In many of the thoroughfares of London there are shops which have been turned into a kind of temporary theatre (admission one penny), where dancing and singing take place every night. Rude pictures of the performers are arranged outside, to give the front a gaudy and attractive look, and at night-time coloured lamps and transparencies are displayed to draw an audience. These places are called by the costers "Penny Gaffs;" and on a Monday night as many as six performances will take place, each one having its two hundred visitors.Many of those attracted to the Penny Gaffs were young and poorly educated. James Greenwood notes that there was no reduction in the tariff for children since,
...such an arrangement would reduce the takings exactly fifty per cent. They are all children who support the gaff. Costermonger boys and girls, from eight or nine to fourteen years old, and errand boys and girls employed at factories.Writing in 1869, Greenwood found the Penny Gaffs both widespread and dangerous, estimating "that within a circuit of five miles of St. Paul’s, at least twenty of these dangerous dens of amusement might be enumerated." The coster lads and lasses who made up the bulk of the attendees, were amongst the roughest in London; always ready for a fight or a frolic. One of them told Mayhew how,
On a Sunday I goes out selling, and all I yarns I keeps. As for going to church, why, I can‘t afford it,--besides, to tell the truth, I don‘t like it well enough. Plays, too, ain‘t in my line much; I‘d sooner go to a dance--its more livelier. The ‘penny gaffs’ is rather more in my style; the songs are out and out, and makes our gals laugh. The smuttier the better, I thinks; bless you! the gals likes it as much as we do.What was it like to attend one of these Penny Gaffs? The admission was a penny and on entering one might find a place set up where they could buy something basic to eat or to drink. The Penny Gaffs, according to the journalist George Augustus Sala were "abominably dirty," smelling of unclean bodies "and of the shag tobacco they are smoking." Here one might wait until the current house emptied and a new one was formed. J. Ewing Ritchie, who visited a Penny Gaff in 1859, described his experience. After paying his admission fee, he did not gain immediate entry but was forced
...to wait with several others, chiefly boys, very dirty, who regard us apparently with no very favourable eye, till a fresh house is formed. Our new acquaintances are not talkative, and we are not sorry when our turn comes to enter the dirty hole set apart for the entertainment...When one entered the performance area, there was usually a pit which held approximately fifty people and there might be some wooden benches arranged to form a primitive gallery to hold the overflow. In 1853, Max Schlesinger commented on the practice of men sitting on one side and women on the other and suggested it was because the men "chiefly labourers and apprentices, luxuriate during the representation in the aroma of their “pickwicks,” a weed of which we can assure the reader that it is not to be found in the Havanna."
After a bit of a warm-up by the director, the show begins. It may be composed of a series of vignettes, songs and short sketches. It was common for there to be something of a patriotic - even jingoistic - nature to play on the emotions of the crowd. When Schlesinger attended a performance in 1853, it ended with the mock repeling of an invasion by Napoleon in which
just as the invader has gained the edge of the stage, he is attacked by the sailor, who, applying his foot to a part of the Frenchman’s body which shall be nameless, kicks that warrior back into the pit. The public cheer, Britannia and the Lord Mayor dance a polka, and the sailor sings “God save the Queen!”Ritchie, on visiting another Penny Gaff in a rougher neighborhood described the proceedings as “indecent and disgusting, yet very satisfactory to the half grown girls and boys present'” while James Greenwood suggested that the police
...be roused to increased vigilance in the suppression, as well as the arrest of criminality, it would be as well if those in authority directed their especial attention to these penny theatres. As they at present exist, they are nothing better than hot-beds of vice in its vilest forms.