In Victorian London, many people were drawn to the Strand by the prospect of an evening’s entertainment at a tavern, theatre or variety hall. But this Strand was of a very different nature to the one we know so well today; from murderers and tricksters, to prostitutes and the subversive stars of the music halls, the Strand was home to all kinds of vice. But what caused the locality’s notorious reputation?
Of all the buildings that helped determine the character of the Strand and its inhabitants, theatres and music halls were among the most important. The productions of the 19th century theatre and its unruly relation the music hall frequently explored the darker side of Victorian life, while off-stage they both supplied the background to dissolute and dastardly deeds. Here, Barry Anthony picks out just a few of the establishments that created the perception of the Strand as a wicked and wayward thoroughfare.
The Adelphi Theatre
One of the Strand’s oldest theatres, the Adelphi was associated with crime from its earliest days. In 1839, J. B. Buckstone’s drama Jack Sheppard took a young criminal executed at Tyburn in 1724, and portrayed him as a victim of conspiracy and circumstance. Jack, originally portrayed by Mary Anne Keeley, was an indomitable battler against an oppressive establishment, a folk-hero whose many dramatic re-interpretations caused rowdy demonstrations of approval. Eventually the Lord Chamberlain placed a blanket ban on any play which contained the name ‘Jack Sheppard’ in its title. Later in the century, Adelphi melodramas provided a far-less sympathetic depiction of law-breakers with the villain – usually portrayed by W. L. Abingdon – pitting himself against the 19th century’s most charismatic hero, William Terriss. ‘Breezy Bill’ Terriss was to feature in a horrible real-life drama when he was stabbed to death by a jealous actor just outside the theatre.
The Coal Hole
On the other side of the Strand, the late-night entertainments given at one particular tavern did their best – or worse – to ridicule propriety and to deride the status quo. Before the introduction of licensing hours in 1872, the Coal Hole remained open until early in the morning, causing a continual irritation to the authorities by presenting obscene songs, poses plastiques nude shows and a satirical ‘Judge and Jury Society’ whose mock-trials invariably dealt with indelicate and controversial subjects.
Opened in 1890, some 30 years after the closure of the Coal Hole as a place of entertainment, the Tivoli Music Hall, was largely associated with red-nose comedians and saucy female performers. The former cracked jokes and sang songs about sex, drunkenness and committing misdemeanours, while the latter wore brief costumes and danced in a provocative fashion. The most shocking song performed at the Tivoli was later described as the anthem of ‘a generation bent upon kicking over the traces’. Introduced by Lottie Collins in 1891, ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay’ combined suggestive lyrics with an abandoned dance to cause hostility and outrage. For many years afterwards young girls paid homage to the song’s impact by chanting a playground favourite ‘Lottie Collins has no drawers, Will you kindly lend her yours?’
The Strand and Gaiety Theatres
Two of the Strand’s theatres were home to a peculiarly Victorian type of entertainment, musical burlesque. Everything in the burlesques presented at the Strand and the Gaiety was topsy turvey, with men playing women and women appearing as men. Heroic and tragic dramas and operas were relentlessly lampooned and contemporary life was satirised in musical numbers and in punning, rhyming couplets. There were ongoing complaints about the brevity of the chorus girl’s costumes, but the greatest scandal associated with the entertainment involved the audience rather than the actors. In 1870 two transvestites, Ernest Boulton and Frederick Park, were arrested after a performance of Sir George and a Dragon at the Strand Theatre. It might have been acceptable for men to adopt make-up and skirts before the footlights, but in the auditorium it was not the done thing.
Barry Anthony is an historian with a particular interest in the Victorian and Edwardian period who has written extensively about popular culture and entertainment. He is the author of Chaplin’s Music Hall and The King’s Jester: The Life of Dan Leno, Victorian Comic Genius and co-author, with Richard Brown, of a groundbreaking study of the early British cinema, A Victorian Film Enterprise. His latest book, Murder, Mayhem and Music Hall, is available now.