Victorian London - Entertainment and Recreation - Dancing - Argyll Rooms

[closed 1878, reopened as Trocadero Music Hall in 1882, ed.]

    Public decency is in a difficulty, and it seems that the remedy is worse than the disease. We appear to be in that condition which the Roman historian has described as the vice of a falling State - we can neither endure our vices nor their cures. Last year, in a transport of moral and popular indignation, we closed the Argyll Rooms because they were the focus and complex of all metropolitan vice. This year we open them, because, on the whole, it is better that the vicious population should be brought together than that it should be let loose on society. There is antecedently much to be said for either view of the moral question. A whole cloud of evidence was brought, on the recent occasion of the proprietor of the Rooms applying for a licence, to show that the streets have been in a worse state since the lorettes of London were deprived of their customary home, than when they had a local habitation. And, had the evidence stopped here, it might have proved something. But, unfortunately, the proprietor went beyond this. The justification of such an institution is that it is a moral cesspool. But it cannot be at the same time a cesspool and a healing fountain. Evidence was tendered that the Argyll Rooms were frequented by respectable tradesmen and their wives. Five or six hundred noblemen and gentlemen are said to have offered, or to have been ready to offer, their testimony to the admirable way in which the Rooms were conducted. The music is of the most scientific character, order and decorum find their chosen home in Windmill Street, and the evidence at least suggests that casinos divide with the pulpit the duty of preserving the general social health of London. This is proving a little too much. Had the argument confined itself to the one simple ground that immorality must be, and that on the whole it is better that immorality and its haunts should be under decent and responsible management and control, we own to a growing conviction that it was right to grant the licence - not because the Argyll Rooms are a moral institution, but because, so long as they are open under the care and responsibility of a respectable, or at least substantial person, public morality suffers less than when harlotry unattached turns a whole quarter of London to an unlicensed Argyll Rooms and something worse.
    The Argyll Rooms, and casinos generally, are known to be the haunts of the femmes libres of society. This is, if fairly stated, their justification. The objection urged to licensing them is that we do evil that good may ensue - that we openly recognize, and so far authenticate and stamp with the authority of the State and Government, a flagrant violation of the moral law. It is said that we establish, and so far encourage, immorality as soon as we recognize it. ... Has the State moral duties or not? If it has, if it is bound to provide for public decency, it must, in the grave matter of sexual immorality, do one of two things - either attempt utterly to prohibit sins against the seventh commandment, and to enforce the prohibition, or so far tolerate them as at least to admit their existence by dealing with them. To talk of prohibiting prostitution and the like is absurd. What there is left for the State is to deal with this and other social evils so as to render them less generally noxious. By dishonestly affecting to deny their existence, we commit an offence not only against truth but against ....... Public morality is more confined in its range than individual duty. It acts upon motives necessarily less heroic - it cannot be so severe and austere in its consistency. If it cannot prohibit prostitution, its first duty is to make the best of it. We have made the worst of it by the impolicy of affecting not to see it.
    If, therefore, we are to accept the licensing of the Argyll Rooms as a public recognition of vice to the extent of placing it under public control, and as a step, not to the system of licensing immoral houses as on the Continent, but to the public and authoritative control of immorality, we should be disposed to accept with some satisfaction the decision of the Middlesex magistrates. What can't be cured must be alleviated. ...  It is better that some hundred females of loose life should be entertained for a few hours in a single room, than that they should be encouraged to prowl about the streets. Whatever thins the loose population of the Haymarket and Regent Street is so far a social gain. We ought to regard the interests, not of the profligate, but of the respectable. At all events, when vice is concentrated in Windmill Street, men must go in cold blood to seek it out, while, flaunting on the pave, it tempts the young and unwary. Few except extreme profligates would go to the recognized haunts of vice; but many fall under the public temptation of the streets who would avoid it in its own dancing and drinking saloons.
    At any rate, the lesson taught by the change of opinion on the part of the Middlesex magistrates since last year is, that it will not do to attempt a system of prosecuting these vicious places by instalments. There is already power in the common law to hunt down immorality by units and in detail. All immoral houses can be suppressed by the parochial authorities - all street-walkers may be arrested by the police. But to carry out the law is simply impossible. What is cut down in one street grows up in the next - the weeds are only transported from Norton Street to Brompton. It is of no use to prohibit - all that we can do is to regulate. We had rather not see a parochial crusade against immorality, for the evil will only be transferred to the other side of the boundary. Let authority deal with any offence against public decency; let the magistrate, or the police, receive additional powers to repress public offences; but the failure of the attempt to put down the Argyll Rooms shows that we are beginning to understand that to control is better than an abortive attempt to prohibit.

