Source: James Greenwood, ‘Music Hall Morality’, London Society, vol. XIV, December 1868, pp. 486-491
Text: Twenty years ago amusement for the people was at low-water mark. Railways were less numerous and extensive, and railway directors had not yet thought of working the profitable field suggested by the little word ‘excursion.’ ‘Eight hours by the seaside,’ to be compassed comfortably within a holiday of a single summer’s day was a miracle scarcely even dreamt of by the most sanguine progressionist. Thousands and tens of thousands of London-born men and women lived and laboured through a long life-time, and never saw the sea at all. Sheerness, twenty years ago, was the working man’s seaside; and his knowledge of sea sand was confined to as much of it as was unpleasantly discovered lurking within the shells of the plate of winkles served up at his shilling tea at Gravesend. Even the green country ‘far removed from noise and smoke,’ was, if not a sealed book to him, at least a volume placed on so high a shelf that, after some experience, he was driven to the conclusion that the pains and penalties attending a climb for it were scarcely compensated by success and temporary possession of the prize. The only conveyance at his service—and that only on recognized holiday occasions—was the greengrocer’s van, newly painted and decorated for the event, and in which a mixed company of the sexes crowded, and were dragged along the hot and dusty road at the rate of five miles an hour, towards Hampton Court or Epping Forest, there to huddle on the grass, and partake of a collation that, but for its four hours’ grilling on the van roof under a blazing sun, would have been cold, with flask liquor or luke-warm beer out of a stone jar as liquid accompaniments. Twenty years ago a Crystal Palace had existence nowhere but within the cover of that book of wonders, the ‘Arabian Nights’ Entertainments,’ and the soil out of which the museum at South Kensington has sprung was devoted to the growth of cabbages.
In that dark age, however, it is questionable if the inconveniences enumerated were regarded as such. The people knew no better. The Jack of the past generation was a Jack-of-all-work, according to the strictest interpretation of that term. So seldom did he indulge in a holiday that he went at it as a teetotaller broke loose goes at hard drinking, and it unsettled him for a week afterwards. His play-time imposed on him more real hard labour than his accustomed jog-trot worktime, and he was an unhappy, despondent man until his excited nerves grew calm, and the tingling of his blood subsided. Such were the alarming effects on him that it seemed a happy dispensation that Whitsun and Easter came each but once a year.
As a man who earned his bread by the sweat of his brow, and who consequently was in a violent condition of perspiration during twelve hours in each twenty-four, it is scarcely likely that the question of evening amusement would much trouble the working man of that period. Jaded and weary, he was by necessity a hearth and homeloving man. He had neither the pluck nor the inclination to be anything else. The evening saw him plodding homeward, and all his desire was to remove his heavy boots from his tired feet, and engage with all speed in the demolition of his tea-supper, after which there was nothing for it but for him to drag his chair to the chimney-corner, and there sit and smoke or doze till bedtime. If he were inclined for an hour or so of away-from-home recreation, where could he find it? There were the theatres; but he so rarely went to such places that ‘going to the play’ was an event not to be treated in an off-hand manner, or to be decided on without due deliberation. Besides, it was a dear treat. Supposing that he went into the pit (he would take the ‘missus’ of course), there would go two shillings, and at least another one for a drop of something to take in and a mouthful of something to eat, and three shillings is a large sum. Being a Briton and a loyal man, and as such recognizing ‘the social glass and the cheerful song’ as chief among the supporting pillars of the Constitution, he would very willingly have contributed his share towards it; but where, as a sober and proper person, was his opportunity? Truly, he might drink long life and prosperity to the Queen, and confusion to her enemies, as he sat at home over the pint of beer fetched from the public-house; but amidst the distracting influences of domesticity how much of heartiness would there be in the patriotic sentiment? He might, as he sat with his feet on the home fender-bar, raise his voice harmonically in praise of his wife and ‘the troop of little children at his knee,’ or of ‘Tom Bowling,’ or ‘Old John Barleycorn;’ but he would grow weary in less than a week of such pastime, under repeated reminders that the baby was asleep, or that his fellow-lodgers were complaining. Even twenty years ago there were ‘concert rooms’ where ‘professional talent’ was engaged, and where sixpence was charged for admission; but, as a rule, these were dirty, low, disreputable dens, where liquor little better than poison was sold, and where the company consisted chiefly of the riff-raff of the town, both male and female. He had neither the means nor the inclination to resort to a place of this description. All, then, that was left to him was the tavern parlour ‘sing-song,’ or free-and-easy, usually celebrated on Mondays and Saturdays, these being the times when he was most likely to have a shilling in his pocket. But what amount of satisfaction was to be got out of it? Excepting for the inordinate quantity of malt or spirituous liquors the working man felt bound to imbibe for the good of the house, the ‘free-and-easy’ was as tame as tame could be. The same individual—the landlord—occupied the chair invariably; the same men sang the same songs (it would have been regarded as a most unwarrantable liberty if Jones had attempted to render a ditty known as Wilkins’s); the same jokes were exchanged; the same toasts and sentiments found utterance. It was not enjoyment at all that occupied the company, but a good-natured spirit of forbearance and toleration. Scarcely a man in the room came to hear singing, but to be heard singing. This was the weakness that drew the members of the ‘ free-and-easy’ together, and every man, out of tender consideration for his own affliction, was disposed to treat an exhibition of the prevalent malady on the part of a neighbour with kindly sympathy. But the morning’s reflection ensuing on such an evening’s amusement never failed to disclose the dismal fact that there was ‘nothing in it’—nothing, that is, but headache and remorse for money wasted.
