Victorian era


The Golden Age of Pantomime

Jeffrey Richards (see References, below) writes that “By the 1970s, the nature of pantomime waspanto1 changing, with the role of the harlequinade increasingly curtailed, prose replacing the rhyming couplets and most significantly the interjection into the stories of music hall comedians and their acts.”

This caused consternation and dismay among panto purists, who particularly objected to the appearance of vulgar music hall personages on the boards of their holy Royal Theatres (or it so sounds to me.) Happily for thousands of theater-goers, their cries were ignored, especially after the enterprising Augustus ‘Gus’ Harris Junior took over Drury Lane in 1979.

That controversy is dead and gone. The pro-music hall faction won, but the fairies hung on strong.

Yes, but how much per fairy?

Pantos weren’t just spectacles from the audience’s perspective, they were spectacularly expensive. My sources don’t lay out the money matters in the fashion best suited to blogging and writing novels, alas, and I’m not going to do that much work either, but here are some numbers to put things in perspective.

First, you’ll want to know what ordinary folks earned. These figures are from the Encyclopedia of Victorian London. A bank clerk, one of the legion of top-hatted semi-gents who thickly populate novels from Dickens to Trollope, made £20 to £50 per annum at aged 18, rising 5-10% per year. A laundry woman earned 2s. 6dto 2s. 8d. per day. 12p = 1s, 20s = 1 pound. A footman made £20 to £40 per annum; same as a clerk, but with a shorter career ladder and the clerk had higher status. A Stockbrokers clerk earned £80 to £100 at aged 18; typically with an annual rise of £20 and a present of from £10 to £15 at Christmas.

OK, on to the theater. Ellen Terry, one of the immortal actresses, earned £200/week. A leading comedy actress could earn £20-£40/week; the prima donna in an opera bouffe £40-£50/week; and a popular soubrette / burlesque actress could earn £10-£20/week. Not bad, especially considering that women couldn’t get jobs as clerks.

Male & female supernumeraries (spear-carriers, villagers, butterflies) were paid between 1s 6d & 2s a night in first-rate theaters The average annual income of performers lucky enough to be employed 42 weeks / year was likely to be only £105, or £2/week. That’s before job-related expenses, which bring it down to £70.

Average yearly expenses for actor earning £67 10s:
lodgings                                   £13      0s
washing                                        5     4
wardrobe                                    10     0
Newspapers & tobacco                5     0
Total                                          £33    4s

Actresses might save on tobacco, but have to spend more on clothes. For comparison, a school mistress had to spend £10-£16 on clothes, out of a salary of £100-£130. A clerk paid £227, spent £41; a journalist paid £338, spent £42. Educational requirement for all of these was similar.

Of seas and ships

Set design model for Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello, created for a Paris production in 1895

Wages were not the big expense in a pantomime, although they did hire hundreds of supers to march around in fancy dress. The big money went to sets and costumes. When Eliza Vestris and her husband Charles James Mathews were obliged to surrender Covent Garden with a £30,000 debt, they forfeited £14,000 in scenery, wardrobe, and properties. This was in 1841! 

Scenery paintings were made by noted artists like William Roxby Beverly and Henry Emden. Their names would be listed in the programmes. Costume designers would actually go to the Victoria & Albert museum to sketch historical costumes, to ensure perfection. Victorians wanted realistic sets: gorgeous paintings of shipwrecks or an undersea world or enchanted island.

Richards reports that in the 1875-6 production of Dick Whittington and His Cat, there were two major transformation scenes (when we’re transported by fairy magic from one world to another.) Dick and the cat are, for reasons opaque to me, on a voyage to Zanzibar. “As The Era (2 January 1876) put it, the ship suddenly disappeared [probably pulled down through a long slot in the stage floor]:

‘leaving behind the rigging, which is covered with sea-weed, and up which swarm dusky urchins [children, supernumeraries, 1s/night] whose head adornments send forth a dazzling light [portable electric batteries carried by each child, maybe]. Obedient to (the Fairy Bluebell’s) summons nymphs and mermaids rise from their emerald beds and coral banks [on trap doors], and there takes place a grand Ballet of Marine Wonders, reflecting credit on the taste and ingenuity of Mr. John Cormack [the choreographer, who also played Harlequin.]”

