Tuesday 12 April 2016

Fun without Frivolity?

The late-Victorians are often caricatured as prudish and anti-entertainment. There was, certainly, a vigorous 'social purity' movement in the 1890s, which attempted to control and reduce the number of music halls in the capital, both on the grounds of them selling drink, and harbouring prostitutes. But the puritans were not the Victorians and many contemporaries opposed them, even amongst the most respectable in society. This article about granting Sadlers Wells Theatre a music hall licence ('music and dancing') paints an interesting picture of the debate in local authority circles.

Messrs. Wilmot and Freeman, lessees of Sadler's Wells Theatre, wrote to the Clerkenwell Vestry on Thursday giving notice their intention to apply to the London County Council for a music and dancing licence for Sadler's Wells Theatre. This led to an angry discussion at the vestry meeting. Mr. Weston moved to oppose the application, on one ground, because they had driven Captain Davis from Deacon's Music Hall with a compensation of £10,000, and now they wanted to give this valuable concession to Messrs. Wilmot and Freeman for nothing. Mr. J. Crowle-Smith objected to the licence because drink was sold on the premises; and Mr. Putterill and Mr. Wildboe and Mr. Brighty thought similarly. Mr. J.F.Kelly said that it would be all right, he supposed, if they filled the parish with "Little Bethels", but with 75,000 inhabitants, who were not all teetotallers or churchgoers, but who nevertheless were good husbands and fathers, he contended they should consider their amusement, as well as their rates. He recommend to the notice of the Puritanical party the words of the good old Bobbie Burns:-

God knows, I'm not the man I should be,
Nor am I even the man I could be;
But fifty times I rather would be,
An Atheist clean,
Than under Gospel I'd be
Just for a screen.

Messrs. Wilmot and Freeman's enterprise should be encouraged. They had shown by their management of the Grand Theatre, with thoroughly respectable surroundings, that they could be relied upon to supply a good class of entertainment when they got the music and dancing licence.
    Mr. Churchwarden MILLWARD said he was happy to tell them that he could go to church and to a music hall, and appreciate both. In fact, he went to the Royal in Holborn, about once a week. It was all humbug these people coming there with their "McDougall nonsense."
    Mr. Churchwarden SANS gave an opinion that the parish would be all the better without the licences.
    Mr. KELLY, amid considerable laughter, pointed to this model churchwarden, who years ao was a music hall proprietor himself; who was, in fact, sponsor for, amongst others, Herbert Campbell, Tom Vine, and Clara Nisbet, and from whose hall Londoners had got some of their greatest pleasure givers.
    Mr. Churchwarden SANS - I was not proprietor of the place.
    Mr. KELLY - Then you were the man in possession.
    Mr. MATTHEW HANLY also vigorously denounced members who denied people such pleasures as Messrs. Wilmot and Freeman would be sure to bring them. One of the Puritans had said he would not go to a music hall or theatre to find a husband for his daughter; but allow him (Mr. Hanly) to tell that member that there were as good and virtuous ladies and gentlemen on the theatrical and music hall stage as there were in his little chapel. In fact, many of the actors were better than the parsons. Looking at the matter from another point of view, let them consider the hundreds of people who wer employed when Mr. Wilmot had as many as five companies travelling at once. And where was there a body of people more ready to lend a hand to charity and philanthropy than the theatrical and music hall profession? He hoped the good sense of the Vestry would prevail and put down these bigots.
    Mr. DIXIE did not wish to be political; but he certainly must mention the bad songs which had been and which were sung at the Radical club dens, to which some of the opposers of the Sadlers Wells licence belonged. The Lord Chamberlain and the County Council exercised strong powers over theatres and music halls, but these club-drinking dens were allowed to go on as they pleased.
    In the result, the following motion was carried by 19 to 17: "That the Vestry adheres to its resolution of Oct. 16th last, in which they decided to oppose any new music and dancing licence in the parish." This was followed by a number of amendments, but the figures were not materially altered, and the final quarrel between the members was as to whether the clerk should send details of the discussion to the London County Council, when opposing the granting of the licence.
    Mr. KELLY said he would see that the County Council committee knew the motion against the licence was only carried by the narrow majority of two, or else the Puritans, with all their truth, and honesty, and morality, would go and say the Vestry was unanimously against the licence.

Era 22 August 1891


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