It’s a little short of this blog’s first birthday, but as we’re currently closed for work on our flooring, I thought I’d have a wander through the posts. I have learnt a lot about blogging on the job, and I suspect the earlier posts won’t stand up to much scrutiny. However, I’m going to concentrate on the images I’ve used instead. Perhaps you missed some? Or you’d like to read the post they come from again? I’ll make sure to include all the links, though it would be easy enough to flick back through the archive.
June 2017 Souvenirs
This post was the first one where I really started to explore what was in front of me. I discovered fascinating pieces of information about both items featured.
Song sheets contain masses of information beyond just their musical content. Social commentary, religious, political themes, and yes, matters related to fashion. Three songs from the nineteenth century caught my eye as I was flicking through our collection, looking for inspiration. As we’ll discover, they also give us information about the performers who brought the songs to life.
Burlington Bertie – words and music by Harry B. Norris (publ. 1900)
The first thing you notice is that the men’s clothes are being worn by a woman, Vesta Tilley. Born in Worcester, she was one of the most famous male impersonators of the music hall era. She started performing on the stage when she was still a child, most of the time in male clothes. She’s reported as saying: I felt that I could express myself better if I were dressed as a boy.
Despite spending a lot of my life online, I still look forward at this time of year to getting Christmas cards through the post. It’s hard to make a display of e-cards and decorative emails – only the real, physical thing will do for me. In this post, I’ll be looking at one of our Victorian songs about the postman, and then sampling some of the Victorian Christmas cards which are part of the collections here in Birmingham.
Wrighton: The Postman’s Knock (publ. 1855)
The first thing that strikes me, is how smart he looks. He could be any city clerk in his waistcoat and top hat, apart from his red coat. The rest of the front cover is black and white with a single tint, but the all-important coat is proudly displayed in all its bright red glory. He must have really stood out in the crowd.
In 1839, the imposition of a uniform penny charge for sending post led to greater usage, which then also led to the first pillar boxes in the 1850s. Later in the century, London residents could expect several collections and deliveries a day, almost as good as email …
An early Victorian pillar box in Warwick
Original penny post charges
The song is dedicated to Rowland Hill , the man usually credited with the reform of the postal system into something we’d recognise today. He allowed pre-payment by the sender (rather than payment on delivery) through what became adhesive postage stamps. As you’d expect with a music hall song, it is hardly profound or informative, but it does give an idea of how quickly the postman had become part of the everyday landscape in the capital, at least.
An official at the Post Office, Henry Cole, was responsible for starting the fashion for sending Christmas cards . It was partly a publicity ploy to get more people to use the new one penny postal service. It was successful – from the 1860s onwards, it gradually became a significant part of the British Christmas traditions.
Here at the Library of Birmingham, we have a large number of these cards in our collections. I shall be looking at just a few of them, selected from an online gallery we host.
Every good wish for your Christmas
I love this one – it is so bizarre, yet still appealing. What have four booted toads (frogs?), carrying pink umbrellas, got to do with Christmas? It reminds me of those very odd Victorian installations with duelling stuffed animals.
A merry Christmas
This is a cut-out of a fan attached to a card. I love the main part of the fan – so pretty – but the cat border, not so much. I’m not a great cat fan. Again there’s none of the imagery we normally associate with commercial Christmas cards.
The merry dance when dinner is done
This very pretty card is one of a series by the famous children’s illustrator Kate Greenaway . There’s such a wonderful sense of movement and joy. And the colours are lovely – vibrant and rich, without being loud or brash.
Farewell heat, and welcome frost!
This final card, with its quote from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, is perhaps more what we’d expect from a Christmas card. A snowy scene with plenty going on, full of people (though no females). It’s a skating rink, whether natural or manufactured. The man in the green overcoat has the unenviable task of sweeping the snow off, so keeping the surface clean for the skaters. He partially obscures two people in the process of falling over.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this post. Merry Christmas to one and all.
In the UK, what used to be called ‘Guy Fawkes Night’ and now more usually referred to as ‘Bonfire Night’ tends to be overshadowed these days by Halloween. If it is commemorated, it is usually billed as nothing more than an excuse to have a bonfire, some fun, and fireworks.
