“Ernest Augustus Elen was an English music hall singer and comedian. He achieved success from 1891, performing cockney songs including “Arf a Pint of Ale”, “It’s a Great Big Shame”, “Down the Road” and “If It Wasn’t for the ‘Ouses in Between” in a career lasting over thirty years.
Born in Pimlico, London, Elen had worked as a barman and a draper’s assistant and had packed eggs for the Co-op before becoming a singer. He began busking at an early age and found a position singing in a minstrel troupe. His solo success began in 1891 when he started performing in public houses, singing songs in a manner similar to many cockney fruit sellers of the time, known as costermongers – from the old word ‘costard’ , meaning apple. Because of this, he became known as a “coster comedian”. For the stage persona he had created, Elen dressed in a coster uniform of striped jersey, peaked cap turned towards one ear and a short clay pipe in the side of his mouth. His characters adopted a persona of being constantly bad tempered and pugnacious…(Elen) bought the rights to “Never introduce your donah to a pal” from the song’s writer A.E Durandeau, (donah was cockney slang meaning girlfriend). The song was performed on stage on 4 June 1891, at Harewood’s varieties in Hoxton.
“If It Wasn’t for the ‘Ouses In Between” is perhaps Elen’s most recognisable song and is about the little backyards of London houses which are hemmed in by row upon row of other houses in all of the other streets in the neighbourhood. It is set in a typical working day of an east end costermonger.
In 1907 he starred in a short film called Wait Till the Work Comes Round.
In his later years, Elen went to America during the English music hall strike. He performed the same act as he did in the UK, but box-office sales show that he was less successful than his friend, the singer Albert Chevalier, and so he returned to the UK. He then made several appearances as a top attraction in music halls across London. He appeared on stage occasionally in the 1930s, albeit briefly, and he appeared in the 1935 Royal Command Performance. He retired in 1914, shortly after returning from America. He made occasional appearances on stage and film before his death in 1940 aged 77.
Elen was a fiercely private person and although he was married with children, he would never refer to his family by their names when interviewed by the press. From 1898 Elen lived largely in Balham, where he bred poultry and took up photography. He also became a keen fisherman, particularly during a spell in residence on the south coast (Walmer, Kent, which was a base for his sea fishing obsession; the ‘Deal Society’ is considering having a blue plaque fitted to the property), and enjoyed shooting. Elen would not socialise with fellow artists, opting instead to go fishing, shooting or driving around the English countryside.”