This appeared in the Morning Chronicle 2 September 1850, from 'Our Special Correspondent' under 'LABOUR AND THE POOR'. It is the work of Henry Mayhew, better known for his descriptions of London poverty, and describes early music halls (though the term used in 1850 was 'concert rooms').
The first I visited is one of the largest concert rooms in Liverpool. The advertised charge for admission was threepence, but on my tendering that sum to the money-taker at the door, he refused it, and informed me that the charge was sixpence. An explanation was asked and given, from which it appeared that the money-taker decided from the dress of the visitor whether he should pay the greater or the smaller sum. Threepence, he said, was the price to sailors and the working classes only; and sixpence was always charged to gentlemen. "But then," he added, "it comes to the same thing, as the full value of the ticket is returned in drink; and the 'gent' who pays his sixpence has a glass of spirits and water, or a bottle of porter for it; while the working man has no more than a glass of beer for his threepence."
The room was large and handsomely decorated. It was fitted up with a stage at the further end and with moveable scenery as at a theatre. There were about 400 people present. The audience were arranged on benches, in front of small tables, or rather ledges, with just sufficient room before each person to place a bottle and a glass. Men, women and children were mingled together. A dense cloud of tobacco-smoke filled the room. The greater portion of the auditors were evidently mechanics and labourers, with their families; but there was a considerable number of sailors, British, American, and foreign. There was also a large number of young boys, of from fourteen to sixteen years of age, of whom there was scarcely one without a pipe or a cigar in his mouth. The presence of these boys was the most melancholy part of the whole exhibition. Their applause rang loudest throughout the room - their commands to the waiters for drink were more frequent, obstreperous, and rude, than those of other persons - and their whole behaviour was unbecoming and offensive.
The performer in possession of the stage was a man dressed from chin to heel in flesh-colour cotton, fitting tight to the form, to represent nudity. He played the part of Lady Godiva riding through Coventry. In front of him projected the pasteboard figure of a pony's head, and behind were seen the posterior quarters of the animal. A long drapery concealed his legs, as he skipped about the stage, whilst a pair of stuffed legs, to represent the nude limbs of Lady Godiva, dangled over the saddle. He sang a comic song - a mixture of the old legend with modern allusions. The whole composition was not only vulgar and stupid, but indecent. He was greeted with loud applause, and called upon for an encore.
To him succeeded a genteel-looking young woman who sang a sentimental song with considerable taste and feeling. The curtain then fell and allowed a pause for a few minutes, during which the waiters zealously plied the guests to give their orders for liquor. An elderly woman seated on the bench before me called for ginger beer. She was very meanly dressed and altogether unprepossessing; and when the waiter brought the liquor, in exchange for her threepenny ticket, he neglected to bring a glass for it. He was about to pour it into the glass of a previous visitor, in which were some remains of porter, when she held back his hand and insisted upon a clean glass. The man told her that she was rather too particular, and that if she could not drink without a clean glass she might let it alone. She insisted that, having paid her money, she was as much entitled to a clean glass as anyone else, although perhaps she was not quite so well dressed as some others in the room. The waiter insolently told her to "hold her jaw; glasses were scarce; and if she did not like the glass before her she could drink out of the bottle."
The lowering of the gas-lights gave notice that the exhibition of the poses plastiques was about to commence. The room being reduced to semi-darkness, the curtain slowly rose, the whole blaze of the floodlights was thrown upon the stage, and a tableau vivant was exhibited. The performers were three females and one male. The tableau represented a classical subject; and the criticism of the spectators, though somewhat freely expressed, and not of the most delicate kind, as regarded the development of the female forms exposed to their gaze, was in the highest degree approbatory of the exhibition. As the curtain began to fall, there was a loud clapping of hands, and stamping of feet, a jingling of glasses and bottles, and a call for an encore. In the midst of the uproar of applause, and before the slowly descending curtain concealed the performers from sight, the elderly woman before mentioned directed my attention to the principal female figure in the group - a finely formed and handsome young woman. "The waiter treats me in this way," she said, "because I am old and badly dressed; but I'll ket him know that I am somebody, after all. That young woman, sir, is my daughter."
