Thursday, 14 May 2015

Tavern Singing, and an Irish Wake

I knew the landlord very well, and was on friendly terms with him; this was what is termed and 'Irish' house, and the host, himself an Irishman, had but little indoor custom except amongst his countrymen: and they were mostly of the labouring class. I was well known to the different parties that used the place, and was invariably treated by them with great civility. There was one young man, a breeches-maker, with whom I was intimately acquainted; he worked at a shop close by, on Moorfields pavement, and happening just now to drop in, asked me, " If I had ever been to an Irish 'cock and hen' club?" Upon my replying that "I had not," he requested me to go upstairs: saying, that I should see some excellent fun.

The room we entered was about forty feet by twenty, rather indifferently lighted; the company was a motley gathering of choice Hibernian specimens, both male and female. Quarts of porter were circulated in rapid succession; halfpints of gin were gallantly handed round to the 'ladies,' with compliments in Irish, pure as the sweet waters of Killarney. As their hearts warmed with potent draughts of the ' cratur,' they began capering about and whirling round with the velocity of spinning-wheels,—occasionally, in the course of their evolutions, giving vent to such discordant shouts, as called to mind the descriptions of an Indian war-dance.

At length the floor was cleared: and two fine daughters of the emerald isle, stepping gracefully into the centre, commenced a jig. They began to slow time, but kept on gradually increasing in speed amidst the shouting and clapping of hands, till both performers appeared wrought up to the highest pitch of frenzy; and perspiration streamed down their blowzy faces as they whirled dizzily round, urged on by the mad drunken creatures that surrounded them, until one dropped.

As the girl who had tired the other down was a great favourite, the delicate half-swipy gentlemen surrounded her: all scrambling to snatch a kiss from the lips of the victorious damsel, who had saved the credit of their province. The vanquished was taken below, and received the benefit of the pure air to be found in the skittle-ground,—for this was one of the most confined and offensive localities in London; the sign of the house was the 'Punch-bowl,' in Half-moon alley, Little Moorfields. When the girl had recovered from the effects of her over-exertion, she was brought back into the room by her friends; and singing and dancing continued till the entire group was furiously excited. One of the pot-valiant heroes smashed the fiddle, because the fiddler was too far gone and had fallen asleep, his head hanging over the back of his chair in the corner.

At this peculiar juncture, a mighty storm arose in the assembly. One Jim Donohoe was seen to kiss Mr. Pat Flannigan's wife as she came up the stairs: 'Och, by St. Pathrick,' roared out Pat, 'and is it that you mane, Mr. Donohoe ?'—'You dirty spalpeen,' retorted Jim, 'I don't care the great-coat of a pratie for the like o' yees, nor all the Flannigans 'twixt here and Belfast, your dirty native place!'—' Och, by the powers then,' said Pat, 'just be after bringing your filthy carcass downstairs, and I'll tache you better manners than you ever larned under that bottle-nosed ould sexton of a Protestant at Mullingar: where you could never git a congregation at all, at all, if the ould woman as opened the pews happened to be sazed wid the toothache!' 

'D'ye say that, ye dirty blackguard!' roared out Jim; 'faith, and I'll make ye know your lord and master from Biddy Sullivan!' Downstairs they rushed by mutual consent: and at it they went in true Irish style,—when both being drunk, tumbled against each other and fell rolling over like a couple of hogs at sea. After this splendid display of science the combatants were propped up, while they shook hands, kissed, and made it up; but in attempting to put on his shirt poor Jim was terribly bothered. The sleeves had got so entangled with the fragments of the body (which was slit into ribbons) that from what was once a shirt, it had become a puzzle of so difficult a nature that the poor fellow gave up the attempt in despair, exclaiming: 'By Jasus, although I've been a long time acquainted wid yees, I can't find the way into yees at all, at all,—any more than if we'd been strangers!' With this short soliloquy he gave up the job, and put on his clothes without the usual under garment.

