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.