Of late years, however, the state of the British handicraftsman has undergone an extraordinary change. He is not the same fellow he used to be. He has cast aside the ancient mantle of unquestioning drudgery that so long hung about his drooping shoulders. He has straightened his neck to look about him, a process which has elevated his view of matters generally at least three inches (and that is a good deal in the case of a man whose nose from boyhood has been kept at the grindstone, and whose vision has been always at a bare level with the top of that useful machine). It was no more than natural that’ work’ being the theme that had so long occupied his attention, he should, having satisfactorily settled that matter, turn to its direct antithesis, ‘play,’ and make a few inquiries as to what amendment were possible in that direction. It became evident to him that this portion of the social machine, no less than the other, was out of order. It appeared all right from a superficial view; but when you came closely to examine it there were loose screws in every direction, and many of the main wheels were so clogged with objectionable matter, that no decent man could safely approach it. This was serious. The reformed handicraftsman had leisure now, and considerably more money than in the old time. Offer him a fair evening’s amusement, and he would pay his shilling for it cheerfully But, mind you, it must be fit and proper amusement, and such as chimed harmoniously with his newly-developed convictions of his respectability and intellectual importance. But, looking to the right and to the left of him, he failed to discover what ho sought; and probably he would to this very day have been vainly inquiring which way he should turn, had it not been for certain enterprising and philanthropic persons, who, ascertaining his need, generously undertook the task of providing for it.
The arguments used by the disinterested gentlemen in question showed beyond a doubt that they thoroughly understood the matter. ‘What you want,’ said they to the working man, ‘is something very different from that which now exists. You like good music, you have an affectionate regard for the drama; but if at the present time you would taste of one or the other you are compelled to do so under restrictions that are irksome. The theatre is open to you, but you cannot do as you like in a theatre. You must conform to certain rules and regulations, and, in a manner of speaking, are made to “toe the mark.” If you want a glass of beer—and what is more natural than that you should?—you can’t get it. What you can get for your sixpence is half a pint and a gill of flat or sour stuff in a black bottle, and to obtain even this luxury you must creep noiselessly to the shabby little refreshment-room and drink it there and creep back again to your seat in the pit as though you had been guilty of something you should be ashamed of. You would like a pipe or a cigar; you are used to smoking of evenings, and deprivation from the harmless indulgence disagrees with you. No matter; you must not smoke within the walls of a theatre; if you attempted it the constable would seize you and never loose his hold on your collar till he had landed you on the outer pavement.
‘Now what you require, and what you shall have, is a happy blending of the theatre and the opera house and the highly-respectable tavern parlour, a place the atmosphere of which shall be so strictly moral that the finest-bred lady in the land may breathe it without danger, and at the same time a place where a gentleman accompanying a lady may take his sober and soothing glass of grog or tankard of ale and smoke his cigar as innocently and peacefully as though he sat by his own fireside at home. We will have music both vocal and instrumental, the grand singing of the great Italian masters, ballad-singing, touching and pathetic, and funny singing that shall promote harmless mirth while it not in the least offends the most prudish ear. We will have operas; we will have ballets. Should the public voice sanction it occasionally we will have chaste acrobatic performances and feats of tumbling and jugglery; but in this last-mentioned matter we are quite in the hands of our patrons. Enjoyment pure and simple is our motto and by it we will stand or fall.’
This, in substance, was the prospectus of the first music hall established in London, and the public expressed its approval. How the fair promises of the original promoters of the scheme were redeemed we will not discuss. Undertakings of such magnitude are sure to work uneasily at the first. It will be fairer to regard the tree of twenty years’ growth with its twenty noble branches flourishing in full foliage and melodious with the songs of the many songsters that harbour there. We cannot listen to them all at once, however sweet though the music be. Let us devote an hour to one of the said branches. Which one does not in the least matter, since no one set of songsters are confined to a branch. They fly about from one to another, and may sometimes be heard—especially the fanny ones—on as many as four different boughs in the course of a single evening. Simply because it is the nearest let us take the Oxbridge, one of the most famous music halls in London, and nightly crowded.
