The nature of music hall life meant that the theatrical landlady was a figure looming large in the lives of performers. When lodgings were found, the artistes were dependent on the landlady for food and comfort. As early as 1864 a writer in the Newry Telegraph tells us the British landlady nourishes a general spite against mankind and that she reminds her lodgers of the soft settees they have left at home by the painful contrast of a few flinty chairs and a horse-hair sofa, on which to snatch an interval of slippery repose. The landlady was often portrayed as ruling with a rod of iron, out to make as much money as possible by providing as little as possible. However, an article in the Manchester Courier in 1887, paints a much more glowing picture in which the landlady ‘obliges’ in different ways. She prepares late suppers, provides newspapers which might have ‘notices’ in them and could even supply a loaf of bread for the lodger of a less diligent landlady.
Performers often finished an engagement in one town and travelled to the next on the same evening. The Kebbles write that they will leave Southport on Saturday night and arrive in Edinburgh at seven the next morning. They add they are staying with Mrs Shaw. Annie Laurie, a refined comedienne and dancer, travels from Leicester to Middlesbrough and writes to Mrs Nicolson that she will arrive on the Sunday night about ten. She apologises for not having ‘wrote’ sooner. Madeline Rossiter thanks Mrs Brown in Cardiff for sending on a handkerchief and sends ‘best love’. These performers seem to know their landladies and feel comfortable with them.
There is a story of an artiste providing a landlady with eight sausages to be cooked but only six appeared at the table. The landlady boldly stated sausages do shrink so in cooking. Vesta Tilley tells of lodging in Manchester over the Christmas period in the same house as Dan Leno and his family. They were both very young and were looking forward to the Christmas Day feast provided by their families but cooked by the landlady. The meal was to be on the table by six o’clock at the latest so that they could return to the theatre for the third and last show. When they arrived for the turkey and plum pudding they found the landlady and her husband had been celebrating enthusiastically and had forgotten to cook the dinner. The Christmas feast descended into tea and boiled eggs.
In 1887 Alexina Anderson was appearing in Robinson Crusoe in Leeds and was charged with assaulting her landlady, Mrs Wilcock. The defendant asked her landlady for some hot water and some unfriendly words passed between them with the pantomime star applying a forceful epithet to Mrs Wilcock. Miss Anderson was said to have struck her three times with a portion of fishing rod and was found guilty with a fine of ten shillings. In 1895 in Blackburn Mrs Hyland, a landlady, was summoned for using abusive language. Miss Doris, a cast member from the pantomime Babes in the Wood, was lodging opposite Mrs Hyland but visited other cast members at Mrs H’s house. The landlady was asked to serve a cup of coffee but Mrs Hyland brandished a poker and threatened to brain the lady if she didn’t leave the house. The police were called and she locked the officer and the others in a room together. Mrs Hyland was fined five shillings and costs.
The landladies had photographs displayed of their lodgers and kept a visitor’s book in which the artistes wrote their opinions of their stay. A couple of newspaper articles of the time point out that that the comments were always complimentary as they would probably need to stay there again. The performers were always complaining about their lodgings in private. Landladies had a constant stream of performers with different wants and needs, sometimes staying for as little as two nights but expecting decent food, a comfortable bed and a clean room. Sometimes they found it, sometimes not. This is an advert from the Sussex Express which lists theatrical lodgings alongside adverts for church roof shinglers and ferrets.
Thanks to the British newspaper archive.co.uk, Recollections of Vesta Tilley