Palaces of Pleasure: From Music Halls to the Seaside to Football, How the Victorians Invented Mass Entertainment, by Lee Jackson (Yale University Press, 2019)
In the 1830s, if you were in want of some ‘knock-me-down, sow-me-up, do-me-brown, ask-me-how, come-it-strong, out-and-out, genuine, never-split,’ or even the much less combative-sounding ‘cream of the valley,’ you could always head for the local gin palace and ask for a tuppenny glass of mother’s ruin by any of these alternative titles. Unlike your fellow imbibers of the eighteenth century who, if Hogarth’s Gin Lane is anything to go by, obtained their dram from some sordid watering hole, swiftly necked it and then spent the next few hours sprawled insensible in the street, you might well have enjoyed your measure of ‘come-it-strong’ in rather more conducive surroundings, full of faux grandeur, crystal chandeliers, Corinthian columns and the latest gaslight fittings. What nineteenth-century society thought of these ornate gin palaces and the unchecked hedonism that they proffered, compared to the traditional community values to be found in an old-fashioned alehouse, is the starting point for Lee Jackson’s panoramic survey of Victorian mass entertainment.
The current revival of gin as the on-trend spirit of choice (aka the ‘ginaissance’), which now sees it marketed and packaged in a myriad of flavours, strengths and bottle designs while a multitude of fashionable bars are devoted to its consumption, seems a long way removed from its image of two or three decades ago. Back then that bottle of Gordon’s at the back of the cupboard might only be brought out at Christmas and even then, due to its well-known maudlin side-effects, was kept out of reach of those relatives whom it was known to make a bit weepy. At the dawn of the Victorian era, however, gin’s notoriety lay more in tales of its incarnation as Georgian gut-rot and its ongoing infamy as the criminal classes’ favourite tincture. In reality, such was gin’s sustained popularity that by the early 1800s, several landlords were making efforts to transform their premises into efficiently run, socially acceptable ventures that would eventually become purpose-built gin palaces. Along the way these same tenacious landlords had to negotiate a maze of legal restrictions and the whims of sententious magistrates in order to develop their businesses. All these commercial impediments often meant them having to redesign their establishments in order to ensure that certain proprieties were observed. These included safeguarding the tap room as a male preserve, one which was strictly segregated from the gin counter where —most alarmingly— a good many unaccompanied females were regular customers.
That the working classes should be encouraged to stick to the healthy choice of beer drinking rather than stray into the febrile gin wilderness was a view zealously promoted by legislators and wealthy brewers alike. As such, despite eventually attaining a measure of social legitimacy, gin-palaces failed to wholly discard their reputation for gaudy excess, in terms of both their design and their customer base —although, as Jackson points out, the misgivings expressed about such establishments may have had as much to do with middle-class unease at the lavishing of all this ersatz grandiosity on a less deserving social stratum as they did with fears of moral degeneracy.
However, lest it seem that a book which purports to be a survey of pleasurable communal activities is more concerned with chronicling how our poor sozzled ancestors had to duck and dive in order to keep the booze flowing, Jackson soon moves on to examine the rise of that quintessential symbol of Victorian mass entertainment, the music hall. In doing so he traces the progress of these ‘palaces of variety’ back to their somewhat opaque origins as undefined spaces, often in the back rooms of pubs, where spontaneous sing-a-longs and amateur ‘turns’ provided the entertainment. Gradually such impromptu events developed into what was known as a ‘free-and-easy.’ In effect, these were social clubs that met on a regular basis, charged a membership subscription and had an agreed list of club rules. Not that such formalities precluded many a riotous evening in which the glee-singing and the drinking got out of hand. Despite the inevitable censure which such get-togethers elicited from censorious detractors and their allies on the magistrates’ benches, before long they had progressed from amateurs-only affairs into the means by which professional entertainers could perform in front of paying audiences. The licensing of such entertainment and the many and various ways in which the relevant legislation developed in order to both acknowledge and, at times, thwart this new species of popular pastime are traced in significant detail by the author, showing, as with gin-palaces, just how dogged and ingenious entrepreneurs had to be in order to outwit their adversaries.
