encouragement from their employers? Hundreds of societies are formed, recreation-rooms built, and everything conceivable is done for the improvement of the clerk, artisan, mechanic, &c. Mistresses subscribe liberally to any of these, but no helping hand is held out to the poor being who is unlucky enough to bear the insignificant designation of “servant”… I am happy to say from experience that there are some few mistresses who take an interest in their servants, and do all they possibly can to encourage them to be thrifty &c, and improve themselves, not only by giving them good advice, but with kind, substantial help. But while employers continue to treat servants as machines, expecting all and giving as little as possible in return (for it is not solely a question of wages), there will be a difficulty in obtaining good servants.

Finally, came the hopes of ‘A Cardiff Girl’:

Would you kindly allow me a small space in your valuable paper to refer to the proposed servants’ union. I am sorry to see that such a few girls of this town have taken the matter up. Why do not some of them come forward with pluck and energy and stand out one with the other until they get a union like the shop assistants and have a half-holiday once a week, with some part of the day on Sunday, instead of being penned in like prisoners once a fortnight? I am sure we deserve it, I sincerely hope, now the girls have made a stir that it will not result in a failure like the last.

Unfortunately, the various servants’ trade unions had little effect on improving the working conditions of those in domestic service. It was difficult to recruit members because the contract between servant and employer was a private one, and maids ran the risk of being blacklisted if they were discovered to be members of a union.

This exchange of letters in the Western Mail continued for weeks, indicating the depth of feeling on both sides. The ‘servant problem’ continued well into the twentieth century when a trend developed of maids becoming ‘daily helps’ or char-women, which meant they had fixed hours and were able to return home at the end of the day.

VICTORIAN PRISON BABIES

Back in 2006, when I did the research for my book Prison Life in Victorian England, I remember being struck with sadness and pity for the babies of female prisoners who were born in prison and incarcerated with their mothers. Women who gave birth in prison could keep their babies with them, providing they were breastfeeding, sometimes until the end of their sentences.

In the 1860s, when Henry Mayhew visited Brixton Prison, the chaplain explained the rules about infants in the prison: ‘If the child be born here it is to stay with the mother but if born in jail before the mother comes here, it is to be sent to the Union immediately she is ordered to be removed to this prison.  We never had a child older than four years, but at Millbank one little thing had been kept so long incarcerated, that on going out of the prison it called a horse a cat’.

‘A Baby’s Cot’ from ‘In Wormwood Scrubs Prison’ (Living London, 1901)

The first crèche for prison babies was at Holloway Castle prison where babies born in jail and those under three months old at the time of their mothers’ conviction were cared for. Under this system, a baby slept in a cot in its mother’s cell and was taken to the day-nursery at 8.30 a.m. The wardresses bathed and fed each baby before putting it to bed again. If the mother’s conduct had been satisfactory, she might be allowed to see her baby at lunchtime or to take it with her when exercising in the prison yard. In fine weather, after lunch the baby spent most of the day with a prison nurse in a special tent in the garden.

Concerns were raised about children in convict prison nurseries, especially those who were there for long periods. It was feared that the contaminating influence of the criminal mothers on their offspring would mean the children themselves would be tempted into a life of crime. By 1900, all babies had to leave the prison at nine months. After this age, if a criminal mother had no family to look after her baby, it was sent to the workhouse and became an inmate for the duration of the prison sentence.

How wonderful, then, to read of a more positive view of prison babies at the end of the 19th century. I recently discovered an article in Living London (1901) about Wormwood Scrubs Prison which argued that “in many cases the prison born are better off than the free born – more cared for, more delicately nurtured than those who have first seen the light and have been dragged up in the purlieus and dark dens of the town.”

‘Baby Parade’ from ‘In Wormwood Scrubs Prison’ (Living London, 1901)

The journalist added:

“Prison mothers are generally a pattern to their sex. Discipline apart, and the stimulus it gives to good behaviour, there are no disturbing emotions within the walls, no incentives to neglect of offspring, no drink, no masterful men, no temptation to thieve or go astray; and thus their better feelings, their purer maternal instincts, have full play. So the prison baby has, for the most part, a good time. 

