Thursday, 4 February 2016

Early music hall in Liverpool

(From the Annual Report of the Rev.. Francis Bishop, the Minister to the Poor of the Liverpool Domestic Mission Society)

The youth mentioned in my last report as having ap plied to me when he left our borough prison, with a request that I would save him from a wicked home by helping him to obtain work, is, I rejoice to say, going on satisfactorily in America. And in this connexion I gladly avail myself of the opportunity of recording my deep obligations to the Rev. Dr. Bigelow, one of Dr. Tuckerman's successors in the ministry at large, in Boston, for the assistance he afforded me in this case. To his kindness is it owing, that, when every channel seemed closed against the penitent youth in this country, a way has been opened to him in America, enabling him to return to virtue and happiness. During the last year, also, I have availed myself of the same valuable co-operation, and in the case of a pupil teacher, who had been imprisoned for robbing the school in which he was employed, I have again found Dr. Bigelow ready to give judicious and effectual help to save the boy from the ruin that awaited him had he remained here, and afford him an opportunity of regaining a position of usefulness and respectability.
    It is remarkable that both the above youths were in the habit or attending the casinos and concert saloons that abound in Liverpool ; and since their arrival in America, though they have not the slightest knowledge of each other, and are living far apart, I have had letters from both, in which they rejoice that there are no such snares to entrap and corrupt the young in the towns where they are now living. Is it not wrong that such places should be permitted, and have the sanction of legal license? If it be not the duty of a government to make a people virtuous, it is surely its duty not to afford facilities for inducements to vice. That the dancing and singing rooms connected with spirit and beer shops are of this character, I cannot doubt. There is often, perhaps, much value talk and apprehension about popular amusement, originating in fear and suspicion, and not found on knowledge. From a sense of duty, I have been anxious to avoid this error, and, disagreeable as the task has been I have felt myself bound to ascertain, by personal and repeated observation, the character of the above places of popular resort. I have visited, from time to time, nearly the whole of them, and to some of them I have gone more than once. I sincerely wish I could give a favourable report of any of the number; but I cannot. With no desire to restrict popular amusements within austere or rigid limits, and no expectation that the rude and uneducated will show precisely the same taste in their choice of recreations as the refined and cultivated, I am compelled to regard the concert saloons as amongst the most powerful of the demoralising agencies at work in our town. They are not all equally bad. The largest are the least exceptionable. In them are sometimes to be seen and heard representations and music to which, in themselves, no objection can be made. But such performances are interspersed with others of a different character, in which, though there be no positive obscenity, only a flimsy veil is thrown over sensuality and vice to conceal their grossness; and the whole of these establishments may with truth be said to be schools of evil, sinking still lower the low tastes, and stimulating to greater activity and more decided supremacy the bad passions, of those who frequent them. They are not the resort of drunkards (to such persons the simple attraction of the drink is enough, and they will go where they can got the most for their money); but they are schools of intemperance, in which the young are unconsciously led on to the formation of the degrading habit. In their first visits to these places, ginger beer is a frequent drink of the juvenile portion of the audience; but they are soon induced to take what they consider the more wanly draught of porter or ale. Girls, too, who would not enter an ordinary public-house to drink, will go to the concert-room to hear the music; and to many of them the crossing of that threshold is the first step to disgrace and ruin. Whenever I ascertain that any of the scholars of our evening or Sunday schools frequent these rooms, I feel, from past experience, that all our efforts to do them good will be unavailing, if they are not speedily induced to withdraw themselves front such debasing scenes.
    Numerous expedients are resorted to by the proprietors of these establishments to overcome the objection of the scrupulous; and one of them impudently announced, a short time ago, that he had set apart an evening for the benefit of the Southern and Toxteth Hospital, on which occasion he promised his friends "a sterling (sic) and intellectual treat." I need not say that there was no truth in the announcement as far as the hospital was concerned and that it was evidently intended as a decoy. When visiting, on an evening in Christmas week, some of these resorts, I saw about two thousand people gathered together in one of them. Whilst I remained I observed a man so intoxicated that, in attempting to walk to a counter in the upper class refreshment-room attached to the place, he fell helplessly to the ground. Two little children—the eldest not more than five years old—were in the front seat of the gallery, looking down on the reeking and crowded scene beneath, with no one taking care of them but this drunken man, who, I was told, was their father. Many other persons were intoxicated; and one young man, near where I stood, to whose clouded vision there appeared to be two persons singing on the stage when there was only one, quarrelled with a man sitting next to him for attempting to set him right on the subject. A farcical dialogue was partly sung and partly recited before I left the place, full of double intendre, the impure meaning being significantly suggested by tone, gesture, or grimace. This is, I believe the least ill-conducted of all these places of entertainment in the town: the drunkenness I have mentioned is not usually observable there, and was probably owing on this occasion to its having been Christmas week.
    On another occasion I visited a much smaller place than the above, situated in the same neighbourhood. About one hundred and fifty persons were present, and amongst the numbers many prostitutes. A little girl was dancing, and at the close of the performance coppers were thrown on the stage by the admiring audience. "Fire away, boys!" cried one of the people belonging to the room and a shower of halfpence was the response. Afterwards there came a musical dialogue; the characters being a silly drunken deformed countryman, and a pert shrewish young woman, to whom he made proposals of marriage. The figure and appearance of the former, in his attempts at drollery, were painfully disgusting. An intelligent working man, who was with me, viewed the exhibition with feelings of loathing, and yet it seemed to be enjoyed by most of the audience. After this dialogue there came a song and recitative, purporting to be from a discharged prisoner recently returned from Kirkdale. He mimicked the motion of stepping on the treadmill with great gusto, and carried on imaginary dialogues with the other prisoners supposed to be on the wheel with him in which their various offences were described in a burlesque manner, and the admonitions of the judge, and the sermons of the chaplain, made the subject of low buffoonery and coarse jokes. In connexion with the part referring to the chaplain, witticisms were attempted on events in the history of Moses, Elijah and Jonah, and the whole affair excited great mirth and applause amongst the listeners. between these performances there was waltzing in a cleared space at the top of the room, several girls who apparently belonged to the establishment, taking part in it.
    In another of these rooms, which I visited between eleven and twelve o'clock at night, there were assembled about two hundred and fifty or three hundred persons. Many of the women present were wretched street wanderers, and a large proportion of the men bore unmistakeable marks, in their bloated and sinister faces, of having sunk to a low stale of dissipation. A number of sailors and some apprentice lads were also there, together with a few respectable-looking mechanics and their wives. On the walls down the whole length of each  side of the room were painted large portraits of well-known prize-fighters. The amusement going on was a stupid and nonsensical performance of dogs and monkeys', followed by what was called a pantomime, without grace, ingenuity or wit; but all these qualities were more that compensated for in the estimation of the audience by a large supply of grossness. Several poor little boys, from ten to twelve or thirteen years of age, want and sin imprinted on their young faces, were on the top of the stairs at the door of the room, selling canes. As I went out one of those boys was on the stairs, stamping with pain and crying bitterly, some one having given him a severe blow in the eye. It was a boisterous night, and the rain was falling in torrents, and, in leaving the place, just upon the midnight hour well protected with overcoat and umbrella, I could not refrain from asking myself—Who and what are the parents of these shoeless and miserable children, and what kind of a home have they to go to on this wet and wintry night? Alas! what must their future be?
    In the early part of the winter placards were posted on the walls, by the keeper of a concert saloon (now happily closed) situated near the mission-house, slating that they wanted fifty children. This announcement crested quite an excitement amongst the little ones in the neighbourhood; and much was the competition for the privilege of being engaged that at the hour named for applications, I saw children of almost all ages and both sexes flocking to the place. A few weeks of afterwards it was announced that the "Liverpool Children" were to appear. I looked in towards the close of the evening announced. The audience consisted of about seven hundred persons. Whilst waiting for what was kept till the last, as the great attraction of the night, I had to endure an absurd pantomimic representation, in which robbery, and an attempt at abduction, were prevented by the sudden appearance of a brave sailor - the performance being plentifully interspersed with firing of pistols, and fighting with swords, with daring fights, and sudden seizures, and miraculous escapes —a large dog taking a leading part in the performance as the deliverer of his master. A song followed, of a very low character, descriptive of matrimonial quarrel: and then a parody on "Happy Land " in which prisons and workhouses, the oppressions of the rich and the miseries of the poor. were the salient points. When the grand scene of the evening came on, I was relieved to see that, instead of fifty children, there were only nine, all girls, varying from about ten to fourteen years of age. They were dressed in operatic style, and had been trained to sing and dance, and form what were intended to be pleasing and picturesque groupings. The large number had no doubt been named in the advertisement for the double purpose of exciting interest, and giving a wider scope for the selection of the best looking children. It was, however, a sufficiently melancholy sight to see those nine poor children dancing and singing on such an occasion, in an atmosphere of tobacco smoke and amid fumes of beer. One could almost see the seeds of evil falling visibly on their guileless hearts :-

