A Secret History: Victorian & Edwardian Londoners and the Heroic Age of Theatregoing
Updated: Apr 4
By Anthony Binns
The period roughly between 1840 and 1918 saw the flowering of popular theatre and music hall in Britain, and especially in London. It represented the heroic age of theatregoing. In the first place, for its sheer epic scale and almost volcanic eruption; and secondly, because the audiences of the day seemed to display such a voracious appetite for the novel and the unexpected, a bold willingness to explore the experimental and unknown. Such a contrast to contemporary times where formulaic repetition and playing safe seem to be so much the order of the day. But then, live performance in that era was relatively affordable, both to witness and to produce. It provided just the sort of fertile ground in which a figure like H.G. Pélissier and The Follies could prosper.
London - the playful city
In my biography of H.G. Pélissier, The Funniest Man in London (page 24), I make the claim that “perhaps on any given night, half the city [of London] was engaged in witnessing a theatrical or musical entertainment of some sort.” To many this may seem hard to believe. On the one hand, the common conception of Victorian times tends to convey the image of a downtrodden working- class too poor and indifferent to pay much heed to such things; and concomitantly, of a middle-class largely too preoccupied or philistine to indulge them. The music hall and theatre respectively might be regarded as minor, fairly inconsequential adjuncts to a life and a society that was dominated by industrial toil and material aggrandisement. Neither view, I would argue, is true. In fact, the appetite for leisure was immense and my estimation of “half the city” may even be an understatement. However, I accept that the claim does nevertheless require some scrutiny and explanation.
The facts behind badly kept and elusive records
In her scrupulous and pioneering work London Music Halls and Theatres 1850-1950, Diana Howard lists 910 theatres and music halls. These, it should be pointed out, were only the ones for which she was able to obtain some information; there were incalculable others for which she was not. Hers was a task which, in addition to the sparsity of records, was further hampered by the cavalier and neglectful fashion in which such historical records were often treated by public libraries, local government departments and even such venerable institutions as the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum. Indeed, Howard berates the lack of care and attention given to such documents in her lengthy and detailed introduction, revealing a state of affairs sadly emblematic of the general attitude towards cultural history, particularly as regards the working-class. Whether the situation has radically altered in the intervening half century since the publication of her work in 1970 is a matter for future speculation.
Despite the obstacles in her way, a breakdown of Howard’s listing does, however, reveal some interesting indications as to the actual numbers involved in music hall and theatre attendance in the mid to late nineteenth century.
For example, of the 906 mentioned:
254 are a mixture of mainstream theatres (licensed for the performance of stage plays) and ‘bespoke’ music halls (licensed for dancing and music and alcohol).
607 are public houses, licensed for music and alcohol only.
A great many more public houses, of course, would have operated outside of the licensing system altogether. The remainder on the list fall into the arena of public pleasure gardens and concert halls (of which more later).
There are no extant comprehensive figures for ticket sales or audience make-up as regards either the legitimate licensed theatres or the various music halls during this period. This is quite probably for the reasons that Howard cites, but it is equally likely that contemporaneous data was never kept anyway. Just as there are very few filmed or sound-recorded examples of performance by Pierrot or minstrel companies or by music hall stars or even leading actors of this period (note their relative absence on You-tube, despite the burgeoning use of such technology at the time), so there are few financial records. On the whole, this sort of thing just doesn’t seem to have been considered worth recording.
A vast audience capacity of licensed theatres, music halls and public houses
However, both usefully and intriguingly, Howard does publish the audience capacity of the majority of the licensed theatres and music halls, as well as some public houses. These include 207 of the mainstream theatres and ‘bespoke’ music halls, plus 47 for which they are not given; plus 607 of the public houses, of which only 27 can provide data.
The theatre and music halls range in size:
An awe-inspiring 5,000 capacity at the Alhambra Palace, Leicester Square
An impressive 4,000 at Queen’s Hall, Long Acre and Albert Palace near Battersea Park
A modest 400 at Albion Hall, Dalston
A meagre 90 at the Sugar Loaf Hall of Varieties in Whitechapel.
The total potential capacity we arrive at for the 207 figures that are given is 281,452. This gives us an average capacity of 1,360 per venue. If we use this figure to extrapolate the 47 venues listed by Howard for which no figures on capacity could be found, we arrive at a further 63,920.
