By Jess Owen
As the Free and Easies of the 1830s became transformed into the Concert Rooms of the 1840s, two Fitzrovians played a significant role in the consequent development of popular music.
John Labern was the son of a Warren Street fruitmonger, who may also have let lodgings. Few traces have so far emerged of Labern’s early life. Yet it is quite clear that he had quickly assimilated the literacy of the working class radical culture that surrounded him. This part of Fitzrovia was a cosmopolitan area, with radicals and their effusions in abundance. His later songs show few religious influences, so we may tentatively assume he had escaped the shackles of ‘faith’ early in his education.
The first clue we get to his prominence is a series of songs appearing in TP Prest’s London Singers Magazine. This was a periodical that presented the work of London’s leading songwriters of the late 1830s. It is unclear whether it was a ‘trade’ magazine or intended for a wider audience. Few copies survive, suggesting the former. Whatever its status, Labern’s work featured strongly in its pages. For several numbers his work merited an illustration on the title page, implying that it was the ‘hit’ of the moment.
Labern’s forte was the ‘topical’ song, where the issues of the day were alluded to in a humorous way. This was wholly against the grain of ‘legitimate performance’ at the time, as the stage was heavily censored by the Lord Chamberlain’s office. But it suited the halls such as Evans or the Cider Cellars which were becoming a focus of the entertainment industry in London. In some respects, Laberns’ work bridged the gap between the ballad sellers and patterers and the early halls. His Catalini Joe; The Ballad Monger was widely pirated, as was his Literary Dustman
He remained a regular performer around Fitzrovia and its surrounding areas, and by 1838 had enough confidence in his ‘prospects’ to marry a fellow singer, Susanna. Their names were familiar to Charles Rice who met them in April 1840 at The Grapes in Compton Street.
On Saturday 4th he recorded in his diary: “J Laberne, comic song writer, dropped in, but did not exhibit―clever and agreable fellow”. A couple of days later, Rice; “Went in Evening to J Labern’s benefit at Grapes” . A month later, Rice left the Great Portland Street pub with “Labern & wife” shortly after midnight. Rice’s memories are interesting here, for although John Labern had already established his reputation as a writer, Rice still thought of him as a “singer”. Perhaps because of his regular appearances at the Cyder Cellars in Maiden Lane, just above the Strand.
Building on his renown, Labern’s first Songbook was printed in 1842 by Henry Youd of 62a Tottenham Court Road. Youd, almost certainly the son of a Dockyard worker, born in 1817 opened his business in a building adjacent to the Rose and Crown pub in 1841. He was soon printing playbills for benefits at the Tottenham St Theatre(1). It may have been through this connection that Labern came into contact with JW ‘Jacky’ Sharpe.
Jack Sharpe was a singer who supplemented his earnings as a theatrical ‘supernumeray’ by moonlighting as a concert singer in the vicinity of whichever place he was working. In the 1840s he became a ‘property man at the Queens Theatre, Tottenham Court Road. It was later recorded that;
“Sharpe occasionally sang between the pieces and soon began to get popular. He was then engaged at the Swan at Hungerford Market…here he first employed the talent of John Labern a clever comic song writer” (2)
Shortly afterwards they lived in the same building and legend later suggested that Sharpe, on his return from a singing engagement would slip a suggestion for a ‘topical’ song under Laberns door on his return home, then collect the new lyric, on his way to the next performance.
The partnership proved fruitful and Sharp was recruited by the proprietor of Vauxhall Gardens in an attempt to revive its fortunes in the mid 1840’s. He opened the new season there in May 1845, including in his performance, a song from Laberns’ pen. By 1848 they had become an established partnership. At a dinner organised by the licensed Victuallers Association that year, Sharpe “introduced a new comic song, written for the occasion by J. Labern, Esq., called ‘The Licensed Victuallers’ Joys,’ which was loudly applauded.” His turn was followed by a ‘company of equestrians’ (3)
By this time much of the old pleasure gardens had been sold for ‘re-development’. Yet by the turn of the decade, Jack Sharp appears to have been encountering problems with the over-availability of alcohol at his places of work. Rice records that at a pub performance in 1850 he was forgetting the words to his songs.
In January 1856 he died, a pauper, in the Gravesend workhouse. Charles Morton recalled:
During Mackney’s term at the Canterbury, he had among his comic comrades J. W. Sharp, who was one of the funniest fellows that ever appeared on any stage. ….
It was either at Vauxhall Gardens, or at Evans’s, where Sharp added to his small weekly allowance of lucre and liquor by selling personally in the hall, manuscript copies of his most popular songs, …. Poor ‘Jack ‘ Sharp drifted into becoming a ‘ tramp’ comic singer, making a collection in this or that tavern bar, … finally he…drifted into the Dover Workhouse, where he died in January, 1856, aged thirty-eight.
Two years after his death, Labern and his wife opened a newsagents’ shop on the ‘New’ Euston Road, just around the corner from where he had grown up. He ran it until his death in 1881.
1. This was the Queens at Tottenham Street, later the Scala; [BL Playbills 164, c. April 1843. All the Year Round Dec 20 1873 pp 178-9
2. The Standard May 13 1845
3. The Era July 23 1848