Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Tempted London : Young men, [Anon.], [c1889] - Chapter 9 - Music Halls

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WHAT may be called the night pleasures of London for young men are extremely scanty. They consist of the theatre, the dancing-room, and the music-hall. Search as we may, there is no other to be found. The growth of this biggest city in the world has resulted in the corresponding development of everything but its pleasures, which remain, mutatis mutandis, much as the t have been these last three hundred years. It seems strange, upon reflection, that all the inventive power that must have been brought into existence by the needs and desires of London should not have resulted in the discovery of some new "pleasures" for those who depend upon external aid for their amusements. At present if the young man wishes for recreation, he goes, as a matter of course, to one of these three places. He goes there because there k nowhere else for him to go, and because his own resources do not suffice for him. It is only begging the question to say that young men should stop at home and study; or play chess with their fathers, or adapt themselves to a domestic environment. If they would do so it would undoubtedly be less [-173-] expensive for them, and less fraught with future evil ; but they will not do so, and consequently we are bound to take cognizance of what is a natural disposition. Constituted as they are, young men, or at least most young men, break off all pretence of study directly they get their first place, regard chess with as much aversion as cold meat, and look upon musical evenings with their sisters as wasting time. As things stand youths will go to the theatre, and the music-hall, and the dance-room, and they go because these places are attractive to them. No quantity of argument will convince a young man that he does not like a music-hall if he does, but no one can doubt but that he would speedily forsake it for something that amused him more. The claim of the music-hall (to which we shall at present confine ourselves) to be regarded as the only place where a man cart enjoy himself free from restrictions of all kinds must be disproved before it can be disregarded, and the only way that it can be disproved is by providing something better and more attractive.
    Many well-meaning people, conscious that harm is done by an attendance at music-halls, endeavour to set young men against them by making all sorts of sweeping assertions which those who are conversant with the subject know to be unfounded; for the advisers of the young do not always seem to think it necessary to learn themselves before they essay to teach others. When an irritable father inveighs against the music-hall as the house of the devil, or when somebody else gives terrible instances of young men who have gone to the bad by attend-[-174-]ance at such places, the youth who goes once a fortnight. or at the most once a week, pays a shilling to enter, watches the performance through, and comes away feels that the indictment is too severe to be credible, and smiling inwardly at the excess of zeal, disregards and disobeys. " He must go somewhere for a change," he says; "where else is he to go?" That is a question that should have been answered long ago. Surely the inventive genius of the caterers for public amusement can devise something that shall be stimulating and recreative, and yet wholesome and harmless, The full amount of evil that is done by the music-hall is in no way fully understood by those who would amend it ; there is no great, particular, terrible blot upon it, but a number of little misleading ways and a crowd of unconsidered evils, which are, in combination no less hurtful in their results. Before they can be amended they must be understood, and the facts that we have been at some trouble to collect will, we hope, give a clear idea to all who are desirous to obtain it of the pernicious character of the music-hall and everything connected with it. Its atmosphere is replete with all that is noxious, demoralizing, debilitating, destructive of energy and intelligence, but the individual components of that atmosphere are so minute and apparently trivial that they are apt to seem almost harmless when isolated for inspection. It is therefore necessary, in estimating the effect upon the minds of the young of each component, to consider it in conjunction with the others that are virtually inseparable from it.
    The music-hall has this advantage over other [-175-] places of amusement in the eyes of the city youth: it is a place where he can smoke and drink - two very doubtful advantages but powerful attractions for him. Then he can talk with his companions without the trouble of missing some threads of the performance and having to catch them again. The performance itself does not overtax his intelligence, and he can, moreover, join in it himself at pleasure by helping to swell the choruses. Women abound, and he can solace himself by ogling and winking for the barrenness of  feminine society which is his usual daily lot. A description of one or two of these resorts will perhaps give a better idea of their objectionable character than any amount of generalization. We will speak presently of the half-dozen big halls, whose lavish decorations and gaudy discomforts do not attract the young men of the lower middle class so much as the smaller places which offer the attraction of additional liberties.