The public house statistics are much scarcer (being largely unregulated one suspects) but those 27 that are given provide us with an average capacity of 180. This applied to the total of 607 such venues (licensed for music only) provides a total potential audience of 109,260.
However, this probably only touches the surface. For one thing, some venues clearly chose to defy the licensing system and mounted performances anyway. Howard quotes the following item regarding the Park Theatre in Camden Town:
A letter to the Lord Chamberlain LC 1/547 following the application of Joseph Bangs and and Herbert Farraud Bangs 29.9.1890 for a licence for the Royal Park Hall, states that although licence refused, that for the past five years they had performed plays and would continue to do so.
By and large, since they were not (in theory and in law) providing stage plays or even very much spoken dialogue, the music halls and public houses remained unpoliced. They were not, it seems, regarded as a ‘threat’ to public order. Add to this the sheer number of public houses not listed.
A piano in every saloon bar
Within the City of London there are even today over one hundred that can be dated back to the Victorian era. As regards the further boroughs, in Westminster alone there are currently over 400 public houses that owe their origins to this period or even earlier. Then consider that within the broader confines of what was then the London County Council, there were a dozen other such boroughs and we can easily arrive at a broad estimate of some four thousand or more public houses that were serving the metropolis of London, then the biggest city in the world. Not all of these either could or would have provided live entertainment.
However, many of us are still old enough to remember a time not so long ago, until the early 1970s perhaps, when the piano was still a common feature of practically every saloon bar, not to say domestic front room, before the advent of the ubiquitous television.
Edwardian impresarios and the appetite for live entertainment
The appetite for live entertainment was clearly enormous. But how can we further break down or examine these figures to arrive at the claim of “half the city”?
Well, first of all, bear in mind that the theatres and music halls were often presenting two or sometimes three performances daily. So, while we cannot by any means assume regular full capacity at these venues, it is reasonable to assume half capacity. This, taking into account even just those listed by Howard, still gives us a total figure of 454,632, approaching half a million when adding all performances.
Why is it reasonable to make such an assumption? Well, at the turn of the century, when the likes of impresarios such as Oswald Stoll, Edward Moss and Frank Matcham decided to invest their considerable skills and resources into the music hall, they were not interested in modest buildings of a few hundred capacity. On the contrary, they gave us the London Coliseum with a capacity of over 3,000, and the equally grand and capacious Hackney Empire, and many more. They clearly knew they were tapping into a vast industry with immense pulling power.
A figure like Pélissier, as an actor-manager and impresario, was in a perfect position to draw these various worlds together. By taking a concert party and music hall act into the heart of the West End, it was he, as much as anyone, who broke down the barriers between high and low brow and thus expanded the market for popular entertainment.
Markets, public gardens, concert halls and clubland
Secondly, these are by no means the only theatrical and musical entertainments taking place at the time. For example, there were the street markets like Covent Garden and the vast pleasure gardens at New Vauxhall, at St. Helena’s Gardens, Rotherhithe, at North Woolwich, at Cremorne Gardens, and at Flora and Royal Surrey Gardens. The last mentioned is given a capacity of 10,000 in Howard’s listing.
Each of these would have offered al fresco entertainment ranging from Sir Arthur Sullivan playing organ to minstrel choirs and acrobats. To this we can add the vast arena of the Earl’s Court Exhibition Hall originally constructed in 1895 for the Empire of India Exhibition and the various clubs and restaurants such as the Trocadero, the Athenaeum and Brooks, often with resident orchestra, that proliferated during these decades. Consider also the regularly touring circuses and ‘freak shows’ so characteristic of the period.
Add to this, the classical music concert halls such as the Albert Hall and Wigmore Hall, and the frequent private ‘at home’ performances of classical chamber pieces; similarly, the private performances of either newly written or banned plays by the likes of, among others, G.B. Shaw or Henrik Ibsen. These were often sponsored by the Independent Theatre Society or a range of philanthropic, pacifist or suffragist groups.
Poverty as a pull/push factor towards musical entertainment
In the 1881 census, at the height of the music hall craze, the population of London is given at some 4.5 million. Of these, a good proportion, perhaps half may have been children, and you might think ineligible for such diversions. However, we should also consider two further points. Children were by no means barred from these establishments – not even from the public houses. The unaccompanied fugitive Oliver Twist stops at a tavern for a half pint of ale in his flight from the orphanage. Beer drinking was for decades considered preferable to water in cholera-ridden London.
