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  Palaces of Pleasure

From Music Hall to the Seaside to Football

How the Victorians Invented Mass Entertainment


Lee Jackson


New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2019

Hardcover. xii+304 p. ISBN 978-0300224634. £20


Reviewed by Jacqueline Banerjee

The Victorian Web





For good or ill, and in countless ways, the Victorians helped to make us what we are today. Their innovations included not just the railway network but the cast-iron pleasure pier—starting with the one opened at Margate in 1855. As Lee Jackson says himself in his readable and immensely informative discussion of Victorian popular attractions and venues, the seeds of any given contribution to the entertainment scene often came earlier: Margate's original stone-built pier, mainly for wharfage but with a promenade and provision for a band, had been in operation since 1815. Moreover, what was established in the nineteenth century often looked rather different later on: pleasure gardens, where they survived at all, became theme parks; music halls became variety theatres, lingering on now in the annual Royal Variety Performance.

But even when the Victorians only forged links in the chain, those links were vital. They were fundamentally transformative, often involving new engineering feats and business arrangements, and necessitating new licensing and regulatory procedures. Such requirements introduced professionalism into the entertainment industry just as they did into other areas of working life. One example here is sports—although in football, ironically, what we call professionalism was the result of resisting rather than obeying the original rules. The Football Association, formed in 1863, disqualified Accrington Football Club in 1883 for having hired a professional (that is, salaried) player. But compromise followed. Professionals were recognised subject to certain conditions, and football became not only closely regulated but perhaps the biggest entertainment business of all, with the FA 1901 Cup Final between Spurs and Sheffield United attracting as many as 110,000 spectators.

Taken together, these developments produced an entirely new phenomenon: a key word in Jackson's subtitle is "mass". Pleasures that existed before at different levels of society, and for those different levels, now found whole new audiences drawn from across the board. This had much to do with the railways mentioned above, because they provided the transport and often the excursion fares that made some of the larger venues accessible to all. The Great Exhibition of 1851 at Crystal Palace, when the whole capital was "overwhelmed by an unprecedented tourist boom" [148-149], showed how well this worked, so much so that arrangements were made for the new Crystal Palace at Sydenham to be served by two stations—the high level and low level stations. The feasibility (that is, profitability) of mass entertainment projects like this also depended on the growth of the middle class, and the leisure-time available even to the working classes as social reform, propelled by a newly awakened social conscience, followed in the wake of industrialisation and urbanisation. Even early in the period, the Casino dancing hall just off the Strand offered "'dancing for the million', i.e. affordable for the common man" [106]. The Bank Holidays Act of 1871, and the institution of Saturday half-days by the Factory Act of 1874, made it still easier to reach out to this new audience. Entrepreneurs could count on increased takings at specific times, especially as workers now had more money in their pockets.

Rather unexpectedly, the popularity of such ventures also had something to do with Queen Victoria herself: she set the seal of royal patronage on a range of venues, from the Surrey Zoological Gardens (where Jackson tells us she was very taken with the giraffes) to John Robinson Whitley's American exhibition at a new, specially constructed complex at Earl's Court. Here, now in her late sixties, the Queen was impressed by the fine figures of Buffalo Bill and the strapping cowboys in the Wild West spectacular. She even "exchanged pleasantries with sharp-shooter Annie Oakley" [168]. This gives us a flavour of the occasion and an insight into the Queen. Both she and her subjects were, as Jackson suggests at the beginning of his introduction, much more easily amused than most people think—and amusing them had now become a very big business indeed.

Of Jackson's eight chapters, the most wittily subtitled is Chapter IV ("The Dancing-Room: or, the Way of the Whirled"), but all open the door on a variety of delights. Most of the developments will be well known to the general reader—the gin palace of the 1830s, for example, so memorably depicted by George Cruikshank, and the seaside resort, that changed the face and fate of many a small coastal town. The surprises are less in the choice of subjects than in the particulars of each one's history. In the case of the music hall, in Chapter III, Jackson disposes of the assumption that Charles Morton's Canterbury Hall was the first such venue (there were already two others in walking distance), but not without explaining it: after all, Canterbury Hall was on an entirely new scale, with programmes aimed at pleasing not packs of pub-goers out for a bit of extra fun, but a "respectable, mixed crowd of men and women", even whole families [58]. More casual than the theatre, with the audience seated at tables, eating, drinking and moving around freely, such halls were still likely to be bawdier than theatres, until licensing laws, health and safety regulations and a burgeoning working-class morality all conspired to tame them into a greater propriety.

As noted above, the rise of the lower orders was an important factor in the success of all these ventures, perhaps especially in the development of the seaside resorts, to which factory-workers thronged when the factories shut in mid-summer. The new forms of mass entertainment encouraged as well as relied on the democratisation of English society, but the greater inclusiveness of the audience was not without its underlying tensions. In his last chapter ("Conclusion, or 'The Murderer of Thought' "), Jackson suggests that, along with class, gender was another "of the great fault-lines" that lay beneath the surface [254]. We can be sure, for instance, that, unlike their male counterparts, unchaperoned Victorian women enjoying many of these diversions were risking their reputations. Charles Morton "let slip" as late as 1893 that the audience at the Canterbury Hall was composed mainly of men [60 & 268, n.6]. Even worse than gender distinction was the widespread racism exposed by some so-called entertainments. The blackface minstrel was the least of it, and we can only pity the poor "natives" who were displayed at Earl's Court as if they were freaks—all praise here to Gerald du Maurier for his Punch cartoon of 16 July 1887, which turned the tables on the gawkers by making them seem much cruder than the exhibits themselves [plate 16]. This last chapter sometimes makes uncomfortable reading, then. The quotation in its heading comes from a sermon by Charles Spurgeon, the famous Baptist preacher, who inveighed against the mindlessness of all these "idle frivolities" [259]. But, as we know, in one form or another they were here to stay.

The hope that Jackson himself expresses in his conclusion, that even the best-read Victorianists will be able to take away some new knowledge from his book, is bound to be realised. Throughout, he has raided the newspaper archives and other contemporary sources to great effect, with an eye for the curious and revealing detail. He also provides a helpful note on pre-decimal coinage and relative incomes at the beginning, twenty-six well-chosen illustrations in the middle, and many pages of notes with a full bibliography at the end.


 Illustrated version on The Victorian Web :


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