The Downfall of the Music Hall

The Music Hall tradition was one borne out of a need for cheap entertainment for the masses.

The huge demand for entertainment for the lower classes led to dozens of Music Halls being built at a rapid pace during the 19th Century.

For decades these buildings were packed to the rafters with eager punters, all happy to pay the small entrance fee required for an evening’s entertainment.

When the Great War engulfed the world in 1914, the Music Halls played a key role of recruiting young men into the armed forces. Factory workers, farm hands and students alike all frequented the Music Halls; these young men would become invaluable to the war effort. Importantly, the music hall was a place where men and women socialised. This sexually charged atmosphere, a precursor to the night clubs and bars of the modern world, would have made songs such as ‘We Don’t Want to Lose You, but We Think You Ought to Go‘ and ‘Now You’ve Got the Khaki On‘ all the more persuasive.

As much as the Music Hall tradition aided both War efforts, by the time the Second World War had finished, interest had more or less died out for them. There was now a new competitor to the live performers of Music Hall that threatened to change the face of consumer entertainment forever.

The first cinemas were opened in Britain in the years preceding World War I. At that time the films were silent, with musical accompaniment provided by a pianist. Due to the limitations of the technology, the showings would only last for around half an hour, so the Music Hall industry could rest easy. In the years during the two World Wars, the Music Halls played a key role in keeping the British people’s minds distracted from the grim realities of War.

Although there was a significant anti-war movement brewing within the United Kingdom, this sentiment rarely, if ever, made it’s way into the Music Halls and for good reason. Managers of Music Halls were responsible for the content that they allowed on their stage – if any performers on their stage were thought to be eschewing an anti-war or pacifist message, then they would run the risk of being shut down by government censors. So for 25 years, the Music Halls of Great Britain were a place for people to escape to. When they paid their their entrance fee and stepped into the space, they could leave their troubles behind and enter a world of relentless cheer and positivity.

This respite was short-lived though, the forties brought a string of American-made hits that made use of fully recorded dialogue. These large scale productions, such as The Wizard of Oz and Gone with The Wind, were full-theatrical length and, most of all, immersive, allowing the viewer to completely forget about their lives in a way that Music Hall simply couldn’t compete with. Attendance to traditional Music Halls began to drop and by the time television entered people’s homes, the performers that had graced those stages were either retired or working on the silver screen.

The Music Halls that had survived the bombs of the Blitz and had provided the country with decades of rambunctious entertainment, were either left to ruins or converted into night clubs or cinemas. However, there were a few that survived…

Discovering the Surviving Music Halls

The Great British Music Hall tradition didn’t die a death overnight.

The decline of interest in the medium was a gradual one.

After nearly a century of entertaining the masses, the performers and managers of Music Hall began to see a decline in the number of faces in the audience. The end of the Second World War had brought about more than just peace. With young people suddenly freed from the hampering restrictions of Wartime curfews and daily blackouts, their lives were finally their own.

Young men, who had grown up as children throughout the War, could now breathe easy. Their brothers and fathers had served in the War so that they did not have to. Instead of being pressured to join the army and help the war effort, risking a very probable death, they could follow their dreams and do whatever they wished to.

Likewise, young women could look forward to much brighter futures. Many of them were forced to take on jobs during the War that would previously have been associated with men, they’d proven themselves worthy of those jobs and could now argue that they were more than capable to take them on full time.

Young people, as well those older ones that had survived both wars, were distinctly aware that they were living in a new modern era. With the War over, the great minds of the world could once more unite and collaborate on ideas that would completely revolutionise the way that people spent their spare time. Television, Cinema and an increasing focus on popular music on Radio meant that the British public now had a huge choice of entertainment. Unfortunately, it didn’t look like there was a place for Music Hall in this brave new world.

If you’re interested in seeing what remains of the Music Halls of yesterday, then there are a few still in existence, tucked away in corners around the country. Here are a handful that you can visit for yourself, all of which shouldn’t be too hard to find, even if you’re an International visitor!

Wilton Music Hall, London

Wilton Music Hall is conveniently placed near some of London’s biggest and most well known attractions, however it’s secluded location puts it well out of the line of the thousands of tourists that run rampant through the city each year. Touted as ‘the oldest grand music hall in the world’, Wilton was opened in 1859 and has been threatened with demolition several times during it’s near 170-year tenure.

If you want to leave your car somewhere safe and arrive at the Music Hall on foot, then London City Airport parking is you best bet. Otherwise, the Wilton is just a short walk away from Tower Hills tube station.

Colston Hall, Bristol

Bristol’s largest concert venue and a quintessential example of British Music Hall design, Colston Hall might have undergone significant redevelopment since it was opened back in 1867, but it still hasn’t lost it’s sense of Victorian grandeur. Although you might not be able to see the same kind of traditional entertainment that once graced that stage, the venue now plays host to bands, orchestras and comedians.

