Victorian London - Entertainment and Recreation - Theatre - Penny Gaffs - Character of

   We pass through a low door, and enter a kind of ante­chamber, where we pay a penny each. A buffet with soda-water, lemonade, apples, and cakes, is surrounded by a crowd of thinly-clad factory girls, and a youthful cavalier with a paper cap is shooting at a target with a cross-bow, and after each shot he throws a farthing on the buffet. Passing through the ante-chamber and a narrow corridor, we enter the pit of the penny-theatre, a place capable of holding fifty persons. There are also galleries—a dozen of wooden benches rise in amphitheatrical fashion up to the ceiling; and, strange to say, the gentlemen sit on one side and the ladies on the other. This separation of the sexes is owing to a great refinement of feeling. The gentlemen, chiefly labourers and apprentices, luxuriate during the representation in the aroma of their “pickwicks,” a weed of which we can assure the reader that it is not to be found in the Havanna; but they are gallant enough to keep the only window in the house wide open.
    Just as we enter we see the director, a small curly-headed man, with a red punch face, ascending the stage by means of a ladder. He makes two low bows, one for the ladies and one for the gentlemen, and delivers himself of a grand oration, to excuse some small deficiences in his institution. At every third word he is interrupted by the cheers and remarks of the audience.
    “Ladies and gentlemen,” says he. “I am sorry I cannot produce a prima donna to-night. Jenny Lind has sent me a message by my own submarine telegraph, asking for an extension of her leave. You would not surely shorten the honeymoon of the nightingale. Why, to do that would be as bad as cruelty to animals. Madame Sontag tells me, quite in confidence, that she is falling off, and that, although her voice is good enough for Yankee ears, she wants the courage to make her appearance before the refined public of No. 17, Broad-street, London. Mdlle. Wagner was at my service, cheap as any stale mackerel; but could I insult you by producing her? Would not every note have reminded you of the fact, that she values nothing in England but its copper pence. Besides, the terms of friendship which subsist between myself and Mr. Lumley—there are considerations—I hope you’ll understand me, ladies and gentlemen!”
    “Question! Question!”
    “Maybe you are astonished that these boards are uncarpeted, and that no painted curtain displays its glories to your eyes!”
    A voice from the gallery :—“ At your uncle’s, eh ?"
    Another voice :—“ Nonsense! His wife has turned the stuff into a petticoat.”
    “How little you understand me, ladies and gentlemen. In the first place, it is but decent that our stage should lament the death of the Iron Duke “—Interruption —“No first place! Don’t you try to be funny, old feller ! “—-Blasphemy—groans.
    “Ladies and gentlemen, pray listen to me. Let all be serene between us. I have nothing to conceal. Ladies and gentlemen, the overture is about to commence
    The speaker vanishes through a trap-door, through which two fellows presently ascend. One is dressed up to represent an Irishman; the other wears the characteristic habiliments of a Scotch Highlander. They play some national airs, and while thus engaged strip themselves of every particle of their outer clothing, and appear as American planters. Some one from below, hands up a couple of straw hats, which they clap on their heads, and the metamorphosis is complete. They then go to the back of the stage and return with an unfortunate “African.” The part is acted by no less distinguished a person than the director himself. His face is blackened, he has a woolly wig on his head, and heavy chains on his wrists and ankles; and to prevent all misunderstandings, there is pinned to his waistcoat an enormous placard, with the magic words of “UNCLE TOM.”
    The planters produce meanwhile a couple of stout whips, which instruments of torture they use in a very unceremonious manner, in belabouring the back of the sable protege of the Duchess of Sutherland and the women of England generally, when all of a sudden, that illustrious negro, exclaiming, “LIBER-R-R-TY! LIBER-R-R-TY!” breaks his fetters, and turning round with great deliberation, descends into the pit. Exeunt the two planters, each with a somerset.
    Transformation ~—Three forms issue from the back door; a colossal female, with a trident and a diadem of gilt paper, bearing the legend of “BRITANNIA”; after her, a pot-bellied old gentle­man, with a red nose and a spoon in his right hand, while his left holds an enormous soup-plate, with a turtle painted on the back of it.
    Britannia, heaving a deep sigh, sits down on a stool, adjusts a telescope, which is very long and very dirty, and looks out upon the ocean. The gentleman with the red nose, who, of course, represents the Lord Mayor of the good City of London, kneels down at her feet, and indulges in a fit of very significant howlings and gnashings of teeth. The third person is a sailor-boy com­plete, with a south-wester, blue jacket, and wide trousers, who dances a hornpipe while Britannia sighs and the Lord Mayor howls.
    Now comes the great scene of the evening! Somebody or something, diving up from the very midst of the pit, makes a rush against the stage. It is the Uncle Tom of the last scene; but surely even Her Grace of Sutherland would not know him again. His face is as black and his hair as woolly as ever; but a cocked hat, a pair of red trousers and top boots, and an enormous sword, brings it home even to the dullest understanding, that this is a very dangerous person! Besides, on his hack there is a placard, with the inscription “Solouque — NAPOLEON EMPEROR”!!
    The monster bawls out “INVASION!” while, to the great delight of the ladies and gentlemen, he bumps his head several times against the chalky cliffs of Britain, which, on the present emergency, are represented by the wooden planks of the stage. The very sailor-boy, still dancing his hornpipe, shows his con­tempt for so much ferocity and dulness. He greets the invader with a scornful—” Parli-vow Frenchi?”
At this juncture, the conqueror becomes aware of the presence of the short ladder, and mounts it forthwith. The boy vents his feelings of horror and disgust in an expressive pantomime, the Lord Mayor howls louder than ever, and the gnashing of his teeth is awful to behold; but just as the invader has gained the edge of the stage, he is attacked by the sailor, who, applying his foot to a part of the Frenchman’s body which shall be nameless, kicks that warrior back into the pit. The public cheer, Britannia and the Lord Mayor dance a polka, and the sailor sings “God save the Queen!”

