In his London Labour and the London Poor, Henry Mayhew has left us a detailed picture of London street life in the mid nineteenth century. Here he vividly describes the Gallery audience at the Royal Coburg Theatre, In his day better known as "The Vic" and in our own day as the "Old Vic".
On a good attractive night, the rush of costers to the threepenny gallery of the Coburg (better known as "the Vic") is peculiar and almost awful. The long zig-zag staircase that leads to the pay box is crowded to suffocation at least an hour before the theatre is opened; but, on the occasion of a piece with a good murder in it, the crowd will frequently collect as early as three o'clock in the afternoon. Lads stand upon the broad wooden bannisters about 50 feet from the ground, and jump on each others' backs, or adopt any expedient they can think ofto obtain a good place.
The walls of the well-staircase having a remarkably fine echo, and the wooden floor of the steps serving as a sounding board, the shouting, whistling, and quarrelling of the impatient young costers is increased tenfold. If, as sometimes happens, a song with a chorus is started, the ears positively ache with the din, and when the chant has finished it seems as though a sudden silence had fallen on the people. To the centre of the road, and all round the door, the mob is in a ferment of excitement, and no sooner is the money-taker at his post than the most frightful rush takes place, every one heaving with his shoulder at the back of the person immediately in front of him. The girls shriek, men shout, and a nervous fear is felt lest the massive staircase should fall in with the weight of the throng, as it lately did with the most terrible results. If a hat tumbles from the top of the staircase, a hundred hands snatch at it as it descends. When it is caught a voice roars above the tumult, "All right, Bill, I've got it", for they all seem to know one another, "Keep us a pitch and I'll bring it."
To any one unaccustomed to be pressed flat it would be impossible to enter with the mob. To see the sight in the gallery it is better to wait until the first piece is over. The ham-sandwich men and pig-trotter women will give you notice when the time is come, for with the first clatter of the descending footsteps they commence their cries.
There are few grown-up men that go to the "Vic" gallery. The generality of the visitors are lads from about twelve to three-and-twenty, and though a few black-faced sweeps or whitey-brown dustmen may be among the throng, the gallery audience consists mainly of costermongers. Young girls, too, are very plentiful, only one-third of whom now take their babies, owing to the new regulation of charging half-price for infants. At the foot of the staircase stands a group of boys begging for the return checks, which they sell again for 11/2d. or 1d., according to the lateness of the hour.
At each step up the well-staircase the warmth and stench increase, until by the time one reaches the gallery doorway, a furnace-heat rushes out through the entrance that seems to force you backwards, whilst the odour positively prevents respiration. The mob on the landing, standing on tiptoe and closely wedged together, resists any civil attempt at gaining a glimpse of the stage, and yet a coster lad will rush up, elbow his way into the crowd, then jump up on to the shoulders of those before him, and suddenly disappear into the body of the gallery. The gallery at "the Vic" is one of the largest in London. It will hold from 1500 to 2000 people, and runs back to so great a distance, that the end of it is lost in shadow, excepting where the little gas-jets, against the wall, light up the two or three faces around them. When the gallery is well packed, it is usual to see piles of boys on each others shoulders at the back, while on the partition boards, dividing off the slips, lads will pitch themselves, despite the spikes.
As you look up the vast slanting mass of heads from the upper boxes, each one appears on the move. The huge black heap, dotted with faces, and spotted with white shirt sleeves, almost pains the eye to look at, and should a clapping of hands commence, the twinkling nearly blinds you. It is the fashion with the mob to take off their coats; and the cross-braces on the backs of some, and the bare shoulders peeping out of the ragged shirts of others, are the only variety to be found. The bonnets of the "ladies" are hung over the iron railing in front, their numbers nearly hiding the panels, and one of the amusements of the lads in the back seats consists in pitching orange peel or nutshells into them, a good aim being rewarded with a shout of laughter.
