Fanny - a new musichall

Lichfield Garrick


Know about the Contagious Diseases Act? No? Then you are probably not alone by a long chalk. The act was one of the darker moments in our social history.

It was also a bleak episode that Lichfield academic and playwright Carolyn Scott Jeffs wanted to portray in a play but was struggling to find a vehicle that would be neither a lecture nor a history lesson – hence Fanny.

She said that once the idea of combining the iniquity and humiliation of the act with music hall it all came together, so we find ourselves being regaled by Fanny, about to make her debut in Drury Lane as a would-be music hall star.

Dressed in corset and bloomers Lizzie Wofford, who hails originally from Lichfield, gives us a Fanny Potts as cockney as they come, a little risqué at times, adept at playing to the audience, a wannabe Marie Lloyd in the making.

Not only did she belt out music hall favourites, such as Hold Your Hand Out, Naughty Boy, Waiting at the Church, I do like to be beside the seaside, and Ship Ahoy! she had the audience joining in with the supplied song sheets in a real, knees up, down the old Bull and Bush atmosphere.

But behind the greasepaint and footlights Fanny had a tale to tell of Elsie . . . her friend. A woman from a respectable middle class family who had slipped down the slope from respectability to become a fallen woman.

arthur and Fanny

Peter John Dodsworth as Arthur and Lizzie Wofford as Fanny

And Wofford became every character at the drop of a hat, or shawl, or pull on dress in her tale of woe. Through her we met Elsie and her parents who disowned her when she went off with the handsome, but illiterate and poor Harold. 

It was a relationship that was not going to survive pregnancy leaving Elsie Waiting at The Church. So now pregnant, homeless and penniless she is rejected again by her parents in a never darken my door moment leaving her in the workhouse, where her baby son is taken from her at birth.

The descent is picking up speed and changes up a gear when she is taken on by Ma Jeffries, one of the best known procurers in the business.

For a moment there was a chance of redemption – Charlie a sailor wanted her to stop working for Ma and be with him – but then she ran into the Contagious Diseases Act and Charlie thought better of the liaison.

It was an act which in essence declared every woman in a port or garrison town was a prostitute unless she was shown not to have a sexually transmitted disease – and the police could stop anyone they felt like, with the flimsiest of reasons, and take them in on suspicion of being a working girl.

Once arrested they were subject to statutory humiliating and painful medical examinations and if declared clear were given a certificate. If found to be infected they were placed in a locked ward in a Lock Hospital for three months, later a year, for inadequate and ineffective treatment until they were either cured or, had completed their sentence.

Lock hspital

The London Lock hospital which opened in 1747 and finally closed in 1952

From the moment Elsie was arrested the tone changes, Fanny reads a sad poem she has written about a son given up by a mother in the workhouse, a mother who follows similar steps to Elsie. The fun has gone, the mood more sombre. Fanny becomes Florence Nightingale and Northumberland born Josephine Butler who campaigned against the act.

There was also a quite stunning transformation of music hall songs, giving them a whole new meaning by changing style and changing to minor keys.

From fun singalongs they became sad, lovelorn ballads, Hold Your Hand Out, Naughty Boy could have been a chanson française written by a Brel or sung by a Piaf; Ship Ahoy would not have looked out of place in The Beggar’s Opera, Waiting at The Church became a jazz lament.

All the while Fanny had been accompanied by Arthur, the pianist, played, and played on the keyboard beautifully, by Peter John Dodsworth, but at the end we saw a parting when we were left to wonder if Fanny and Elsie really were friends and not just one person’s past and present.

It is a powerful and emotional performance from Wofford who has to play a whole range of characters and she manages to give them all a life of their own, initially with good humour, later resigned to her fate.

Scott Jeffs has opened a window on an episode of Britain’s social history that, understandably, is hardly crowed about, even its repeal in 1886 is pushed out of sight, out of mind. She has managed it with a one woman – and one pianist – show that is interesting, informative, without any hint of moralising or lecturing, and, above all, making it entertaining. Not only will you enjoy it, you will learn something in the process. To 30-06-17.

Roger Clarke


The Contagious Diseases Acts were first passed in 1864, ostensibly to protect her majesty’s soldiers and sailors from the French Disease, syphilis, as it was known and pissing pins and needles as gonorrhea was euphemistically referred to.

Few servicemen were allowed to marry as a wife was thought to be a distraction on the battlefield, but the Establishment felt sex was necessary for the well-being of the men, so prostitution was a necessary evil – and there was the rub; a third of sick cases in the forces in 1864 were for STDs. Hospital admissions into hospitals for gonorrhea and syphilis had reached a staggering 290.7 per 1,000 of total troop strength – whole battalions in bed.

So the act was designed to protect servicemen from disease - or perhaps more accurately to ensure fewer servicemen were laid up in hospital rather than ready to fight for Queen and Country.

In effect any woman in a designated port or garrison town or city could be arrested on suspicion of prostitution, which could be a working girl asking passers by if they want a bit of fun, or could be a middle class wife or shop girl walking home, a servant on an errand or a woman out for any manner of innocent reasons.

So at one extreme she could be someone giving genuine rise to suspicion, or at the other the hapless victim of a corrupt or bored policemen, or a constable who fancied a night in the warm station with a suspect rather than being on the streets in the cold and rain.

Once arrested the women were subjected to examination and testing was that was brutal, primitive and far from accurate, if a trace of disease was declared they could be placed in locked hospitals for up to three months, extended to a year in the 1869 acts.

Victorian men were not always paragons of virtue and prostitution was rife, which means respectable wives could be infected by wayward husbands, while 290.7 servicemen per 1,000 had probably been spreading STDs willy nilly for months before the symptoms became painful, obvious or debilitating, yet men were not even considered in the acts which, after fierce opposition, were finally repealed in 1886.

The two leading campaigns, incidentally, were the National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts, set up in 1869 which, ironically, initially refused to allow women in to its meetings, which led to the rapid formation by Josephine Butler of the Ladies National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts which, together, brought about victory after a 17 year fight. 

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