Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Some Habits and Customs of the Working Classes, by Thomas Wright, 1867 - Part 2 - Work and Play - About Penny Readings

[-back to main menu-]



FEW persons who have had the pleasure of witnessing a performance of that charming and most pathetic little drama "My Poll and my Partner Joe," will fail to remember the amusing character of the old cobbler nicknamed "The Bishop of Battersea," and his cry of "Hear me preach! hear me preach," with which, when in his cups, he breaks in upon all kinds of conversation. As it is a really life-like drama, and appeals to the hearts, and enlists the sympathies of an audience, My Poll and my Partner Joe has of course been sensationed off the stage, and it is now several years since I last saw it performed, but still I never hear any person volunteering a display of their pet accomplishment, without being reminded of the Bishop of Battersea, and his "Hear me preach." I meet the bishop, so to speak, under a great variety of aspects. Thus when my friend Crotchet, the able organizer and leader of our workshop band, who, since he composed what by courtesy was called the music to the "inaugural ode," which was sung at the opening of the Boughtborough National Schools, openly expresses his opinion that iBalfe is an over-rated man,-when Crotchet, I say, takes me by the arm, and begins to whistle into my devoted and outraged ear a farrago of discordant notes, and at the conclusion of the performance gives me the unnecessary information that it is "a bit of his own," I, in imagination, see the Bishop of Battersea emptying his can of drink, and rising to his feet, and hear him exclaiming, "Hear me preach." Again I am [-169-] reminded of the bishop, when Jones, the retired grocer, who is the parochial potentate of our neighbourhood, informs me, after any public meeting of the parishioners, that he flatters himself that he has made an example of that fellow Biggins - that fellow Biggins being an irrepressible dissenter, who had immortalized himself in the estimation of the dissenters of Boughtborough, by allowing a portion of his household goods to be seized, rather than pay a church-rate of half-a-crown, and afterwards placarding the walls of the town with the text, "I hate robbery for a burnt offering," and who it is notorious is too much in the matter of argument for the self-complacent Jones. And if my friends adopted the Bishop of Battersea criterion, I have no doubt they would be reminded of that personage, when I invite them to hear me recite a few of the most telling speeches from my original blank-verse drama, which I am convinced would sweep sensationalism from the stage, if I could only find a manager sensible enough to bring it out.
    Now when my energetic old friend Smith, president of the Boughtborough Histrionic Club, chairman of the local Mechanics' Institution, and the great promoter of all intellectual amusements in the borough, established the Penny Readings, and subsequently saluted me whenever we met, with, "You should come and hear me read," I, while replying, "I shall come and hear you some of these odd times," mentally put it down as another case of Bishop of Batterseaism. But as I began to hear upon all hands that the Penny Readings were "jolly things," and were "drawing immensely," I determined to attend one of the Boughtborough Penny Readings to hear my friend Smith read. Accordingly one Saturday night I wended my way to the Boughtborough music ball, a little before eight o'clock, at [-170-] which hour the doors of the hall were to be opened. The hall was capable of holding fifteen hundred persons, and when I arrived in front of it, there was, so far as I was able to judge, more than that number of persons waiting outside. Seeing that this was the case, I joined actively in the rush that took place immediately the doors were opened, and after several times asking and being asked those stock questions of a rush, Where are you pushing to? and Who are you "scrouging?" I succeeded in getting in and securing a seat, and had reason to consider myself fortunate in doing so, as every inch of available space in the hall was taken up, while there were still many of the more timid members of the original crowd outside. The hall having filled so rapidly, the audience were left to their own devices during a great part of the half-hour that was to elapse before the commencement of the entertainments. Those who had come together, and in the crush were not divided, entered into conversations, which, owing to the shuffling of feet and other noises arising from the movements of a crowded audience settling themselves in their seats, had to be carried on in so loud a tone that they reached other ears than those for which they were exclusively intended. Thus a lady who was seated on the bench before me informed a gentleman, I presume her husband, that it was a good job she had not put her steel crinoline on that evening, as it must certainly have been broken, and then began to explain the various merits and demerits of steel, whalebone, and cane crinolines in general; two gentlemen behind me discussed the civil war at that time raging in America, and speedily arrived at the conclusion that they could have conducted the affairs of that then distracted country in a much abler manner [-171-] than President Lincoln and his cabinet; while two silver-voiced young ladies beside me descanted upon the merits of "Lady Audley's Secret," and a number of other novels of the same class, in a manner that was at once rapturous and slangy. All these people were probably in blissful ignorance of the fact that their observations were heard as plainly by me and others in surrounding seats as they were by the parties to whom they were especially addressed. At least I hope that it was so in the case of the novel-reading young ladies. "Oh, talking of books, Bella," said she who was seated nearest to me, "have you ever read Shakspeare ?" "Well, not exactly," said Bella; "but my brother has it. "Have you any idea what sort of a book it is?" asked the first speaker. "Well," said Bella, speaking slowly, and in a doubtful tone, " it's a very nice book, and full of beautiful plates." "Oh, I don't mean that: what's it about?" "It's about a good many things, I think," said Bella. And then, seeing that her friend was going to continue her questioning, she got rid of the subject by cleverly adding, "but I'll lend it you some day, and then you'll see."
