13/01/2016

MR. A. WATKINS, & HEREFORDSHIRE'S TOURING BEE VAN...




We may think that our concern for bees is something relatively new but over a century ago, back in 1882, The Herefordshire Beekeepers Association was formed.


Image from many thousands held in Hereford Library's Outrider/ Alfred Watkins project


The aim of the organisation, partly funded by the Herefordshire County Council, was to travel around the countryside giving demonstrations of bee keeping and also magic lantern shows to illustrate and popularise the skills related to the art.

Alfred Watkins 1855~1935


One of the founding members, by the name of Alfred Watkins, was particularly keen to educate those locals who so often used to kill bees in great numbers whenever they were extracting the honeycombs from hives. 


For many more images and a great deal of related written material concerning Watkins and bee keeping, please see Hereford Council's History website.


Watkins was born into a wealthy business family who ran a flour mill, a brewery and a hotel in the city of Hereford. As he grew up he often travelled around the county and soon became a self-taught expert in local archeology. He was also very interested in the theory of ley lines after standing on a hillside on 30 June 1921 and experiencing a 'revelation' that most of the ancient Neolithic monuments set across the English countryside were connected by grids of straight lines. The term 'ley' was used because those lines tended to pass through places which had the letters that formed the syllables of 'ley' or 'ly' in them. However, he did not believe that there was any supernatural reason for the connections ~ simply that over the years the trackways would have been worn by travellers heading from one landmark to another. To demonstrate his theory he published Early British Trackways in 1922, and then The Old Straight Track in 1925.


Photography of Watkins Bee Meter, taken by Tony French


Another great interest was photography for which he was widely respected, and he took many pictures of wildlife, including his beloved bees. To do so he invented an exposure meter that was known as the 'Watkins Bee Meter' (one of which was taken by Robert F Scott when he travelled to the South Pole). Today thousands of Watkins' plates are still held at the Hereford Library and can be viewed on request.


Hereford Butter Market in 1860 - which can still be visited today.


The HBKA still exists and welcomes new member to learn the skills required for the keeping of bees. Each year they hold a 'honey show' the first of which was held at the Hereford Butter Market in 1910. The website of the HBKA is here

10/01/2016

THE RISE AND FALL OF TOY THEATRE...

A WONDERFUL GUEST POST BY GARRETT EPPS which first appeared in CRAFTSMANSHIP MAGAZINE's Winter Issue 2016. 


 

A writer discovers the living remains of miniature theatrical productions, which served as the PR campaigns of the day in 19th Century England.


One day in late winter 1884, the author Robert Louis Stevenson entered a grimy print shop near London’s Finsbury Square. The shop’s owner, W.G. Webb, had stayed up late the past few nights making notes for his famous friend, a longtime customer, about the curious world of the English “toy theatre”—a popular art form (now all but vanished) that replicated the dramas of the day in miniature. 

Stevenson was at work on an essay about that world for The Magazine of Art. Webb was a prolific toy theatre producer at the time, and his name was almost synonymous with what was called “Juvenile Drama.” 

Years later, Webb’s grandson recalled the scene that followed. “Here, Mr. Stevenson,” Webb asked, “where do I come in in this?”

“You don’t come in at all,” Stevenson replied. “I come in.”

“This won’t do,” old Mr. Webb answered. “I’ve helped you in this history. Without my help it would not be written. I have given you the information and besides you are using my pictures for the illustrations.” 

“There was a fearful row in the shop,” the younger Webb wrote, and before the shouting was over, the elder man had torn his notes to bits under Stevenson’s nose.

On his way out the door, the nettled author shook a finger. “This is going to cost you something, Mr. Webb,” he said. “This is going to cost you a great deal.”

Later that spring, Stevenson published his essay on toy theatre (“A Penny Plain and Twopence Coloured”), making no mention of Webb but instead praising his chief rival, Benjamin Pollock. In his essay Stevenson included the address of Pollock’s shop in nearby Hoxton, and concluded, “If you love art, folly, or the bright eyes of children, speed to Pollock’s...”




Webb’s print shop is long gone; but, more than a century after Stevenson’s essay, the name of Pollock lives. Pollock’s today, in fact, is split like Gaul into three parts connected only by the name and the history. Pollock’s Toy Museum, on Scala Street in London’s Bloomsbury, welcomes 10-12,000 visitors a year to an exhibit of rare old toys and a shop that sells toy theatres and plays; a mile to the south, in the bustling Covent Garden Market, Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop does a brisk business in nostalgic toys and reissued toy theatre paraphernalia; finally, there is Pollock’s Toy Museum Trust, which has no physical location but labors to keep the lore and tradition of toy theatre alive.

To contemporary eyes, the English toy theatre might seem to offer only a kind of surreal nostalgia. The tiny actors, arms spread in comically theatrical attitudes on elaborate sets, seem to squint at us from a timeless dream world, like the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland. But those little figures once felt very much alive—they are drawings of real actors familiar to every theatre- goer in Victorian England. What’s left of them offers small glimpses of history—ones not available anywhere else—of the stagecraft and personalities of the 19th Century British stage. “The toy theatre is much more than just a toy,” the famed British actor Peter Baldwin wrote in 1992. “The spirit of early nineteenth century theatre can only be recaptured by the scene and character sheets of the English Juvenile drama.”

A toy theatre was, as we will see, a tiny but complex structure—as intricate and lovingly assembled, in its way, as model railroads can be for today’s hobbyists. In its prime, it was not a nostalgic hobby but a breathless bulletin from the newly emerging world of mass communications and global celebrities—a chance for ordinary people to touch their heroes in person.



