The music hall was the most popular form of public entertainment in the 19th century and provided a mixture of popular songs, comedy, speciality and variety acts. Its origins lay in informal performances in pubs and pleasure gardens where the audience could watch while eating and drinking.
Music halls could be found dotted around the West End and in the more working class parts of the capital. One of the foremost of these was the Oxford Music Hall at 14-16 Oxford Street, close to the junction with Tottenham Court Road. Its history, however, was distinctly mixed as it suffered a series of fires, rebuilding and in latter years changes to other commercial uses.
The Oxford was founded by Charles Morton and his brother-in-law Frederick Stanley and opened in March 1861. The architects were Finch Hill and Edward Paraire who went on to design three other music halls in London.
A decade earlier Morton and Stanley had established the Canterbury music hall linked to a pub of the same name at 143 Westminster Bridge Road. This was the first purpose-built music hall in London and proved very popular.
The Oxford was built on the site of an old coaching inn, the Boar and Castle, which was still a coach stop for services to Luton and St Alban’s at least until 1850. It had a grand Beaux Arts façade and the auditorium could accommodate an audience of 1,800. There was also a promenade or picture gallery at the rear from which the performances could be viewed. At the first night artists included stars such as Miss Poole who sang ‘Wapping Old Stairs’ and Rosina Collins who played the ‘Carnival de Venice’ on the violin.
The theatre continued to pull in the crowds for seven years, although in February 1868 it was seriously damaged by fire. This was despite the presence of a fireman who was employed to be on 24-hour watch. The building was completely gutted despite the valiant attempts of 50 firemen to tackle the blaze. The owner, Charles Morton, had also been asleep in the building at the time.
A Grand Fete was held at Crystal Palace to raise money for the performers. Meanwhile, Morton sold up and went on to open the Philharmonic music hall in Islington.
The Oxford was quickly rebuilt and reopened in 1869 under new owners, M R Syers and W Taylor but it was not long before it in turn succumbed to a fire in November 1872. An account of the time reported that ‘The stage, the balcony, the private boxes, the massive pillars which formed such prominent features in the architectural beauties of the Oxford, all presented a scene of desolation and disfigurement’.
As the popularity of the music hall continued to grow, the Oxford was rebuilt and extended with a new side entrance in Tottenham Court Road. It reopened in March 1873. A larger promenade was created at the rear so the audience could both chat to their friends as well as watching the performance. The stage was also enlarged and the footlights were recessed out of sight. Edward Paraire was the architect who supervised the reconstruction and he also designed the Horseshoe hotel on the east side of Tottenham Court Road of which the building is still there today.
The Oxford was riding a wave of popularity in the 1880s with stars such as Dan Leno booked for a one man show for seven months in 1889. By the 1890s the new owners decided the hall was in need of modernisation so it was completely demolished in 1892 and rebuilt in 1895 and 1896. It was photographed by Harry Bedford Lemere in 1893.
In 1901 further alterations were made, the stage was enlarged and the entire building was redecorated. A new stage entrance was created in Hanway Street at the rear of the building. Electric lighting was also installed for the first time.
Times were changing and by 1920 the music hall began to be known as the New Oxford Theatre. It reopened in 1921 with a production of the ‘League of Notions’ starring the Dolly Sisters. This proved a great success and ran for 360 performances. This was followed by one of the first pantomimes, Babes in the Wood. By 1923 the theatre had become a cinema and was showing silent films together with a series of less than popular plays.
The next dramatic change came in 1927 when Messrs Salmon, Gluckstein and Lyons purchased the building and demolished it in order to create one of three Lyons Corner Houses. This was to be designed by F J Wills, the in-house architect, using faience tiles in a Beaux Arts style.
The novel approach was that customers were served snacks and teas by ‘nippies’ or waitresses. This proved very popular particularly in the 1940s and 50s but by 1977 the catering ‘offer’ was much more diverse and the Corner Houses fell out of fashion.
It was briefly taken over by Mecca as a restaurant before becoming the Virgin Megastore in 1979. Tapes and CDs were soon replaced by streaming and since 2011 it has been occupied by the Primark clothing store.
The Oxford clearly indicates the rapid changes in taste and the demand for different types of popular entertainment. Although located at the cheaper end of Oxford Street, the music hall went through several reconstructions and reinventions aided by frequent fires possibly because of the use of gas lighting and ‘limelight’.
In its heyday it was one of the two or three largest and most popular music halls in London, although less successful productions made it financially vulnerable and thus likely to be put up for sale.
It finally succumbed to new forms of entertainment such as cinema and changing fashions in catering. In 2009 only the facades in Oxford Street, Tottenham Court Road and Hanway Street survived and these were listed and can still be seen today.