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Haunted Hoxton

Pepper’s Ghost illusion at the Polytechnic, London, 1863, the same year as the Britiannia Theatre play, from Illustrated London News, 2 May 1863

Source: Edmund Yates, ‘Haunted Hoxton’, All the Year Round, 27 June 1863, vol. 9 no. 218, pp. 420-424

Production: C.H. Hazelwood, The Widow and the Orphans; or, Faith, Hope and Charity, Britannia Theatre, London, June 1863

Text: At last my guilty wishes are fulfilled! At last I am enabled to look back into the past, and think that one great object of my life has been realised, for I have seen a GHOST! Shade of (ah! by the way, I forget the name of the shade, and I’ve left the document which could inform me in my overcoat-pocket! never mind!) sacred shade, who appeared simultaneously to me and to some hundreds of entranced people, thou hast, so far as I am concerned, set the vexed question of apparitions at rest for ever. My interest in the ghost subject has been intense. I have read every story bearing upon it, and worked myself up to a delightful pitch of agonised excitement. Alone, and in the dead of night, do I peruse the precious volumes: the mere fact of the scene being laid in “an old castle in the Black Forest,” gives me a pleasing sensation of terror; when the student seated alone in the tapestried room finds “the lights begin to burn with a blue and spectral hue,” I shake; when there “reverberates through the long passages a dismal clanking of chains,” I shiver; finally, when “the door bursts open with a tremendous crash,” and there enters “a tall figure clothed in white, with one clot of gore immediately below its heart,” I am in a state of transcendent bliss, and only long to have been in the student’s place. Some years ago I thought I had a chance of realising my hopes. I read a book called, I think, The Nightgown of Nature, the author of which announced that he—or she— was thoroughly well acquainted with several houses where spectres appeared nightly with unexampled punctuality—houses “within a convenient distance from London, and accessible by rail,” as house-agents say—and I wrote to him—or her— for the address of one of these houses, stating that I intended to pass a night there. He—or she—replied that though his—or her—statement was thoroughly correct, he—or she— must decline giving the address of any particular house, as such a course would be detrimental to the value of the property, and might render him—or her— liable to an action at law on the part of the landlord. So I was disappointed.

I heard, however, the other day, that a real ghost, real as to its unreality, its impalpability, its visionary nothingness, was to be seen in a remote and unknown region called Hoxton, I had previously heard that the same, or a similar spectre, haunted Regent-street, but I laughed at the notion. Regent-street! with the French boot-shop, and the ice-making man, and the Indian pickle depôt opposite! A ghost in juxtaposition to electrical machines, a diver who raps his helmet with halfpence, and the awful insects in the drop of water! But Hoxton—there was something ghostly in the very name, and the place itself was as unfamiliar to me as Tierra del Fuego. Nobody to whom I spoke knew anything about it; they “had heard the name;” it was “somewhere out north,” they thought. Ah! in an instant my fancy sketches the spot. A quaint old suburb, where the railway has not yet penetrated, where sleepy cows chew the cud of peace in quiet meadows, where ploughmen whistle o’er the lea (whatever that may happen to mean), where huge elms yet stand waving their giant limbs before square red brick mansions. One of these mansions for years untenanted, roofless, dismantled, a murder was committed in it years ago: an old man with silver hair, a spendthrift nephew, a box of gold, a carving knife, a well in garden where weapon is discovered years afterwards, a wailing cry at twelve P.M., a tottering figure wringing its hands—yes, that must be it, or something very like it! I determined to go to Hoxton that night.

There was no railway—so far I was right—and I went to my destination in a cab. After a little time I found we were striking out of the great thoroughfares of commerce into narrow by-lanes, where a more pastoral style of living prevailed, where fried fish of a leathery appearance lay in tangled heaps on the slabs of windowless fish- shops, where jocund butchers, seemingly on the best terms with their customers, kept up a perpetual chorus of “Buy, buy!” and slapped the meat before them with a carving knife and a gusto that together seemed to give quite an appetite to the hesitating purchaser. We passed several graveyards deep set in the midst of houses—dank, frouzy, rank, run-to-seed places, where Pelions of “Sacred to the memory” were heaped upon Ossas of “Here lieth the remains,” and out of which the lank sapless grass trembled through the railings and nodded feebly at the passers-by. Good places for ghosts these! City ghosts of misers and confidential clerks, and trustees who committed suicide just before the young gentleman whom they had had in trust came of age, and would have infallibly found out all about their iniquities. I peered out of the cab in quest of any chance apparition, but saw none, and was very much astonished when the driver, to whom I had given particular instructions, pulled up before a brilliantly lighted doorway, round which several cadgers were disporting themselves. These youths received me with great delight, and one said, “You come along with me, sir! I’ll take you to the hout and houtest old spectre in the neighbr’ood. This way, sir!” He led the way along a lighted passage, between rough brick walls, until we arrived at a barrier, where—after a muttered conversation between my guide and the janitor—a shilling was demanded of me, after paying which I was provided with a card talisman and left to find my way alone. Down a broad passage on one side of which was a recess where sandwiches lay piled like deals in a timber-yard, where oranges were rolled up in pyramidal heaps of three feet high, and where there was so much ginger-beer that its simultaneous explosion must infallibly have blown the roof off the building, down a flight of asphalted stairs, at the bottom of which a fierce man wrung my card talisman from me and turned me into a large loose box, the door of which he shut behind me. A loose box with a couple of chairs in it, a looking-glass, a flap table—a loose box open on one side, looking through which opening I see hundreds of people ranged in tiers above each other. Turning to see what they are all intent on, I see a stage—I’m tricked! I’m done! the loose box is a private box, and I’m in a theatre.

Left to myself, what could I do but look at the stage, and, doing that, how could I fail to be intensely interested? I speedily made myself acquainted with the legend being there theatrically developed, and, beyond that the colour was, perhaps, a little heightened, I did not find it more or less preposterously unlike anything that could, by any remote possibility, ever have occurred than is usual in dramatic legends. The scene of action being laid at the present time, I found the principal character represented to be a BARONET (he had a name, but he was invariably spoken of by everybody, either with yells of hatred or shoulder-shrugs of irony, as “the Baronet”), and certainly he was the most objectionable old gentleman I have ever seen. The mere fact of his walking about, in the present day, in a long claret coloured coat, a low crowned hat with a buckle in the front, and boots which, being apparently made of sticking- plaster, had tassels like bell-pulls, was in itself irritating; but his moral conduct was horrible. He seemed to have an insane desire for the possession of his neighbours’ property, not felonious in his intentions, but imbued with a buying mania, and rabidly ferocious when said neighbours refused to sell. First among his coveted possessions stood the house and garden of a clergyman’s widow (no mistake about her widowhood! the deepest black, and such a cap, all through the piece!), who obstinately refused to part with an inch of her ground. Baronet smiles blandly, and informs us that he will “have recourse to stratyjum.” Widow has two daughters, one very deep-voiced and glum, the other with her hair parted on one side (which, theatrically, always means good nature), and funny. Funny daughter is beloved by Baronet’s son—unpleasant youth in cords, top-boots, and a white hat, made up after Tom King the highwayman, vide Turpin’s Ride to York; or, The Death of Black Bess (Marks, Seven Dials), passim. Baronet proposes that son should get clergyman’s daughter to steal lease of premises, promising to set son up in life, and allow him to marry object of affections. Son agrees, works upon daughter’s vanity; daughter, who is vague in Debrett, is overcome by notion of being called the Right Honourable Mrs.——, a title which, as the wife of a baronet’s son, she is clearly entitled to—steals the lease, hands it to son, who hands it to Baronet, who, having got it, nobly repudiates not merely the whole transaction, but son into the bargain: tells him he is not son, but merely strange child left in his care, and comes down and winks at audience, who howl at him with rage.

