By Richard Anthony Baker

Pen & Sword Books. 292 pages. £16.99. ISBN 978-1-78383-1180

Reviewed by Jim Burns

I grew up in the 1940s and 1950s with so many of the songs referred to in this book seeming to still be part of the almost common musical language of the period, even though they mostly dated from before the First World War. But, unless my memory is faulty, the best of them could sometimes be heard on the radio, and in old films that were circulating in the small cinemas that survived in towns and cities in the austerity-hit years after the Second World War. And little pubs in the side-streets  didn’t have piped music, and instead relied on a pianist to get a sing-song going on a Saturday night. The songs were often those that nearly everybody knew, like “Lily of Laguna”, “On Mother Kelly’s Doorstep”, and “Dear Old Pals”.  And the one that drunks bawled out, “Nellie Dean”.

Perhaps I’m being selective with my memories, and I was just an individual who happened to be interested in the old songs, so now remember them as being more available than they actually were? In the 1940s and early-1950s dance-bands were popular and the Top Twenty (though continuing to be based on sheet-music sales) attracted attention on the radio. And if you had asked me in 1950, when I was fourteen, what my prime musical concerns were, I would have immediately said, modern jazz. But I still liked to hear those old music hall songs.

What might be called the “sociology” of the music halls is fascinating. If it’s necessary to place some sort of framework on it then I’d suggest the years from 1850 to 1914 might be suitable. It shouldn’t be necessary to stress that there were developments that led up to 1850 and others that took place after 1914. Strict boundaries don’t apply in a case like this. On the other hand, it does seem to me that the most-significant events and songs associated with British music halls probably did occur in the time-frame referred to. The peak period could be 1880 to 1910.

Richard Anthony Baker sketches in the broad social background to the late-nineteenth century, with its poverty and slums and vast disparities of privilege and wealth. He also shows how the music halls grew out of a tradition of “free-and-easies”, rough-and-ready places of working-class entertainment, and pubs with “singing rooms” where professional or semi-professional performers might be hired to pull in customers. Needless to say, such locations were not looked on kindly by middle-class moralists: “The epidemic of vocal music has more particularly spread its contagious and devastating influence amongst the youth of the Metropolis, the London apprentice boys”. The writer went on to say that the “free-and-easies” were designed for the “advancement of drunkenness and profligacy”.

Purpose-built music halls soon appeared, and Baker pays attention to Canterbury Hall and other establishments built by Charles Morton, the so-called “father of the halls”. He initially hired Sam Cowell, a popular “character singer”, as a star attraction, but he also aimed to draw in a wider audience than had frequented the free-and-easies” and “singing rooms” of earlier days. There were  ways around copyright laws and Morton had an orchestra which played selections from Verdi, Donizetti, and Gounod. Baker notes that Thackeray and Dickens both visited the Canterbury.

With music halls spreading around London and in the provinces there was a demand for singers, comedians and other artists to fill the bills. And the singers required songs, so there was a rise in the number of song writers able to supply them. I think it’s often forgotten that, with few exceptions, the performers didn’t write their own material. There were thousands of songs produced during the lifetime of the music halls.  Most songs came and went within weeks, unless one caught the public’s fancy, so there was a constant demand for them. Joe Tabrar claimed to have written 17,000 by 1894. Baker seems a little suspicious, but does acknowledge that the evidence points to at least 7,000. He adds that “He should have been rich, but he was yet another music hall writer who ended his days with scarcely a penny to his name”. It’s not surprising when we know that he sold “Daddy Wouldn’t Buy Me a Bow-Wow” to Vesta Victoria for two guineas. She had a hit with it, and the song became popular world-wide, but Tabrar had parted with it outright and no royalties were involved. And perhaps Tabrar’s personal attitudes played a part when he recalled that he’d made thousands for other people, but not for himself, and said: “I am the most Bohemian of all the Bohemians you ever met. I don’t value money. I never valued money”.    

It’s probably impossible now to understand why particular songs became popular if one looks closely at the melodies and lyrics in a detached manner. They’re mostly mundane, and what gave them any kind of individuality or  interest was the way in which they were delivered.  Performers knew this and worked to perfect their acts accordingly. It was a case of “It’s not what you do it’s the way that you do it”. There were some recorded examples of music hall songs, but though they can give an indication of how a song was sung in terms of phrasing (and what wonderful, clear diction most of the performers displayed), they can’t tell us how they were presented from the point of view of body movements, etc. There are very few early filmed examples from the days of the music halls.  

