In the 1860s The Era was a newspaper that served the entertainment industry. It carried stories about the theatre but also covered the rest of the news, including the ‘doings’ of the Police Courts. The principal popular entertainment of the day was the music hall which offered a variety of comics, singers, dancers, jugglers and novelty acts to a mixed audience who could eat and drink while they enjoyed the show. Some music halls had reputations as being more ‘respectable’ than others, and a handful of the roughers ones were little more than fronts for prostitution.
In January 1866 The Era reported that a sea captain in the merchant navy had appeared at Marylebone Police court to ask the magistrate’s advice. The unnamed captain explained that he had a season ticket for ‘one of the principal’ West End music halls and had been sitting in the stalls when he was very taken by one of the dancing girls.
According to him she caught his eye and the attraction was ‘mutual’. After the show the couple left together and now he would not allow her to return to work. When he next turned up at the theatre the manager asked him to allow his employer to come back to dance but the captain refused.
The manager then approached the band leader and threatened to discharge him unless he took out legal action to get the girl back. This presumably means that the dancers were employed by the band and not directly by the theatre. The captain said they could do what they liked but the ‘danseuse’ would not be returning.
At this the manager lost his temper and ordered the seaman to leave his premises. He summoned his son and together they roughly and forcibly removed the captain from the theatre and turfed him out on the street. Unhappy about this, the naval man had presented himself before the magistrate the next morning.
Complaining that he spent £150 ‘in the place, and ought not to be subjected to such treatment’, he wondered what his legal position was. The magistrate was curt; he was surprised that such a man would air his business in public and more especially that he would admit to having taken a dancing girl home with him. In the popular opinion many of these women were hardly different to street prostitutes and indeed, in some of the rougher establishments, they performed a dual role.
The magistrate wasn’t going to help this old sea dog, if he wanted legal redress he told him to apply to a solicitor. No one seems to have asked the dancer what she wanted to do, not least whether she was happy to give up the boards. After all it is worth noting that the sailor said the attraction was mutual; he took ‘a fancy’ to her, and ‘she to him’. It speaks volumes about the agency of young working class women in the Victorian entertainment industry that nobody thought to ask her opinion.
[from The Era , Sunday, January 7, 1866]
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