The earliest music halls of the 1850s were really outgrowths of existing pubs, which added entertainment of some kind to the area where people could consume alcohol. These “saloons” morphed into the music halls that sprang up in many industrial areas—Leeds, Manchester, Bolton, and of course London. By 1866, London had between two and three hundred small music halls and about thirty large ones that would hold between 1,500 and 3,500 guests. So by the time of my novel (1875), the music hall culture was very well established.
Although the Victorian music hall was quite beautifully decorated, until the 1890s, audiences were primarily drawn from the working class and lower-middle class. Men, women, young, old, and families all attended, although men made up the large part of most audiences, and some shows were geared toward particular groups. The music hall was a rowdy place, where the sexes came in close proximity, where people could enjoy both alcohol and entertainment, and where audiences and the performers often interacted, breaking the “fourth wall” at the edge of the stage. The music hall programme included rousing songs, dramatic acts, musicians, magicians, animal acts, jugglers, political comedy, singers, toffs, mimes, trampoline and trapeze acts, male and female impersonators, and strongmen. The songs and performances tended to be sensational, bawdy, and full of spectacles including outrageous costumes; and they often made a mockery of the middle-class values of temperance, decorum, and purity that the Reform Societies sought to instill among the lower classes. The music halls promoted what some critics call “counter-cultural values”: ribaldry, bawdiness, hedonism, sensuality, the enjoyment of alcohol, the mockery of authority, the representation of marriage as a tragi-comic farce, and the equality of the sexes in work, leisure, and sexual desire. In its bold energy, humor, and frank commentary about the world, a music hall performance often had more in common with "Saturday Night Live" than an elaborately staged classic Broadway show.
There were significant differences between the music halls of London and those in outlying manufacturing areas such as Manchester, Leeds, and Glasgow. For example, in the manufacturing areas where women were employed, their presence in music halls was tolerated; a woman could spend her wages on entertainment if she chose. In London, it was often assumed that a woman who was not escorted by a man was a prostitute. In other cities, magistrates were chiefly concerned with the role the music halls played in alcohol consumption and the deterioration of morals. In London, local magistrates focused their attention on those halls that allowed prostitutes and “promiscuous dancing.”
However, the magistrates and the Metropolitan Police were on opposing sides of this issue; and the Police, under Sir Richard Mayne until 1868, were answerable to the Home Office, not the magistrates. Partly because the Police were understaffed, they were not particularly concerned about prostitutes, so long as they kept a low profile. Some music hall proprietors even developed friendly relationships with the Police, holding benefit shows for the support of police orphans, and sending wine to police at Christmas. (In my novel, the music-hall owner Mr. Drummond and the police have a relationship that far surpasses this, but it began in these innocuous ways.)
Another conflict surrounding the halls concerned which acts were to be permitted in them. The Theatres Act of 1843 stated that “every Tragedy, Comedy, Farce, Opera, Burlett, Interlude, Melodrama, Pantomime, or other entertainment of the state, or any part thereof” fell under their domain and was licensed as such. But the music-hall license allowed for “public dancing, music, or other public entertainment of the like kind.” The overlap led to arguments in law courts beginning in the 1860s, with the theaters insisting that if they weren’t allowed to retain the rights to both short and long dramatic performances, they would have nothing to offer that the music halls didn’t, and they might as well shut their doors. In 1892, the Select Committee on Theaters and Places of Entertainment gathered evidence from people on both sides of the argument, after which they recommended that “sketches” be limited to 40 minutes and 6 players, so as to distinguish them from plays. But no law was forthcoming until 1912.
As a place where social boundaries were crossed, where irony, double-entendre, farce, and comedy presided, and where the concerns of the working-classes provide the topics and themes of many performances, the music hall provided a space in which the working class could develop their own class identity, their own core of common knowledge and brand of humor, and self-confidence. As such, the music hall was part of the network of local organizations and community-based cultural institutions, such as parishes, neighborhoods, cooperatives, from which the Labour Party of the 1890s sprang. So it occupies an important place in any discussion of late 19th-century notions of class, community, and politics.
A short list of the laws influencing the music halls and theaters:
1752 Disorderly Houses Act for “preventing Thefts and Robberies, and for Regulating Places of Entertainment, and punishing Persons keeping disorderly houses.”
1843 Theatres Act
1868 Magistrates drawn up their own safety provisions, but then in
1878 Metropolitan Building Acts Amendment Act made safety provisions for public buildings; implemented by Metropolitan Board of Works and the Middlesex Magistrates
1879 Children’s Dangerous Performances Act
1888 Local Government Act of 1888, which shifted the power to craft policy about music-hall licensing from Middlesex magistrates to the newly-formed central government.
My gratitude to Jon Freeman, the building manager of Wilton’s Music Hall in Graces Alley, London in 2012, for letting me prowl around the last existing Victorian music hall, take photographs, and ask him questions. For further information about Wilton's current show schedule and an excellent record of the hall's history, see www.wiltons.org.uk.