As the Industrial Revolution gathered speed in the early 19th Century, masses of former country folk emigrated from the countryside into English cities. They often sought escape, even if only temporarily, from the harsh conditions of factory labor and tenement life. The popularity of gin was one result, but the theatre offered a healthier respite. Plays became mass spectacles akin to contemporary Broadway shows like The Lion King or Spider-Man. The demand for “cheap seats” was rapacious; when the Covert Garden in 1809 raised ticket prices, playgoers rioted inside the theatre, night after night, for three months—until the disorder compelled the owners to apologize and reduce them. Meanwhile, theatres grew. By mid-century, for example, Drury Lane seated 3,000; the Sadler’s Wells featured a tank in front of the stage where the producers staged mock naval battles.

Theatrical publishers—shops with names like West, Jameson, and Hodgson— dispatched multiple artists to the opening each new production. One artist would hastily sketch the actors, mimicking their theatrical poses; another would draw the scenery, producing backdrops and wings. A writer hastily annotated the script to show where and how action occurred. The team turned over their drawings to the printer, who prepared sheets depicting the actors and scenery and a tiny booklet of script.

The rendering of the scenery and actors is antique but far from crude; among the art workers who grubbed out a living in the trade were the youthful poet and artist William Blake and George Cruikshank, later a famed caricaturist and illustrator of Dickens. Once drawn, the sheets were printed through a combination of etching, engraving, and lithograph. These were sold by the sheet (as Stevenson noted) either in black and white (to be hand-painted by the buyer) or (for double the price) already colored. Children bought them to use as toys, but adults also treasured them as souvenirs of their favorite actors and beloved performances.

A toy theatre was quite small—the stages were about 6 1⁄2 inches wide, roughly the width of a 1950s-era black-and-white TV screen. The tiny actors were sold on individual papers sheets somewhere around 9 1⁄2” x” 7 1/2”—each sheet containing as many as four “actors,” who might be different characters or simply the same actor in a different theatrical pose: defiance, devotion, or despair, as different moments in the script demanded. Each “actor” was cut out, pasted onto a card, and fastened to special wire slides that would allow the “performer” to slide them on and offstage through grooves in the wooden base. Convention called for the performer to wiggle the “actor” back and forth as he (or a friend) uttered the lines, varying his or her voice as different characters required. Tiny oil lamps provided authentic theatrical lighting.

A typical theatre—such as “Pollock’s Regency,” which is sold now in a large booklet along with scenes, script, and “actors” for “Sleeping Beauty”—included a colorful proscenium, complete with a painted orchestra beneath the stage; a paper curtain; a stage floor, wings, and a back wall. An individual play will offer one or two scene backdrops, to be slipped in against the back wall.
Over the years the scripts became somewhat abbreviated versions of the actual play. In “Blackbeard the Pirate,” for example, the dialogue occupies about three pages. Prince Abdallah and the British Navy rescue the fair princess Ismene from the vile lusts of the pirate chief; “Foolish woman!” the pirate boasts. “You are the Princess of a puny kingdom, but I, I am the uncrowned Emperor of the Seven Seas!” Replies the haughty beauty, “I care nothing for your threats and do not boast too soon, proud pirate.” The manly British tars , dressed in flat hats and striped jerseys, put Blackbeard to flight singing “Huzza for the Red, White and Blue!”

Some plays are more elaborate—one, called “Jack Sheppard,” contains 64 pages of script. Another favorite was “The Miller and His Men,” based on an 1813 production at the Covent Garden; the young Winston Churchill treasured this classic because it ended with the explosion of a tiny wad of gunpowder (which sometimes set fire to the entire theatre, though usually with no loss of full-sized human life).

Presenting the plays to an actual audience, however, was not really the aim for many of Webb’s and Pollock’s customers. “Yes, there was pleasure in the painting.” Stevenson wrote in his essay on toy theatre. But when all was painted, it is needless to deny it, all was spoiled. You might, indeed, set up a scene or two to look at; but to cut the figures out was simply sacrilege; nor could any child twice court the tedium, the worry, and the long-drawn disenchantment of an actual performance...”
Instead, the charm of toy theatre for many was simply the chance to be connected to a real play, and a real cast, and to the glamorous rococo world that was the Victorian stage.

Like that theatre itself, toy theatre’s great days were winding down by 1870. By 1884, only Webb and Pollock, friendly rivals, remained in the business, and Stevenson’s essay warned of the art form’s imminent disappearance. Benjamin Pollock, however, kept his shop afloat until his death at 80 in 1936. A few years later, the family sold their shop and stock to an Irish bookseller named Alan Keen. (Among his other schemes, Keen convinced film producer J. Arthur Rank to commission a toy theatre of Laurence Olivier’s 1948 famous film of “Hamlet,” complete with five changes of scene and two plates of characters printed in color.)

The film of Olivier’s Hamlet is a classic, but the toy Olivier theatre was a flop. Hamstrung by debt, Keen ceased operations after the war. Then, in the mid 1950s, a flamboyant BBC journalist named Marguerite Fawdry contacted Pollock’s receiver. Her son played with toy theatre, and she wanted to buy a few of the special wire slides needed to bring the tiny characters alive. According to her 1995 obituary in The Independent, the accountant responded, “I believe there are hundreds of thousands in the warehouse, madam, but there’s no one who could look them out for you. Of course, you could, I suppose, buy the whole lot if you wanted them.”

Fawdry was, by all accounts, a magnetic personality. She attracted children still fascinated by the tiny actors and scenes and recruited them as helpers. Among these protégées was Louise Heard, who now manages the Toyshop in Covent Garden. The store sells copies of original Victorian theatres and plays, and also produces and sells entire new theatre sets, including a moody 2014 evocation of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” by noted illustrator Kate Baylay.

