From the V & A Archives

The VV really loves this engraving. It reminds her of the time when she wrote The Somnambulist, her first Victorian novel which opens with an imaginary scene of a pantomime at Wilton's Hall, even though Wilton's did not host such shows at the time of the novel's setting. 

Many other places did. During the Victorian era a Christmas trip to a pantomime was a thrilling traditional thing to do, with shows made up of story and songs, with rhyming couplets, double entendres, and a lashings of topical wit as well.

From the V & A Archives

The name of 'pantomime' stems back from as long ago as Ancient Greece, when an actor or 'pantomimus' told stories by the means of mime or dance, with that act often accompanied by music and a chorus line.

In the middle ages, the Italian Commedia dell’Arte (for which we also owe our thanks for the creation of Punchinello, or Mr Punch) was a type of entertainment where troupes of performers travelled round to give shows in markets or fairgrounds. They improvised their story lines around the character Harlequin, who wore a diamond-patterned costume and carried a magic wand. Later, this part was famously played by Grimaldi the clown, who died in 1837 - the year Queen Victoria came to the throne.

Joseph Grimaldi as Harlequin

As Victoria’s reign progressed the stories told by Harlequin became entwined with the antics of rural English Mummers. Eventually those shows evolved into quite grand productions – although many pantomimes back then were still then based around Harlequin's character. 

From the V & A Archives

The proof is found in the titles for shows such as Harlequin and the Forty Thieves ~ or  Jack and the Beanstalk; or, Harlequin Leap-Year, and the Merry Pranks of the Good Little People (surely some dwarves had been employed). In 1863 W S Gilbert wrote Harlequin Cock Robin and Jenny Wren; or, Fortunatus and the Waters of Life, the Three Bears, the Three Gifts, the Three Wishes, and the Little Man who Wooed a Little Maid ~ though that particular event may have been somewhat ambitious in scope and dramatic complexity. Years later Gilbert was heard to confess that perhaps it was not the best title to use.

Augustus Harris

But, for whatever reason, as time went by the Harlequin character was included much less often. Productions such as those put on by Augustus Harris, manager at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, were based on traditional fairy tales such as Jack and the Beanstalk, or Cinderella. These were still extravagant stagings featuring ballets, acrobatics and enormous processions of specially recruited children. There would be magicians, and slapstick, cross-dressing and innuendo. There was audience participation too, in the vein of the still familiar refrains of  'Oh no, he isn’t…Oh yes, he is'. 

From the V & A Archives

There were also the popular ‘skins’, when actors would dress in animal garb, even as frightening insects such as in the show, Cinderella (above).  However, more comically, they would play the back or the front end of a pantomime horse or cow ~ a role once undertaken at the Stockport Hippodrome by an aspiring young actor by the name of Charlie Chaplin.

Shows could go on for hours. Back in 1881, Augustus' Harris’ The Forty Thieves began at 7.30pm and ended at 1am the next morning. One scene alone lasted for over forty minutes while the thieves (each with his own followers) processed across the stage. The staging cost was £65,000, the equivalent of several millions today. But then, with popular music hall acts such as Marie Lloyd and Dan Leno employed to take the starring roles, Harris’ shows were a great success – artistically and financially. 


  1. You have a wonderful blog, so happy I stumbled upon it! Have a wonderful New Year!
    Take Care,

  2. After world war two (and perhaps even before, I don't know), Australian children saw two different pantos every summer holidays. Until 1960, I didn't miss a single one - the maternal grandmother took all the grandchildren to one and the paternal grandmother took us to the other.

    It was the highlight of my childhood :)

  3. How lovely Hels - lovely memories I'm sure.

    Pantomimes used to run from Easter all the way up to Christmas - so quite a business for the theatres.

  4. I've never been to one, but it sounds wonderful. I'd really like it. Hels, I can understand why it was the highlight of your childhood.

  5. Fantastic Christmasy post Essie, you always come up with some magic for the occasion.