Tag Archives: Augustus Harris

More pantomime

So here we are coming to the end of the pantomime season. In Victorian and Edwardian times we could have witnessed music hall stars dressing up in gorgeous finery as Prince Charming or Aladdin. Elaborate hats and hairstyles were the order of the day with costumes of silk and lace which  would hopefully inspire awe and wonder in the audience. Here are just a few of these wonderful women.

From left to right: May Beatty as Dick Whittington, Dorothy Ward as Robin Hood (smoking!), Carrie Moore in Cinderella and Hetty King as Aladdin.

Marie Lloyd played the part of Red Riding Hood at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in 1892. At one point, Augustus Harris who was managing the production, wanted Marie to say her prayers before going to bed in her grandmother’s cottage. She knelt down and clasped her hands but instead of saying her prayers suddenly felt under the bed for the chamber-pot. Not finding it, she searched the whole room, accompanied by loud laughter from the audience. Augustus Harris did not join in the laughter and Marie was close to getting the sack.

Marie Lloyd 2

Marie Lloyd

Pantomimes would often run for three months and provided a steady income in a precarious world. There could be other perks if the show was successful as the trade paper, The Era, tells us. On the last night of The Forty Thieves at the Theatre Royal in Hull the star, Miss Annie Montelli, was presented with a silk umbrella, a dressing-case, a box of gloves and a pearl and coral ring. It’s not clear if these gifts were from admirers or the theatre management. David Beattie, in the same production, was given a silk handkerchief and tie, a cigar case and cigars, a large pork pie, a Madeira cake, a bologna sausage and a bottle of whisky by his admirers in the audience.


Birdie Sutherland

Birdie Sutherland took on pantomime roles and in 1901 described as the ‘bountiful Birdie Sutherland’ was engaged to play in the Drury Lane panto to be produced in New York. She had become a household name some years earlier when she sued the Hon.Dudley Majoribanks for breach of promise. The engagement had been announced and then denied by the young man’s father, Lord Tweedmouth. The newspaper reports take an amused tone, assuring us that the couple were devoted to each other with Birdie becoming ill and retiring to the country on the break up of the relationship. The Hon.Dudley was sent to Canada in the hope of curing him of his infatuation with Birdie. When the case was heard the court was beseiged with people wanting to enter but numbers were restricted and those present heard the Lord Chief Justice find in favour of Birdie Sutherland, awarding her £5000 damages plus costs. There is no comment from Lord Tweedmouth. A bit of an “Oh yes she will. Oh no she won’t” situation. Sorry, couldn’t resist it. The bad jokes are the best!

Thanks to the British Newspaper Archive



Dick Whittington as played by Miss E Beaufort, early unknown, Vesta Tilley and Hetty King

Pantomime season is here, although in Victorian times you’d have heard the cry, ‘Oh, no it isn’t‘ as pantomimes traditionally started on Boxing Day. The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in London set the benchmark for pantos all over the country but in the 1870s the theatrical Vokes family monopolised the production, a strategy which ultimately failed as it was reported ‘they were on stage far too long‘ and were ‘sublimely indifferent as to whether the story of Cinderella be a Sanskrit myth or a Greek fable‘. The production closed early, losing money and the following year the pantomime was staged by Augustus Harris. Harris hit on the idea of incorporating music hall stars into his shows and putting on spectacular scenes often with four or five hundred people on stage. The pantomime could last for anything up to five hours and Harris’s successor introduced an interval part way through finding that this contributed to a considerable increase in the sales of refreshments.

Such spectacular productions demanded dedication from the cast and the trade paper The Era gives us a taste of the hectic preparation for a panto. ‘The pantomimes are now in excellent working order, and attracting large audiences. Refractory traps have become obedient — fairy cars no more require the palpable hand of the stage carpenter to appear with a dingy shirt-sleeve in the midst of them, bewildere ballet-girls and stupified super-numeraries are found no longer rushing on in the wrong scene and never appearing in the proper one, the stage arrangements at last develop the original intention of the designers’. The trap is the star trap mentioned in a previous post through which the performer was propelled at speed, not without risk to life and limb. Some newspapers carried a special section of pantomime accidents and we find in 1861 that in one production a member of the cast was wounded when a pistol shot was misdirected and in another there was an escape of gas and an explosion.


Carrie Moore as Robin Hood

The introduction of music hall stars caused dismay in some quarters as they would perform their particular specialities which interrupted the story being told. Eccentric dances, acrobatics and topical songs were added to cash in on the popularity of the performer. Women from the music hall often took the part of principal boy wearing elaborate costumes and showing a shapely leg. Vesta Tilley was once engaged by Augustus Harris to play in Dick Whittington but just before rehearsals began the pantomime was changed to Beauty and the Beast and Vesta was to play the Prince. She found that that after the second scene the Prince was changed into the Beast and she would have to wear a mask until the final scene when the good fairy would change her back into the Prince again. Vesta was not happy with this and came up with a solution. She stipulated that she would not appear in the scenes in which her character was masked but would reappear for the final scene. This meant she could perform her own act in nearby variety theatres and she claims to have trebled her salary. Her role in the masked scenes was taken by John d’Auban but we don’t know how the audience felt about the substitution.

There’s so much to write about pantomime that the next blog will cover it as well. Oh, yes it will!


Thanks to ‘Recollections of Vesta Tilley’ and Westminster Reference Library