Despite a number of established sources claiming that it was only in the 1850s that the music hall came into being, having developed out of the free-and-easy and its like, Jackson points out that this isn’t in fact the case. By mid-century music halls were already flourishing across the country, and the author debunks the oft-repeated claim that Canterbury Hall in Lambeth, which opened in 1854, was the first one. Even so, it is true that the Canterbury was the first real large-scale venue, setting the template for future music halls. Its ambitiously designed interior gave it an appropriately decorous ambience in which to stage the sort of elevated entertainment, such as operas, which its owner hoped would attract respectable artisans and their wives. However, for those not tempted by the prospect of a night out watching Lucia de Lammermoor, the Canterbury also offered such acts as Charles Sloman, who specialised in improvised songs custom-made from the audience’s suggestions, or Sam Cowell, whose musical repertoire included such racy comic favourites as Are You Good Natured, Dear as well as the famously lugubrious Cockney ballad The Rat Catcher’s Daughter. As the phenomenon of music hall prospered, the disaffected luminaries of so-called legitimate theatre endeavoured to undermine its progress by questioning the moral probity of such amusements, both in terms of the clientele attracted and the questionable nature of what took place on stage. Even so, a night out spent watching men dressed as women (and vice versa) and listening to uproariously ribald ditties and dialogue replete with double entendres proved a winning formula which, to some extent, drowned out the critics’ protestations but also attracted such pressure groups as the National Vigilance Organisation, who condemned the music halls as iniquitous dens of prostitution and drunkenness, a view broadly echoed by the M.P. Captain Edward Verney, who declared:
“I am not a straight-laced person by any means, nor should I object to tights, or a thing that even the most indifferent man in the world could regard as illegitimate. But I think it is little short of an insult to a decent working man and his wife that when they go to a place of that kind, they should be affronted by coarse obscenity and downright filth.”
Surveying the sights and sounds with which the average “decent working man and his wife” might have been confronted at the music hall —anything from an instance of “solo-burlesque dancing of a very objectionable kind, which culminated in the appearance of a man, about 6ft 6in high, attired as a ballet girl,” to the famed Marie Lloyd belting out her song What’s That For, Eh?— it isn’t hard to see how such examples might have traumatised the more delicately-tempered of our Victorian ancestors. The surprising thing is that by the last decade of the nineteenth century, the music hall was to regain the aura of respectability which it had once known in the 1850s, the days of Charles Morton’s opera extravaganzas. This was largely to do with the introduction of new temperance-driven restrictions on the sale of liquor so that, by 1900, a lot of halls were alcohol-free. Such measures went hand-in-hand with reinventing music halls as ‘variety theatres’ to attract the sort of respectable families who would have no truck with all that Victorian crudity.
So what else was on offer for the nineteenth-century pleasure seeker who sought immersion in the recreational culture of his or her times? For lovers of the waltz, quadrille, polka or even the odd bit of clogging, there were dancing-rooms which, like so much else in the world of communal Victorian entertainment, started out as impromptu affairs in pub back rooms, accompanied by a hired fiddler. Gradually such gatherings gained a level of respectability in the guise of assembly room balls, at which the county elite could whisk each other across the floor to the strains of a small concert orchestra. For those who wanted to escape the confines of the dancing-room in search of some fresh air with their fun and games, the pleasure garden beckoned. Although not a Victorian invention and more often associated with the Georgian period (although the earliest dated back to the seventeenth century), these were popular venues where the public could take an evening stroll through illuminated tree-lined avenues, listen to a concert or enjoy romantic liaisons in secluded corners. Vauxhall and Cremorne were two of the best-known London pleasure gardens, but sites offering similar amenities could be found across the country. As well as their more ostensibly sedate charms, pleasure gardens also featured spectacular sights such as firework displays, tightrope-walking and balloon ascents, the latter activity involving not only humans but also animals such as cats, ‘Signor Jacopo the Celebrated Monkey,’ and, on at least one occasion, a live bull with Madame Poitevin on its back. When the poor animal subsequently died of exhaustion and fright, the nascent Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals successfully prosecuted Madame Poitevin as well as her husband, who was piloting the balloon. The eventual decline of the pleasure garden was largely due to a couple of significant factors: the noticeably lax morals displayed by a good many of its patrons (winked at by eighteenth-century society, but intolerable to Victorian guardians of public decency), and the rise of alternative forms of entertainment not dependent on gaudy spectacle nor limited to the confines of a pub or theatre. Of these, the exhibition ground was the one which promised its audience not only memorable sights to behold but also the chance to improve their knowledge and appreciation of the world around them.
The Great Exhibition of 1851 is one of the landmark events of the nineteenth century, epitomising as it did the Victorian appetite for extravagant spectacle and unstinting innovation. However, Jackson focuses on the structure in which it was housed. What was to become of the Crystal Palace once the Exhibition had closed its doors on the last visitors? One thing was certain — local Knightsbridge residents and the nearby royal park officials wanted it dismantled and out of the way as soon as possible. By 1854 a revamped Crystal Palace had been rebuilt in Sydenham. Still intended as a place where the public came to be both edified and awed, the revamped Palace soon saw a steady stream of day-trippers making their way to its new location, then a relatively rural part of south-east London. Inside, the principal attraction was a series of areas which recreated historical settings ranging from Ancient Rome through the Middle Ages to the Mediaeval, Byzantine and Renaissance eras. There were also fifty-foot copies of ancient Egyptian statues, ethnographic villages, a jungle wild-life section, a display area for gargantuan machinery and two hundred acres of landscaped gardens. However, despite this cornucopia of delights, in the long run the Crystal Palace was not an overwhelming commercial success, although it did manage to keep going for fifty years after it first opened. During that time similar ventures sprang up, including a proposed ‘Palace of the People’ to be situated in North London. The Alexandra Palace, as it officially became known, had, like its more illustrious counterpart, a modest measure of success in its day in terms of visitor footfall, before finally being taken over by the BBC in 1935. Of more lasting commercial viability right down to the present day was the Earls Court Exhibition Centre, opened in 1887, which could boast William ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody and his Wild West show amongst its early attractions and later on an Italian extravaganza featuring a ‘Blue Capri Grotto.’