That was the most wonderful thing throughout the evening, the contest between the audience and the Baronet. Whenever the Baronet made a successful move (and Vice had it all its own way for nearly a couple of hours), the audience howled and raved against him, called “Yah!” whistled, shrieked, and hooted, and the Baronet advanced to the footlights and grinned across them, as though he should say, “I’m still all right in spite of you!” When a villain who, for a sum of money advanced by the Baronet, had murdered an old man, and was afterwards seized with remorse, stole the lease from the Baronet’s pocket, the multitude in the theatre cheered vociferously; but the Baronet, after proving that the purloined parchment was only a copy, and not the original document, which he still retained, calmly walked down to the front of the stage, and literally winked at the people, tapping his breast, where the lease was, in derision, and goading the audience to the extremity of frenzy.

There were several pleasant episodes in which the Baronet was the mainspring: hiding fifty-pound notes in the glum sister’s bundle, accusing her of robbery, and having her locked up in his house, whence she was rescued by the murdering villain who had previously (out of remorse) set the house on fire; but at length the widow, who a minute before had been remarkably lively, and had “given it” to the Baronet with great vehemence and cap-shaking, suddenly declared her intention of dying, and though a young gentleman with a sugarloaf hat and a coat with a little cape to it, like the pictures of Robespierre, announced himself as a lawyer, who would defend her and hers against anything and everybody, she forthwith carried out her intention, sat down on a chair, and died, out of hand. There was a faint pretext of sending for the doctor, but there was an evident fear on the part of most lest that practitioner should really restore the patient, and thus burk the great effect of the piece, so the idea was overruled, and the Baronet, advancing to the footlights, rubbed his hands in derision at the audience, and the audience, cognisant of the fact that the decease of the widow was necessary to the subsequent appearance of her ghost, merely answered with a subdued “Yah!” At this point my former conductor opened the box-door and beckoned me out. “Come in front,” he said; “it’s ghost time!” The words thrilled to my very soul, I followed him in silence, and took my place in the boxes, close by a lady whose time was principally occupied in giving natural sustenance to her infant, and an older female, apparently the child’s grandmother, who was a victim to a disease which I believe is popularly known as the “rickets,” and which impelled her at three-minute intervals to shudder throughout her frame, to rock herself to and fro, to stuff the carved and hooked black bone handle of an umbrella, that looked like a tied-up lettuce, into her mouth, and to grind out from between her teeth, clenched round the umbrella-handle, “Oh, deary deary me!” On my other side were a youth and maiden, so devoted to each other that they never perceived my entrance into the box, and I had not merely to shout, but to shove, before I could effect a passage, when there was such a disentanglement of waists from arms, and interlaced hot hands, and lifting of heads from shoulders, that I felt uncomfortable and apologetic, whereas the real offenders speedily fell back into their old position, and evidently regarded me as a Byronic creature, to whom life was a blank.

The ghost did not appear at once. Though the widow had slipped into a very stiff position in her chair, and everybody around her had said either “Ha!” or “The fatal moment!” or “Alas!” or “All is over!” as their several tastes led them, it was thought necessary to make the fact of her death yet more clear, so upon the front parlour, where the sad occurrence took place, fell a vast body of clouds of the densest kind, out of which, to slow music, there came two or three ethereal persons with wings, which wagged in a suspicious manner, bearing the widow’s body “aloft,” as Mr. Dibdin has it with reference to Tom Bowling, and thereby copying in the most direct and unequivocal manner (but not more directly and unequivocally than I have seen it in theatres of grand repute, where critics babbled of the manager’s transcendent stage- direction) Herr Lessing’s picture of Leonore. To meet these, emerged, in midair from either side of the stage, other ethereal persons, also with wings, whose intended serenity of expression was greatly marred by the obstinacy of the machinery, which propelled them in severe jerks, at every one of which the set smile on their faces faded into a mingled expression of acute bodily pain and awful terror lest they should fall down: while, on a string like larks, or a rope like onions, there swayed to and fro across the proscenium, a dozen of the stoutest and most unimaginative naked Cupids that ever got loose from a valentine, or were made by a property- man.

As the act-drop fell upon this scene, which in itself represented something not to be met with in everyday life, some distrust was expressed in my neighbourhood lest there should be nothing more ghostly than we had just witnessed, but the old lady with the umbrella set us to rights by recovering suddenly from a severe attack of rickets, and exclaiming, “Them ghosts! Oh no, sir! In the next act we shall see her, and which the music will play up for us to give attention.” So accordingly, when the fiddles wailed, and the trombone and clarionet prostrated themselves figuratively in the dust, I looked with all my eyes, and saw the curtain rise upon the Baronet’s apartment, which was the most singularly constructed room I ever beheld. The portion of the floor nearest to us was perfectly flat, as is the case with most floors, but after about three feet of flatness there rose in its centre, and stretching from side to side, a long, sloping, green mound, in military language a “glacis,” up which the Baronet had to walk when he wanted to proceed towards the back of the apartment, where all the chairs, tables, and furniture generally had withdrawn themselves, and up which he himself climbed, as though M. Vauban had taken the place of Mr. Cubitt, and as though outworks and entrenchments were as common in London drawing-rooms as lounging-chairs and grand pianos.

On the top of this entrenchment stood, on either side, two thick dumpy pillars, supporting a heavy piece of masonry, which joined them together at the top, and which looked like a portion of the ruins of the Temple of the Sun at Baalbek seen through the wrong end of the opera-glass: or, to use an illustration nearer home, like the front of the catacombs of Kensal- green or Highgate cemeteries. Between these pillars was a hazy vista into which the Baronet walked, and seating himself on a stool in the corner, so as to be quite out of the way, commenced informing us (without any apparent necessity for the statement) of his disbelief in all supernatural appearances, and of his thorough contempt for Death—ha! ha! The second of the two vocal double-knocks given by him in ha! ha! had scarcely been given, when there appeared in the middle of the empty space behind the pillars a stereoscopic skeleton exactly like that which dances in the Fantoccini—so like, that one looked for the string which guides that puppet’s movements (and which, of course, in the present instance, was not to be seen), and expected him momentarily to fall to pieces and re-unite in a comic manner. At this sight the Baronet appeared a little staggered; he said, “Ha! do I then behold thee?” and retreated several paces on his heels, but recovering himself, exclaimed, “‘Tis a dream, an ill-yousion!” and advanced towards the skeleton, which disappeared, to return immediately armed with a dart, or harpoon, with which it made several well-intentioned but harmless thrusts at the Baronet, who appeared immensely flabbergasted by the harpoon, and begged piteously to be spared. Either the skeleton was moved by the appeal or he had work somewhere else, for he disappeared again, and no sooner was he gone than the Baronet so plucked up that he declared he defied Death altogether, and was beginning to be offensively joyous, when in the place where the skeleton had been, appeared the ghost of the widow in her shroud! No mistake about it now! There she was, a little foreshortened, a little out of the perpendicular, leaning forward as though accustomed to a cramped and confined space, and not daring to stand upright! For the Baronet this was, to use a vulgar metaphor, a “corker.” He rubbed his head, but there was nothing there; he tried a taunt, but the ghost answered him with deep-voiced briskness; he rushed towards her, and rushed right through her! Finally, he picked up from the table, where, as we know, they always lay in libraries, a long sword, with which he aimed a very unskilful blow at his visitant. The sword passed through the ghost, who was apparently tickled, for it exclaimed, “Ha! ha!” and disapeared, and the Baronet fell exhausted in the very spot where the ghost had been! Up went the lights, down went the curtain, and the audience gave one great gasp of relief, and pretended they hadn’t been frightened—which they had!

