This is a story of the darker side of Victorian theatre which follows the complex links between the London Pavilion Theatre in Piccadilly Circus, Kilburn and a vicious acid attack on an actress.
The London Pavilion
The imposing London Pavilion occupies a prominent site at the corner of Shaftsbury Avenue and Piccadilly Circus. In the late 1980s the building was gutted and redeveloped behind the Grade II listed façade.
This was the second ‘Pav’ on the site: the first dated from 1859 and was a humble affair, an entertainment room attached to the Black Horse Inn in Tichborne Street (now part of Great Windmill Street). It was the brainchild of Emil Loibl and his business partner Charles Sonnhammer who roofed in the irregularly shaped yard of the Inn to create the first London Pavilion Music Hall. A gallery was added on the north and east sides in 1861, and further improvements followed in 1876. Both men were born in Vienna and came to England in January 1844. Fifteen years later they had married English women, become naturalized British citizens and were wealthy men. The Pav attracted the great stars of the music hall such as Bessie Bellwood, Arthur Lloyd, and George Leybourne, while enormously popular performers like Jenny Hill and Albert Chevalier started their careers there.
|Opening of the original London Pavillion, the men with top hats are probably Loibl and Sonnhammer|
Sonnhammer ended their partnership and opened Scott’s Restaurant in nearby Coventry Street. Loibl remained as the Pav proprietor until 1878, when he was awarded £109,300 (worth an astonishing £10M today), by the Metropolitan Board of Works (MBW) for the freehold of the property. This was part of a major redevelopment of the area to create Shaftsbury Avenue. Loibl retired and became a cigarette and cigar importer as Markovitz and Co. 11 Air Street, Regent Street.
The Kilburn connection is that from 1872 to 1880 Loibl lived in ‘Springfield House’, and at No.7 Waterloo Cottages, on the Willesden side of the High Road. These were large houses near today’s Tricycle Cinema. In 1882 Emil divorced his wife Mary Anne for adultery, and two years later married American-born Emma Tannenbaum who was 34 years his junior. From 1888 to 1898 they lived at various addresses in Maida Vale. He died aged 83 on 10 May 1914 at 112 Greencroft Gardens and left £22,832, (worth over £2M today). Emma died in Ticehurst Sussex in 1926.
His partner, Charles Sonnhammer died in Brighton in 1895 and left £31,048 (worth about £3.5M today), to his wife.
Robert Edwin Villiers
Edwin Villiers had run several theatres and was the proprietor of the Canterbury Music Hall in Westminster Bridge Road. He went bankrupt in 1877 with liabilities of £60,000. He said the takings at the Canterbury averaged between £600 to £800 a week and he hoped to be able to pay all his creditors in full.
In August 1879 he took over the old London Pavilion and paid the MBW £7,000 per year (worth about £700,000 today) for the lease. Frederick William Goddard, the Metropolitan Board’s chief valuer and surveyor, informed Villiers through an intermediary that he expected ‘something for himself’ and Villiers paid Goddard £50 a quarter ‘under the counter’. In 1884 when it looked as though the old theater was going to be demolished, Villiers met Goddard and other MBW officials and agreed a secret and complex deal. Villiers built the new London Pavilion on the large triangular site facing Piccadilly Circus. This included the Black Lion site and the last performance in the old theatre took place on 26 March 1885. It was demolished and just eight months later, the impressive London Pavilion opened on 30 November 1885. Today, on the Shaftsbury Avenue side there is a plaque saying ‘This stone, the first in the new street was laid by Robert Edwin Villiers, 8th June 1885’.
|London Pavillion, 1890s|
In December 1886, Villiers sold the Pavilion to the Syndicate Halls Company for a large amount of money, and Goddard received a total of £5,000 of the proceeds. This was only one of the secret agreements entered into by the MBW and exposed by the Financial News. This led to a scandal and a Royal Commission inquiry in 1888. By that time the Board had gained such a bad reputation that the public dubbed it the ‘Metropolitan Board of Perks’. Partly as a result of the enquiry, the MBW was abolished under the Local Government Act 1888 and the LCC was elected on 21 January 1889.
|Cartoon of Edwin Villiers|
Robert Edwin Villiers was born in Clerkenwell in 1830, the son of a tailor. He worked as an actor and comedian before becoming a theatre manager. In 1856 he married the actress Rosa Antoinette (Nora) Schott who was born in Toronto in 1833. She had been on stage at the Haymarket Theatre with Villiers from 1854 to 1856. In 1880 Rosa filed for a judicial separation saying that Edwin had committed adultery with her sister, Cecilia Schott who was also an actress. He did not defend the case. From about 1881 to 1890, Edwin Villiers lived in 4 Loudoun Road, St John’s Wood. He died in Bickenhall Mansions in Gloucester Place in April 1904 and left £49,927 (worth over £5M today) to his son.
In 1901 Rosa Villiers was living in Hove. There is a connection between Rosa and Fanny Cornforth, the model who lived with the Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti. She is one of several red-haired, so called ‘stunners’ who appear in his paintings, and she lived with him for over 25 years. After Rossetti’s death in 1882 she married Rosa’s brother John Schott. By 1907 Fanny was suffering from dementia. It has recently been discovered that Rosa arranged for Fanny to become a patient in the Graylingwell mental asylum in Chichester, where she died aged 72 in February 1909 under her previous married name of Sarah Hughes. Nine years later in October 1918, Rosa died in Torquay aged 85.
|'The kissed mouth', Fanny Cornforth by Rossetti, 1859|
The last connection in the story is between Edwin Villiers and Charles Henry Hodson who were both theatre managers, but at different ends of the scale.
