Category Archives: Music hall strike

Music Hall War – success or folly

 

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Florrie Forde

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Living Statuary

 

Following on from the previous blog we find the music hall artistes determined to stand their ground and the music hall managers refusing to recognise the Variety Artists’ Federation as the mouthpiece of the industry. In late January 1907 it was announced that a group of artistes had signed a twenty-one year lease of the Scala Theatre.

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Annie Purcell

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Jane May

 

The theatre would be run as a music hall with one house a night and the programme ‘comprising the cream of star talent’  with the ancillary buildings being used as the headquarters for music hall associations and as a music hall exchange. The performers hoped to control their own destinies but the trade paper The Era was of the opinion that the VAF had taken a very daring step.

The ‘housewarming’ at the Scala for artistes was fairly well attended but many performers were absent on picket duty. As proprietors they would act fairly and were sure that the theatre would be packed to the doors every night. On the opening night there was mention of Mr Oswald Stoll who had barred an artiste  from appearing at Crouch End for two and a half years and also had sent a representative to ask performers the question, ‘Are you in favour of a strike?’ It was assumed that an affirmative answer would mean the artist would not be employed by his syndicate. This was considered mean and despicable.

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Gertie Gitana

Despite the excitement and enthusiasm both sides were suffering financially in the dispute and there was a feeling that the executive committee had rushed into action without sufficient consultation. The ‘stars’ had a meeting with the managers and announced they had made headway with their demands but the VAF felt sidelined and were not in favour of a settlement. Eventually the dispute went to arbitration, chaired by Mr Askwith from the Board of Trade. The strikers were not to perform at the Scala or to picket the halls and the managers were to drop any legal proceedings against individual performers. The Alliance closed the Scala, having leased the premises for four weeks at a cost of £1,200. There were three interim awards and a final award, made more complicated by the fact that musicians and stagehands had joined the strike and employment needed to be found for them.

Improvements were made to the hated barring clause, each matinée would be paid for and artistes would have definite appearance times so that low paid performers could rely on appearing in two halls a night rather than the manager changing the order of the bill on a whim. Both sides agreed to abide by the points of the arbitration agreement but later it was suggested that some managers were trying to go back to their old ways. In fact in 1908 Oswald Stoll threatened a lock-out of performers over a dispute with the VAF over charity matinées but it was pointed out this went against the terms of the arbitration award. Again in 1914 the same owner/manager dismissed members of some London music hall orchestras who refused to sign an eighteen month no strike contract. The orchestras of two Manchester music halls walked out in sympathy leaving only the conductor and a harpist. A court case ensued with the judgement going in Mr Stoll’s favour and the musicians paid damages and costs with Oswald Stoll agreeing to accept payments of five shillings a month. In the London halls he said that as many of the men would shortly be joining the army he had made arrangements for women’s orchestras to take their place. The newspaper headline reads ‘STRIKE OF MUSIC HALL MUSICIANS? Places to be taken by women.’  Hmmm.

I haven’t been able to find a full list of strike supporters but the artistes in the above postcards were performing at the time, may have supported the strike or been affected by the picketing of the halls.

 

Thanks to the British Newspaper Archive

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The Music Hall Strike

The previous post talked about the harsh contracts imposed on music hall performers by managers and owners of the halls. This hit those lower down the bill particularly hard as their pay wasn’t great and they had previously relied on playing more than one hall a night to make a living. The Variety Artistes Federation was formed in February 1906 and was a union of music hall entertainers created to represent them in negotiations with owners and managers. There was a long running dispute over matinée performances which were inserted into the programme with payment for one matinée regarded as covering five matinees if the manager chose. This was true for performers, musicians and stagehands. The Trade Disputes Act later in the same year meant that the right to strike was enshrined in law in the event of a trade dispute with an employer.

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Oxford Music Hall

In 1907 there was a strike of performers, musicians and stagehands bringing together the members of three unions. Many London music halls were affected with picket lines, including well-known stars, dissuading the public from entering. Managers reduced prices and put on new and untried acts which played to small audiences who often left part way through. The Daily News reports that the new programme at the Canterbury Music Hall, Lambeth, was abandoned as the trainers couldn’t get a troupe of performing elephants to leave the stage. At other halls such as the Oxford the manager appeared on the stage to explain the situation and for the most part the audience were given their admission money back.

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Marie Dainton

Some encouragement was given to popular artistes to break the strike with Marie Dainton, actress and mimic, being offered the carrot of a future engagement at the Holborn Empire and a motor-cab to make her journey easier. She replied ‘I can only be led by the Variety Artistes Federation.’ This performer is often credited with being a leading figure in the strike but in a letter to the London Daily News she writes ‘ I do not wish to be exploited as taking a prominent part in the strike—as statements have been made in one or two papers that make it appear as though I was taking special steps in the matter.‘ A week later the Daily News received another letter from Marie Dainton saying that although she would not accept engagements at the affected halls she was resigning from the Federation. She concludes ‘I have the greatest respect for the artistes of the music hall profession, but I refuse to be identified with the scene-shifters or stage employees.’

Some of the higher earning stars did not support the strike but Marie Lloyd was a enthusiastic spokesperson stating that ‘We can dictate our own terms. We are not fighting for ourselves, but for the poorer members of the profession, earning thirty shillings to three pounds a week. For this they have to do double turns, and now matinées have been added as well. These poor things have been compelled to submit to unfair terms of employment, and I mean to back up the Federation in whatever steps are taken.’ She was a regular on the picket line and when the unfortunate Belle Elmore crossed the line to perform Marie urged her companions not to stop her, saying she was such a bad performer she would empty the hall anyway.

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Marie Lloyd

Some performers took advantage of the situation by appearing in the affected halls but it didn’t always turn out well for them. Evelyn Taylor was reported as appearing at eight of the picketed halls each night but found she was unable to find a cab to take her between halls. The drivers refused the job. The London Tram, Bus and Motor Workers Union resolved to support the strike in any way possible. The official artistes association in America, the White Rats, cabled that they were with the strikers ‘heart and soul’ and would do everything possible to help the cause. Financial support came from individuals and provincial branches of the Alliance and from a levy on the salaries of working members of the Alliance. There was a surge of performers calling to be enrolled as members of the Federation with two hundred names being taken before two o’clock on one day. Most of these had refused engagements in the affected halls. The Federation increased it’s membership to around five thousand.

It came to be known as the music hall war and we’ll continue next time.