Music halls can be traced back to the taverns and coffee houses of 18th-century London, where performers sang songs whilst the audience ate, drank and joined in the singing. By the s taverns had rooms devoted to musical clubs where they presented Saturday evening singsongs and 'free-and-easies' informal entertainment from amateur and professional performers. These became so popular that entertainment was put on two or three times a week.
For more middle-class clientele song and supper rooms opened in the s, which served hot food and provided entertainment until the early hours of the morning. The taverns, saloons and supper rooms would have been noisy and difficult places in which to perform. The audience would chat throughout the acts and could be very rowdy, often throwing things at the performers, such as bottles, old boots and even dead cats. In industrial towns, the favoured object to hurl was an iron rivet. In some halls bottles carried by the waiters were chained to the trays and the orchestra was protected from missiles by steel grilles stretched over the pit where they performed.
While women were not allowed in the middle-class song and supper rooms, working-class women visited the taverns. In the early days of music hall they would often accompany their husbands and bring along their children and even babies. One of the most famous early music halls was The Eagle in London. The Eagle was an East End tavern on the corner of City Road and Shepherdess Walk that presented regular musical entertainment and was doing a roaring trade by Marie Lloyd, who would become one of the biggest music hall stars, first appeared there in at the age of The Eagle was sold in to the Salvation Army and later demolished.
V&A · Music hall and variety theatre
Today a new Eagle pub can be found on the same site, which has a display of old music hall prints. It held people, who were seated at tables, with food and drink being served throughout the performance.
Entrance was by a sixpenny refreshment ticket. The star performer at the Canterbury was the actor and singer of comedy songs, Sam Cowell. So great was Cowell's success that Morton had to build a larger hall on the same site. The more ornate hall, now with a capacity of 1,, opened in complete with chandeliers, balcony and an art exhibition. Morton encouraged women into his music hall, believing them to have a civilising influence on the men.
He introduced 'Ladies' Thursdays', where women could accompany a gentleman to the hall. However, gentlemen did not necessarily take their wives for a night out.
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Prostitutes would walk up and down the aisles of the auditorium touting for customers, and the halls developed a vulgar reputation. Inspired by the success of the Canterbury, music halls opened up across London, including Wilton's Music Hall , the world's oldest surviving grand Victorian music hall. By there were music halls in Greater London, which meant a lot more performers were required.
Throughout the s it became more common for women to perform in the halls. Performing was a means of escape and independence for working-class women. Many women achieved, if not stardom, a decent living on the halls. The Alhambra and its rival the Empire, both in Leicester Square, were among the most famous and largest halls, but were also notorious for prostitutes who frequented the bars and promenades. In these halls the seating had been arranged like a regular theatre, with rows of seats facing a stage and the bar and refreshment rooms separated from the auditorium.
Old Time Variety by Richard Baker
As music hall became more popular, the main attraction for the audience became the entertainers rather than the food and drink. The big stars were so successful that they would perform in numerous halls each night, frantically crossing London in their carriages.
By performing in several venues a night, the top stars could earn big money.
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