Treating the late belligerents to half-a-pint of whiskey at the bar, we took leave of the interesting revellers: and strolling up the City-road as far as the Angel, on our return looked in at old Rouse's twopenny concert; the tickets for which were eightpence, but each entitled the bearer to sixpenny-worth of grog. Here some of the best room-singers of the day were engaged; amongst them was Charley Rayner, with Bob Glendon, Joe Martin, and other celebrities of the time; there were also two brothers (boot-closers) who recited remarkably well.

The company was a mixture of both sexes, and of all ages, from sixteen years of age up to middle life; nay, even greyheaded old men and women were there, who seemed as well pleased as their juvenile companions. On a platform elevated about three feet from the floor stood a piano; at which a man presided, who accompanied the vocalists. Some of these could sing to music; but in the case of such as could not, the pianist accommodated the music to the voice, as he best might. The singers were introduced according to the programme, and announced by a conductor or master of the ceremonies; and, on finishing their allotted parts, each and all enjoyed a hearty round of applause.

Rouse, the proprietor, was very particular in keeping order during the hours of performance: and, always proceeding systematically, in the end found himself at the head of a most superb establishment. I have never seen a place of the kind fitted up with such taste and elegance; the grounds are spacious, lighted up with a profusion of gas, and ornamented with grottoes and statues; the saloon, or theatre, is commodious and beautifully adorned with various designs painted on the panels of the dress-circle, which have a very lively and pleasing effect.

But at the time when my friend and I spent our evening here, the original house yet stood. It was an old-fashioned inn, called the 'Shepherd and Shepherdess', with skittle-grounds attached, and a few ill-conditioned arbours where the company smoked their pipes and quaffed their ale. At the back part of the premises, the 'governor' had raised (what he called) 'Russian mountains,' with steep circuitous pathways, made corkscrew fashion, and running from top to bottom: down which the adventurous public travelled in chairs with considerable velocity. The charge for this amusement was something very trifling—I believe a penny, or twopence; but the numbers made it a profitable speculation. From such small beginnings did ' Governor Rouse' elaborate that famous resort known to the world as the ' Eagle Tavern' in the City-road.

On the conclusion of the performances, we made the best of our way home; and parted under a promise to meet again the next evening at the 'Golden Hind' in Little Moorfields, kept by one of my friend's countrymen named Murphy; where we frequently met some excellent players at 'draughts,' in which game both of us were also acknowledged proficients. Eight o'clock being the time appointed for our meeting, I repaired punctually to the little back-parlour, which was our usual rendezvous. On entering the room, I found my friend in serious conversation with a man whom I had frequently seen in the same place, a cooper by trade, who worked at the docks. I soon gleaned from their conversation, that the cooper was inviting my friend to accompany him to an Irish wake: which the latter declined doing, on the ground that he was engaged to spend the evening with me. To obviate this little difficulty, I was also invited; and having never witnessed this ceremony, (except as typified in the wild grief of the poor young widows on board the Tigris) I readily availed myself of the occasion; and we all set out for the locality indicated.

The house was situated in one of the most secluded and dirty lanes betwixt Cripplegate workhouse and Fore-street, then called Featherbed-hill. As we approached the door, which was open, I perceived a number of lighted candles ranged in order, which were stuck into ginger-beer and blacking-bottles. Upon a table close to the door was a plate containing a quantity of silver coin,—into which my two friends threw a shilling each, as did I also, understanding such to be the custom: and then taking my seat on a plank laid between two chairs, proceeded to take a cautious survey of the company who were jabbering away together in their native Irish.

All present seemed of the lowest order; and in one corner sat three hideous-looking old women smoking short pipes black as ebony; it struck me they would have done well for the witches in Macbeth. Some of the younger females had washed their faces, and put on what (I suppose) were intended for clean caps; but the dresses of the entire company were neither of the finest quality nor latest fashion; and were besides, in many instances, considerably patched.