Either we are in luck or else the talent attached to the Oxbridge is something prodigious. Almost every vocal celebrity whose name has blazoned on the advertising hoardings during the season is here tonight—the Immense Vamp, the Prodigious Fodgers, the Stupendous Smuttyman, the Tremendous Titmouse, together with ‘Funny’ Freddys, and ‘Jolly’ Joeys, and ‘Side-splitting’ Sammys by the half-dozen. Some of these leviathans of song were authors of what they sang, as, for instance, the Prodigious Podgers, who had recently made such a great sensation with his ‘Lively Cats’-meat Man.’ As I entered the splendid portals of the Oxbridge the natty ‘turn-out’ of Podgers, consisting of three piebald ponies in silver harness and a phaeton that must have cost a hundred and fifty guineas at least, was there in waiting, ready to whirl the popular Podgers to the Axminster as soon as the Oxbridge could possibly spare him.
The Oxbridge, as usual, was crowded, the body of the hall, the sixpenny part, by working men and their wives, with a sprinkling of ‘jolly dogs’ and budding beardless puppies of the same breed, whose pride and delight it is to emulate their elders. As regards the audience this is the worst that may be said of the body of the hall. It was plain at a glance to perceive that the bulk of the people there were mostly people not accustomed to music halls, and only induced to pay them a visit on account of the highly-respectable character the music halls are in the habit of giving themselves in their placards and in the newspapers. In the stalls and the more expensive parts of the house, and before the extensive drinking bar, matters were very different. Here were congregated selections from almost every species of vice, both male and female, rampant in London. Here was the Brummagem ‘swell’ with his Houndsditch jewellery and his Whitechapel gentility, and the well-dressed blackguard with a pound to spend, and the poor, weak-minded wretch of the ‘Champagne Charlie’ school, and the professional prowler hovering about him with the full intent of plucking him if he finds the chance. As for the females of this delightful clique, it is sufficient to say that they plied their trade without the least attempt at concealment. And why should they not? who is to check them? Not the proprietor of the Oxbridge. It is a fact that he admits them without charge, seeing his interest therein. What else should take Champagne Charlie to the Oxbridge, and the host of ‘swells’ who order neat little suppers and recklessly fling down their sovereigns to pay for wine that in sufficient quantity would sicken a hog? Of what use is ‘the body of the hall’ to the proprietor? How far do paltry sixpences go towards paying Podgers his three guineas a night? What profit is there on the price charged Bill Stubbs for his pint of stout? Not but that the frequenters of the sixpenny part are very useful; indeed, to speak truth, the Oxbridge could not get on well without them. They keep up appearances, and present a substantial contradiction to the accusation that the music hall is nothing better than a haunt for drunkenness and debauchery.
‘But surely,’ the reader may exclaim, ‘unless the company for whom the music hall was originally designed found the worth of their money they would cease to patronise the place. They go for the purpose of hearing songs adapted to their taste and they are not disappointed.’ I am loth to say as much in the face of the Popular Podgers and the Immense Vamp, but I should be vastly surprised if the only element of respectability frequenting the Oxbridge was not only disappointed but shocked and disgusted, and that very often. I cannot explain why, after being shocked, they should make a second attempt, except that they are lured to ‘try again,’ and that folks of not over sensitive mind grow used to shocks. If these music hall songs were really written for the respectable portion of the auditory there would not be the least occasion why they should be composed almost entirely of indecency and drivel; but the fact is these are the persons whose tastes are not at all studied in preparing the evening bill of fare. The individuals the song-writer writes up to and the singer sings up to are the heedless, and abandoned, and disreputable ones who have money to squander. The proprietor knows his customers. Where would be the use of setting before a tipsy ‘swell’ (unless indeed he had arrived at the maudlin, in which condition he is profitable to no one) a wholesome, simple ballad? He would howl it down before the first verse was accomplished. He must have something to chime with the idiotic tone of his mind, no matter how low, how vulgar, or how defiant of propriety, and he can obtain it at the music hall. The Immense Vamp is his obedient servant, as is the Prodigious Podgers and the Tremendous Titmouse—even the ‘P— of W—’s Own Comique.’ Any one would think, and not unreasonably, when he sees year in and year out flaming announcements of the engagements here and there of these gentry, that there must be something in them; that, however peculiar their talent, it is such as recommends itself to something more than the passing admiration of those who witness it; but it is nothing of the kind. Take any half-dozen of the most popular of our ‘comic singers’ and set them singing four of their most favourite songs each, and I will warrant that twenty out of the full number will consist of the utterest trash it is possible to conceive. It would not so much matter if the trade were harmless—not unfrequently it is most pernicious. Take a batch of these precious productions, and you will find the one theme constantly harped on: it is all about a ‘young chap’ and a ‘young gal,’ or an ‘old chap’ and an ‘old gal’ and their exploits, more or less indecent. A prolific subject with these ‘great’ artists is the spooney courtship of a young man who is induced to accompany the object of his affections to her abode, and when there gets robbed and ill-used. As the Immense Vamp sings—
‘I was going to go when in come a feller
And he smashed my hat with his umbrella
And blacked my eye, and didn’t I bellow.’
