Academic journal article Theatre Notebook

The Licensing of the Birmingham Music Halls

Academic journal article Theatre Notebook

The Licensing of the Birmingham Music Halls

Article excerpt

By the early 1860s Birmingham was firmly established in the vanguard of towns lobbying the Home Secretary for magistrates to be empowered to grant or refuse licence applications for the performing of music or dancing in public houses, and to treat any publican conducting such activities in his establishment who was not in possession of a valid music licence as being in breach of the law. Nationally, the temperance movement had gained in strength and influence following the formation in 1853 of the United Kingdom Alliance for the Suppression of the Traffic in All Intoxicating Liquors. The Alliance sought to further its cause not through conversion or persuasion of the wayward, but by direct state intervention. Birmingham, with its longstanding temperance tradition, was well placed to take the initiative, and had the enthusiastic support of the rising star in the local political firmament, Joseph Chamberlain. Music-licensing powers were indeed secured by the town's magistracy in 1861 through the Birmingham Improvement Act. Applicants were required to comply with a number of stringent conditions, and, in practice, magistrates were allowed to make a strict interpretation of those requirements. The coming into operation of such restrictive powers represented a victory for the temperance lobby, but what that lobby really sought was not merely the restriction of music and drinking establishments, but their elimination. Allied to it were elements which might not share its teetotal views, but were convinced of the moral dangers of mixing drinking with music and dancing. In sum, and to enter into the idiom in which they often expressed themselves, objectors contended that the proprietors of the gin palaces would resort to the meretricious and seductive charms of music to lure the unwary, who would then fall easy prey to the demon drink and all the moral perils that lurked within the portals of their establishments (1)

In the vanguard of such opposition was the Reverend Doctor John Cale Miller, Rector of St. Martin's since 1846. While Dr. Miller shared many of the principles of his Evangelical brethren, he also believed that the stability and tranquillity of the social order, which he accepted as hierarchical, would be best served by promoting the moral elevation of the labouring classes. He also favoured the provision of opportunities and facilities for healthy and wholesome recreation. These objectives he sought to further, principally through two organizations with which he was actively involved, the St. Martin's Working Men's Association, and the Public Recreation Society. (2) Miller was the most prominent member of a delegation opposed to the granting of licenses presenting memorials at the Public Office in Birmingham on 19 September 1861. His representations to the licensing magistrates embraced his personal philosophy, and were duly reported in the local press.

Apart from the higher religious reasons that pressed particularly upon the clergy, [the feeling among the delegates was that the gin palaces] were the seed plots of crime in the town, and so long as the scenes which now took place within their walls continued, all the efforts they could make to stem the torrent of crime were rendered to a great extent unavailing:

He ... had no wish nor intention in what he was doing to deprive the working classes of what might be termed as innocent recreation. They were no enemies to the recreation of the working classes; but if by the recreation of the working classes was meant facilities to get drunk they were enemies to that. (Aris's Birmingham Gazette, 21 Sept. 1861: 6)

Almost a year later, it was reported that, "Mr. Day will make application for a music license at the annual licensing sessions on Friday next, and if the application is successful, the hall will be opened on Wednesday, September 17th" (Aris's Birmingham Gazette, 23 Aug. 1862: 6). Day's determination to have music at his lavishly reconstructed hall had been no secret, hence the flood of correspondence--mainly condemnatory--which had already begun to appear in the columns of both the Gazette and the Post on the whole question of music licences and the nature of the "concert-room amusements" with which they were linked. …

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