 "O Irreverent world,
ls't not enough that ye profane all else,
But must you steal the little ones also,
From the good Shepherd  those whom He has blessed,
And warned you. it were better, in the sea
With millstones round your necks, you made your beds,
Than to offend these chosen ones of His!"

It was impossible to forget the almost certain destiny of these little children thus ensnared. I felt that they were doomed, that they were being hurried along on the corrupting stream to the cataract's edge, and the fatal gulf beneath.
    What do we oppose to these polluting streams? Education would do much; but something more direct is required. To preach down all amusements is vain. The poor will have them as well as the rich; and if recreations pure and good are not within their reach, they will crowd to the debasing and the evil. Does not the action of religious men bound itself within too narrow a range? Would not a wise and far-seeing regard for the spiritual interests of society lead to the provision of amusements enlivening and cheerful, but free from the taint of corruption? It would be a delightful and blessed effort and, as it appears to me, a fitting outflow of the spirit of pure religion, if all denominations of Christians in the town were to form an alliance to supply this want, and so put down the agencies of evil, and prepare a highway through our moral deserts for the progress and triumph of Christian reformation. The promoters of the Saturday evening concerts are doing a good, I had almost said a holy, work. They have been successful public benefactors, and are entitled to the gratitude of the town. Many a congregation of devout worshippers has, I doubt not, been augmented on the Sunday morning by the healthful recreations thus afforded to the people on the Saturday evening. But more of such places and opportunities are needed. And, in the absence of such an effort as I have indicated would it not be a wise and appropriate expenditure of public money, if the town council were to build a hall at the north end of the town, and one at the south, where, under proper regulations, cheap concerts, and other innocent amusements, might be brought within the reach of the working population! (St. George's-hall and its magnificent organ will, it is to be hoped, be made promotive of the enjoyment and moral welfare of the people in this way.) Sure I am that the provision of such or similar recreations is a very essential work, in connexion with the moral elevation of the dense masses of people in the crowded towns and districts of our country.

Liverpool Mercury 16 March 1852

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