“If the French ambassador could but know of this!” said Mr. Baxter, as the two friends were pushing their way out through a crowd of new corners.

Max Schlesinger, Saunterings in and about London, 1853

    Do my readers know Shoreditch? I do not mean the Eastern Counties Railway Station, but the regions dark and dolorous lying beyond. In an old map of London, by my side, dated 1560, I see it marked as a street with but one row of houses on each side, and the five windmills in Finsbury Fields not far off. Here stood the Curtain Theatre. In Stowe's time there were in Shoreditch "two publique houses for the acting and shewe of comedies, tragedies, and histories for recreation." Here, according to the learned and indefatigable Mr. Timbs, "at the Blue Last public-house, porter was first sold, about 1730." And here still, if I may judge from the immense number of public-houses all round, the consumption of porter and other intoxicating liquors is still carried on on a somewhat extensive scale. Hard working and businesslike as Shoreditch is by day, with its clothes marts and extensive shoe depôts, by night it is a great place for amusement. Here are theatres where melodrama reigns supreme. Close by is the renowned Britannia Saloon. And here concerts exist where, over their beer, the listeners are regaled with the sentimental and comic songs of a generation long gathered to its fathers. To me I confess there is somewhat of pathos in these places. What tales cannot that ancient landlord tell! The young, the beautiful, the brave he has outlived, where are they?
     But let us pass on to the penny theatre, a place not hard to find in this region of shell-fish and fruit-pie shops, those sure indications of a neighbourhood rather poor and very wild. We pay our money at the door, and then follow the direction given us by the businesslike young woman who takes the fee, "First turn to the left, and then to the right." But instead of being allowed to enter at once, we have to wait with several others, chiefly boys, very dirty, who regard us apparently with no very favourable eye, till a fresh house is formed. Our new acquaintances are not talkative, and we are not sorry when our turn comes to enter the dirty hole set apart for the entertainment of the Shoreditch youth. We climb up a primitive staircase, and find ourselves in a gallery of the rudest description, a privilege for which we have to pay a penny extra. Here we have an ample view of the stage and the pit, the latter chiefly filled with boys, very dirty, and full of fun, with the usual proportion of mothers with excited babies. The performance commences with a panorama of American scenery, with some very stale American criticisms, about the man who was so tall that he had to go up a ladder to shave himself, and so on; all, however, exciting much mirth amongst the youthful and apple-eating audience. Then a young lady, with very short petticoats and very thick ancles, dances, and takes all hearts by storm. To her succeeds one who sings about true love, but not in a manner which the Shoreditch youthdom affects. Then a fool comes upon the stage, and keeps the pit in a roar, especially when he directs his wit to the three musicians who form the orchestra, and says ironically to one of them, "You could not drink a quartern of gin, could you?" and the way in which the allusion was received evidently implied that the enlightened but juvenile audience around me evidently had a very low opinion of a man who could not toss off his quartern of gin. Then we had the everlasting niggers, with the bones, and curiously-wrought long coats, and doubtful dialect and perpetual laughter, which the excited pit copiously rewarded. One boy tossed a button on the stage, another a copper, and another an apple; and so pleasing was this liberality to the supposed young men of African descent, that they did not think it beneath them, or inconsistent with their dignity as professionals, to encourage it in every possible way. And well they might. Those gay blacks very likely had little white faces at home dependent on the liberality of the house for next day's crust. But the treat of the evening was a screaming farce, in one act, in which the old tale of "Taming the Shrew" was set forth in the most approved Shoreditch fashion. A husband comes upon the stage, whose wife - I would not be ungallant, but conscientious regard to truth compels me sorrowfully to declare - is an unmitigated shrew. She lords it over her husband as no good woman ever did or wishes to do. The poor man obeys till he can stand it no longer. At length all his manhood is aroused. Armed with what he calls a persuader - a cudgel of most formidable pretensions - he astonishes his wife with his unexpected resistance. She tries to regain the mastery, but in vain; and great is the delight of all as the husband, holding his formidable instrument over his cowed and trembling wife, compels her to obey his every word. All the unwashed little urchins around me were furious with delight. There was no need for the husband to tell the audience, as he did, as the moral of the piece, that the best remedy for a bad wife was to get such another cudgel for her as that he held in his hand. It was quite clear the little Britons around me had resolved how they would act; and I fear, as they passed out to the number of about 200, few of them did not resolve, as soon as they had the chance, to drink their quartern of gin and to whop their wives.
     On another occasion it chanced to me to visit a penny gaff in that dark and dolorous region, the New Cut. There the company and the entertainment were of a much lower character. A great part of the proceedings were indecent and disgusting, yet very satisfactory to the half grown girls and boys present. In the time of the earlier Georges we read much of the brutality of the lower orders. If we may believe cotemporary writers on men and manners, never was the theatre so full - never was the audience so excited - never did the scum and refuse of the streets so liberally patronise the entertainment as when deeds of violence and blood were the order of the night. This old savage spirit is dying out, but in the New Cut I fear it has not given way to a better one.

