Music Hall

The Music Hall Tradition

Clubs and the Music Hall Tradition

Going back to the early history of clubs, we see a lot of links to the popular music halls of the day.  Music halls were a very popular form of entertainment for working people but they were also frequented by members of the upper classes.  Most large towns hosted several music halls which offered a good night out, with comedy, singing and dancing and maybe some magic tricks, even circus acts.  There was a mix of entertainment, which is just what working men’s clubs offered when entertainment became part and parcel of what they did.  The clubs and music halls were closely linked, in terms of the entertainment they offered, the artistes they called upon and the rituals of the night – including the banter among the audiences who were not backward in coming forward if they didn’t like an artiste.  Audiences of clubs concerts during their post-war heyday in the 1960s and 70s actually didn’t behave so differently to their Victorian counterparts: they also would boo off stage ‘rubbish acts’ or simply refuse to listen, continuing their conversations and drinking as someone tried their best on stage to survive their time. 

Music halls can be traced back to the 1840s, and many started off as small affairs, some being rooms in pubs, in what were known as singing saloons others as  penny gaffs.  But they quickly grew to play an important role in working class districts and popular culture.  Not everyone could afford to pay the entrance fee, however, so the poorest were excluded but probably knew the popular songs that would be heard everywhere.  Some of the singing saloons became so popular that they developed independently of the pubs they were attached to and by the 1850s were what we could recognise as music halls. 

Men were the main part of the audiences though some younger and single women could be found in the audiences.  Some young men would exhibit rowdy behaviour and over-excitement on their big night out.  But this seems to be something that doesn’t change much! The bigger music halls would have clearly demarcated seating areas with the more expensive seats largely reserved for the wealthier clientele. 

They were not always approved by the moral guardians of society, being seen as low culture and not uplifting at all.  But working class people, and others from higher up the social hierarchy, flocked to the music halls as they would later flock to the clubs.  They could socialise with their friends, eat and drink and have a laugh.  The more well-to-do music halls were quite splendid in their décor and this would have been a real night out for the audiences.  Music halls were, though, sometimes tinged with low moral values as well, and female entertainers not always viewed highly.  Unfortunately women entertainers have always run the risk of being seen as women of the night- society still does to some extent have such double standards.  But some could make good money and become famous as indeed could some of the famous male entertainers. 

The demise of the music halls came about for many reasons but certainly the rise of the cinema as a popular form of entertainment played its role.  Some music hall entertainers made the shift into film, probably the most famous one being Charlie Chaplin who grew up in impoverished circumstances in Kennington, London, himself the son of a music hall entertainer.  He was one of those who struck lucky in Hollywood but he had talent to go with his luck.

WMCs can be seen as continuing many of the music hall traditions.  If you want to get a feel for what a music hall was like, your Club Historians highly recommend a visit to Wilton’s Music Hall in London, not far from Tower Bridge underground station.  (

Wilton's is the world's oldest and last surviving grand music hall and was saved from bulldozers and development only through a campaign led by Sir John Betjeman, began in 1964.  As a result, Wilton's was given a Grade II *(grade two star) listing.  Others involved in helping to save Wilton’s include- Laurence Olivier, Peter Sellers, Rory Bremner, Liza Minelli, Roy Hudd and Christopher Biggins.  Club Historian Ruth went to a wonderful talk given by Roy Hudd at Wiltons (2008) which was full of historical facts, jokes and also some music hall classics which Roy performed lovingly.  It is now a beautiful example of what the old music halls looked like.  Stepping inside is like stepping back in time but also very reminiscent of stepping into the concert room of a club. 

In the 1850s and 60s, you could have listened to and watched classical overtures, dance, circus acts, opera, choral, and popular folk songs long before "old time music hall" evolved.  It was built by John Wilton, behind his public house, The Prince of Denmark in 1858, in Graces Alley, E1.  Famous entertainers such as George Leybourne (Champagne Charlie) sang here with a rumour that the first ever Can-Can was performed and instantly banned at Wilton's.  In its heyday, 1,500 people used to cram into the music hall to hear the top acts – including some who were lured over from Covent Garden to perform late night favourite arias. 

There aren’t many such places left and we hope that Club Historians can not only help support such wonderful places but also, in doing, preserve the closely linked heritage of working men’s clubs.  Just as famous celebrities got together to support Wilton’s, there might be a few out there who would like to join in and help struggling clubs as many stars began their careers on the club circuit. 

Ruth Cherrington
May 25th 2009




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