Transvestite barrel organ dancers in 1930s Whitechapel and the 1860s London West End

With acrobats, clowns, and Doris and Thisbe, goddesses of wind.

Acrobats whirling to the sound of a barrel organ on a chain carousel at the National Fair, Bergen, Norway, 1928.

Acrobats whirling to the sound of a barrel organ on a chain carousel at the National Fair, Bergen, Norway, 1928. Image: Knud Knudsen.

Dora Lee (1921-), who perhaps wasn’t a Holocaust survivor, 1 talking about life as a young girl in London’s East End:

And then we used to have these buskers. They used to come with a barrel organ. They must have been what we call today transvestites and they would play this barrel organ and dance and do acrobats and things like that, dressed up in the oldest and the shabbiest type of dresses and things like that. The man that played the organ was never dressed … he was dressed in trousers, but the others were all … well, we knew they were men by the look of them and if they saw the police coming they would scoot away, but you gave them a ha’penny and they made quite a collection.

Anyone got a photo of such a troupe? Perhaps more entertaining than Barcelona’s Moorish tumblers:

The police may still have cared about public morality when Dora Lee was young, but this was also the age of Douglas Byng, the great pantomime dame, who appeared on a trapeze singing “I’m Doris the goddess of wind,” and who here sings a little song of spring:

It was also an age before competition from television caused the infantilisation of circus audiences and of white clowns, whose white makeup and black melancholy had given them something of the air of the female impersonators. Here’s Fellini’s white clown saying goodbye to his augusto, accompanied by some rather splendid music and horsing around:

And such shows involving barrel organs were not new. Here’s a back-to-front example from the 1861 diary of Arthur Munby, establishment fetishist of working women:

Home to the Temple at 6 and to [Mudie’s Lending Library]. Coming thence along Oxford Street, I saw before me, striding along in company with an Italian organ-grinder, a tall young man in full Highland costume; wearing a Glengarry bonnet, a scarlet jacket, a sporran and a tartan kilt and stockings, his legs bare from the knee to the calf. It was not a man – it was Madeleine Sinclair the street dancer, whom I used to see in a similar dress a year ago. She and her companion turned into a quiet street, and she danced a Highland fling to his music, in the midst of a curious crowd.

For no one could make out whether she was a man or a woman. Her hair and the set of her hips indeed were feminine; but her hard weather-stained face, her large bony hands, and her tall strong figure, became her male dress so well that opinions about equally divided as to her sex. “It’s a man!” said one, confidently: “I believe that it’s a woman”, another doubtfully replied. One man boldly exclaimed “Of course it’s a man; anybody can see that!” I gave her a sixpence when she came round with her tambourine; and she told me she had been in Paris for five months for pleasure, and was now living on Saffron Hill [i.e. amidst Italian immigrants], and dancing in the streets every day, always wearing her male clothes.

The excerpt is from the most enjoyable A London Year: 365 Days of City Life in Diaries, Journals and Letters.

And then there’s Old Bess, who has probably been banned from Morris dancing along with blackface, and Thisbe aka Flute the Bellows-Mender – pretty close to an organ:

Not to mention the mock queens and virgins of older festivals.

In gathering material about the world of the organ grinder, I’ve certainly been neglecting some non-simian sidekicks. More suggestions most welcome, as always.

I dread to think what would happen to you (m) nowadays if you dressed up as a woman and danced round a barrel organ in the back streets of Whitechapel.

Stuff

  1. I’m afraid the British Library seems to have made a bit of a mess of the metadata for its sound collection. Another entry has an interesting abstract:

    Fanny Lander talks about her background and family; her father (bricklayer); the buildings he worked on; the school she went to; memories of Scan and Will Tester playing for dances; working in service for an Irish family; dancing at the Servants Ball in the Coach and Horses, Chelwood Gate; changes in the village (Chelwood Gate); farming; memories of organ-player and monkey; local gypsies; Linfield Fair; Brighton man who used to sing outside the post office; Maggie Ridley (school friend); East Grinstead band; Danehill bell ringers; Albert and Walter Lucas; hand bell ringers in Coach and Horses on Boxing Day; how she and her husband housed two evacuee children from Bermondsey during the war; East Grinstead at start of World War 1; more about being in service; closeness between servants and family; songs sung at home; dancing [at this point Reg Hall plays melodeon – see Item Notes]. Will Marten and his sister Mary then join conversation and they all discuss Scan Tester’s family; pub songs; poverty being reflected in the music; Ashdown Forest; changes in farming; comparisons of town and country; moving sheep from Romney Marsh; increase in local traffic; anecdotes about local policeman and cars, 1920s/1930s; anecdote about San Tester’s brother Trayton.

    But, as another part of the metadata indicates, the recording is actually of Bates, Charlie, 1909- (speaker, male), and Wood, Bert, 1890- (speaker, male) talking about something completely different, and Ms Lander is nowhere else to be found.


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