I’ve written three Victorian novels – one of which, The Somnambulist, is set in the London music halls - with particular reference to Wilton’s, in Grace’s Alley, in the East End.
As I’m sure many of you will know, Wilton’s music hall is unique in being one of the first of the grand Victorian halls - and the last of its type to still survive and open its doors to the public today.
If you’re lucky enough to have been inside, you might have felt just as I did when I left the bustling East End and felt as if I’d travelled back in time...
First seeing this plain flagged hallway...
And the bar, directly to the right...
Before carrying on down past the stairs to see the hall’s foundation stone, unveiled by John Wilton’s wife, Ellen, on 9th December 1858. And on that stone you’ll read these words -
'To Great God Apollo, God of Early Morn, Who wakes the songbirds from eastern sky, we consecrate this shrine of gentle music, music that alternates from smiles to tears, smiles emanating from the purest mirth, and tears of sympathy that speak not sadness.’
What a wonderful ode that is, and what a shrine to Apollo was made at the back of the Prince of Denmark Bar, when John Wilton expanded his venue by buying up Georgian houses behind it, then hiring in builders and architects to create the most elegant intimate space...
As seen here when standing before the stage ...
And here, the view down from the gallery - though today you have to imagine the enormous gas burner chandelier that once sparkled above the audience, glittering back from the mirrors that were fixed in arched niches all around.
But the balcony’s papier mache frieze is still there in all its glory, as are the iron barley twist pillars which add such a carnival glamour below it. You can almost see the tables where punters are sitting or standing around, perhaps only buying a drink, or else staying for hours and eating too while waiters bustled round them. You can almost hear all the shouting and laughter, the clatter and bang, and the pop of champagne corks that would have provided the background noise while the acts were performing on the stage.
The atmosphere would have been raucous, just as the tavern glee clubs had been - the vibrant drinking, singing scene that evolved into grander music halls, and one of which John Wilton ran while employed as the chairman of bar entertainments at Dr Johnson’s Tavern in Fleet Street.
A chairman would literally sit on a chair placed directly in front of the stage, facing out towards the audience so that when a new act – or turn – came on, he would bang down with his gavel; that being a wooden hammer by which to keep order and gain the punters’ attention, while a loud and melodious voice would then call out introductions, and sometimes lead the audience in a bit of community singing too.
I like to imagine John doing just that while hosting the acts listed on this bill above... with singers, comedians, ventriloquists, burlesque and gymnastic performers. But to give you some examples of how extensive ‘Varieties’ became, I’m going to read this extract from the Dickens’ Dictionary of London, 1879, which describes the world of music hall as being something that –
'was started many years ago at the Canterbury Hall...The entertainments proving popular, the example was speedily followed in every quarter of the town. The performance in no way differs, except in magnitude, from those which are to be seen in every town of any importance throughout the country. Ballet, gymnastics, and so-called comic singing form the staple of the bill of fare, but nothing comes foreign to the music- hall proprietor. Performing animals, winners of walking-matches, successful skullers, shipwrecked sailors, swimmers of the channel, conjurers, ventriloquists, tight-rope dancers, campanologists, clog-dancers, sword swallowers, velocipedists, champion skaters, imitators, marionettes, decanter equilibrists, champion shots, living models of marble gems, fire princes, mysterious youths, spiral bicycle ascensionists, flying children, empresses of the air, kings of the wire, vital sparks, Mexican boneless wonders, white eyed musical Kaffers, strong-jawed ladies, cannon-ball performers, illuminated fountains, and that remarkable musical eccentricity the orchestra militaire, all having had their turn on the music hall stage.'