I sympathised in her grievance respecting the waiter, upon which she became very communicative, and gave a detail of the professional life of her daughter. She was, she said, one of the first that ever exhibited in England, in the poses plastiques, and learned the art under Madame Warton. Her salary was a pound a week, for which she performed four or five times every night. She had to provide her own flesh-coloured silks out of her earnings, and these articles were very expensive. Though the salary was not high, her daughter would have been contented with it; but the master of the establishment having determined to cut it down to 18s. a week, she had given him notice to quit, and the present was the last night of her performance in Liverpool. She had received another engagement in Manchester at 21s. a week, and was to leave on the following Monday to make her first appearance. "It is very hard work," said the old woman, "and is not sufficiently paid, considering the expense of the dress."
A comic song from a young man dressed as a sailor interrupted her further confidences, and she soon afterwards left her seat, but not before bestowing a parting malediction upon the waiter. At the conclusion of the song, I left the place, and visited another concert-room of the same kind. This establishment is divided into two separate rooms; the one entitled the "House of Commons," and the other the "House of Lords." The "House of Commons" is open to all comers, male and female; the "House of Lords," where the liquors are sold at a price somewhat in advance, is reserved exclusively for the male sex. The Hall of the "House of Commons" was a large room, in which about three hundred persons, sailors and their wives and sweethearts, mechanics with their wives and children, and a number of young lads and girls were assembled. The place was filled with tobacco smoke. The walls were adorned with gigantic full-length portraits of celebrated prizefighters, all in boxing attitude, and painted apparently in fresco. As at the previously visited establishment, there was a stage with moveable scenery at the extremity. A man in the traditional stage garb of a sailor sang a nautical song and danced a hornpipe. He was followed by a female performer in the sentimental line, who was twice encored. She was succeeded by a couple, representing a cobbler and his termagent wife. They performed a comic duet, abounding in double entendres, which elicited roars of laughter. The performances in the "House of Lords" were of a similar character, the principal difference being the exclusion of women and the superior attire of the guests, who seemed to be composed of clerks, shopmen and tradesmen.
I also visited other establishments of the kind. Their general characteristics were the same, except that the rooms were smaller, in some instances not being calculated for the accommodation of more than forty or fifty people. The performers were invariably on the best of terms with the company. The men smoked and drank with the auditory, and the woman drank with all who invited them, until they were summoned by a little bell to appear on the stage, and sing the songs set down for them in the programme in the evening. This done, they returned to the body of the room without the least ceremony, and again mingled with the guests, the whole performance and arrangements being of the simplest and most primitive kind.
I took the opportunity of asking one of these young women, whom I had seen drinking brandy and water, gin and water, and beer, with at least half a dozen people, whether she did not find it prejudicial to her health, to drink so many mixtures, and whether she drank as much every night? She replied that it sometimes made her very ill. "Ours is a very disagreeable life," she added. "We are obliged to drink with all sorts of people who ask us. It brings company to the house, and if we did not drink with the sailors and others who invite us, we should lose our situations. We are not told this, but we know what would happen if we did not. Singing in such houses is hard work, and altogether our kind of life is very disagreeable. I should be glad to exchange it for any other. But what can I do? I do not know a note of music. I sing altogether by ear, and if I left my present situation, I should either have to take in needlework or go into the streets. At needlework I could not earn 5s. a week, and I gain 18s. a week at this. So you see if it is good pay, and though disagreeable for some reasons, it is better than needlework, and more respectable than the streets."
Though no positive coarseness of language was used in the song and dialogues of the characters, the allusions were often broad and indecent enough, and we received with obstreperous merriment. The squabbles between husband and wife were frequently imitated, apparently to the immense delight of the company. The great majority of the auditors appeared in the garb of sailors, or mechanics; and as usual, the young boys, many of them prematurely old with dissipation, mustered in large numbers, and drank, smoked, and applauded with more vigour than the old portions of the company. It would be but a useless repetition to detail the various scenes of the kind of which I was a witness. The staple amusements were same, except that the nearer the concert-room was to the docks, the larger the proportion of sailors that attended. In one or two instances families of Irish emigrants were among the auditors. In some of the houses, dancing was a portion of the entertainment and included "nigger dances," the sailor's hornpipe, and the jig, and in one house a dance in pattens, by a women with her face blackened, to impersonate a negress, and in another an imitation of Boz's Juba. In no instance did I observe any quarrelling or disturbance.
Such are the attractions offered in Liverpool to amuse the people in their houses of leisure.