Tavern Singing Clubs of Fitzrovia

Jess Owen explores the origins of the tavern singing clubs in London’s Fitzrovia.

By Jess Owen

Free and Easy

Free And Easy

The genesis of the Music Hall is generally held to be in the Free and Easies of London Pubs. These were Tavern Singing Clubs, unintentionally created by the 1843 Licensing Act, which prohibited the performance of drama outside the ‘Royal’ theatres. Such establishments had existed long before the 1843 Act, but they took on a slightly different character when ‘drama’ became respectable and began playing to wider audiences.

There were several such establishments in Fitzrovia, For two of them we have a fascinating insight through the diaries of Charles Rice. He earned his living as a messenger at the British Museum, supplementing his wages as a singer in concert-halls throughout central London. He appeared at two in Fitzrovia, the King’s Head formerly at 79 Great Portland Street and Tottenham Court Road’s Red Lion, on the corner of Hanway Street at No 2..

The former was known as ‘Macdonald’s’ to distinguish it from another establishment of the same name in Old Compton Street. In 1840 it passed into the hands of a man called James Brewster. By 1845 it was run by James Wilcox, in 1848 by Charles Leneve. The latter was just behind the site later occupied by Mortons’ famous ‘Oxford’, generally regarded as the first of the modern halls.

The King’s Head had operated for at least fifty years. It did not feature in any of the Licensing Applications so we can assume it was a fairly quiet establishment. The Red Lion’s story is somewhat problematic. There had been a pub of that name in the area since the previous century.

Rice was not impressed by a visit to Portland Street shortly before the change of ownership. He was offered a residency there in 1840.”Evening to Brewster’s…….awful piano, good player, Mr Blackman- Heard a Mr Roberts sing ‘Matrimonial Sweets’ & a Mr Thornton sang same song throughout in a kind of rough falsetto- both parties shice and unapplauded. A gent murdered ‘Calder Fair’ sacriligeously. I sang ‘Billy Taylor’ encore ‘St Anthony’ ‘Nix my Dolly.’ encore ‘Billy Crow’—Received the offer of Mondays if I liked, – money 0/6- refused it, & came away”.

His time at the Red Lion was more convivial. He attended several ‘Benefits’ on the premises. In January of 1840 he ‘went to the Benefit of a very gentlemanly, honest young man of the name of Watts… The Room was very queerly attended . I heard Mr JW Sharpe sing ‘The Omnibus’…I sang ‘Peter Peppercorn….and returning…sung ‘Billy Taylor’ and ‘On by the Spur!'”.

He was back the following month; “..crowded room…I sang ‘St Anthony’ encore ‘Billy Crow’- and gave as a finale ‘Nix my Dollly,’ which G. Furzman & Mr Mullins tried to chorus and in doing so nearly muffled the whole concern!’ The diaries offer an  insight into the repertoires on offer to the public before the generation of Music Hall ‘proper’. They catch a moment when there is a transition between the older convivialities of the Free and Easy and a more formalised music industry. With one exception, all of Rice’s repertoire can be found as the popular penny sheets known as broadside ballads.

A word of explanation may be needed as to the significance of the broadside ballad, and concert singers such as Rice. At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries broadsides were thought to be ‘folk’ literature. Collectors such as the Rev Sabine Gould and Frank Kidson based their ‘appraisals’ of ‘traditional’ song partly on the large collections of broadsides, they, and others, had accumulated.

Modern research has demonstrated that, many broadsides were printed versions of material disseminated in the pleasure gardens and musical shows of the 18th and 19th centuries by professional singers and song-writers not too dissimilar from the hacks of 20th century ‘Tin Pan Alley’. Nevertheless, many songs current in the 19th c remained in the repertoires of ‘traditional’ singers recorded in the 20th c.

The songs used by Rice, offer us an insight into the repertoire of one of their forebears. It would be unwise, though in the absence of similar archival records to draw too many generalisations from what we are able to deduce. For it is clear, both from Rice’s lists of songs and those from sources closer to our own times, that singers could be highly individualistic in their choice of material. They would undoubtedly seek to accomodate the tastes of their audiences, a factor especially important to a semi-professional performer such as Rice. That said, his choice of songs remains interesting

Several emerge as ‘his’, performed in several locations, and sometimes added as an ‘encore’. Chief amongst these are Billy Taylor, St Anthony and My Lord Tomnoddy. Taylor was performed on no fewer than five occasions, Anthony four times and Tomnoddy twice

Billy Taylor dates from at least 1804 when it was sung at both Covent garden and Drury Lane. A fine broadside was published by Laurie and Whittle of Fleet Street, dated Sept 24th of that year. It was popular enough two years later to provide the tune to another song “Dicky Day The Cruel Cobler”. The tale is of a young man, parted from his sweetheart by the press gang.
“Soon his true love followed a’ter,

Late submissions

Billy Taylor

Under the name of Richard Carr,
And her lily white hands she daub’d all over,
With the nasty pitch and tar.”

Her subterfuge was not discoved for a while, but;

“When they came to the first engagement,
Bold she fought amongst the rest,
Until a Cannon Ball did cut her jacket open,
And diskivvered her lily white breast”

The Captain asks what she is doing on the ship. On hearing her tale he tells her that ‘Billy Taylor’ has not been true.
“With that she ros’d up in the morning
Early as by break of day,
And she met her Billy Taylor,
Walking with a lady gay

Forthwith she call’d fer Sword and Pistol,
Which did come at her command,
And she shot her Billy Taylor,
With his fair one in his hand”

But the Captain, rather than punish her;
“… werry much applauded her for what she’d done
And quickly he made her the first Lieutenant,
Of the Gallant—–THUNDER BOMB.”