    For our first example we will take a hall that is situated in a side-street not far removed from the centre of theatrical enterprise. It is what is called a cheap hall; that is to say, the price of the best seats is about two shillings, and private boxes to hold four persons cost ten shillings. It is frequented by the ordinary crowd of music-hall goers, composed of young men employed in the city in various capacities, boys of the lower stamp with their sweethearts, shabby loafers who are always to be seen in these places at night, and shelter themselves in public-houses during the day, whose means of subsistence are alike mysterious and yet apparently plenteous, and who evince a certain amount of Oriental content [-176-] so long as they can smoke and observe the display of female loveliness. The performance commences at 8 o'clock, and at that time the sixpenny seats are full, the red coats of one or two soldiers relieving the dark mass from too sombre an appearance; the shilling seats are but sparsely occupied by some of the more respectable mechanic class, who are not sufficiently wise to know that the entertainment is not of a first-class character ; the two-shilling seats are empty. The chairman does not take up his position in the envied arm-chair with his back to the stage and his face to the audience, until fully ten minutes after 8 o'clock, during which time the orchestra has played through a jingling overture with much energy and less time. The chairman's table is empty, and the seats are understood to be engaged, for if any one attempts to seat himself thereat a waiter approaches and informs him "that all the seats at the chairman's table are taken.," The road to the chairman's good graces is through the bar, and if the intruder has only sufficient presence of mind to at once propose a "drink" he may count upon not being disturbed even although, as is frequently the case, the table is usually filed by the same people every night. The waiters are standing at the back of the shilling seats, where the glittering bar, presided over by two well-developed young women in tight black frocks and golden hair, in no way disconcerted at the blank appearance of the hall, and not yet bestirring themselves in the search for orders. The early orders are all for "bitters,"  the waiters contemptuously say, and the consumers "look sharp after their change"; and, as is well known, the most [-177-] conscientious of music-hall waiters care nothing for orders unless they are accompanied by tips.
    The hall is not a large one, and the seats on the floor are arranged something like the pews at a church, only that the ledges in front are intended for the support of pewter pots and glasses. In days gone by, before the music-hall had attained its present popularity, the floor used to be half-covered with chairs, and the other half with tables, and little parties used to be formed round them, which attended or not to the performance as they chose. But now space is too valuable for this, and the audience are just as crowded as in the pit of a theatre. The character of the entertainment has possibly undergone an improvement; but the level of music-hall singing has not been raised, and the lion comique, with his rouged nose, and loose coat, and pocket-handkerchief which he holds in his teeth at one end and swings backwards and forwards with his two hands at the other, is still to the fore. Perhaps he is less assertive and boisterous, more decent than of old, yet his loud, hoarse shout - which he hopes his audience will regard as a singing voice - and his winks and vulgar gestures are as objectionable as ever, The salaries earned by these persons are in some cases very large, and surpass even those of the regular actor. Quite second-rate performers, even according to the music-hall standard of excellence, get ?10 a week for singing three songs ever evening and as there are no restrictions upon them as to how many halls they may appear at in the same evening (except in certain cases of rival positions), they can easily earn from ?30 to ?40 a week.
    [-178-] As we have said, at ten minutes past eight the chairman, attired in evening dress of a pronounced Gatti-waiter character, his fingers supplied with big, fat rights, his hair well oiled and his face very shiny, raps smartly upon his table with his indispensable hammer, calling forth the obedient applause of the gallery occupants, rises abruptly to his feet, removes a big cigar from between his lips, and in loud and rolling tones exclaims, "Ladies and gentlemen, the celebrated and versatile Mr. Poppy John will appear first," and sits suddenly down and applauds his own announcement with his hammer. We have invented the name, which we hope is as meaningless and stupid as the majority of the names taken by music-hall artistes. Before the appearance of each performer, the chairman - who is usually what is called a buffo singer, and in some cases "does a turn" himself, in which event he always comes first on the list - makes a similarly ornate announcement as to the qualities and personal attractions possessed by each. Thus "the fascinating Polly A----," "the dashing serio-comic Nelly B----," the "charming sisters So-and-so." Whilst music-hall women all claim, to be lovely, music-hall males dub themselves "popuar comedians," "the only," the "champion knock-about" "highly gifted," "versatile"  "the people's favourite," "the prime favourite" "England's only comic singer," and so forth, and this without any personal rivalry or animosity one towards the other. Not only is this done from the chair, but in the bills as well; and any one who will take the trouble to read one of the long, narrow bills which music-halls delight to issue may be amused at the [-179-] self-glorification it contains, It should, however, be mentioned, in justice to the performers, that these flights of fancy originate usually with the managers. The habit that has fallen into desuetude with the theatres, except in so far as the quotations of extracts from press criticisms are concerned, is still in force at the music-halls.
