Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Odd People in Odd Places, by James Greenwood, [1883] - The Help-Myself Society

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THE HELP-MYSELF SOCIETY.

Saturday night and recreation for the million - Where it is usually sought - A notorious house of entertainment for the rising generation - Time past tavern parlours and taprooms - The ball of the "Help-myselfs" - How it originated and grew - The evening programme - The crowd within and without the music hall - The best of talent, vocal and instrumental, and all for one penny.

SATURDAY night is the approved time for amusement and relaxation with most of the multitude whose privilege it is literally, and not figuratively, to earn their bread by the sweat of their brow. The old saying that a labouring man is one who toils from Monday morning until Saturday night no longer applies. The majority of the working classes, lads and men, are free soon after dinner - or, at all events, at tea-time - on the day in question, and at liberty to seek amusement, according as his appetite for the same is fastidious or robust. It is a liberal bill of fare to select from, and it includes ample provision for the thousands who are not over-particular or dainty as regards the dish that is set before them, so that there is plenty of it for the price charged. The last-mentioned find themselves satisfactorily served at the cheap theatres where there is a threepenny gallery, and the rough-and-ready music hall where there is nothing to pay for admission except fourpence or sixpence for a refreshment ticket, which entitles the holder to liquid refreshment of the value of the sum indicated thereon. Errand-boys and lads of the factory, as well as their elders, are extensively catered for.
    A roaring trade is done, for instance, on a Saturday evening at the "Medley" in Hoxton. The Medley is a combination of theatre and music hall, and serves as a "free-and-easy" chiefly for boys and girls. They are less rigorous there as regards the age at which their customers are eligible to be treated with, than, under the law's insistance, is the pawnbroker. The latter may not serve a person who has not attained his or her sixteenth year but the spirited proprietor of the place of entertainment mentioned is more indulgent, and mere children not yet in their teens, so that they come provided with the necessary twopence, [-65-] are as welcome to a seat in the theatre gallery as the rising young costermonger who resorts thither with a short pipe in his mouth, his "young woman" on his arm, and in his pocket a drop of something in a bottle to keep them in good spirits for the enjoyment of the performance. On Saturday night there are two separate performances at the Medley, and the place, which is capable of containing about two thousand persons, large and small, is generally packed full on each occasion; and it may be stated without fear of contradiction that of the whole number two thousand at least are not more than fifteen years old. There may be some who affect to discover in this questionable state of affairs a key to the mystery of how it happens that with our increasing facilities for educating the children of the lower classes, juvenile crime does not diminish, but, on the contrary, is making alarming headway. The law allows it, however. So long as the managers of the Medley and places similar continue to do their best to keep in order, while on their grounds, the queerly-assorted crowds they get together, they are within the privilege conferred by their licence.
    Others, again, may say that, young as the majority of the audience certainly are, they are all, or nearly, hard-working lads and lasses; and, their week's toil at an end, they like, and are as well entitled to, a few hours' recreation as their elders. The amusement to their liking must be of a cheap and rough-and-ready kind, and they find it at the Medley. If it is to be had elsewhere, they do not know where to seek it. It is that or none at all. Their fathers and elder brothers, however, are not so compelled by Hobson's choice. They may have no inclination for the cheap theatre or the music hall; but there is the public house bar, and, comfortably conscious of having their weekly allowance of "spending money" in their pockets to do as they please with, they make their way thither. They have no intention of making a prolonged stay. They will just drop in to see who is there, and to take a glass or a couple, and come away again.
    Nobody knows so well as the prosperous publican how seldom this ill-fixed resolution withstands the strain of temptation. There they remain drinking, not so much for the drinking's sake as, because having once fairly launched into the swim of jolly good fellowship, they find more fun in staying there than in [-66-] listening to the sober urging spouters and making for home and an early bed. This, in thousands of cases, is the reason why on such occasions working men get what must be admitted by the moderate drinker is more than is good for them. It is an undeniable fact that, one way and another, more beer and spirits are swallowed by the labouring classes on a Saturday night than on any three nights during the week.
    But, as regards the majority, as already intimated, they do not drink for drinking's sake, but simply because at the music hall or the public house it is impossible to partake of the amusements there to be found without a pretty constant replenishment of the jug or the glass. At the public house bar - taprooms and "parlours" being in these gin-palace and "counter trade" times things of the past - the rule is "drink up and go," or demonstrate your right to remain by having another filled measure set before you. At the music hall, although a fixed sum may be paid for admission, the busy waiters, who depend mainly on the pence they get for attendance on customers, have ever a sharp eye for an emptied drinking vessel, and are prompt with their demands for further "orders." And they get them. There are thousands of soberly-disposed people, mechanics and their wives, who are attracted to such places because they like to hear a song, and who would much prefer to limit their liquid refreshment to a single serving, but they are shy of the possibility of looking "shabby," and on that ground, and that only, may do as others do. No man in his senses will argue that this is exactly as it should be. What is wanted, and what, without advocating the "cold water cure "in its rigid integrity, I for one would rejoice to see established in every quarter of the metropolis, are "music halls" such as the one I discovered in South London last Saturday night.
