Fern Riddell / History

‘Songs for the Masses’: Political Expression in the Victorian Music Hall

Fern Riddell looks at how Victorian music halls were was used to restrain and reduce political awareness, rather than herald a social revolution.

‘Songs for the Masses’: Political Expression in the Victorian Music hallThe Victorian Music Halls played an essential role in both advancing and retarding the collective interests of its public during the nineteenth century. In a time when there had been widespread social revolution by most of the lower classes in Europe, the new mass commercial culture of the British music halls was used to control and dismiss similar feelings of discontent and revolution in its working class audience. This subversive role – promoting old fashion Toryism and patriotism over radical politics and the possibility of reform – did not draw attention to the horrific social and economical difficulties facing the working classes but, instead, distorted the true issues by reducing them to a humorous level.

From the 1870s onwards the music halls were manipulated by an increasing level of middle-class control, which sort to neutralize any form of working class political discontent. They were used as a conduit for propaganda, and instead of speaking for the people the halls moulded their political temperament through increased patriotic fervour and a focus on domestic life.

The unique relationship between the audiences and the performers on the stage gave the working classes a specific place that could collectively unite them and form an identity. Instead of the revolutionary nature feared by the middle classes, it was a severely patriotic, conservative sense of self that was created. The energies of the working classes, which could have previously been directed to changing their own circumstances was rechanneled by the halls middle-class managerial structure into an advancement of the Empire and the ideology of nationality.

By the 1880s, music hall song – which had previously been used to inform the masses of Britain’s role in world affairs, local government procedures, and the impact of laws and regulations passing before parliament – now focused on the patriotic notions of Country, Queen and Empire. For the masses, it was the music halls that would sell them the ideology of the British Empire, and it was the comic singers that became the salesmen. One of the most influential singers of the period was ‘The Great Macdermott’. Well-known through out his career, it was in 1877 that Macdermott achieved true notoriety with his pro-war song, ‘We Don’t Want to Fight‘ – memorable for adding the word ‘jingo’ to the English language.

‘We don’t want to fight but by jingo if we do,
We’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men, and got the money too!
We’ve fought the Bear before and while we’re Britons true,
The Russians shall not have Constantinople.’

This song highlights the success of the new patriotic class consciousness that was being created in the music hall, re-enforced through both audio and visual methods:

‘A popular device for rousing the combative tendencies of the audience, and, what is better, drawing them in crowds, is to introduce emblematic figures with flags of different countries. Those are hissed, hooted and cheered accordingly to taste or prejudice.’ [1]

The experiences of war made a lasting impression on the collective popular consciousness of the working classes, and this was kept alive by its continual re-working in the halls. By the turn of the century the music halls were deliberately used as agents of propaganda to both eradicate any form of possible class antagonism at home, and to form a growing sense of nationalism. By the end of the Victorian era, the patriotic influence of the songs had become so great that any earlier balance of cynicism and idealism had been lost, leaving the halls recruiting for a war that was potentially against the attitudes and beliefs of a large part of its audience. It is clear that through both visual and audio means the working classes were being moulded into a singular patriotic collective, to be called upon in times of war. One witness described a nightly performance at the halls:

‘Indeed, at music hall audience are ever patriotic, and love to be thus stimulated. On the occasion of one of our wars, little or big, or at national excitement… there is secured some stalwart women of strident voice, who carries a flag, and who, to plenty of brass and trumpet, proclaims, or shrieks out –

“Britain’s our Isle of the Sea!
Yes, Britain’s the Isle of the Sea!
With Scotland, Ireland, Wales,
She never, never fails,
And shouts throughout the world for Libertee!”

The halls could have heralded in social revolution and a dynamic working class political entertainment. Instead, entertainment was used to restrain and reduce any political awareness that existed. A tool, I think, that is still being used today. ■

Image shows The Green Gate Tavern, print, 1854.

Fern Riddell is a PhD student at King’s College London, whose research centres on sexuality and crime in London’s music halls, 1850-1939. You can follow her on Twitter @FernRiddell, or read more about London’s music halls on her blog, Vice and Virtue.

[1] Percy Fitzgerald, ‘Music hall Land’, (1890) p. 36


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