    The orchestra strikes up a jingling jangle, the not over-elaborately painted curtain is raised, and the celebrated and versatile Mr. Poppy John makes his appearance. He advances rapidly from the wings to the front and at once plunges into an unintelligible medley, interspersed with guttural exclamations, and somewhat interfered with, so far as coherency is concerned, by the fact that the singer has lost some of his teeth. For it must be known that no management put any but those performers whose age or infirmities render them mere stop-gaps into the front part of the bill, when there is nobody there to hear them but the gallery . What are called the "stars" never make their appearance until after 9 o'clock, unless there is any special reason for it, such as an engagement for the same evening in a distant part of London. "Poppy John" blunders along through his song, his "catch" chorus failing to arouse any vocal effort amongst the audience, from the fact that they cannot hear the words and there seems to be no particular tune, and he retires at the end of his first song with very little to cheer him but the applause of the chairman's hammer. This, however, is given generously, and a few determined-to-be-pleased auditors faintly echo it. "Poppy John" has sung his first song in a very ill-fitting dress suit; he [-180-] appears to sing his second in a loose, light spring coat, and a hat tipped at the back of his head. He jumps about, shouting all the time, whilst the limited orchestra bangs away at something resembling an inverted scale, and it presently dawns upon us that he is pretending to he drunk. The gallery laugh immoderately, especially when he lurches down to the footlights and says something like, "I was walking along without saving a word to any-body when one of these paving-stones jumped up and kicked me in the eye." For his next song he appears in a suit of fustian, cracking a whip. He is supposed to be a coster. He does it much better than either of the others, because by this time his exertions have made him very hoarse and dirty. Then his turn is finished and the chairman announces "the Evergreen Tottie, the irresistible male impersonator." The orchestra jingles again - all music-hall tunes have a family resemblance - and the "Evergreen Tottie," a fat, brazen-faced, vulgar-looking woman, in tights, short yellow hair, and a cavalier hat, struts on to the stage. She opens her mouth, and there issues forth a horrible scream of the most discordant character, out of which it is almost impossible to make any sense, although one may occasionally catch such words as " Charlie," "squeeze," "goodbye," and so on. She sings three songs, each in different-coloured tights, but otherwise much about the same, and then disappears. She gets more applause than poor "Poppy John," because she is a woman, and the gallery is ever gallant. She is followed by a child with no power to make itself heard at all, a nigger minstrel, two men with Irish [-181-] brogues who tumble down without the slightest occasion, and fall very much harder than anybody else would, more men, more women, and then the end. Towards 9.30 the place becomes nearly full, and the waiters are running about with drinks and cigars. Everybody is smoking, and nearly every one joins in the choruses that are at all catching.  There are many young girls in the audience, and every song that is sung has something that is objectionable in it. When it is not absolutely indelicate it is absurdly inane, and when it is not vulgar it is without feature at all. The women accompany their efforts with movements and motions that offend the taste and that arouse the laughter of young men already fuddled with smoke and spirits. When the audience disappears a horrible odour remains in the building, which has but a poor chance of being dispelled before the next evenings owing to the defective ventilation of this, in common with most other music-halls.