Colston Hall is currently under refurbishment, but the Concert Hall space is still very much in use. It’s easy to access, placed right in the centre of time, just a short walk away from Bristol Temple Meads Station. Parking can be easily be found at the nearby super market.

Hoxton Hall, London

Much like Wilton Music Hall, Hoxton Hall’s reputation was built on decades of successful Variety shows, hosting some of the most iconic faces of the Music Hall era. Marie Lloyd, Dan Leno and George Leybourne were just a few of the high profile names that performed . After a careful restoration in 2015, Hoxton Hall has become a highly accessible venue for both young and old.

Reachable by hopping off the tube at Old Street tube station or by getting off the at the Overground at Hoxton – parking is never easy in the centre of London, but you can usually find a space over on Shoreditch High Street (just be prepared to pay a pretty penny for it!).…

Victoria’s Grand Halls & Trading Routes

Queen Victoria is known as one of the most powerful rulers to in recent history.

The Victorian age is a period of history as much exemplified by the stoic nature of it’s namesake as the bombastically eclectic selection of grand buildings that were erected during her reign.

During Queen Victoria’s reign, the British Empire was arguably at it’s widest and most profitable. One fifth of the World existed under the rule of Great Britain at the time of her death, with well over a fifth of the World’s population bending the knee to her; she was a ruler obsessed with trade and this obsession led to her commissioning over 600 steamers and nearly 20,000 sailing ships.

These ships, employing hundreds of thousands of men from across the Empire, spent months crossing oceans and baring terrible weather conditions – all for the sake of delivering their precious cargo to other countries of the Empire as well as making the obligatory trip back to London. Although countries like Australia, New Zealand and India benefited greatly from the Free Trade between Empire-ruled states, London remained the centre of Wealth.

The British Empire, during the Victorian age, has often been portrayed as commandeering at best and tyrannical at worst. Despite a string of atrocities that were committed during this time in the name of the Empire, Queen Victoria’s steadfast insistence on expanding her territory was borne out of more than just a hunger for land. England needed resources of it’s own.

Despite England traditionally being an agriculturally focused land, the Industrial Revolution had brought about irrevocable changes to the way that it’s citizens lived and work. As buildings and factories rose out of the ground, thousands migrated away from the verdant green hills of the countryside to the smog-filled mazes of the cities. With the population rising exponentially, it wasn’t long before Britain was beginning to rely on the imported goods from the Commonwealth, in order to feed it’s own people.

Large countries, with small populations, like Canada and Australia soon found that they were producing much more food than they needed. This food, and the profits from the sale of it, eventually found it’s way back to London and would fund building of Britain’s most iconic existing buildings, as well as the grandest of Music Halls that, sadly, did not survive to see the 21st Century.

With the 156-year old Window Tax finally being abolished in 1851, the restrictions that architects and planners alike had to abide by were suddenly not so limiting. An conservatory builder in Manchester could now freely ply his trade out to the rest of the country, without fear of being turned away by building crews – the results of this new found freedom, as well as the wilful creativity of the architects of the time, can still be seen today.

Despite the destruction of such iconic structures as the Bedford Theatre (built in 1899 and demolished in 1969) and The Royal Agricultural Hall (built in 1862 and demolished in 1985), you can still visit superlative examples of Victorian architecture today. Although less associated with the Music Hall tradition than other existing buildings, the Royal Albert Hall remains one of the best examples of the wildly creative architecture that the period has to offer, the National History Museum and the glasshouses found at Kew Gardens are also representative of the period.…

Victorian Cultural Events in 2017

The  Victorian age is one that is greatly revered in British culture.

Ruled by the eponymous Queen Victoria, Britain was never greater than it was at this time.

The British Empire was still intact and stretched out across vast swathes of the globe. Business owners and enterprising individuals took advantage of the influence that the British had over the world by investing in brave new ideas; whilst factories and machines rose out of the ground, filling the cities with smog and precious capital.

The Victorians existed on the very cusp of the modern age. Class boundaries were beginning to erode, a middle-class was rising and even the lower-classes had the opportunity to enjoy some leisure time. Holidays, as we know them, became a fashionable way to spend this newfound leisure time and, as a result, the seaside towns of Britain began to boom. Although these kinds of holidays have, by and large, gone out of fashion now, their spirit lives on in the picturesque breaks that British people take in luxurious static caravans and campsites around the country.

Despite the traditional Victorian seaside holiday no longer being in vogue, there are still thousands of people actively interested in the Victorians and the way that they lived their lives.

