The courtroom humiliation of a blushing moral crusader who sought to end the “evil” of music-hall innuendo gives unparalleled insights into Victorian attitudes to obscenity and censorship.
That’s according to the first study focusing on a trial of 1890 during which the campaigner and journalist Sydney Arthur Hallifax found himself the butt of music-hall-style humour.
The case was brought by 28-year-old Hallifax on behalf of the Society for the Prevention of the Degradation of Women and Children, one of many crusading organisations of the period. Hallifax, a former editor of the Women’s Gazette, alleged that a performance of a song about a peeping servant girl at Manchester’s Folly music hall had constituted an “outrage” and a “public nuisance to good morals”.
According to the newspapers, it was partly due to expectations that the offending lyrics would be recited in court that Manchester City Police Court was “uncomfortably crowded”. There was even a rumour that 22-year-old singer Peggy Pryde would be asked to perform the song for the bench. If the case succeeded, it could set a precedent banishing such risqué acts from the stage.
The Folly was one of hundreds of music halls across Britain. Although not among the top tier, it seated 800 and attracted star acts such as Marie Lloyd and Dan Leno. According to Hallifax, it was also a haunt of prostitutes. Now its licensee Edward Garcia, refreshments manager James Pymer and conductor Edward Jonghmans were charged with having conspired to procure the public presentation of lewdness and indecency. Pryde, a music-hall favourite at the time, was charged with having sung an indecent song.
Barrister BFC Costello for the prosecution claimed the matters in hand went far beyond coarseness and constituted “direct suggestions to immorality”. He was, he said, acting to suppress a public evil.
Explaining his role, Hallifax told the court that he had visited the Folly twice in October, three times in November and once in December 1888 to observe the goings on. Mr Shee, defending, set the tone for proceedings when he asked whether he had enjoyed his six visits, prompting laughter. “I did not,” the young man replied. “If you think so, you do me a great injustice.”
This only provoked more mirth, at which Hallifax protested that the whole experience had been a “moral torture” to him.
He alleged that Peggy Pryde’s performance of Looking through the Keyhole — a song describing a maid’s observation of her newly married master and mistress — had constituted a “great outrage on human decency”. After it was pointed out that the song had been performed elsewhere without causing offence, he was flummoxed when asked to recite its lyrics and describe obscene gestures Pryde had allegedly made. Shee goaded him: “You know it off by heart I can see … How often have you sung it yourself?”
Hallifax managed to reveal that the singer made a “squeezing gesture” after singing the lines: “It would make you feel so funny to hear them go kiss kiss. It would make you feel so funny to see them go like this.” However, when it came to explaining what Pryde had done during a dead pause after the line, “It would make you feel so funny if you saw them … “, he could only say weakly: “She made a gesture which I cannot describe just now, but was interpreted by the audience.”
When Shee recited lyrics containing the line “Their blessed honeymoon…”, Hallifax asserted that Pryde had in fact sung “blooming” for “blessed”. Pryde then staged her only recorded intervention in the case, interrupting with faux-outrage to say: “I beg your pardon.”
Under cross-examination, things went from bad to worse for Hallifax. He admitted he was not a ratepayer or householder in Manchester and had been living as a guest with a “very close” friend, the Rev GS Reaney, for over two years. To more laughter in the courtroom, Shee remarked: “There is an old song about ‘speed the parting guest’. I suppose you intend to go some time.”
“There were powerful sexual connotations to what they were doing”Dr David Huxley
Shee proceeded to mock Hallifax’s naïvity. When he said he did not know the meaning of the phrase “bill and coo” as used in the song, Shee replied, “Oh, but you will very soon”. The flustered Hallifax retorted, “Well I am prepared to wait”.
“How old are you now, Mr Hallifax?” Shee shot back to loud laughter.
Dr David Huxley, author of the study in Early Popular Visual Culture, said: “The lawyer was obviously trying to imply that he’s a sponger and he’s overstaying his welcome. There is a subtext going on that you just get a hint of. The lawyers obviously worked out ways they could get at Hallifax and make him a figure of fun.”
He added that the newspaper reporters and editors chose to join in the mockery of Hallifax. “They didn’t have to report the laughter that broke out when things were said so they definitely took their cue from the lawyers in their perception of him.”
Although the case rested on Pryde’s performance of one song, Hallifax was eager to point to other alleged outrages he had witnessed at the Folly. He raised a laugh when he explained that: “One song was by Miss Jennie Valmore with a chorus, ‘They do it on the sly’. The artiste afterwards turned to the audience and said, ‘Oh yes you do’ …”
Hallifax also brought up Will Gilbert, performing as a “Nubian orator”, who “manipulated” a part of his trousers — again, he could not elaborate. And he referred to songs performed by Dan Leno that contained “an indecent reference to a Scottish kilt” and “a reference to a rabbit and a chicken making a match of it”.
For all Hallifax’s efforts, Huxley said he was up against two insurmountable barriers. Any double entendre in lyrics could be explained away as innocent, while the high-minded witness would be unwilling or unable to describe obscene gestures used in performance.
In his paper, Huxley wrote: “The knowingness of the audience was key to the ability of performers to both use this type of material and avoid the attempted constraints of censorship. Anybody criticising these songs could be accused of having ‘a dirty mind’, because they had to have made an at least unconscious decision to regard the lyrics as having their second, non-literal, meaning…”
“The newspaper reports of the trial show that the whole proceedings provided entertainment for onlookers that was, in many way, not too far from music-hall humour itself. They also clearly indicate that the blunt instrument of the law was no match for the subtleties hidden in the raucous performances of the halls.”
The magistrates duly found Garcia, Pymer and Jonghmans innocent of conspiracy. Stipendiary magistrate FJ Headlam said he “did not see how they could punish a person for engaging another person to sing a song which was not in itself indecent, and was afterwards turned by the artiste improperly.”
Nonetheless, he expressed his opinion that the “gag” — meaning Pryde’s routine or shtick — should not have been performed. After Shee promised that it would not be performed again, proceedings against the singer were also closed. Music-hall innuendo would continue to flourish unchecked.
Huxley said the treatment of Hallifax by lawyers, reporters and spectators alike challenged the widely-held notion of Victorians as mostly prudes. “You had an awful lot of these female performers — often singers but sometimes straightforward comedians — and they had a space to be entirely different, and challenge the boundaries of censorship. This was what offended parts of the middle classes. There were powerful sexual connotations to what they were doing and they were getting paid a lot of money for it.
“The music hall, in a strange way, was a space where successful performers could break free. There was an undercurrent in the working classes and parts of the middle classes that was very different to the idea of the strait-laced Victorian.”
He said the detailed press coverage of the case provided “unparalleled evidence about the attitude of the authorities to specific performances, the nature of censorship and definitions of obscenity at this time.”
David Huxley is co-author, with David James, of The Red Letter at the Music Hall: Reviews from 1902-1914 — Palgrave Studies in Comedy, 2022.