Victorian London - Entertainment and Recreation - Music Hall - precursors of


More than five-and-thirty years ago enterprising persons in London began to establish public-house and tavern concerts for the working class, to which their wives might be admitted. The large "free-and-easies" such as the Coal Hole and the Cider Cellars were too late and too aristocratic for the mechanic, and the necessity of such resorts began to be felt as the taste for music increased.
    The earliest pianists at these cheap concerts were, for the most part, broken-down music-masters, who had drifted into the shallow water, clinging to a dilapidated "Broadwood's grand." As these men were generally blind, or nearly so, they made little progress with new music, as all their accompaniments were by ear; and the singer who aspired to novelty had to intrust his new song to the players to take home, where some son or daughter would, by dint of hard work, beat it into their memory.
    The concert-room at the date we mention was generally the first floor of a public- house, sometimes enlarged by throwing in two or three bedrooms. The decorations were often conflicting, as the tastes of previous proprietors had differed, so that it was not unusual to see the Flight into Egypt facing the Fight between Cribb and Molyneaux; and as the kitchen chimney was the main support of the room, the portion of the apartment which abutted on it had to be avoided by the guests from the excessive heat. Occasionally, as at the King's Arms, in the Coal-yard, Drury-lane, the proximity of rival amusements jarred on the general harmony, and produced strange combinations of sound. Under this concert-room was a skittle ground, and many a pretty ballad was marred by the crash of a "floorer," the smash and rumble of the nine pins, or the warm cheers that welcomed their downfall. The enchantment of skittles, also, sometimes wiled away a singer till the very moment before he was wanted, and the pianist would have to dash off an extra tune while "Mr. Prosser went against two," which feat having been accomplished with more or less success, the eminent vocalist would return to the room in the act of putting on his coat, followed by his flushed partner in the game, and, mounting the platform, would sing Hurrah for the Road, or the Ice-clad Alps, in his very best style.
    The humble concert-rooms were open three nights a week, generally Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays. The Mogul, in Drury-lane, now the Middlesex Music Hall, the St. James's Saloon, in Swallow-street, Piccadilly, and the Grapes, in Old Compton-street, Soho, at last ventured on nightly performances, but at first with very indifferent success.
    At the first public-house concert rooms established, the conductor was generally a comic singer, who also served as a waiter. He received a percentage of one penny a pot on all beer he sold, and the same amount on all glasses of spirits, mixed or neat. As late as in 1838-9, this somewhat humiliating custom prevailed at such rooms as the Union, at the corner of Baker-street, Bagnigge Wells-road, where an old reciter, known as Jemmy Gibbs, used first to perform and then hand round the pots of beer, and at the Standard, at Pimlico, where a clever comic singer, named Bob Fisher, would not give an encore till he had sedulously filled his noisy patrons' pots and glasses.
    At this period the sentimental songs, full of love and romance, were derived chiefly from old and new operas. The ballads were those sung by Madame Vestris or Mrs. Honey; the comic songs were either by James Hudson, the Dibdins, or Moncrieff, with occasionally some ditty, such as Solomon Lobb, or the Miller's Ditty, which Sam Vale had warbled into popularity at the Surrey Theatre. Gradually new comic songs were in request, and fresh authors rose to supply the wants, Messrs. Prest, Bruton, Hall, Freeman, Humphreys, and Labern, writing clever songs on passing events.
    One of the earliest tavern concert-rooms was The Chequers, in Abingdon-street, Westminster, the chief attraction a comic singer, Mr. John Herbert, better known as Jerry Herbert, who afterwards attained some celebrity at Sadler's Wells as a low comedian, and was exceedingly popular there in Greenwood's farce That Rascal Jack, of which he was the original hero.
    To insure the proper carrying out of these entertainments, it was of course necessary to engage, in addition to the pianist, a company of vocalists, the general number being four - a lady, a gentlemen sentimental, and two comic, the latter being as dissimilar in style as possible. The time of nightly entertainment was from half-past eight, when the concert commenced, until its conclusion at half-past eleven, and no singer was allowed to appear at any other room during those hours without the permission of the landlord. A fine of sixpence or a shilling, as agreed on, was levied on all who did not take part in the opening chorus, all salaries were paid nightly, and a week's notice on either side terminated the engagement.
    The scale of remuneration ranged from three shillings to five shillings a night, according to ability or popularity, and, in addition, a refreshment ticket was allowed, which represented the amount of sixpence, to be taken out according to the fancy of the singer. In the case of the male singer, there was a further bonus in the shape of a screw of tobacco.
    Inconsiderable as this remuneration may appear at first sight, when it is taken into consideration that none of the performers were strictly professionals, that is, singing for a livelihood, the reader will perceive that three or four nights a week of such supplementary income made a goodly item in their weekly earnings. As a rule, the majority of male vocalists were mechanics, shoemakers and tailors preponderating, with here and there a lawyer's clerk and a compositor; while the ladies plied their needles in the daytime as dressmakers or milliners, and hat and shoe-binders, and many cases could be recorded where a well-educated girl descended to concert-room vocalism to uphold the broken fortunes of an invalid father or mother, or to support one or two orphan brothers and sisters.
