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Music Essays - English Music Hall

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Music
Wordcount: 3146 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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A Short History of the English Music Hall.

The term ‘Music Hall’ is used to refer to a venue, or to a form of entertainment taking place at that venue, typically featuring a number of miscellaneous acts, possibly including musical turns, comedy and acrobatics, in a relatively formalised programme. It is also often termed ‘variety’.

This essay considers the early roots of Music Hall, its growth in the late 19th century, and its subsequent loss of popularity in the face of competition from other media in the 20th century. Taken into account are the socio-economic environment and also the development of musical styles within the Music Hall context. It will be shown that the influence of Music Hall is still widespread in popular culture today.


Music Hall developed from a range of entertainments, some of which had been part of English culture for centuries.

Broadsides first appeared in the 1500s (Gammond 1991: 82): they were an early equivalent of the newspaper. News stories and satire were printed in verse form with the instructions ‘To the tune of…’, with the intention that the text should be sung to a well-known musical theme, typically a folk-ballad. The music itself was rarely printed, and so broadsides relied on the tradition of passing tunes on orally. In later broadsides, tunes were often popular songs from plays, with the intention of promoting shows in return for sponsorship – an early form of advertising revenue. The ballad was engrained in culture, but the demand and resources of the populus were not yet sufficient to support the growth of a performance industry.

Also influential were the many fairs which were trading and entertainment events. In his diary, Samuel Pepys mentions attending Bartholomew Fair in 1661 and “seeing the monkeys dance” (Pepys 1661), and a number of Music Halls in the late 19th century featured animal acts (Gillies 1999: 31).

One-man shows, such as those offered by Charles Dibdin (1745-1814), show elements of entertainment that were later developed in Music Halls. Dibdin can be seen as a key link between earlier folk-art traditions and the increasingly commercialised musical world of the 19th century (Gammond 1991: 153-5). He was a prolific song-writer, who had considerable success with light operas and by selling rights to his songs. These were the early days of copyright law, which developed in the late 19th century firstly to grant exclusivity of performance rights to singers and subsequently to effect a royalties system for composers.

Two types of venue preceded Music Halls and had a particular influence on them: taverns and song-and-supper rooms. In taverns, a working-class clientele participated in singing along with their drinking. In song-and-supper rooms, the middle-class man-about-town (no women were admitted) could enjoy a meal while singers entertained. Song-and-supper rooms typically opened around midnight, and entertainment could be bawdy.

Some of the early stars of Music Hall began their careers in taverns and song-and-supper rooms. Sam Cowell (1820-1864) is an example, and can be considered one of the first professional singer-songwriters. By 1850, he was earning a good living from the song-and-supper rooms, but had begun his career as an actor and had also performed in opera. In ‘Villikins and his Dinah’, regularly performed by Cowell, we see characteristics that were to become widespread in Music Hall songs, in particular the use of ‘commentary’ between sections of the song to increase its drama. Thus prior to verse 8, where the ghosts of Villikins and Dinah appear to Dinah’s father, the performer sets the scene:

“Now this is the superlatively supernatural wisitation [sic] which appeared to the parient [sic] at midnight after the disease of his only progeny.”
(Davison 1971: 23)

The affectations in the language and pronunciation suggest the creation of the narrator as a character in his own right, and characterisation is another important element of the Music Hall song, as will be seen shortly.

The growth of Music Hall was dependent on an audience able to pay for it, and with an interest in what it had to offer. The growth of a potential market is evident by the mid-19th century, when a number of Music Halls were opened (Sadie 1980: XII/832). In the mid-1840s, Evans’, a former song-and-supper room was reopened as a Music Hall. In 1849, Charles Morton, a pioneer of Music Hall, took over the Canterbury Arms in Lambeth and developed it as a venue. He enlarged it in 1856, and in 1861 opened the Oxford Music Hall in Oxford Street (Sadie 1980: XII/832). This idea of having a chain of venues gained ground in the latter part of the century.