At the further end of the room was the corpse, laid out in white, and surrounded with candles, which threw a glare of light upon the sickening spectacle. The child (for such it was) had died of the most virulent kind of small-pox; the head had swollen beyond all proportion, and wore the appearance of an immense plum-pudding; the features being absolutely obliterated by the horrid disease. Two large bunches of flowers were placed on each side of the body; where sat the parents and kindred of the deceased. In the centre stood a can of beer and three or four earthern pots without handles, which were constantly being handed round,—with, at intervals, a glass of the 'cratur.'

As the liquor began to operate the talk became fast and furious: but what was said I knew not, as all was carried on in the Celtic vernacular. Just when the storm was at its height, the before-mentioned old women broke out into the most hideous yells that ever scared man or beast; the other females joined in a chorus loud enough to have awakened all the Irish that have been buried since the days of St. Patrick; the men began raving and fighting; pots and cans flew about in every direction: over went the tables, out went the lights, and lastly down rolled the corpse upon the floor to be kicked and trampled on by the bacchanalian mourners!

Of all the absurd rites connected with the idea of a religious (!) observance, the ceremony above described is certainly about as brutal and debasing, as any ever practised by the veriest savages in creation. I sat near the door; and, having taken the precaution to put my hat under the seat, as soon as this infernal hubbub reached its climax, I made a hasty retreat, followed by my friend and by the man who had introduced us to this extraordinary exhibition. Glad as I was to escape from such a disgusting scene, I nevertheless felt gratified that I had at least witnessed something to be remembered. The frantic sounds soon died away in the distance: and finding that it was still early, I invited our late guide to return with us and take a glass of grog.

John Brown, Sixty Years' Gleanings from Life's Harvest, 1859 [describing early 1820s]

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Illicit Amusement

I beg to report that a public concert was held on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturdary evenings at the ‘Australasian and New Zealander’ Public House, No.429 Oxford St. landlord James Kibble and that 3d each was chaged for admission.
At 8 ¾ the 25th inst I visited the house in plain clothes. I paid 3d to Mr Kibble at the Bar and received a piece of card on which was written the word ‘Refreshment’. I showed the ticket to a man standing at the stairs leading to the Concert Room, and was allowed to pass. In the room I found abut 30 persons most of them youths and girls. Some of the latter appeared to be about 14 old. A man was playing a piano and a professional chairman presided. He announced that he would open the Concert by singing the first song himself. He afterwards announced the singers who followed him by name, but they all appeared to be visitors, each person that sang left his seat and went and stood on a small platform near the piano. I saw several of the persons get ale or beer or their tickets. There were about 60 persons in the room when  I left at 10pm.

The house is not licensed for music. Mr. Kebble has applied for a Music licence and the application will be heard at the ensuing licensing meeting.

Police report to Middlesex Magistrates, 26 September 1869

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

More Teenage Nights

The price of admission is twopence or fourpence ... we paid fourpence. On receiving our tickets we went into the lower part of the room, and the sight which then presented itself baffles description. The performance had commenced; and what with the "mouthings" of the performers, the vociferous shouts, the maledictions, and want of sufficient light, and the smoke from about one hundred tobacco pipes, the effect was quite bewildering for a few minutes. The room is of an oblong form, about 30 yards by 10, and capable of holding, with the galleries, from 800 to 1,000 persons. One end is fitted up as a stage. The bar, where the liquors are served out, is placed in the middle. The place between the bar and the stage is appropriated to juveniles, or boys and girls from ten to fourteen years of age. Of them there were not less than one hundred; they were by far the noisiest portion of the audience, and many of the boys were drinking and smoking. The compartment behind the bar appears to be fitted up for the "respectables", the seats being more commodious. Leaving this lower part of the room ,we had to proceed up a dark staircase (some parts being almost impassable owing to the crowd of boys and girls), to the lower gallery which extends round three parts of the room. This gallery was occupied by the young of both sexes, from fourteen years and upwards. To reach the top gallery, we have to mount some more crazy stairs. This gallery is composed of two short side sittings and four boxes in the front. The occupants of these boxes are totally secluded from the eyes of the audience. They were occupied by boys and girls. From this gallery we had a good view of all that was passing in the room. There could not be less than 700 individuals present, and about one seventh of them females. The pieces performed encourage resistance to parental control, and were full of gross innuendoes, "double entendres", heavy cursing, emphatic swearing, and incitement to illicit passion. Three fourths of the songs were wanton and immoral, and were accompanied by immodest gestures. 

