Victorian London - Entertainment and Recreation - Dancing - Dancing-Rooms

    The principal dancing rooms of London are the two casinos known respectively as the Argyll Rooms and the Holborn. Formerly there was a striking difference between these two places, the one receiving the upper, the other the under, current of the fast life of London; now, however, there is little of this distinction noticeable, and the visitor in quest, not of amusement, but of information, may feel assured that a visit to one is for all practical purposes a visit to both. They are open for music and dancing every evening, except Sunday, from half-past eight o'clock to twelve. The visitor, on passing the doors, finds himself in a spacious room, the fittings of which are of the most costly description, while brilliant gas illuminations, reflected by numerous mirrors, impart a fairy-like aspect to the scene. The company is, of course, mixed. Many of the men resorting to such places seek no doubt the opportunity of indulging their vicious propensities; but the majority of the better class go merely to while away an idle hour, because, unblessed by home ties, and weary of the cold monotony of their club, they find it pleasant to consume the 'post-prandial weed' in some place where, while chatting with friends, they can hear good music and see pretty faces. The women are of course all prostitutes. They are for the most part pretty, and quietly, though expensively dressed, while delicate complexions, unaccompanied by the pallor of ill-health, are neither few nor far between. This appearance is doubtless due in many cases to the artistic manner of the make-up by powder and cosmetics, on the employment of which extreme care is bestowed. Few of these women, probably, could write a decent letter, though some might be able to play a little on the piano, or to sing a simple song. Their behaviour is usually quiet, little solicitation is observable, and all the outward proprieties of demeanour and gesture are strictly observed.
    The proprietor, indeed, is careful to maintain the appearance, at least, of decorum among his visitors. Should any woman misconduct herself, she is pointed out to the door-keepers, with instructions not to admit her again to the rooms. No punishment could be heavier, no sentence more rigorously carried out. She will attempt in vain by disguise to avoid recognition, or by bribes to soften the watchful janitor. Her efforts will be met with some such rebuke as this: 'It's no use trying it on, Miss Polly; the gov'nor says you are not to go in, and, of course, you can't!' Her only chance of obtaining remission of the sentence is to induce some friend to plead with the proprietor on her behalf, who may, but does not always, readmit her after an exile of three months, and on her promising to behave herself in the strictest manner for the future.
    On the whole, judging of the women who frequent these rooms by their dress, deportment, and general appearance, the visitor might be inclined to suppose them to belong to the kept mistress rather than the prostitute class. This is, however, not the case, as, with a few exceptions, they fall within the latter denomination. Many of them, no doubt, have a friend who visits them regularly, and who makes them a fixed allowance, not sufficient to keep them altogether, but substantial enough to make them careful in selecting their customers, and careful about accepting the company of a man in any way objectionable. This arrangement is perfectly understood by the 'friend' who pays his periodical visits, and to whom, of course, the woman is always at home. The sum expected by one of these women in return for her favours is about two or three sovereigns. Many will expect those who desire their company to stand them refreshment without stint, not only at the casino, but at some house of call later on in the night, suggesting champagne or 'phiz' as agreeable to their palate, and will be indisposed to return home until they have had their full evening's amusement. One woman merits a passing notice here, who has achieved a sudden notoriety, and given to the casino (previously to her appearance at it the least fashionable) a preeminence over its rival. There she holds a mimic court, attired unlike the rest of the frequenters, who come in their bonnets in full ball dress. She is surrounded by a crowd of admirers, idlers, and would-be imitators, and gives the tone to the establishment that she patronizes. It is said that the diamonds worn by this woman are worth £5,000. She is supplied daily from a florist in Covent Garden with a bouquet of the choicest flowers, amid which are interspersed specimens of the most beautifully coloured beetles, the cost being about 30s., and her habit on entering the rooms is to present this really splendid trifle to the female attendant at the wine bar, as a mark of her condescension and favour. On permission to visit her being requested, she would probably, like another celebrated 'fille de joie', take out her pocket-book and, after a careless glance at it, reply that she was full of engagements, but that if the petitioner would call at her house at a given hour that day week, she would, perhaps, spare him some twenty minutes of her society, for which favour she might expect the modest sum of £25.
    The casinos, music-halls, and similar places are closed at twelve o'clock; after that hour the search for dissipation must be extended to other places, and loose persons of both sexes may be found congregated in the divans and night houses situate in the Haymarket and adjoining streets. These places are for the most part small, ill-ventilated rooms, at which wine and other liquor, and also solid refreshment, can be procured. Here there is no amusement except such as the visitors can provide for themselves. Much of the restraint on the part of the women observable at the other places to which I have referred is, therefore, laid aside, and a very general abandon in conversation and behaviour on the part both of men and women is freely indulged in, while the opportunity of soliciting custom is certainly not neglected. The early closing bill gave a blow to these places, from which, notwithstanding the present unsatisfactory state of the law, they have not recovered; they are, however, neither so numerous nor so much frequented now as they were a few years ago.
    Fast life in London has greatly changed during the last thirty years. It was the fashion formerly for those wishing to see life, as it is called, to go to the Theatre Royal, and between the acts to stroll into the saloons, and there look at the stout, over-dressed women who frequented these places, and resided in houses of ill-fame in the neighbouring slums. It was the correct thing to be taken after the theatre to Mother H.'s, and then to go to the 'Finish', having previously visited the notorious saloon in Piccadilly. From all these dens the police were excluded, and scenes were enacted very different from those now witnessed at the casinos.