Saturday Review, October 16th, 1853




IT is a quarter past eleven o'clock and the Hay market is full of people - men and women jostling each other, many of both sexes being intoxicated; and beggars solicit us at every crossing, doffing their greasy caps and thrusting their dirty paws under our noses in their persistency. The cafes are overflowing with Gauls from across the channel, and when the crowds become too thick to leave the sidewalks passable, the policemen, who are in great numbers here, have to interfere to quell rows every few minutes. They clear the streets in a mild, civil way, very different from the manner of the New York police in like contingencies.
    A stranger cannot help being astonished at the vast, almost incalculable, number of unfortunate women who haunt the Londoim streets in this quarter as the hour of midnight approaches. There must be a great rottenness in Denmark where such a state of things can exist, and exist without any surprise on the part of those who witness such scenes nightly. I paid a shilling to enter the Argyle Rooms, and received a tin check, which was given up at the door, as in the Alhambra. The Argyle has not such high architectural pretensions as the Alhambra, but the class of visitors are better in the sense of dress and position. I entered through a side door, and found myself in a carpeted room, handsomely and tastefully furnished and decorated.
    [-477-] The saloon is nearly as large as Irving Hall, in New York, but lit up in a splendid manner with handsome chandeliers, which depend from the lofty ceiling, the gas jets burning in a deep glow through the shining metal stalactites that ornament the chandeliers. A splendid band of fifty instruments is stationed in the gallery at the further end of the room, and the music is of the best kind. The leader is attired in full evening dress, as is also every fiddler in the band, and the wave of the chef's baton is as graceful as that of Julien, when he was in his prime. Women, dressed in costly silks and satins and velvets, the majority of them wearing rich jewels and gold ornaments, are lounging on the plush sofas in a free and easy way, conversing with men whose dress betoken that they are in respectable society. A number of these are in full evening dress, wearing their overcoats, and a few of them have come from the clubs, a few from dinner parties, and a greater number from the theatres or opera.
    They are not ashamed to be seen here by their acquaintances - far from it; they think this is a nice and clever thing to do, and, as no virtuous woman ever enters this place, there is no danger of meeting those who own a sisterly or still dearer tie, and who might cause a blush to redden the cheeks of these charming young men. Across the lower end of the room an iron railing is stretched, and this keeps the vulgar herd from mingling with the elite of the abandoned women who frequent the Argyle. Three-fourths of the ground space is devoted to dancing, and inside this railing sets are formed at a signal from the band above.
    The charge for admission below, where I stand with the detective surveying this strange scene, is but a shilling, while the entrance fee to the gallery is two shillings, and this admits, as I am told by a servant, to all the privileges of the place whatever they may be. Even in vice the "horrid spirit of caste" prevails. It is chiefly clerks and tradesmen who are dancing in the shilling place, and at the end of each dance, be it waltz or quadrille, the man who has danced is expected to refresh his partner with a copious draught of beer, or a glass of plain gin.
    [- 478-] These women all take their gin without water, and smoke cigarettes if some one will pay for them. Inside the railing it is different. 
    The bars here are furnished with great splendor, and the calls for champagne are incessant. The women call champagne "fizz," and ale "swill." All around the room cushioned seats or benches are placed so that those who have done dancing may rest themselves amid drink. There are liquor counters in every corner of the room, and a good business is done, the bar-maids being kept actively employed all the the while the music is playing. Upstairs there is another gallery and a fine bar, and here the really fast women congregate, to look over the balconies, but never condescending to mix among the vulgar dancers, excepting when their reason is gone through intoxication. These women all carry expensive fans, and their trains are as long as the train of a Countess in a reception at St. James's. There is a handsomely fitted-up alcove to the right of the bar, and this alcove is ornamented with panels, on which are painted such pictures as "Europa and the Bull," "Leda," "Bacchus and Silenus:"  and here are a number of women and men with Venetian goblets foaming full of champagne before them. Standing at the entrance to the alcove, is a stout, florid-faced woman, vulgar in appearance, with incipient moustachios at the corners of her lips. She is covered with jewelry, and her fingers, fat, red, and unshapely, glitter with diamonds.
    This is the famous "Kate Hamilton," who was at one time the reigning beauty of her class, and has now degenerated into a vile pander. She is surrounded by a cluster of girls, and they are all in an animated discussion with her. The detective introduces me to this famous, or rather infamous, Messalina, and her first question is, "Will you stand some Sham?" The next is to make inquiry about a number of New York politicians and sporting men who have patronized her den, somewhere in the Haymarket, while doing the foreign tour. She is most business-like and brief this fetid old wretch, and has a speaking acquaintance with every man in the saloon.
    [- 479-] While we are standing looking at her and her friends, the room is darkened, the gas being almost extinguished, and a chemical, light-colored flame irradiates the room like a twilight at sea, and the entire female population rush below to join in the last, wild, mad shadow-dance of the night. Around and around they go in each other's arms, whirling in tine dim, uncertain, graveyard light, these unclean things of the darkness, shouting and shrieking, totally lost to shame - their gestures wanton as the movements of an Egyptian Almee and mad as the capers of a dancing dervish. Then the hall is darkened, the band ceases playing, the waiters finish the remains of the uncorked champagne bottles, the women dash madly down the carpeted stairs and into the streets with their male companions, and are whirled away within the cabs, which wait in long rows before the entrance of tine Argyle, to the purlieus of Pimlico and the sensual shades of St. John's Wood, at Brompton.
    The might has closed, a full English moon floats silently in the heavens, white snowy powder hangs over our heads like a film of lace - the clock-tower at Westminster Palace booms out the hour of midnight over the dark surface of the Thames, and we escape from the bustle of that vile dancing hall within glad ness.

Daniel Joseph Kirwan, Palace and Hovel : Phases of London Life, 1878

see also J. Ewing Ritchie in Days and Nights in London - click here