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A jam-packed City Varieties audience c.1900

The Man Behind ‘The Varieties’ – Charles Thornton

Established in 1865 as a room above a pub for the working class, The Varieties is Leeds’ hidden gem – and the Guinness World Record holder for the nation’s longest running music hall.

Now, for The British Music Hall Society’s Music Hall & Variety Day, we’re looking back at the man who is responsible for starting it all…

Written by Bryony Jameson.

‘The Mucky Duck’

In 1762 a pub was built on Swan Street called The Swan Inn, affectionally known by locals as ‘The Mucky Duck’. In 1766 a ‘singing room’ was added above the pub, welcoming a whole host of singers travelling pub-to-pub. In 1857, Charles Thornton took over the lease and the newspaper reports are colourful to say the least!

In the Leeds Mercury, there are articles proclaiming Thornton was fined 20 shillings for ‘harbouring prostitutes’ but was praised that ‘since the house had come into the hands [of Thornton], it had been much better conducted than when his predecessor had it…[including] the discouragement of known thieves’ (7 Nov 1857).

Other stories included those of 64 stolen sovereigns (2 Jan 1858) and a ‘good humouredly wrestle’ turned fatal (27 Aug 1859). Needless to say, it’s clear Thornton would be looking for ways to improve the pub’s reputation.

A drunken scene in a gin shop with children being given alcohol.

A drunken scene in a gin shop with children being given alcohol. Coloured etching by G. Cruikshank, 1848, after himself. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Public Domain

A new beginning

Thornton’s solution to raise The Swan’s reputation was to demolish parts of the pub and build a grand music hall. This was raised at the Leeds Brewster Sessions in 1862 when Thornton’s license for The White Swan was contested. The license would only be granted if Thornton ‘was willing to promise not to proceed with the music-saloon’ (25 Sep 1862, Leeds Mercury). It’s unclear from our research how the license issue was solved, but Thornton pursued his plans.

With design from architect George Henry Smith, Thornton’s Grand New Music Hall opened on 13 March 1865.

Ads for performers were placed in the popular national stage newspaper The Era prior to opening and throughout the first year. The Varieties was described as ‘the pre-eminently popular and Fashionable Lounge of the Yorkshire Metropolis, and one of the Handsomest Halls in the Provinces’ and called for ‘STARS, and Talent of the Highest Order’ (24 Dec 1865). It sounds like a classic Leonard Sachs introduction!

A jam-packed City Varieties audience c.1900

A full crowd at The Varieties c. 1900. Credit: Leeds Heritage Theatres, West Yorkshire Archive Service

Thornton’s Music Hall was met with great success upon opening and was ‘crowded nightly’ (11 June 1865, The Era). One act celebrated was Rel Mueab, the Fire King, who ‘walks over red-hot plates, bites off pieces from bars of molten iron, and drinks boiling oil, with apparent relish and enjoyment’ (14 July 1867, The Era). Many local taverns began to follow suit, converting their tired singing rooms into more desirable venues. This led to fierce competition over the following decade.

In the face of such competition, and with big plans to expand into other areas of ‘public improvement’, Thornton decided to put his Music Hall up to auction in 1876. It failed to reach its reserve price of £10,000 and the lease went to John Stansfield. Thornton used his profits to fund his next project of Thornton’s Arcade which still runs parallel to The Varieties.

The first of its kind to be built in Leeds, Thornton’s Arcade was proposed to replace the site of The Old Talbot Inn. The ‘novel’ idea was to create a shopping location like ‘the most noted arcades on the Continent’, which would allow the people of Leeds to ‘compare window displays without being exposed to the rough bustle of an open street, or to moist, chilly, and uncomfortable weather’ (19 Oct 1875, Leeds Mercury).

Thornton’s Arcade (designed first by Charles Fowler but completed by George Smith) opened in May 1878, and just like The Varieties, Thornton was a trend-setter and other arcades would soon be built.

Thornton's Arcade c. 1878, with characters in Victorian costumes including children with toys

Thornton's Arcade c. 1878. Credit Creative Commons

Charles Thornton’s legacy

Charles Thornton died aged 59 on 3 August 1881 from typhoid fever. His legacy in the city is clear and is still honoured with a blue plaque from Leeds Civic Trust at The Varieties.

Buried in Leeds General Cemetery, his obituary would describe him as ‘a self made man [who] retired from business a few years ago with ample fortune, acquired by steady industry and perseverance. He was greatly respected, and his death will be severely felt by a large circle of friends’ (6 August 1881, The Era).

Not only did Charles Thornton revive the music halls and taverns of Leeds, he was responsible for our – now iconic – shopping arcades which keep us all out of the Yorkshire weather while we enjoy a break from the hustle-and-bustle of Briggate.

Charles Thornton with his daughters Alice and Annie c. 1874

Charles Thornton with his daughters Alice and Annie c. 1874.