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Should poor children be allowed to go to the pantomime?


Post by Jenny Hughes

This question was debated by the Board of Guardians of the Withington workhouse in Manchester in 1881. In the latter part of the 19th century, there is a fair amount of evidence of performers of various stripes – singers, music hall entertainers, amateur groups, choirs, magicians, musicians – going to workhouses to entertain the paupers (a word used at the time to denote recipients of poor relief), and this was happening not just in Manchester, but nationally. There are also records of children being taken on free trips to the pantomime and other entertainments offered by local commercial theatres, especially in large towns and cities. This was particularly true of – but not limited to – the Christmas period and other national holidays.

Mr Charles Bernard of the Prince’s Theatre (Oxford Road, Manchester) had offered free admission to the children of the workhouse for a morning performance of ‘Cinderella’ in 1881. The invitation sparked a heated discussion amongst the Board of Guardians and a vote – decided by the casting vote of the Chairman – and was eventually declined. One of the Guardians, the Reverend O’Conor – declaring himself to be far from puritanical as well as a lover of the theatre as a young man – objected to the idea of children going to the pantomime because ‘participation in amusements of this kind would help to implant in the minds of the children tastes which “could not be gratified,” and which were consequently unbecoming of their position in life’. The Reverend also stated that the theatre manager was more interested in the promotional opportunity accruing from appearing to be charitable, than ‘improving the children’ (editorial – The Manchester Guardian, Feb 5, 1881).

The newspaper report draws comparisons between the Board of Guardians and Charles Dickens’ Mr Bumble, with the journalist also wondering whether the Board of Guardians were frightened that the Clown in the pantomime would ‘bring “parochial” and other local authorities into undeserved disrespect’. The decision was overturned at the next meeting of the Guardians and let’s hope the Clown did just that! What is interesting here is the justification given – I’m starting to look at the history of theatrical performance in workhouses, and there are some kinds of performances discussed in writings about the poor law and workhouses from at least the end of the 18th century. Jeremy Bentham, for example, in his designs for ‘pauper panopticons’, included a proposal for a ‘national musical seminary’ (I’ll blog on this soon – Bentham’s proposals for the education of pauper children are not what I expected at all – bizarre, surprising, very interesting). Whereas Bentham saw pleasure as integral to an educational experience, the Manchester Board of Guardians – a century or so later – objected to poor children going to the pantomime, not because the pantomime is not ‘edifying’, and not really because it would fail to ‘improve’ them, but because it would give them a taste for pleasure and delight that would not be possible to satisfy in their future lives. These children were destined to be the city’s poor labourers at best – with trips to the theatre beyond their economically precarious existences-to-come.

Another interesting feature of this story was how the decision was overturned – another Board member, Mr Griffin, moved to overturn the decision at the Board meeting the following week, having attended the pantomime the night before and finding nothing untoward in it. The Manchester Courier report on this board meeting describes the discussion that followed. Mr Griffin ‘believed what was said by the Bishop of Manchester in February 1877, at the meeting of the Manchester and Salford City Mission … “there were those who thought it would be better for society if theatres were swept away. That was tried in England in the days of the Commonwealth; but when the period of the Restoration came … He did not agree with those who said it would better for society if the theatres were swept away, but believed it would be infinitely worse for society, and did not wish to abolish theatres.” After that, he (Mr Griffin) had quite made up his mind that there was nothing wrong in attending a theatre. The children had no pleasure except once a year … the board should let them go to the pantomime, especially when the treat was free of expense’ (Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, 12 Feb 1881).

More on the Reformation, theatre and the poor when I come to posting something on Bentham …

I like this story – it has many ingredients of the problems and challenges I’ve been grappling with in the early stages of researching theatre and poverty – it brings together earnest philanthropic intention, a suspicion of commercial activity, an impulse to shape environments for poor children that prepare them for productive labour without political enfranchisement, and it highlights very clearly what I’m starting to see as the ambivalent (positive and negative) relationship to theatricality and performance inside various philanthropic, education and training projects.

Finally here’s another story – pity the paupers of St Marylebone workhouse in 1924 – ‘It emerged today that the Visiting Committee at St Marylebone workhouse had been asked to protect the inmates against some of the appalling concerts which were given in the institution from time to time by amateur entertainers. One of the guardians stated that whilst these troupes no doubt had the best possible motives, it had to be admitted that they were often not worth the coffee that was provided for their refreshment. The performances really inflicted cruelty on the poor old folk who had to listen to them. Councillor Vincent, chairman of the Visiting Committee, accepted that some of the concerts were of a questionable standard bit, however bad an entertainment might be, it usually had the great advantage, from the inmates’ point of view, of postponing bedtime for an hour or two’ – from Peter Higginbotham (2013) A grim almanac of the workhouse, Gloucester: The History Press, p.32

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