But this peculiar line Vamp makes his own, and it is not to be wondered at that he shines therein before all others. Popular Podgers has a vein of his own, and how profitable the working of it is let the piebald ponies and the silver-mounted phaeton attest. He goes in for vocal exemplifications of low life—the lowest of all. His rendering of a Whitechapel ruffian, half costermonger half thief, filled the Oxbridge nightly for more than a month. You may see Podgers arrayed in the ruffian’s rags portrayed on a music-sheet in the windows of the music-shops, and underneath is inscribed the chorus of this wonderful song:—
‘I’m a Chickaleary Bloke with my one, two, three,
Whitechapel is the village I was born in,
To ketch me on the hop, or on my tibby drop,
You must get up very early in the morning.’
But inasmuch as the effusions of Podgers are as a rule unintelligible except to the possessors of a slang dictionary, he is less obnoxious than others of his brethren. What these productions are need be no more than hinted to ears polite. The mischief is that the ten thousand ears unpolite are opened for the reception of the poison night after night in twenty music halls in and about London, and no one says nay.
The male singer of the music hall, however, whether he takes the shape of the impudent clown who pretends to comicality, or of the spoony sentimentalist who tenderly gushes forth such modern enchanting melodies as ‘Maggie May’ or ‘Meet me in the Lane,’ is not the most pernicious ingredient that composes in its entirety the music hall hero. Time was, when with a liberal steeping of Vamps, and Podgers, and Smuttymans, the decoction proved strong enough, but, like indulgence in other poisons, what is a sufficient dose this year is useless as water next. It was found necessary to strengthen the mixture—to make it hotter of that kind of spice most grateful to the palate of the vulgar snob with a pound to spend. To effect this, there was nothing for it but to introduce the comic female element, or, as she more modestly styles herself, the’ serio-comic.’ The ‘serio,’ however, is not obtrusive. You seek for it in vain in the brazen pretty face, in the dress that is exactly as much too high as it is too low, in the singer’s gestures, looks, and bold advances. Decent men who, misled by placards and newspaper advertisements, take their wives and daughters to the Oxbridge or the Axminster, may, as they listen, tingle in shame at the blunder they have committed; but the dashing, piquant, saucy delineator of ‘What Jolly Gals are we’ has the ears and the yelling admiration of the brainless snobs and puppies before alluded to, and the mad noises they make, demanding a repetition of the detestable ditty, quite drown the feeble hisses of remonstrance the decent portion of the auditory may venture to utter. Some time since, during the theatre and music hall controversy, a worthy London magistrate announced from his judicial bench that on the evening previous he had visited one of the most popular of the halls, and found everything creditable, and discreet, and decorous: a pretty penny it must afterwards have cost somebody for champagne, to pacify the patron snobs and puppies for depriving them of their evening’s amusement.
But—and it is alarming to remark it—even the indecent, impudent ‘serio-comic’ female, who, going the full length of the tether allowed her, might have been supposed equal to all demands, is palling on the palate of the Oxbridge habitué. He must have something even more exhilarating; and, ever ready to oblige, the music hall proprietor rigs up a trapeze, and bribes some brazen, shameless woman to attire in man’s clothes, and go through the ordinary performances of a male acrobat. Rivalling the new idea, a South London music hall proprietor is advertising the ‘Sensational Can-can, exactly as in France.’ What is the next novelty in preparation?
Comments: James Greenwood (1832-1929) was a British novelist and campaigning journalist, known for his investigations into the lives of London’s poor, sometimes using disguise. There was no ‘Oxbridge’ (or ‘Axminster’) music hall – the hall described here may have been inspired by the Oxford Music Hall in London’s Oxford Street, but at the time of this article the Oxford was not in operation, having burned down in March 1868 and not re-opening until August 1869. The artists named are likewise semi-fictions. The Immense Vamp would appear to be Alfred Vance, the Great Vance, ‘lion comique‘ star of the Oxford in the 1860s, whose signature song was ‘I’m a Chickaleary Bloke’, though it is attributed here to ‘Popular Podgers’. Vance’s great rival of the period was George Leybourne, whose signature tune was ‘Champagne Charlie’.
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