Leaving the metropolis and its environs behind, Jackson then heads for the seaside, where our Victorian ancestors turned Georgian cure resorts into unabashed pleasure grounds. In Margate, for example, once populated with genteel health seekers who frequented its assembly rooms and theatres, the introduction of a steamboat service and then the South Eastern Railway gave the working classes an opportunity to sample the town’s delights. This influx of the hoi polloi outraged some, including the gentlemen of the local press, who sneered at the “rag-tag from Whitechapel and bob-tail from Blackfriars” who, along with their “bloated” wives, “infest the pier at low water.” Not only in Margate but also at seaside locations across the country, the advent of cheap rail travel made visitor numbers spiral upwards. Indeed, in Lancashire’s industrial towns, the annual ‘wakes’ holidays on which the mills shut down allowed the employees to head off en masse to places such as Southport and Morecambe. To add to the attractions of sea and sand, piers and pavilions were built by shrewd entrepreneurs to reap the financial rewards of a captive audience. Amongst these holiday destinations it was Blackpool which, towards the end of the nineteenth century, rose to prominence as the ne plus ultra of an English seaside resort. Its Winter Gardens, incorporating a celebrated aquarium, opened in 1878, an occasion marked by a publicity-savvy torch-lit procession of civic dignitaries including the Lord Mayor of London in his ceremonial coach. With the opening of its world-famous tower in 1894, housing a renowned circus and lavish ballroom, and the addition of a Pleasure Beach on its south shore in the Edwardian period, Blackpool’s stick-of-rock and bucket-and-spade immortality was sealed.
And so to football, which evolved from a mass brawl between opposing halves of a town on public holidays to, by 1863, a codified sport. This transition was largely due to the efforts of former public schoolboys in developing a set of rules upon which all amateur football clubs could agree. Although the earliest recorded amateur team was Sheffield Football Club in 1857, before long others were formed across the country, with London possessing a dozen or more by the early 1860s. Actually agreeing on the rules was no easy matter for the nascent Football Association (FA) —some saw the practice of ‘hacking’ (or deliberately kicking one’s opponent in the shin) as not particularly objectionable, whilst others maintained that picking up the ball and running with it was an integral part of the game, and soon went off to create rugby. Despite the best efforts of the amateur game’s diehard fans, by the 1870s a professional dimension was creeping in, with FA-approved merchandise and match entrance fees. Soon some clubs started to make a regular profit, a portion of which was eventually used to hire the first professional players. Because the then-rules of the game discouraged this practice, some players who had been ‘imported’ from other parts of the country either took up nominal employment in the local area in order to explain away their income or were paid by their clubs via some distinctly creative book-keeping. The fielding of these paid employees, using all kinds of reputedly underhand means to do so, was the subject of a number of disputes between clubs before the FA finally accepted professionalism under certain strict conditions. By 1900 football was a fully-fledged commercial concern complete with star players —of whom it was said that “they cannot move in their native streets without receiving ovations enough to turn the head of a Prime Minister”— along with ungentlemanly fans who displayed “malignant anxiety…ungenerous one-sided enthusiasm [and] an almost carnivorous expression on their passion-deformed faces.” Indeed, so popular did football become that, of all the pastimes described by the author, he cites this sport as “arguably the most popular communal activity of the Victorian age.”
There is a sense, throughout Jackson’s book, of the sheer bustling energy of our nineteenth-century forebears when it came to finding ways to spend their leisure time. An impression arises of pubs and gin palaces full to bursting, uproarious din emanating from music halls, having to wade through crowds at Blackpool to get any view of the sea, and being surrounded by a hundred different opinions in front of the latest exhibition sensation. Above all, in contrast to these days of online virtual interaction carried out via the bolthole of the electronic device, Jackson’s book gives a real sense of how much the Victorians immersed themselves in each other’s actual and immediate company. Indeed, unless housebound, living in the back of beyond or following the hermetic life, the average Victorian probably could not have avoided partaking of the multifarious pastime pleasures on offer. After all, who would have wanted to miss a night at the local music hall watching the solo burlesque dancing of a six-and-a-half foot bloke dressed as a ballet dancer?--Mark Jones