The Shrapnels Concert Company © IWM (Art.IWM PST 13703)

Music Halls and Theatres

by John Ward

Stage entertainment in Nottingham during WW1 is quite difficult to explain; it is like entering a cinema half-way through the feature film.

Much has been written about the history of the music hall and there are a number of differing opinions as to its origins. Speak of the music hall today and many people have a vision of Leonard Sachs standing before an audience of well-dressed people reminiscent of the Edwardian days, smiling, laughing and responding, to some good, some not so good and some quite indifferent, three or four minute turns on the stage of the City Varieties Music Hall in Leeds. The show was extremely popular and ran for over 30 years, it was of course ‘The Good Old Days.’

The Good Old days tended to portray the better side of music hall entertainment and gave little, if any insight into the early music halls of the Victorian and Edwardian days. The venues were known as ‘Supper Rooms’, ‘Penny Gaffs’ or ‘Free & Easies’ and were patronised mainly by working class male audiences who attended for the cheap food and alcohol.

Sometimes a customer would be called ‘to do a turn’ and give a song to the audience and usually received payment in the form of alcohol. The premises were dirty, raucous and rowdy and were hopefully controlled by a Chairman, normally the owner of the venue. He was nearly always a large built man needed to keep the patrons in check as well as to introduce each turn – hardly the Leonard Sachs’ figure.

Nottingham was the same as in most major cities in the country with many thriving venues but in 1898 the Government passed an Act demanding a certificate of suitability for music halls and variety theatres that required a proscenium wall/arch (between the stage and the auditorium) to be installed together with the provision of a safety curtain. Also, the sale of alcohol in the main body of the hall was prohibited. This resulted in many of the smaller venues closing, they couldn’t afford the alterations and additions to be carried out. To document the many changes made individually in Nottingham would take a long time but suffice it to say that the main area around Nottingham City Centre retained many of its halls and variety theatres. A few of the better-known halls were ‘The Malt Cross’, on James Street, ‘St George Hall’ on Parliament Street, Barrasford’s near the present Theatre Royal, ‘The Blue Bell Inn’ on Parliament Street, ‘The Crown and Cushion’ in Fletcher Gate, ‘The Gaiety Theatre’ in Market Street and ‘The Talbot’ in the Market Square.

Large consortiums were formed, the Empires and Hippodromes; and despite weighty opposition the music halls remained popular with the traditional era of the music halls being recognised as from the mid 1800’s until the beginning of WW1. The actors and entertainers of that period were mainly from a travelling community so very little advertising as to who was appearing and where, was available. Some of these turns were known to appear in up to 6 or 7 different venues on the same evening. The outbreak of the war brought many patriotic songs to the stage sung by the likes of Miss Vesta Tilley, who was considered to be the best recruiting sergeant that the army ever had with songs like ‘The Recruiting Sergeant’, The King’s Shilling’, and ‘The Army of Today’ although by 1916 the main focus was on anti-war songs. The halls started to close and by 1917 an estimated 3.5million people were regular cinema-goers.

Who appeared in Nottingham?

Unless a star-turn was appearing at one of the major venues, there was little in the way of advertising but from a sparse collection of these adverts it is known that many of the well-known names did come to Nottingham. These stars, mainly products of the Victorian era, born in the late 1800’s but whose names are still remembered today.

Vesta Tilley
Vesta Tilley (in and out of drag).

Vesta Tilley, appeared often at St George’s Hall from the age of only 4 years old as her father, known as Harry Ball, was music hall chairman there. She was successful from the onset and under her father’s management Vesta toured extensively in the midlands but played most frequently at St George’s Hall; by the age of 11 she was able to support her family on her earnings. She did her first role in male clothing at the age of 6 and came to prefer doing male roles exclusively, saying "I felt that I could express myself better if I were dressed as a boy." She was very successful as a male impersonator with perhaps her most memorable pre-war song being ‘Burlington Bertie”.

Little Tich – of ‘the big boots’- when he came to Nottingham declared that he was dropping his big boots act, to which there was such a flood of objections amongst the theatre-goers that he vowed he would never return to Nottingham again.

Keppel and Betty of the ‘sand dance’ and dance of the seven veils fame.

Marie Lloyd
Marie Lloyd.

Marie Lloyd – famous for her risque songs and affectionately known as the Queen of the Music Hall. Well known songs even today include A Little of What You Fancy’; ‘Oh Mr Porter What shall I do and her only wartime song ‘Now You’ve got your Khaki On’ – which became a favourite with the troops.

Florrie Forde - my favourite chorus singer and known for songs that had powerful and memorable choruses which everyone could join in with eg Down at the Old Bull and Bush, I do like to be beside the Seaside.

Gus Elen
The sheet music of If it wasn't for the 'ouses in between.

Gus Elen -he achieved his success mainly performing cockney songs eg ‘If It Wasn’t for the ‘Ouses in Between’, ‘Arf a Pint of Ale’.

Lily Morris – known for performing comedic songs eg ‘Why am I always the bridesmaid?’, Don’t have any More Mrs Moore.’

© John Ward 2017


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