You could say that the true spirit of Victorian Music Hall was epitomised by Mrs. Sunderland nee Sykes.
Born in Brighouse, Yorkshire, in 1819 Susannah Sykes belonged to a relatively low-class family.
Despite their lowly class status, both her parents (James Sykes, a gardener and his wife, Hannah Smith) encouraged her to sing from an early age. This time spent singing as a young girl soon paid off; she was spotted by Luke Settle, the town’s local blacksmith and an amateur singer, who took her on as a pupil.
Under the tutelage of Settle, Susannah’s singing went from strength to strength, soon she began to build up a reputation for herself. In 1836, she’d reached the age of 17 and was performing in local venues, becoming a founding member of the Huddersfield Choral Society – a group that continues to perform to this day.
Two years later, Susannah was married to local farmer Henry Sunderland and was starting to be considered as one of the greatest sopranos in the country. Her talents were now very much in demand and she found herself travelling all across Great Britain (even as far as Ireland) to perform in the Music Halls that had begun to be constructed around the country.
The music hall tradition had it’s origins in the bars and pubs of 19th Century England. At the time, casual entertainment, suitable for all classes, wasn’t easy to come by. The theatres, which had once been the main hub of cheap thrills for everyone, had slowly become establishments that were more suitable for the upper classes, leaving the lower classes with precious few options for cultural entertainment.
From the 1830s onwards, travelling singers, dancers and other performers began to frequent lower to middle-class establishments all over the country. It didn’t take long for canny business developers to notice the trend and begin to build purpose built venues for these performers to play at – thus, the Music Hall was born.
These Music Halls were essentially theatres for the every-man. Instead of separating the bar from the performance space, Music Halls granted the audience the freedom to eat, drink and smoke whilst watching the entertainment. Although the first few of these were built in and around London; soon Music Halls began to pop up all around the country, giving talented performers, like Mrs. Sullivan, the opportunity to travel the country and earn a living.
This blog will explore the world of Music Hall performers, such as Mrs. Sullivan, and delve into the venues that played host to them.