Early Developments 1850-1870

The 1850s and 60s can be considered as a first phase of Music Hall. Programmes were varied, with classical and popular music appearing on the same bill. Extracts from Gounod’s opera Faust (1859) performed in Music Halls provided the first hearings of the work for English audiences.

A number of early Music Hall songs use old musical themes with new texts: for example, ‘Sam Hall’ can be traced back to a ballad about Captain Kidd. Harry Clifton’s ‘Polly Perkins of Paddington Green’ (1863) uses what appears to be a folk-tune (possibly ‘Nightingales Sing’), but its lyrics possess a humour not seen in folk music: Polly doesn’t marry a ‘Wicount’ or a ‘Nearl’, but in the punchline of the song, weds a “bow-legged Conductor of a twopenny bus” (Gammond 1991: 411). The same tune is used for another well-known Music Hall song, ‘Cushie Butterfield’, which was particularly popular in the Newcastle area. Tyneside had its own strong Music Hall tradition, giving rise to songs such as ‘The Blaydon Races’ and ‘Keep Your Feet Still Geordie Hinney’ and all three songs display a similar humour to ‘Polly Perkins’. The lyrics draw on local dialect – Cushie is “a young lass in Gyetsid [Gateshead]” who “likes hor beor [her beer]” (Davison 1971: 31).

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With ‘Champagne Charlie’ (1868), the development of the character song is evident. Performed and co-written by George Leybourne, the Champagne Charlie character is described as a ‘swell’: a well-to-do man-about-town with a taste for Moët. Unlike ‘Villikins’, the text is in the first person, Leybourne becoming the Champagne Charlie character in performance. The song is perhaps the first advertising jingle, and was used to promote Moët, with Leybourne rumoured to partial to the drink (he died prematurely of alcoholism). His salary at this time was around £30 a week – certainly adequate to indulge in the Champagne Charlie lifestyle. However, the character was an act: Leybourne was not a ‘toff’, but a former mechanic who remained illiterate and spoke with a strong Black Country accent (Gammond 1991: 334)

Concern was growing over the activities in Music Halls. Articles in The Tomahawk focus on the quality of the entertainment: it had been suggested that the Music Hall would “exercise a beneficial influence over the progress of music amongst the lower classes” but “Music Hall…is mischievous to the art which it pretends to uphold” (Anon 1867).  At the time, improvement of the working classes through access to the arts was promoted among some thinkers. Two years later, Music Halls are criticised for being dens of vice: “I am positively assured…that on certain recognised nights loose women are admitted to these places without payment.” (Greenwood 1869). The often poor reputation of the Music Halls contributed to later attempts by the authorities to regulate their activities.

Heyday 1870-1900

The development of Music Halls should be seen in context of wider developments in the social and economic environment of Victorian England. Following the Industrial Revolution, workers migrated from rural communities to cities, and this pattern accelerated in the 1870s. By the mid-1880s, around half the population of London had been born elsewhere (Harris 1994: 42-3).
Simultaneously, leisure time increased. In the late 1860s, a half-day holiday was introduced on a Saturday, and in the 1870s, the 9-hour working day was introduced (Harris 1994: 139). Leisure time became a larger part of life for the working classes, and Music Hall was one activity that benefited from this.

Drinking had always formed an element of the Music Hall entertainment, but the ruling classes had sought to control this. In 1878, London County Council restricted the consumption of liquor to the back of the halls (Sadie 1980: XII/833), also demanding that a proscenium arch and fire curtain be installed at all venues (there had been a number of fires at Music Halls). A number of smaller operators were forced to shut down, while the larger operators built up chains of venues, with Music Halls growing in size and number. In June 1888, a House of Lords debate quoted a figure of 473 Music Halls in London alone (Gillies 1999: 23).

Larger halls meant that some of the intimacy of earlier venues was lost. Instead of a Chairman introducing acts and enjoying banter with the audience, venues identified performers by use of an indicator board, with each act having a number. In this environment of larger audiences, the most successful performers were able to command substantial fees, and some became internationally famous.

