Victorian London - Entertainment and Recreation - Dancing -  Holborn Casino

What is now the gorgeous Holborn Restaurant was in those days the dingy Holborn Swimming-bath - a very gloomy and, truth to tell, a very dirty and smelly place of recreation. I remember once, being mad about swimming - an art which I had just acquired in the delicious Brill's Bath  at Brighton - coming to the Holborn establishment full of pleasurable anticipation; and I remember, as soon as I had seen and - well, smelt the water into which I proposed plunging, putting on my jacket again, and sacrificing the shilling which I had paid for my bath. Later, the dirty water was drained off, the shabby dressing-boxes done away with, the bath covered with a flooring of springy boards, and the whole place painted and renovated, and an excellent band, under the direction of a Mr. Parker (who maintained his position for years), engaged. There, too, as principal master of the ceremonies, was a curious old fellow called Gourriet, who, with Signor Venafra - who used to spend his days at Davis's, the tobacconist's in the Quadrant - had for years been one of the leading ballerinos at Her Majesty's Theatre, and whose rapt enthusiasm in beating time to the music, or pantomimic extravagance in soothing any little dispute, was equally delicious. The Holborn Casino was a much quieter place of resort than its rival, and was frequented by a different class: there was some element of respectability among its female visitors, while among the men the genus "swell," which predominated at the other place, was here almost entirely absent, the ordinary attendants being young fellows from the neighbouring Inns of Court, medical students, Government clerks, with a sprinkling of the shopocracy.

Edmund Yates, His Recollections and Experiences, 1885
[chapter on 1847-1852]

    [-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

HOLBORN CASINO (9th S. xii, 127) - The present Holborn Restaurant has absorbed the entire site of the old Casino. In the forties it was a swimming bath, but as a swimming bath did not pay in winter, the proprietors had the water drained off and converted the empty bath into a dancing saloon. This proved a profitable venture, notwithstanding the defects of bad ventilation and awkward means of access. The proprietors got over the difficulties by putting in a new floor at a higher level and improving the approaches. The swimming bath was, therefore, done away with entirely.    S.P.E.S.
    "National Assembly Rooms, 218, High Holborn - The most spacious and brilliantly decorated Ball Room and the best Band in London. Open for Concert and Dancing every Evening. Musical Director, Mr. W.M. Packer. Open at Half-past Eight; close at Twelve. Admission throughout, One Shilling." - 'Era Almanack for 1869'
    The Holborn Restaurant is built on the same site, and its number is still 218. For references to the Casino, see Mayhew's 'London Labour and the London Poor,' iv. (1862), 219, 220.

Notes and Queries, 1903