Music Hall

Music hall is a type of British theatrical entertainment, so named after the venue that hosted these events. Popular between 1850 and 1940. It involved a mixture of entertainment in the form of popular songs, comedy, and speciality acts. The term is derived from a type of theatre or venue in which such entertainment took place.

History of the Music Hall

Music halls can be traced back to the taverns and coffee houses of 18th century London where men met to eat, drink and do business. Performers sang songs whilst the audience ate, drank and joined in the singing. By the 1830s taverns had rooms devoted to musical clubs. They presented Saturday evening Singsongs and Free and Easies. These became so popular that entertainment was put on two or three times a week.

The taverns, saloons and supper rooms would have been noisy and difficult places in which to perform. The audiences chatted throughout the acts and could be very unruly often throwing things at the performers – bottles, old boots, even a dead cat. Industrial towns favoured hurling iron rivets. In some halls, bottles carried by the waiters were chained to the trays and the orchestra was protected from the missiles by steel grilles stretched over the pit.

While women were not allowed in the middle-class song and supper rooms, working-class women went to the taverns. In the early days they would often accompany their husbands and bring along their children and even babies. It was also the place where the prostitutes would look for trade.

Mr Charles Morton, publican of the Canterbury Tavern in Lambeth, opened the first purpose built music hall, The Canterbury Hall, in 1852. It held 700 people. Audiences were seated at tables and food and drink was served throughout the performance, which took place on a platform at one end of the hall.   It became so successful, that a much bigger theatre was build on the site.

Inspired by the success of the Canterbury, music halls opened up across London, and by 1875 there were 375 music halls in Greater London, which meant a lot more performers were required. Throughout the 1860s it became more common for women to perform in the halls. Performing was a way of escape and independence for working-class women. Many women achieved, if not stardom, a decent living on the halls.

Singing and the comic song remained at the heart of music hall, but gradually the acts increased in diversity. All sorts of ingenious and strange speciality acts developed.

Despite the apparent respectability of the West End halls, music hall was still associated with wild audiences and high living. The audiences were aristocratic young men and the working classes; the middle classes regarded the halls as vulgar places, full of risqué entertainment.

Most of the stars were working class, but such was the glamour of Music Hall that several married into the aristocracy. Managers like Oswald Stoll made a deliberate effort to make music hall respectable. The major West End music halls, like the Palace and the Coliseum, began to attract a higher social class, often wearing evening dress.

The London County Council, after a series of fires in theatres and music halls finally banned eating and drinking in the auditorium in 1914. From that time, the music halls simply had to be run on the same lines as theatres. After this, music hall became known by its earlier name of Variety and, with the coming of cinema and later radio, became almost extinct by the time of World War II.

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