Charles Henry Hodson
Hodson was born in Clapham in 1841 the son of a commission agent. For a short time he worked as a comic with the stage name Harry Don. He said that his family didn’t want him working in the theatre so he used the names Stanley Hodson, and Hodson Stanley when he was a theatrical agent. It was during this time that he met the much more successful Edwin Villiers.
In January 1869 Hodson’s first venture in management at the Theatre Royal in Colchester was a total flop. On Thursday of the first week when he had only taken 15 shillings; he announced the show was cancelled and the audience would get their money back. When they learned there was no money for salaries, the actors locked Hodson in his office overnight. The next day he paid them the £4 he had in his pocket and allowed them to pawn his diamond ring. But he subsequently sued them for assault and three actors were fined 1s and 6s 8d costs. In turn he was sued under the ‘Masters and Servants Act’ for not paying one of the actors a week’s salary. Hodson successfully argued that actors were not servants and the case was dismissed.
Lulu, the Beautiful Goddess of the Air
A few years later he was somewhat more successful. For ten months in 1875 he was the business manager for Lulu, a famous young gymnast who toured Europe. A highlight of her act was an enormous leap from the ground to a platform 25 feet high. In fact, she was propelled by a contraption hidden under the stage which fired her into the air. In 1877, while performing with Hengler’s Circus in Dublin, the mechanism malfunctioned and Lulu was badly injured. When treated by a doctor, Lulu had to admit that she was really a boy. Lulu was an American called Sam Wasgate who had been adopted by Guillermo Antonio Farini, whose real name was William Leonard Hunt. They toured as the Flying Farinis; Guillermo was a tightrope walker who tried to rival Blondin. Some years later when he was interviewed in New York, Lulu said his greatest problem had been fighting off the attentions of a German Baron who wanted to marry him!
|The Flying Farinis|
The Cannon Ball
In 1876 Hodson ran a theatrical agency at 30 Tavistock Street, Covent Garden and had periodic work as a business manager for various acts. At the end of October 1879 Hodson Stanley organised a ‘Grand Dramatic Ball’ for the ‘friends of the dramatic profession’ at the Cannon Street Hotel. The tickets cost half a guinea. ‘The Era’, the theatrical trade newspaper, published a very critical letter from ‘Cannon Ball’ who had attended the evening. He wrote that there was little evidence of any theatrical drama, there were no known actresses, and that some of the young women who wore fancy dress, were dressed in short shirts and carried skipping ropes. The suggestion was that many of them were ‘painted harlots’ or prostitutes. About 200 men and 100 women attended the ball. Hodson Stanley sued Edward Ledger the editor of The Era, for publishing a libellous letter. In court Clement Scott the theatre critic of The Era, admitted he had written the ‘Cannon Ball’ letter.
Edwin Villiers gave evidence and said he had known Hodson Stanley for about seven years. He had been given a ticket and did not see any indecency at the ball. The great actor Henry Irving who was a friend of Edward Ledger, was bizarrely called to give his opinion on the suitability of the costumes. After hearing several days of evidence, the jury decided Stott’s letter contained rather severe criticisms, but was not libellous.
The Acid Attack
Using his real name, in 1882 Charles Henry Stanley married Louisa Cooper in Clerkenwell. She was about 20 years younger than him. On the 5 March 1885 Louisa was appearing in the chorus of the pantomime at the Prince of Wales Theatre in Liverpool under her stage name Dora Keene. Two days earlier she had received a letter from her husband saying she must return to London or he would come and get her. While she waited in a cab outside the theatre, Stanley suddenly appeared in the street. He had been to her lodgings where he found several love letters signed ‘Harry’. In a fit of jealous rage, he threw oil of vitriol or sulphuric acid in her face, then waited until he was arrested. In court Stanley said about two years ago he suffered from a serious illness of the spine and had to walk with crutches. The doctors told him he had about 12 months to live. Unusually, at the trial he was allowed to fiercely cross examine Louisa (he had previously been a solicitor’s clerk). He said when he first met her she was living in poverty as a household drudge with her step mother. He married her and taught her how to act and sing so she could go on the stage. From her few engagements and £2 a week salary, she gave him 10s or 15s. The doctor from the hospital where she was treated, said the sulphuric acid had scarred her face permanently and she might lose the sight of her right eye. In his defence Stanley said the illness had affected his brain and when he had carried out the attack he was effectively mad. The jury found him guilty but recommended mercy. The judge said the attack was very serious and warranted a sentence of 10 years but following the jury’s recommendation he reduced it to five years.
Stanley was so ill when he arrived at Pentonville on 5 May 1885, he was sent straight to the prison hospital. Close to death, he was asked if he wanted to see anybody. Stanley replied he had no friends or relatives apart from his wife and he did not want to see her. Later he asked to see Mr Villiers of the Pavilion Theatre. When Edwin Villiers was contacted, he made the excuse that he only knew Hodson by sight, and was unable to see him because of business engagements. Stanley died the next day, aged 42. We do not know what became of Louisa.
This complicated story, following a chain of people, has looked at the underside of the theatre world in late Victorian England to show financial corruption, madness and violence.