Nor, from the 1860s onwards, were women excluded from the music hall. And as regards the open-air pleasure gardens and classical concerts the women in attendance may well have outnumbered the men. In this relatively prosperous period, the middle-classes enjoyed a growing resource of disposable income, and among the working-class, much of the entertainment may have been without cost, as in the ‘free and easies’, or for as little as a few pence at the lower ranking halls. Indeed, many of the public houses of the period may have considered the entertainment a form of ‘loss-leader’ in order to draw a thirsty clientele into their vast gin palaces.
Another consideration is the general living conditions among the poor, in particular the housing. David Leal makes the following point:
Millions of Britain’s workers lived in homes too small for the needs of their often large families…Much of this living accommodation was ‘slum’ property, not only overcrowded but also insanitary […….] The public house was the working man’s sitting room. Only the artisan classes and above could afford the luxury of a ‘parlour’.
In other words, in today’s parlance, not only were there massive ‘pull factors’ in drawing the populace towards theatre and musical entertainment, particularly in the public houses; there were also considerable ‘push factors’ in the squalid, overcrowded and unsanitary domestic conditions. The public house and music hall may well have represented for these people, a veritable ‘home from home’. Indeed, such a function is implicit in the very phrases ‘public house’, ‘saloon’ and ‘lounge’, the sale of alcohol taking place quite liberally from domestic settings.
A cultural revolution
Once we count all these elements together, once we add the modest estimation of half a million attendances at the licensed premises to all the other live attractions both indoors and out, the claim that “perhaps on any given night, half the city [of London] was engaged in witnessing a theatrical or musical entertainment of some sort” seems very reasonable; at the very least we might say, half the adult population.
The broader point here is that this has all the markings of a seismic, revolutionary social change; something at least on a par with the agrarian or industrial revolutions or the empire building of the European maritime nations. It is the first free, uninhibited mass assembly of working peoples, in their thousands, anywhere in the world. It surely represents the beginnings of the modern consumer culture as we would recognise it, and as such warrants more serious study than it has hitherto received. Furthermore, these were no passive, stay-at-home, stare at a screen, generations. They were actively gregarious and creative.
It is surely no coincidence that the subsequent decades saw such massive social and political upheaval; and surely no coincidence that the governments of the day and those that followed – right up to the 1960s – sought to control such forces through arbitrary and draconian censorship; a subject I’ll explore in a later blog.
The roots of modern mass media and the consumer society
Here lie the roots of modern entertainment; everything from the billion-dollar pop music industry to movies and video and all the various forms of social media. It is the roots of what we would today consider ‘consumer society’.
These cultural markers are surely every bit as vital and significant as the familiar run of military and political and regnal events. Shouldn’t 1599, the year that Shakespeare’s original Globe theatre was constructed be as deeply etched into our national consciousness as 1066 and all that? Isn’t it rather by means of music, theatre or film that we recall our most significant life events?
I have heard of Desert Island Discs but I’ve yet to hear a broadcast entitled Desert Island Acts of Parliament or Desert Island Battles. Unlike most wars, the theatre, live music and movies engage and involve us all at some time or other. It is at the theatre, at musical concerts, at the movies that young people meet and fall in love and perhaps even go on to procreate – though not always at the same time and venue. They represent the very stuff of life. In wars, tragically and sadly, young people go off to die.
Perhaps our national identities would be better served by an emphasis on our cultural achievements – such as the radical and revolutionary phenomenon that was the music hall; rather than a perceived emphasis on kings and queens, battles and wars that is the dominant stuff of many national histories, as currently taught.
Howard, Diana: London Music Halls and Theatres 1850-1950 The Library Association 1970.
Leal, David: The New Cities in History of the English Speaking Peoples Vol 7. P 3388 BPC Publishing London 1970.
Forthcoming blog posts for May and June
The Follies on record - groundbreaking double-sided Odeon discs recorded in 1910. (Joe Pélissier, hears his grandfather's voice for the first time.)
The politics of the laws of assembly and the theatrical censorship in 18th & 19th century Britain.
The American Connection: The Batemans, Cowells and Comptons in 19th century theatre and music hall