    Those of the audience who had no one with whom to enter into conversation, and of this section I was one, fell to consulting the programme of the evening's entertainments, which was as follows:-
    Pianoforte Solo Mr. Crotchet.
    Reading -" The Trial Scene from the Merchant of Venice Mr. O. Rater (Shakspeare) 
    Song "The Gleaner" Mr. D. Robinson
    Recitation "The Combat" from The Lady of the Lake Mr. S. Poulter. (Sir Walter Scott.)
Flute Solo Airs from "The Rose of Castile".. Mr. Potts.
Reading  "Mr. Pickwick and the Lady with Yellow Curl Papers" Mr. Smith.  (Dickens.)
[-172-] Glee "Hail, Smiling Mona"  Members of the Boughtborough Glee Union.
    Recitation "Lord Tom Noddy"  Mr. Brown. (Barham.)
Song  "Madoline" Miss Arline Crotchet.
    Reading "The Rioters at the Maypole" Mr. Tomkins. (Dickens.)
Part Song "The Red Cross Knight" Members of the Boughtborough Glee Union.
    Precisely at eight o'clock, the chairman for the evening, who was no less a person than the proprietor and editor of the Boughtborough Chronicle, was introduced, and after he had made a few of the usual formal observations respecting his pride and pleasure at being called upon to preside over so numerous and respectable an audience, the entertainments of the evening commenced with Crotchet's performance of the pianoforte solo set down for him. As Crotchet was a really good pianist, and did not upon this occasion play "a bit of my own," but part of the overture to "Don Giovanni," his performance richly deserved the plaudits with which it was rewarded. Miss Crotchet's song was a greater success than even her father's solo, and there was an O. P. row upon a small scale in attempting to obtain a repetition of it; but upon this point the chairman was as inexorable as our programmes, which informed us, in capital letters, that no encores would be allowed. The singing of the glee union was, likewise, a decided success. The readings and recitations, though not so uniformly effective as the musical part of the programme, were, upon the whole, of a highly pleasing character, as none of them were badly given; while some of them were delivered with no inconsiderable degree of dramatic ability. [-173-] The scene from the Merchant of Venice was given in a tolerably good style, but I am afraid it scarcely conveyed a just idea of the genius of Shakspeare to the minds of the young ladies whose conversation I had been compelled to overhear, although they listened to it with commendable earnestness. At the conclusion of it, "Bella" merely remarked that Shylock was a "savage old beast," who would have been transported had he lived in England; while her companion made an observation to the effect that Portia's proceedings in enacting the part of the Doctor of Law was "just the sort of thing she would have been up to."
    But the great feature of the evening was Smith's reading-the reading to hear which was the chief cause of my being present upon that occasion. The announcement that the next reading would be by Mr. Smith was received by a tremendous burst of cheering, and cries from the habitu?es of the readings of "Pickwick! Pickwick!" a name which it appeared they had bestowed upon Smith in token of their admiration of the series of readings descriptive of the adventures of that immortal hero which he had given. And as he came upon the platform, his stout comfortable figure, and broad good-humoured face - although such an idea had never occurred to me before - now seemed to me to be the perfect realization of Pickwick in the flesh; and when he had adjusted his gold-mounted spectacles, I involuntarily began to try and select a representative-Sam Weller, or at least a Mr. Snodgrass-from among the gentlemen assembled on the platform, and felt quite disappointed at not being able to do so. Smith happily proved to be one of those scarce personages - a really good reader; and throughout his reading successfully maintained the illusion which his appearance had created, and kept his [-174-] audience in almost continual "roars of laughter." Even his cough, when he was supposed to be hidden behind the bed curtains, had "method in it," and conveyed to those who heard it, as plainly as words could have done, the mingled feeling of horror, and a desire to explain and apologize, which a stout, respectable, middle-aged "party" would naturally be supposed to experience on finding himself in a bed-room with a lady in yellow curl-papers. At the conclusion of the reading I joined heartily in the tumultuous applause which was so deservedly bestowed upon Smith.