Unquestionably! undoubtedly! The skeleton had been a failure; ribalds in the pit had mocked at him—had given tremulous cries of feigned terror—shouted “O-oh! m—y!” and pretended to bury their heads in their jacket-collars; boys in the gallery had called upon him to dance, and had invited their friends to “look at his crinoline;” the arm of the youth in front of me tightened round the waist of the maiden with evident conveyance of the idea that that alone could them part; and the old lady with the umbrella had considered him a “mangy lot.” But the ghost was a very different matter; when it appeared, not a sound in the pit, not a whisper in the gallery; all open-mouthed, eager, tremulous excitement! The old grandmother clasped the umbrella like a divining-rod, and muttered a hoarse “Deary—dea—ry me!” the mother let the infant fall flat and flaccid on her lap, the youth’s arm unbent, and the maiden, rising stiffly three inches from her seat, said, “Go’as!” and remained rigid. Only one sound floated on the air, and that was emitted by a French gentleman, with more buttons on his waistcoat than I ever saw on a similar amount of cloth (how on earth did a foreigner penetrate to Hoxton?), who clutched his curly-brimmed hat between his fat fists and hissed out, “A—h! Superbe!” It was his testimony and it is mine!

Comments: Edmund Hodgson Yates (1831-1894) was a British journalist and author. He was a good friend of Charles Dickens, to whose journal All the Year Round he was a regular contributor. Yates reports on a production of the play The Widow and Orphans; or, Faith, Hope and Charity, by C.H. Hazelwood, which featured at the Britannia Theatre, Hoxton, London as a means to showcase the invention of ‘The Ghost’ or ‘Pepper’s Ghost‘. This was an optical illusion invented by Henry Dircks and exploited professionally by John Henry Pepper – in which, by means of projected light and a hidden inclined sheet of glass, the reflection of a ghost-like figure could be made to materialise on a stage. It first featured in a stage production of Dickens’s novella The Haunted Man at the Royal Polytechnic on 24 December 1862. In The Widow and Orphans the ghost was played by Mary Henderson.

Links: Copy at Dickens Journals Online

Second Innings

Source: Neville Cardus, Second Innings: Autobiographical Reminiscences (London: Collins, 1950), pp. 23-34

Productions: Robinson Crusoe, Prince’s Theatre, Manchester, 1902/03?; Aladdin, Prince’s Theatre, Manchester, 1900/01; and Mother Goose, Theatre Royal, Manchester, 1904/1905

Text: I was not more than twelve years old when I first entered a theatre. It was one of Robert Courtneidge’s Christmas pantomimes in Manchester, Robinson Crusoe, I think, with Vesta Tilley as the principal boy. I was not ‘taken’ to this pantomime; I went by myself and watched from the highest gallery in the world. After long waiting in a queue until you would hear the lifting of a bar at the door, you placed your six-pence under a wire-netting, from behind which the girl or woman in charge pressed a lever, and a heavy square deposit of lead came out of a slot. That was your ticket.

The climb to the gallery was arduous, even to an eager boy. Round and round, with acute angles all the way; at every step upwards one’s body became more bent on the purpose, the knee action more deliberate, the breath more sternly drawn. Then, at the top of the steps was a dark refreshment bar (not yet opened) to pass through, and now at last the theatre itself was attained. At great distance below was the stage, the curtain alluringly down. To find a front place in the gallery involved some agility and nerve; there were no seats, only long rows of wooden ledges, and to save time and to get there first we did not walk gingerly down a central staircase but leaped from cliff to cliff. We would lean over the rail of the gallery and watch the stalls and pit assembling. Sometimes a programme fluttered down, like a visitant from another hemisphere.

When I write that ‘we’ would lean over the gallery rail, I am using the ‘we’ metaphorically; for I went alone to the theatre in my boyhood, as indeed I went alone everywhere, walking through the city streets reading a boy’s paper and by some instinct always coming out of my enchantment just in time not to bump against a lamp-post. I do not know how I contrived to get money for admission to the theatre gallery week by week; on one occasion at least I committed petty theft. I stole a volume out of the limited and discursive family library, which comprised East Lynne, the Bible, somebody’s Dream Book, and one other novel, this by Marion Crawford. The volume I stole was a collection of poems by Coleridge, and I am at a loss to this day to understand how it came to find a place in the household. I took it to a second-hand bookseller’s in Oxford Street owned by a man of immeasurable age, who made me think of the Old Testament. His clothes were shiny and he smelt; his name was Coleman; and in his front window, amongst a ruin of ancient literature, was a phrenologist’s bust, the head marked into squares like the counties on a map. The interior of the shop was gloomy; piles of books, and the odour of damp and slow decay. There was another Coleman, reputed to be a son, with skin of vellum and eyes tightly stuck together by what my fearful imagination visualised as blindness.

Coleman senior looked at the Coleridge, rumbled in his stomach, and offered me a shilling. I took it and fled straight up the brow of Oxford Street, under the railway arch, past the corner shop with birds in cages around the door and gold-fish in globes in the window. It was Saturday afternoon; there was a pantomime matinee. It may have been the sale of Coleridge that enabled me to see Ada Reeve as Aladdin, G.P. Huntley as Widow Twankey, and Horace Mills as Abanazar. I did not go to the pantomime in the innocence of most boys of ten or eleven years old. In those days boys and girls were not encouraged to enter a theatre at all in a provincial English city; the pantomimes of the period were severely sophisticated in their outlook both towards the particular theme of Cinderella or The Forty Thieves and towards life in general. Maggie Duggan and George Robey occasioned much concern in the councils of the Manchester Watch Committee, protectors of public morals. There was also a suspicion in many families that theatres were peculiarly combustible and likely to catch fire; in brief, for a boy to set foot in a theatre alone was thought a certain means sooner or later either of going to the devil or of being burnt alive. The danger to my morals seldom occurred to me, but frequently I felt a vague apprehensiveness when I stood looking down over the gallery rail on the delights below, forbidden delights, delights deceitfully enjoyed; for I always lied whenever I was asked where I had been when I got home again. Electricity was more or less a new and experimental department of science forty years ago; and Robert Courtneidge invariably brought the first part of his pantomime to an end by a long ‘transformation’ scene, in which furnaces of magnificences were unfolded as one flimsy gauze curtain after another ascended on high, beginning with the narrowest strip of the stage on which the Fairy Queen stood, in company with the principal boy; and she would wave her wand saying:

And now Aladdin take me by the hand
And I will show you all the joys of Fairyland.

Opalescent deeps of the sea; caves of turquoise and rubies; apocalyptic sunrises and radiance of every boy’s dream of the Arabian Nights, all accumulating in a lavish expense of electricity. It was with an amount of relief that one witnessed at the apotheosis a temporary lowering of the fireproof curtain.