So, most anything - and everything - goes. And, in fact, while researching my novel, I was also surprised to discover that singers from Covent Garden opera house often stayed in stage costume after a show, then leapt into cabs to drive through town for a second shift in the music halls, when they belted out all the arias that most of the public knew by heart: a bit like a top of the pops for us - with the ‘Higher’ and ‘Lower’ cultures being nowhere near as separate as we might tend to imagine now, with many of the West End toffs, along with writers and artists, happy to go and ‘slum’ it - with the dockers and sailors, and labourers with whom they shared a common aim – which was to have a good night out – with all the cares of daily lives exchanged for glee and fantasy. But this was a fantasy that often also held up a mirror to real life, with singers and comedians often basing their material on the latest news or scandals that would be read in all the newspapers. You see, with no films or TV shows, and no radios to listen to, the halls offered an opportunity for an audience to join ‘as one’ – to try and make some sort of sense of the time and place in which they lived. And they lived in a time of hypocrisy - very mannered on the surface, but beneath that fragile moral veneer the demi-monde seethed with sex and sin.
Of course there were more pious acts, and even Queen Victoria shared the common man’s delight in superstar singers like Jenny Lind, the little Swedish nightingale who exuded a sweet femininity in the grandest theatres, and palaces.
But, she also inspired a popular song that featured in the music halls - those somewhat more risqué venues where convention could turn upon its head; resulting in some popular acts not mentioned on that Dictionary list...
And this is Dan Leno, in character for some songs and acts that he performed. But these personae often changed, sometimes being women, sometimes men, and more in the mode of the pantomime dame - whereas others acts...
Like Malcolm Scott (and yes, he was the brother of Scott of the Antarctic - an adventurous family all round) who started off as a conventional actor, but then, in the early Edwardian era transformed himself into The Woman Who Knows - a dedicated female impersonator, basing his outrageous performances on characters such as Salome, Nell Gwynne, Catherine Parr and a Gibson Girl.
But this world of the drag artiste was not exclusively male. There were women who dressed on stage as men and remained in that guise for their whole careers...which I think is very interesting in an age when women were only just beginning to call for suffrage - when they actually held very little power in the private or public domain legally. If they married, their husbands owned them, as they did their possessions and children.
Then, along comes Vesta Tilly - adored by women and men alike, even if some of those swooning girls who hung around the backstage doors may not have really understood what the true attraction was for them. And as far as the gentlemen punters went, well, Vesta hired the very finest tailors to make her stage attire, and her fabulous style even went on to influence masculine fashions of the day.
If you want to get a good idea of quite how appealing such acts could be, Youtube has footage of Hetty King – who worked the halls for seventy years – charismatic and droll right till the end! And for those of you who have not read Sarah Waters’ Tipping The Velvet, that novel provides the most wonderful view of the world of such theatrical acts. They were basically using their talent and wit to tip social conventions on their heads, and to knowingly mirror some of the acts of the earlier years of music hall. In essence to parody stars such as George Leybourne...
And, just thinking back to that Dictionary List - and the mention of various high wire acts, it was Leybourne who wrote the lyrics for That Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, about the French Jules Leotard - another sort of ‘mirror’ song built on the phenomenal success of the handsome athletic acrobat.
Well, when he wasn’t penning lyrics for songs, George Leybourne performed as a Lyon Comique, one of the Gentlemen Swells, who strode around, on stage and off as if they belonged to one of the Upper Classes’ Ten Thousand – those aristocratic men about town who were confident, blasé, and stylishly dressed - and whose songs were full of references to drinking, and sexual innuendo.
George – whose real name was Joe Saunders, but, then again, that might not be true – the records are quite sketchy – was born in 1842. He travelled to London from the Midlands – then again, it might have been Gateshead. But, wherever he might have hailed from, he had once been a mechanic, until giving that profession up for something more lucrative on the stage. In London, in 1864, he gave his first performance at the Whitechapel Music Hall, where he proved to be a great success, and something of a heart throb too; being muscular, lean, and very tall, and so handsome the ladies were said to swoon the moment he appeared on stage – and no wonder, with lyrics as bold as this...
Champagne Charlie is my name,
Good for any game at night, my boys, Good for any game at night, my girls...
