Tag Archives: Belle Elmore

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.

 

 

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Belle Elmore

Belle Elmore (born Kunigunde Mackamotzki, known as Cora) was a not very good music hall performer who came to London from America with her husband, Hawley Harvey Crippen. She was a sometime male impersonator and a would-be opera singer. During a strike of music hall artists she arrived to perform at the theatre, crossing the picket line. Marie Lloyd who was supporting the strike is reputed to have told the other pickets to let Belle Elmore through as she would empty the theatre anyway. She was the Honorary Treasurer of the Music Hall Ladies’ Guild and her disappearance in 1910 was first noted when she failed to turn up for a meeting. A note was delivered purporting to be from Belle but in Crippen’s handwriting in which she said she had left for America on urgent business concerning property. Suspicions were aroused when she did not contact her friends and seemed to have taken very little with her. Crippen let it be known she had become ill while away and later announced her death.

Belle Elmore

Belle Elmore

Crippen was employed by a medical company in London, having medical qualifications from the States. A typist called Ethel le Neve worked for him. She moved into the house previously shared by Crippen and Belle Elmore and began wearing some of  Belle’s clothes and jewellery. Belle’s friends reported their concerns to the police and Crippen was questioned. He and Ethel le Neve disappeared and it later transpired they had travelled to Belgium and from there had joined the SS Montrose on the way to Canada. They travelled as father and son with Ethel le Neve disguised as a boy. Crippen had previously asked an assistant at work to buy the boys’ clothes. I wondered if Belle’s male impersonation routine had given him this idea. Remains of a body were found in the basement of Crippen’s house and he was eventually arrested, along with Ethel le Neve. The captain of the ship became suspicious and used the newly invented wireless telegraph to alert the police.

Newspaper reports during the trial suggested that Belle Elmore had been sighted in the United States and Canada and that she had run away to join a man with whom she had possibly had an affair. These were proved to be unfounded. Doubts have recently been cast on Crippen’s conviction since the advent of DNA testing but the question remains of what then happened to Belle Elmore.