The last piece performed was the "Spare Bed" and we gathered from the conversation around that this was looked for with eager expectation. We will not attempt to describe the whole of this abominable piece; suffice it to say that the part which appeared most pleasing to the audience was when one of the male performers took off his coat and waistcoat, unbuttoned his braces, and commenced unbuttoning the waistband of his trowsers, casting mock-modest glances around him; finally he took his trowsers off and got into bed. Tremendous applause followed this act. As the many lay in bed the clothes were pulled off; he was then rolled out of bed and across the stage, his shirt being up to the middle of his back. After this he walked up and down the stage, and now the applause reached its climax - loud laughter, shouting, clapping of hands, by both males and females, testified the delight they took in this odious exhibition. This piece terminated about eleven o'clock and many then went away. It is necessary to state that the man had on a flesh-coloured pair of drawers, but they were put on so that the audience might be deceived, and some were deceived. It needs little stretch of the imagination to form an opinion what the conduct of these young people would be on leaving this place - excited by the drink which they had imbibed - their witnessing this vile performance - their uncontrolled conversation ... It is the manufactory and rendezvous of thieves and prostitutes ...

Preston Guardian, 25 January 1851

Teenage Nights

‘I spoke to my sister, who is married, about going to these singing rooms. She said it was very wrong for married people to go, but there was no harm for single young chaps ... I told her if it was wrong for married people to go, it must be wrong for single people ... I’ve seen enough going to singing rooms .... Just before my father died, he went to live with some woman who had five children – that, you may say, was through singing rooms. My father used to say the “Effingham” was a very comfortable place; you could sit and have your pipe and your pint very comfortable. It was a noted place of mine to go. He used to let us go as we liked. .... These singing-rooms are generally at beershops – at some places you can go in if you are only 14. At most all the beershops the admission is free – some charge a penny, some a halfpenny. Some places they put a penny a pot on the beer; they charge 5d. for porter, and 6d. for ale, for which you pay 4d at the bar; they knows how to do it; don’t matter to them who drink as long as they get the money. I have seen a boy with a girl laying hold of his arm, go up enough to make you laugh to look at them. If you were to wait outside the ––––, you would see boys and girls coming out between 12 and 1 o’clock in the morning; their language is awful; bad in the extreme. There are more go to these places on Saturday and Monday nights. Saturday is pay night ... A great many go on Sunday night, but there is no singing then – the law won’t allow it. I could take you to almost every singing room in Bethnal-green-road; there are very few but what I have been to. If you notice, you will see put up “Select harmony this evening, admission free.” some have written up “Select concert – Monday, Wednesday and Saturday evenings.” The chairman sits at one end of the room and the deputy at the other. The Judge and Jury clubs are open on Sunday night: they are generally held at beer-shops, sometimes at public-houses. Boys and girls are admitted to these as well ... If either the complainant or the prisoner or any of them don’t speak the words right, they are fined ½d; the fines are kept on till they get to 1s. which is spent after it is over in liquor – sometimes the money is saved up for a supper once a quarter. If they see a stranger come into the room they will knock his hat over his eyes, and if he swears he is fined 2d. It is all done to pass the evening away. I was asked to belong to a Judge and Jury Club lately, by a man I know, the fines are to go to an excursion.'

Daily News, 23 May 1850

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Attractions Offered in Liverpool

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.