Oh, yeah.

Roll over, Mother Goose

You’re probably still thinking, “Wait. Zanzibar?” Me too. The fairy tales portrayed in Victorian Christmas pantos seem to have borne only a slender relation to the original stories we learned in our childhoods. They make Disney movies look like historically accurate docu-dramas! I can’t explain the whys or wherefores, apart from the combination of poetic license with the need to recoup the tens of thousands of pounds lavished on each production. So I’ll just give you a random sampling from Richards’ book.

Jack and the Beanstalk

From the Victoria & Albert Museum. A wonderful article you should go read!

I chose this one to be the panto my characters are producing. I liked the poster, mainly. I also liked the part about the heroes and heroines from Shakespeare’s plays who have been imprisoned by the Giant and descend from Cloudland in a grand procession after Jack liberates them. No — I didn’t remember that from the version I heard, either.

Twenty-one of the bard’s great plays were represented. Each couple paused to perform a short scene, then moved on down the staircase. This stair was made of giant books, because it originated in the Giant’s Library. I remember the Giant as being kind of stupid, but hey — in the privacy of his library, who would know what he read?

The Shakespeares were followed by another procession of the gods and goddesses from Olympus, along with other ancient luminaries. “The mythical figures of the Greek poets stand before us in classical garb, and in costumes in which the utmost artistic beauty has been displayed.” I guess the Giant got them too.

Note that Jack was played by a woman, daring to bare her legs before the world. Mother Trott was played by a man, preferably a large fat comedian with a nice deep voice.

We would need for them to leap into action and start blasting each other with godly fire or something. Waaay too static for 21st century tastes! But spectacle is easy for us.


The illustration, also taken from the excellent article at V&A without permission*  is of a production of Cinderella at Drury Lane in 1875, as reported in the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News. I have no idea how this battle scene relates to the standard Cinderella story but it sure as heck looks dramatic! 

Cinderella at Drury Lane, 1875
Cinderella at Drury Lane, 1875

Richards shares a snippet from The Era (1 Jan. 1865) about an earlier Covent Garden production of Cinderella  (p.258):

“The crowning glories are, as usual, achieved by the union of scenic and ballet attractions. To begin with the ballet scene par excellence, nothing more exquisitely delicate and beautiful has ever been imagined than the Butterfly Haunt, painted by Mr. T. Grieve. A calm and unruffled lake, finishing in flowery banks, occupies the breadth of the stage. From the surface rises an island, covered with delicate foliage, and showing the cliffs at the back. The enormous rock is pierced by two arched caverns, while to the left a distant and higher lake is seen, partly surrounded by mountains, and having a waterfall leaping down to the plain beneath. The wings of this lovely scene are formed by flowers and overhanging trees.”

I’m guessing a hundred children dressed as butterflies emerged from one of those caves or sprang up from beneath some three-dimensional papier-mache flowers. 

*I downloaded the 1875 volumes of Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, but couldn’t find this picture. Sigh. Here’s another for your delight, however.

Scenes from "Spectresheim" at the Alhambra Theatre, 1875
Scenes from “Spectresheim” at the Alhambra Theatre, 1875

Onward, into the Now

We don’t have Christmas pantos in Texas. Seems like a sad omission in our cultural options, which are many. But you can see them in London — a whole bunch of them — from early December to beanstalk2mid-January. Absolutely the very same stories that the Victorians enjoyed, but with fewer battles with insects, I’ll bet: Dick Whittington, Cinderella, Robin Hood, Jack & the Beanstalk…. Make your selections from the Big Panto Guide, which looks pretty comprehensive. 

Or maybe you just want your own beanstalk, 14 meters (45 feet) tall. You can order one and have it delivered. 45 feet is 15 feet over my local building code, so I can’t have one. Just as well. The shipping costs from England would be murder. But what a statement, eh? Order it from the Twins FX, stage effects creators extraordinaire.


Booth, Michael R. 1981. Victorian Spectacular Theatre, 1850-1910. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Richards, Jeffrey. 2015. The Golden Age of Pantomime: Slapstick, Spectacle, and Subversion in Victorian England. London: I.B. Tauris.

Pix & notes: South Kensington

My Professor and Mrs. Moriarty live in an end terrace in South Kensington, on a street I invented: Bellenden Crescent. It’s roughly in the location of the real world Pelham Crescent. 