From the printed sheet we can see that, rather than Rice ‘Cockneyfying’ his text as Senelick supposes, the ballad was composed in a dialect. This far anticipates the supposed entrance of ‘mockney’ into the repertoire of London singers.The composition came at a time when propaganda in favour of the armed forces, and the navy in particular was reaching its zenith. The wars against revolutionary France had precipitated a major famine across the country and were very unpopular. Propaganda pieces went hand in hand with ‘loyal’ associations to promulgate a warlike spirit amongst the population at large. Radicals were forced onto the defensive, though in Westminster, they rallied around Parliamentary politics and carried the famous election of 1804.
‘The Temptations of St Anthony’ does not survive in many editions as a ballad. It had originally appeared in Bentley’s of Jan 1838, with a striking illustration by George Cruikshank. One text that does survive, in the Firth collection, reveals it to be a bright bravura piece that must have been a lot of fun to perform. Albeit one that is only occasionally true to the original. The plot is meagre;
“Saint Anthony sat on a lowly stool,
A large black book he held in his hand
Never his eyes from its page he took,
With steadfast soul the page he scann’d
The devil was in the best humour that day,

Proofing

The Temptations

That ever his highness was known to be in,
That’s why he sent out his imps to play,
With sulphur and tar, and pitch and roisin,
They came to the Saint in a motley crew,
Twisted and twirled themselves about.

But the good Saint Anthony kept his eye
So firmly fix’d upon his book,
Shouts nor laughter, sighs nor cries,
Could ever win away his look.”

The ballad is lengthy, and details much misbehaviour by various imps, which must have given the performer much opportunity for mugging and horseplay with the audience.
“An imp came then like a skeleton form,
Just come out of a charnel vault–
His jaws with gristle were black and deform
But his teeth were as white as salt,
He grinn’d full many a lifeless grin,
And wagg’d and rattled his bony tail–
His skull was deck’d with gill and fin,
And his eyes were like the eyes of a snail,
He took his stand at the good saint’s back,
On tiptoe rum he stood a space,
And cock’d down his India rubber eyes,
To squint and gaze upon his face

But the good Saint Anthony kept his eye
So firmly fix’d upon his book,
Shouts nor laughter, sighs nor cries,
Could ever win away his look.”

The succession of grotesques fails to move the studious saint. But finally, his resolve crumbles;
“Last came an imp– how unlike the rest,
A lovely looking female form,
And whilst with a kiss his cheek she press’d
Her lips felt downy soft and warm,
As over his shoulders she bent the light,
Of her brilliant eyes upon his page,
His soul with high delight,
And the good old chap forgot his age.
Hey! The good Saint Anthony boggled his eyes
So quickly o’er his old black book,
Ho! ho! At the corners they ‘gan to rise,
And he couldn’t choose but have a look”

The punch line to the song is;
“There are many devils that walk in this world
………………
Devils great, and devils small–
But a laughing woman with two bright eyes,
Is the worst devil of all”

One is very tempted to connect this rollicking piece with the deepest of English traditions. The position of the devil in medieval society was a far more ambiguous one than one might suppose. His presence, and temptations, are fundamental to the Christian tradition. Satan held a place in the Mystery plays, usually with the help of a few imps to encourage his mischief. ‘Temptation’ is also a central theme in Marlowe’s ‘Faust’ a work that bridges both medieval and renaissance cultures. A major scene in Faust features one element repeated in this ballad. At a crucial moment Faustus encounters the seven deadly sins as they perform for him. At a very basic level, the pious have been treated more as figures of fun, rather than models for emulation, evincing a very healthy attitude to religion, and those who would take themselves over-seriously, in this country.
Rice’s third ‘standard’ is in the same vein as ‘St Anthony’, only with a more political twist. The ballad also started life as a poem in“Bentley’s Miscellany”, first appearing in June 1837 as No V of ‘Family Stories— (The ) Hon Mr Sucklethumbkin’s Story”.
“My Lord Tomnoddy got up one day;
It was half after two,
He had nothing to do,
So his lordship rang for his cabriolet.

His 'Lordship'

………..
My Lord Tomnoddy he   raised his head,
And thus to Tiger Tim he said,
‘Malibran’s dead,
Duvernay’s fled,
Taglioni has not yet arriv’d in her stead;
Tiger Tim, come tell me true,
What may a nobleman find to do?”

Bentley’s was not a particularly radical journal. It had none of the fire of Petrie’s ‘Man’, Owen’s ‘New Moral World’ or Robert Nicols’ “Leeds Mercury’. Yet it patently shared a loathing for the landed classes with such publications. Victorian England was a country seething with class antagonism. The monarchy was duly loathed, the ‘new’ queen having only been given the job because her cousin, the rightful heir, threatened to unleash a reactionary ‘militia’ against those who had felt the middle classes ought to have a share in the franchise. The high price of food was widely attributed to grasping landowners who had artificially inflated its cost during the Napoleonic wars of a generation earlier.
Tomnoddy had remarkable longevity as a piece. In The 1860’s it was parodied by the playwright Robert Brough. His version was a staple amongst the Radical clubs of London. It was perpetuated by the Social Democratic Federation finding its way into early 20th century socialist song books. Until recently the term ‘Tomnoddy’ circulated as a term of abuse for those who thought themselves better than others due to ‘birth’. The radical populism of the early ‘halls’ was voluntarily eradicated as the owners sought ‘respectability’, and to safeguard their licenses from ‘moral reformers’.

Quotes in the text are from L. Senelick (Ed.), Tavern Singing In Early Victorian London: the Diaries of Charles Rice, Society For Theatre Research, London 1997. http://ase.tufts.edu/faculty-guide/fac/lsenel01.drama.htm; http://www.str.org.uk/books/books.html#memoirs

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