Reports and surveys

At the Works

Source: Lady Bell, At the Works: A Study of a Manufacturing Town (London: Nelson, 1911 [originally London: Edward Arnold, 1907]), pp. 134-137

Text: The other places of entertainment open to the workman are the theatres and the music-halls. In the two music-halls in the town, which are always full, the dearest places – excepting the boxes, in which, apparently, only a select public go – are 1s., the price of the orchestra stalls. The dress circle is 6d., the pit 4d., the gallery 2d. In the gallery there are always a great number of boys, as well as in the pit. The front row of the gallery generally consists of small children, little boys between seven and ten, eagerly following every detail of the entertainment. Each of them there must have paid 2d. for his place – how he acquired it who can tell? probably either by begging or by playing pitch and toss in the street. There are workmen to be seen in the orchestra stalls; that means 1s. a night. If a man takes his wife with him that means 2s.: but there many more men than women to be seen there. Women go oftener to the cheaper places: one may see a ‘queue’ of them waiting to go to the 2d. seats, often with their husbands accompanying them. Many of these women have their babies in their arms. There is no doubt that they come out looking pleased and brightened up. The kind of entertainment usually offered does not, to the more critical onlooker, seem either particularly harmful nor specially ennobling. The curious fact that, in almost any social circle, it makes people laugh convulsively to see anyone tumble down, is kept well in view and utilized to frequent effect.

As to the theatre, the stage in such a community we are describing – or, indeed, in any other – has immense opportunity. The stage is at once the eternal story-teller and the eternal picture-book. The repertory of the two theatres in the town, fortunately, does not consist only of reproductions of London successes of the most trivial kind. These are occasionally performed, but more often the plays are sensational pieces of a melodramatic kind – that is, usually sound and often interesting plays, in which the boundary of what is commonly called vice and virtue is clearly marked – virtue leading to success and happiness, vice to a fate which is a terrible warning. For my part, I wish that such representations, such pieces as these, could be multiplied, that they could be constantly accessible at entirely cheap prices for the ironworkers and their families – indeed, for the whole of the population. I would like to see some building of the simplest kind in every parish in which they could be performed. There is a small town a few miles distant from Middlesbrough to which there comes at intervals a stock theatrical company, which performs literally in a barn, at infinitesimal prices The plays produced, if not very nourishing to the more complex mind, are always sound and good, full of movement, full of interest to the audience before whom they are performed. Night after night that barn is full; night after night men and women, boys and girls, who might be loitering in the streets or in public-houses, are imbibing plain and obvious maxims of desirable conduct, are associating mean, cowardly, and criminal acts with pitiable results. No one who had been to that little theatre could doubt the good effect of the influence that must be radiating from it, and it would be well if such centres of influence could be found in every manufacturing town. There are, no doubt, many people, and some of these are to be found among the working class, who disapprove of this medium of entertainment. But there are also many of us passionately convinced that the stage, if used in this way, would be an influence more for good than for evil; that it would offer countless opportunities of suggesting a wholesome, simple, rough-and-ready code to many listeners who since they left school have probably not had any moral training at all, and the majority of whom are more than likely to drift along through their lives at the mercy of every passing influence.

Comments: Lady Bell (Dame Florence Eveleen Eleanore Bell) (1851-1930) was a British aristocrat, playwright and author of At the Works, a study of working lives in Middlesbrough, North Yorkshire in the 1900s. The two music halls in Middlesbrough at this time were the Empire Theatre of Varieties and the Oxford Palace of Varieties.

Links: Copy at the Internet Archive