Up to this point, Music Hall stars had been almost exclusively male, but from around 1880, women appeared regularly at Music Halls and were among the most successful Music Hall stars. Marie Lloyd is probably the best known: by 1891, she was appearing at several venues each night and earning £100 a week. At this time, a 2-up, 2-down house in Oldham cost £150-180 (Harris 1994: 113). In 1911, twenty years later,  only just over 2% of the population earned over £160 in a year (Harris 1994: 107). In comparative terms, therefore, Lloyd’s earnings were on a par with a Premiership footballer today. In her early career, she infamously fell foul of performing rights by adopting ‘The Boy I Love Is Up In The Gallery’ as a key song in her repertoire, and she is still strongly associated with it. However, Nelly Power, another singer of the day, had exclusive performance rights for the song, and Lloyd was forced to stop singing it (Gillies 1999: 18 et al).

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At this time, exclusive association with a particular song enabled a performer to generate bookings, as nobody else was allowed to perform it. Songwriters sold a song with performing rights to a singer, and were thereafter not entitled to any further income. They relied on writing more songs on the same basis, but campaigned for further payments and the royalties system of today developed. 

Pantomime was also an outlet for Music Hall stars, who would appear singing the songs for which they were most famous. This had a profound influence on the development of pantomime, with traditional characters such as Harlequin and Columbine dropped in favour of interpretations of fairy tales built around the Music Hall personalities and their repertoires.

The music publishing industry had grown alongside the development of Music Halls. By the 1830s, songs such as ‘He was such a nice young man’ and ‘All round my hat’ (a folk tune) were produced for sale at Pleasure Gardens or song-and-supper rooms. The music catalogues of publishers typically included a range of material including songs, operatic arias, hymns and dances. Charles Sheard was publishing Music Hall material from around 1852 as part of its Musical Bouquet series (Gammond 1991: 410). From 1850-1900, the price of a piano dropped and some manufacturers introduced monthly payment schemes, making the instrument more accessible (Gillies 1991: 66). This helped the Music Hall songs become firmly engrained in the popular musical culture of the time.

Songs had an air of respectability about them until around 1860, after which many started to display more vulgarity. This was still subtle by modern standards: Dan Leno’s trademark song ‘The Swimming Master’ (by Herbert Darnley) makes much of the need for bodily contact with the ladies being taught to swim – if they feel they’re sinking, then “To my manly chest they cling” (Davison 1971:69) – but goes no further than suggestion.

Some venues decreased the classical element of their music programmes. Dickens (1879) comments that “the operatic selections which were at one time the distinguishing feature of the Oxford have of late years been discontinued”, and evidence from Music Hall programmes from this time onwards shows a focus on popular idioms. However, other Music Halls continued to offer what might be considered as more ‘highbrow’ entertainment. The Alhambra in Leicester Square specialised in ballet, and Evans’ in Covent Garden offered “songs, glees, and part songs, executed by a well-trained choir” (Anon 1867). The ballets at the Alhambra continued to at least the turn of the century and it also staged a number of operettas.

Decline 1900-1920

In its early days, Music Hall had been seen as a largely lower-class entertainment. In the early 1900s, it gained respectability, with knighthoods for some of its key personalities and the first Royal Command Performance, featuring Music Hall acts, taking place in 1912 (Sadie 1980: XII/833).

A number of developments led to the decline of Music Halls. In 1914, eating and drinking in the auditorium was banned (Gammond 1991: 409 et al) and Music Halls in effect became theatres. Many continued to offer seasons of variety performances, and there was still great interest in the entertainment, but it was now required to compete with new media: first the cinema, then radio. New music styles such as jazz were also gaining in popularity. Its influence is evident in some later Music Hall songs: ‘Lily of Laguna’ (1898) uses syncopation and describes an idealised world of African Americans living in the Southern States of the US. Its use of language such as ‘nigger’ and ‘coon’ would be considered offensive today, but reflects the very different attitude to race at the time (Davison 1971: 95). The song was written by the English songwriter Leslie Stuart for Eugene Stratton, an American performer who appeared regularly ‘blacked up’ : this practice was widespread within the Music Hall, and continued for many years with The Black and White Minstrels a popular TV show as late as the 1970s.

