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.

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.

Will Kemp Morris-danced from London to Norwich

But unfortunately he probably won’t figure in the results of the Singing Organ-Grinder’s historical explorations into English popular song.

Settling down to England, I’m being a good immigrant-monkey and polishing my repertoire of interesting and amusing popular music sung here over the centuries, in the hope of getting organ-grinding gigs with museums, galleries, political conspiracies and other prizers of the worthless, to add to the domestic circuit of weddings and divorces.

One great find yesterday was John Freeth (1731–1808), publican and poet, patriotic radical, aka John Free and, according to a review of his Political Songster in what had been Smollett’s Critical Review, “the Birmingham Pindar.” His “The Tripe-Eaters” looks very good, but until I or someone else spends 17 quid on the full transcription I’m going to devote some time to “Budget Day”:

Full twelve score millions of good pounds
JOHN BULL is said to owe;
But how or when ’tis to be paid,
Is what I wish to know.

A cent’ry past JOHN’s family
Was not a pin in debt;
How strange to think that still we find,
The ROGUE can credit get.

I think that Freeth’s longevity may have been down to his tempering his drinking and scribbling with walking, though the “Ballad-Singer’s Ramble to London” may not be autobiographical:

The First of April Sixty-three,
To London I went budging;
For know you, all of my Degree
Go on their Ten Toes trudging;
At Coventry I stop’d to see
If any Thing was wanting,
From Pocket Lodge, pull’d out my Fodge
And straitway fell to chanting.

And as I pass’d the Streets along,
The People round me gazing,
Some cry’d out, ’tis nobly sung,
And worthy of our praising;
In troth my Boy, I presently
Pick’d up a Double Grunter 1,
To the Ale-house then, away I ran,
And spent it with a Bunter. 2

Enjoyable in its way, though not on a par with Chatwin’s Songlines or Nine Daies Wonder: Performed in a Daunce from London to Norwich by Will Kemp, far more than Shakespeare’s clown, which I read a couple of months ago and then forgot:

The first mundaye in Lent, 3 the close morning promising a cleere day, (attended on by Thomas Slye my Taberer, William Bee my seruant, and George Sprat, appointed for my ouerseer, that I should take no other ease but my prescribed order) my selfe, thats I, otherwise called Caualiero Kemp, head-master of Morrice-dauncers, high Head-borough of heighs, and onely tricker of your Trill-lilles and best bel-shangles betweene Sion and mount Surrey, began frolickly to foote it from the right honorable the Lord Mayors of London towards the right worshipfull (and truely bountifull) Master Mayors of Norwich.

My setting forward was somewhat before seauen in the morning; my Taberer stroke up merrily; and as fast as kinde peoples thronging together would giue mee leaue, thorow London I leapt. By the way many good olde people, and diuers others of yonger yeers, of meere kindnes gaue me bowd sixepences and grotes, blessing me with their harty prayers and God-speedes.

Being past White-chappell, and hauing left faire London with all that North-east Suburb before named, multitudes of Londoners left not me: but eyther to keepe a custome which many holde, that Mile-end is no walke without a recreatiō at Stratford Bow with Creame and Cakes, or else for loue they beare toward me, or perhappes to make themselues merry if I should chance (as many thought) to giue over my Morrice within a Mile of Mile-end; how euer, many a thousand brought me to Bow; where I rested a while from dancing, but had small rest with those that would haue vrg’d me to drinking. But, I warrant you, Will Kemp was wise enough: to their ful cups, kinde thanks was my returne, with Gentlemanlike protestations, as “Truely, sir, I dare not,” “It stands not with the congruity of my health.” Congruitie, said I? how came that strange language in my mouth? I thinke scarcely that it is any Christen worde, and yet it may be a good worde for ought I knowe, though I neuer made it, nor doe verye well understand it; yet I am sure I have bought it at the word-mongers at as deare a rate as I could haue had a whole 100 of Bauines at the wood-mongers. Farwell, Congruitie, for I meane now to be more concise, and stand upon eeuener bases; but I must neither stand nor sit, the Tabrer strikes alarum. Tickle it, good Tom, Ile follow thee. Farwell, Bowe; haue ouer the bridge, where I heard say honest Conscience was once drownd: its pittye if it were so; but thats no matter belonging to our Morrice, lets now along to Stratford Langton.

