Banjo Paterson, the author of ‘Waltzing Matilda’, was travelling to London on a P. & O. liner in 1900 when a woman sailed into the saloon ‘as a dreadnaught steams into a harbour’, and struck up a conversation with him. Hearing who he was, she asked him to write a song for her – she paid as much as a quid or thirty bob for a good number, she said, and before they parted at Southampton she gave him a ticket for the first night of her coming season.
It would have been like being given a ticket for a Madonna first night, for Marie Lloyd was the most famous music hall artist of her day – on her way home after a triumphant tour of Australia. Paterson never wrote her a song; but it didn’t matter – she had plenty of her own, numbers she made famous, such as My old man said follow the van, Oh, Mr Porter! and the notorious She sits among the cabbages and peas, which she defended strenuously against Watch Committees and local councilors who strangely thought there was something suggestive about it. When they proved incorrigible, she changed the line to ‘I sits among the cabbages and leeks.’
Between 1850 and about 1950 the toffs had their opera houses, the working and lower middle classes had the music halls, and each had its repertoire of tunes which at their best, once heard, followed you around for life like a faithful dog. While the opera buff would whistle ‘Questa quella’ as he shaved, the girl who sold flowers in Piccadilly or spent laborious days in some awful East End factory would sing
‘The boy I love is up in the gallery,
The boy I love is looking down at me,
There he is, can't you see, waving of his handkerchief,
As merry as a robin that sings on a tree.’
That, one of the most evocative of all the old music-hall songs, was made famous by Marie, though originally written for a less famed but beloved artist, Nellie Powers. Its composer, George Ware, was one of a host of those who wrote songs for the music hall – often commissioned or ‘owned’ by individual artists: Ella Shields made famous her husband William Hargreaves’ Burlington Bertie from Bow and Florrie Forde had a success with Harry von Tilzer’s Down at the old Bull and Bush. Charles Collins wrote for Marie (My old man) but also for Harry Champion (Any old iron and Boiled beef and carrots). Harry J. Sayers sold Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay to Lottie Collins, and Henry E. Pether helped make Vesta Victoria a star by providing her with Waiting at the church.
The popularity of these tunes was universal, but they were written with a particular audience in mind – the composers and lyric-writers used situations with with which the poor, who scraped together pennies which admitted them to the Old Mo (the Middlesex, Drury Lane), the Shoreditch or Hackney Empires or the Oxford Music Hall, were familiar. When Gus Elen, with his thin, insinuating voice, sang about his little back garden with no view he was describing something his audience knew well:
‘by clinging to the chimbley
You could see across to Wembley
If it wasn't for the 'ouses in between’.
Burlington Bertie was a portrait of a down-and-out with pretensions: ‘all airs and graces, correct easy paces’ but ‘Without food so long I've forgot where my face is . . .’ When she sang ‘My old man said follow the van’ Marie was singing about eviction, trundling one’s belongings through the streets on a ‘barrer’. Too many girls could identify with Vesta Victoria when she sang:
‘There was I, waiting at the church
When I found he'd left me in the lurch
Lor, how it did upset me!’
When the music hall withered and died, as it did finally in the 1950s, defeated by television and changing taste – indeed, by the disappearance of much of its original impoverished audience – those of us who loved it mourned the sad demolition of old music halls like the Metropolitan, Edgware Road, where I saw some of the last of the stars to survive: G. H. Elliot, billed as (grit your teeth) ‘The Chocolate-Coloured Coon’, with his blacked-up face and white top hat singing ‘Lily of Laguna’ and ‘I used to sigh for the silv’ry moon’ – and his friend Randolph Sutton, whose great success was George Stevens’ song ‘On mother Kelly’s door-step.’ ‘Good Old Randy!’ the sailors would chant in chorus from the gallery of the old Grand Theatre in Plymouth when the fleet was in.
Into old age Ella Shields would join them, still in impeccable white tie and tails singing Burlington Bertie and following it up, dressed as a sailor, lighting and smoking a pipe while she sang ‘What a difference the Navy’s made to me.’ When she was 73, in 1952, she went on-stage to do her usual act, and started her most famous number strangely with the words ‘I was Burlington Bertie . . .’ After finishing the song she collapsed on-stage, and died without regaining consciousness. The music hall, in a sense, died with her.