    The prices charged for admission were in most cases one penny or twopence: some few, indeed, charged threepence but the price was no argument of respectability, one or two of the best conducted keeping to one penny, with which they originally started. The Standard, in Vauxhall Bridge-road, the Fox and Bull, at Knightsbridge, the Swan at Hungerford Market, and the Spread Eagle, in Kingsland-road, all charged threepence admission, and the two former adhered most despotically to one annoying announcement, "No servants admitted in livery!" Such a rule, it may be conceived, could but be offensive in those neighbourhoods where plush and powder "most did congregate;" so, to soften it down as much as possible, dress-coats were held in reserve by the proprietors, which were kindly lent in exchange for the livery ones quietly laid aside in the bar-parlour, and John and Thomas were thus enabled to escort Mary Jane or Jemima to the realms of harmony upstairs in full evening dress. What was the reason of this restriction no one could learn, for at the same time another establishments, the St. James's Saloon, in Swallow-street, cordially received the proscribed class, and during the opera season at Her Majesty's, it was nothing uncommon to see in its concert-room fifty or sixty servants, in full livery, whiling away the interval between "setting down" and "taking up" their masters and mistresses at the theatre. The Nag's Head in Oxford-street, was also much patronised by servants; the "knights of the whip" doubling in number the "gentleman of the cane" in that quarter.
    In addition to the hard-handed vocalists we have spoken of, there occasionally appeared a species of professional parasite, whose origin was a mystery to all : such a one was "Mr. Wilson, extemporaneous singer," or "Tub-thumping Wilson," as he was more generally called. He was one of those unblushing specimens of humanity who, however, brow-beaten and buffeted, can never realise the fact that their presence is not wanted : he was a smug-looking man of about five feet six, and combined in his half-prim, half-dirty exterior the seedy copying-clerk merging into the fourth-rate mute, or vice versa. His stock in trade consisted of two love ballads, which he warbled in a finicking style, an "extemporaneous" song, copies of which he would sell, with instructions for its adaptation to any company; he also carried papers of blacking and packets of tea, which he sold in the rooms between the songs when opportunity offered; and as a climax to all this, he held forth on Sundays as street preacher in the pens of Smithfield, and it was in special recognition of this last practice that he had acquired the cognomen of Tub-thumping Wilson.
    No matter in what part of London a benefit concert was announced, Mr. Wilson was bound to turn up, and watching his opportunity - for no one would "put him on" if they could help it - perhaps in the absence of some one announced in the bill, he would force himself before the public, and on leaving the platform commence hawking his tea and blacking amongst the audience. Mr. W. always had a benefit coming, and if the party solicited to purchase a ticket of him was unluckily leaving town, he would kindly inquire the date of their probable return …
    . . . In 1839 and 1840, many gross attacks on private character appeared in a certain scurrilous periodical, amongst whose victims were persons well-known and respect in public and private life, its chief mark being concert-room singers. Meetings for suppressing this nuisance were held … a fund being raised for prosecuting the proprietor [of the periodical]. … On the suppression of the paper the [legal] action was withdrawn, and the balance of the fund raised for its prosecution was given as a nucleus for the Harmonic Benevolent Society, none but persons employed in the concert-rooms being admitted as members. Mr. Willy was its first chairman, and during its twenty years duration some hundreds of pounds were dispensed in relieving the sickness, and providing for the funerals of its members. . . . the society was dissolved in 1860, through want of funds, and the money in hand divided amongst its remaining members. … At the old concert-rooms of a higher order, such as Evan's, the Coal Hole, Offley's, and the Cider Cellars, the singing was always unaccompanied by music, and the first attempt to introduce a piano at Evans's created quite a revolution among the old habitués, though its use in filling up interval with lively music was soon admitted. Gentleman amateurs at all these places, struck in now and then with favourite songs, and even the professionals mingled with the general audience.
    The original entertainment at Evan's was exceedingly primitive; Mr. Evans sat in the chair, surrounded by a few of his most staunch supporters, occasionally obliging them with his favourite song, the Pope he leads a Happy Life; Messrs. Matthews, James and Bailey, the glee singers, sat a little below him on the left; Tom Martin, the comic singer, was among the visitors at the centre table; and Charles Sloman, the celebrated English improvisatore, and Herr Von Joel, the wondrous imitator of the feathered race, were seated in different parts of the comfortable old room, ready to respond when called upon; the whole thing being as unprofessional as can be imagined. No charge was made for admission - no persons were admitted unless suitably attired - no money was taken for anything supplied until you were coming away, and his must have been, indeed, a clear intellect that could keep pace with, or dispute the reckoning of the head-waiter, who stood sternly at the door, and announced the sum total to those departing.
    Whether the modern music-hall, with its gilt and colours, is any real improvement on those old public-house haunts, it is difficult to say. There is less open grossness, it is true, and less drinking; but the songs, if not so objectionable, are, for the most part, very foolish and inane, and the dangerous gymnastic feats and second-rate dancing, which now-a-days occupy such prominent places in the music-hall programme, are neither amusing nor edifying. However that may be, it is certain that the old-fashioned concert-room is gone, never to return.

All the Year Round, Dec. 20th, 1873

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