Susannah P’s story

Susannah was a ballet dancer, which means a very different thing in today’s culture than it did in the 1870s – when it basically equated to an immoral woman with connotations of prostitution, and she was treated accordingly. She ended up in a reform home.

Today we have a particular social and cultural view of ballet dancers – it’s high culture, an aspirational discipline characterised by hard work and sacrifice, and full of grace and beauty. Women who perform it are seen as wholesome and hardworking. This view – in the UK at least – really comes from the work of Dame Ninette De Valois and her ilk, founding the Royal Ballet School in the mid-1920s and bolstering the art form’s reputation and standing in society at that time.

In Susannah’s time as a ballet dancer – and you’d perhaps hesitate to call her a ballerina, as that word has many unspoken nuances that link it to the French and Russian traditions – the dance form and its connotations were very different. While she called herself a ballet dancer on one census return, ballet in the UK of the 1870s was more music hall and variety show dancing in a troupe, perhaps as part of a pantomime, than the crisp corps de ballet of Swan Lake or Coppélia. And while ballet of that form was still being performed on the continent, displays of it were rare in the UK – and instead the more popular view of a ballet dancer was a performer in an entertainment.

Britain had had some exposure to the high art form of ballet earlier in the 19th century. Indeed, by the 1840s the great romantic ballerinas of the age – Marie Taglioni and Fanny Elssler – had toured Europe, including the UK, and had been widely seen. However, while the Russian and French ballet traditions continued, interest dimmed in the UK – perhaps as the country did not produce its own great romantic ballerina (Clara Webster was prophesised to become this icon, but sadly died after a costume caught fire in 1844).

At the same time, middle- and high-class Victorian moralising was intensifying, and ballet and theatrical costumes often exposed far more female flesh than was considered proper for the time. Degas paintings, for example, had a titillating element to them that we might not recognise today, and were a form of pornography for their era.

Degas painting

It was against this background that Susannah went on the stage as a ballet dancer. It appears to have been a career that she fell into rather than deliberately chose.

She was born in London in the mid-1840s, and was one of six siblings – although an older sister had died before she was born. The family appear relatively well off. Her father, Edward, had been a confectioner when his oldest children were born and by the time Susannah arrived he gave his profession as a cook.

A male cook in this era was unusual. Domestic cooks were invariably women, employed and accommodated in bigger houses, whereas Susannah’s father appears to have lived at home. His prior occupation of confectioner gives more of a clue to his career. Male employed cooks were usually responsible for high end and intricate food – into which category confectionary fell – in very stately homes or hotels. In fact, Edward was employed by Judge Sir John Jervis, Chief Justice of the Common Pleas, and was cook to the household alongside another man. The job required some travelling – the 1851 census finds Edward at work in Norfolk, while Susannah and her mother and siblings are at home in London.

Vaughan Terrace Hoxton

Her father’s job was clearly a relatively lucrative one, and Susannah and her sisters and brother didn’t need to go out to work as they grew up. Although not rich, they would have enjoyed activities from the expanding middle class. Her older sister Sarah was educated until at least the age of 14, and it’s likely that Susannah and her sisters Louisa and Emma were included in that. It’s also likely that the girls of the family would have had some dancing instruction – although not from Marie Taglioni, who didn’t teach in the UK until the late 1870s – which would have stood them in good stead for later on.

Her father was clearly on the rise. The family began while he and his wife Sarah were living in the Barbican area, but they soon moved to a smart town house now on Shepherdess Walk in Hoxton, and then later they were in cottages in Caledonian Road, Barnsbury. Sir John Jervis died in 1856, but their lifestyle continued so it is probable that Edward found similar work.

Susannah’s next youngest sister Louisa married a wine merchant in 1864, although this did not work out (and is a subject for another blog), and her older sister Sarah appeared to leave the family – but whether this was marriage, death or work is unclear. However, things changed completely when Susannah’s father died in 1868.

