Victorian London - Entertainment and Recreation - Theatre and Shows - Music Hall - Halls - South London Music Hall

LIFE IN LONDON - PAST AND PRESENT

VI. PRESENT : AT THE SOUTH LONDON MUSIC HALL

    Mr. Dodder draws the line at music halls, and the cousin of the Mikado (no thanks to him) follows his mentor's example. Shimadzu would have been only too glad to have spent an evening in a cave of harmony, but Mr. D.'s prohibition was irrevocable, and therefore the native of Japan had to be left at home. Mr Dodder's personal experience of music halls is limited. No part of his hot rebellious youth was spent in the Coal Hole or the Cider Cellars. A vocalist in his sallet days, the touching ballad of "Sam Hall" was not included in his repertory. He knew neither Mr Penniket nor Mr Ross. He never attended a cock-and-hen club, but "he has heard." He has listened to the voice of tradition. It is surmised that once upon a time somebody came to him and said that somebody else had somewhere read in an old newspaper (presumably in the Law Times) a biographical sketch of the late Chief Baron Nicholson; and so Mr Dodder draws the line at music halls. It is curious that a man who is so catholic on the subject of popular preachers - devouring with equal relish a rough roti (with sauce piquante) at the Hall of Science, and a mysterious soufflé at South-place, Finsbury-pavement - should be so narrow on the subject of music halls; yet such is the case. Our preliminary chat about the caves of harmony of the past had to be dispensed with. We were prevented from comparing notes about Charles Sloman and Paddy Green. Even dropping in at the Gaiety or at Rockley's en route, on the chance of meeting with Phil Benjamin, the last of his race, and recalling the time when his voice was the finest in Judea, Braham's excepted, was out of the question. Mr   Benjamin's opinions of the improvisatory powers of the late Mr Sloman, and of the late Mr Sloman's ballad "No more shall the children of Judah sing the lays of a happier time," would at least have been interesting to Mr Dodder, whatever he might have thought of Mr Benjamin's reminiscences of such heroes as Deaf Burke, Tom Spring, and Dutch Sam.
    The Doctor pleaded a prior engagement. He was pledged to lecture at a place called Renton in Caledonia on "Border Musings; or, Moonlight by the Marge," otherwise he would have joined the party. With the exception of travelling on a Scotch railway at an advanced period of a winter's night, there is nothing the Doctor enjoys more than a tranquil hour or two in a cave of harmony. As Mr Norfolk Broad was gone to Hastings, and the member for Bow-street was dining with the Lord Mayor, the London representative of the Gaulois was invited together with his friend the Antipodean, and a box secured in advance at the Palace of South London on the Surrey side of the Thames.
        Look always on the Surrey side
            For true dramatic art,
        The road is long - the river wide -
            But frequent 'buses start
        From Charing Cross and Gracechurch-street
            (An inexpensive ride);
        So, if you want an evening's treat,
            O, seek the Surrey side.
    The way is not long from the corner of Wellington-street, and now that the bridge toll is abolished the ride is inexpensive - in a cab. Monsieur - who is a sporting Monsieur, and who remembers the Oxford when horses and rowing men were backed there, and the place was wont to be darkly mentioned in the daily papers as "a certain well-known resort" suggests an evening with Mr Jennings. The Settler - who was in England when the Canterbury was trying to grow into a picture gallery - would prefer a visit to that resort. He has slept the sleep of Rip Van Winkle. On different grounds each would have been overruled, even if Mr Henry Ulph the younger had not provided us with the royallest box in his Royal Palace of Harmony in the London-road.
    Roughly speaking, the road itself may be said to be bounded on the south by the Elephant and Castle, and on the north by the obelisk, the Blind Asylum, Bedlam and the Surrey Theatre. It is a densely-populated thoroughfare, and is honeycombed with tributary courts, alleys and streets, certain dwellers in which have a patron saint called Nicholas. Costermongery flourishes in the London-road, and nearly all the year round oysters are bedded there. These, however, are for the most part not native and to the manner born. The odour of violets is known to the wayfarers and also that of friend fish. At night time the latter vanquishes every rival. The language spoken in the London-road by the Aborigines is racy of the pavement, which it in some respects resembles.  Architecturally the exterior of the South London Palace is, at any rate, in relation to its surroundings - palatial. Scarcely as imposing at Mr Spurgeon's Tabernacle, or as considerable as Mr Newman Hall's church, buildings that proudly rear their heads in the vicinity, the Palace is quite as important a feature in the landscape, and as fruitful a source of revenue to hackney carriages, tramcars, and 'buses. Indeed, the South London is as conspicuous a landmark to the driver of a showful or a growler, as is the Oxford, the Holborn, the Duke's - that is to say, the Troc, the Duke's is "old style" - the hall over which French-polished Edwin, handsomest scion of the ducal house of Buckingham, holds suave but puritanic sway, the Gaiety or the Cri. In the friendliest possible business association with the late Mr Poole, another native of Eastern Britain, Mr H. Ulph, father of the present youthful manager, saw the property grow in attractiveness and stability, and it may fairly be said that, in enterprise, the son follows in the father's footsteps. This is unquestionably one of the best conducted music halls in the metropolis.