That song also referenced something known as the PRFG game, which has various interpretations, but the one I found alluded to Private Rooms for Gentlemen - rooms which were hired by the hour or night - and for getting up to who knows what!
In his act, George would take on various guises to compliment his latest songs, but as far as Champagne Charlie went, the rumour about its origins was that Leybourne had been commissioned by the makers of Moet and Chandon Champagne to write and perform a music hall song to celebrate their product, and – in the words of the song itself – to sell it as broadly as possible: ‘From Dukes and Lords to cabman down, I make them drink champagne.'
Today, Moet and Chandon claim no knowledge of such a sponsorship deal. But I think I can say with confidence that Leybourne was very fond of Fizz which, sadly, led to his early death at the age of only 42. But then, alcohol was such a part of the music halls’ economy, and any endorsement of the drink that then helped to sell more to the customers also had the added benefit of making those performers very popular with the booking managers.
Such advertising branding – whether formally, or informally done – actually went on all the time. One popular ditty went like this:
‘She wouldn’t call for sherry; she wouldn’t call for beer;
She wouldn’t call for cham, because she knew ‘twould make her queer’
She wouldn’t call for Brandy, rum or anything they’d got’
She only called for Bovril – hot! hot! hot!
Not even the Brick Lane Temperance Society could take offence at that - and many people did take offence! Once, some local Methodists walked in through the doors of Wilton’s and were then so shocked by what they saw that they fell to their knees, right there and then, and prayed for God to help them break the power of the devil in that place.
The Salvation Army would often march along the streets of the East End, waving all their banners and flags while campaigning against the decadence going on inside in the halls and bars – and they’d very often sing the hymn - Bless His Name, He Sets Me Free - with lyrics composed by General Booth, the leader of the Army, but sung to the Champagne Charlie song, because – as Booth so wisely said - ‘Why Should the Devil have all the best tunes?’
Another devil in human form, and a rival to George Leybourne, was Alfred Peck Stevens - The Great Vance – who also sang boisterous drinking songs, and was, supposedly again, sponsored by a champagne company - this time being Veuve Cliquot. Imagine Blur versus Oasis today, and I think something of a similar kind of a public sparring match went on, with the two men often taken up with bating each other professionally. So when Vance had an enormous hit with a song called: ‘Walking in the Zoo’...
George Leybourne sang Lounging at the Aq – inspired by, and also promoting visits to the London Aquarium.
All that lounging and walking was no doubt done with the hope of trying to catch the eyes of any pretty girls around though, of course, when visiting the halls, there’d be plenty of girls looking out for them - in the form of prostitutes. However, when it came to Wilton’s a contemporary newspaper report affirmed that the manager made sure that the girls who worked his establishment were ‘more wholesome and straightforward looking than the harlots of the Haymarket.’
Indeed, in its earlier days, as reflected in the foundation stone, Wilton’s aspired to an elegant glamour, with acts such as Miss Annie Delemonte, described in this review as being...
“a superior vocalist, singing serial comic ditties in a way which charmed all who listened to her. Sarah Ann – a servant...a cantoneer who is the pet of the whole brigade... and Prince Jolly were the characters assumed. Her singing is extra delightful and her manner is ladylike and winsome to a high degree.’
Today, Miss Delamonte has all but faded into obscurity, unlike another singer who came a little later on and who was never all that ladylike. But she was extra delightful, so much so that she became a star, nationally, and internationally, though I don't think she ever appeared at Wilton’s because when her career was starting out the prayers of those ardent Methodists who once fell to their knees inside the hall had well and truly been answered. By 1888, Wilton’s doors had been closed up for immoral behaviour and decadence - and - irony of irony - it became a Methodist mission chapel!
It was in another chapel, and not so very far away, that a young girl called Matilda Alice Victoria Wood - born in Hoxton in 1870 - used to sing along with her siblings as one of the Fairy Bell Minstrels, with songs such as “Throw Down the Bottle and Never Drink Again” which proved to be very popular when performed at the Nile Street Sunday School, or the Blue Ribbon Gospel Temperance Mission; which we know as the Hoxton Hall today.