William Acton, Prostitution, considered in its Moral, Social, and Sanitary Aspects 2nd edition 1870

Victorian London - Entertainment and Recreation - Dancing -  Holborn Casino

    [-483-] "Now," said the policeman, "I would hadvise you to make the finish at the ' Casino,' in the 'Olborn, afore you go to your hotel, sir, and then you may say you've seen the best of the bad places of Lunnun. The Casino is hopen till one o'clock to-night, I think, and we'll just be in time for the best dance."
    We took a cab again, which dashed up Coventry street, through Cranbourne street, into Long acre, and up Drury Lane, past the old theatre of that name, and in a few minutes we descended in the wide, open space of the Holborn, before the entrance of the Casino, the fashionable dance-house of London. The street was lined with cabs, and policemen were thick in the vicinity of the entrance, ordering the men and women just coming out to pass on, and keep the street clear, a duty which gained for them a great deal of abuse from the intoxicated women, who did not want to pass on by any means. The entrance to this place is through a gaudy, gilded vestibule and down a descent of four or five steps to a spacious marble floor, which was covered with dancers. The whole interior was gilded, gold leaf and white predominating above all other colors.
    The band, as at the other places of evil resort, was placed in [-484-] the farthest end gallery, and was an excellent one. The leader wore white kids and the musicians white vests, and the crash of the instruments was almost deafening, filling the large space with a wild and not unpleasing harmony. Attendants in evening dress were on the floor, making up sets and soliciting the habitués of the place to dance with the female partners, which were easily found for them. A high balcony ran all round the hall, which is 100 feet by 75 in dimension, and in the corners of the saloon, up and down stairs, were cafés and refreshment bars, which were crowded within customers. The entrance to this place is only one shilling, and the class of visitors is of a superior kind to those who go to any other dance-house in London.
    The saloon was really a magnificent one, rich and tasteful in its decoration, and the women were well and neatly dressed, and very quiet and well-behaved in their manner. Every woman wore nice gloves, high-heeled boots, and all of them had the lace frill or ruff now prevalent in London around their necks. They also wore charms and lockets and gold watches, and every one was attended by a cavalier. The men were smoking cigars and flirting, and a number of foreigners were present and danced incessantly, just as they would at the Mabille or any Continental garden. In fact, this is the only place in London, with the exception of Cremorne Gardens, that in any way approaches the mad gaiety of the Mabille.
    Still, there is a certain English decorum observed here, and any girl who would get drunk or lift her skirts too high would be expelled instantly by the master of ceremonies, assisted by the policemen who are to be found scattered all over the place. Some of the girls will go up and ask for partners to dance with them, and then, if the latter wish to give them liquor, - well and good, but they will not solicit it, because these women affect the fashionable lady as much as their limited resources will allow.
    They are generally the mistresses of men of leisure, and when the season is at its height a great number of men about town may be seen here, as spectators, who come [-485-] from the clubs or the Houses of Parliament, bored by the ennui of the reading rooms at one place, or the prosy speeches of members of the other. Some of the men dance with cigars in their mouths, and whirl around in such a wild manner as to cause collision with the other couples. Occasionally you will see two girls waltzing, and men who have sat too long at the dinner-table will, once in an evening, get up together and dance a "stag dance." But this is not encouraged by the master of ceremonies, as the dancing of a pair of male bipeds is not calculated to help the business of the place, and it is instantly suppressed, amid cheers and laughter.
    The music strikes up for the last galop, and there is a rush for partners; the balconies and alcoves and luxurious seats and marble tables are deserted, and in a moment everything is in a wild hurly-burly and a confusion and uproar; men and women galloping and bounding and yelling to the right, and to the left, and as the last crash of the big drum beats on the ear the passages and doorways are thronged with the dancers, every man crying for a cab to take himself and partner somewhere, perhaps they care not where - it is no matter; and now the place is in darkness, and the policemen having seen the last of the women leave the doorway, begin their patrol duty, which will last until day breaks and the stars fall from the London sky, telling them that they are relieved from their night's watch.
    The detective shakes hand with and leaves me, he to go eastward to Temple Bar, and I to bed in a remote quarter of the great Babylon, whose noises and turmoil are now hushed into silence, excepting where a solitary street-walker, famishing from hunger, or a drunken pedestrian bars the way, and makes the night resound with insane shouts.

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

see also Richard Rowe in Life in the London Streets - click here

see also James Greenwood in Low-Life Deeps - click here

see also Tempted London - click here