Just as well, really. Given that the story of Guido Fawkes and his fellow conspirators has its origins in religious intolerance, persecution, sedition, and a conspiracy to overthrow the Crown, it’s never seemed a good choice for a named ‘holiday’ in the British calendar. The persecution of anyone solely on the grounds of their religion has very uncomfortable resonances in today’s world. As has the attempt at a forced removal of a country’s head of state, or compromising the workings of democracy.
However, what I’m going to look at was published in the middle of the nineteenth century, when the social and political landscape was rather different. Although, by then, the situation for Catholics was finally starting to improve, after several centuries of either persecution, or being pushed to the margins of society. Catholic emancipation was enshrined in law in 1829, and here, in Birmingham, St. Chad’s Cathedral was the first Roman Catholic cathedral to be built in England since the Reformation, when it was completed in 1841.
Guy Fawkes – Sam Cowell’s Comic Songs (publ. ca. 1850)
I’ve left it as a rather larger illustration than usual, because there is just so much going on. It is a front cover that not only advertises the song within, but also alerts you, the buyer, to everything else in the same series that you might be persuaded to buy. And at the top, is a portrait of the song’s composer and singer. Almost like a trademark or a logo. I’ll look more closely at various elements as I go.
Sam Cowell (1820-1865) was a very famous singer and actor who spent most of his time performing in the early music hall and its forerunners. Obviously, his image on the title page is there to remind the buyer that the sheet contains one of his songs. It also serves as stamp of approval so that the buyer knew they were getting something good, something worth the three pence asking price. It is a promotional tool which is still very much in use today, and which is a powerful recommendation to any prospective buyer. Perhaps it also reminded the buyer to keep on going to hear Cowell singing live in the Song and Supper Rooms which preceded music halls, or indeed in the music halls themselves.
Alonzo the Brave
This is one of the promotional sketches which crowd around the outside of the main illustration. Alonzo the brave and fair Imogine is a Georgian gothic poem by Matthew ‘Monk’ Lewis. I imagine that Cowell would have vamped up the horror elements, making something more comedic out of the poem, perhaps. That doesn’t offend my sensibilities particularly, but the next item does a little more …
Another of Cowell’s stage acts was apparently to take part in a burlesque version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. This form of entertainment was quite common in Victorian Britain – taking ‘serious’ plays or operas, and making parodies of them. Sending them up, essentially, poking fun at things and people which mainstream Victorian society regarded as sacrosanct.
The central illustration brings to mind a pantomime, with Guy Fawkes the villain of the piece being apprehended by a distinctly Victorian-looking officer of the state. The sword hanging off his belt clashes with the nineteenth-century whiskers. The tone of the piece is set by the sub-title: a no-Popery squib.
The use of the word ‘squib’ is quite clever, referring as it does to both a small, unspectacular firework, and a piece of satirical writing. The first line of the lyrics might use the words ‘doleful tragedy’, but the tone of musical writing isn’t – a bright, jaunty rhythm in F major. It’s not hard to imagine this on a stage of some kind, with Cowell in the centre, and a pianist off to the side. He tells the tale with all sorts of asides, jokes, and contemporary references to things like gas lighting, and people such as Daniel Whittle Harvey , the first Commissioner of the City of London Police.
There’s been a lot written and said about World War 1 recently because of the various centenary commemorations, but very little has focussed on the music. By this, I mean popular songs and piano music, not the well-known works by Elgar, Butterworth and others. From the examples we have in our collection, there was no room for doubt about the progress of the war at all in the minds of the composers and publishers. The outcome was certain – it was just a matter of time. Relentlessly upbeat would be a good description of a lot of them and the patriotism was applied by the bucket load.
I’m going to spend most of this blog looking at one sheet with particular Birmingham connections but, as I was looking for it, I came across this, a good example of a music hall song published in 1914.
God bless my soldier Daddy
Although it’s written as a girl talking to her mother, to me, it immediately suggests a male music hall performer. I can just hear him milking the pathos of the chorus:
God bless my soldier Daddy, To war he had to go, Protect him from all danger, Because I love him so, Take care of him when fighting, Don’t let me pray in vain, God bless my soldier Daddy … And bring him safe home again.
The next song sheet is a much more home-grown affair, and also very different in its tone and purpose.
