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The Canterbury

North Laine’s earliest Music Hall

 By Gwyneth and Alan Leith, former North Laine residents



North Laine area was responsible for providing Brighton with its earliest music hall!

Music halls were rapidly gaining popularity in London by the 1850s and the most famous and successful of them was 'The Canterbury Arms' in Lambeth. It is no accident therefore that Brighton's first music hall was 'The Canterbury' at 87 Church Street.

Previously the 'Brewers Arms Inn'

The proprietor was an enterprising performer from London who had made appearances at both 'Even's' and 'The Cider Cellars', the two most celebrated song and supper rooms from which all music halls evolved. He acquired the 'Brewers Arms Inn', one of many drab pubs in Church Street, and transformed it into a mini version of the London 'Canterbury'.

Entry via a passage

Entry was by means of a passage which led to the bar and here the customers made their choice of paying 3d (just over 1p) and entering the main body of the hall (the equivalent of the stalls) or of ascending to the gallery for double the money. For this small sum they not only gained admission but also received a a ticket entitling them to that amount of refreshment as well. This was a precedent set by the London 'Canterbury' and most of the halls followed suit.

Description in 1860

In Brighton As It Is, published in 1860, we are given not only a good description of the building but are also treated to an account of the programme on the night of the author's visit:

"The room is of tolerable size, well lighted, with a gallery of the horse-shoe shape, at each end of which there is a box for those who prefer privacy. At the northern end of the Hall is the stage, beneath which is the grand piano, on which a man is playing. In front of the stage, in a stall higher than the rest, is a place set apart for the chairman, a dark young man with his hair parted in the middle."

If you have ever watched 'The Good Old Days' on television, you should have quite a clear picture of the scene.

Song to celebrate Tom Sayers, the famous boxer

The first item on the bill is "A Great Novelty - A Song of the Great Fight". This song celebrated a boxing match at Farnborough on 17th April 1860 between an American boxer, John C Heenan, and a Brighton man, Tom Sayers.  The fight went to 37 rounds, lasted two hours six minutes, and was judged a draw.  Sayers was born in Pimlico, Tichborne Street in North Laine, in 1826 - hence the local popularity of the song, especially as the 'Canterbury' backed onto the street where Sayers was born.

Rare gem of old Ireland

The second turn on the bill was 'A Rare Gem of Ould Ireland - the Man that can Dance and no Mistake'. The author of Brighton As It Is seemed to think he was mistaken! However, he does conceded that the performer's closing song about 'Pat O'Mulligar' brought tumultuous applause. The lyrics of this old song went as follows:

"Then should ye want a car sirs
I hope ye'll not forget
Poor Pat of Mullingar sirs
And his darlin' little pet.
She's as gentle as a dove sirs,
Her speed ye can't deny.
There's no blind side about her
Though she only has one eye.

They may talk of Flying Childers
And the speed of Harkaway,
Till the fancy it bewilders
As you list to what they say,
But for real style and beauty
Tho' you travel near and far
The fairest mare you'll find
Belongs to Pat of Mulligar."

An early male impersonator

The song and dance man was followed by an intriguing playlet about a British tar arriving back from sea to find a young naval officer in his parlour. He naturally jumped to the conclusion that his wife's behaviour was not all that it should been in his absence - but the 'officer' turns out to be none other than his wife in drag - so all ends happily. We do not have a record of the actress's name but this is the earliest reference we have found to a male impersonator. Obviously she was a forerunner of the great Vesta Tilley and Hetty King.

The proprietor also performed

After a short interval we are treated to a dance by a young lady who appears in Brighton for the first time. She is followed by a series of acrobatic performances, and finally at the top of the bill is the star performer, none other than the proprietor himself, who delivers a dramatic monologue about 'Alonzo the brave and fair Imogene' and rounds up the proceedings with a comic song about some 'slap-up eating house'.

Not bad value for 6d, but at the same time 6d would have bought you a seat in any London music hall, and there stars were commanding salaries of up to £80 a week. The proprietor was no fool in placing himself as top of the bill!

A show every night

There was a show each night which lasted from 7pm to midnight and the clientele comprised tradesmen and their families, shop assistants, servants from the aristocratic households on the seafront and, for good measure, a sprinkling of Brighton's 'ladies of the night', which no doubt accounts for the fact that there was a house detective in attendance and a fair number of policemen outside the hall.

Return to its previous name

In Pages' street directory of 1870, the Canterbury Hall, like Cinderella's coach, has turned back into a pumpkin and we find the following entry: 87 Church Street - The Brewer's Arms Inn.


[Previously published in the North Laine Runner, No 15, August/September 1978; reprinted in No 200, September/October 2009]


The Canterbury, London

The Great Fight

Orange Row, heart of Pimlico  where Tom Sayers was brought up

Vesta Tilley