George Leybourne was born in Newcastle in 1842. Often called Joe Saunders, he began his working life in the role of a labourer. But, with such good looks and a fine baritone voice, when he eventually travelled to London he transformed himself into the very first superstar of the London music halls.

His career really took off when he met the composer Alfred Lee, when together they wrote such successful songs as That Daring Young Man on his Flying Trapeze, based on the acrobat, Jules Leotard.

But, a song called Champagne Charlie brought the greatest wealth and fame, when George Leybourne, as he was then professionally known, was sponsored by Moet and Chandon, appearing on stage as a West End swell - very elegant in his top hat and tails, carrying a silver-topped cane, and waving a bottle of champagne. But, life imitated art a little too closely in this case. George was often warned by the law for being too lewd and suggestive and, at the age of 42, he died in penury, exhausted from his schedule of work, and also rumoured to be suffering from the excesses of alcohol.

At the height of his fame, George had an arch rival. The Great Vance was another 'Lion Comique' who also performed boisterous drinking songs and was sponsored by Cliquot Champagne. But the competition did not end there...

When Vance had a great hit with 'Walking in the Zoo,' (his shortened slang term for the Zoological Gardens, then coming into common parlance), George answered with 'Lounging at the Aq', inspired by the London Aquarium.

If you want to hear some of the songs, you can watch Alberto Cavalcanti's film called 'Champagne Charlie', which was made in 1944, and which starred Tommy Trinder as George and Stanley Holloway as The Great Vance.


  1. The 'Aq' doesn't have quite the same ring to it - no wonder it didn't catch on!

    When was 'Walking in the Zoo' produced? The title is perfect for one of my characters to mention as part of a joke, but the date is probably going to be too late.

  2. Hello, Caro - well, as far as I can make out, the lithograph for the cover of the sheet music was published in 1871.

    I forgot to mention the PRFG game, from Champagne Charlie! I think I'll do a mini post on that tomorrow and, of course, credit my informed source!

  3. Very interested in knowing what the prfg game is. Can you help?

  4. Hi,
    I am really interested in knowing what the prfg game is so I can inform audiences when we sing 'Champagne Charlie'. Can you help?
    Thank you.

  5. Hello, Nellie - well apparantly the PRFG game refers to PRIVATE ROOMS FOR GENTLEMEN - those upstairs rooms let out by publicans to accomodate their more amorous clientelle, who might want to be alone with their lady friends, or more often with prostitutes.

    I'm not sure how that will fit in with your performance! Do let know how it goes.

    Best wishes.

    Essie Fox

  6. Hello Essie,
    Thanks so much for that! I looked everywhere for an answer with no luck - your answer will be just perfect for our performances!!
    Best wishes, Nellie (www.hautbois.co.uk)

  7. George Leybourne at the start of his career used the stage name Joe Saunders but in actual fact George Laybourne was his real name. This has been a common misconception for a long time but his birth certificate proves the Joe Saunders myth to be just that.

  8. Thank you, Glyn. I appreciate that information.

  9. I have now adapted the post above - hopefully not to add more confusion!

  10. Glyn apologizes for the typo in his spelling of Leybourne's name - of course in the early days of his career George was constantly having trouble with people getting it wrong in print - this was after he had reverted to the family name of Leybourne.

    Volume I of my biography of George Leybourne, 'The Heaviest of Swells' comes out in October 2010. Therein you will find another version of the initials PRFG.

    I will keep you posted!

  11. Just to let you know at the Virtual Victorian, [excellent site by the way!] that Volume I of my biography of George Leybourne - Champagne Charlie - has just been published [March 2011] - title - The Heaviest of Swells. In it I give an alternative to the PRFG intials; one for which I have B&W proof! www.heaviestofswells.com

  12. Does anybody know the name of his wife? I've found Anne Elizabeth Laybourne, 43 (b 1838),widow, servant, living with Col the Hon F.A. Wellesley at 5, Adelphi Terrace, London, on the 1881 Census. He was the brother-in-law of Champagne Charlie himself, the 6th Earl of Hardwicke and was to marry a showgirl, Kate Vaughn. Too much of a coincidence?