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Mirth, Mayhem and Marvel: A Brief Introduction to Music Halls

Originating as an extension of the saloon bars of local pubs and taverns, music halls developed their own style of variety performance

‘The scent… of music halls everywhere – the scent of wood and grease-paint and spilling beer, of gas and of tobacco and of hair-oil, all combined… later I heard it described, by theatre managers and artistes, as the smell of laughter, the very odour of applause.’ 

Sarah Waters, Tipping the Velvet

England’s long history of building grand indoor spaces for socialising and entertainment began with the music halls of the early Victorian era. Originating as an extension of the saloon bars of local pubs and taverns, music halls developed their own style of variety performance, producing a number of big name acts who frequented the circuit.

Along with a glittering history of variety performance which continued to be popular until the 1960s, music halls could also be seen as the rebel theatres of the era. Unlike traditional theatre set ups, music halls featured round table (or cabaret) seating, ensuring that male punters could easily drink, eat, smoke, and enjoy variety performances, all in the same room. A raucous, social atmosphere was observed and encouraged.

Due to the damage inflicted on the cultural landscape by war, as well as developing leisure trends, true music halls are very rare. A recent bout of nostalgia has fortunately inspired the regeneration of a number of sites to be enjoyed by a new generation of revellers.

City Varieties Music Hall, Leeds. Photo Tony O’Connell 2
City Varieties Music Hall, Leeds. Photo Tony O’Connell

A rare surviving example of a Victorian era music hall, City Varieties, Leeds was built in 1865 by local pub landlord Charles Thornton as a grand extension to the singing room of the Swan Inn. In 1904 the originally named ‘Thornton’s New Music Hall and Fashionable Lounge’ saw a performance by one of the most famous people in the world at the time, Harry Houdini. The world renowned escape artist was paid just over £130 (roughly £7,500 in today’s money), which was the most any performer had been paid to appear at  the theatre. It is suggested that, in its heyday, up to 2,000 people a night (four times the current capacity) would visit, mostly from the working classes, and the room would become so filled up with tobacco smoke that it was common for ladies in corsets to faint.

The City Varieties is Grade II* listed, and recently underwent a £9.9 million refurbishment project, returning the building to its former glory as the heart of the city.

Malt Cross (c) Malt Cross Trust
Courtesy of Malt Cross Trust

Malt Cross Music Hall in Nottingham, was built in 1877 on top of an underground network of sandstone caves, which were once used by monks to store meat and beer. It is Grade II listed, and survives in an almost original state with ornate iron balustrade gliding along the edge of the gallery. An interesting architectural feature is the arched, laminated timber roof, which is held together entirely by glue.

As well as a history of star performers, music halls also attracted activities of a morally questionable nature. In certain establishments, prostitutes paraded down the aisles and it is thought that men took recreational drugs. Activities of this nature are said to have caused the initial demise of Malt Cross, whose reputation was damaged and licence lost leading to closure in 1911.

In 1996, the building was refurbished as a music and arts venue, with the underground caves transformed into an arts and heritage workshop space. It claims to be the only Victorian music hall in the country which operates as its original design intended, providing food, drink and live music.

Images must Credit Hélène Binet (33)
© Hélène Binet

Wilton’s Music Hall began life as a row of five early 18th century East London houses, one of which was an ale house serving the local Scandinavian sea captains, with a large concert room to the rear. In the 1850s, John Wilton purchased the plot, and transformed the concert room into his ‘Magnificent New Music Hall’, providing an off-West End stage for opera, ballet and circus.

Following a string of owners, and a disastrous fire which ravaged the main hall, the building was bought in 1888 by the East London Methodists Mission. At the time the East End was in an impoverished state, and many people needed help. The mission acted as a soup kitchen, campaign centre and support base for the local community, who, later down the line, were instrumental in ensuring that the building was not lost forever.

Wilton’s was listed Grade II* ’for sociological interest and interior’, in 1971, following a long running campaign to save the building from demolition, and highlight the need for it to be reinstated as an artistic institution. Wilton’s won three categories of the RIBA London Awards, including Building of the Year 2016, and is open to the public, providing a varied program of performances and community events.

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