Oxford Music Hall

Old songs and half-forgotten shreds of old music can be a gift to an author.  Rather than sprinkling a crime scene with conveniently dropped, helpfully initialled handkerchiefs, partially burned letters or hidden keys to secret passageways, a song from years gone by can make it surprisingly easy for an inquisitive character to find his or her way back into the past – and from there solve any number of a book’s mysteries.

Songs can even contain clues about long-ago plans for an assassination, or plots to unseat reigning monarchs and install pretenders.  They can reveal truths about the scandalous secrets of powerful people, or disclose details of famous robberies or forgeries.

And, of course, if a suitable song doesn’t exist, the author can simply write one – which can be great fun in itself.

The Victorian and Edwardian music halls offer rich hunting grounds for old songs containing meanings and messages.  Places such as The Canterbury in Lambeth – Wilton’s in Tower Hamlets – Collins’ in Islington – the Cider Cellars – the Middlesex in Drury Lane (the famous ‘Old Mo’) – and many more, would have thrummed with the music of the day.  And that music and those songs often incorporated comments on current events – sly jibes at politicians – dissatisfaction about working conditions.  Frequently there was propaganda, too, although that was usually wrapped up in lively, sometimes-bawdy humour, and given domestic settings with which audiences would instantly identify.

When the former costermonger and barrow-boy, Gus Elen – known to his many followers as the coster comedian – belted out the  bitter humour of his song about housing shortages and overcrowding, his audiences delightedly shouted the chorus with him:       

"Oh, it really is a very pretty garden
  And Chingford to the   Eastward could be seen.
  With a ladder and some glasses
  You could see to Hackney Marshes
  If it wasn’t for the houses inbetween".

They sympathised, too, when, in the 1890s, Albert Chevalier sang ‘My Old Dutch’.  Most people today probably know the famous first line of that song – ‘We’ve been together now for forty years/And it don’t seem a day too much’.

But perhaps not too many people know the song was written as a lament.  That it’s the husband’s farewell to his wife as they trudge up the hill to the workhouse, knowing that once there, they’ll be separated for the first time in all their forty years.  That’s undoubtedly something Victorian and Edwardian audiences would have identified with.  They knew all about the workhouse – that bleak fate that was the terror of so many.

Marie Lloyd

They knew, as well, that when Marie Lloyd sang cheerfully about following the van, she was singing about eviction, about not being able to pay the rent, about having to move away, but doing it furtively – after dark – in order to escape bailiffs and hide the shame…   They could sympathise and understand with the singer following the removal van and then being unable to find her way home because she had called at the pub for a drink or two…

"My old man said, ‘Follow the van – don’t dilly dally on the way.            
Off went the van, with the home packed in it, 
I walked behind with me old cock linnet. 
But I dillied and dallied, dallied and dillied,
Lost me way and don’t know where to roam.
For I stopped off on the way to have the old half quartern
Now I can’t find my way home”

There were much darker songs, as well – songs that were sometimes called execution ballads.  One of the most famous of these was probably the Ballad of Sam Hall – the lament of the condemned, unrepentant man waiting to be hanged.  The song is believed to portray the defiant anger of an early 18th century criminal, hanged – probably at Tyburn – for robbing the rich to feed the poor.

The lyrics vary slightly, depending on which source you consult, but each verse certainly seems to have ended with the lines, “I hate you one and all – Damn your eyes!”

The song was regularly performed in the Cider Cellars in Maiden Lane, and according to Punch, audiences were often convinced that the singer was actually bound for the gallows.  Punch also informed its readers that the performances were “popular not only among tavern haunters and frequenters of the night houses, but also with the gentry and aristocracy, who do vote it a thing to be heard, although a blackguard…”

Reading that, it’s impossible not to hear echoes of the grisly practice of attending public hangings, which, to many people, represented a day out.  It was regarded as a chance to meet up with old friends and make new ones.  You’d take a few sandwiches and a bottle of beer to pass the time until the condemned man was brought out.  If you were in France, of  course, you probably even took along your knitting…

There was, though, another, much brighter, side to music hall songs. There was the Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo and who walked along the Bois de Boulogne with an independent air.  That would certainly have been a cheerful thing to hear if a visit to the local pawnshop was looming, or if you were currently engaged in dodging the rent man.  For, after all, if  Charles Coburn, (who performed the song on numerous occasions), could make his fortune in such a fashion, surely others might one day do the same?  And when Mr Coburn issued his genial invitation to Come Where the Booze is Cheaper, a delighted shout of assent must surely have gone up.

And could there be better dreams for young men than of one day dressing like Burlington Bertie and sauntering along like a toff, or copying George Leybourne – ‘Champagne Charlie’ himself – who ‘only drank champagne’?  Or of sinking the wine recommended by Leybourne’s rival, ‘The Great Vance’, who sang about Cool Burgundy Ben and Cliquot, Cliquot.

The girls would have been given dreams too – dreams of The Only Boy in the World, and of riding with him On a Bicycle Made for Two.

And if they were hesitant about permitting a young man’s advances, they had only to listen to the irrepressible Marie Lloyd’s maxim:

“I always hold with having it if you fancy it -
 If you fancy it, that’s understood,
And suppose it makes you fat
I don’t worry over that,
For a little of what you fancy does you good.”

Most actors will declare that all theatres have ghosts, starting with Drury Lane’s famous ‘Man in Grey’ and its capering Regency comedian, Joe Grimaldi, all the way down to the humbler levels of spectral chars eternally trying to scrub out fake blood after Macbeth’s death, or phantom stagehands who obligingly hand over a stage brace, then vanish in a puff of thespian-tinged vapour.

There were – and probably still are – other forms of spooks, too.  A snatch of song has drifted down from an unnamed source, in which its composer affectionately celebrates the tradition of the ghost ‘walking’ each week – that being theatrical slang for payment of wages:

‘On Friday nights the ghost walks/Rattling its chains to itself;           
For that’s the night the ghost hands out the pelf.
On Friday night the ghost walks/Looking as white as a sheet.
Cheerless as sin, so we buy it some gin,
And some bedsocks for its feet.’

It’s still just about possible to touch the music hall era; to feel and sense – and smell! – its  atmosphere.  Flaring gaslight and limelight; the scents of mutton and ale pies, of bags of hot chestnuts and whelks and jellied eels…   Ale and porter and perhaps a little gin for the ladies…  And always the raucous crowds, the cheering or booing of the performers, the arguments, the romantic assignations, the rivalries…

Canterbury Music Hall

Photographs exist of those places, even though most of them are no longer standing.  The sounds are still with us, as well, in the scratchy old recordings that have survived, and that provide the glimmer of an insight into how people spoke and sang in those days – of how words were differently pronounced.  Hearing those early recordings is like reaching out a hand and feeling it brush the fingertips of the vibrant colourful characters who enlivened those bygone stages.

Long may their voices echo down the years – and, metaphorically, across the pages.

Author's note:   This article first appeared in Historia, the magazine of the Historical Writers' Association.