Musical Entertainment Available in 1914
Singing was widespread at an amateur level.
Elite families arranged musical evenings gathered around the piano singing classical pieces and music hall songs; even though the music halls in themselves were not considered to be respectful enough places for this group to visit. They also sang numbers from the latest musical comedies.
Working class people were expected to have one or two party pieces to sing at family parties.
There are many accounts at the beginning of WW1 of group singing of patriotic songs at recruitment centres or to accompany soldiers to the train station.
Choirs and Brass Bands
Many people sang in choirs or were members of brass bands. Brass bands were often groups of factory workers or members of other secular organisations. Many of course were members of the Salvation Army. They played opera pieces and some music hall songs. There were hundreds of thousands of people who were members of brass bands.
Even more people went to see shows. Music halls, musical comedies and other shows were big business. Sheet music based upon what people had heard was sold by the millions.
In Victorian times music halls were condemned out of hand. They were not considered respectable places to visit. However, by 1914 music halls had become far more respectable. Even the king attended occasionally. The first music hall arranged in his honour was in 1912. It was the first Royal Variety Performance.
Working class music halls were still considered with some suspicion, however.
Theatre managers had to prove to magistrates that they were not allowing vulgar songs to be sung, that the women on stage would not be too scantily dressed and that the foyer was not used for prostitutes to pick up their clients.
In 1910 there were 63 music halls in London and 254 in the rest of the country. In 1914 Glasgow had 18 music halls and 6 legitimate theatres. At the same time, Newcastle had 3 music halls and 3 legitimate theatres. Large music halls could sell 70,000 tickets a week and more than one million were sold in London each week. In Burnley where there were 2 music halls 7,000 tickets were sold each night.
The appearance of luxury was vital. This was reflected in the names the theatres were given. ‘The Empire’, ‘The Palace’, ‘The Coliseum’ and ‘The Alhambra’ are examples of the types of names given to them.
In the suburbs music halls had a more working class atmosphere.
Working men’s clubs and assembly halls were also used for music hall evenings, Shakespeare and sing songs.
Even in small villages touring shows of a music hall type were performed usually by 3-4 artistes and a piano.
During WW1 music halls raised money for war charities. Working class music halls had a long tradition of charity work, giving converts to raise money for different causes and supporting poorer members of the population. For example, they arranged days out for the poor children and soup kitchens in times of need. This social role was easily transformed into an active war role which was presented as one more humanitarian cause. Benefits shows raised money to help the wounded, widows, blind or orphans. They sent gloves, cigarettes and bibles to the troops in France.
In 1914 around 10,000 to 15,000 artistes appeared regularly in shows. Half of them were singers most of whom were men. During the 1/3rd of songs were sung by women. Many began when they were children aged around 6-7 mainly from working class backgrounds or from even poorer groups.
Music halls were actively involved in the war effort from the first day. They identified with the interests of the British Empire and of humanity and with freedom and decency. They immediately staged short patriotic war plays and allowed army recruiters to intervene at the beginning and end of shows. They were supported by several important stars. After the war had been progressing for a few months, the halls refused to employ men of military age.
In September 1914 the Government asked London theatres to display recruitment posters and to stage patriotic songs. It was also realised that shows were of crucial importance to the morale and well-being of civilians and soldiers alike.
Lord Derby, the minister of war in 1916 said,
“The people’s amusements… should go on… Let those who come home be met with cheerful faces. Let them feel their leave from the trenches should be marked by amusements that will abstract them from all anxieties and dangers’.
Neville Chamberlain was the head of National Service. He said that ‘the amusement of the people is an essential part of national work’.