The Story of Waterloo #2: The Canterbury Music Hall

This piece about the Canterbury Music Hall was originally written for the Lambeth North Music Hall Song and Supper Evening in 2015 by Mark Ormerod and local resident Dolly Thompson.

The Canterbury Music Hall. Lithograph after drawing by S. Field

The music hall originated from public houses and taverns in the mid-19th century. Many had what were called “singing rooms” in which patrons would be called upon to sing a ballad or comedy song. A chairman was appointed by the customers to invite patrons on to the stage. The best singers were paid as a rule in food and drink.

Later in the 19th century many of the larger pubs had purpose built rooms erected, which were in fact the beginning of the music hall. The main entertainers were now usually professionals. The rapid development of this entertainment culminated in the building of grand music halls bigger than the pubs they originated from.

The Canterbury Music Hall, probably the most visited in our area of Lambeth, was situated in Carlisle Lane, just past the post office in Westminster Bridge Road. The building was completed in 1854 by Charles Morton and was known as the first music hall, lit by gas, with an open platform stage with rows of dining tables serving food and drink. The chairman sat below stage with his gavel.

Remains of the Canterbury Music Hall in Westminster Bridge Road, Lambeth

after wartime damage caused by bombs in 1942 by Geoffrey Fletcher

The rapid decline of music halls was attributed to the popularity of the films and the appearance of lavish super cinemas. A description of the new hall is given in J. E. Richie’s contemporary survey of the capital’s amusements, The Night Side of London:

“A well-lighted entrance attached to a public house indicates that we have reached our destination. We proceed up a few stairs lined with handsome engravings, to a bar, where we pay sixpence if we take a seat in the body of the hall, and ninepence if we ascend into the gallery. We make our way leisurely along the floor of the hall, which is well lighted, and capable of holding 1,500 people. A balcony extends round the room in the form of a horse-shoe. At the opposite end to that at which we enter is a platform, on which are placed a grand piano and a harmonium on which the performers play in the intervals when the previous singers have left the stage. The chairman sits just beneath them. It is dull work for him, but there he must sit drinking and smoking cigars from seven to twelve o’clock. The room is crowded, and almost every gentleman has a pipe or cigar in his mouth. Evidently the majority present are respectable mechanics or small tradesmen with their wives and daughters and sweethearts. Now and then you see a midshipman, or a few fast clerks and warehousemen. Everyone is smoking, and everyone has a glass before him; but the class that come here are economical and chiefly confine themselves to pipes and porter.”