Music Halls: Between Coffee Houses and Cinemas
Music halls derived partly from the 17th- and 18th-century coffee houses but more directly from entertainment in saloon bars and taverns. The first purpose-built one was the Canterbury Hall in Lambeth (1852). By the 1850s they were offering catchy songs and theatrical, or even gymnastic, performances while patrons ate, drank and smoked. This new social scene contrasted with the formality of conventional theatre.
Shaped by the Industrial Revolution, music halls catered particularly for a new urban working class. They provided affordable entertainment with much frivolity and riotous fun; audiences participated by cheering, booing or even throwing objects. Most of the prominent ones were in London; by 1875 some 375 were operating there. The middle classes found them vulgar and their performances distasteful, but they continued to flourish.
Though music hall gave way to variety, then film, after 1918 it still influenced performers as different as The Beatles and Benny Hill.
A Tale of Two Buildings
Next to number 89 Camden High Street stands a dilapidated pillar. It’s the last vestige of a theatre and music hall, the ‘New Bedford’. The ‘Old Bedford’, designed by Edward Clark, was built on part of the Bedford Arms tea garden and could be entered only from a court between the High Street and Arlington Road. It opened on 12 September 1861 with acts by 13 comedians, singers and musicians. Its interior could seat 1168 patrons on three tiers.
In June 1898 Benjamin Lucas and Ted Johnson purchased the building, as well as four houses on Arlington Road and numbers 93 and 95 Camden High Street. The last performance at the Old Bedford was on 9 July, prior to demolition. Built within six months, the ‘New Bedford Palace of Varieties’ opened on 6 February 1899.
The young architect Bertie Crewe designed it in a French Renaissance style, including a high copper dome, granite pilasters, marble steps and slate mansard roofs (see http://www.arthurlloyd.co.uk/Bedford.htm). The interiors of both buildings, as pictured here later, were sumptuous.
The theatre’s fortunes declined over time and it even became a cinema from 1933 until 1937. The last performance was in January 1951. In 1959 Conservative-led St Pancras Borough Council rejected a previous Labour plan to turn it into the central library, so the building then lay derelict until its demolition in 1969.
The New Bedford features in three films, which is slightly ironic given its period as a cinema. In Trottie True (1949) Jean Kent plays a girl who becomes a child star there. A short film was also made while demolition was in progress, and the derelict building appears again in the actor James Mason’s documentary film The London Nobody Knows (1969).
Some Star Turns
Many famous entertainers performed at the Bedford. Gracie Fields appeared in 1912, as did Charlie Chaplin. In 1929 or 1930 the great comic actor Peter Sellers lived with his mother and grandmother upstairs at the Bedford. His parents were performing there in a revue called Ha!Ha!!Ha!!!
George Leybourne (1842-84), born (apparently) Joseph Saunders, made the first documented use of his stage name at the Old Bedford in 1863. He was a “Lion Comique”, i.e. a performer imitating an upper-class gentleman; his songs are full of references to drinking and sexual innuendos. His most famous song, Champagne Charlie, popular with the ‘more lowly’ audience members contained the lines:
Champagne Charlie is my name
Good for any game at night, my boys
Good for any game at night, my girls.
It was rumoured that Leybourne had been commissioned by the makers of Moet and Chandon champagne to write and perform a music hall song to celebrate and promote their product. As the song puts it, From Dukes and Lords to cabman down, I make them drink champagne. Moet and Chandon have since denied knowledge of any such sponsorship deal.
Leybourne was, in fact, very fond of champagne; sadly, it led to his death at the age of only 42. Alcohol was a major part of the music halls’ economy, and its promotion not only generated sales but made the performers involved very popular with the booking managers.
Vesta Tilley (1864-1952), born Matilda Alice Powles, was a famous drag artist, starting as early as age 6. Her career lasted from 1869 to 1920. She ‘typically performed as a dandy or a fop, a famous character being Burlington Bertie’ (Wikipedia), but also played parts such as policemen and clergymen. During WW1 her stage characters mainly depicted soldiers and all her songs were patriotic in nature, e.g. Jolly Good Luck to the Girl Who Loves a Soldier and The Army of Today’s All Right. Her roles included ‘Tommy in the Trench’ and ‘Jack Tar Home from Sea’; she encouraged men in the audience to join her on the stage and enlist during her show. In the first World War she was acclaimed as a great music hall star and was very capable of influencing public opinion.
