‘Language of the most disgusting kind is uttered, and plans of robberies, no doubt, concocted’, claimed a letter to a London newspaper in 1838’
A ‘penny gaff’ described cheap Victorian theatres which thrived in London between 1830 and 1900. These were typically located in empty shops, warehouses, backs of pubs and anywhere else to house an audience. The established penny gaff theatres were feared as breeding grounds for criminals by the Victorian moral reformers.
Their programmes were a mixture of melodrama, variety acts, dances and freak shows. Unsophisticated, the props and scenery rarely consisted of more than a stage and a piano. The renter of the venue would stand by the stage, calling out when each act should finish maximising the evening’s revenue. If time were called, it would have to be concluded regardless of what point in the script the entertainers had reached.
As penny gaffs became popular, larger, more spacious venues opened to accommodate them, The Rotunda in Blackfriars Road was the largest venue in London. It could seat 1,000 people and at its peak. It exhibited shows lasting between an hour and two-and-a-half hours.
Sweeney Todd, the tale of a throat-slitting London barber who turned his murdered clients into human meat pies, is now known as a famous musical with several film adaptations, but it began life in Victorian penny gaff. Sweeney Todd first appeared in 1846, in ‘The String of Pearls,’ the first story to feature the murderous barber.
The gaff, meaning a place of public amusement in Cockney slang, was a cheap form of theatre directed at the working class. They became illegal, but went on anyway, focusing on shocking tales of horror, murder, crime, and violent melodrama. The ‘coster lads and lasses’ who made up the bulk of the audience were amongst the roughest in London; always ready for a fight or a frolic. They arranged rude pictures of the performers outside, to give the front a gaudy and attractive look, and at night-time, they displayed coloured lamps and transparencies to draw an audience.
Writing in 1869, James Greenwood found the Penny Gaffs both widespread and dangerous, estimating ‘that within a circuit of five miles of St. Paul’s, at least twenty of these dangerous dens of amusement might be counted.’
What was it like to attend one of these Penny Gaffs? The admission was a penny, and on entering one might find a place set up where they could buy something basic to eat or drink. The Penny Gaffs, according to the journalist George Augustus Sala, were ‘abominably dirty, smelling of unclean bodies and of the shag tobacco they are smoking.’ When you entered the performance area, there was usually a pit which held around fifty people, and there might be some wooden benches formed a gallery to hold the overflow. After a bit of a warm-up, the show began. It was usually composed of a series of songs and brief sketches. It was common for there to be something of a patriotic nature to play on the crowd’s emotions.
One specific type of penny gaff dominated Victorian London, though — those that exhibited freak shows. And if you were heading to see these curiosities, you’d almost certainly be going to one of Tom Norman’s places. One day Tom Norman viewed a penny gaff in Islington. He was impressed with the exhibition and realised its lucrative potential and successfully staged his own in Hammersmith. Over the next two years, Norman’s shows featured Eliza Jenkins, the ‘Skeleton Woman’, a ‘Balloon Headed Baby’ and a woman who bit off the heads of live rats. He also presented a ‘family of midgets’, which was composed of two men and a borrowed baby.
In 1884, Norman came into contact with Joseph Merrick, a young man from Leicester who had extreme deformities. Unable to find work because of his physical appearance, Merrick ended up in the Leicester workhouse for four years. In 1884 he left the workhouse and joined music-hall managers, Sam Torr and J. Ellis. They presented Merrick as ‘The Elephant Man.’ But they quickly realised they could not show Merrick for too long in one place, for fear of the novelty wearing off, and towards the end of 1884, they contacted Tom Norman and transferred the management of the Elephant Man to him.
Merrick arrived in London and into Tom Norman’s care. Merrick’s appearance initially shocked Norman and was reluctant to display him. He exhibited him at his penny gaff shop at 123 Whitechapel Road, directly across the road from the London Hospital. Because of its nearness to the hospital, the shop received medical students and doctors as visitors. One of these was the surgeon Frederick Treves, who had Merrick brought into the hospital to be examined.
The exhibition of the Elephant Man was successful. However, public opinion about freak shows were changing, and the display of human novelties was being viewed as distasteful. After only a few weeks with Tom Norman, they shut the Elephant Man exhibition down by the police, and Norman and Merrick parted ways. Treves later arranged for Merrick to live at the hospital until he died in 1890.
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