When not doing that, she’d bunk off school and loiter at strangers’ funerals, where she’d weep and wail so convincingly that every eye would turn her way. But then, she always craved to be the centre of attention; whichever way she found it.
Tilley, as she was known back then, did attempt to work in other trades, either making shoes for babies, or curling feathers for Ladies’ hats. However, the factory foreman sacked her for climbing up on the work tables where she danced and sang for the other girls, after which her parents finally agreed to let her have a chance of singing in the music halls.
At the age of just 15, under the name of Matilda Wood, she appeared at Hoxton’s Grecian Hall - where the Eagle Tavern is today - where her father worked as a waiter, and could keep an eye on his daughter who appeared in a costume that she’d made with a skirt to show her petticoats, and on her head a mantilla of lace to drape around her curling hair, through which her blue eyes sparkled, as did the large white teeth she had in a face not conventionally beautiful, but she did exude charisma that set her apart from all the rest, while she braved whatever cacophony was going on in the hall below and sang a sentimental song entitled “In the Good Old Days”. That was swiftly followed on by the dittie, My Soldier Laddie, after which she danced an Irish jig!
So successful was that act that – well – the rest is history. Tilly found a manager, George Ware, who changed her name to Marie. Marie as in Starry, with the surname of Lloyd being said to come from a copy of Lloyds Weekly Newspaper. Or perhaps a box of matches. Whatever the truth, she certainly became the flame for many hearts, with an act that was very strongly attuned to the growing success of the ‘Cockney performers’, with the patrons at the music halls delighting in catchy choruses with which they could all sing along.
They simply couldn’t get enough when Marie sang ...
The boy I love is up in the gallery,
The boy I love is looking now at me,
There he is, can’t you see, waving his handkerchief,
As merry as a robin that sings on a tree.
Such sweetness could turn to tartness in the merest blinking of an eye, and the writer Compton Mackenzie who saw her perform when just a boy, said that he had been
“amazed that any girl should have the courage to let the world see her drawers as definitely as Marie Lloyd.”
Perhaps she’d been singing The Tale of the Skirt –
By correct manipulation, she the figure can display,
And the ankles, and the, er well, it’s hard to turn the eyes away
When there’s half a yard of open work ...
And she murmurs ‘Saucy Monkey’ when a rude boy shouts, What ho!...
The rude boys would have loved it when she did an act with a parasol, which she’d seem to struggle to open, before saying with a knowing wink, ‘Thank God, I haven’t had it up for months!’
And during a London pantomime, egged on by her co-star, Little Itch, Marie knelt to pray by a bed and then reached underneath it, as if to find a chamber pot - which the audience thought hilarious – as they did whenever she might sing: ‘I sits among the cabbages and peas', which alluded to outside lavatories, built at the bottom of gardens, and where – as the lyrics quaintly described – a young woman, “sits and shells with ease. Till the pretty little peapot’s full of peas.'
Imagine singing that too fast - and although such scatological humour might seem pretty tame today, Marie’s objectors were outraged. She was charged with indecency and appeared before the Theatre’s Vigilance Committee, where she then defended herself by singing “A Little of what you fancy does you good’ in such a coy sweet manner that no-one could find a thing to condemn. And, finally, in an act of defiance, she recited the lyrics of Tennyson’s poem, ‘Come into the Garden Maud’ with such a carnal knowing air at every utterance of ‘come’ that everyone present was stunned into silence -
Marie’s career could not be stopped, as shown in this review for a performance in a pantomime written up in Black and White Magazine...
