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

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

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.


  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.

[:en]Christmas carousels[:]

[:en]Impossible automata for my street organ this holiday season. Featuring Georg Büchner, Ignaz Bruder, German Christmas pyramids, dancing Hasidim, Lieutenant Kijé as you’ve probably never seen it, Le Tigre, and a crustacean.[:]

[:en]The other day someone sent me some of the excellent light verse produced at Theresienstadt, the Nazis’ photogenic waiting room for Auschwitz and other extermination camps. Doing a bit of backreading, I met up again with the barrel-organ metaphysics (more another time) of Reinhard Heydrich, Butcher of Bohemia and Moravia. That same someone then sent me the source of that story -Lina Heydrich, Leben mit einem Kriegsverbrecher (“Life with a War Criminal”, 1976)- and located in the final chorus of Heydrich Senior’s sentimental opera, Das Leierkind (“The Barrel-Organ Child”), 1 the quote in question:

Ja, die Welt ist nur ein Leierkasten,
den unser Herrgott selber dreht,
und jeder muss nach dem Liede tanzen,
das grad’ auf der Walze steht.

An alternative translation:

Yes, the world is but a barrel-organ
Which our Lord God himself doth grind,
And all must dance unto the song
With which the cylinder is tined. 2

You can’t (always) blame fathers for their sons. Heydrich Senior is merely echoing the blows of fate/fateful bellows attributed to organ-grinders in 18th and 19th century romantic fiction – Büchner’s ballad singer’s quasi-Lutheranism announcing Marie’s betrayal with the drum-major of Woyzeck (1837), for example:

Auf der Welt ist kein Bestand,
Wir müssen alle sterben,
das ist uns wohlbekannt.

Gregory Motton:

On earth we can’t abide,
We all must die
As everybody knows. 3

Topical lyrics of this type had their visual counterpoint in ballad busking in a) proto-PowerPoint illustrations, and/or b) social and occasionally political automated tableaux which, along with bellows and barrel, ran off the crank on many Black Forest organs. The latter seem to have developed from the the region’s weight-powered flute clock automata, and Ignaz Bruder of Waldkirch (1780-1845) is their best-known manufacturer:

They offer more wide-ranging but less precise theatrics than my splendid organ-god – none of them beat 4/4 or 3/4:

But let’s cut to the chase. Automations seen this Christmas which I might try to add to the organ if I were a rich wastrel:

  1. I met a nice small candle-powered Christmas pyramid/Weihnachtspyramide at the German Deli in Hackney Wick. Here‘s a similar one:

    I’d go for a triple-decker cranked version populated with home-made figures representing farmers, warriors and priests, or promotors, policemen, and bureaucrats, crowned by an organ-grinder. Say no to electrically-powered Star Wars scenes:

    Large municipal executions have also become popular over the last couple of decades. Like the one above, to eliminate draughts and working people they are usually mains-powered and use decorative lightbulb candles and recorded music:

    I think I recall seeing a very large hybrid incorporating a carousel ride at a fair I played at once in Germany, but I can’t find anything on YouTube and I was probably tipsy.

  2. A bunch of (male) Haredim hand-in-hand, observed dancing around in a circle outside a house on Stamford Hill, London, humming a song. They were rather like this:

    … but actually reminded me more of vlöggelen/vlöggeln at Easter at Ootmarsum in the (Roman Catholic) eastern Netherlands:

  3. Everyone knows the sleigh ride/troika from the Prokofiev’s orchestral suite:

    … but the virtually unknown eponymous film (1934), with its Hitlerian Emperor Paul I, is quite marvellous, and the robotic servants of the machine society -how un-Soviet!- are simply dying for recycling:

    Work is said to be underway on a device that will coordinate music playback with video in order to enable me to (write music for and) accompany (suitably edited) films.

  4. “Deceptacon” by Le Tigre (ta, SG), which, like the Fellini / Rota partnership, surely owes a lot to the Kijé generation:

  5. A lobster. Robert Conquest’s paraphrase of Shakespeare’s take on the ages of man in As you like it:

    Seven Ages: first puking and mewling
    Then very pissed-off with your schooling
    Then fucks, and then fights
    Next judging chaps’ rights
    Then sitting in slippers: then drooling.