As I say, I did not attend my pantomimes in the innocence of childhood; the fairy-tale basis of a pantomime had for me but a secondary interest. I marked the distinction between Robinson Crusoe and the principal boy who happened to be playing the part; I knew that Abanazar was Horace Mills, and once when I saw Horace Mills walking in a Manchester Street looking exactly like any man of business wearing gloves and a bowler hat, I followed secretly behind him and laughed to myself at his every movement though he did nothing that was the slightest bit funny off the stage. Ada Reeve was Aladdin one year; I remember that when she couldn’t remember the world ‘Abracadabra’, and she realised she was locked in the cave more or less for ever, she immediately consoled herself and the rest of us by singing ‘Good-bye, Dolly Gray’, the popular song of the Boer War. But the point is that she didn’t sing the chorus but spoke it, in a husky dramatic monotone. This was revolutionary; this was new method. The cognoscenti in the dress circle, I was informed years afterwards, were taken aback, and they shook their heads until by force of art Ada Reeve conquered a lifetime’s principles. Round about this time of my life I saw Ada Reeve in Floradora [sic] the very week after the last performance of the pantomime; and pantomime ran from Christmas to Easter; and now she was a fashionable society darling, in a big brimmed hat, and she sang a song called ‘Tact’ in front of a row of long-trousered top-hatted young men with silver-mounted walking sticks. One week Aladdin’s cave and the splendour of the Orient, but in a few evenings it had all gone. Now, living and moving and having being on the same boards, walking in the same places where Widow Twankey and Abanazar had shaken the theatre into reckless and eternal laughter, were elegance and romance in a setting of tea-planters or what not; palm trees and deodar, and the melodies of Leslie Stuart. The palimpsest of the stage! I didn’t know of such a word but I remember a sudden feeling of sadness coming to my eyes when, once at a pantomime somebody sang ‘Is your Mammy always with you?’ and as I looked at the singer’s movements in the round circles of limelight that followed her, throwing two dancing shadows, the thought came to my mind that some day somebody else would perhaps be dancing on the same spot, and all would have become different; all would then be new and this would be forgotten long ago.

The old pantomimes observed a strict set of unities; the identity and comparative importance of the author of the ‘book’ – as it was called – was recognised. The ‘book’ was composed mainly in rhymed couplets, more or less heroic, uttered by the Demon (or Storm) King:

Ride on thou proud and saucy ship
But soon I’ll have this Crusoe in my grip.

These lines were invariably pronounced at the beginning of Act I in Davy Jones’s Locker, which was a drop-scene calling for merely what Mrs Gamp would have called a ‘parapidge’ of stage. The Demon King was a baritone, and the chances might be that we had last heard him on the pier in August at Southend singing the ‘Bedouin Love Song’ with the pierrots. Now in a more dramatic environment under the sea and in the dark he probably struck a deeper and more ambitious vocal note; ‘Rage thou angry storm’ from Balfe was not beyond the dream of possibility.

An inviolate decree held that in the programmes of classical pantomime the dramatis personae and the cast should be denoted and set forth in a running parenthesis of wit, such as:

‘Mrs Sinbad (who has sin-badder days) George Robey.’

From the murky element of the Storm King we would be changed in the twinkling of an eye to Pekin (maybe); or if the pantomime were of the occident the scene would be the village green outside the ‘Bull and Bush’. It was in Scene 2 that the pantomime really began and the stalls filled up. The Storm King didn’t appear again for hours, or the Fairy Queen. I often wondered what they were doing all the time. In Scene 2 the important personages of the pantomime made their appearance in order of renown. The Baron (or the Emperor) was allowed to hold the centre of the stage for a few minutes; perhaps he was even given a song, but nobody listened to him; he was merely a part of the connived plot of suspense. First came the principal girl – Amy Augarde or even Gertie Millar; then the more substantial principal boy (the best of all was Ada Blanche); and the principal boy would dash down the footlights and embrace the principal girl, kicking his left leg backwards as he did so.

At last, when the ‘House Full’ boards were put up in the theatre’s main entrances – terrible to see if you were outside in the fog trying to catch a glimpse of something behind the brilliant lights of the foyer – now was the moment: the stage was left significantly vacant for a brief pause. From the wings came sounds of brawl and derision and racket. And the Dame would arrive in some state of dishevelment, out of breath, having, for some reason never explained, been chased. Dan Leno or Robey or Harry Randall or Wilkie Bard – it might be any of them! – in elastic-sided boots, hair parted straight down the middle and tied in a bun, towards which the right hand would absent-mindedly stray when she came down the stage and spoke to us intimately about ‘Her First’ and of the vicissitudes of matrimony. An incomparable school of great English comic-actors created a Dickensian gallery of Dames. The greatest of them was Robey’s ‘Mother Goose’, who swerved from the unities of pantomime in her entrance to that most matchless of all pantomimes at the Manchester Theatre Royal, Christmas, 1904; and I saw it many times before it vanished into air the following March.

The scene was Mother Goose’s cottage, and the Landlord had called for the rent. George Bastow was Mother Goose’s son, and he endeavoured to keep the enemy at bay. (All landlords in our pantomimes and melodramas were enemies, as a matter of democratic course.) ‘The rent was not paid last week, or the week before, or the week before,’ raged the tyrant; ‘this is the last straw and final notice. Into the streets you all go!’ At this moment George Robey appeared, bland, with kindly recognition, wiping imaginary soap-suds from the hands on an apron. ‘Ah, there you are, landlord,’ said Mother Goose in Robey’s fruitiest voice; ‘there you are – such a lot wants doing to the house!’

It was in this same pantomime that George Robey held the stage for half an hour (while the scene-shifters were noisy and active behind a drop-scene, often causing it to bulge from contact with some royal dome or pinnacle) and created the immortal Mrs Moggeridge, a next-door neighbour, who, because never seen, has lived for ever. Robey came on from the side of the stage in a condition of agitation, fingers twitching, nose sniffing. He cast glances to the direction whence he had entered; they were glances poignant with contumely and injured pride. Simmering a little, but still on the boil, he folded arms, gave another toss of his head sideways and said, simply but obliquely. ‘Mrs Moggeridge!’ Nothing more than her name to begin with, but the intonation, with a descent of pitch at ‘ridge’, was contemptuous. Then he bent to us over the footlights, and in a sudden hysteria of ridicule, stated (or rather he conveyed) this information: ‘Fairy Queen in a Christmas pantomime!’ After another snort and a pause he added, in a voice pitched to a deeper note of irony, ‘Her.’

Satisfaction and triumph here became evident in Robey’s eyes and gestures; but suddenly he stiffened, and the neck was thrust again towards Mrs Moggeridge’s garden wall, whence obviously some Parthian thrust had been aimed. ‘And what of it?’ asked Robey, the voice rising in mingled menace, disdain and clear conscience. ‘What of if?’ (pronounced ’What arvert’).

Speculation sought in vain to deduce the nature of Mrs Moggeridge’s innuendo that it should have compelled this final bridling and this unanswerable fiat. Enough to say that after the pronouncement of it Mrs Moggeridge was heard no more. It is hard to believe we did not actually hear her or see her; there wasn’t never indeed ‘no sich a person’; it was a conjuration of comic art.

Robey was a master of tantrums, or in other circumstances, of spasms. In Jack and the Beanstalk, when Jack returned home with beans for the sale of the cow, Robey as the Dame achieved an awe-inspiring expression of twitching incredulity, woe and mortification, all evenly blended. He (or she) hurled the beans through the window, and at once the stalk began to grow upward. Robey caught sight of it out of the corner of his eyes as he was suffering another wave of distress. And he began to giggle, to experience hysteria but no words can describe this masterpiece of comic acting. It was done by imaginative absorption into a character and a scene; and here is the difference between the old great pantomime comedians of my youth and the comedians of to-day, who get their laughs by the things they say and are not funny in themselves, and are certainly not actors. Robey and Leno and Wilkie Bard and Little Tich and Harry Weldon were most nights in the year performers in the music hall, red-nosed and holding an audience for three-quarters of an hour, holding the theatre single-handed, with song and patter; and from time to time they would leave the stage to return as a new character – Robey’s Lord Mayor of Muckemdyke, Leno’s pathetic little Cockney just married, the victim of a building society; he had bought a house, and he leant over the footlights to tell us in husky confidence of his pride of possession. It was a nice house, with the river at the bottom of the garden; that is, when the garden wasn’t at the bottom of the river. But I must use a platitude now; it was not what these old drolls said, it was the way they said it. Little Tich, breathing on his tall hat before giving it a rub round with his elbow, made a noise that emptied his lungs, fraught with bronchitis. Gusto and faith in a complete surrender to extravagance; no smart-cracks but natural nonsense – as when the Ugly Sisters in Cinderella, having been refused admission at the ball, Tom Foy said to Malcolm Scott, ‘Let’s walk in backwards and they’ll think we’re coming out.’ It was these comedians of the music hall who peopled our memories of pantomime with a gallery of Dames, each as rich in identity as Betsy Prig and Mrs Camp and the nurse in Romeo and Juliet.