    From that hour I became an ardent admirer of penny readings. In the course of the pilgrimages which in the pursuit of my profession I am compelled to take, I have attended them in all parts of England, and more especially in the manufacturing districts, and I am glad to find that they are exceedingly popular all over the country. Of the many plans that have been devised for providing the working classes with that amusement of which, it is admitted upon all hands, they stand in need, the penny readings, considered upon the principle of judging a tree by its fruits, are the best. The many thousands of working men and boys who frequent them give unmistakable evidence of their appreciation of them; and, apart from this consideration, I know, from constantly mingling with the working men of the densely populated manufacturing towns, that the penny readings are immensely popular with them. The low price of admission to, and the intrinsic merits of the various performances to be witnessed at these entertainments are, of course, their chief attraction; but I find that among working men the fact that there is no parade of special or pecuniary patronage of their class connected with them (the readings) is, also, a great attraction; [-175-] and this seems to be understood by the managers of the majority of the readings, as they are careful to notify in their bills that there are "No Reserved Seats." In an opera-house, theatre, or concert-room, where all ranks of society attend, and where "the talent" is paid for, and the amusements are a speculation upon the part of the "enterprising lessee" who provides them, reserved seats and graduated scales of payment are imperative necessities; but in connexion with penny readings reserved seats are a mistake, as there is no pecuniary necessity for their institution, and they are in antagonism to the social spirit in which the readings were first conceived. In some few cases, where the penny readings have been unfortunate enough to fall into the hands of some petty speculator, or in small towns, which cheap gentility would fain have marked for its own, the name of the readings has been changed from the Penny to the Popular, and the price of admission raised to three-pence to all parts of the house; but the immediate and decided falling off in the attendance that has ensued in consequence of such proceedings, has, in all cases of the kind that have come within my ken, speedily "put down" this movement, and brought the price to the legitimate penny.
    Independently of the attraction which lies in their cheapness, and the absence from them of oppressive patronage, the "Penny Readings" are peculiarly well calculated to draw large audiences of all classes of working-men, save that now fast decreasing section of them whose only amusement is to he found in the pot- house. Thanks to the vastness and variety of English literature, age cannot wither, or custom stale the infinite variety of the selections which may be given at these readings; and the amateur musician has a [-176-] world before him where to choose, almost as varied. 
    The person who does not hear something to please him at a penny reading must have a very exclusive taste indeed; but if it should happen that only some one or two pieces out of a programme of ten or a dozen should be to the taste of some peculiarly fastidious hearer, he will still have the consolation of feeling-unless he is utterly unconscionable-that the one or two pieces are "worth all the money." At these readings the really "intelligent artisan" may get a taste of the great authors of whom he has heard, but whose works he has no opportunity of reading, and may listen once more to the beauties of the authors whom he has already read and admired; while the great unread may, in a body, and while sitting at their ease, listen to the wit and wisdom that have already charmed many generations of readers. Those whose knowledge of Shakspeare has been limited to the witnessing of a performance of a mutilated "acting edition" of some two or three of the most popular tragedies, may at a penny reading learn that his works contain manifold beauties which never appear on the stage. They may, if their imaginations be made of penetrable stuff, while in a crowded gas-lit hall, in a busy city, and on a dull, dreary mid-winter night, indulge in a Midsummer Night's Dream, as they listen to the glorious description of the moonlight revels of Titania and her fairy train. Or if they have any appreciation of genuine comedy, they may enjoy a hearty laugh over the humours of the scene in which Falstaff utters his memorable bragging tirade against "all cowards," and learn, by the way, from the fat knight's exclamation, "You rogue, there's lime in this sack," that even in his day publicans were suspected of "doctoring" [-177-] their drinks. In the course of the evening the audience of a penny reading may listen to the beauties of Shakspeare and Tennyson, may have presented to their mind's eye, by means of the glowing language of that greatest of all historical