Fawdry’s grandson Eddie, a photographer, still owns and operates the Toy Museum, which maintains a stock of dozens of toy theatres, including some not available elsewhere that can be printed only on demand. Not long before her death in 1945, Fawdry also established the Pollock’s Toy Museum Trust, which keeps alive the lore of the toy theatre through web sales, library and museum exhibitions, and publications.

Alan Powers, chair of the Trust, was another child protégée of Fawdry’s. A distinguished architectural historian, he is an impresario as well. On a recent August Sunday, he gathered fifty enthusiasts for a production of “The Waterman,” a romantic drama depicting an annual boat race on the Thames. Powers deployed his own personal theatre for the production, complete with electric footlights, and gave voice to the cutout of Tom Tug, the dashing boatman. The performance took place at the Art Workers Guild in Bloomsbury, which traces its origins to 1884; one past Master was the noted artisan and radical thinker William Morris.

The 50 adults were rapt as the cast stamped their feet to simulate the sound of movement; all stood when the performance ended with a chorus of “Rule Britannia.”

The lone small boy present drifted away from the performance, however; he found more excitement in leading his faithful dog back and forth across the front of the hall with the false promise of a lick at the ice cream in his hand.





Garrett Epps is professor of Law at the University of Baltimore and Supreme Court correspondent for The Atlantic’s online magazine. He is the author of two novels and five books of non- fiction, including “American Epic: Reading the U.S. Constitution.”

23/12/2015

SANTA CLAUS IS COMING TO TOWN...

Winking Santa by Essie Fox



The VV has found her old box of watercolour paints and created this greetings card of Santa Claus to say thank you and to wish a very Happy Christmas to each and every one of you who follow The Virtual Victorian blog.

While painting she started to ponder on how odd it is that, before Queen Victoria came to throne in 1837 there were no commercial Christmas cards – that tradition only beginning in 1843, after the introduction of the Penny Post, when Sir Henry Cole had the bright idea of printing up thousands of images and selling them in his London shop, priced at just one shilling each. 

What an industry that enterprise began!


The design for Sir Henry Cole's commercial Christmas card


But, as far as jolly santas go, very few people in England then would even so much as know his name. And yet, by 1870 most every child would have been aware of the magical sleigh drawn by reindeer, and a stocking full of precious gifts - if only an orange to signify a gift from Father Christmas.

The names Santa Claus, and Father Christmas have become somewhat interchangeable. But their origins are quite different.


Father Christmas, on whom Charles Dickens based his Christmas Present was derived from an old English festival when Sir Christmas, or Old Father Christmas, or Old Winter, was depicted as wearing green; a sign of fertility and the coming spring – which is why many homes were decorated with mistletoe, holly and ivy. He did not bring gifts or climb down the chimneys, but wandered instead from home to home feasting with the families and bringing good cheer to one and all - as described in the mediaeval carol printed below this illustration...

Illustration by John Leech from Dickens' A Christmas Carol


Goday, goday, my lord Sire Christemas, goday!
Goday, Sire Christemas, our king,
For ev’ry man, both old and ying,
Is glad and blithe of your coming;
Goday! 


Imagine the goblets being raised with the cheering rendition of 'Goday!


The image of Christmas Present which we are more familiar with today – Santa Claus or Saint Nicholas – arrived in America in the seventeenth century when Dutch settlers imported their own Sinter Klass. And it was there in 1822 that Clement Clare Moore wrote a poem to delight his little children, which still has an enduring influence -


He was dressed all in fur from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler just opening his sack.
His eyes how they twinkled! His dimpled how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry;
His droll little mouth was drawn up in a bow,
And the beard on his chin was as white as the snow.
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.
He had a broad face, and a little round belly
That shook when he laughed like a bowl fully of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, - a right jolly old elf –
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself.


A Visit from Saint Nicholas (now more popularly known as The Night Before Christmas) described the old man’s appearance – the very image that every child has come to know and love today. It is so beautifully shown in this woodblock print designed by the artist Thomas Nast, who based the illustrations on his childhood in Germany.

 Santa and his works by Thomas Nast, published in Harper's Weekly Magazine in 1866


Merry Christmas! Ho Ho Ho!

18/12/2015

MR BENTLEY'S MAGICAL ICE CRYSTALS



What could be more festive than a Christmas white with snow and ice? What could be more magical than the photographs of snow flakes which were made in the nineteenth century by Wilson Alwyn Bentley?




Born in 1865, 'Snowflake Bentley' was raised on the family farm in Jericho, in the American state of Vermont where the annual snowfall was about 120 inches. From childhood he was fascinated by nature and when, at fifteen, his mother gave him a microscope, he was said to be captivated by the close-up views of snow crystals which he placed upon a black velvet base to see them as clearly as possible. But to try and preserve the sights he saw – with the ice flakes often melting before he could manage to draw their designs – he set his mind to finding a way to attach a camera to the microscope lens (this is called Photomicography, of which Bentley was a pioneer), from then on beginning to compile the body of work which is still today considered as remarkable – combining science with nature and art.




Bentley proved that every snowflake is something quite unique. He poetically describing them as "ice flowers" or “tiny miracles of beauty.” He captured over 5,000 of these ephemeral works of art during the course of his life–time, by the end of which his work was sought by the Harvard Mineralogical Museum and the University of Vermont. Today his photographs are held by academic institutions all over the world. The Smithsonian (to whom he sent 500 prints in 1903 to ensure that they were preserved for the sake of posterity), now keeps that comprehensive record in their institution archives.




His obsession with water in various forms also led him measure raindrops and to photograph forms of frost and dew

The VV finds it sadly ironic that he died after contracting pneumonia, when he’d walked for six miles through a blizzard of snow to try and find his way back home.








