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Murder, Mayhem and Music Hall: The Dark Side of Victorian London by Barry Anthony

The StrandDuring the first half of the nineteenth century the Strand’s reputation as a place of recreation was reinforced by new and expanded forms of entertainment. Where amateurs had previously ‘obliged’ at ‘Free and Easy’ concerts, professional performers started to appear in the singing rooms of taverns. Venues such as the Coal Hole, Strand, and the Cyder Cellars,  Maiden Lane, offered food and drink and rowdy, male-dominated entertainment. Nearby in Covent Garden, Evans’s Hotel set its standards substantially higher with choral singing and operatic excerpts offsetting the red-nose comedians. A couple of streets away at the Garrick’s Head, self-styled ‘Lord Chief Baron’ Renton Nicholson presided over mock trials that amused audiences by their irreverence and indecency. In the mid-1860s the purpose-built Strand Music Hall presented considerably more refined entertainment in a tobacco- and alcohol-free environment, and, as a result, proved to be a miserable failure. Opening as the Strand Music Hall closed, Gatti’s Music Hall (situated beneath the arches of Charing Cross Station in Villiers Street) was more successful than its upmarket predecessor, but it was not until 1890 that the Tivoli provided the Strand with a fully-fledged and flourishing variety theatre.

The entertainments offered at some locations changed in nature over the years. Astley’s Middlesex Amphitheatre, an arena for equestrian exhibition, opened in Wych Street in 1806 close to St Clement Danes, but was replaced by the Olympic Theatre in 1813. Nearby, at 169 Strand the ancient Talbot Inn gave way to Barker’s Panorama in 1803, which in turn became Royal Strand Theatre, a long-term home for musical burlesque. And the pavement-straddling Exeter Change – which at times housed a magic lantern show, a puppet theatre and a first floor menagerie – was demolished in 1829 to rise again as Exeter Hall, a 4,000-seat auditorium used for public meetings and orchestral concerts. After a long period as the only theatres operating in the area, Drury Lane (1663) and Covent Garden (1732) found themselves in competition with the Lyceum (1809), the Adelphi (1819), the Gaiety (1868), the Vaudeville (1870), the Opera Comique (1871),3 the Savoy (1881) and Terry’s (1887) in the Strand; and, in adjoining streets, the new Lyceum (1834), the Globe (1868) and the Avenue (1881).

Pleasure-seeking crowds and well-stocked shops provided a rich picking ground for criminals of all types. In his 1860 autobiography, Renton Nicholson described how honest, respectable citizens nicknamed ‘flats’ were preyed upon by a ‘circumscribed and degenerate race’ known as ‘sharps’.4 Confidence tricksters, passers of counterfeit coins, blackmailers, illegal bookmakers, burglars, muggers, pickpockets, pornographers and shoplifters swarmed to the Strand like bedbugs to a cheap hotel. Bogus and real beggars were supplemented by professional cadgers who sometimes worked in organised gangs. One of the largest industries, prostitution, was not illegal, but was at the centre of criminal activities such as bribery, extortion, theft, procurement of underage girls and violent behaviour by pimps. A parasitical, alternative society existed in the Strand and in the nearby slums of Clare Market, Covent Garden and Drury Lane. In an attempt to combat the indigenous lawlessness of the area, London’s first formally organised police force, the Bow Street Runners, was set up in 1750. The Metropolitan Police Force replaced the older organisation in 1829, and, like its predecessor, operated out of a central station situated in Bow Street. At the eastern end of the Strand the mock Gothic Royal Courts of Justice, opened by Queen Victoria in 1882, displaced an area previously notorious for a high concentration of bawds and bagnios. The courts, during their construction, overlooked Temple Bar where the decapitated heads of lawbreakers were once exhibited. Scattered in a dismal corona around the area were the offices of solicitors and private detectives.

The police were directed to enforce order as well as law, their duties to deal with spontaneous and unpredictable conduct by groups and individuals, along with the carefully planned, covert activities of the criminal underworld. With virtually no restrictions on public house opening times prior to the 1872 Licensing Act, the consequences of drunkenness were such a problem that they were only acted upon when they became extreme. A major public nuisance was that of ‘Jolly Dogs’, parties of men from well-off backgrounds who drank to excess in the various taverns and night houses, then rampaged through the London streets perpetrating violent acts and destructive practical jokes. Although not as ingenious in their mischief-making, working-class drinkers provided a similarly intransigent problem. Even after the 1872 Act, French journalist Max O’Rell was shocked by the situation:

The drunkenness in the streets is indescribable. On Saturday nights it is a general witches Sabbath. The women drink to almost as great an extent as the men […] The Englishman is only noisy when he is drunk; then he becomes combative and wicked. One half of the murders one hears of are committed under the influence of drink.

