Lancashire lads and lasses who tramped the boards of the music halls.
Many of us can still recollect the early modern performers of the twentieth century on television who made us laugh and sometimes made us cry. Arther Askey with his ‘playmates’ and Ken Dodd with his ‘diddymen’ were both from Liverpool and yet both spent a large proportion of their early careers tramping the old time music halls of Lancashire and Britain, performing their acts and making a living. Music halls were, at the turn of the beginning of the twentieth century, the staple diet for entertainment for a large part of the working population and with this development came an all host of Lancastrians who would make a living in front of the curtain. When Doddy, died on May 6th 2016, the whole of Liverpool mourned his passing and no one who could remember the music halls was remotely ‘tickled’.
Further back in time reveals a pattern of more Lancastrians who would also shine under the stage lights in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Wilkie Bard was one such example. Bard often played female characters but had been born in Chorlton, Manchester in 1874. Bard first appeared on stage in 1896, 21 years old, as a comic singer. Bard had a spell in Vaudeville in America and is praised with devising the tongue twister, ‘she sells seashells on the seashore’. He died of a heart attack in 1944.
G.H. Elliot was born in Rochdale in 1882 and his stage name was ‘The Chocolate Coloured Coon’. Offensive today but not so one hundred years ago, Elliot would daub himself up as a negro and wore a totally white outfit for contrast. He became the best-selling recording artist for the record label His Masters’ Voice in 1912 and 1914 and his best remembered for songs such as ‘The Honeysuckle and the Bee’ and ‘I used to Sigh for the Silvery Moon’. Elliot appeared on the Eamonn Andrews show, ‘This is Your Life’ in 1957 and died in Sussex in 1962. Needless to say, his gravestone which had a final curtain etched upon it and his controversial nickname were removed from the church yard in 2020
Tom Foy was another Lancastrian hailing from Manchester. Foy was of Irish descent who tread the musical hall boards for his entire life. Originally running away to join the circus, Foy made a name for himself as a pantomime character and became famous for his act ‘Tom Foy and his Donkey’. Foy collapsed on stage in Birkenhead in 1917 and died two weeks later.
Victoria Monks was just one of many women that were also part of this great entertainment tradition. Born in Blackpool in 1884, Monks appeared in her debut performance on stage in 1889 as ‘Little Victoria’. From 1906 – 1913 Monks made 18 musical recordings for HMV but most unfortunately was injured in a back stage door accident in 1915 which prevented from ever working again. Monks died in poverty in London in 1927.
Listen to wonderful clear voice & diction of Victoria Monks
May Henderson like many others of the music hall genre was born into the music hall lifestyle. Her father and family had been clog dancers and comedians and Henderson performed her debut in Newcastle in 1897, aged just 13. Like so many others the Henderson’s daubed themselves in black and May got the nickname ‘the Dusky Queen’. One critique said of her, ‘with her tap dancing and quick wits she only just missed out on being a top liner’. Henderson went on to run several pubs before dying in London in 1937, age 53.
This short list of just a few Lancastrian music hall entertainers makes for intriguing reading, and importantly for historians, reminds us of a time that is difficult to envisage and is even more challenging to remake or to recover. Intuitively, there are parts of this type of ‘Lancastrian Art’ we probably would not wish to recuperate but in amongst the catcalls and the penny seats there is a culture that is lost and like any historical enquiry, a source of knowledge that we can and ought to benefit from. As Doddy would have said, ‘The trouble with Freud is that he never played the Glasgow Empire on a Saturday night’.
Peter John Fyles