Before Bentley died a book of his snowflake prints was published by McGraw Hill. The book, in various forms, is still available today.

17/12/2015

QUEEN VICTORIA'S CHRISTMAS GHOSTS



In the VV's novel, The Goddess and the Thief, the widowed Queen Victoria consults with spiritualist mediums while hoping to make some contact with the soul of the man whose Christmas death would haunt her life forever more.


.

Some scenes in the novel are based on truths. For instance, the Queen’s Prime Minister, Gladstone, was himself a founding member of the Society for Psychical Research. Indeed, many eminent men of the time were convinced that, just as science had found a way to harness electricity, other invisible energies might soon be discovered and utilised to prove that the spirit world was real.

Before Prince Albert’s sudden end the royal family would spend their Christmases at Windsor, with candles lit on the festive trees - a popular German tradition that the Prince had made fashionable here as well.

But, following his passing, the Queen preferred to spend her future Christmases at Osborne House.




It was there, on the Isle of Wight, that the couple enjoyed many happy times. It was also there, while Albert lived, that they met with spiritualist mediums. One of those psychics impressed the Queen so much that she gave her a golden watch, on the back of which were engraved the words: “Presented by Her Majesty to Miss Georgiana Eagle for her Meritorious and Extraordinary Clairvoyance Produced at Osborn House, Isle of Wight, July 17, 1846.” 




Perhaps Miss Georgina Eagle was also there when a table began to levitate and Albert was so horrified that he ordered the object be destroyed, and then demanded that they never dabble in such things again. But then, he was also recorded as once having told his wife: "We don't know in what state we shall meet again, but that we shall recognise each other and be together in eternity I am perfectly certain."




The Queen couldn’t wait for Eternity, though we’ll probably never know for sure how many spirit mediums were smuggled into her private rooms, or whether Albert's ghost was raised around the time of his Christmas death – as it seems he may have been in the plot of The Goddess and the Thief. However, there are verified accounts of her meetings with a Mr Robert Lees – the first when Lees was just 13, when he wrote a letter to the Queen with reference to intimate details that no-one but she could have ever known. Victoria was greatly impressed, so much so that in later years she invited him to join the royal household as resident medium. However Lees was to decline, suggesting that another man would be better suited to fill that role.




That man was John Brown, the low-born Scottish gamekeeper who became the Queen's great confidante. He was also the spirit medium through which she claimed her husband ‘spoke’ – so often that in later years the Queen expressed a strong desire to publish the diaries in which she wrote accounts of all those séances. However, her advisors were appalled at such a notion, no doubt relieved when, after her death, pages of her diaries were destroyed, with others heavily edited and re-transcribed by Princess Beatrice who became her literary executor.

As to the diaries of John Brown – every word was destroyed when he had died. But what secrets might those words reveal if only we could read them now?

16/12/2015

PRINCE ALBERT'S DEATH AT CHRISTMAS

The royal Christmas tree at Windsor Castle


Queen Charlotte (the consort of King George III) had first introduced the tradition of decorating a  pine tree in the royal rooms at Christmas time. But, it was Prince Albert who really encouraged and popularised the festive event so that, in due course, the habit was adopted in every English parlour.

However, at Windsor Castle, on December 14th 1861 when the tree would have normally glittered and shone with hundreds of tiny candles, all such joyous plans were discarded, and every decorative light was doused ~ because of Albert's sudden death at the age of only 42.


Victoria and Albert enjoying Christmas with their children



Following her husband's death Queen Victoria still celebrated Christmas day, but she hated to spend it in Windsor, the place of her loved one's death. Instead, she travelled to the Isle of Wight and the Italianate palace of Osborne House where the family had previously spent happy times together.


The royal family in happier times


Another thing that changed was that Victoria no longer shared this holiday with her eldest son. The Prince of Wales then spent his own Christmas days at Sandringham, claiming to find Osborne House to be 'utterly unattractive'.


Bertie, (Edward) the Prince of Wale, and his father, Prince Albert, on the right.


But, perhaps an element of guilt influenced the young man's decision, for shortly before his father's death there had been a notorious scandal involving the future king and an actress by the name of Nellie Clifton. All of the press publicity had caused his father enormous distress. Albert wrote several letters to Bertie and then, in appalling weather, set off to Cambridge to meet his son, to implore him to change his decadent ways.


 Prince Albert's deathbed at  Windsor


The stress of that situation, combined with pre-existing poor health (and some say the state of the Windsor drains) led to a fatal illness. Albert came home after seeing his son and died in the Blue Room at Windsor Castle.

Queen Victoria never recovered from the shock of Albert's loss. She entirely blamed the Prince of Wales, as illustrated by this line which is taken from a letter written to one of her daughters: "That boy...I never can, or ever shall look at him without a shudder."





In the VV's novel, The Goddess and the Thief, Victoria's grief is dramatised - as is her ensuing interest in the hiring of spirit mediums. Much of that book is fictional but it is true that the widowed Queen very often tried to contact the husband who dwelled on 'the other side'. As time went on she relied more and more upon her closest friend, John Brown - the game keeper who also claimed to be a spirit medium. There were rumours of private seances, some of which were described by the Queen herself - a notoriously regular diarist. But these records were destroyed at the time of Victoria's own death; viewed by her advisers and family members as being an embarrassment.

What a shame that is! What interesting reading they might have made.


15/12/2015

THE CHRISTMAS PANTOMIME BEGINS...

From the V&A Archives


The VV really loves this engraving. It reminds her of the time when she wrote The Somnambulist, her first Victorian novel which opened with an imagined scene of a Christmas show at Wilton's Hall, even though Wilton's had never then actually hosted a pantomime - not until now when you can get a taste of the place and atmosphere by going to see their version of  Dick Whittington and his Cat.