    The Performance at one of the minor music-halls, such as that described, may be taken as a fair sample of the whole; for just as the tunes, owing to the limited nature of their scope, have a family likeness, surprising in its completeness, so, with a few striking exceptions, do the comic male singers run on the same lines and the female performers resemble each other. Moreover, as the same artistes procure engagements at two or three different halls simultaneously, it is possible to go to several entertainments and see practically the same performance at each house. Every music-hall of the smaller class changes half its performers each [-182-] week the usual engagement being for a fortnight, although in cases of extra success it may be extended to a month, and this, together with the fact the the performers are at other music-halls as well, induces the frequenters of one to keep to it rather than go one week to one hall and the next week to another. The youth who goes on Saturday night to a music-hall, if he confines himself to one, knows that he will see a variation on each visit. An additional advantage in his eyes is that he gets to know the ins and outs of the place, becomes acquainted with the chairman, the waiters, the barmaids, and possibly the manager (for in many cases this gentleman is to be seen at a particular point of the principal bar for an hour or two every evening) and with amazing rapidity scrapes friendships with other inmates of the place, both men and women. We are talking now of the clerk who goes to the shilling seats on the floor of the house, or possibly even to the special, reserved, red velvet-cushioned seats at two shillings each, into which, after they have done their "turns" the "pros." occasionally come for a few minutes if they have no other engagement. The performers who appear after 10 o'clock have usually done their other business and when their turn is over give themselves up to the pleasure of watching their brother and sister artistes or of scraping acquaintances in the audience for the purpose of being treated to "drinks." The female "pros." who appear "in front," as the auditorium is called, with their "make-up" on their faces, sea1skin-jackets, and coquettish bonnets partly concealing their highly artificial [-183-] looking air, create quite a sensation amongst the young men with cigars and canes, and as they are not at all bashful in their manners, they are soon surrounded by a crowd of youths, each endeavouring to shine as a wit upon a very small stock of "pluckly slang." But the eye of the feminine pro. is keen, and it takes the measure of the young men a out it in a much quicker time than they have any idea of. It selects the most likely-looking from a pecuniary point of view, and at once devotes all its archness and brightness to them, ignoring the others in a callous kind of way that ere long drives them from the scene ; the same discriminating action is then taken with the others, until one remains the master of the field. It may then be his privilege to be invited to accompany her in her brougham, she undertaking to set him down anywhere he likes. Elevated by his distinction, the young man readily promises to be at the hall the next evening, when if he makes his appearance without a gift of some kind he is speedily made to feel how grossly he has erred in the ways of feminine "pros." He must also pay for a bottle of champagne, supposing that he is sufficiently foolish to have brought the expected present, and the fair one touches him with her daintily gloved hands and looks at him with her black-rimmed eyes, from the influence of which he does not then escape sometimes until he has used up his own petty resources, and possibly "borrowed" elsewhere as well, in supplying her with unnecessary knicknacks, which she regards as of no value when she has got them.
    The male "pros." affect a racy, flippant, light-[-184-]hearted air, which attracts the empty-headed youth who has a desire to be something of that sort himself, little remembering that whilst the former is making money by his tally, he is losing it. The weak young man who asks the Great Jack Bang to have a drink (he sings the wonderful song "I didn't tell the missis where I'd been" with much of voice and variety of facial contortion, and by extra hurry and roar glosses over the fact that the lines do not scan and the air clashes with all ideas of harmony) has an idea that it will enhance his importance in the eyes of his fellows to be seem hob-nobbing with so big a personage. The Great Jack Bang, who is a man with a blotchy face and a red neck and wears a billy-cock hat and a tweedy-grey ulster reaching to his feet, accepts him by saying, "Thanks. A brandy-and-soda and a cigar." The "Thanks" is the only part addressed to the weak youth. the rest of it being said in a jocular way to the barmaid; and whilst the great man takes no further notice of his self-constituted entertainer than by just nodding to him when he commences to drink, the latter, who of course has been unable to do anything less than order two "brandies-and-sodas" and two cigars, as it would ill become him to drink threepennorth of whisky whilst his guest was regaling himself so differently, finds himself called upon for two shillings, when his highest flight of fancy, before embarking on the enterprise, had but reached to sixpence each. The Great Jack Bang has a crowd of people to talk to, and it presently dawns upon the weak youth that he has made rather a fool of himself, and that most of the [-185-] other people around think so too. But he glances across the bar at the reflection of his vacuous countenance in the mirror forming the background, and notes with pride the set of his coat, the two inches of cuff showing, the curled point of his pocket-handkerchief protruding from his outside breast-pocket, and is at once reassured upon his own position in the eyes of the world, and upon his certain immunity from the ribaldry of the vulgar. The young men whose ambition is to be "fly," by which they mean a mixture of low cunning and meanness, pride themselves upon getting in a word with the "pros." without cost to themselves and as this class of beings is very numerous at every music-hall and constitutes the most appreciative part of the audience, it is to them that Bang addresses any of his would-be funny remarks, sure of an answering roar of laughter. The fresher youths, who would neither have the courage to press themselves into close proximity nor the effrontery to ask a man they did not know to "have a drink," look on from the outskirts of the group, and treasure up the worthless remarks of the brazen-voiced "pro.," and go home and repeat them to their younger brothers, to show that they are seeing life, and are hob-nobbing with celebrated personages. But the Great Jack Bang, who may be taken as a representative type, is not content for long without engaging in conversation with the ladies on one side of the bar or the other, He tells them little anecdotes at which some of the younger youths blush, thinking what a shame it is to talk to girls in this way; but as his friends laugh at him, and tell him that the [-186-] girls like it, and as they certainly do not appear to mind very much, he treasures the stories up for future use, and lays another stone upon the wall of his growing uselessness in the world and his lessening chances of advancement.
    It may he said that music-halls, more than any other places in London, even of the lowest and worst descriptions, engender looseness of behaviour and laxity of morals. They do much to contaminate the minds of the young because they pose as ordinary places of entertainment, instead of as traps for the energy and intelligence of youth. There is a kind of freemasonry existing between the frequenters of the music-hall, which is greatly assisted by the fact that every such place has a promenade, usually in the vicinity of the bars, where the young men may strut, complacent admirers of their own trousers and shoes, and the maidens may display themselves with all the arts of which they may be master. Lads who would probably not think of accosting girls out of doors see every one exchanging chaff with the opposite sex, and therefore do likewise, in the fear of being deemed soft; and when nicely dressed young women knock up against them in the crowd, and begin conversing in an easy way about the performance, and how hot it is, and how thirsty they happen to be, find it quite an ordinary thing to have drinks with them, and cannot for the life of them see, then, where is the harm of it. To the assistance of the youth who is "green" comes the performance on the stage: something is said or sung that makes everybody roar with laughter, whilst the singer half turns his head away and shakes his [-187-] finger at the audience as though to reprove them for their levity, and the girl nudges her companion to draw his attention to it, and laughs loudly in his face, and he, although for the moment he had pretended not to hear it, can do nothing less than laugh back, in a shamefaced sort of way. For to object to the music-hall entertainment when one is in a music-hall is obviously impossible, since all know what to expect, and if they do not like it would certainly stop away. Then, again, some "pros." have established a reputation for making personal remarks upon such of the audience as are in conspicuous positions, and these remarks frequently serve for introductions when young men and women in close contiguity come in for some broad impertinence from the stage. The girls always seem to like it, and the young men will certainly not allow themselves to show any displeasure, whatever they may feel. Servant-girls are fond of going to music-halls, an seat themselves in prominent positions, and go into convulsions of laughter when some dark young man in greasy curls blows them a kiss from the stage, and draws the attention of the whole audience to the fact that he is doing so. Many similar occurrences might be described, but we think we have said enough to show that no women should be allowed inside a music-hall, and if no women, then no men.
