Victorian Entertainments


Billiard Rooms – Public billiard rooms were, generally, a working class attraction with some serving alcohol and, or food, though many were not licensed as such.   Cost was by the hour, typically 1/0 with an extra 0/6 charge at night for the gas lighting over the tables.


Clubs – While not ‘Entertainment’ per se, they were an important part of the social scene for the middle and upper classes in London. Open only to members and invited guests (membership often had strict requirements, and a prospective member had to be voted in, with the attendant risk of being “black balled”), the clubs provided a comfortable place to go; to eat dinner, have a drink, and socialize with other members of similar interests and tastes. They sometimes offered other amenities: the Athenaeum Club, for example, had one of the finest private libraries in London, with over 30,000 volumes by 1865.  (See the page on Clubs for more information.)


The Crystal Palace – . Built in Hyde Park for the 1851 Great Exhibition, it was moved in 1854 to Sydenham Hill in South London. Nearly 200 acres and using almost a million square feet of glass, it was a wonder of the age, and displayed technological and artistic marvels from all over the world. One of the many attractions was a display of life-size sculptures of dinosaurs (as they were then understood).

Price shown is Saturday only; admission during the rest of the week is 1/0; closed on Sundays.

Crystal Palace, admission (on Saturday)




Dime Novels – First published in 1860; a short, cheap paperback book with a lurid and melodramatic theme, usually about crime, adventure, and action – the ‘Wild West’ was a popular source of subject matter. They were the “pulps” of the 19th century.

“Dime Novel”, each




Dioramas, Panoramas, and the Cosmorama – These were large attractions, ranging in size up to a small theatre, and used carefully painted panels and backdrops, lighting, and sometimes even musical effects. When viewed through screens or lenses, they created the startlingly realistic illusion of seeing famous buildings, landscapes, or panoramas of battlefields.

Dioramas, Panoramas, etc.

0.25 – 0.50

1/0 – 2/0

The lower prices are for the single-attraction displays.

Freak Shows – Filling the crowded lanes of the East End, various side-shows and freak shows displayed everything from pickled fetuses and five-legged calves to Joseph Merrick, the famous “Elephant Man”. They might be a single room or cart with a lone curiosity, displayed for a half-penny or penny, to an elaborate hall with numerous rooms and displays.

Freak Show

0.01 – 0.06

0/ – 0/3

The lower prices are for the single-attraction displays.

Magic Lantern Shows – Part slide show, part documentary lecture, part light show; the Magic Lantern or Stereopticon was popular fare both in private drawing rooms and large public halls. One could purchase prepared lectures, complete with script and slides.


Music Halls – Extremely popular among all social classes, with halls in the West End, Central London and the suburbs, and finally in the East End, with a clientele (and acts) appropriate to the character of the location. They featured variety acts of all descriptions – singing, music, dancing, juggling, animal acts, tableaux, popular actresses reciting poetry; very similar to the later vaudeville.


“Nickel-in-the-Slot” and the “Penny Arcade” – Several popular coin-operated amusements were invented toward the end of the century: the Edison “Nickel-in -the-slot” phonograph (1889), which allowed 4 patrons to listen to a recording through earphones.


Lectures, Public– Often given at museums or other large public venues they were quite popular with the Middle Class and the Upper Working Class they often featured noted authors, Professors, Scientists and professional speakers.  Topics might range from the latest archeological discoveries in Egypt, paleontology, foreign cultures, scientific discoveries or social and political issues.  Admission was usually free or at most a few pence or a shilling.


“Penny Dreadful” – A cheap, illustrated magazine in tabloid format with lurid and melodramatic stories, usually about crime and criminals. The British equivalent of the ‘Dime Novel’.


“Penny Gaffe” – A very lowbrow type of theatre found in the East End of London. Admission was a penny; two if you wanted a seat in the “galleries” (tiers of raised wooden benches – bleacher fashion – on each side of the theatre; men were seated on one side, women on the other). The patrons were often tradesmen, apprentices, and the young, and the entertainment was usually a rougher, bawdier version of Music Hall fare.


“Raree-Show” – Also known as a “Peep Show”; run by itinerant street performers, these were boxes that contained a number of pictures that could be viewed one at a time through small holes in the side. The box could be lit by a candle at night. The pictures were usually some dramatic and newsworthy event like the Crimean War, the Indian Rebellion, famous sporting events, etc.


Theatre – During the first half of the 19th century, the theatre slowly declines in popularity among the middle classes due to the (low) reputation of performers and the rowdy behavior of the audiences. After 1850, the theatre begins to improve its image, and by the end of the century was extremely popular among all social classes. Lavish productions were staged, with spectacular sets and effects.