London’s Palaces of Pleasure

If you believe the conventional stereotype of the Victorian, he or she was a forbidding, puritanical individual, condemned to a life free from fun or frivolity. In his new book, ‘Palaces of Pleasure: How the Victorians Invented Mass Entertainment’, Lee Jackson sets out to dispel this myth. In actual fact, he argues, the Victorians were adept at enjoying themselves. It was during the 19th century that gin palaces, music halls, seaside resorts and football clubs burgeoned, not to mention those uniquely Victorian attractions: the pleasure garden and the international exposition.

In a fascinating talk for The London Society, during which he discussed his new book, Jackson focused on three areas of Victorian entertainment. I’ve summarised his thoughts below, but heartily recommend that you seek out ‘Palaces of Pleasure’ to find out just what else the Victorians got up to in their spare time.

The Gin Palace

Made infamous by Charles Dickens’ 1835 ‘Gin Shops’ essay, gin palaces evolved from London’s old-fashioned taverns or ale houses. This change was due, in particular, to the introduction of beer pumps and formal bar areas, plus better-lit rooms, thanks to gas lighting. Seating became a thing of the past, as did credit; your gin palace was a “modern retail establishment” furnished with extravagant clocks and illuminated mirrors.

These radical changes caused consternation among the more judgemental members of society, who questioned the gin palaces’ popularity with women. Middle class members of society believed these abodes too upmarket for their working class counterparts: “mock finery” was the title bestowed upon them.

Temperance campaigners continued to protest; magistrates placed spies in them – gin palaces, however, continued to flourish.

Music Halls

We’re quite partial to musicals in today’s world, but the Victorians embraced them wholeheartedly. Music halls were a natural extension of the gin palaces, whose owners spotted a gap in the entertainment business. In essence, they were informal drinking clubs where you drank, sang songs and drank some more. Gradually, they evolved into something more business-like, managed by professional chairmen able to sing, make awful puns and drum up attendance. Professional comic singers soon followed.

The 1840s saw the emergence of musical theatres. First to arrive in London was the Surrey Music Hall, soon followed by the Canterbury Music Hall, an impressively grand building staffed by waiters constantly on the move, bringing their customers drinks. The communal singing continued, with young boys employed to hand out song sheets.

Canterbury Music Hall

By the 1880s, the shared tables and the waiters were gone, too, and formal seating introduced. Moralistic vigilantes attempted to police the entertainment, disapproving of the plentiful cross-dressing and fondness for innuendo. Many of the jokes were, says Jackson, in reality “ordinary”.


For these, we have Prince Albert to thank. He was the driving force behind 1851’s Great Exhibition at Hyde Park, hosted in the Crystal Palace. Albert saw the Exhibition as an international endeavour that would bring about peace in Europe; that, it did not achieve – but this celebration of culture and industry was hugely popular, with six million tickets sold within six months. Famous visitors included Charles Dickens, Charlotte Bronte and Lewis Carroll.

The Great Exhibition

After the Exhibition closed, the Crystal Palace was rebuilt in Sydenham and, having been opened by Queen Victoria, used to host a number of exhibitions and events. However, the massive cost of transferring the Palace from Hyde Park to Sydenham was never recouped and in 1936 an appalling fire wiped out the building. Winston Churchill, who watched the conflagration in a crowd of 100,000 people, commented: “This is the end of an age”.

I can’t end this post without mentioning the renowned burlesque producer Imre Kiralfy, who in 1890 came to London and hosted his ‘Venezia Moderna’ show at Olympia. A massive visual display, it played host to a miniature Venice, complete with lake and water canals, which visitors travelled around on gondolas specially imported from Italy. Kiralfy continued to entertain Londoners, in 1895 taking over Earls Court with his ‘Empire of India’ exhibition, which featured a giant ferris wheel. The ‘Japan-British Exhibition’, held in in 1910 at White City, was Kiralfy’s crowning achievement: designed to celebrate the Anglo-Japanese Alliance, it attracted eight million visitors.

I found Lee Jackson’s talk highly informative, as well as entertaining – and it certainly made me see the Victorians in a different light. We’re so used to those portraits of Queen Victoria looking glum that we tend to judge all her contemporaries in the same way. It turns out that they weren’t so different from us, after all.


  1. Interesting article once again mentioning some of my favourite things, I am never slow in wanting to visit a Gin Palace and love music hall. My favourite song, although somewhat later is “I fell in love with Mary from the dairy” by Max Miller which I thought might be amusing to have played at my funeral, hopefully in many years time. Such a shame that the Crystal Palace didn’t survive I’m sure it would have been a wonderful building to have visited.

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  2. The Good Old Days with Leonard Sachs was a music hall staple on tv in my youth. In Glasgow we have the Britannia Panopticon, one of the oldest remaining music halls in the country. Tales of what went on there do not fit with the conventionally staid Victorian image. See –

    I suspect a certain section of the middle class remained buttoned up morally (and literally) while the lower and upper classes did not!

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