When the orchestra begins playing, before "the gods" have settled into their seats, it is impossible to hear a note of music. The puffed-out cheeks of the trumpeters, and the raised drumsticks tell you that the overture has commenced, but no tune is to be heard. An occasional burst of the full band being caught by gushes, as if a high wind were raging. Recognitions take place every moment, and "Bill Smith" is called to in a loud voice from one side, and a shout in answer from the other asks "What's up?" Or family secrets are revealed, and "Bob Triller" is asked where "Sal" is, and replies amid a roar of laughter, that she is "a-larning the pynanney."
By-and-by a youngster, who has come in late, jumps up over the shoulders at the door, and doubling himself into a ball, rolls down over the heads in front, leaving a trail of commotion for each one as he passes aims a blow at the fellow. Presently a fight is sure to begin, and then every one rises from his seat whistling and shouting; three or four pairs of arms fall to, the audience waving their hands till the moving mass seems like microscopic eels in paste. But the commotion ceases suddenly on the rising of the curtain, and then the cries of "Silence!" "Ord-a-a-r!" "Ord-a-a-r!" make more noise than ever.
The "Vic" gallery is not to be moved by touching sentiment. They prefer vigorous exercise to any emotional speech. "The Child of the Storm's" declaration that she would share her father's "death or imprisonment as her duty," had no effect at all, compared with the split in the hornpipe. The shrill whistling and brayvos that followed the tar's performance showed how highly it was relished, and one "god" went so far as to ask "how it was done." The comic actor kicking a dozen Polish peasants was encored, but the grand banquet of the Czar of all the Russias only produced merriment, and a request that he would "give them a bit" was made directly the Emperor took the willow-patterned plate in his hand. All affect- ing situations were sure to be interrupted by cries of "orda-a-r;" and the lady begging for her father's life was told to "speak up old gal;" though when the heroine of the "dummestic dreamer" (as they call it) told the general of all the Cossack forces "not to be a fool," the uproar of approbation grew greater than ever,, and when the lady turned up her swan's-down cuffs, and seizing four Russian soldiers shook them successively by the collar, then the enthusiasm knew no bounds, and the cries of "Bray-vo Vincent! Go it my tulip!" resounded from every throat.
Altogether the gallery audience do not seem to be of a gentle nature. One poor little lad shouted out in a crying tone, "that he couldn't see," and instantly a dozen voices demanded "that he should be thrown over." Whilst the pieces are going on, brown, flat bottles are frequently raised to the mouth, and between the acts a man with a tin can, glittering in the gas-light, goes round crying, "Port-a-a-a-r! who's for port-a-a-a-r." As the heat increased the faces grew bright red, every bonnet was taken off, and ladies could be seen wiping the perspiration from their cheeks with the play-bills.
No delay between the pieces will be allowed, and should the interval appear too long, some one will shout out, referring to the curtain, "Pull up that there winder blind!" or they will call to the orchestra, saying, "Now then you catgut-scrapers! Let's have a ha'purth of liveliness." Neither will they suffer a play to proceed until they have a good view of the stage, and "Higher the blue," is constantly shouted, when the sky is too low, or "Light up the moon," when the transparency is rather dim.
The dances and comic songs, between the pieces, are liked better than anything else. A highland fling is certain to be repeated, and a stamping of feet will accompany the tune, and a shrill whistling, keep time through the entire performance. But the grand hit of the evening is always when a song is sung to which the entire gallery can join in chorus. Then a deep silence prevails all through the stanzas. Should any burst in before his time, a shout of "orda-a-r" is raised, and the intruder put down by a thousand indignant cries. At the proper time, however, the throats of the mob burst forth in all their strength. The most deafening noise breaks out suddenly, while the cat-calls keep up the tune, and an imitation of a dozen Mr. Punches squeak out the words. Some actors at the minor theatres make a great point of this, and in the bill upon the night of my visit, under the title of "There's a good time coming, boys," there was printed, "assisted by the most numerous and effective chorus in the metropolis, " meaning the whole of the gallery. The singer himself started the mob, saying, "Now then, the Exeter Hall touch if you please gentlemen," and beat time with his hand, parodying M. Jullien with his baton. An "angcore" on such occasions is always demanded, and, despite a few murmurs of "change it to'Duck-legged Dick,'" invariably insisted on.
Note: The complete text of London Labour and the London Poor can be found on-line as part of the Perseus Project