Marie Lloyd (1870-1922), born Matilda Alice Victoria Wood in Hoxton, east London, first performed at the Old Bedford when only 15. She celebrated her 50th birthday by performing in pantomime at the New Bedford in 1920. Her big break had come with a song by George Ware, The boy I love is up in the gallery. The boy I love is looking down at me. There he is! Can’t you see? Waving his handkerchief, As merry as a robin that sings on a tree. Early in her career, Marie’s little sister would wave a handkerchief in the balcony to mark the appropriate line. Waving handkerchiefs became a tradition whenever the song was sung.
Lloyd’s act was full of salacious innuendos. An especially popular line in one of her songs ran She’d never had her ticket punched before. She delivered it with appropriate gestures and facial expressions. Remarkably, she received glowing praise from T. S. Eliot, who called her death “a significant moment in English history” and praised her “understanding of the people and sympathy for them”; he believed that the people recognised “the fact that she embodied the virtues which they genuinely most respected in private life”. For him, she was “the expressive figure of the lower classes” with no equivalent for any other class. There are even strong hints of music hall in some of his poetry, notably the pub scene in The Waste Land.
Eliot quotes an account of Lloyd’s funeral, with innumerable wreaths “from all parts of the country” and hundreds “from people whose names are almost household words on the variety stage” besides various working-class figures in London.
For further information, please see Paula Pickin’s blog on Marie Lloyd on this website.
Marie Lloyd, however, was contemptuous of another music hall artist, Belle Elmore (1873-1910), born Kunigunde Mackamotski of Russian-Polish and German parentage and known in the USA as Cora Turner. While she was performing at the Bedford in 1910, “her husband Dr Harvey Crippen was spending his time with a typist …, Ethel Le Neve, who had changed her name to sound more exotic.”
Elmore was last seen alive around 1am on Monday 1 February 1910. She and her husband had thrown a dinner party the previous evening but he was later angry with her. That July, the remains of a dismembered body were discovered at Crippen’s house at 39 Hilldrop Crescent, Holloway. Unsuccessful on stage, Elmore has sadly passed into history for being the victim of a famous murder.
Sickert, Artist of the Bedford
The great artist Walter Richard Sickert (1860-1942) called the Bedford “my old love”. Starting in 1885, he produced many paintings and prints depicting its décor, members of the audience and performers (chiefly solo). Here are two examples.
The Camden and Kentish Town’s and St Pancras Gazette, 1 February 1899, describes the interior in a way that shows how beautifully Sickert depicts its Louis Quatorze style, including friezes and panels, massive nude female caryatids on richly ornamented pilasters, a magnificent canopy above thebox, and ruby-tinted curtains.
Sickert enjoyed portraying audiences. His approach to art was centred on the ‘common people’. He declared in 1910 that “The more our art is serious, the more will it tend to avoid the drawing-room and stick to the kitchen.” Similarly, he focused on the cheap seats and their occupants. In the above picture, they look out at the stage, unaware (ironically) of the elaborate gilt decorations below them, and the interplay between the shadow around them and the glare reflected from the stage is splendidly caught. The giant mirror on the left broadens the space and creates a new perspective.
It has been suggested that the previous painting was meant to accompany one depicting the singer Little Dot Hetherington (dates unknown). She appears in more than one work by Sickert, performing The Boy I Love is Up in the Gallery (i.e. perhaps the figure at the front of the box in the other painting). He gave one version, in the form of a fan, to a friend, Florence Pash (see https://www.google.com/url?sa=i&url=https%3A%2F%2Flondonist.com%2F2009%2F10%2Ffrom_the_fan_museum_the_sickert_fan&psig=AOvVaw2yXlQn_DMSZNMEBLMDIRHr&ust=1646845108269000&source=images&cd=vfe&ved).
For further information, please see the blog on Sickert by Paul Guest on this website.
Tailpiece: Passing by the Bedford
As a student at Kentish Town in the late 1960s, I sometimes walked down Camden High Street. So I must have passed the derelict building – without even noticing. If only I’d known then what I know now…still, better late than never.
The Streets of Camden Town (2005). Camden History Society.
Wikipedia (for performers featured in this blog)
https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0041989/ (re. Trottie True)
http://wiltons.org.uk/whatson/711- (re. a play about Marie Lloyd and Eliot, Wilton’s Music Hall, [NB] 11/12 April 2022.
Features image – plaque commemorating Old and New Bedford, Paul Guest, 2022