During the Victorian era a Christmas trip to a pantomime was a thrilling traditional thing to do, with shows compromising a mixture of story and music, with rhyming couplets, double entendres, and topical wit.


From the V&A Archives


The name 'pantomime' derives from Ancient Greece, when an actor or 'pantomimus' told stories by the means of mime or dance, with that act often being accompanied by music and a chorus line.






In the middle ages, the Italian Commedia dell’Arte (from whom we also owe thanks for the creation of Punchinello or Mr Punch) was a type of entertainment where travelling troupes performed dramatisations in marketplaces or fairgrounds. They improvised their story lines around the character Harlequin, who wore a diamond-patterned costume and carried a magic wand. Later, this part was famously played by Grimaldi the clown, who died in 1837 - the year Queen Victoria came to the throne.



Joseph Grimaldi as Harlequin


As Victoria’s reign progressed the stories told by Harlequin became entwined with the antics of rural English Mummers. Eventually those events evolved into very much grander productions – although many pantomimes back then were still then based around Harlequin's character. 



From the V&A Archives



The proof of this is illustrated in elaborate titles for the shows, such as Harlequin and the Forty Thieves, or  Jack and the Beanstalk; or, Harlequin Leap-Year, and the Merry Pranks of the Good Little People (surely some dwarves had been employed). In 1863 W S Gilbert wrote Harlequin Cock Robin and Jenny Wren; or, Fortunatus and the Waters of Life, the Three Bears, the Three Gifts, the Three Wishes, and the Little Man who Wooed a Little Maid - though that particular production may have been somewhat ambitious in its scope and dramatic complexity. Years later Gilbert was heard to confess that perhaps it was not the best title to use.




Augustus Harris


For whatever the reason, as the years went by the Harlequin character was used much less. Productions such as those put on by the manager Augustus Harris at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane were based on traditional fairy tales such as Jack and the Beanstalk, or Cinderella. These were extravagant stagings featuring ballets, acrobatics and grand processions of specially recruited children. There would be magicians, and slapstick, cross-dressing and innuendo. There was audience participation too, in the vein of the still familiar refrains of  'Oh no, he isn’t…Oh yes, he is'. 


From the V&A Archives


There were also the popular ‘skins’, when actors would dress in animal garb - quite scarily as insects in the version of Cinderella (above) or, more often, and more comically, to play the back or the front end of a pantomime horse or cow – a role once undertaken at the Stockport Hippodrome by an aspiring young actor by the name of Charlie Chaplin.





Back in 1881 Augustus' Harris’ production of The Forty Thieves began at 7.30pm and ended at 1am the next morning. One scene lasted for forty minutes while the thieves (each of whom had his own band of followers) processed across the stage. The pantomime cost £65,000 – the equivalent of several millions today. But then, with popular music hall acts such as Marie Lloyd and Dan Leno employed to take the starring roles, Harris’ shows were a great success – artistically and financially. 


How the VV wishes that she could have been around to see one!



04/12/2015

THE MUSIC HALLS ~ TRANSCRIPT OF A TALK GIVEN AT SALON FOR THE CITY

I’ve written three Victorian novels – one of which, The Somnambulist, is set in the London music halls - with particular reference to Wilton’s, in Grace’s Alley, in the East End.



As I’m sure many of you will know, Wilton’s music hall is unique in being one of the first of the grand Victorian halls - and the last of its type to still survive and open its doors to the public today.


 


If you’re lucky enough to have been inside, you might have felt just as I did when I left the bustling East End and felt as if I’d travelled back in time...



First seeing this plain flagged hallway...




And the bar, directly to the right...


Before carrying on down past the stairs to see the hall’s foundation stone, unveiled by John Wilton’s wife, Ellen, on 9th December 1858. And on that stone you’ll read these words -

'To Great God Apollo, God of Early Morn, Who wakes the songbirds from eastern sky, we consecrate this shrine of gentle music, music that alternates from smiles to tears, smiles emanating from the purest mirth, and tears of sympathy that speak not sadness.’

What a wonderful ode that is, and what a shrine to Apollo was made at the back of the Prince of Denmark Bar, when John Wilton expanded his venue by buying up Georgian houses behind it, then hiring in builders and architects to create the most elegant intimate space...



As seen here when standing before the stage ...



And here, the view down from the gallery - though today you have to imagine the enormous gas burner chandelier that once sparkled above the audience, glittering back from the mirrors that were fixed in arched niches all around.




But the balcony’s papier mache frieze is still there in all its glory, as are the iron barley twist pillars which add such a carnival glamour below it. You can almost see the tables where punters are sitting or standing around, perhaps only buying a drink, or else staying for hours and eating too while waiters bustled round them. You can almost hear all the shouting and laughter, the clatter and bang, and the pop of champagne corks that would have provided the background noise while the acts were performing on the stage.


John Wilton

The atmosphere would have been raucous, just as the tavern glee clubs had been - the vibrant drinking, singing scene that evolved into grander music halls, and one of which John Wilton ran while employed as the chairman of bar entertainments at Dr Johnson’s Tavern in Fleet Street.




A chairman would literally sit on a chair placed directly in front of the stage, facing out towards the audience so that when a new act – or turn – came on, he would bang down with his gavel; that being a wooden hammer by which to keep order and gain the punters’ attention, while a loud and melodious voice would then call out introductions, and sometimes lead the audience in a bit of community singing too.