    The institution in question is under the auspices of a society quaintly named the "Help Myself." The principle of personal acquisition, however, is adopted by the members in a strictly non-iniquitous sense. What they help themselves to once a week is an evening's harmless and excellent amusement in the shape of a vocal and instrumental concert, the price of admission to which is one penny. The affair has attained its present importance from small beginnings. It originated with Mr. William Palmer, of Reading, who tried the experiment [-67-] among the workmen of that town with a no more encouraging prospect of success than a gathering together of seven individuals on the opening night. But when the objects of the society became known, it rapidly grew in popularity. It is three years since it was tried in London, at a place called the Pilgrim's Hall, in the New Kent Road. The one aim in view is the promotion of temperance, and the promoters and upholders of the scheme were undoubtedly in the right when they came to the conclusion that a powerful lever in their hands would be to convince the working classes that it is possible for them to enjoy themselves in their own way without the expense of buying drink, and without the unpleasant sensations of headache the morning following. It is no part of the purpose of this paper to plead for or against this side or that, but no one will be disposed to deny that any combination that has for its object the removal, as far as possible, the temptation to drink from those who imbibe sometimes so freely, not from inclination, but because they are too amiably weak to resist the slightest friendly pressure, is worthy of support and encouragement. The pledged brotherhood of Help Yourselves do this by example, and no doubt, when they find opportunity, by persuasion as well. At present, however, I have to do with nothing but this marvellously well conducted music hall.
    They are numerous enough as a body to fill it to overflowing every Saturday night, but they do not regard it for their use exclusively. The general public are invited, and they have learnt of late to take so kindly to the entertainment that there can be no question if the hall possessed double its present capacity it would be by no means too large. It was not more than twenty minutes after the opening-time (eight o'clock) on the Saturday night when I was there, and the place was so fully packed that it was necessary to have a policeman at the door to prevent another hundred or so crowded on the steps outside from pushing their way in, and there they remained on the slender chance of people going away before some portion of the programme was played out.
    They waited in vain, and no wonder. What the twelve hundred wise ones who had arrived early enough got for their money, for the small sum of one penny, and for which, as well as admission they were entitled to a neatly printed programme - was an enter-[-68-]tainment in all respects at least equal to what would have cost them twelve times as much at a first-class music hall of the ordinary type. And it may surprise those who indulge in the foolish practice of sneering at temperance folk as milksops, and as no better than a set of teaspoons, to hear that there was nothing in the least sanctimonious or straight-laced, as it is termed, in any part of the proceedings. The programme was simply that of the better class of music hall revised, and with all that a sensible working man with his wife, and maybe an eider son and daughter with them, would deem objectionable eliminated from it.
    The "Help Yourselves" are especially strong in instrumental music. They have a friend in Colonel Fraser, the head of the City police, and the excellent band of that branch of the force is at their service, and Sir E. Henderson shows himself to be at heart a " Help Yourself" by permitting the instrumental "blue boys" belonging to several metropolitan divisions to spend a Saturday night there. Besides these, they have the Polytechnic orchestral band when it is required, and an excellent grand piano with a skilled player and accompanyist. As for singers, there is no lack of them, all good of their kind, and seldom a Saturday ever passes without the coming treat of a song or two by some popular and highly-talented vocalist. With such an abundance of material it needs only happy and judicious management to make the affair a merry-go-round of amusement from eight o'clock until half-past ten. This last-mentioned element was certainly not wanting on the occasion of my visit. Sea songs, comic songs, ballads, and sentimental ditties, interspersed with frequent instrumental performances, followed each other in rapid succession, the audience, when it was required of them, joining in the choruses with an unanimity and heartiness that left no doubt on my mind as to the cordial appreciation of every one present for what was going on.
    I had no means of ascertaining, nor did I inquire, how many of the audience were teetotalers, and how many occasionally drank from other cups than that which cheers but does not inebriate. I can affirm that much, however, without fear of contradiction, that it would have been impossible for the shrewdest expert to have distinguished one from the other, all were so equally delighted. As far as one might judge from appearances, [-69-] they were nearly all of the working class, the majority being seemingly of the superior mechanic order - or perhaps they were only of the ordinary sort, their highly respectable appearance being due to their sober and thrifty habits - and most of the men were accompanied with their wives. But what seemed to me even more satisfactory was the great number of young fellows, growing lads just merging into manhood, that were present. A man who has had worldly experience is at liberty to exercise his own judgment in such matters, but lads may not so safely be let alone, and it cannot be other than good to induce as many of them as possible to test for themselves, at all events, if it is not better, with their week's wages in their pocket, to pass Saturday evening in such company than to fuddle on bad beer and worse cigars at the "select harmonic meeting" held weekly at the "Crown and Crumpet."