Britannia’s Glorious Flag
Throughout the war, those who remained at home were encouraged to raise money either for the general war effort or for the soldiers at the front. This sheet was the project of two people called Brookes (presumably related) from Birmingham – one composed the music and the other wrote the words. Their objective was to raise money for their named causes:
As The AUTHOR was also the publisher ie a private individual, it was presumably only meant for local distribution and sale. Certainly, there are no other obvious library copies held elsewhere. I’m curious to know how many copies were printed and sold – you’d have to sell a large number to make any significant contribution. Ten percent of the profits on the 6d selling price wasn’t so very much.
I suspect that the printer the Brookes used wasn’t a regular printer of sheet music – the music engraving is decidedly amateur at times:
but again, as private individuals, they wouldn’t have had access to the engravers used by the big London publishing houses. Nor would they have wanted to spend a large amount of money getting it printed if the principal object was to raise money.
The song text is very patriotic (as you’d expect) but interestingly, it isn’t particularly anti-German. In fact, apart from a couple of mentions of the Kaiser and some commentary in the first verse, it concentrates entirely on the people caught up in the war effort, both those fighting and those at home. Here’s a sample:
“England’s in danger” was the cry: a million men replied – “We’ll rally round the good old flag” in life, in death, in pride: Our watchdogs on the sea alert, their eyes turned to the foe, Our airmen in the skies above, our submariners below …
I’ll close with their dedication – it shows the Brookes’ serious intent compared with the first song I looked at.
The Library of Birmingham has extensive music collections. Both printed and audio. One of the least known is our historical collection of song sheets. We have thousands and thousands of them, dating from the start of the C18 through to the 1960s. The main problem in featuring this collection is deciding which individual sheets to look at.
I’ve chosen a couple to look that which have local connections. They’re both from the nineteenth century and have pictorial covers which are wonderful and amusing to look at.
Simon Squeers – the undertaker’s man (publ. 1878)
Music: Vincent Davies Words: John Cooke Jnr
If you’d like, you can see the words of the complete song here . The undertaker is lamenting his lot. In taking on his profession, he finds that he suddenly becomes much less attractive to the opposite sex.
I have to wear a suit of black, upon this noble frame, On Sundays as on other days, my clothes are just the same; The girls all laugh and titter as they see me passing by, And say to one another, Oh! My! Isn’t he a guy!
The song is clearly one for the music hall. Sometimes, the covers of music hall songs sheets show the actual performers in costume – it’s not obvious from this cover whether that’s the case. Possibly not, as the performers enjoyed having their names in print as much as the composers and lyricists. Though perhaps his face was so distinctive, he didn’t need his name?
The most obvious local connection is the publisher – listed as H. Beresford of 99 New Street. Whether they had any particular reason for publishing this song, is not known. What is worth noting is the cost of the sheet – four shillings. This was a substantial proportion of the weekly wage for the working poor in late Victorian times, so it was likely that it was bought only by the middle classes.
The Bombardment of Alexandria (publ. 1882)
Music: Harry Fitter Ball Words: Tom Browne
It was quite common for songs or other music to be composed to commemorate British military campaigns abroad – the title of this is self-explanatory to a degree. For more information see this article . What is striking and funny about this, is the illustrator’s attempt to do Egyptian costume. The head wear looks relatively convincing, but, by the time you get to the footwear, the lace-up boots are entirely Victorian.
The bright and highly-coloured front cover must have made it stand out when people were browsing. Interestingly enough, all the colour didn’t increase the price. It too is four shillings.
I can’t find any obvious information about the singer or composer which is a pity, but not uncommon. However, one of the venues listed caught my eye – the Royal Aquarium . Aquarium? The mind boggles.
This place of entertainment in Westminster was designed to be a competitor to the Crystal Palace. And, yes, there were thirteen large tanks designed to take living sea creatures. Which they never did, something that made it a source of ridicule. The separate theatre hosted music hall acts amongst other things. It was demolished in the early 1900s to make way for the Central Methodist Hall
Again, the publisher is Birmingham-based, but the address is missing because of the damage to the sheet. Loose music sheets like these are vulnerable to wear and tear, and were never meant to be long-term possessions. This is probably the main reason why there are apparently no other libraries or collections which hold this particular song.
I’ll be back soon with another selection of songs from the archives.