The eyes gaze out demurely from the music hall posters, snaring the casual passer-by. Lottie Collins was a huge draw on the Victorian stage and part of that was an indefinable something that catches the eye and makes you want to keep watching – star quality. But behind the beguiling stare lay unhappiness, and Collins would be dead in early middle age.
Of course, by the time the pictures we see here were taken, sometime around 1890, Lottie was an old trouper. Only in her late twenties, she had already been pounding the boards of the London music halls for a decade and a half. Born in Spitalfields in 1865, Charlotte Louisa Collins had started on stage at just 11, in a skipping rope act with her younger sisters. Together Lottie, Lizzie and Marie made up The Three Sisters Collins.
It sounds an unpromising routine. But with at least 30 music halls in mid-Victorian London, plus countless more pubs with stages, and a dozen or more acts needed to fill each bill, there was an immense appetite for new talent, and the skipping Collinses took their place at the bottom of the playbill alongside the plate spinners, sand dancers, stilt walkers and shadow puppeteers.
Music hall was itself relatively young and had its roots in the complexity of London bylaws. From its earliest days, theatre had a tinge of anarchy about it, with travelling players mocking the establishment figures of the day. That had continued when the minstrels put down roots, with the first permanent playhouse in London being Shoreditch’s ‘The Theatre’ in 1576. Plays had been banned from the City proper, and as in 1572 plays had been banned (supposedly to prevent spread of the plague, but probably also to prevent the spread of sedition).
By the early 1800s, what was performed in the London theatre was strictly controlled. The Lord Chamberlain could veto the performance of any new play, or any modification to an existing one, and music in the theatre was banned. Little surprise then that Londoners found the theatre a dull place and looked elsewhere for their fun. In the early 1800s, that meant open air venues such as the Vauxhall Gardens, but by the 1830s entertainment moved indoors. The dingy drinking holes of the 1700s were being replaced by much grander pubs, complete with saloon bars. And the finest saloons had their own stages, where unlicensed, bawdy-as-you-like musical entertainments played nightly. Demand was such that impresarios then simply sidestepped the law. If legitimate theatre couldn’t give the punters what they wanted, they would build their own halls, free of the Lord Chamberlain’s dead hand.
And so the Collins girls found themselves skipping from stage to stage. Several large music halls were built in the East End, including the Empire at 95-99 Shoreditch High Street, and the Royal Cambridge, at 136 Commercial Street. Of course, nobody wants to occupy the bottom of the bill for long, and by her early twenties, Lottie had shaken loose from her sisters to launch herself as a singer and dancer. She moved from the halls to perform in the theatre too. By the 1880s, the rules on music in the theatre had been relaxed, and Lottie started appearing on the West End stage, before making the leap across the Atlantic. By the early 1900s, many English music hall artists would be playing Burlesque and Vaudeville revues around the US (Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel among them) and Lottie was an early pioneer. And like all the big stars of the Victorian halls – the Dan Lenos, Marie Lloyds and Little Tiches – she needed her theme song. Big singalong choruses, ideally packed with double entendres, and simple catchy tunes were a must.
It was while touring the US in 1891 that she first heard the song Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay!, in the fine tradition of saucy music hall songs that simultaneously scandalised and titillated the staid Victorian audience. There was Marie Lloyd with She Sits Among the Cabbages and Peas (which after complaints was changed to ‘cabbages and leeks’), and What are we going to do with Uncle Arthur, a music hall favourite about a geriatric sex pest which survives today as the theme music to Upstairs Downstairs. And while the lyrics of Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay! might not quite match Li’l Kim for lewdness, they were strong enough to be censored. Lyrics such as ‘just the ust the kind for sport I’m told’ and ‘though not too bad I’m not to good’ were censored in the sheet music versions, to present the image of a girl sparky yet devoutly moral, and remove any suggestion of extra-marital fun.
On the stages of the East End music halls, of course, Lottie could carry on regardless. As the show wore on, and the beer and gin flowed more freely, the laughter would get louder and more raucous, and Lottie’s winks, nudges and mugging to the crowd would grow ever more broad and outrageous. A demure first verse would give way to an uninhibited and exhausting series of high kicks exposing stockings held up by sparkling garters, and bare thighs – a sort of cockney can-can.
It seems extraordinary today to build a fortune on one song, but in 1892, Lottie saw her earnings rocket into the stratosphere, as she performed her song at four London theatres a night, at £25 a time. She was also on a retainer of £75 a week to render the song in a revue at The Gaiety Theatre in the Strand. She then took the boat to New York once again, earning $1000 a week at the Standard Theatre and clearing $25,000 in her six-month tour of the song.
Lottie became extraordinarily rich, but something was obviously going badly wrong. In 1898, estranged from Samuel Cooney, the father of her three children, she attempted suicide by cutting her wrists. There was another big hit, with Daddy Wouldn’t Buy Me A Bow-wow, and another marriage, in 1902, to songwriter and producer James William Tate, ten years her junior, but by now her big-earning days were gone, and music hall had moved on. It must have been particularly galling to a star in her thirties to receive a condescending review in the United States as a ‘mature’ performer. Lottie died of bronchitis and heart disease back in London in 1910. She was just 44.