There were exceptions to the generally routine nature of much music hall material. A memorable tune and amusing or appropriate words might help a song to endure. A personal favourite is the delightful, “The Boy in the Gallery”, originally written for Nellie Power but made famous by the Queen of the Music Hall, Marie Lloyd.  When she sang it to the gallery, where the working-class customers gathered, she was singing to her own (see Walter Sickert’s paintings of the gallery at the Old Bedford Music Hall in Camden Town). Like many of the music hall artists she never forgot where she came from. It’s a song that has lasted, its simple melody and lyrics having an appealing quality that cuts across the years. Even before a song like “The Boy in the Gallery” played on the working-class setting for at least part of its appeal, Harry Clifton had a hit with “Pretty Polly Perkins of Paddington Green” in 1863. 

Many performers were associated with a particular song, though it would be misleading to suggest that Marie Lloyd was only ever known for “The Boy in the Gallery”. She could be lively, and even a little bawdy, as in “A Little of What you Fancy Does you Good”, where, as can be imagined, a few glances and gestures would quickly add meaning to what is fancied. Lloyd probably earned a reputation for slightly-salacious material more from rumour than actual experience, and a number of anecdotes grew up around her. But, as Baker makes clear, she “she sang saucy songs, made saucier by a wink, a naughty look, a flick of her dress”.  One anecdote that I recall, and my memory may not have all the details right, is of her singing the polite, parlour song, “Come into the Garden, Maude” (based on a Tennyson poem), and with just a few inflections of the voice, and minor movements of the body, making it evident what Maude went into the garden for. When she died 50,000 people lined the route of her funeral procession. T.S. Eliot wrote: “No other comedian succeeded so well in giving expression to the life of (an) audience – in raising it to a kind of art”.

Lloyd was one of what Baker calls “music hall’s three greatest entertainers”, the other two being Dan Leno and Little Tich. Leno was a great favourite in pantomimes, as well as on stage at the music-halls. He appeared in the guise of a “wide range of comic characters: the railway guard, the detective, the County Councillor, the holiday-maker, and many more”. He doesn’t seem to have had any songs he was noted for, and his acts contained a great deal of comic patter “in which he lovingly satirised whichever character he was playing”. There is a story about the great classical actor, Henry Irving, appearing at a matinee performance with Leno. Irving expected that he would follow Leno and top the bill, but was advised against it. When he stood in the wings and watched Leno’s hold on the audience, he understood why. It would have been a great mistake to have tried to follow him.

Sadly, Leno, like quite a few other entertainers of the time, developed a drink problem which began to affect his performances. He died in 1904, and someone who knew him said, “Leno was killed by his friends. He paid the penalty of genius by becoming a continual show”. 

Little Tich, the stage persona of Harry Relph, was rightly named, or nick-named (PC wouldn’t allow it now), being only 4’6” high. On stage he “performed a highly-individual routine in shoes that were just half that length, managing, at one point, to stand on tiptoe”. He eventually terminated the act because of the pain and discomfort it caused him.  But before that he’d toured around Europe, and in Paris became a friend of the equally-diminutive artist, Toulouse-Lautrec. He continued well into the 1920s, hardly varying his act – “a song, some patter, a dance in character” – but had a stroke in 1927 and died. J.B.Priestley spoke highly of his talents and described him as “a star of the first magnitude”.

Neither Leno nor Little Tich seemed to have relied on notable songs to enhance their performances, but many other music hall entertainers are now often remembered, when they are, for a specific number, sometimes more than one. Gus Elen, who dressed as a cockney coster, had two popular hits, “If it Wasn’t for the Houses in Between” and “It’s a Great Big Shame”, both of which cleverly exploited the kind of circumstances that the working-class component of his audiences would be able to recognise from their own experiences. One mocked the practicalities of urban living where there might be a nice view, “if It wasn’t for the houses in between”, and the other the sight of a henpecked husband, six foot three, being nagged by a woman only four foot two.

Vesta Victoria was noted for the provocative, “Daddy, wouldn’t buy me a bow-wow” (the provocation might stem from how it was performed), and the humorous “Waiting at the Church”, where the would-be bride receives a note reading, “Can’t get away to marry you today/My wife won’t let me”. Ella Shields sang “Burlington Bertie from Bow”, a marvellous send-up of a broken-down Toff who walks “down the Strand with my gloves on my hands/And then walk down again with them off”. Vesta Tilley, “the greatest male impersonator in music hall”, had “After the Ball”,   and “Jolly good luck to the girl who loves a soldier”.  Both had immediately recognisable melodies as well as easy-to-memorise words. Audience participation was often an integral part of a music hall performance.