word-painters- Macaulay, some graphic picture of the life of a past time, may admire the mingled humour and pathos of Hood and Dickens, the polished wit of Sheridan, and the manly humbug-smashing, but still truly humorous satire of Thackeray. But while the readings are, as I have already intimated, of a widely diversified character, there are about a dozen favourite pieces, some one or more of which you are almost certain to hear at any reading you may chance to go to. These are, in serious poetry - Tennyson's "Charge of the Six Hundred," Walter Scott's "Death of Marmion," Professor Aytoun's "Execution of Montrose," Hood's "Eugene Aram's Dream," and "The Eve of the Battle," from Byron's "Childe Harold;" in comic or serio-comic verse - Barham's "Lord Tom Noddy," Hood's "Mary's Ghost, and Thackeray's "Jeames of Buckley Square" (in conjunction with which latter piece, the " indignation letter," in which the outraged Jeames repudiates the aspersions cast upon his character in the ballad, is in some instances read) ; in prose, the famous trial of Bardell versus Pickwick, and some one of the "Candle Lectures," Sala's "Accepted Addresses," and latterly of the Artemus Ward " Letters," and " Brown Papers." The capabilities of those who give their services at these readings are, of course, of various orders of merit. Connected with those readings that have been established for any considerable length of time, there are generally a few really good readers, who can always be relied upon to please the audience. Managers usually secure the services of one or more [-178-] of these established favourites for each evening, and the other performers can generally read in a sufficiently effective style to convey the true sense of what they read to their hearers (and even this is an accomplishment by no means so common as could be wished). Occasionally, however, some rash being, whose ambition has o'erleaped itself, and landed him upon a public platform, goes through what he has undertaken to do in a droning, sing-song manner, that irresistibly reminds you of the "twice one are two-oo-oo" style, in which the scholars of a National infant-school chant the multiplication table; while others roar and rant until sense is murdered. The favourite pieces which I have named above serve admirably to show how really great and valuable an art is that of being able to read or declaim well. At these penny readings I have heard such spirit-stirring pieces as " The Charge of the Six Hundred," "The Death of Marmion," and "The Eve of the Battle," read by some men without making the slightest impression upon the audience; while, when delivered by "other and better men," the same pieces have roused the hearers to the utmost enthusiasm. You could then see by the restless movements and flushed cheeks of those around you, that they felt "some far-off touch" of the spirit that had animated the breasts of "the six hundred;" you could tell, by the changes of attitude and sparkling eyes, that they felt "the situation," when they heard how, upon hearing of the terrible death of Constance de Beverley, the mortally wounded Lord Marmion
    " Started from the ground
    As light as if lie felt no wound,"
and again, when
    "With dying hand above his head,
    He shook the fragment of his blade,
    And shouted VICTORY."
[-179-] Nor is it in the delivery of poetry alone that the differing effects of good and bad reading are so strikingly manifest, as by dint of very bad reading it is possible to dim the brilliancy of such gems as the trial of Bardell versus Pickwick, and Jeames's letter anent the ballad "Jeames of Buckley Square."
    The pieces given at a penny reading should as a rule be of a light and popular character. Rhymed verse of a dramatic or narrative kind seems to "take" best, and after that comic or satiric prose gives the most satisfaction; but poetic prose, or purely picturesque or philosophic blank verse, as yet finds little favour in the ears of the penny-beaded multitude. I have frequently heard compositions of that class, even when given by good readers, coughed down, and always listened to impatiently.
    But the readings given at these entertainments are only part of the evening's amusements: vocal and instrumental music now invariably form a considerable portion of the programme, and in this department more uniform excellence of execution is obtainable than in the reading. For moderately good, or at least mechanically accurate, amateur pianists, and performers upon the flute and cornet-a-piston, willing and anxious to discourse sweet music to their fellow-townsmen, are always to be found in abundance, and the glee and other musical associations now established in almost every town and village in England, furnish trained singers of fair ability. And it is pleasant to see that such fine old songs as "My Pretty Jane," "The Death of Nelson," and "Tom Bowling, find greater favour than the so-called comic songs of the modern music halls, or the equally senseless namby-pamby ballads that obtain in modern drawing-rooms.
