From French peasants to the Queen of Fairies, a civic knees-up for children

MAINEMBARRASSING! Great Yarmouth's new Town Hall needing urgent remedial work in the 1880s.Picture:

MAINEMBARRASSING! Great Yarmouth's new Town Hall needing urgent remedial work in the 1880s.Picture: COLIN TOOKE - Credit: Archant

EVENINGS must have been deadly dull for children before radio, gramophone and television became common-place in households. During summer, they could play outside, of course, but the rest of the year probably dragged by interminably.

UNWELCOMING: the main entrance to the Town Hall during the remedial work.Picture: COLIN TOOKE

UNWELCOMING: the main entrance to the Town Hall during the remedial work.Picture: COLIN TOOKE - Credit: Archant

So, by guttering gas-light or flickering candles, youngsters passed their time as best they could until they were packed off to bed. No wonder those Great Yarmouth and Gorleston children who received an invitation to a civic knees-up in gloomy November were eager to attend.

Exactly 125 years ago tomorrow, this innovative event took place in the Town Hall – our current building which had been open for only seven years when it hosted the Juvenile Fancy Dress Ball in 1889, presumably while its South Quay wall was still underpinned at a cost of £13,000 because of subsidence.

Nowadays, the prospect of a partly-underpinned civic building, packed with scores of youngsters rocking to deafening music and the local great and the good playing host, would warrant Health & Safety officials banning the eventt.

The 1889 young people’s ball, with the Mayor’s ‘at home’ for adults following their departure, must have taken place in gaslight because electric lighting was not installed in the Town Hall until six years later.

COME TO THE BALL? An invitation card to the 1889 civic event.Picture: SUBMITTED

COME TO THE BALL? An invitation card to the 1889 civic event.Picture: SUBMITTED - Credit: Archant

I do not know how many of the borough’s six to 15-year-olds attended, whether or not every young citizen was invited – or, if it was selective, who drew up the invitation list and managed to exclude ragamuffins, delinquents and tearaways.

It seems unlikely that everyone in that age category was on the guest list or attendance would have numbered thousands, so we must assume that there was a strict selection process. The host was the outgoing Mayor, Frederick Danby-Palmer.

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For years I have possessed one of the invitation cards; on the reverse is: “Mr Jack Moore, 108 Wellesley Road” - not written at the time, I am sure.

The Yarmouth Mercury reported: “The Juvenile Fancy Dress Ball passed off most successfully and will for a long time to come be remembered by the children who participated in it as a red-letter day. The excitement which was occasioned in the town owing to the municipal elections was not anything like equal to that of the guests of His Worship who were all looking forward to the treat in store for them at the Town Hall.”

The rival Yarmouth Independent, concurred: “Everything that could be done to make the event a happy one for His Worship’s young guests was done, and we believe his kindness was thoroughly appreciated. They were received by the Mayor who, by his geniality and good-natured friendliness, put them at once at their ease and made them feel quite at home with him.

“The scene in the ballroom was a very pretty one as the young folk dressed in their varied fancy costumes flitted hither and thither in the mazy dance which was kept up unflaggingly till ten o’clock when the company dispersed to give room for their elders who found as much enjoyment in Terpsichorean art as did their juniors, and passed several hours in a most enjoyable manner, the party breaking up about two in the morning.”

The Independent asked: “How can a Mayor be best remembered? Public services fade out of mind, hospitality to the corporation is forgotten, but the Mayor who adds to these a children’s fancy dress ball will live longest in memory.

“The Mayor had the happy inspiration of thus celebrating his year in office. For weeks young Yarmouth has been in a flutter of excitement. The expectations of the great event counted in itself for hours of enjoyment. The invention and preparation of the costumes, the making of the fairy wings and wands, the masks and disguises, almost equalled in delight the wonderful reality.

“The grand Assembly Room was beautifully decorated for the ball, the Mayor receiving his little guests as they entered while Commander Aldrich’s Drum and Fife Band played merry music below.

“The reception was one of the prettiest events of the evening’s revelling, a wonderful variety of invention and costume. Gipsies were plentiful and lovely, adorned with bangles and gay with coloured ribbons. Little Bo-Peep was there, of course, dressed in green with silver crook.

“There was a murmur of admiration when entered the Three Old Maids of Lee, followed by Coriolanus in flowing robes and a white Hussar in splendid shako. Fairies were plentiful, gossamer creatures recalling scenes in the pantomime, an illusion heightened by the presence of a neat-limbed harlequin. Primrose League, Robin Hood, Little John, Cinderella, Night, Snow, fish girl, jockey and Paddy mingled in harmonious incongruity.

“A soft delicate robe from Cashmere rendered still more startling a flashing a costume of red, white and blue.

“Midshipmen were plentiful, but only one Little Lord Fauntleroy graced the dance with his charming presence. Charles I, the Blue Boy, Mephistopheles, Dolly Varden, Cherry Ripe, Lord Nelson were among the characters, while cook and Chinaman waltzed merrily with the pick of the party.”

Miss L Mays and Miss E Mays dressed as French peasants; Miss Winifred Self (Queen of the Fairies), Arthur Self (Earl of Leicester); Reginald Pearson (matador); Emily Miller (Buy-a-Broom), Alice Miller (Vivandiere); Harry Johnson (jester), Ernest Johnson (Dick Whittington), Bertha Johnson (Dolly Varden), Emma Johnson (Night); Miss Littlewood (Incroyable 1793); Ethel Press (Winter); Hilda Blake (shepherdess), Nora Blake (Dutch girl); Master B L Page (page, Charles I); Bessie, James and Peter Ryan (Irish themed).

“Dancing was continued till ten o’clock to the music of the Aquarium Band and when the little ones left, older guests arrived and dancing continued with vigour till the small hours of the morning.”

I must admit to consulting my dictionary and on-line search engine on some of the costumes, including shako (a cylindrical or conical military peaked hat with a plume or pompom). As for the Maids of Lee, they were so picky-choosy about whom to marry that they ended up as old spinsters.

Dolly Varden? Probably the Charles Dickens character in Barnaby Rudge or a style of contemporary dress - or a trout, the first US coloured women’s professional baseball team, a Nevada mountain range...