Pantomimes grew to be increasingly popular and elaborate forms of theatrical entertainment in the Victorian era. Dictionary.com describes pantomimes as, “a theatrical entertainment, mainly for children, that involves music, topical jokes, and slapstick comedy and is based on a fairy tale or nursery story, usually produced around Christmas.”
Because they were centered around Christmas and fairy-tales, a visit to a pantomime around Christmas time became a popular form of entertainment for families with children. Often overlooked, though, were the children that performed in them. Because there were so many poor families, and children, they and their parents clamored for the jobs, as shown in the handbill attached to this post.
In an article found at the Victoria and Albert Museum website, one can learn that there were sometimes over 600 actors in a given pantomime—all needing costumes—and that during the Christmas holidays sometimes two performances a day would be put on. That is a lot of work, especially for children. The V and A tells us that, “The most elaborate Victorian pantomimes were at Drury Lane Theatre in London.”
The Christmas, 1883 pantomime at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, really was Cinderella as I have portrayed it in A Lady in Disguise, and my son was able to locate a copy of the actual script so, for the most part, the words drawn from that performance are the ones that were spoken.
About this same time, a woman named Ellen Barlee took up the cause of the Pantomime Waifs, as they were known, pointing out that they were often exploited as child laborers. She exposed that the children were not being educated, and given the negative public sentiment about actresses (who were thought to have low morals) the girls themselves had a difficult time finding employment when they were no longer children. Barlee worked tirelessly to help the girls develop wholesome domestic skills that they might use to find employment later, rather than being further exploited.
There was a theatrical mission on King Street, in the theatre district, during that era, which reached out to actresses, actors, and pantomime waifs. Because prostitution, including child prostitution, was common during the Victorian Era, too, people of good heart sought ways to protect the vulnerable from exploitation.