Men Behaving Badly at the Bloomer Ball



Dancers at the Bloomer Ball. Punch volume 21 1851.

London nightlife on Wednesday 29 October 1851 did not glitter quite as brightly as it did when the great and the good graced the capital during the Season. While the Queen had repaired to Windsor Castle, and other members of high society to their country houses, the pleasures of the metropolis were the preserve of more ordinary folk.

Those looking for entertainment could venture south of the river to watch Mazeppa, or the wild horse of Tartary at Astley’s Amphitheatre, or they could witness the celebrated mesmerist Monsieur Auguste Lassaigne performing at Hungerford Hall. Meanwhile the high-minded might prefer a debate on ‘What system of currency is best adapted for England?’ at a Fleet Street tavern.

But ‘up West’ twelve policemen from the C or St James’s Division had the unenviable and unrealistic task of attempting to control a boisterous crowd of several thousand men filling the streets around Hanover Square. A singular event was to take place in the elegant Hanover Square Rooms, and the rowdy multitude had gathered in the hope of seeing those who had paid the princely sum of fifteen shillings to attend it. By the end of the night several of the spectators had been arrested. They duly appeared in the dock at the Marlborough Street Police Court.

The Hanover Square Rooms. Thomas Hosmer Shepherd 19th century. British Museum

Suitably attired

The occasion that had generated so much excitement had been advertised in the newspapers for days. The Morning Post had run the following:

HANOVER-SQUARE ROOMS. The ‘BLOOMER’ BALL under distinguished management, will take place at the above Rooms THIS EVENING (WEDNESDAY), the 29th inst. Tickets (including a recherché supper and refreshments) 15s each, may be obtained on application at Messrs Bailey and Moon’s Carlton Library, 12 Regent-Street, Waterloo-Place. It is most respectfully intimated that no lady can possibly be admitted except in the ‘Bloomer’ attire. Gentlemen full evening dress … An early application for tickets is recommended, the issue being necessarily limited.

And it was this ‘Bloomer attire’ that had drawn the horde to Hanover Square. So what exactly was it? First cast from your mind the image of unattractive and voluminous knickers, said to be favoured by elderly ladies and called ‘bloomers’ in the twentieth century. The original Bloomer costume consisted of loose trousers — pantaloons, pantilettes or pantalettes — which more often than not were tied at the ankles and worn underneath either a shorter than usual dress or a skirt and jacket combination.

The ‘Bloomer Waltz’ by William Dessier. c.1851. Library of Congress.

The two Elizabeths

One might be tempted to regard this as just a passing fashion — and as unattractive and trivial at that — but Bloomers have a part to play in the history of women’s suffrage. The early adopters were Elizabeth Smith Miller and her cousin, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who were doyennes of the American women’s rights movement.

The two Elizabeths believed that women should be free to wear clothes that allowed them to do anything they wanted or needed to do — that they should not have to suffer the constraints of the large bell-shaped skirts, crinolines and corsets which were de rigueur at the time. The costume might even have been dubbed ‘Millers’ if Stanton had not brought it to the attention of the eponymous Mrs Bloomer.

Amelia Bloomer wearing on the left a promenade costume and on the right an indoor costume. Family Herald 1 November 1851.

Enslaved by clothes

Amelia Bloomer was a champion of women’s rights and an advocate of temperance. She adopted the costume for her own use, and she promoted dress reform, which she considered an adjunct to women’s rights, in her newspaper The Lily, a publication for and about women:

We should like to see a radical reform in women’s costume so she might be the free, healthy being God made her instead of the corseted, crippled, dragged down creature her slavery to clothes have made her.

In 1851 the Bloomer fashion came to London. Lectures were given on the desirability of rational dress, with models demonstrating the outfits. Newspaper reports reacted contemptuously, not only to the lectures but also to the costume itself and the related call for women’s suffrage. The women delivering the lectures were sneeringly described as out of work actresses, no doubt because actresses playing ‘trouser parts’ had to wear revealing clothes that were designed to titillate. The uncomfortable truth is that female performers were often regarded as little more than prostitutes.

Perhaps, then, it should not surprise us that cartoons and poems in Punch poked fun at the ladies who dared to challenge male hegemony with their bifurcated apparel, and one such shaft of satire was aimed at the Bloomer Ball. And indeed, as with most rebellions represented in fashion, the Bloomer style was sported by those who enjoyed modish novelty. Apparently it was not necessary to share the political views of the dress reformers to wear trousers tied at the ankles.

The City Dame. W. S. Reed / Deborah Dreadnought The Beauties of Bloomerism 1852.

Where are the women?