    As is the case with all sublunary institutions, penny [-180-] readings have their little drawbacks. For instance, I think that the practice of occasionally coughing or stamping down a bad reader, or dry piece, is neither courteous nor fair, for it should be remembered that those who appear upon any penny reading stage are amateurs, are giving their services gratuitously, and have in all probability come forward at the solicitation of the managers. Coming before the public under such circumstances, it must be particularly hurtful to their feelings if either themselves or the pieces they have selected for reading are clamoured down. Such clamorous disapprobation is the more unseemly as it is altogether unnecessary, since by withholding the usual round of applause at the end of the reading, the audience would sufficiently indicate their feeling upon the matter, and at the same time be showing a juster sense of what was due to themselves and the gentlemen who take the trouble of organizing and conducting the entertainments. The matter most generally to be deplored, however, in connexion with penny readings is, that a number of cads - poverty-stricken puppies of the "jolly dogs" class - will come to them, and when there, persistently annoy the performers and disturb the respectable portion of the audience, without respect to persons, or the good or bad qualities of the entertainments. These nondescripts are would-be "swells ;" they are for the most part do-nothing fellows who sponge upon their relatives, and clerks and shopmen with incomes of from forty to seventy pounds a-year, the greater part of which income they spend in fashionable slop clothing. They are the objects who are to be met any evening, in twos and threes, like male "unfortunates," walking up and down the streets, that being their only way of spending their leisure time; for they are too foolish [-181-] and frivolous to occupy themselves in any intellectual pursuit, and too poor to "go into company." The extremely low price of admission to the penny readings, and the opportunity of displaying at them their cheap finery, have unfortunately attracted the attention of this, the most despicable section of snobdom, and these "respectably attired" persons manage to get in. They generally remain standing, and group themselves in a conspicuous position; and then, partially because it is their nature so to do, and partially in the hope of impressing the audience with the idea that it is simply for a lark that they have come there, they bawl out all kinds of senseless slang, under the impression that they are wittily "chaffing" the performers. The genuine swell is a being to be admired; the gracefulness of carriage almost inseparably associated with high breeding enables him to carry off his "get up" in a manner "that may become a man, and though even among the true swells there are black sheep, they are in the majority of instances, despite their affectations, good men. But your cheap imitation swell - the "gent" of the present generation - is an utterly despicable creature, fit only to be kicked.
    Although I have had a tolerably extensive experience among them, and have a large acquaintance with managers of them, I have only met with one instance of anything in the nature of opposition to these readings. But as this case gives an illustration of the manner in which intolerant, unreasoning, religious bigotry would interfere in secular matters, if it had the power or opportunity, I may be allowed to cite it. In a town that is a hundred miles, and considerably more, from London, and which in most things is as many years behind the times as it is miles distant from the metropolis, but to which a few intelligent and [-182-] liberal-minded men have found their way, there is a large hall, which was built by public subscription, but the management of which was unhappily invested in the hands of the chiefs of a band of preeminently fanatical teetotalers, who were also senseless bigots. A number of the "men of the time" established a weekly series of penny readings, and hired this hall as the place wherein to give them. The natives flocked to the readings in shoals, and for some five or six weeks all went well. But after that time a rumour became current in the town, that those who had the control of the hall were trying to put down the entertainments, and on the managers of the readings being put to the question on this point, they were obliged to confess that it was "an ower true tale." Those in whom the power of letting the hall was vested, the managers stated, had tried to put down the readings, by withdrawing the use of the hall. Finding that they could not do that until the quarter for which they had let it had expired, they had done all that they could under the circumstances-namely, given notice that they would not again let it for penny readings after the expiration of the three months. The cause of this opposition was not occasioned by any sacrilegious visitor to the readings having, after the manner of frequenters of theatre galleries, taken beer into this teetotally consecrated hall, or any bacchanalian vocalist having sung "The Good Rhine Wine," or "The Glorious Vintage of Champagne;" which might have been a comprehensible reason for their proceedings. The fact was that at one of the readings a clergyman of the town had read Shelley's beautiful little poem "The Cloud." Upon hearing this, the orthodox souls of the trustees were alarmed; the works of infidels, said they, were being read in their hall - a state of things which of course was [-183-] not to be tolerated; and so, with pious indignation at the desecration their hall had sustained, and sorrow for those misguided beings who had complacently listened to the infidel doctrines taught in "The Cloud" (for though ordinary minds may not he able to see anything save a piece of beautiful description in this poem, it must of course contain infidel doctrine, since Shelley wrote it), they rescued the hall from further contamination.
    That penny readings are one of the best institutions that have been yet established with a view of affording rational amusement for "the million," and that they have had, and are still exercising a most beneficial influence upon them, no person who is acquainted with the manners and customs of, and accustomed to mingling with the said million, can for a moment doubt. Their cheapness puts them within the reach of every working man, and in their variety, working men of almost every taste find something to suit them, and large numbers of working boys now attend them; who, were they not at the readings, would probably be at some disreputable "penny gaff," or roaming about the streets, getting into mischief, or perhaps, thanks to the pernicious "thieves' literature," which is at present ruining hundreds of boys, planning some scheme for becoming "boy house-breakers" or "boy highwaymen." Nor is the good effect of these entertainments limited to affording a passing hour's amusement, as in many cases within my own knowledge, working men whose reading, previous to the establishment of such amusements, had been confined to the trashiest of the halfpenny and penny serials, have, through attending these readings, been led to become readers of sound authors.

[-nb. grey numbers in brackets indicate page number, (ie. where new page begins), ed.-]