The weird and wonderful world of Victorian entertainment
From levitation demonstrations, vanishing acts and card-playing automatons, to performing elephants, clog dancers and even ‘sapient pigs’ able to perform remarkable tricks – when looking for live entertainment, the Victorians were spoilt for choice. Here, Anna Maria Barry highlights five fascinating 19th-century performers who had a lasting influence on the world of show business
A quick flick through any Victorian newspaper will reveal that a dizzying and diverse range of entertainments were on offer in 19th-century Britain. The thriving Victorian entertainment industry had developed in response to vast social and cultural changes. The industrial revolution had increased urban populations, while the expanding middle class was newly rich in both time and money. In addition, the growth of the railways meant that travel to holiday resorts and cultural centres became easier than ever. These developments created an unprecedented appetite for entertainment.
A new exhibition at the British Library recently showcased this world, bringing 19th-century fun vividly back to life using a combination of colourful archival materials and modern performance. The exhibition focused on five fascinating figures that each played a key role in the development of Victorian entertainment, resurrecting these Victorian performers in suitably dramatic fashion, and dragging them back into the spotlight. But just who were these five masters of fun?
Dan Leno, the comedy pioneer
The exhibition’s opening act was music hall star Dan Leno (1860–1904), known as ‘the funniest man on earth’. Leno first gained fame as a champion clog dancer, but his performances of comic songs soon eclipsed the popularity of his dancing. These songs, filled with comic patter, dealt with familiar aspects of working class life. They also sometimes highlighted social injustice; ‘My Old Man’, for instance, dealt with domestic violence. The lyrics to the song’s chorus went:
"But nothing was too good for me with my old man
Till he got the upper hand of me, the sly old man
Not a week had we been wed, when he punched me in the head
And I thought him such a nice young man"
Performing alongside other music hall stars, including the famous Marie Lloyd (1870–1922), Leno achieved a remarkable degree of success. He started off earning £5 a week, but by the time he retired this had topped £300 – roughly equivalent to £29,000 today. Leno’s artistic talent had a tangible impact on performance practice that can still be felt today: his turn as a pantomime dame was so popular that the dame, which had traditionally a supporting role, was transformed into the leading pantomime role it is today. Leno also influenced a raft of celebrated admirers, including Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel.
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Annie De Montford, the ‘psychological star’
Next we move on to Annie De Montford (1836–1882), one of many women who played interesting and important roles in the Victorian entertainment industry. De Montford was a ‘psychological star’ who toured Britain with her demonstrations of mesmerism and hypnosis. Much like some modern performers, she ‘hypnotised’ audience members, compelling them to behave in a bizarre manner. De Montford was also a self-styled lecturer in phrenology, a form of Victorian pseudo-science, which held that there was a link between the shape of a person’s skull and their personality.
When she toured America in the 1870s, De Montford attracted the attention of investigative journalists who were suspicious of her claims, and accused her of having plants or stooges in the audience. However, these claims had little impact on her popularity. The British Library exhibition included some useful contextual material about the 19th-century enthusiasm for phrenology and mesmerism. Particularly amusing was some sheet music for a contemporary comic song called ‘How I Mesmerise ‘Em’, which satirised performances like that of De Montford. The ‘mesmerist’ character in this comic song revealed his secret tactic – hitting his subjects over the head with a hammer!
George Sanger, the circus impresario
The next character to entertain us is the self-styled ‘Lord’ George Sanger (1825–1911). Born into a family of showmen, Sanger started out working on simple peep shows. However, his natural skill for business soon saw him begin to cultivate a renowned entertainment empire. His impressive circus eventually took over the famous Astley’s Amphitheatre in London. Under Sanger’s management the venue was transformed into Sanger’s Grand National Amphitheatre, and he remained in residence there for the next 22 years.
Sanger’s circus included tightrope walkers, Wild West shows, military bands, ventriloquists and an array of exotic animals – including ‘the greatest performing elephant in the world’. He toured extensively across the country with this troupe. One description of his travelling spectacle reads as follows:
"A road train, two miles long with at least ten wagons to carry the tent and seating, a lamp wagon, eight or 10 living carriages, a foal wagon, 10 wild beast wagons full of lions, tigers, bears and others, a harness wagon, a portable blacksmith’s forge, property wagons, wardrobe and dressing wagons, a band carriage and at least six great tableau cars for the parade"
It’s easy to imagine what an exciting scene this must have created when the circus travelled through the British countryside on its way to the next engagement.
John Nevil Maskelyne, illusionist and inventor
Our attention now moves to another impresario; John Nevil Maskelyne (1839–1917). A watchmaker turned magician, Maskelyne first appeared at London’s Egyptian Hall in 1873. The posters for Maskelyne’s shows at the Egyptian Hall were a real highlight of the British Library exhibition. His act proved so popular that he soon turned this venue into ‘England’s Home of Mystery’, where he remained in business for over 30 years.
Maskelyne’s shows featured an array of magic tricks and illusions, including levitation, decapitation, and a ‘moth lady’ who mysteriously emerged from a cocoon made of golden silk. Most intriguing, however, was Maskelyne’s collection of automatons. The most popular was ‘Psycho’, a ‘living doll’ in a turban who confounded audiences with its ability to solve mathematical problems and win card games.
Being scientifically minded, Maskelyne stated that he despised trickery and on his suggestion the Magic Circle was founded. Its aim was to expose fraud and investigate supernatural claims. Maskelyne’s most enduring legacy, however, has nothing to do with entertainment at all. He was also an inventor, whose most successful design was a toilet lock operated with a penny coin. This is why ‘spend a penny’ is still used as a euphemism for going to the toilet!
Henry Evans, the ‘Royal Conjurer’
The headline act of the exhibition was Henry Evans (1832–1905), who went under the stage name ‘Evanion’. Born in south London, Evanion was fascinated by magic from a young age. He developed his own act, eventually putting on popular shows that blended illusion, comedy and ventriloquism.
In 1866 Evans performed at Sandringham for a range of royals including the Queen of Denmark and the Prince and Princess of Wales. After this, he became known as the ‘Royal Conjurer’; a title he shamelessly exploited in his publicity materials. Posters on display in the British Library exhibition demonstrate the tantalising diversity of Evans’ performances; ticket holders were promised ‘Ancient Egyptian sorcery’, ‘a wonderful hindoo feat’ and, as the grand finale, ‘a tree changed into a pagoda illuminated by Chinese fire’.
Anna Maria Barry is a freelance writer, researcher and cultural historian, based at Oxford Brookes University. Victorian Entertainments: There Will Be Fun was on display at the British Library earlier this year.
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