In late Victorian times music halls were a countrywide institution and had moved on from grimy rooms at the back of public houses to full blown palaces of entertainment with elaborate architecture and lavish interiors. However, they still had their critics with the foremost among them being Mrs Ormiston Chant of the Purity Party whose view was that the halls catered for people who had a small proportion of brains. She began a campaign to remove the much appreciated Ladies of the Promenade from the Empire, Leicester Square, in London. This did not please a young Winston Churchill who wrote in his autobiography we were scandalised by Mrs Chant’s charges and insinuations. Churchill was filled with scorn when a canvas screen was put up to hide the exquisitely dressed prostitutes and was part of a crowd who later tore it down. The council closed the bars and the canvas screen was replaced by railings but the decision was reversed at the next licensing session and the discreet ladies returned. Marie Lloyd fell foul of the prudes on the prowl at the Empire when Mrs Ormiston Chant made a public protest by shouting out during one of her songs. Even the Empire’s footmen in blue and gold livery could not convince the purity campaigner that this was a respectable house.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Marie Lloyd received a less than flattering description from Virginia Woolf after a visit to the Bedford Music Hall in Camden Town. We went to the Bedford Music Hall last night and saw Miss Marie Lloyd, a mass of corruption – long front teeth – a crapulous way of saying desire and yet a born artist – – A roar of laughter went up when she talked of her marriage. She is beaten nightly by her husband. This was at the music hall built in 1899 on the site of the original Bedford Music Hall (1861). The original being later known as the Old Bedford and providing the setting for a series of Sickert’s music hall paintings.
The dancer, Maud Allan, caused a stir in 1908 with her classical dancing and costume particularly when performing Salome which was banned from some music halls and theatres. The Palace, Manchester, received a visit from the Chief Constable who watched her performance and advised the Manchester Watch Committee to prohibit her appearance. He expressed a wish to go on the stage to get a closer look at her costume but was denied this by the managing director, Mr Alfred Butt. The Chief Constable was very anxious to accept Mr Butt’s suggestion that he look at the costume when Miss Allan had changed but was stopped by the official who was with him. Maud Allan agreed in some cases to dispense with the carrying of St John the Baptist’s head on a platter during her performance. I was amused to see that on one occasion she was followed on the bill by Juliette’s Sea-Lions.
America was not without it’s perils for the music hall star as male impersonator, Bessie Bonehill, found out during a season at Tony Pastor’s theatre in New York. She kept an anonymous note she received which quoted a passage from the scriptures, The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, for all that do so are an abomination. Bessie Bonehill had short hair, unusual for the time, and did not wear wigs unlike many male impersonators. The Daughters of America tried to have her expelled from the country but she was enormously popular.
Thanks to British Newspaper Archive, Marie Lloyd and Music Hall by Daniel Farson, Marie Lloyd Queen of the Music Halls by Richard Anthony Baker, England’s Gem – the story of Bessie Bonehill by Richard Bonehill