At the Prince’s Theatre there was a melodrama of the good old kind—curly-haired hero, persecuted heroine, hissing villain (with wax pointed black moustache) and comic crook with a good heart. That was forbidden pleasure to me, but, boy-like, I occasionally spent sixpence at the pit entrance to see “ The Stranglers of Paris,” “The Divers Luck,” “Secrets of a Great City,” and other full-blooded shows. But the Prince’s sometimes became fashionable, as when the Blackburn Amateur Operatic Society played “H.M.S. Pinafore” for a week, and when, one afternoon, Charles Wyndham and Mary Moore came from Manchester to appear in “David Garrick.”
Entertainments of many kinds were given in the Exchange Hall, these alternating irregularly with political meetings, bazaars, and the like. The Cecilia Concerts were conducted there—important social events those—but for my own part I preferred the Christy Minstrels and, above all, Hamilton’s Diorama, which might be regarded as the forerunner of the modern movies. Guided by a gentleman with a long pointer, we were taken pictorially round the world.
There was always a “Grand Spectacular Scene,” the one I remember best being the ships of the British Navy moving into fighting position, thanks to the lighting arrangements behind, then spits of fire and smoke came from the guns, to which the forts responded. The ships were hit occasionally, but the forts suffered much more, eventually being reduced to ruins. At last the Egyptian flag was lowered in sign of surrender and, to the tune of “Rule Britannia,” we all applauded with patriotic enthusiasm. There was genuine entertainment value and some instruction in Hamilton’s Diorama.
The Town Hall was not used much for entertainment purposes, except balls and concerts, but many excellent lectures were given there. I always made a point of being present when Father Perry, of Stonyhurst College, the eminent astronomer, was the lecturer. He never talked above the heads of his audience, but was singularly lucid and interesting and had a vein of humour which added greatly to our enjoyment of his discourse.
A place of recreation rather than entertainment was the skating rink in Canterbury-street. It was one of the earliest roller skating rinks in the country, but I doubt whether it enjoyed much success. To the best of my recollection, nearly 50 years have elapsed since it was closed. I was a very small boy when I was taken, two or three times, to see the skaters, but I remember nothing of it later.
I saw a show at the Palace when I was last in Blackburn, a good one, and involuntarily thought of the music-hall we had in the town when I was a fella-lad of 17 or 18. It was called the Lyceum, and situated in Market-street Lane, just off Darwen-street, and within a few yards of the Castle Inn, on the opposite side. Small, frowsy, old-fashioned even then, it was patronised by young bloods of the town—more or less surreptitiously. That is to say, they refrained from mentioning it at home their visits to that temple of unrefined pleasure. They went as a rule on Monday night at half-time, when admission to the best seats was 9d.
The artists who appeared on the tiny Lyceum stage were, of course, third rate and the favourite songs were beerily course or about “life”—often treated sentimentally—in the wicked west end of London. “Outside the Cri. Outside the Cri…Thank God she perished outside the Cri,” wailed a fat “lion comique” in ill-fitting evening clothes as he took off his silk hat in reverence to the memory of the unfortunate girl who had been knocked down by a hansom and killed outside the Criterion Restaurant.
Occasionally, however, a “star” was engaged. One of them, an entertainer at the piano, the celebrated Mr. Corney Grain, declined to perform when he saw the place; but the incomparable “London Idol,” Miss Vesta Tilley, then at the beginning of her career was made of sterner stuff. The hall was besieged throughout the week of her appearance.
There was another music-hall or sing-song resort in Blackburn a little before my time. Report gave it a very bad reputation. It was situated on the edge of town just off Addison –street. There were grounds attached to it, and these, it was said, were the scene of the lowest type of sport and much drunkenness. When it had for years been a moral plague-spot and an offence to all decent people, public clamour led to its being closed and the hall became the first church of St. Barnabas in Blackburn.
THE CHURCHES I WENT TO
The Rev. P.E. Thomas was curate-in-charge at St. Barnabas’, and had a terribly uphill fight while he built the new church a few yards away. My grandmother had a great admiration for Mr. Thomas and attended his services. She frequently took me along with her, and I clearly remember the one-time music hall. The stage was still there, but had been converted into the altar. The pulpit also was on the stage.
Another substitute far a church to which I was taken as a small boy was the old St. Silas’ school-house on Preston New-road, used for worship before the present St. Silas’ Church was built. Which reminds me that all that area north of the road to the rear of the school-house was open land on which were two or three football pitches, so much used that there was very little grass. I often played there my self.
But our family church was St. John’s, with its old fashioned boxed pews. The choir sat in the organ loft in the Rev. John Baker’s time, but were brought below, and surpliced, after the interior of the church was partially reconstructed. The restoration service, held on a week-day, was distinguished by the presence of Dr. Thomas, Archbishop of York.
On my way to church on a Sunday morning I would see Dr. Morley, brother of the great statesman, outside his house in Richmond-terrace, providing porridge for the birds. A man of heterodox opinions, he would look a little aggressively at the churchgoers, as if to say that his religion, expressed in feeding the sparrows, was quite as good as theirs. The doctor was famous for his caustic wit, freedom of tongue and handsome appearance. His trim grey moustache, keen eyes behind pince-nez, glossy, slightly-tilted silk hat, and cigar, were well known on every important football ground in the country. Vice-president of the Football Association, he was the most outspoken and most frequently reported ornament of the winter game for more than a generation.