If you’d like to take in a traditional Music Hall Show or sample what life was like back under the reign of Queen Victoria, then there are a few events that regularly take place across the country:

September 17th 4pm//Late Joys – Museum of Comedy, London

Up until their exit from their original theatre in 2002, the performers at the Players’ Theatre had been putting on their traditional Music Hall shows for an uninterrupted 66 years, following their founding in 1936. After their space beneath Charing Cross Station had to be evacuated they’ve been continuing to perform at a variety of spaces around London – the Museum of Comedy being their latest home.

October 24th-26th 2pm//Traditional Music Hall Show – Brick Lane Music Hall, London

Brick Lane Music Hall is one of the few purpose built Music Halls that remain in existence in the country. Named after its original home, before its relocation to London’s Dockland, regular variety and music shows are put on here with a changing roster of performers. A regular Cockney singalong pays tribute to the Cockney stars of Music Hall, whilst the Traditional Music Hall Show offers a broad sample of the genre.

November 23rd 7pm//Kathy Clark of Historic England on Bandstands – Friends’ Meeting House, Sheffield

Kathy Clark has been working for Historic England for the last 3 years as an Inspector of Historic Buildings and Areas. It’s her job to take an in depth look at the oldest buildings that we have here in Britain and assess them for any restoration work that might need to be carried out. Kathy has been visiting touring the country talking about a passion of hers: Victorian Bandstands – a topic that will no doubt be of interest to anyone looking to learn more about Victorian culture.

December 8th-10th All Weekend//Victorian Weekend – Robin Hoods Bay, North Yorkshire

Large swathes of the British Public have a great respect for the Victorian Era that sometimes borders on the fascistic. Nowhere is this adoration more noticeable than at a traditional Victorian Fair. This year, Robin Hood’s Bay will be holding it’s 24th Victorian Festival, with the quaint village being completely made over to resemble the Victorian era. If you don’t want to stick out like a sore thumb, you’ll want to arrive in Victorian dress-up!…

The Londoners That Shaped Music Hall

As with all pioneering entertainment industries, London was the first part of the country to fully embrace Music Hall.

Canterbury Hall, after 1856. From the collection of the Theatre Museum UK.

The first music hall was opened in the capital city in 1852 by Charles Morton, a pub landlord and eager investor.

He’d seen his own pubs in the city fill up with performers and had spotted the potential for money to be made. The Canterbury Tavern, London’s first ever purpose built music hall, held a capacity of 700 people. Food and drinks were served throughout the performance with entrance costing just a sixpenny (which included a refreshment).

Of course, a venue is nothing without it’s performers; the bright stars of the stage that were essentially early incarnations of the movie stars that the world adores today. With the Music Hall tradition beginning in London, it only makes sense for us to examine a handful of the homegrown talent that the city gave birth to, during this explosion of culture and bawdy sensationalism.

Marie Lloyd

No discussion of the Music Hall tradition can be begun without mentioning Marie Lloyd. Whereas Mrs. Sunderland was referred to as the ‘Queen of Song‘ by royalty, it was the paying public that gave Marie Lloyd the title of the ‘Queen of the Music Hall’. A controversial character, both on and off of the stage, Lloyd was born Matilda Alice Victoria Wood and made her professional debut when she was just fourteen years old.

Although she made her name in the Music Halls of London, Marie soon found international claim with songs such as ‘The Boy I Love Is Up In The Gallery’ and ‘Oh Mr Porter What Shall I Do’, which took her on tours to France, America and even Australia. Married three times, her relationships with men were often very public yet her dependency on alcohol was kept more private – her life was cut short at the age of 52.

Lottie Collins

Charlotte Louisa Collins had a similar early start in the world of show business, thanks to her Father who supplemented his pay as a woodworker with cash earned as an entertainer. At the age of 12, Charlotte had taken on the stage name of Lottie along with her two younger sisters, Lizzie and Marie, under the banner of The Three Sister Collins. Their skipping rope dance act was a hit with the crowds, leading her into establishing herself as a solo act just a year later.

Collins, like Lloyd, achieved considerable success overseas, which led to her taking extensive tours of the United States and picking up songs from the burgeoning vaudeville scene. Perhaps her greatest achievement will be remembered as introducing Britain to the classic Music Hall number of ‘Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay!‘, a song which she accompanied with a bawdy dance that pleased the masses so much, that she would perform the song up to five times a night at different venues.

Gus Elen

Much like other performers of the time, Ernest Augustus Elen decided to shorten his name for the stage – he also took the added step of creating a persona for the stage, assuming the role of a cockney, a stereotype that would have been instantly recognisable to the audiences of London. When Elen made the move over to America, during the English Music Hall Strike, he found less success with his act as audiences weren’t as familiar with the character.

Elen was always intent on keeping his family out of the public eye. He was married with children, but made a point to never mention them by name, fearing the voracity of the press. Unlike many of the other stars of Victorian Music Hall, Elen would go on to live a long life, eventually passing away at the age of 77.…