The convention of pantomime persisted that the Dame and her son should begin poor and end wealthy. All the good characters, in fact, shared ample fortune as a reward of virtue; and during the last scene they came before us most opulently garbed – Robey’s magnificence was like a fantastic dream or apotheosis of a riotously lunatic Schiaparelli. The lesser male luminaries of the show, Idle Jack or Sinbad the Tailor, would wear terrific check suits with huge buttons of gold, and their choice in walking sticks was rococo. Nobody was harshly treated in this last of all the pantomime’s consummations of glory and electricity; even the Demon King received a burst of applause when he appeared, apparently a reformed character, in morning-coat and grey topper. And the children crowed their delight as the Cat came on for his share of the general recognition and acclamation, wearing a fur coat most likely.

Then the final chorus and the last ruthless descent of the curtain. Nothing left but the return to the world, to find oneself again in the streets outside, where life had been going on just the same on a winter day; it was dark now, with the gas-lamps burning, and when we had entered in realms of gold it had been afternoon and broad daylight.

Comments: Neville Cardus (1888-1975) was a British cricket correspondent and music critic. His impoverished childhood was spent in Manchester. Robert Courtneidge was a theatre producer, actor and playwright, and manager at this time of the Prince’s Theatre in Manchester. The production of Robinson Crusoe Cardus recalls was probably that of 1902/03 (it did not star Vesta Tilley). The Aladdin that he saw opened at the Prince’s Theatre on 22 December 1900, with Ada Reeve, G.P. Huntley and Horace Mills. The 1899 musical comedy Florodora was written by Owen Hall, with music by Leslie Stuart.The production of Mother Goose at the Theatre Royal opened in December 1904, starring George Robey, one of the great figures of English music hall and variety.

Riot at Covent Garden Theatre

‘Riot at Covent Garden Theatre, 1763 print, Theatre and Performance Collection, Victoria & Albert Museum

Source: The Gentleman’s Magazine, February 1763, vol. XXXII, p. 97

Production: Thomas Arne, Artaxerxes, Covent Garden Theatre, London, 24 February 1763

Text: A riot happened at Covent-Garden theatre occasioned by a demand being made for full prices at the opera of Artaxerxes. The mischief done was the greatest ever, known on any occasion of the like kind; all the benches of the boxes and pit being entirely tore up, the glasses and chandeliers broken, and the linings of the boxes cut to pieces. The rashness of the rioters was so great, that they cut away the wooden pillars between the boxes, so that if the inside of them had not been iron, they would have brought down the galleries upon their heads. The damages done amount to at least 2000l. Four persons concern’d in the riot have been committed to the Gatehouse.

Comments: The opera Artaxerxes by Thomas Arne premiered successfully at Covent Garden on 2 February 1762. When it was revived at the same theatre on 24 February 1763 a riot occurred in protest at the abolition of half-price admissions. It has been the custom to sell half-price tickets for latecomers who would see only the short afterpiece rather than the main attraction of the evening. This change in policy was fiercely opposed by some and led to several such riots, at Drury Lane and Covent-Garden. The protests caused the half-price concession to be re-introduced when the theatre re-opened on March 2nd. 2000l is £2,000.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Journal and Letters of Samuel Curwen

Margaret Farrell, who became Margaret Kennedy on her second marriage, as Macheath in 1777, University of Illinois Theatrical Print Collection

Source: George Atkinson Ward, The Journal and Letters of Samuel Curwen, an American in England, from 1775 to 1783 (Boston, Little, Brown and company, 1864 [4th ed.]), p. 305

Production: John Gay, The Beggar’s Opera, Covent Garden Theatre, London, 25 September 1780

Text: Sept. 25. At Covent Garden Theatre; performance, “Beggar’s Opera;” parts well played, but great impropriety, not to say indecency, in Mrs. Kennedy’s personating McHeath. Bravery, gallantry, and a fearless disregard of death, the characteristics of that notorious highwayman, which female softness awkwardly imitates. Following entertainment, falsely so called; execrably foolish and childish. I am sorry to arraign even the shilling gallery for want of judgment, in suffering such unmeaning stuff to pass for a farce.

Comments: Samuel Curwen (1715-1802) was an American merchant and justice. As a British loyalist fled America in 1775, having been attacked for not opposing the British military action at Lexington and Concord, and spent ten years in Britain, during which time he became a supporter of the American cause. John Gay‘s ballad opera The Beggar’s Opera was performed at Covent Garden on 25 September 1780 with the contralto Margaret Kennedy, well-known for her performances in male roles, playing Macheath.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Diary of Sylas Neville

Source: Basil Cozens-Hardy (ed.), The Diary of Sylas Neville 1767-1788 (London: Oxford University Press, 1950), pp. 15-16

Production: Anon., The Taylors, a Tragedy for Warm Weather, Haymarket Theatre, London, 2 July 1767

Text: Thurs. July 2. Dined at St Clement’s Eating house. ½ past 6 went to the Haymarket Theatre, but could not get into the Pit or first Gallery, so stood on the last row of the shilling Gallery, tho’ I could see little, to see how ‘The Taylors’, a new Tragedy for warm weather, would go off, being the first night of its performance. 3rd Act hissed – the Gods in the shilling Gallery called for the ‘Builders Prologue’ – hissed off the part of the old Maid twice and Davies, who came to make an excuse. The Gentlemen, many of whom were there, cried ‘No Prologue’, but to no purpose. At last Foote said if he knew their demands he would be ready to comply with them. The noise ceasing, after some time he was told the Builders Prologue was desired. He said he had done all in his power to get the Performers, having seen them. After some time he came and informed them that he had got the performers together and if the house would be pleased ‘to accept the prologue in our dresses as we are you shall have it’. This was followed by a great clapping, which shows the genius of our English Mobility, ever generous after victory.

Comments: Sylas Neville (1741-1840) was an English gentleman of unclear origins, who had studied medicine but spent much of his adult life travelling while being continually short of money. His surviving diary frequently mentions visits to the theatre in London. Samuel Foote (1720-1777) was an English actor, dramatist and theatre manager. The Taylors, a Tragedy for Warm Weather, later also known as The Quadrupeds, was a burlesque of the manners of tragic dramas, set among the world of tailors, with Foote playing Francisco and Thomas Davis playing Bernardo (some sources give Foote as the author, but the evidence is unclear). The ‘Builder’s Prologue’ was another name for a popular piece by Foote, An Occasional Prologue in Prose-Laconic, written to celebrate the Haymarket Theatre gaining its royal patent to perform spoken drama in 1766. ‘Mobility’ was a vogueish term for ‘mob’.

The O.P. War

George and Isaak Cruikshank, ‘Acting magistrates committing themselves being their first appearance on this stage as performed at the National Theatre Covent Garden. Sepr 18 1809’ © The Trustees of the British Museum. The Riot Act was read from the stage on 18 September, but the placards, rattles etc. did not start appearing until the following day.

