'Aint You Coming to Our Concert Tonight?': The Court and Alley Concerts of Late- Victorian Britain
Sullivan, Jill A., Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film
In April 1897, the Liverpool Mercury printed a letter from a Mr H. Lee Jones:
Gentlemen, - I hope I am correct in concluding that but few amongst us will question the inspirational force of good- class music, of whatever description. None again, who have visited the general dismal courts and alleys of this or any other city will question that the inhabitants of them need as much inspiration as they can obtain. I venture therefore, to submit a plan whereby, I imagine, our sister and brother court and alley dwellers may be inspired and lifted a little beyond and above their surroundings, as least for a short while . . . I emphatically believe - in fact I know - that the people of our courts and alleys are, as a rule, sadly in need of as much cheer and buoying up as can be devised to enable them to face their anything but encouraging life reality.1
Jones's philanthropic appeal proved successful. During the summer of 1897 a series of concerts by amateur performers were given in some of the poorest locations of Liverpool, with the concept being quickly adopted by other urban centres. By 1900 summer seasons of 'Court and Alley Concerts' had become a regular feature in Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Leicester, Leeds, London, Oxford, Bolton, York and Bristol, and reports and letters about the meetings and concerts of the organising societies featured in the national and regional press. Those pieces raise the historiographical issue of the reportage of performance and reception, and in this paper I will examine the phenomena of the Court and Alley Concert as an alternative performance space conditioned by philanthropy, its particular urban environment and local audience.
In the nineteenth century, there was an overarching philanthropic belief in the moral influence of good quality music 'because of its . . . supposed ability to civilise and humanise'.2 This philosophy underpinned the provision of public concerts, which would, it was hoped, provide both a kind of 'social cement' and distract the poorer classes from what were perceived as the related evils of alcohol and the sort of music provided in public houses and music halls.3 By midcentury, 'People's Concerts' had become established in the larger urban centres of England.4 Staged in formal venues, these concerts were open, for a small charge, to all classes, the repertoires including opera, 'glees, ballads and respectable comic songs' as well as orchestral music if the venue was large enough. The auditoria demarcations of the concerts - similar to those in the legitimate theatres - and the presence of the middle- classes were intended to both instil an air of decorum and unite classes in a mutual appreciation of good music.5 Crucially, those attempts at social cohesion were rooted in an ideology of social hierarchy. The concerts 'provid[ed] a "correct" environment' in which '[m]usic per se was a force for the good of the lower orders, provided it was heard in the presence of their social superiors and "in an atmosphere of moral purity suitable to the proper enjoyment of such a gift."'6 The concerts proved very successful and were indeed attended by members of the working- classes. However, as Dave Russell notes, there remained many who were excluded by the imposition of even a small charge.7 Even free open- air concerts in urban parks and gardens lacked audiences from the very poorest class.8 As a report in the Glasgow Herald noted, there were those
who do not avail themselves of the music provided in our public parks. These poorer brethren of ours, whose lives are one dreary and monotonous round, scarcely ever leave their own courts and immediate surroundings in the evenings.9
By the 1890s regional philanthropists were seeking a different approach and instead of trying to encourage the poor to attend more formalised music events, organisers drew on the appeal of the itinerant street performer, taking concert parties into the slums to perform to the poor in their own environment. …