I like to imagine John doing just that while hosting the acts listed on this bill above... with singers, comedians, ventriloquists, burlesque and gymnastic performers. But to give you some examples of how extensive ‘Varieties’ became, I’m going to read this extract from the Dickens’ Dictionary of London, 1879, which describes the world of music hall as being something that –




'was started many years ago at the Canterbury Hall...The entertainments proving popular, the example was speedily followed in every quarter of the town. The performance in no way differs, except in magnitude, from those which are to be seen in every town of any importance throughout the country. Ballet, gymnastics, and so-called comic singing form the staple of the bill of fare, but nothing comes foreign to the music- hall proprietor. Performing animals, winners of walking-matches, successful skullers, shipwrecked sailors, swimmers of the channel, conjurers, ventriloquists, tight-rope dancers, campanologists, clog-dancers, sword swallowers, velocipedists, champion skaters, imitators, marionettes, decanter equilibrists, champion shots, living models of marble gems, fire princes, mysterious youths, spiral bicycle ascensionists, flying children, empresses of the air, kings of the wire, vital sparks, Mexican boneless wonders, white eyed musical Kaffers, strong-jawed ladies, cannon-ball performers, illuminated fountains, and that remarkable musical eccentricity the orchestra militaire, all having had their turn on the music hall stage.'


So, most anything - and everything - goes. And, in fact, while researching my novel, I was also surprised to discover that singers from Covent Garden opera house often stayed in stage costume after a show, then leapt into cabs to drive through town for a second shift in the music halls, when they belted out all the arias that most of the public knew by heart: a bit like a top of the pops for us - with the ‘Higher’ and ‘Lower’ cultures being nowhere near as separate as we might tend to imagine now, with many of the West End toffs, along with writers and artists, happy to go and ‘slum’ it - with the dockers and sailors, and labourers with whom they shared a common aim – which was to have a good night out – with all the cares of daily lives exchanged for glee and fantasy. But this was a fantasy that often also held up a mirror to real life, with singers and comedians often basing their material on the latest news or scandals that would be read in all the newspapers. You see, with no films or TV shows, and no radios to listen to, the halls offered an opportunity for an audience to join ‘as one’ – to try and make some sort of sense of the time and place in which they lived. And they lived in a time of hypocrisy - very mannered on the surface, but beneath that fragile moral veneer the demi-monde seethed with sex and sin.




Of course there were more pious acts, and even Queen Victoria shared the common man’s delight in superstar singers like Jenny Lind, the little Swedish nightingale who exuded a sweet femininity in the grandest theatres, and palaces.




But, she also inspired a popular song that featured in the music halls - those somewhat more risqué venues where convention could turn upon its head; resulting in some popular acts not mentioned on that Dictionary list...




Acts when men dressed as women, such as Little Titch with his skirt dance turn ...




And this is Dan Leno, in character for some songs and acts that he performed. But these personae often changed, sometimes being women, sometimes men, and more in the mode of the pantomime dame - whereas others acts...




Like Malcolm Scott (and yes, he was the brother of Scott of the Antarctic - an adventurous family all round) who started off as a conventional actor, but then, in the early Edwardian era transformed himself into The Woman Who Knows - a dedicated female impersonator, basing his outrageous performances on characters such as Salome, Nell Gwynne, Catherine Parr and a Gibson Girl.

But this world of the drag artiste was not exclusively male. There were women who dressed on stage as men and remained in that guise for their whole careers...which I think is very interesting in an age when women were only just beginning to call for suffrage - when they actually held very little power in the private or public domain legally. If they married, their husbands owned them, as they did their possessions and children.




Then, along comes Vesta Tilly - adored by women and men alike, even if some of those swooning girls who hung around the backstage doors may not have really understood what the true attraction was for them. And as far as the gentlemen punters went, well, Vesta hired the very finest tailors to make her stage attire, and her fabulous style even went on to influence masculine fashions of the day.




If you want to get a good idea of quite how appealing such acts could be, Youtube has footage of Hetty King – who worked the halls for seventy years – charismatic and droll right till the end! And for those of you who have not read Sarah Waters’ Tipping The Velvet, that novel provides the most wonderful view of the world of such theatrical acts. They were basically using their talent and wit to tip social conventions on their heads, and to knowingly mirror some of the acts of the earlier years of music hall. In essence to parody stars such as George Leybourne...




And, just thinking back to that Dictionary List - and the mention of various high wire acts, it was Leybourne who wrote the lyrics for That Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, about the French Jules Leotard - another sort of ‘mirror’ song built on the phenomenal success of the handsome athletic acrobat.




Well, when he wasn’t penning lyrics for songs, George Leybourne performed as a Lyon Comique, one of the Gentlemen Swells, who strode around, on stage and off as if they belonged to one of the Upper Classes’ Ten Thousand – those aristocratic men about town who were confident, blasé, and stylishly dressed - and whose songs were full of references to drinking, and sexual innuendo.

George – whose real name was Joe Saunders, but, then again, that might not be true – the records are quite sketchy – was born in 1842. He travelled to London from the Midlands – then again, it might have been Gateshead. But, wherever he might have hailed from, he had once been a mechanic, until giving that profession up for something more lucrative on the stage. In London, in 1864, he gave his first performance at the Whitechapel Music Hall, where he proved to be a great success, and something of a heart throb too; being muscular, lean, and very tall, and so handsome the ladies were said to swoon the moment he appeared on stage – and no wonder, with lyrics as bold as this...

Champagne Charlie is my name,
Good for any game at night, my boys, Good for any game at night, my girls...

That song also referenced something known as the PRFG game, which has various interpretations, but the one I found alluded to Private Rooms for Gentlemen - rooms which were hired by the hour or night - and for getting up to who knows what!




In his act, George would take on various guises to compliment his latest songs, but as far as Champagne Charlie went, the rumour about its origins was that Leybourne had been commissioned by the makers of Moet and Chandon Champagne to write and perform a music hall song to celebrate their product, and – in the words of the song itself – to sell it as broadly as possible: ‘From Dukes and Lords to cabman down, I make them drink champagne.'