Many good fellows being there met, and knowing how well I loued the sporte, had prepared a Beare-bayting; but so unreasonable were the multitudes of people, that I could only heare the Beare roare and the dogges howle; therefore forward I went with my hey-de-gaies to Ilford, where I againe rested, and was by the people of the towne and countrey there-about very very wel welcomed, being offred carowses in the great spoon, one whole draught being able at that time to haue drawne my little wit drye; but being afrayde of the olde Prouerbe (He had need of a long spoone that eates with the deuill), I soberly gaue my boone Companyons the slip.

From Ilford, by Moone-shine, I set forward, dauncing within a quarter of a myle of Romford; where, in the highway, two strong Iades (hauing belike some great quarrell to me vnknowne) were beating and byting either of other; and such through Gods help was my good hap, that I escaped their hoofes, both being raysed with their fore feete ouer my head, like two Smithes ouer an Anuyle.

There being the end of my first dayes Morrice, a kinde Gentleman of London lighting from his horse, would haue no nay but I should leap into his saddle. To be plaine with ye, I was not proud, but kindly tooke his kindlyer offer, chiefely thereto vrg’d by my wearines; so I rid to my Inne at Romford.

In that towne, to giue rest to my well-labour’d limbes, I continued two dayes, being much beholding to the townsmen for their loue, but more to the Londoners that came hourely thither in great numbers to visite me, offring much more kindnes then I was willing to accept.

Unfortunately the songs, contributed by friends (sponsors?), are no match for Kemp’s writing or dancing: 4

A Country Lasse, browne as a berry,
Blith of blee, in heart as merry,
Cheekes well fed, and sides well larded,
Euery bone with fat flesh guarded,
Meeting merry Kemp by chaunce,
Was Marrian in his Morrice daunce.
Her stump legs with bels were garnisht,
Her browne browes with sweating varnish[t];
Her browne hips, when she was lag
To win her ground, went swig a swag;
Which to see all that came after
Were repleate with mirthfull laughter.
Yet she thumpt it on her way
With a sportly hey de gay:
At a mile her daunce she ended,
Kindly paide and well commended.

Kemp was not a one-off. William Rowley in 1609 writes in A search for money. Or The lamentable complaint for the losse of the wandring knight, Mounsieur l’Argent Or come along with me, I know thou louest money. Dedicated to all those that lack money:

yee haue beene either eare-or-eye-witnesses or both to many madde voiages made of late yeares, both by sea and land, as the trauell to Rome with the returne in certaine daies, the wild morrise to Norrige, the fellowes going back-ward to Barwick, another hopping from Yorke to London, and the transforming of the top of Paules into a stable.

(
In 1601 William Bankes walked his extraordinary performing horse, Marocco, up more than a thousand steps to give a show on the roof of old St. Paul’s. Another Moorish reference…
)

Kemp also recalls Christmastide brass band house-to-house ramble-shambles in Lancashire, and frozen, drunken wanderings with carnival bands in the eastern Netherlands and the central Pyrenees. Tim FitzHigham repeated his (ahem) feat in 2008, adding the pleasing dramatic hook of a supposed argument between Shakespeare and Kemp:

Esther Webber has a nice clip of Jeremy Corbyn imitating Tim.

Despite its excellent wheeled carriage, I wouldn’t attempt any such thing with the current street organ: it weighs 80 kg and has a high centre of gravity, and on parade-type functions I’ve never pulled it along for more than a couple of miles. However, I hope that sometime, as part of the Bohemian project, I’ll get to carry a smaller organ from the Ore Mountains down to the Eger, singing 18th and early 19th century German songs as I go. (BTW: Does anyone know any Czech functionaries, preferably Ministry of Culture?)

How nice if Kemp were this lunatic:

The man in the moon came tumbling down
And asked his way to Norwich;
He went by the south and burnt his mouth
With supping cold pease porridge.

He does indeed take the southeastern route through Chelmsford (the pre-19th century Fens were still rather damp) but there’s no mention of porridge.

Stuff

  1. In Strine, a double bed, but here probably Partridge‘s shilling.
  2. Partridge: “A low, esp. a low thieving, harlot.”
  3. … during which players were meant to shut up shop, and thus often sought alternatives.
  4. Norwich honoured him by nailing his buskins to the Guildhall wall, “It is hardly necessary,” notes the Rev. Dyce in 1839, “to inform the reader that no memorial of Kemp is now extant in that building.”