    The responsible person who plays  the part of the dagger which Macbeth imagined he saw impresses Monsieur immensely. He whispers "Proprietor?" I reply with a Lord Burleigh gesture, neither a nod nor a shake of the head, and Monsieur makes a note of the back of an envelope. Depend upon it the readers of the Gaulois will be informed that their representative was marshalled to the royallest box of the South London Royal Palace by the courteous proprietor. The Settler says nothing. His cue is to know without asking. The hall will probably hold about 3,000 persons. It is handsomely proportioned, with a spacious gallery extending around three of its sides, and terminating near the stage, in the usual fashion, with boxes. The stage itself is ample, and so is the scenery. The latter includes a Flemish market square - "than which," as dear old Nicholas would have said, no place could be more appropriate for singing English music-hall songs (ask Cooke's tourists) - and  a British interior furnished, by the painter, in a manner calculated to give Mr Oscar Wilde fits. The poet of lilies and languors and La Langtry should be allowed an opportunity of gloating over that resplendent interior. Then he might be removed to the nearest hospital.
    We had scarcely been bestowed in our box b the paternal "sidesman" of the establishment when Monsieur produced a pencil and a cigarette, and proceeded to take notes. Who was that? Ah, who, indeed! That, Monsieur Gaulois, is the chairman - le presidong, comprenay voo, une! (This is something like what the Settler said.) Yes, yes, yes, but who? The "who" had scarcely left the mobile lips of the questioners than there arose "a cry that (probably) shivered to the tingling stars." It came from the gallery. It was the cry of a youth of tender years, and it said - 
    "WAKE UP, BOB ! ! ! "
    The chairman betrayed by a gesture which accompanied the act of raising a goblet to his lips that it was he who was meant, that (to quote a familiar formula known to the readers of the second column of The Times) he answered to the name of Bob. Thomas Hood's lines flashed across one's memory.
        In spite of his page's hat and hose,
            His page's jacket, and buttons in rows,
        Bob only sounds like a page of prose,
            Till turn'd into Rupertino.
    Bob, indeed! It ought to be Rupertino. It is a striking figure that fills the field of one's glass as, by that means, a nearer acquaintance is scraped with Rupertino. His age is a mystery, but he is believed to be rising twenty-one. Now, is not the belief fallacious? Twenty-five is probably nearer the mark. His air is youthful, almost juvenile, and his abundant hair is as black as the wing of a many-wintered crow, but there is a repose about him which more indicative of the latter than the former age. And yet he might have flourished during the later Regency days. He wears his rood or two of shirt-front, as one might fancy Beau Brummel wore his voluminous neckcloth. As he wears it and its corinthian embellishments he, so to speak, insists upon it. He seems to say, "Behold my bosom!" Rupertino is a fixture at the South London. In any impossible and not-to-be-thought-of transfer of the property he would be included amongst the plant, and take over along with the pipe by means of which he communicates with the stage. He is the most accommodating chairman in the world. He can be backed to discharge his functions with punctuality and despatch on a mixture of Pomery Greno, bottled stout, Old Tom, the dew off Ben Nevis, sherry, zoe-done, and ginger wine. In business he is clockwork.
    Mr Ulph, the younger, whose naturally interesting astronomical studies occasionally keep him from the South London until the performance is well under way, looks in and expresses a hope that we are comfortable. We are. Monsieur having completed his observations of the domain over which Rupertino and the chef d'orchestre conjointly preside, turns his attention to the stage. Mr Ulph who, as beseemeth a gentleman in his position, is resplendently hatted - they all are - is good enough to remind me that I shall meet some of my old friends. Well, yes, some. The drama has taken temporary possession of many of the stars of the music hall. As the Settler observes to Monsieur if you want to hear the Great Vance, you must go to Her Majesty's. If you wish to split your sides with laughter at Herbert Campbell, Arthur Roberts and Jemmy Fawn you must visit Drury Lane, if you- 
    "Tell me," interrupts Monsieur, before you go any farther, what do you mean by the Great Vance? Is there a little Vance?" As far as the Settler knew there was not. He was the Great Vance just as Macdermott was the Great Macdermott and - 
    "Tell me," again interrupted Monsieur, "why the Great Macdermott? Is there -"
    The Antipodean lost his temper. He wanted to ask a question. Why the Great Napoleon? "Because," replied Monsieur gravely, "there was a little Napoleon." Rejoining that he was not there for the purpose of answering conundrums, the Settler turned his attention to the stage, and Monsieur followed his example.
