Sunday, February 26, 2012

Marie Lloyd - English Music Hall Singer and Trade Unionist

Known as the Queen of the Music Halls, the comic singer Marie Lloyd (1870-1922) had strong trade union principles.

Marie's risky interpretations of the most innocent of lyrics led to frequent clashes with the guardians of morality. Her performances also articulated the disappointments of life, especially for working-class women.

Marie's first major success was "The Boy I Love is up in the Gallery", and she quickly became one of the most famous of English music hall singers.

Despite her own success she supported other performers she was a passionate trade unionist and was elected as the first president of the Music Hall Ladies Guild in 1906. In the following year, called a meeting to form an alliance with the Variety Artists' Federation, the National Association of Theatrical Employees and the Amalgamated Musicians Union.

This alliance called a music hall strike to resist management attempts to make artists who were lower down the bill do extra matinee performances for no extra payment during the famous Music hall war of 1907, It also tried to stop them making more money by performing at rival theatres.

As a top of the bill star, Marie was not directly affected by these worsening conditions, but her sense of solidarity with her fellow artists prompted her to fully support the strike.

"I will never go back upon the music hall stage until the wants of every musician and stagehand are satisfied," she declared.

She was on the picket line at the Euston Palace, where the strikebreakers included performing animals and singer Belle Elmore, who was later murdered by her husband Dr Crippen.

One of the pickets told Belle not to be a blackleg, but Marie, who had a poor opinion of Belle's talent, shouted: "Go on, let her work. She'll do the strike a lot more good by going on and singing than by stopping out! You go and work Belle!"

When Belle started singing, word got around that the far superior Marie Lloyd was singing for free on the picket line outside. The entire audience streamed out of the theatre.

Marie also played at a strike benefit concert organised by the union at the Scala Theatre in Charlotte Street.

Her evidence to the Board of Trade arbitration body convinced it to rule in favour of the strikers.

An active supporter of voting rights for women, Marie had a small part in a suffragist play at The Oxford on the corner of Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road in 1909. At one of its performances she smuggled in the militant suffragette Annie Kenney in her hamper through the police cordon so that she could make a speech on stage.

When the first-ever royal command performance was organised in 1912, Marie was excluded. It was assumed that this was punishment for her involvement in the strike five years earlier.

Unperturbed, she hired another theatre nearby on the same night for a rival performance, with placards proclaiming: "Every performance by Marie Lloyd is a command performance - by command of the British public."

The pub is within a few hundred yards from where she was born at 36 Provost Street and went to school on Bath Street.

Thousands attended her funeral and TS Eliot wrote that it was "her capacity for expressing the soul of the people that made Marie Lloyd unique."

"Our demands are just and we must stand together as a profession" - Marie Lloyd

Morning Star

Strike of the month: Marie Lloyd and the music hall strike of 1907

Marie Lloyd is best remembered today as the doyenne of music hall entertainers. Her command of double-entendre and ability to give a risqué sexual charge to the most innocent of lyrics made her a huge star, not just in her native London, but around the UK and beyond.

But the woman who brought the house down with the likes of “I sits among the cabbages and peas...” never abandoned her East End roots, and when music hall performers in the capital went on strike in 1907, Marie Lloyd, star of the Edwardian stage, was there at their side.

Until the turn of the century, most music hall entertainers had enjoyed relatively flexible working arrangements with music hall owners. By the Edwardian era, however, terms and conditions were increasingly formal, preventing entertainers from working at other local theatres, for example.

The 1907 dispute began when in addition to the single matinée (afternoon) performance included in most performers’ contracts, music hall owners began to demand additional shows – adding up to four matinées a week to the workload for no extra money in some cases.

The Variety Artistes Federation, established the previous year and with a membership of nearly 4,000 performers, was having none of it. On 22 January, performers, musicians and stagehands at the Holborn Empire walked out on strike.

The dispute would spread to 22 London variety theatres, and saw 2,000 of the Variety Artistes Federation’s membership on picket lines at one time or another.
The dispute was backed by a number of leading performers, including Arthur Roberts, Gus Elen and Marie Lloyd – as well as by the stars of the Edwardian labour movement, among them Ben Tillett and Keir Hardy.

Lloyd explained her support:

"We (the stars) can dictate our own terms. We are fighting not for ourselves, but for the poorer members of the profession, earning thirty shillings to £3 a week. For this they have to do double turns, and now matinées have been added as well. These poor things have been compelled to submit to unfair terms of employment, and I mean to back up the federation in whatever steps are taken."
For two weeks, the union ran a masterly publicity campaign, distributing leaflets declaring a “music hall war” and hiring the Scala Theatre to put on a fund-raising show.

When the music hall owners responded by engaging lesser known acts and bringing others out of retirement, the union picketed theatres. On one occasion, Lloyd recognised one of those trying to enter and shouted, "Let her through girls, she'll close the music-hall faster than we can."

In due course, the dispute was referred to arbitration – the suggestion apparently coming from the author Somerset Maugham – and Sir George Askwith, concilation officer at the Board of Trade, was appointed to try to find a resolution.

After 23 formal meetings and numerous less formal ones, the resulting settlement produced a national code, a model contract and a procedure for settling disputes. In effect, the performers won more money, plus a guaranteed minimum wage and maximum working week for musicians.

Although the strike ended well, the music hall owners exacted a sour little revenge on Marie Lloyd. Five years later, when the first music hall royal command performance for the music hall was held, vengeful managers excluded the greatest star of the music halls from their line-up.

Further information
Theatre History Online – including leaflets and posters from the strike

Mark Crail - Tribune