J. Ewing Ritchie, Here and there in London, 1859

see also George Sala in Gaslight and Daylight - click here

    It may not be here out of place to make more definite allusion to the “pitfalls” above-mentioned. Pitfall broadest and deepest is the theatrical exhibition, known as the “penny gaff.” Some con­siderable time since I wrote on this subject in the columns of the “Morning Star;” and as precisely the old order of things prevails, and the arguments then used against them apply with equal force now, I will, with the reader’s permission, save myself further trouble than that which transcription involves.
    Every low district of London has its theatre, or at least an humble substitute for one, called in vulgar parlance a “gaff.” A gaff is a place in which, according to the strict interpretation of the term, stage plays may not be represented. The actors of a drama may not correspond in colloquy, only in pantomime, but the pieces brought out at the “gaff” are seldom of an intricate character, and the not over-fastidious auditory are well content with an exhibition of dumb show and gesture, that even the dullest comprehension may understand. The prices of admission to these modest temples of the tragic muse, are judiciously regula­ted to the means of the neighbourhood, and range from a penny to threepence. There is no “half-price for children,” and for the simple reason that such an arrangement would reduce the takings exactly fifty per cent. They are all children who support the gaff. Costermonger boys and girls, from eight or nine to fourteen years old, and errand boys and girls employed at factories. As before mentioned, every district has its own “gaff.” There is one near Peter Street, Westminster; a second in the New Cut, at Lambeth; a third in Whitecross Street; a fourth, fifth, and sixth between Whitechapel Church and Ratcliff Highway. It may, without fear of contradiction, be asserted, that within a circuit of five miles of St. Paul’s, at least twenty of these dangerous dens of amusement might be enumerated.
    At best of times they are dangerous. The best of times being when current topics of a highly sensational character are lacking, and the enterprising manager is compelled to fall back on some comparatively harmless stock piece. But the “gaff” proprietor has an eye to business, and is a man unlikely to allow what he regards as his chances to slip by him. He at once perceives a chance in the modern mania that pervades the juvenile population for a class of literature commonly known as “highly sensational.” He has no literature to vend, but he does not despair on that account. He is aware that not one in five of the youth who honour his establish­ment with their patronage can read. If he, the worthy gaff pro­prietor, had any doubts on the subject, he might settle them any day by listening at his door while an admiring crowd of “regular Customers” flocking thereto speculated on the pleasures of the night as foretold in glowing colours on the immense placards that adorn the exterior of his little theatre. They can understand the Pictures well enough, but the descriptive legends beneath them are mysteries to which few possess the key. If these few are malicious­ly reticent, the despair of the benighted ones is painful to witness, as with puckered mouths and knitted brows they essay to decipher the strange straight and crooked characters, and earnestly consult with each other as to when and where they had seen the like. Fail­ing in this, the gaff proprietor may have heard them exclaim in tones of but half-assured consolation, “Ah, well! it doesn’t matter what the reading is; the piece won’t be spoke, it’ll be acted, so we are sure to know all about it when we come to-night.”
    .....    It is one thing to read about the flashing and slashing of steel blades, and of the gleam of pistol barrels, and the whiz of bullets, and of the bold highwayman’s defiant “ha! ha!” as he cracks the skull of the coach-guard, preparatory to robbing the affrighted passengers; but to be satisfactory the marrow and essence of the blood-stirring tragedy can only be conveyed to him in bodily shape. There are many elements of a sanguinary drama that may not well be expressed in words. As, for instance, when Bill Bludjon, after having cut the throat of the gentleman passen­ger, proceeds to rob his daughter, and finding her in possession of a locket with some grey hair in it, he returns it to her with the observation, “Nay, fair lady, Bill Bludjon may be a thief: in stern defence of self he may occasionally shed blood, but, Perish the Liar who says of him that he respects not the grey hairs of honourable age!” There is not much in this as set down in print. To do Bill justice, you must see how his noble countenance lights as his generous bosom heaves with chivalrous sentiments; how defiantly he scowls, and grinds his indignant teeth as he hisses the word “Liar!”—how piously he turns his eyes heaven-ward as he alludes to “honourable old age.” It is in these emotional subtleties that the hero rises out of the vulgar robber with his villanous Whitechapel cast of countenance, and his great hands, hideous with murder stains, must be witnessed to be appreciated. It is the gaff proprietor’s high aim and ambition to effect this laudable object, and that he does so with a considerable amount of, at least, Pecuniary success, is proved by his “crowded houses” nightly.
