Victorian London - Entertainment and Recreation - Music Hall - Character of - Prostitution

At the same time it must be admitted—shameful and disgraceful as the admission is—that it is not the music-hall of the vulgar East­end or “over the water” that presents in special prominence the peculiar features here spoken of, and which, in plain language, are licentiousness and prostitution. He who would witness the perfec­tion to which these twin curses may be wrought under the fostering influences of “music,” &c., must visit the west, and not the east or south, of the metropolis. He must make a journey to Leicester-square, and to the gorgeous and palatial Alhambra there to be found. What he will there discover will open his eyes to what a farcical thing the law is, and how within the hour it will strain at gnats, and bolt entire camels without so much as a wry face or a wince, or a wink even.
    I speak fearlessly, because all that I describe may be witnessed to-night, to-morrow, any time, by the individual adventurous and curious enough to go and see for himself. There is no fear of his missing it; no chance of his fixing on a wrong night. It is always the same at the music-hall. Its meat is other men’s poison; and it can fatten and prosper while honesty starves. The bane and curse of society is its main support; and to introduce the purging besom would be to ruin the business.
    At the same time, I would wish it to be distinctly understood, that I do not desire to convey to the reader the impression that the numerical majority of music-hall frequenters are persons of immoral tendencies. On the contrary, I am well convinced that such places are the resort of a vast number of the most respectable portion of the working-class. This, I believe, is a fact carefully treasured by music-hall proprietors, and elaborately displayed by them whenever their morality is attacked. They point to the well-filled body of the hall, the sixpenny part, where artisans and working-men congregate, and not unfrequently bring with them their wives and daughters; and triumphantly inquire, “Is it likely that the music-hall can be what slanderers represent, when it is so patronised?” And it is quite true that a very large number of honest and intelligent folk are attracted thither in search of harm­less amusement. Let them bless God for their ignorance of the world’s wicked ways if they succeed in finding it. It is not impos­sible. Provided they look neither to the right nor left of them, but pay their sixpence at the door, and march to the seats apportioned them; and, still at eyes right, direct their gaze and their organs of hearing towards the stage, from which the modern “comic voca­list” doles out to a stolen tune feeble jingling idiotcies of “his own composing,”—if they are steadfast to this, they may come away not much the worse for the evening’s entertainment. But let him not look about him, especially if he have his wife or daughters with him, or he may find himself tingling with a feeling it was never his misfortune to experience before.
    The honest believer in the harmlessness of music-halls would, if he looked about him as he sat in the sixpenny “pit,” discover in more quarters than one that which would open his innocent eyes. If his vision were directed upwards towards the boxes and balconies, there he would discover it. Brazen-faced women, blazoned in tawdry finery, and curled and painted, openly and without disguise bestowing their blandishments on “spoony” young swells of the “commercial” and shopman type, for the sake of the shilling’s-worth of brandy-and-water that steams before them, and in prospect of future advantages. There is no mistaking these women. They do not go there to be mistaken. They make no more disguise of their profession than do cattle-drovers in the public markets. They are there in pursuit of their ordinary calling, and, splendid creatures though they appear, it is curious to witness the supreme indifference to them of the door-keepers as they flaunt past them. It makes good the old proverb about the famili­arity that breeds contempt; besides, as a customer in simple, the painted free-drinking lady is not desirable. I should not for a moment wish to impute without substantial proof so dastardly a feature of “business” to any spirited music-hall proprietor in particular; but I am positively assured by those who should know, that on certain recognised nights loose women are admitted to these places without payment. I know as a fact, too, that it is no uncommon thing for these female music-hall frequenters to enlist the services of cabmen on “spec,” the latter conveying their “fare” to the Alhambra or the Philharmonic without present payment, on the chance that she will in the course of the evening “pick up a flat,” who will with the lady require his services to drive them to the Haymarket or elsewhere. How much of extortion and robbery may be committed under such a convenient cloak it is not difficult to guess. The evidence not being quite so unobjectionable as it might be, I will not mention names; but I was recently informed with apparent sincerity by one of those poor bedizened unfortu­nates—a “dress lodger” possibly—that a certain music-hall proprie­tor issued to women of her class “weekly tickets” at half-price, the main condition attaching to the advantage being that the holder did not “ply” in the low-priced parts of the hall; that is to say, amongst those who could afford to pay for nothing more expen­sive than pints of beer.
    But it is at the refreshment-bars of these palatial shams and impostures, as midnight and closing time approaches, that profligacy may be seen reigning rampant. Generally at one end of the hall is a long strip of metal counter, behind which superbly-attired barmaids vend strong liquors. Besides these there are “snuggeries,” or small private apartments, to which bashful gentlemen desirous of sharing a bottle of wine with a recent acquaintance may retire. But the unblushing immodesty of the place concentrates at this long bar. Any night may here be found dozens of prostitutes enticing simpletons to drink, while the men who are not simple-tons hang about, smoking pipes and cigars, and merely sipping, not drinking deeply, and with watchful wary eyes on the pretty game of fox-and-goose that is being played all round about them. No one molests them, or hints that their behaviour is at variance with “the second and third of Victoria, cap. 47.” Here they are in dozens, in scores, prostitutes every one, doing exactly as they do at the infamous and prosecuted Haymarket dens, and no one inter­feres. I say, doing all that the Haymarket woman does; and it must be so, since the gay patroness of the music-halls does simply all she can to lure the dupe she may at the moment have in tow. She entices him to drink; she drinks with him; she ogles, and winks, and whispers, and encourages like behaviour on his part, her main undisguised object being to induce him to prolong the companion­ship after the glaring gaslight of the liquor-bar is lowered, and its customers are shown to the outer door. If that is not “knowingly suffering prostitutes to meet together” for the more convenient prosecution of their horrible trade, what else is it? And yet the cunning schemes and contrivances for misleading and throwing dust in the eyes of the police are not practised here. There are no scouts and “bells,” the former causing the latter to chime a warning on the approach of the enemy. The enemy, the police, that is to say, are on the spot. In almost every case there will be found in the music-hall lobby an intelligent livened guardian of the public peace, here stationed that he may take cognisance of suspicious-looking persons, and eject improper characters. Should he happen, as is most likely, to be a policeman whose “beat” is in the neighbourhood, he will by sight be quite familiar with every loose woman who for a mile round in the streets plies her lawless trade. He recognises them, as with a nod of old acquaintance they pass the money-taker; he saunters to the bar, where the women gather to prime their prey, and he witnesses their doings, but he takes no notice, and never complains.

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

James Greenwood, The Seven Curses of London, 1869

see also Thomas Archer's Terrible Sights of London - click here

see also William Acton on East End prostitution - click here

see also J. Ewing Ritchie in Days and Nights in London - click here