     On the occasion of a former visit to the Palace of South London, in company with Mr Norfolk Broad, the member for Bow-street, and the Doctor, we interviewed a pleasant dwarf, whose head was not twice the size of his body, and we had the honour of shaking hands with two gentlemen of colour. The dwarf has disappeared from the bill, and with him that Tyrolese Giant with the shaky pins. The two gentlemen of colour remani. On the same occasion we met with a person of abnormal intelligence, who made an observation we shall never forget as long as we live. Speaking with intense solemnity, he said, "I have said it before, and I say it again without fear of contradiction, there is only one George Leybourne." He was right.
    It is with difficulty the Settler is restrained from leaping on the stage and offering Miss Bessie Belwood his hand and prospects, there and then. But she is married already, man (is she? I do not know; I said it to abolish him). He did not care. At length "Oh Clara!" came to an end, and the attractive young lady, who knew her way about, retired from the stage amid torrents of applause. It then, but not till then, became possible to restrain the Antipodean.
    Monsieur is more cautious. His devotion to Ethel Victor and Bonnie Kate Harvey is evidently as intense as that of the Settler to Bessie Belwood, but is is more diplomatic. It takes shape in vocalism of a fearfully vehement character, and in applause such as was never heard in that hall before. If Monsieur had foreseen the rapture in  store for him he would have assuredly lingered at the West End of the Avenue in Covent Garden and wasted his substance in riotous bouquets. As it was he laid at the shrine of beauty and song, two shrines in fact, a pair of tattered dog-skin gloves and two palms pounded into a jelly . That was his business; but when the Colonist and Monsieur began to hum one against the other scraps of the songs they had heard, it became miserably mine. "Riah!" "I'll smack you in the eye!" "We are what they call the propah sort, exceedingly propah!" "Would you like to tease me, would you like to please me, would you like to kiss me if you only knew the w'y?" with other scraps of song, dinned in one's ears when they were not being entranced by the Great Macdermott and Fred Albert made existence in that box a burden.
    The chorus at the South London Music Hall is an institution. In what manner is has reached its present importance and precision we are left to conjecture. Monsieur shakes his head - which, be it remembered, is Parisian - and observes mysteriously "Don't tell him." The Settler shakes his head, which is colonial, and echoes Monsieur in the Irish manner with "Ah, yes, to be sure." However, there it is, one of the most remarkable parts of the performance. Harsh enough and strong enough to lift the roof off, but as precise as though it were a band of cordwainers singing "Bradlaugh for Northampton" through the streets of that beautiful borough, or General Booth's crack corps making the City-road lively with "If you can't get in at the Golden Gate climb over the Garden Wall." At apparently fixed times a boy's treble, wonderfully shrill and piercing, leads the chorus, or a piano passage therein is executed by the female portion of "the choir." There is surely an understanding between the stars and their satellites. When the head of the great Macdermott ceases to waggle and his gibus is at rest, at the end of an immortal stanza, the strain is taken up with startling vigour, and - "CHORUS!" The choruses to Mr Fred Albert's extremely knowing comments on the events of the day are not so massive as those with which Mr Macdermott and his choir make the hall vibrate. Perhaps it is because there is more intellect in them. Singing about your dear old pals, with their old familiar faces, while it is an exercise which is calculated to soothe the soul and force a furtive tear into the eye of the horny handed son of toil, is less a tax on the brain than helping Mr Fred Albert to train up the world in the way it should go. Mr Albert warbles social leaders.
    Three marvellous acrobats, whose performance, wonderful as it is, can be witnessed with pleasure - that is to say, without the fear of having to bear witness at a coroner's inquest - two gentlemen of colour (natural), another gentleman of colour (acquired), and Pat Feeney, the Shaughraun of the music halls, make the moments flow with unflagging spirit. Pat is delightful. He is a first rate actor, and his humour is irrestistible. That, however, might be said of an inferior artist, but one may say of his rapidly changed impersonations that each of them is a distinctly individualised sketch, such as a Lover or Lever might have suggested, and a Boucicault realised. He sings with rare feeling and emotion; in fact, as I have said, it matters not whether the string he plays upon be grave or gay, he is delightful. A duet by the gentlemen of colour, whose performance, with voice and banjo, is throughout of a refined character, takes the colonist and Monsieur captive. They forget for the time the scraps of melody they have been humming and break out into an original description of their happiness, "When the sun goes down." The other gentleman of colour (acquired) is to be complimented on the amount of fresh fun he gets out of old materials.
    Big Ben had proclaimed the wee short hour ayont the twal when a chariot on four wheels might have been seen in the direction of - well, say Tyburnia. From the interior of the vehicle there came sounds of Wagnerian discord. It was a three-part song, arranged, as regarded words and music, on independent principles. A curious listener might have heard, mingling with the plaintive "Sun goes down," the tender "Would you like to squeeze me," and the warlike "I'll smack you in the eye." That party in that chariot had been at the Palace in the London-road.

Bell's Life in London and Sporting Chronicle, 1883