Today, Moet and Chandon claim no knowledge of such a sponsorship deal. But I think I can say with confidence that Leybourne was very fond of Fizz which, sadly, led to his early death at the age of only 42. But then, alcohol was such a part of the music halls’ economy, and any endorsement of the drink that then helped to sell more to the customers also had the added benefit of making those performers very popular with the booking managers.

Such advertising branding – whether formally, or informally done – actually went on all the time. One popular ditty went like this:

‘She wouldn’t call for sherry; she wouldn’t call for beer;
She wouldn’t call for cham, because she knew ‘twould make her queer’ 
She wouldn’t call for Brandy, rum or anything they’d got’
She only called for Bovril – hot! hot! hot!

Not even the Brick Lane Temperance Society could take offence at that - and many people did take offence! Once, some local Methodists walked in through the doors of Wilton’s and were then so shocked by what they saw that they fell to their knees, right there and then, and prayed for God to help them break the power of the devil in that place.




The Salvation Army would often march along the streets of the East End, waving all their banners and flags while campaigning against the decadence going on inside in the halls and bars – and they’d very often sing the hymn - Bless His Name, He Sets Me Free - with lyrics composed by General Booth, the leader of the Army, but sung to the Champagne Charlie song, because – as Booth so wisely said - ‘Why Should the Devil have all the best tunes?’




Another devil in human form, and a rival to George Leybourne, was Alfred Peck Stevens - The Great Vance – who also sang boisterous drinking songs, and was, supposedly again, sponsored by a champagne company - this time being Veuve Cliquot. Imagine Blur versus Oasis today, and I think something of a similar kind of a public sparring match went on, with the two men often taken up with bating each other professionally. So when Vance had an enormous hit with a song called: ‘Walking in the Zoo’...


George Leybourne sang Lounging at the Aq – inspired by, and also promoting visits to the London Aquarium.



All that lounging and walking was no doubt done with the hope of trying to catch the eyes of any pretty girls around though, of course, when visiting the halls, there’d be plenty of girls looking out for them - in the form of prostitutes. However, when it came to Wilton’s a contemporary newspaper report affirmed that the manager made sure that the girls who worked his establishment were ‘more wholesome and straightforward looking than the harlots of the Haymarket.’




Indeed, in its earlier days, as reflected in the foundation stone, Wilton’s aspired to an elegant glamour, with acts such as Miss Annie Delemonte, described in this review as being...

“a superior vocalist, singing serial comic ditties in a way which charmed all who listened to her. Sarah Ann – a servant...a cantoneer who is the pet of the whole brigade... and Prince Jolly were the characters assumed. Her singing is extra delightful and her manner is ladylike and winsome to a high degree.’

Today, Miss Delamonte has all but faded into obscurity, unlike another singer who came a little later on and who was never all that ladylike. But she was extra delightful, so much so that she became a star, nationally, and internationally, though I don't think she ever appeared at Wilton’s because when her career was starting out the prayers of those ardent Methodists who once fell to their knees inside the hall had well and truly been answered. By 1888, Wilton’s doors had been closed up for immoral behaviour and decadence - and - irony of irony - it became a Methodist mission chapel!

It was in another chapel, and not so very far away, that a young girl called Matilda Alice Victoria Wood - born in Hoxton in 1870 - used to sing along with her siblings as one of the Fairy Bell Minstrels, with songs such as “Throw Down the Bottle and Never Drink Again” which proved to be very popular when performed at the Nile Street Sunday School, or the Blue Ribbon Gospel Temperance Mission; which we know as the Hoxton Hall today.

When not doing that, she’d bunk off school and loiter at strangers’ funerals, where she’d weep and wail so convincingly that every eye would turn her way. But then, she always craved to be the centre of attention; whichever way she found it.

Tilley, as she was known back then, did attempt to work in other trades, either making shoes for babies, or curling feathers for Ladies’ hats. However, the factory foreman sacked her for climbing up on the work tables where she danced and sang for the other girls, after which her parents finally agreed to let her have a chance of singing in the music halls.




At the age of just 15, under the name of Matilda Wood, she appeared at Hoxton’s Grecian Hall - where the Eagle Tavern is today - where her father worked as a waiter, and could keep an eye on his daughter who appeared in a costume that she’d made with a skirt to show her petticoats, and on her head a mantilla of lace to drape around her curling hair, through which her blue eyes sparkled, as did the large white teeth she had in a face not conventionally beautiful, but she did exude charisma that set her apart from all the rest, while she braved whatever cacophony was going on in the hall below and sang a sentimental song entitled “In the Good Old Days”. That was swiftly followed on by the dittie, My Soldier Laddie, after which she danced an Irish jig!

So successful was that act that – well – the rest is history. Tilly found a manager, George Ware, who changed her name to Marie. Marie as in Starry, with the surname of Lloyd being said to come from a copy of Lloyds Weekly Newspaper. Or perhaps a box of matches. Whatever the truth, she certainly became the flame for many hearts, with an act that was very strongly attuned to the growing success of the ‘Cockney performers’, with the patrons at the music halls delighting in catchy choruses with which they could all sing along.



They simply couldn’t get enough when Marie sang ...

The boy I love is up in the gallery,
The boy I love is looking now at me,
There he is, can’t you see, waving his handkerchief, 
As merry as a robin that sings on a tree.

Such sweetness could turn to tartness in the merest blinking of an eye, and the writer Compton Mackenzie who saw her perform when just a boy, said that he had been

“amazed that any girl should have the courage to let the world see her drawers as definitely as Marie Lloyd.”