Lone drunks were usually left to the mercy of pickpockets or less gentle robbers and were only taken into custody when their actions became a threat to others. Police spent more of their time attempting to control the groups of intoxicated roughs and prostitutes who molested and insulted passers-by. There were increasing calls for the police to take greater measures to clear the unruly groups from the Strand area and to prevent the culture of the slums causing offence to the rest of society. Highly visible displays of mass drunkenness were not only abhorrent to members of the general public – many local councillors, magistrates and members of parliament were involved in the brewing industry, while large numbers of middleclass investors and the Inland Revenue also benefited from the sales of alcohol. Understandably, such interested parties preferred not to have the effects of ‘The Demon Drink’ demonstrated quite so publicly in the heart of London.

Although, in the words of the music-hall song, the Strand remained ‘the place for fun and noise, all amongst the girls and boys’, by the dawn of the twentieth century the increased powers of central and local government had largely tamed the wilder nature of the street. Public house opening hours were limited and licences withdrawn from those that did not comply with regulations. Since the early days of Queen Victoria’s reign there had been plans to expand what the Gaiety Theatre’s first manager described as an ‘overgorged alley’. With the increased impetus to engage in town planning, stimulated by the creation of the Metropolitan Board of Works (1856) and the London County Council (1889), many of the slum areas were demolished and their potentially criminal inhabitants dispersed. The widening of the Strand and the construction of the Aldwych in 1902 also resulted in the destruction of Wych Street and Holywell Street, both ancient homes of prostitutes and pornographers. Having often been vilified in their seventy-year history, the police began to earn the respect of the general public. Popular fiction, which once celebrated the anti-establishment exploits of highwaymen, pirates and youthful burglars, began to chronicle the cases of cerebral and analytical detectives. Songs, dances and other material performed on the variety stage became less risqué as music halls were transformed into limited companies with middle-class shareholders to safeguard and placate. The proliferation of suburban theatres, music halls and the earliest cinemas meant that there were fewer reasons for those seeking entertainment to make the journey into central London.

When the Gaiety Theatre was demolished in 1903 a swarm of rats was said to have scuttled from the ruins, searching for new hiding places in the darker recesses of the immediate area. It was an obvious metaphor for a process in which the irregular, chaotically overcrowded tenements of the Strand were being replaced by well-planned and easily managed buildings. A sign of things to come was provided by Effingham House, a six-storey block of offices built on the corner of Arundel Street and the Strand in 1891. In place of the steep, creaking stairs familiar to visitors doing business in the area, a fast and efficient lift was available to all floors. In 1896 the Hotel Cecil opened on the site of Cecil Street and Salisbury Street, with 800 bedrooms, bars, a restaurant and lounges offering the very latest in comfort and elegance. A new Gaiety was created on an imposing corner site, its deep alcoves and ostentatious cupola suggesting an edifice of more august usage than mere entertainment. Even a palace of sorts returned to lord over the street, the Strand Palace Hotel, which completely dwarfed its homely neighbour, Haxell’s Hotel, when it opened in 1909.

Murder Mayhem and the Music HallAs a centre for frivolous entertainment and uninhibited pleasure-seeking, the Strand became a ‘land of lost content’ for those who remembered the street from their youth. The glaring signs, slow-moving traffic, blaring music, sex shows, gambling joints and parading prostitutes that might be considered undesirable in a modern city became transformed into colourful aspects of a romantic past. Those who had not succumbed to syphilis or cirrhosis of the liver penned affectionate accounts of their enjoyably misspent youth. ‘One of the Old Brigade’, writing in 1906, regretted ‘night houses and comfortable taverns demolished and transformed into plate-glass abominations run by foreigners and Jews, while hulking louts in uniform, electroplate and the shabby-genteel masher have taken the place of solid silver spoons and a higher type of humanity’. As those dyspeptic and racist veterans who remembered the Strand in the nineteenth century passed away, new generations dismayed by the stark realities of world wars, economic depression and social upheaval invested the area with even greater Elysian qualities. The reality of the Victorian Strand became buried, not – like Troy – by time’s accumulating detritus, but by the softly falling fairy dust of nostalgia. Glamorous Gaiety girls in Hansom cabs and gas-lit stage doors with their attendant Johnnies came to represent this mythic past, while layers of false memory and wishful thinking concealed the remains of a society that struggled to contain its subversive, criminal and unruly elements.

Murder, Mayhem and Music Hall: The Dark Side of Victorian London by Barry Anthony is OUT NOW.



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