Source: Thomas Tegg, The Rise, Progress, and Termination of the O.P. War, in Poetic Epistles, or Hudibrastic Letters, From Ap Simpkins in Town, to his Friend Ap Davies in Wales; including all the best songs, placards, toasts &c. &c.Which were written, exhibited, and given en the Occasion; with illustrative notes (London: Thomas Tegg, 1810), pp. 1-6

Production: William Shakespeare, Macbeth, plus The Quaker, New Covent Garden Theatre, London, 18 September 1809

Text: LETTER I

From Ap Simpkins to Ap Davies

SINCE now the O.P. battle’s o’er,
And peace the partisans restore,
To you, Ap Davies, my dear friend,
A brief account of all I’ll send,
From the beginning to the end:
But, lest your patience I should tire,
And send you more than you’d desire,
Lest I too many letters might
On this theatric contest write,
Which letters, as they’ll go by post.
Would in the end some shillings cost,
On leading points I’ll only dwell,
And all that’s entertaining tell.

Where the old playhouse lately blazed,
In Covent Garden, soon was raised
Another playhouse, as intended,
On which the managers expended
A sum indeed beyond all bounds,
It was thrice fifty thousand pounds!!!
In ten month’s time it was erected,
And from th’ exterior much expected.
But though so very grand without,
Within, ’tis very plain no doubt,
‘Twas on the eighteenth of September,
(The day I very well remember)
For which Macbeth was advertised;
A play so generally prized.
Near to the doors what numbers push’d!
As soon as opened in they rush’d.
At first the pit seem’d rather dull —
By six o’clock the house was full;
And the first lady that appear’d,
With loud huzzas by all was cheer’d.
The band struck up God save the King,
And several times the song they sing :
Then Rule Britannia next they play’d,
Which some to sing also essay’d.
The band their music might have sav’d,
While hats and handkerchiefs were wav’d.
At length the curtain up they drew,
And Kemble on the stage we view.
To give us an address he came.
To talk of “sparks from Greece” — the “flame
Of “an illumined age” — “the fire
Of Shakspeare,” which we must admire:
But so vociferously they roar’d,
I did not hear a single word.
The play began, but at this time
‘Twas like the Circus pantomime,
And gave as little satisfaction
As Elliston’s ballet of action.
When Kemble entered as Macbeth,
It was in vain he spent his breath,
For not a word could reach the ear:
E’en Mrs. Siddons I cou’dn’t hear.
With noise was Charles Kemble hail’d —
The uproar every where prevail’d.
“Off! off!” “Old prices!” were the cries;
“No Catalani!” and “No rise!”
What hissing, yelling, howling, groaning!
What barking, braying, hooting, moaning!
The people bellow’d, shouted, storm’d,
The actors in dumb show perform’d.
Those in the pit stood up with rage,
And turn’d their backs upon the stage.
Yes, my dear friend, their backs they turn’d,
And thus were the performers spurn’d.
The tragedy thus tragediz’d,
Brunton came forward, as surmis’d,
T’ announce for the next night the play;
But still they bark, and yell, and bray.
I heard him not, and all could see,
Was his lips move, then exit he.
The Quaker was the farce, they say;
I thought it was the Devil to pay
In short, it went on like the play.
I’m certain that the quaker quaked.
Each head too with the tumult ach’d.
About ELEVEN, or before,
The stage amusements all were o’er
But not until the clock struck one
Were those before the curtain done;
The cry of “Managers!” went round;
From all parts did the cry resound.
The eager, the impetuous crowd,
Then for old prices call’d aloud.
In vain they call’d — they brandish’d sticks,
The boards too trembled with their kicks;
When lo! upon the stage, indeed,
Two magistrates — yes, Nares and Read,
Made their appearance — ’tis a fact —
They came to read the Riot Act,
But all these worthies wish’d to say
Was treated like the farce and play —
“No magistrates! off! off! away!
Let Harris, if you please, appear,
Or send John Philip Kemble here.”
They thought to make the gentry quiet,
To prove that words were acts of riot:
But ‘twould not do — “Off! off! enough!”
So exeunt Ambo in a huff.
And now the galleries began:
They curs’d the building and the plan.
They thought the managers unkind —
They were in pigeon-holes confin’d.
Pat cries — ” I will be squeez’d to death;
I will be kilt for want of breath.”
Those in the upper boxes now
Assisted in the general row,
And, ‘midst their fury and their heat,
They happen’d to break down a seat.
Impossible, in such a fray,
But that some benches must give way;
At this, however, much displeased,
The Bow-street runners came and seized
Two or three gentlemen — they swore —
They dragg’d them out — their coats they tore.
These men it seems, on this condition,
Had to all parts a free admission.
‘Twas to the managers’ disgrace.
An officer, in such a place,
Should, uninvited, show his face.
But to the rest — the bell was heard,
And engines* on the stage appear’d.
This gave the folk some discontent:
They thought that Mr. Kemble meant
To play upon them. This gave rise
To further hisses, groans, and cries.
Some in the pit now form’d a ring,
They danc’d, and sung God save the King;
And while performing these wild feats,
They play’d the devil with the seats.
No matter — they evinc’d their spite,
Then bade the managers good night;
And I the same must bid my friend —
But take my word—on this depend —
My pen I will resume again, –
Till when your servant I remain.

Strand, Jan. 1810. S.

* The introduction of the water-engines on the stage was, it is asserted, through a mistake. Engines are kept in the theatre, and placed on the stage after the evening’s performances, in case of danger, particularly as the fire offices have refused to insure the house to the full amount. Mr. Kemble perceiving from his private box that the audience were not gone, ordered the bell to be rung for the stage lights to be replaced. This order was misunderstood by the prompter, and instead of the lights the engines were brought upon the stage. Certainly they might have been designedly brought on to intimidate the malcontents, but without the manager’s knowledge.

Comments: Thomas Tegg (1776–1845) was an English bookseller, publisher and author. His long poem ‘The O.P. War’ documents, through a series of ‘letters’ the turmoil that followed the decision made by Covent Garden Theatre to raise ticket prices to help cover the cost of the rebuilding of the theatre after the fire of 20 September 1808. At the re-opening of what was named New Covent Garden Theatre on 18 September 1809, and for three months thereafter, there were vehement protests inside the theatre from audience members against the price rises, dubbed the Old Price, or O.P., Riots. The actor-manager John Philip Kemble was eventually forced to lower the prices. Tegg’s poem documents the events in some detail across eighteen letters, with annotations as above. Letter I covers the day of the re-opening. The Riot Act was indeed read from the stage during the evening. The production of Macbeth included John Philip Kemble as Macbeth, his sister Sarah Siddons as Lady Macbeth and their brother Charles Kemble as Macduff, though such was the noise throughout (and for the afterpiece The Quaker) that the performances were rendered inaudible.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

‘Poets are borne not made’

Source: Leonard Digges, untitled poem, in Poems: written by Wil. Shake-speare, Gent. (London: John Benson, 1640)