Perhaps she’d been singing The Tale of the Skirt

By correct manipulation, she the figure can display,
And the ankles, and the, er well, it’s hard to turn the eyes away
When there’s half a yard of open work ...
And she murmurs ‘Saucy Monkey’ when a rude boy shouts, What ho!...




The rude boys would have loved it when she did an act with a parasol, which she’d seem to struggle to open, before saying with a knowing wink, ‘Thank God, I haven’t had it up for months!’

And during a London pantomime, egged on by her co-star, Little Itch, Marie knelt to pray by a bed and then reached underneath it, as if to find a chamber pot - which the audience thought hilarious – as they did whenever she might sing: ‘I sits among the cabbages and peas', which alluded to outside lavatories, built at the bottom of gardens, and where – as the lyrics quaintly described – a young woman, “sits and shells with ease. Till the pretty little peapot’s full of peas.'

Imagine singing that too fast - and although such scatological humour might seem pretty tame today, Marie’s objectors were outraged. She was charged with indecency and appeared before the Theatre’s Vigilance Committee, where she then defended herself by singing “A Little of what you fancy does you good’ in such a coy sweet manner that no-one could find a thing to condemn. And, finally, in an act of defiance, she recited the lyrics of Tennyson’s poem, ‘Come into the Garden Maud’ with such a carnal knowing air at every utterance of ‘come’ that everyone present was stunned into silence -

Marie’s career could not be stopped, as shown in this review for a performance in a pantomime written up in Black and White Magazine...

'I fancy some of my superior readers lifting their eyebrows and exclaiming: "What! Marie Lloyd an artist!" Yes, indeed! If you have one scrap of appreciation for art in your soul...you roar when she sings and winks that roguish eye of hers: you roar so heartily that you forget to ask why you roar and how she makes you roar ... She knows when to be restrained, when to be ebullient; she may be vulgar at times, but she is always humorous...she can make her brilliant white teeth flash on you so suddenly that you are dazzled; her wink tickles you; her smile warms you; her chuckle rouses you to responsive merriment. But it is useless trying to set down in the space of a half-column the multifarious delights of Miss Lloyd's art. She is great, and she must be seen to be appreciated. You go doubting – you come away her slave.'

And speaking of slaves there’s a story told of how Marie, then in middle age, had sailed to New York for a run of shows, but before she’d even left the ship someone informed the authorities that she’d shared her cabin with a man by the name of Bernard Dillon - a race horse jockey half her age who did eventually marry her. But at that point her second husband, the Cockney performer Alec Hurley, was still very much alive at home. The lovers were called ‘undesirables’ and detained for ‘moral turpitude’, with Dillon then arrested on some ridiculous trumped up charges of importing Marie to New York as a product of the white slave trade!

Back in England, by 1915, Marie had put the scandal behind her, working hard for the First World War Effort, travelling around the country, visiting hospitals and factories, and entertaining frontline troops with, ‘Now You’ve Got your Khaki on’. But she had her own battles to fight at home, with that marriage to Bernard Dillon proving a disaster, with Marie often resorting to drink while attempting to forget her woes. And going back to that idea of music hall acts reflecting real life... Marie’s songs often mirrored her life as well. So, when she sang ‘My Old Man Said Follow the Van, and don’t dilly dally on the way', she referred to the plight of the homeless poor who might have to do a midnight flit when they hadn’t the money to pay the rent - at a time when she was homeless too - not destitute as such - but fleeing the home that she had shared with the philandering and violent husband, whose extravagance soon left his wife in debt.




This is Marie a year before her death - no longer so young or resilient, and she knew her star was fading. When Virginia Wood went to see her at Camden’s Bedford Hall she wrote of: “A mass of corruption – long front teeth – a crapulous way of saying 'desire', – scarcely able to walk, waddling, aged, unblushing...” How cruel that was! But sadly, true. Marie had become unreliable, often not showing up for work, or being so drunk that she stumbled about and fell into the scenery.




She gave her final performance on the stage of the London Alhambra when she sang in greatly weakened voice: “It’s a bit of a ruin that Cromwell knocked about a bit”. What a ruin she’d become - and it seems the cruellest irony - especially when considering where Marie Lloyd’s career began: in the Sunday school, and the mission hall, condemning the sins of alcohol - to know that she collapsed on stage as the audience roared with laughter, not knowing that this was no act.

She fell into a coma from which she never woke again. Three days later, Marie Lloyd was dead - mentally and physically exhausted, her body ravaged by alcohol, although right up until the end she tried to put a brave face on things, insisting: “Let them think I died of good living – don’t leave them crying.”




But Marie did leave them crying. Her final performance, her funeral, on October 12, 1922, is perhaps comparable today with that of Diana, Princess of Wales – with over 100,000 fans coming out to line the streets as her coffin progressed to a Hampstead church.

Max Beerbohm, the famous essayist said it was London’s biggest funeral since the death of The Duke of Wellington, when so many mourners had the sense that this was a woman who’d touched their hearts, who felt that they’d lost a personal friend.’ And that sentiment was also shared by the poet, T S Elliot, who wrote that the key to her success was the fact that she never tried to hide what had been the humblest of origins – claiming that honesty loaned her a moral superiority, through which she had “the capacity for expressing the soul of the people - which made her something quite unique.”




Marie was certainly unique, and in a way it’s safe to say that her death marked the end of era - the twilight years of the music halls - when so many of the night-time crowds now flocked to the silent films instead, with any of the grand old halls converted into cinemas. And then, at the end of World War II, many people preferred to stay at home with their televisions – upon which they might well have seen programmes like The Good Old Days; named after the song Marie Lloyd performed when she first trod the boards at the Grecian Hall, with the viewers nostalgically singing along with all the songs that they still knew.