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Changing the Tune: Popular Music in the 1890s

Ian Bradley looks at what qualified as family favourites in the last decade of the nineteenth century.

In the Easter Vacation of 1898 E.M. Forster, down from his second term at Cambridge, treated his mother and aunts to a trip to the music hall in London. He wrote an account of the experience in schoolboy Latin for his old school magazine, The Tonbridgian, recording his mother's anxious comment before the climax of the show – Albert Chevalier's rendering of 'Knocked 'em in the Old Kent Road' – 'Spero hoc non erit vulgare'. In the event, there was nothing in the Cockney songs of the Coster Laureate to shock the sensibilities of his predominantly middle-class audience. The Forster party returned to their villas in the Home Counties with a sense of relief mingled with a tinge of excitement at having ventured into the still slightly risque world of popular entertainment.

The 1890s was in many ways the golden age of the English music hall – the decade that saw Albert Chevalier, George Robey, Nellie Wallace, Florrie Ford and Vesta Tilley launched as stars and Marie Lloyd and Dan Leno at the height of their careers. As the Forsters' visit suggests, it was also the period I when music hall became respectable. The seedy drinking dens with sawdust-covered floors and rough benches in the galleries, where proletarian audiences had gathered to swill beer and jeer at bad jokes, were being replaced by elaborately decorated palaces of varieties with plush seating and more refined acts calculated to appeal to a more genteel clientele.

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