By the 1940s, Music Hall had largely disappeared. Gramophones provided musical entertainment in the home. The stars of variety diversified: Gracie Fields developed firstly a film career then focused on radio broadcasts in addition to appearances in variety (Gammond 1991: 189), and George Formby appeared in a number of films as well as continuing the work of his father (also George Formby, a popular variety singer at the turn of the century) in Royal Command performances and other revues (Gammond 1991: 203).

The Legacy of the Music Hall

The influence of the Music Hall is still very much evident in British culture. It played a major part in the development of stand-up comedy, and the Comedy Club, which has seen a revival in recent years with chains such as Jongleurs, owes an obvious debt to the Music Hall tradition.

The variety show featured regularly on TV well into the 1970s on shows such as ‘The Good Old Days’, and the annual Royal Command Performance, with a range of acts, is still televised. Pantomimes too feature many characteristics of those in the late 19th century, with TV personalities taking the roles that Music Hall celebrities enjoyed a hundred years ago.

The musical styles seen in Music Hall continue to influence artists. ‘Obladi, Oblada’ (Lennon and McCartney, recorded by the Beatles 1968) features a fourline verse with sequence-based melodies and a simple refrain, with a line repeated, reminiscent of the choruses inviting audience participation in Music Hall. More recently, Blur’s ‘Parklife’ (1994) uses the concept of performer taking on a personality, with club- and concert-goers joining in with the ‘Parklife’ motif at the end of each line, much like a Music Hall audience would have joined in with choruses.
Music Hall should therefore be seen not just as a cultural phenomenon in its own right, but as a development in a long history of popular song and entertainment.

Clarke, Donald (Ed) (1989) Penguin Encyclopaedia of Popular Music (Viking, London)
Davison, Peter (1971) Songs of the British Music Hall (Oak Publications, New York)
Dickens, Charles Jnr (1879) Dickens Dictionary of London ‘Music Halls’, reproduced on www.arthurlloyd.co.uk
Frith, Simon and Marshall, Lee (2004) Music and Copyright (2nd Edition, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh)
Frow, Gerald (1985) Oh Yes It Is! A History of Pantomime (BBC, London)
Gillies, Midge (1999) Marie Lloyd: The One and Only (Gollancz, London)
Gammond, Peter (1991) The Oxford Companion to Popular Music (Oxford University Press, Oxford)
Harding, James (1990) George Robey and the Music Hall (Hodder and Stoughton, London)
Harris, Jose (1994) Private Lives, Public Spirit: Britain 1870-1914 (Penguin, London)
Kilgariff, Michael (Compiler) (1998) Sing us One of the Old Songs: A Guide to Popular Song 1860-1920 (Oxford University Press, Oxford)
Middleton, Richard (1990) Studying Popular Music (Open University, Milton Keynes)
Price, Richard (1999) British Society, 1680-1880 (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge)
Sadie, Stanley (1980) New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians Vol. 12 pp831-834 (McMillan, London)
Thompson, F M L (1988) The Rise of Respectable Society: A Social History of Traubner, Richard (1984) Operetta: A Theatrical History (Gollancz, London)
Victorian Britain 1830-1900 (Fontana, London)
Waites, Bernard, Bennett, Tony and Martin, Graham (Eds.) (1982) Popular Culture: Past and Present (Croom Helm, London, in Association with the Open University)
Weightman, Gavin (2003) What the Industrial Revolution Did for Us (BBC, London)



  • Anon (1867) Extracts from ‘The Tomahawk, 14th and 21st September 1867 
  • Dickens, Charles Jnr (1879) ‘Music Halls’ from Dickens’s Dictionary of London
  • Greenwood, James (1869) The Seven Curses of London


  • Pepys, Samuel (1661) Diary extract from 31st August 1661


Blur ‘Parklife’ (From the album ‘Parklife’, 1994, Food Records)
The Beatles ‘Obladi, Oblada’ (From the White Album, 1968, Parlophone)


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