    Now that the police are to be roused to increased vigilance in the suppression, as well as the arrest of criminality, it would be as well if those in authority directed their especial attention to these penny theatres. As they at present exist, they are nothing better than hot-beds of vice in its vilest forms. Girls and boys of tender age are herded together to witness the splended achievements of “dashing highwaymen,” and of sirens of the Starlight Sall school; nor is this all. But bad as this is, it is really the least part of the evil. The penny “gaff” is usually a small place, and when a specially atrocious piece produces a corresponding “run,” the “house” is incapable of containing the vast number of boys and girls who nightly flock to see it. Scores would be turned away from the doors, and their halfpence wasted, were it not for the worthy pro­prietor’s ingenuity. I am now speaking of what I was an actual witness of in the neighbourhood of Shoreditch. Beneath the pit and stage of the threatre was a sort of large kitchen, reached from the end of the passage, that was the entrance to the theatre by a flight of steep stairs. There were no seats in this kitchen, nor furniture of any kind. There was a window looking toward the street, but this was prudently boarded up. At night time all the light allowed in the kitchen proceeded from a feeble and dim gas jet by the wall over the fire-place.
    Wretched and dreary-looking as was this underground chamber, it was a source of considerable profit to the proprietor of the “gaff” overhead. As before stated, when anything peculiarly attractive was to be seen, the theatre filled within ten minutes of opening the besieged doors. Not to disappoint the late corners, however, all who pleased might pay and go downstairs until the performance just commenced (it lasted generally about an hour and a half) terminated. The prime inducement held out was, that “then they would be sure of good seats.” The inevitable result of such an arrangement may be easier guessed than described. For my part, I know no more about it than was to be derived from a hasty glance from the stair-head. There was a stench of tobacco smoke, and an uproar of mingled youthful voices—swearing, chaffing, and screaming, in boisterous mirth. This was all that was to be heard, the Babel charitably rendering distinct pronouncing of blasphemy or indecency unintelligible. Nor was it much easier to make out the source from when the hideous clamour proceeded, for the kitchen was dim as a coal cellar, and was further obscured by the foul tobacco smoke the lads were emitting from their short pipes. A few were romping about—”larking,” as it is termed—but the majority, girls and boys, were squatted on the floor, telling and listening to stories, the quality of which might but too truly be guessed from the sort of applause they elicited. A few—impatient of the frivolity that surrounded them, and really anxious for “the play”—stood apart, gazing with scowling envy up at the ceiling, on the upper side of which, at frequent intervals, there was a furious clatter of hobnailed boots, betokening the delirious delight of the happy audience in full view of Starlight Sall, in “silk tights” and Hessians, dancing a Highland fling. Goaded to desperation, one or two of the tormented ones down in the kitchen reached up with their sticks and beat on the ceiling a tattoo, responsive to the battering of the hobnailed boots before mentioned. This, however, was a breach of “gaff” rule that could not be tolerated. With hurried steps the proprietor approached the kitchen stairs, and descried me. “This ain’t the theeater; you’ve no business here, sir!” said he, in some confusion, as I imagined. “No, my friend, I have no business here, but you have a very pretty business, and one for which, when comes the Great Day of Reckoning, I would rather you answered than me.” But I only thought this; aloud, I made the gaff proprietor an apology, and thankfully got off his abominable premises.

[click here for full text of The Seven Curses of London]

James Greenwood, The Seven Curses of London, 1869

see also James Greenwood in The Wilds of London - click here

see also Richard Rowe in Life in the London Streets - click here

see also Henry Mayhew in London Labour and the London Poor - click here

see also Blanchold Jerrold in London : a Pilgrimage - click here

see also James Grant in Sketches in London - click here