At the beginning of the 1800s in Britain, popular places one could go and amuse themselves would be fairs for the more rural, pleasure gardens for the more suburban, and of course taverns and saloons. Especially in the fairs and the pleasure gardens, one could not only drink, but had a number of amusements with which to occupy oneself. Thus some taverns and saloons started to incorporate entertainment.
Taverns and saloons were known as public houses, that is houses where the public could gather and socialize (and DRINK). Shortened, you could just call a public house a ‘pub’.
But by the middle of the century, due to the exploding industrial revolution, more and more of the population was living in urban areas and looking for entertainment. Larger public houses would offer long rows of tables where you could eat a meal, drink profusely, smoke, and watch a singer and hear some music. These became exceedingly popular and in 1852 the first establishment, Canterbury Hall in Lambeth, was built to specifically house this type of nightlife (and seat 1500 people). Thus the Music Hall was born.
The entertainment became more varied. There was always a piano and a number of singers who would perform, and eventually more instruments were added and some Halls would have their own in Hall orchestra. If you think of the Beatles song ‘When I’m 64′, this is a very good approximation of the Music Hall band and sound. Paul McCartney wrote it for his father who had been a musician in a Music Hall. Indeed the entire Sgt. Peppers persona is a direct throwback to the great British Music Hall tradition.
Comedy acts would appear, skits, “specialty acts” (acts with some sort of shtick, like magician, ventriloquist, juggling dwarf, etc) and in the upper class Halls maybe a watered down ballet or an actress reading some from a famous play or poetry.
Here’s an actual video of an actual performer at a Music Hall. Indeed, it’s a male impersonator, Vasta Tilley, who was a huge star on the circuit from about 1890 to 1920 when she gave her last performance at 58. The song, Burlington Bertie the Bow was one of her signature songs and as well known as Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It) back in the day.
Famous singers had songs written specifically for them and they would tour the circuit almost exactly like their american vaudevillian counterparts. Indeed many performers would at some point cross the pond to do a romp on the other side. Stages were built even bigger, the bands got bigger, the laughs, the cheers, the drunken sing alongs, the intercrowd socializing between numbers… it was a way of life for many patrons as well as performers.
Around 1900 the Music Hall phenomena was at its zenith a zenith that continued all the way to and through WWI. But then came radio and film and after WWII, with the advent of television, it died quickly. By the late 1950s it was gone.