I spent a lot of time walking around in that neighborhood on my last trip to London, partly because I got a little lost, but also because I get into these moods where I can’t stop walking. One more block, I say to myself; I’ll just walk up to that corner and then I’ll stop for a coffee. But no, I walk on by. I don’t know what that’s about.


A very Victorian view, if you mentally change the cars to horse-drawn cabs.

I tend to think of the whole stretch between Hyde Park and the Thames as South Kensington, but that’s not really right. London is more finely-grained than that. Google Maps says “South Kensington is an affluent district of West London in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. It is the most expensive district in London and one of the most expensive districts in the world.” No wonder it’s so clean and quiet! Rich people don’t hang out in public.

It looks like I cheerfully absorb Chelsea into my notion of Kensington. There’s no apparent seam; it’s not like you cross a street and find yourself in a less deliriously affluent neighborhood. I don’t have characters in Chelsea or much interest in the place, apart from the delightful Chelsea Physic Garden which I’ve blogged about and which you must try to visit if you ever can.

Looks like the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea runs from the Chelsea Physic Garden on the Thames in the southeast, north to Hyde Park and the big museum area, on along the south side of the park and then loop up to snag Notting Hill and then straight back down to the river roughly along the A3220.

Begin at the beginning

Arden farm
Affluent Kensington cow

British History Online tells us “In Doomsday-book this place is called Chenisitun; in other ancient records, Kenesitune and Kensintune. Chenesi was a proper name; a person of that name held the manor of Huish in Somersetshire, in the reign of Edward the Confessor.”

Back in William the Conqueror’s day, the manor of Kensington was taxed at 10 hides. “on the demesnes are four ploughs, the villans have five, and might employ six. There are 12 villans, holding each a virgate, and six who hold three virgates jointly. The priest has half a virgate, and there are seven slaves; meadow equal to two plough-lands; pasture for the cattle of the town; pannage for 200 hogs, and three acres of vineyards”

This was still farmland in Francis Bacon’s time. With the expansion of titled courtiers in the London metro area under James I, a prestige house was built in 1607 by the father-in-law of Henry Rich, Earl of Holland. Baron Rich got himself earlified in 1624, by Charles I, then. He’s the son of Bacon’s contemporaries, Penelope Rich (sister of the Earl of Essex) and Robert Rich, 1st Earl of Warwick.

Holland House, from British History Online


Building booms

Although less than half of the Kensington area was under cultivation by 1840s, it was still mostly green: parks and paddocks and that sort of thing. But by mid-century, the Victorian building boom had spread into that district and the landscape changed rapidly. “Despite a severe hiccup following a financial crisis in April 1847, the transformation of a rural parish into a city suburb was well under way before the siting of the Great Exhibition of 1851 in Hyde Park…” (British History Online.)

“…throughout the years 1862–78 over 200 new buildings (the vast majority of them dwelling houses) were erected each year in southern Kensington…”

Professor Moriarty’s Bellenden Crescent
Mark Twain lived here 1896-7


One of the major attractions of the area from the mid-Victorian period are the amazing enormous museums and exhibition halls. My Prof. Moriarty and Angelina meet at the International Exhibition Hall here in Moriarty Meets His Match. That’s gone, but the Victoria & Albert Museum, a place you can never get tired of, was established in Exhibition Road in 1852. Enormous, endlessly fascinating, and with possibly the most amazing museum cafeteria in the world. When you go there, have lunch!


Who lived here, back in the day?

I’ve mentioned London’s Blue Plaques before, right? They’re granted by English Heritage to identify buildings of note, meaning buildings in which a notable person spent some time. Kensington and Chelsea are thick with them, since the borough was favored by the creative class: theater people, like my Angelina Moriarty; scientists who might have worked at one of the big museums; writers galore.

Go here to see the full list of blue plaques for the Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.

I choose neighborhoods – and sometimes houses – for my Victorian characters from this list. They tend to be a bit far from the sidewalk to photograph well, alas. Not all the plaques you see in London are official English Heritage blue plaques, although I’ve never seen one that might qualify as a form of sedate fake news. Many entities issue plaques, most notably borough governments.

Sir Nigel Playfair wrote plays you’ve never heard of. Great name, though.