    The youth who goes to the music-hall every Saturday night (and there are many who make a habit of doing so) soon finds that this is not often enough. It is astonishing how rapid1y the enervating influence of this kind of performance makes headway against any common-sense resistance. The [-188-] boy dislikes it the first time he goes, and thinks it remarkably stupid, as in truth it is; but just as the fact that he is made sick by his first cigar does not prevent him trying again, so does he essay the music-hall until he persuades himself that he likes it. The well-brought-up youth may for a time feet rather ashamed of himself for being there, but the desire for the noise, the tights, the music, the drink, and the girls who are there every night soon gains the mastery over him, and he spends as much time there as he possibly can. Now, young men cannot afford to go many times a week to a music-hall, and pay two shillings each visit, but the managers knowing that when the youths are inside something must be spent one way or the other, issue guinea season-tickets for six months, and in some cases, half-guinea season-tickets for three months, entitling the holder to entrance every night. Such tickets are largely issued, and thus it is that one may go night after night for a week to the same music-hall, and see the same youths there talking and laughing with the same girls, and virtually making a club of the place. The chairman's table is a favourite goal for certain young men, but arrived here they become more sedate ; they drink and smoke steadi1y, they converse earnestly with the chairman, they regard the performance with the cynical eye of indifference, and from their exalted position contemptuously survey the audience when they laugh or when they join in the choruses. They reserve their applause for some particular female performer, whom they fixedly regard the whole time she is "on," and lay themselves out in every extravagant manner con-[-189-]ceivable to receive one or two of her especial glances in the course of her performance. But it may be said that when youths settle down to the chairman's table all hope of rescuing them from their own folly is at an end. The chairmen are usually low-class men, whose idea of wit is obscenity, and whose enjoyment is summed up in the most expressive meaning that can be attached to the lower forms of sensuality. The youth with his season-ticket finds that the music-hall fun does not begin much before 9.30, so it is not until then that he makes his appearance, considering that it gives him a certain amount of extra importance to come swaggering in after most of the "paying people" are there and as a consequence of this, he is never home until 11.30 Or 12 at night, being therefore more or less unfit for his business in the morning.
    But another danger awaits the youth who goes frequently to the music-hall, and to describe this it may be as well to record an actual case that occupied the attention of the public a few years ago. A certain music-hall in the south of London was nightly frequented by a crowd of the loosest women in London, and, as this became known, naturally attracted men. In due course remonstrances came from the authorities, and the management, to avoid trouble on licensing-day, issued an order at the door that no ladies would be admitted unless accompanied by gentlemen. In a short time the proprietor of the music-hall found that his chief attraction was gone. To get over the difficulty, he issued free passes to the hall to women, who then congregated outside, and accosted every man who [-190-] came up to just let them pass the barrier under his protection. This sort of thing goes on now in some halls, and young men find it difficult to refuse so apparently trifling a request. There are many music-halls of a very low stamp, situated in out-of-the-way corners of London, that charge a low price for admission, and give two performances during the evening, the first commencing at 7 o'clock. and the second at 9 o'clock. The most expensive seats are sixpence, and the cheapest are a penny. Bare  wooden benches are all that are provided, and beer is supplied in pewter pots. Such music-halls invariably belong to the landlords of adjoining public-houses, and it is an established rule with all of them that Thursday shall be "the ladies' free night," which is to say that every man can take a woman with him, and need only pay for himself. The entertainments at these halls are not worse than at others, but partake a little more of the "knockabout" character, which is pleasing to the "coster"; but the smell of the interior is something dreadful, and the odours given off by the beer, the tobacco, and the persons of the penny seats do not improve it. Dirty women, with shawls for their bonnets and babies in their arms, drink beer with the men and watch the performance with delight, whilst if anybody takes up too much room they commence to swear and quarrel, as a matter or course. Any chance visitor to such a hall comes in for more attention than the show, and if he happens to wear a tall hat it is made the target for odd ends of sausages, plugs of tobacco, and anything else that may be portable and dirty.
    [-191-] A curious danger is incurred by young men who happen to believe they can sing and are in the habit of frequenting music-halls. They are pretty sure to confide this to some of the "fly" young men, whose acquaintance is so speedily made. Such confidants, seeing the chance of making themselves "useful" both ways, communicate the intelligence to the chairman, who overwhelms the aspirant the next evening by pointedly observing that e understands he can sing very well, and offering to give him a turn on the stage one night, if he will be so good as to let him hear his voice first. The greenhorn gives the sample, and the chairman and one or two pros. and others who stop to hear it are delighted, and the singer stands drinks all round and lends some money to somebody. After due delay, and due extra drinks and loans proposed by him, he is allowed to go "on" the very last turn, and is given five minutes, that five minutes' exhibition of himself costing immediately two or three pounds, and possibly filling his bead with such notions as entirely unfit him for his daily work.

source: Anon., Tempted England: Young Men, c.1889