'I fancy some of my superior readers lifting their eyebrows and exclaiming: "What! Marie Lloyd an artist!" Yes, indeed! If you have one scrap of appreciation for art in your soul...you roar when she sings and winks that roguish eye of hers: you roar so heartily that you forget to ask why you roar and how she makes you roar ... She knows when to be restrained, when to be ebullient; she may be vulgar at times, but she is always humorous...she can make her brilliant white teeth flash on you so suddenly that you are dazzled; her wink tickles you; her smile warms you; her chuckle rouses you to responsive merriment. But it is useless trying to set down in the space of a half-column the multifarious delights of Miss Lloyd's art. She is great, and she must be seen to be appreciated. You go doubting – you come away her slave.'
And speaking of slaves there’s a story told of how Marie, then in middle age, had sailed to New York for a run of shows, but before she’d even left the ship someone informed the authorities that she’d shared her cabin with a man by the name of Bernard Dillon - a race horse jockey half her age who did eventually marry her. But at that point her second husband, the Cockney performer Alec Hurley, was still very much alive at home. The lovers were called ‘undesirables’ and detained for ‘moral turpitude’, with Dillon then arrested on some ridiculous trumped up charges of importing Marie to New York as a product of the white slave trade!
Back in England, by 1915, Marie had put the scandal behind her, working hard for the First World War Effort, travelling around the country, visiting hospitals and factories, and entertaining frontline troops with, ‘Now You’ve Got your Khaki on’. But she had her own battles to fight at home, with that marriage to Bernard Dillon proving a disaster, with Marie often resorting to drink while attempting to forget her woes. And going back to that idea of music hall acts reflecting real life... Marie’s songs often mirrored her life as well. So, when she sang ‘My Old Man Said Follow the Van, and don’t dilly dally on the way', she referred to the plight of the homeless poor who might have to do a midnight flit when they hadn’t the money to pay the rent - at a time when she was homeless too - not destitute as such - but fleeing the home that she had shared with the philandering and violent husband, whose extravagance soon left his wife in debt.
This is Marie a year before her death - no longer so young or resilient, and she knew her star was fading. When Virginia Wood went to see her at Camden’s Bedford Hall she wrote of: “A mass of corruption – long front teeth – a crapulous way of saying 'desire', – scarcely able to walk, waddling, aged, unblushing...” How cruel that was! But sadly, true. Marie had become unreliable, often not showing up for work, or being so drunk that she stumbled about and fell into the scenery.
She gave her final performance on the stage of the London Alhambra when she sang in greatly weakened voice: “It’s a bit of a ruin that Cromwell knocked about a bit”. What a ruin she’d become - and it seems the cruellest irony - especially when considering where Marie Lloyd’s career began: in the Sunday school, and the mission hall, condemning the sins of alcohol - to know that she collapsed on stage as the audience roared with laughter, not knowing that this was no act.
She fell into a coma from which she never woke again. Three days later, Marie Lloyd was dead - mentally and physically exhausted, her body ravaged by alcohol, although right up until the end she tried to put a brave face on things, insisting: “Let them think I died of good living – don’t leave them crying.”
But Marie did leave them crying. Her final performance, her funeral, on October 12, 1922, is perhaps comparable today with that of Diana, Princess of Wales – with over 100,000 fans coming out to line the streets as her coffin progressed to a Hampstead church.
Max Beerbohm, the famous essayist said it was London’s biggest funeral since the death of The Duke of Wellington, when so many mourners had the sense that this was a woman who’d touched their hearts, who felt that they’d lost a personal friend.’ And that sentiment was also shared by the poet, T S Elliot, who wrote that the key to her success was the fact that she never tried to hide what had been the humblest of origins – claiming that honesty loaned her a moral superiority, through which she had “the capacity for expressing the soul of the people - which made her something quite unique.”
Marie was certainly unique, and in a way it’s safe to say that her death marked the end of era - the twilight years of the music halls - when so many of the night-time crowds now flocked to the silent films instead, with any of the grand old halls converted into cinemas. And then, at the end of World War II, many people preferred to stay at home with their televisions – upon which they might well have seen programmes like The Good Old Days; named after the song Marie Lloyd performed when she first trod the boards at the Grecian Hall, with the viewers nostalgically singing along with all the songs that they still knew.