High officials, visitors, matron, warders, are all glad to pet and cosset it, there is plenty of wholesome food, it has toys to play with, fresh air and exercise in its mother’s arms, while its nursery, though no doubt a cell, is bright, well-ventilated, not ill-furnished with its comfortable cot, and is scrupulously clean. Moreover, when the prison mother is drawn elsewhere by the necessities of her daily toil, she knows that her baby will be well cared for in the prison nursery or creche.” 

‘In the Women’s Work Room’ from ‘In Wormwood Scrubs Prison’ (Living London , 1901)

If you ever get the chance, visit Beaumaris Gaol on Anglesey. In the prison, there is a nursery in which you can see a Victorian baby’s cradle. On one end of the cradle was a rope which hung down into the room below. This was the female prisoners’ workroom and they could rock their infants’ cradles from below the nursery without stopping their work. At Beaumaris, you can also explore all the corridors and cells, including the condemned cell and the punishment cell. There’s also the original treadwheel used to provide work for the prisoners – this is the only place I’ve ever seen a surviving one of these.

VICTORIAN SHOPPING – SHOPGIRLS AT THE DRAPER’S

If you visit Victorian England right at the end of Queen Victoria’s reign, a look inside one of the luxurious department stores or draper’s emporiums is highly recommended. From the 1880s, shopping had become a leisure pursuit for the wealthy and the largest drapery stores, especially in London, employed hundreds of staff to cater to the needs of their clientele.

By 1900, female shop assistants, or ‘shopgirls’, had become extremely important to the success of the draper’s emporiums, not least because most of the customers were women. The best establishments often had upwards of 250 young ladies working for them; it was their job to dress the windows of their departments and deal with the customers when they came in.   

When Mrs Belloc-Lowndes wrote her article on ‘London’s Drapers’ for Living London (1901), she commented that:

“The best-looking young lady assistants are generally to be found in the millinery department; for human nature being what it is, many a middle-aged plain customer will the more willingly invest in a hat when she has seen it gracefully poised above the pretty face of the young lady who has been told to attend to her wants.”

‘A cash desk’ from Living London (1901)

If a customer had an account and was known to the assistant, the amount of her purchase was simply debited to her; otherwise, she was asked to pay ready cash or to pay on delivery. This was taken advantage of by some ladies and “one type of customer whom the experienced saleswoman can detect almost at a glance” would order a great number of things to be paid for on delivery and then instruct her parlourmaid or butler to refuse the parcels when they arrived the same evening or the next morning.

The busiest times of day were from 12 to 1 o’clock and from 3 to 5 o’clock which meant that meals for the shop assistants in the larger emporiums had to be staggered with five different times. Half an hour was allowed for dinner and twenty minutes for tea. It was more difficult to find time for meals when the bi-annual sales weeks just after Christmas and at midsummer were taking place.

‘Sale Day at Peter Robinson’s’ from Living London (1901)

At the end of the working day, the young lady shop assistants had the whole evening for leisure, unlike, for instance, domestic servants. They also had Saturday afternoons from two o’clock. However, according to Mrs Belloc-Lowndes, in the largest drapery emporiums, they were “not allowed to go out from Saturday to Monday unless they can show a letter from their parents authorising them to do so, and stating where they are going.” They were, however, provided with pleasant sitting-rooms and plenty of books and games. 

‘A Workroom in a Draper’s’ from Living London (1901)

Unseen by the public, women also toiled in the workroom which was a very busy department of a drapery emporium. Before the 1870s, ladies preferred to buy their materials and have them made up at home or by their own dressmakers. By 1900, the sale of made-up goods was the largest and most profitable side of the drapery business. It was important to be able to alter bodices and skirts to fit the figure of every customer.   

From the cash desk and shopfloor through to the workroom, women were vital to the success of the large drapery establishments. Take the opportunity to do some shopping in Victorian England and watch these talented females at work!