Variety and Music Hall, National Fairground Archive

Poster of Fred Karno

© National Fairground Archive, University of Sheffield

The National Fairground Archive at the University of Sheffield Library houses a large number of music hall and variety posters across the collections.  The posters come from all over the United Kingdom and range from early pantomimic productions of the 1800s, through Music Hall and Variety to the new variety of today.

A large majority of the posters stem from the late 1800s and early 1900s.  As the Victorian city grew apace, and the new middle class emerged working fewer hours with increased leisure time, so a greater number of diverse venues appeared in large urban conurbations to provide entertainment for the masses.  The music halls and later, in the mid-1880s, the variety theatres that were built to meet this demand, providing employment for thousands of performers and speciality acts.  These variety palaces gave homes to previously itinerant performers and quickly became the most popular venues. 

Poster of London Hippodrome

An early London Hippodrome poster

Early poster for the London Hippodrome built in 1900 and designed by Frank Matcham as a hippodrome for circus and variety performances, which included a water tank for aquatic spectacles.  This bill from 1901 includes War Pictures presented by Walter Gibbons, the famous Colibris midgets, and a full mixed variety programme similar to what would have been part of many variety theatres at the time.  The circus feel to the venue was dropped in 1909 when it was redesigned by Matcham to be a music hall/variety theatre.

The type of musical theatre that was presented in these halls received legitimacy in the eyes of the establishment with the start of the first Royal Variety Performance before King George V.  The acts would range from a mixture of popular song, comedy turns and speciality acts incorporating acrobats, magicians and freak show-style attractions and flourished in towns and cities across the United Kingdom.  One of the most famous venues outside London was the Argyle Theatre of varieties in Birkenhead, which opened in 1868 and was followed by a huge expansion of such venues from the 1880s onwards in such towns as Doncaster, Blackpool and Ipswich.


Poster of Argyle Theatre

Argyle Theatre, Birkenhead poster

The Argyle theatre in Birkenhead was one of the most famous variety theatres outside London and remained popular throughout the twentieth century until it suffered a direct hit in the Second World War and had to close.  The NFA holds over 400 examples of Argyle posters.

Variety remained a popular form of entertainment throughout the twentieth century, with many television stars first treading the boards on the variety circuit, and they continued to offer a form of entertainment that was suitable for all classes of people.  It was the advent of television that sounded the death knell for variety theatres, though one television show, the Royal Variety Performance, has managed to keep the spirit of the variety show alive.


Poster featuring a dancer

'Here Come the Girls' 1950s poster

During the 1950s there were a number of shows showing scantily clad women alongside the comedians, dancers and vocalists of the day.  This stemmed from the relaxation of laws in the theatre which allowed for nudity on the stage and was an attempt to draw crowds away from the living rooms and back into the theatre.

One of the highlights within the NFA collection is the Taylor’s of Wombwell Collection.  A Yorkshire based company; Taylor’s began in the 1890s specializing in local events.  By the mid-1920s they were one of the leading printers of the entertainment industry.  The variety posters held within the collection provide a fascinating visual record of how travelling entertainment forms were marketed and promoted through the twentieth century.

Poster from the Ipswich Hippodrome

Poster for Ipswich hippodrome

The Term ‘Hippodrome’ was used to denote a theatrical venue used for various stage entertainments or a performance space associated with the horse circus.  By the end of the Nineteenth century, the venues showcased variety acts.  This poster by Taylor’s has novelty act Tommy Twinkle Toes Jacobsen, who performed on the fairs and the variety stage in the 1950s

The typescript and overall design of the posters is of particular interest. The impact of advances in printing technology in the latter part of the nineteenth century allowed a greater volume of advertising ephemera to be produced at a greater rate. Various printing techniques from screen-printing to chromolithographic printing can be seen in the collections and these were employed to create visually stunning posters on sizes ranging from small box office cards to large sizes which would be in printed on several sheets of paper.  There would not be one typeface used but changes of font and design would be seen as the eyes rolled down the posters.  Text would be shadowed, and some posters would have banners round them, and some would have illustrations of one of the acts.


Poster of Fred Karno

Fred Karno lithographic poster

Fred Karno (1866-1941) was a comedian extraordinaire who began life as a circus acrobat before developing and presenting his own troupe who performed slapstick routines and mini burlesque shows.  Many of the greatest clowns and comics of the silent screen were first spotted whilst working as part of Karno’s troupe including Charlie Chaplin, Stan Laurel, Sandy Powell and Max Miller.  This lithographic poster dates from the 1900s and shows his ‘army’ of performers in typical anarchic fashion

Visually compelling, posters offered teaser phrases, extraordinarily posed artistes, as well as date, time and venue. Description of the acts written below the artist’s name, known as bill matter, was an important part of the showmanship and selling of the act.  It could be a basic description of the act or a pun on words to bring alive the act and draw in the crowd.  This can be seen on some of the posters from Teddy Stream.  A comedian, he started as a double act listed as a ‘dancer and patterer’, then as a ‘comedian’, and as his act developed and he moved up the bill, the bill matter changed to ‘the Rippling Comedian’ showing the showmanship and promotion of the act. 

Poster advertising Teddy Stream's Music Hall act

 Poster advertising Teddy Stream's act

The posters cover a huge scope for researchers.  They mark social and cultural changes over the years highlighting changes in fashions and the interests of the patrons as the billing, descriptions of the acts and design in posters change. Various artists can be looked at and routes followed by acts across the music halls of the United Kingdom.  Students of architecture, designers, artists and family historians are among those who visit the archive. The aim of the NFA is to have an example from each venue across the United Kingdom.

Variety is once again part of entertainment culture and there has been a recent upsurge in the number of variety artists and productions within the theatres and on television screens with Britain’s Got Talent incorporating both up and coming talent and long standing acts. New Variety is now part of mainstream festival culture, it can be seen in Blackpool during the annual Showzam Festival of Circus Magic and New Variety, it is a main part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and forms part of Latitude, Glastonbury and other major festivals programming strategy. The NFA itself produced a major new circus and variety production this year as part of the Roundhouse Circusfest season in London entitled ‘Professor Vanessa’s Wondershow it sold out over ten nights and featured a cast of over 50 performers.

by Professor Vanessa Toulmin, Amanda Bernstein and Jane Donaldson from the National Fairground Archive, University of Sheffield.

All images: © National Fairground Archive, University of Sheffield

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