Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Dancing by The Docks

London's decline as a port city in the second half of the twentieth century also saw the end of a transnational nightlife near to the docks of East and South London, with clubs and dance-halls frequented by sailors on leave as well as the migrants from all corners of the globe who settled nearby. There is a fascinating account from 1872 (published in The Metropolitan) of one such dance hall near Ratcliff Highway in East London:

"Not far from Wellclose-square is a large tavern known by the Teutonic sign of the "Preussischer Adler," and into this palace of dazzling light our custodian led us... We could hear the strains of music and the rushing of many feet coming from the floor above, and turning to a staircase on our left, we prepared to ascend. But a placard posted at the foot of the steps attracts our attention, and we pause to read it - this is the substance in brief:- "All persons are requested, before entering the dancing saloon, to leave at the bar their pistols and knives, or any other weapon they may have about them." Fancy such a regulation being necessary in civilised London! At any rate, it was very reassuring to us, and with renewed confidence we mounted to the domains of Terpsichore.
It was a long room, with tables and seats aligning the walls, the centre being given up entirely to a crowd of dancers, who were waltzing to the by no means bad music of half-a-dozen German players, who piped away in a raised orchestra close by the stair-head. But what an assembly! There were French, Spanish, Italian, German, and Dutch seamen; there were Greeks from the Aegean Sea; there were Malays, Lascars, and even the "heathen Chinese," disguised in European costume, with his pigtail rolled up under a navy cap. There were mariners in fezes and serge capotes; there were Mediterranean dandies, girt with broad crimson scarves, and with massive gold earrings glistening as they twirled about. No wonder it had been found necessary to collect the knives and pistols from the hot-blooded cosmopolitan crowd. A blow is soon given, and with weapons at hand, who can tell where a quarrel might end? Yet I must say that, while we were present, everything was conducted in the most orderly manner, though the animated impassioned talk in a dozen different languages led one to imagine that a breach of the peace was imminent at any moment.

The waltz, which all alike danced admirably, had something of the heroic about it. Each couple made three or four sharp turns, and then came to a pause with a smart stamp and heads thrown back defiantly. Catching the time to a nicety, they would repeat the movement; and when I mention that there were considerably more than a hundred dancers on the floor, the staccato effect of the stamp, coming almost simultaneously, may be imagined. Of the female portion of the assemblage, I need not say more than that they were, in nearly every instance, foreign, the German and Flemish nationality mostly predominating. Short "Dolly Vardens," scrupulously clean, embroidered petticoats, and neatly-fitting high-heeled Hungarian boots, was apparently the favourite costume. To come suddenly upon the "Preussicher Adler's dancing saloon" out of the crowded streets of the English metropolis has a most startling effect upon the casual visitor, who is unprepared for any thing of the kind. It is absolutely as though one had been transferred, magically, to a casino in the neighbourhood of the docks of Marseilles or Genoa, or to the halls of "Tutti Nazioni" (all nations) on the Marina of Messina.

Another account appears in Twice Round the London Clock by Stephen Graham, published in 1933, with a chapter entitled Dancing Sailors describing a visit to a North Woolwich dance hall: "The interior of California in North Woolwich is something like part of a ship...perhaps that is why an otherwise ordinary public house has become one of the gay spots in Dockland...The sailors ashore looks for something like a boat, and they are almost all sailors who dance there."

There is dancing to "the shabbiest piano, with its top partly removed to let out more noise, and then to a one-man jazz band of the kind that used to be the wonder of children in the streets" and "The barmaids are buxom, well-cared for and independent. Sailors treat them respectfully. But the dancing girls, in their smart stockings and shabby everything else would really be kept out of the public houses except that they bring more custom". However, not everyone is interested in dancing with women - "the men did not get off with the girls at all" but "danced together in the funniest burlesque style...when there is shore leave one may see hundreds of couples of sailors dancing together". The author blames this on jazz, which has "infected ships by way of radio and, as, except on passenger ships, there are no women the 'nancy boys' dance together."
Thanks to Greenwich Phantom for the Stephen Graham quotes and image - I must try and get hold of this book.


bob said...

I know this isn't relevant, although it seems appropriate to say in light of the current political situation, that Stephen Graham was a very right-wing person, who was obsessively supportive of Greater Russian nationalism, the Orthodox Church and the Romanov dynasty. He rationalised pogroms against the Jews, an issue over which he crossed swords with Israel Zangwill, one of my heroes.

Anyway, I would sure love to go back in time to those gay spots in Docklands!

Transpontine said...

Must admit I'd never heard of Stephen Graham before.