    The path to the pot is plagued by good purpose. The DG’s splendid adjunct auntie S has a pet herring gull, rescued as a broken-winged chick, and loves animals. 4 Having plied the organ-grinder with champagne and milk-based vodka, the DG announced to her that the organ-grinder had a pet lobster, rather like Gérard de Nerval:

    Why should a lobster be any more ridiculous than a dog? …or a cat, or a gazelle, or a lion, or any other animal that one chooses to take for a walk? I have a liking for lobsters. They are peaceful, serious creatures. They know the secrets of the sea, they don’t bark, and they don’t gnaw upon one’s monadic privacy like dogs do. And Goethe had an aversion to dogs, and he wasn’t mad.

    “Oh, how wonderful,” she exclaimed. “And where do you keep it?!”

    But the organ-top would be a more impressive and in many ways satisfactory location.

Stuff to avoid: Google’s winter solstice doodle, which is a perpetual motion con (no candle or crank needed) and a blasphemy – their logo replaces the Christmas pyramid’s seraphim. 5[:]


  1. Anyone got a score?
  2. Tined? Wassat?
  3. I like Motton’s first line -I was looking for a two-syllable noun meaning permanence- but I’d also like to hang onto the Bestand/bekannt rhyme. Motton says Leierkasten is a hurdy-gurdy, which is quite reasonable, and the BBC turns it into a simple violin, which is pretty naughty given their wealth.
  4. Though she was enjoying her beef stew.
  5. Milton says (Samson Agonistes (1671)) that seraphim can play trumpets in between singing the old “Holy, holy, holy!” or whatever else they get up to:

    Where the bright Seraphim in burning row
    Their loud up-lifted Angel trumpets blow,
    And the Cherubick host in thousand quires
    Touch their immortal harps of golden wires

[:en]Cuentos, Canta, borrachos, y demás noticias[:]


  • Los cuentos de Eva funcionan muy bien, tanto en español como en inglés. Su vestido fue buena idea, él mío no tanto: mi disfraz estándar será traje/frac con peluqaza Javier Bardem en No es país para viejos. Ahora tengo que vender el concepto a escuelas – he tenido contacto con cuatro, y me gustaría hacer 3/4 este otoño.
  • Cada día entiendo más del proyecto artístico y la prosodia de Juan Antonio Canta. A los borrachos les encanta el “Es mi pena mas larga que la barba de Jesu Cristo” en Copla del viudo del submarino, pero su misoginia violenta, quizá explicable en términos artísticos, queda muy problemática.

    Se perdona a Mahoma, entre muchos más, quien, según Feijoo,

    en aquel mal plantado paraíso, que destinó para sus secuaces, les negó la entrada a las mujeres, limitando su felicidad al deleite de ver desde afuera la gloria, que habían de poseer dentro los hombres. Y cierto que sería muy buena dicha de las casadas, ver en aquella bienaventuranza, compuesta toda de torpezas, a sus maridos en los brazos de otras consortes, que para este efecto fingió fabricadas de nuevo aquel grande Artífice de Quimeras.

    Pero sigue condenado el gran Enrique Jardiel Poncela, quien, teniendo en cuenta la totalidad de su producción, despreciaba tanto a las mujeres como a los hombres, amando no obstante también a las primeras. (Sufre además doblemente por su huida del sindicato histriónico de la CNT.)

    Y temo que habrá que esperar mucho tiempo con el “Si no tengo más que esta camisa / y muchas ganas de darte una paliza” de Te quiero de Canta, o al menos hacerle una fraudulenta substitución.

  • Los borrachos también están a favor de La Gallina Papanatas, a pesar de que la aceleración al final les causa algunos problemas de equilibrio.
  • Mozuela de Carasa del Cancionero de Barbieri se llama ahora Mozuela de Terrassa, que es pueblo más conocido.
  • He tenido conversaciones con varios potenciales monos profesionales, pero el otro día trabajé con dos candidatos aficionados y jóvenes: uno tendía el sombrero, y el otro gritaba “¡Dinero!”, estilo Serrallonga, que funcionaba bastante bien.
  • He empezado a cantar el tema principal de La strada de Fellini / Rota, que, sorprendentemente, se trata de la naturaleza: la primera línea es clara, “Tu che amas bonsai”, y la segunda suena algo como “Tu che amas gli avvoltoi” (buitres).
  • He hablado con varios proveedores de bordados y espero tener algo listo en septiembre.
  • Las plazas públicas tienden a ser ocupadas por pequeños grupos que parecen ser o cristianos (“Tú has sido malo, somos el camino al paraíso”, camisas colores de pastel, mucho sonreír, buenos oradores, moderadamente amplificados) o comunistas (“Todos los demás han sido malos, somos el camino al paraíso”, camisas negras, mucho fruncir, malos oradores, amplificación suficiente para llenar el Camp Nou). Opino que los dos movimientos padecen un problema ya identificado por Jardiel Poncela en su prólogo a la brillante farsa, Cuatro corazones con freno y marcha atrás (1936):