Text: Poets are borne not made; when I would prove
This truth, the glad rememberance I must love
Of never dying Shakespeare, who alone,
Is argument enough to make that one.
First, that he was a Poet none would doubt, (if only he knew!)
That hard th’ applause of what he sees set out
Imprinted; where thou hast (I will not say)
Reader his Workes (for to contrive a Play:
To him twas none) the patterne of all wit,
Art without Art unparaleld as yet.
Next Nature onely helpt him, for looke thorow
This whole Booke, thou shalt find he doth not borrow,
One phrase from Greekes, nor Latines imitate,
Nor once from vulgar Languages Translate,
Not Plagiari-like from others gleane,
Not begges he from each witty friend a Scene
To peece his Acts withal; all that he doth write,
Is pure his owne, plot, language exquisite.
But oh! what praise more powerfull can we give
The dead, than that by him the Kings men live,
His Players, which should they but have shar’d the Fate,
All else expir’d within the short Termes date;
How could the Globe have prospered since through want
Of change, the Plaies and Poems had growne scant.
But happy Verse thou shalt be sung and heard,
When hungry quills shall be such honour bard.
Then vanish upstart Writers to each Stage,
You needy Poetasters of this Age,
Where Shakespeare liv’d or spake, Vermine forbeare,
Least with your froth you spot them, come not neere;
But if you needs must write, if poverty
So that otherwise you starve and die,
On Gods name may the Bull or Cockpit have
Your lame blancke Verse, to keepe you from the grave:
Or let new Fortunes younger brethren see,
What they can picke from your leane industry.
I doe not wonder when you offer at
Blacke-Friars, that you suffer: Tis the fate
Of richer veines, prime judgements that have far’d
The worse, with this deceased man compar’d.
So have I scene, when Cesar would appeare,
And on the Stage at halfe-sword parley were,
Brutus and Cassius: oh how the Audience,
were ravish’d, with what wonder they went thence,
Whom some new day they would not brooke a line,
Of tedious (though well laboured) Catiline;
Sejanus too was irkesome, they priz’de more
Honest Iago, or the jealous Moore.
And though the Fox and subtill Alchimist,
Long intermitted could not quite be mist,
Though these have sham’d all the Ancients, and might raise
Their Authours merit with a crowne of Bayes.
Yet these sometimes, even at a friend’s desire
Acted, have scarce defrayd the Seacoale fire
And doore-keepers: when let but Falstaff come,
Hal, Poins, the rest you scarce shall have a roome
All is so pester’d: let but Beatrice
And Benedick be seene, loe in a trice
The Cockpit Galleries, Boxes, all are full
To heare Malvolio that crosse garter’d Gull.
Briefe, there is nothing in his wit fraught Booke,
Whose Sound we would not heare, on whose Worth looke
Like old coynd gold, whose lines in every page,
Shall passe true currant to succeeding age.

But why do I dead Shakespeare’s praise recite,
Some second Shakespeare must of Shakespeare write
For me tis needlesse, since an host of men,
Will Pay to clap his praise, to free my Pen.

Comments: Leonard Digges (1588-1635) was a minor poet and translator. It is unclear whether he knew William Shakespeare (his mother’s second husband was named by Shakespeare as one of the overseers of his will) but he certainly saw the plays in performance while Shakespeare was alive. He wrote a tribute poem to Shakespeare for the 1623 First Folio, and this posthumously published, longer poem, from the 1640 edition of Shakespeare’s poems, presumably dates from the same period. The poems refers to several of Shakespeare’s plays in performance, comparing them to the works of Ben Jonson, as well as several London theatres: the Globe, Blackfriars, Cockpit and Red Bull.

Links: Digital facsimile at British Library

William Allingham: A Diary

Source: H. Allingham and D. Radford (eds.), William Allingham: A Diary (London: Macmillan, 1908), pp. 42-43

Production: Vincenzo Bellini and Felice Romani, La Sonnambula, Theatre Royal, Dublin, 10 October 1848

Text: Tuesday, October 10. — Dublin; to Hawkins St. Theatre to see Jenny Lind in Sonnambula, her opening night here. An hour at door, crowd thickening, rush and crush upstairs to lower gallery. Curtain rises, the charming Jenny has to wait till the reiterated greetings subside. ‘Three cheers for Jenny Lind!’ (from the gallery). ‘Wan cheer more!’ ‘A cheer for her Mother!’ at which Amina smiled. Then we had Come per me sereno etc., all to perfection, but sung as I fancied more floridly than when I heard her in London. She looks thinner. Flower-scene most exquisite and touching! O fiore — Ah non credea, the flowers falling through her hands as she sings. Ah! non giunge not very good, I thought; encored, on account of its difficulty. Half a dozen to a dozen bouquets were thrown, no extraordinary excitement.

When curtain fell I rushed down and made my way into the pit in the hope of getting one of Amina’s flowers which had fallen near the footlights, but it was gone. Cold air outside, crowd, Jenny’s carriage, police.

The Theatre at best a hollow, unwholesome, unsatisfying excitement.

Comments: William Allingham (1824-1889) was an Irish poet. Jenny Lind born Johanna Maria Lind (1820-1887) was a Swedish opera singer. Revered as the ‘Swedish Nightingale’, she was highly popular across Europe and America. The Theatre Royal in Dublin’s Hawkins Street opened in 1820 and burned down in 1880. La Sonnambula is a two-act opera with music by Vincenzo Bellini and libretto by Felice Romani. The lead character is the sleepwalker Amina.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

Adventures and Letters of Richard Harding Davis

Source: Charles Belmont Davis (ed.), Adventures and Letters of Richard Harding Davis (New York: Scribner’s, 1917), pp. 223-226

Production: Nellie Farren Testimonial Benefit Fund event, Drury Lane, London, 17 March 1898

Text: London, March 20, 1898

Dear Mother,

The Nellie Farren benefit was the finest thing I have seen this year past. It was more remarkable than the Coronation, or the Jubilee. It began at twelve o’clock on Thursday, but at ten o’clock Wednesday night, the crowd began to gather around Drury Lane, and spent the night on the sidewalk playing cards and reading and sleeping. Ten hours later they were admitted, or a few of them were, as many as the galleries would hold. Arthur Collins, the manager of the Drury Lane and the man who organized the benefit, could not get a stall for his mother the day before the benefit. They were then not to be had, the last having sold for twelve guineas. I got two the morning of the benefit for three pounds each, and now people believe that I did get into the Coronation! The people who had stalls got there at ten o’clock, and the streets were blocked for “blocks” up to Covent Garden with hansoms and royal carriages and holders of tickets at fifty dollars apiece. It lasted six hours and brought in thirty thousand dollars. Kate Vaughan came back and danced after an absence from the stage of twelve years. Irving recited The Dream of Eugene Aram, Terry played Ophelia, Chevalier sang Mrs. Hawkins, Dan Leno gave Hamlet, Marie Tempest sang The Jewel of Asia and Hayden Coffin sang Tommy Atkins, the audience of three thousand people joining in the chorus, and for an encore singing “Oh, Nellie, Nellie Farren, may your love be ever faithful, may your pals be ever true, so God bless you Nellie Farren, here’s the best of luck to you.” In Trial by Jury, Gilbert played an associate judge; the barristers were all playwrights, the jury the principal comedians, the chorus girls were real chorus girls from the Gaiety mixed in with leading ladies like Miss Jeffries and Miss Hanbury, who could not keep in step. But the best part of it was the pantomime. Ellaline came up a trap with a diamond dress and her hair down her back and electric lights all over her, and said, “I am the Fairy Queen,” and waved her wand, at which the “First Boy” in the pantomime said, “Go long, now, do, we know your tricks, you’re Ellaline Terriss”; and the clown said, “You’re wrong, she’s not, she’s Mrs. Seymour Hicks.” Then Letty Lind came on as Columbine in black tulle, and Arthur Roberts as the policeman, and Eddy Payne as the clown and Storey as Pantaloon.