Her mother suddenly lost her source of income and the lifestyle they had previously enjoyed. She moved the family to Drury Lane – the heart of London’s theatre district – and put Susannah, at this stage aged 27 and unmarried, and her younger sister Emma on the stage. The 1871 census describes Susannah and her sister as “performer”, although it is not specific which theatre they are working in. Their younger brother – Edward – is bringing in money as a fishing rod maker, so it is clear that all three children are supporting the family by whatever means possible. Susannah and Emma must have had enough talent and instruction from their more privileged former life to gain jobs as performers – and its Susannah’s later description of herself as a ballet dancer that leads to the assertation that they were probably taking part in the more music hall/pantomime productions of the era.

Pantomime and light entertainment ballet was flourishing at this time. Many new venues had opened in preceding years – Canterbury Music Hall in Lambeth, the Oxford near Tottenham Court Road, South London Palace near the Elephant and Castle, and the Adelphi Theatre. But Susannah and Emma were more likely employed at the Alhambra Theatre and the Empire Theatre in Leicester Square. The Alhambra had a reputation for lavish ballet “spectaculars”, performed by vast numbers of dancers exhibiting entertainment that promoted patriotic pride and the culture of the day.

Three clowns 1870s

This was a precarious life, and not without its dangers. Gas lights in theatres and flammable fabrics used in costumes made burns a constant risk. The most famous victim of this was Emma Livry – who was burned after an accident with a gas lamp in a rehearsal at the Paris Opera in 1862, and died following the wounds in July 1863. However, an account of a fire during a pantomime of Richard Coeur de Lion, at the Surrey Theatre on Blackfriars Road in 1865, gives an impression of the sort of performance Susannah and her sister Emma would have been part of. The show’s clown, Rowella, was performing a burlesque solo on the trombone when the fire was noticed, and it was thanks to his efforts and other pantomime performers that the troupe of flimsily dressed ballet girls also appearing in the entertainment were saved. Thankfully, Susannah and Emma were not part of this world at the time, but the backstage world could be a risky place.

While Emma married in 1875, and left performing, Susannah continued. Her mother died in 1879, which may well have made her even more reliant on her income from the stage.

However, by the 1880s this stopped. The 1881 census finds her in the Female Preventive and Reformatory Institution, the origins of which was explored in Hephzibah’s story. While this, by modern standards, may seem an odd place to find a ballet dancer, the moral background surrounding performers did not sit well with society’s improvers. Male theatre patrons would buy sexual favours from ballet dancers and actresses – this was part of the lifestyle and a way to make extra money. Therefore, Susannah was, whether she engaged in this practice or not, a fallen woman in terms of the society surrounding her.

As someone who had previously been of a good family, Susannah was ideally placed to be taken in by the ideals of the Female Preventive and Reformatory Institution. Those who ran the programme, who actively recruited women on the streets and around the theatre district, felt that those who had been brought up morally but had fallen into disrepute could be saved by their good work.

The work of the institution trained inmates for a new and moral life, offering them preparation for work as domestic servants and finding them good positions when they had reformed. Susannah, at this time, was 37 but claimed to be 30. It may be that she was getting tired from the rigors of performing, and was looking for a way out – so, whether she worked as a prostitute as well as a dancer or not, she may have felt that this was a chance at a new life.

After her retraining was over, she was supposed to be found a domestic placement to support her going onwards. Whether this happened or not isn’t clear – there are a couple of plain Susans (rather than the more flamboyant Susannah) on the 1891 census, working as cooks in big houses, but no one answering her exact name. It’s also possible that she was using her middle name – Elizabeth – for this new life, but there isn’t an exact fit for her here either. There is a reference to a Susannah of about the right age entering the workhouse in 1882, declared insane. This woman was removed after a while by “friends” – who, if this was our Susannah, could have been either from the theatre or the reformatory. But again, there is no definite proof this is Susannah the dancer.

What is certain, however, is that she lived to a great age and was buried under her own full name. She died in 1939, just before the outbreak of war, aged 92. And is buried in Greenwich.

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