Rossini’s ‘cat song’ provokes uproar at the theatre and medical students threaten to give the police the Bartholomew “touch”.

OxMusHall1918

Medical students have a long established reputation for high jinx and drink related antics. They study hard, so the saying goes, and play hard so it is no surprise to see a number of them appearing before the London magistracy in the 1800s. This case involves several medical students from St Bartholomew’s Hospital but in particular a young man named Charles Astley, who lived in Ealing.

Astley was charged before Mt Knox at Marlborough Street for assaulting a man at the Oxford Music Hall on the corner of Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road. Mr Knox’s court was packed with Astley’s fellow students, some of whom were also charged with a range of less serious offences related to Astley’s arrest and the circumstances of it. As a result the magistrate had to continually insist they behaved themselves or he would have them all ejected.

The complaint was brought by a Mr Freame (or possibly Freene), an employee of the theatre, and prosecuted in court by his counsel, who had the suitably festive name of Mr Sleigh. He explained that on several occasions large numbers of students had turned up at the music hall and had caused a disturbance. Their behaviour was riotous, disorderly and drunken. In the end the proprietor, Mr Syers, had been obliged to call on the police for support in keeping order.

On the night in question there were no less than 18 police constable deployed at the venue (which held around 1,800 paying customers. All was well until just before 11 o’clock at night when Signor Aldine took to the stage and began to sing. He sang the ‘Cat Song’ (which may well have been Duetto buffo di due gate or “humorous duet for two cats”, sometimes attributed to Rossini). I’m no expert on opera but it appears to be a song about two cats meowing to each other. At this point the medical students started to make a lot of noise, Astley ‘principal among them’. The musical director asked for quite but they ignored him, carrying on their commotion and shouting out things like ‘splendid’.

The Oxford Music Hall had undergone a rebuild after a fire in 1872, reopening in 1873 not long before the medical students caused such a fracas there.* So perhaps its not surprising that the owners were keen to avoid too much disturbance as they established themselves as a major nighttime venue when there was plenty of competition in the 1870s.

As the police moved in blows were thrown and abuse was shouted. Mr Freame said he made a grab for Astley, who he saw as a ringleader, and the medical student grabbed hold of his collar and manhandled him. Eventually Astley was whisked away to the nearest police station but about 500 students gathered outside the music hall threatening to ‘give the police the Bartholomew “touch” [and shouting] ‘let the bobbies have it’. Four of them were subsequently arrested and also appeared in court with their chum.

One of the Middlesex hospital’s teaching fellows, a lecturer on physiology, appeared to speak up for the young men and to say that if the charges were all dropped he had been assured that there would be no further instances of bad behaviour at the music hall. Mr Knox was not minded to take this case lightly however. He had, he said, already warned about excessive disorderly behaviour and drunkenness at the hall and would now carry through on his threat to deal harshly with offenders.

Ashley would go to the Central Criminal Court to face  a trial by jury and he insisted the other young men keep the peace in the meantime. One of them, John Pogose, he fined 40s (or one month in prison) for his part in the disturbances that followed Astley’s arrest. The other three were bound by their own recognizances to appear in January. Ashley appeared at the Old Bailey on 10 January on a charge of wounding but the jury couldn’t reach a verdict and he was discharged.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, December 21, 1875]

*Those of you of a certain age you will be familiar with the site of the music hall, which was where Virgin Records stood on Oxford Street from the 1970s. If you are a little older you may recall the same premises as belonging to Lyon’s Corner House (which opened in 1927).

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