The rest of it brought on everybody. Sam Sothern played a “swell” and stole a fish. Louis Freear, a housemaid, and all the leading men appeared as policemen. No one had more than a line to speak which just gave the audience time to recognize him or her. The composers and orchestra leaders came on as a German band, each playing an instrument, and they got half through the Washington Post before the policemen beat them off. Then Marie Lloyd and all the Music Hall stars appeared as street girls and danced to the music of a hand-organ. Hayden Coffin, Plunkett
Greene and Ben Davies sang as street musicians and the clown beat them with stuffed bricks. After that there was a revue of all the burlesques and comic operas, then the curtain was raised from the middle of the stage, and Nellie Farren was discovered seated at a table on a high stage with all the “legitimates” in frock-coats and walking dresses rising on benches around her.

The set was a beautiful wood scene well lighted. Wyndham stood on one side of her, and he said the yell that went up when the curtain rose was worse than the rebel yell he had heard in battles. In front of her, below the stage, were all the people who had taken part in the revue, forming a most interesting picture. There was no one in the group who had not been known for a year by posters or photographs: Letty Lind as the Geisha, Arthur Roberts as Dandy Dan. The French Girl and all the officers from The Geisha, the ballet girls from the pantomime, the bare-back-riders from The Circus Girl; the Empire costumes and the monks from La Poupee, and all the Chinese and Japanese costumes from The Geisha. Everybody on the stage cried and all the old rounders in the boxes cried.

It was really a wonderfully dramatic spectacle to see the clown and officers and Geisha girls weeping down their grease paint. Nellie Farren’s great song was one about a street Arab with the words: “Let me hold your nag, sir, carry your little bag, sir, anything you please to give – thank’ee, sir!” She used to close her hand, then open it and look at the palm, then touch her cap with a very wonderful smile, and laugh when she said, “Thank’ee, sir!” This song was reproduced for weeks before the benefit, and played all over London, and when the curtain rose on her, the orchestra struck into it and the people shouted as though it was the national anthem. Wyndham made a very good address and so did Terry, then Wyndham said he would try to get her to speak. She has lost the use of her hands and legs and can only walk with crutches, so he put his arm around her and her son lifted her from the other side and then brought her to her feet, both crying like children. You could hear the people sobbing, it was so still. She said, “Ladies and Gentleman,” looking at the stalls and boxes, then she turned her head to the people on the stage below her and said, “Brothers and Sisters,” then she stood looking for a long time at the gallery gods who had been waiting there twenty hours. You could hear a long “Ah” from the gallery when she looked up there, and then a “hush” from all over it and there was absolute silence. Then she smiled and raised her finger to her bonnet and said, “Thank’ee, sir,” and sank back in her chair. It was the most dramatic thing I ever saw on a stage. The orchestra struck up “Auld Lang Syne” and they gave three cheers on the stage and in the house. The papers got out special editions, and said it was the greatest theatrical event there had ever been in London.

Comments: Richard Harding Davis (1864-1916) was a celebrated American journalist and novelist, known for his war reporting and sharp eye for a sensational subject. Ellen ‘Nellie’ Farren (1848-1904) was a British actor and singer, renowned for her principal boy performances in Gaiety Theatre productions, which attracted a huge, chiefly male, following. She was forced to retire through ill health in 1892. On 17 March 1898 a performance in aid of the Nellie Farren Testimonial Benefit Fund at Drury Lane drew an unprecedented cast of late Victorian stage greats, and raised an estimated £7,000. The show included a production of Gilbert and Sullivan‘s one act comic opera Trial by Jury, with Gilbert himself playing the Associate. Other accounts of the event state that Dan Leno appeared in a scene from the Drury Lane pantomime with Herbert Campbell, and not a scene from Hamlet.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Just Like It Was

Source: Harry Blacker, Just Like it Was: Memoirs of the Mittel East (London: Vallentine, Mitchell, 1974), pp. 174, 176

Text: One Saturday after lunch my mother said to me, ‘Enjoy yourself, but don’t come home late like last week. Daddy and me are going to Uncle Barnet’. This was my special outing to the West End. I had recently been apprenticed to a process-engraving establishment that made blocks for printers, and was now earning 17s. 6d. a week. This enabled me to indulge in the luxury of an occasional visit to the fleshpots of the metropolis where, for the expenditure of two shillings, I could see a show and indulge in coffee and chocolate eclairs at one of Lyons Corner Houses.

My friend Norman, who lived round the corner, would join me after tea and we would go into a lengthy argument as to which theatre we should patronise that night. This was usually decided by watching the buses go by on the main road. Shows were advertised on their sides. Having solved the problem to our mutual satisfaction, we would take a threepenny ride from the quarter to Piccadilly Circus and go to the gallery entrance of our particular theatre. With luck, we would be up front of the queue and settle down to a steady wait of an hour or so.

The time was passed pleasantly listening to the buskers who entertained the crowd. Songs, recitations (including Shakespeare), acrobatics, escapologists, barrel organs, and the inevitable blind beggar led by a pathetic helper, passed among us soliciting alms. With a jerk and a metallic clank the gallery door would be opened by a uniformed commissionaire, and we would pelt up the dozens of stone steps to the box-office like an avalanche in reverse. Here we paid our shillings and obtained tickets for the show. This was followed by yet another mad scramble up the remaining flights of stairs until, puffed and panting, we found ourselves at the back of the gallery barrier. Followed yet another sortie, but this time in a downward direction, in order to get a seat as near to the front as possible. We looked like a crack infantry regiment going into battle. Usually we managed to get into the centre of the first or second rows, being young, athletic and having a good head for heights. Here, on a hard unsympathetic seat, we made ourselves as comfortable as possible, knowing full well that as the gallery filled up, we would have to shift or close up in order to make room for other people. Unless you were fortunate enough to get into the very front row, leg room was at a premium. The seats were merely cloth-padded shelves with no arm-rests in between. The man in front of you sat on your feet; you in turn, sat on the feet of the people behind. This led to a lot of harsh words and occasional kicks up the rear.

After a twenty-minute wait, the orchestra would creep into position from under the apron and tune up. We could never afford a programme so the violinist might have been Yehudi Menhuin for all we knew. Two or three popular classics were normal pre-curtain fare, usually drowned in chatter and the rustle of sweet bags and chocolate paper. Finally, to thin applause, the leader would take a bow, the house lights dim, and in the sudden and expectant silence, the curtain would slowly rise.

I saw Fred Astaire dance at the old Empire and watched young Basil Rathbone act in light comedy. Noel Coward, Gertrude Lawrence, John Gielgud, Matheson Lang, Esme Percy, Edith Evans, Sybil Thorndike, Gladys Cooper, and a host of other luminaries filled the stages of my theatreland. Occasionally an instinctive need for culture took us to the Old Vic or Sadlers Wells (a new place this), where ‘early doors’ were Sixpence in the gallery. Charles Laughton, the Livesey brothers, Athene Seyler, and other actors of their calibre performed the works of the masters.

After the final curtain and the playing of the National Anthem, we would push our way out into the street, where the pavements were overflowing with the crowds leaving adjacent theatres. Private cars for the ‘dressed’ clientele and taxis for the suburbanites who panicked over the last trains to Wimbledon were waiting at the kerbside. Still excited by the show and trying to recall details of some of the highlights or a moving dramatic moment, Norman and I would push our way through the crowd like a couple of salmon swimming upstream, until we reached the Corner House facing Charing Cross Station. Here we rounded off the evening with a coffee and a plateful of creamy chocolate eclairs. Thus fortified, we would walk our way home to the Mittel East, our finances too meagre for the extra threepence fare, leaving the magic of the theatre and the bright lights of the West End behind us at the bottom of Ludgate Hill.

Comments: Harry Blacker (1910-1999) was a cartoonist and illustrator. His memoirs describe Jewish life in London’s East End in the 1910s and onwards, for which he defines his ‘Mittel East’ as being Bethnal Green, Hackney, Shoreditch, Whitechapel and Stepney.