British Music – Hall Music

The Evans Songs Rooms just off Covent Garden

British Music Halls have provided venues for the public to be entertained for a number of centuries. Music hall entertainment includes a mixture of comedy, specialty acts and variety entertainment. However, the major performances have come from the musicians which have included numerous traditional acts. The origins of music hall entertainment can be traced back to performances in the taverns and coffee houses of the 18th century where men would meet to eat, drink and do business. While this was occurring, performers would sing songs to entertain the patrons.

By 1830 some taverns had special rooms set a-side for these musical clubs to run, and some were putting on two or three shows a week. Also in the 1830’s supper rooms started to appear. They would provide hot food and musical entertainment until the early hours of the morning. Some of them became so popular that they gained rather scurrilous reputations.

The Evans Songs Rooms off Covent Garden paid their singers one pound a week and provided them with free drink. The start performer was Sam Cowell who specialised in comic songs such as the “Rat Catchers Daughter”. These supper rooms were rather raucous affairs with drunkenness and unruly behaviour a feature of the entertainment. Cowell himself got caught up in the drunkenness and died at the early age of 45 as a result of alcohol related illnesses.

The Canterbury opened by Charles Morton

From these types of establishments, the first music halls were built and often in the grounds of the public houses. The difference between a music hall and a theatre was that in a music hall you were sat at a table and could be served alcohol. The first establishment to become regarded as a music hall was the Canterbury on Westminster Bridge road run by Charles Morton. When it was first created in 1852 it was on the site of an old skittle alley, but refurbishments in 1854 and 1859 made it a building of considerable size. The building now held 1500 people with admission being six-pence to the floor and nine-pence to the gallery. The Canterbury was a huge success with Thursday’s being set-a-side for ladies’ evenings. From here more and more music halls started to appear, and by 1875 there were 375 of them in the Greater London area.

In Leicester Square The Alhambra and The Empire became two of the biggest and most famous halls to be opened. Certain performers became sort after with one being George Robey who was well known for his song “The Simple Pimple” and also for his “vicar type” costumes. The Coliseum Theatre and the London Palladium were also built at the start of the 20th century and there were now 20 performers on stage each evening. This peak time of music hall entertainment was interrupted in 1907 when the artists went on strike striving for a minimum wage and more freedom from the music hall owners. The First World War saw many performers rallying support for the British troops and even using the stages as recruiting platforms. The halls were welcome breaks for those troops whenever they had time away from the battlefield. After the war the music halls popularity started to decline. There were now other types of entertainment available to the public such as the cinema and even the availability of radio and television. Bars were banned from the auditoriums in 1914 and even separate bars were banished in 1923.

Even as the halls declined they still started the careers of many famous acts, such as Gracie Fields, George Formby and Flanagan and Allen. The magic of the music hall will always be remembered in British entertainment as giving a public stage to traditional music acts.


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