    En general, para la opinión pública-en la cual el crítico suele estar, por desgracia, incluido-no hay primer acto cómico, por inferior que sea, que no parezca superior a los siguientes; ni hay tercer acto cómico, por superior que sea, que no parezca inferior a los anteriores. Este curioso fenómeno, que hace tiempo que tenía ganas de abordar por escrito, obedece a causas que creo ser el primero en someter a análisis. Todo público se halla compuesto de gentes de diversa educación, diversa cultura y diverso carácter, salud, edad, posición económica, situación espiritual, etc., reducidas -por el hecho circunstancial de constituir una masa-a un común denominador. Antes de comenzar un espectáculo cómico, y durante el desarrollo del primer acto, todo contribuye a que ese público se muestre alegre, optimista y en la mejor disposición de ánimo para juzgar excelente lo que está viendo y escuchando: la sala rebosa oxígeno puro; el espectáculo comienza y es una promesa risueña; los organismos se hallan descansados y se retrepan cómodamente en las butacas; el planteamiento de la comedia se compone de sorpresas y de incógnitas intrigantes, que atan y excitan la atención. Poco esfuerzo tiene que hacer el autor para entretener, interesar y divertir a un auditorio tan favorablemente dispuesto. Durante el segundo acto la cosa ha variado ya: en la sala, mezclado con el oxígeno, hay un crecido tanto por ciento de ácido carbónico; el espectáculo está mediado, y va dejando de ser una sorpresa; los organismos empiezan a sentirse fatigados de reír, y, a fuerza de removerse en ellas, las butacas no resultan ya tan cómodas; las sorpresas y las incógnitas de la obra, en fin, se despejan sucesivamente, con lo que el interés de lo desconocido empieza, por ley fatal, a decaer. Pero en el tercer acto las condiciones adversas han llegado al límite: en la sala, el exceso de ácido carbónico produce una pesantez en todos los cerebros; la risa ha fatigado ya los organismos con su violenta excitación nerviosa, y las butacas, al cabo de dos horas y media de uso, empiezan a considerarse como un mueble mal calculado; el desenlace próximo va reduciendo al mínimo las incógnitas y sorpresas de la obra; el momento de que el espectáculo concluya es inminente: cada espectador piensa, de cuando en cuando y con disgusto, en que ha de irse a la calle y a casa a enfrentarse de nuevo con las realidades ásperas de la existencia, y al otro día volver al trabajo, y tal vez resolver un problema económico importante, y, automáticamente, la suma subconsciente de todas esas circunstancias desagradables se le carga en su cuenta al autor. Así, cuando el telón baja definitivamente-momento de suprema acidez para el público hiperestesiado de una obra cómica-, es frecuente oír al espectador, que desfila casi siempre malhumorado:
    – El último acto es peor que los otros…
    Y también:
    – Ya en el segundo baja mucho la comedia…
    Y, por último, recordando como un pasado dichoso los momentos felices que vivió en su primera hora de estancia en el teatro:
    – El acto que es bueno de veras es el primero…
    Pero si el tercer acto, que le ha parecido malo, lo hubiera escuchado al principio, se le habría antojado primoroso. Y viceversa. De todo esto se desprenden tres aforismos axiomáticos, que el crítico y la persona de buen sentido debían tener presentes constantemente al juzgar una obra cómica; a saber:
    Ningún primer acto es tan bueno como parece.
    Un segundo acto que no desdice del primero es siempre superior a él.
    Si un tercer acto se sostiene al nivel de los anteriores, es magnífico, y si los supera, es extraordinario.

    Cervantes lo dijo más corto y mejor: “Nunca segundas partes fueron buenas.”

    Unidos los milenaristas, les podría proporcionar música más apta para sus objetivos. Y, después de la versión de Tristan und Isolde de Wagner que tengo pensada, me gustaría filmar con ellos El Organillero de Hamelín.