There were so many other singers and songs. Harry Champion with “Boiled Beef and Carrots” , “ I’m Henery the Eighth, I am”, and “Any Old Iron”, George Robey, known as “The Prime Minister of Mirth”, sang the lilting “If You Were the Only Girl in the World” and the more-boisterous, “Another little Drink/Wouldn’t Do Us Any Harm”. The latter title might seem apt when we are aware that Robey’s career stretched into the cinema and he played the role of Falstaff in the 1945 film of Henry the Fifth. And G.H. Elliott, one of those who specialised in black-faced performances, popular in their day but unwelcome now. Still, one or two of the songs associated with him deserve to be recalled. “I Used to Sigh for the Silvery Moon” has a pleasant tune. And “Lily of Laguna” lasted the years, though some of the words might need altering if the song is sung today. It wasn’t really Elliott’s song and was originally written for Eugene Stratton. Both of their recorded versions can be found on YouTube.

I could go on – “The Man who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo” (based on a real event), “The Man on the Flying Trapeze” (another with its basis in a real life character), “Champagne Charlie”, “Oh, Mr Porter”, “My Old Dutch”, “Down at the Old Bull and Bush” (“an archetypal British song, though written three Americans”),  “The Miner’s Dream of Home” (“For the bells were ringing the old year out/And the new year in”), the only hit for Leo Dryden, whose career faded to the point where he ended up singing in the streets. There are also a couple of songs forever associated with the First World War. Florrie Forde sang “Pack up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag”, with its “philosophy” of “What’s the use of Worrying/It Never was Worthwhile”, which has always made more sense to me than many other approaches to life. And there was “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary”, which was actually written a couple of years before the war started but thrived when it did.

The music halls were not always happy places, and those who worked in them didn’t always lead happy lives. More than a few succumbed to the attractions of alcohol, often used as a prop to conquer stage fright. Audiences were likely to respond with cat-calls, boos, and missiles if they thought an artist wasn’t up to scratch. Early deaths from stress and overwork were common. Artists whose careers never took off, or faded after a brief period of fame, lived out their days in obscurity and poverty. Some who did make money soon found it all slipping away. They were expected to be generous and were. And the women often took up with unreliable husbands and managers.

What brought about the end of the music halls? Baker refers to a combination of “cinema, ragtime, revue and radio”, of which I’d suggest that cinema and radio were the most significant. Some music hall performers did manage to adapt to the changed circumstances and moved into broadcasting. But there’s no doubt that things had changed. A few of the old songs survived in pubs and seaside variety shows, and lingered on through the 1940s and into the 1950s. And old performers came out of retirement to appear on stage. I recall going to the London Palladium in 1958 or 1959 for a show which featured a number of elderly music hall artists, though I can no longer say who they were. Later, there were TV shows which revived the songs, but they required both artists and audiences to dress up and pretend they were back in the Edwardian era. Still, they did help to keep the songs alive.  

The British Music Hall is a fascinating book and mixes facts. anecdotes and reminiscences to good advantage. It is well-illustrated, has ample notes, and a useful bibliography, though I did observe that it doesn’t include Colin MacInnes’s excellent Sweet Saturday Night. But that’s a minor quibble, and Baker’s book is well worth reading. It is entertaining and informative, and can be dipped into or read at length. Either way, it fulfils a prime function by keeping the reader interested.  

A final comment about something that intrigued me. Although I’ve concentrated on singers and their songs, the music halls provided a variety of entertainment, including jugglers, trapeze artists¸ illusionists, and escapologists like the great Harry Houdini.  Baker tells the story of an appearance of his at the Palace Theatre in Blackburn. It was one of Houdini’s gimmicks to offer £25 to anyone who could manacle him with “regulation handcuffs” from which he couldn’t escape. Baker says that “a young man named Hodgson, who in time opened a school of physical culture, accepted the challenge”, and came up with various chains, padlocks, and other pieces of equipment. There was some discussion about whether or not they were what Houdini had stipulated with his challenge, but he eventually agreed to go ahead. He did manage to free himself, but only after taking longer than usual and with some difficulty.

It occurs to me that the “young man named Hodgson” was probably William Hope Hodgson who was in Blackburn when Houdini appeared there, and did open a “school of physical culture” in the town. He was also a writer whose novels and short-stories are still in circulation. His stories, Carnacki, the Ghost Finder are classics of their kind, and his novel, The House on the Borderland can always bring a shiver or two when read late at night. The late-Victorian and Edwardian years were productive ones for music hall performances and tales of mystery and imagination. In some ways Hodgson was typical of his generation. He died at Ypres in 1918.