    How ready they are to try the experiment, and how willing to give themselves the benefit of when they have arrived at a decision, is plainly proved by the fact that the increase in the young man portion of the audience keeps steady pace with that of those who are more advanced in years. The pity is that places of amusement conducted on precisely the same plan are not established in other parts of the metropolis. It has been convincingly demonstrated by the "Help Yourselves" that they would be warmly approved and patronized by the class to which they appealed. Of course, wherever else the experiment was tried there would be, as with the parent society, many difficulties to face and overcome. It may be said, indeed, that the name bestowed on the society whose head-quarters are the Pilgrim's Hall is not strictly applicable, as it is only by extraneous assistance that the affair is made self-supporting. Even with an average nightly attendance of as many as two thousand the financial result at a penny a head would be less than eight pounds ten shillings, and even that would not go very far towards paying professionals when the programme included such names as the Schumann and Madame Sterling.
    Nor could it be reasonably expected that talented artistes whose income depends on their industry could always be found to give their services gratuitously except on rare occasions. But it is by no means necessary that the price of admission should be fixed so low as one penny. Were it twopence instead, [-70-] or threepence each, with a programme thrown in, those whose means were most limited would not stay away on account of the excessive expense. Even at that sum the cost would be but half that which gains admittance to the cheapest part of an ordinary music hall. I may be told that there is no novelty in the idea, that it has been tried already in a hundred places in different parts of the kingdom, and that to one moderate success there have been at least two decided failures. But I cannot help remarking, after my experience of the "Help Yourselves," that the reason why is in many instances to be found in the circumstance that the promoters and conductors did not go quite the right way to work. As need not be said, it is not a speculation likely to recommend itself to moneymakers. It is one that at its best will not return to those who undertake it a more substantial profit than is to be found in the gratifying consciousness that a something that, according to the highest authority, is better than riches has been achieved. It is work for the philanthropist, and that worthy and by no means uncommon personage may rely on it that he never put his benevolent shoulder to the wheel in a better cause.
   There is no particular reason why, of course with a difference, such musical entertainments should not be given on Sundays as well as on other days. The complete success that has crowned the endeavours of those who first launched and set fairly afloat the "Help Yourself" Society instigates the wish that some such able management could take up the question of Sunday concerts for the people, so that they, especially the poorest class, might be induced to take more kindly to such movements than they do at present. They wont go to church. It is a sad thing to say, but it is none the less true, that there are tens of thousands inhabiting what may be called the shadier parts of the metropolis who take no delight at all in Sunday, they rather regarding it as one of the ills which flesh of a quality such as theirs is heir to, and which must be borne with resignation, and there is no help for it.
    Despite their poverty, they are possessed of pride of. a sort, and which should not be too hastily condemned, and except during such hours as the public houses are open they remain at home, kept prisoners by the shabbiness of their clothes. Undoubtedly they might go to a place of worship if they chose to [-71-] do so. The philanthropic preacher, aware of their weakness, not uncommonly appeals to them by means of conspicuous placards posted on the walls to come to church in their working gowns and jackets, since they have no other to wear, at the same time assuring them that they will be made as welcome as those whose superior means enables them to appear in silk or broadcloth. The invitation is given in earnest, but it is difficult to convince those to whom it applies that the congregation generally are as cordially disposed as the pastor - that the prosperous master-man's wife in satin and velvet will sit quite at her ease having for her next neighbour poor Mrs. Scrubber in the gown she goes charing in, or that the husband of the before-mentioned lady is indifferent whether he sits next to an individual of his own social position in life or beside the out o' work dock labourer in his patched fustian. On that account the poorer portion of the labouring class refrain from church going, but they could easily enough be induced to spend their Sunday afternoons or evenings at some hall, where the seats were common to every one, and the service was in part or entirely a musical one.
    It is marvellous how potent music is in awaking the better nature of those who scent insensible to every other influence. It is the secret of the success that has attended every modern religious movement. But for music, Sankey and Moody would scarce have attracted hundreds of the thousands they captivated; and the same may be said as regards Salvationism. But there are still a vast number of persons of the class especially alluded to who still remain outside, but who might be brought in and made to enjoy Sunday religious musical services if they were cleverly adapted to their taste, as the Saturday night concerts are adapted to the taste of the multitude that flock to the Pilgrim's Hall of the " Help Yourselves."