And so on a cold Wednesday evening a baying rabble gathered outside the Hanover Square Rooms. Some in the crowd were no doubt only cross at the immorality of such garb. Others possibly were disgusted at the challenge a woman in ‘trousers’ presented. But most were there in all likelihood for salacious reasons. Although to modern eyes the costume is extremely modest, in the nineteenth century even a glimpse of a leg or a foot was most alluring.

Half past ten marked the commencement of the ball. The delightfully named ‘recherché’ supper provided by Mr George Withers of George Street awaited the attendees. Mr Thomas Adams, with his band at full strength, was ready to provide the music, although it needs to be pointed out that this ball was a somewhat less exalted affair than the routine gig Adams played at Almack’s Assembly Rooms during the Season.

But to the intense disappointment of the men, both inside and outside the ballroom, female attendance was low at no more than thirty or forty. In contrast there were said to be about five hundred gentlemen present, although I use the term ‘gentlemen’ loosely, as newspapers reported drunkenness, leering, catcalling and food fights.

The ballroom in the Hanover Square Rooms. The Illustrated London News 1 November 1851.

Not the real thing

The social tone of the gathering, which included members of the Guards and assorted aristocratic clubs, was lofty enough, but there simply were not enough female partners to go round. The men formed a ring five deep to get a view of the dancing ladies clad in trews. Some even stood on chairs.

Criticisms were levelled at the costumes themselves, and in particular at the red satin jackets which aped more traditional evening wear, the outfits that replicated Turkish costume and the significant number of oversized hats. The Sun condemned the outfits as

a Holywell Street cross between the Bloomer costume and the sclavonic fancies of Fanny Elssler and Cerrito — here and there as common and shabby as could well be, and all flaunting, tawdry and meretricious.

We at London Overlooked would argue that it was unfair to associate two famous and talented ballerinas with Holywell Street, which was the centre of the pornographic book trade. The fact remains, though, that few of those attending the ball wore what might be recognised by the women’s rights campaigners as ‘Bloomerism’ in the true sense of the word.

The Pet of the Public. W. S. Reed / Deborah Dreadnought The Beauties of Bloomerism 1852.

Managing disappointment

Meanwhile, out in the street, there were a number of unpleasant incidents. Two national schoolmasters, John Crane Stubbs and his friend Robert Cowling, jostling to get closer to the action, became entangled with a Police Constable Bowles of the St James’s Division.

Bowles was attempting to clear the pavement to allow those attending the ball to alight from their cabs. When he and his eleven colleagues pushed the crowd back, Stubbs took umbrage and waved his walking stick aloft, daring the copper to touch him again. Bowles warned Stubbs of the penalty for hitting a policeman, whereupon he was thumped in the chest by both men. Stubbs was grappled to the ground and taken into custody. Cowling followed Stubbs to the police station in Little Vine Street, where he too found himself under arrest.

Middleton Ashdown, a commercial traveller for a brewery, exploded when told to move on by Police Constable Parsons, a colleague of Bowles. ‘Who the — are you?’ he demanded. He then hit Parsons, who in response to both provocations walloped Ashdown with his regulation truncheon. A man in the crowd called Daniel King shouted ‘Shame, shame!’ at the bobby. He and the angry Middleton Ashdown were arrested, as was a young ironmonger by the name of Oswald Foster, who had punched Police Constable Boyce, also of the St James’s Division. Foster’s hat had been knocked off when the crowd surged forward to see two ladies in Bloomers — by now regarded as a rarity — stepping out of a cab. Assuming, incorrectly, that his assailant was the constable, he had retaliated with his fists.

A policeman brandishing his truncheon. Wellcome Collection.

Fighting for a view

Soon the mood grew ugly. Stones were lobbed at the police, one of whom received a nasty injury to his eye. A fourth officer, Police Constable Martin, got into an altercation with a brawny local butcher, Thomas Eadson, who had come along from his home in nearby Oxford Market. While Martin struggled to apprehend the butcher, a man in the crowd by the name of Daniel Cleaver gave him a bloody nose. Cleaver later claimed that the constable had kicked him.

As for the few trousered ladies who tried to get into the Hanover Square Rooms, they and their costumes were greeted with catcalls. The crowd was clearly disappointed at the dearth of female legs, and one George Milton, the son of a grocer in Marylebone, pushed his way to the front to get a good view of the next Bloomer to arrive. When a cab drew up at the pavement, he violently pulled open the door, frightening the ladies and causing damage worth thirty shillings. He too would see the inside of the police station.

A young man gives evidence in the Bow Street magistrates’ court. Thomas Onwhyn / Henry Cockton Sylvester Sound the Somnambulist 1844.

The morning after

Charles George Harper in his 1893 anti-feminist polemic Revolted Woman described the antics of the crowd:

A roaring crowd which assembled … showed its prejudices by hooting at the ridiculous women … But the crowd did not stop at this point. They had brought dead cats, decayed cabbages and rotten eggs and all imaginable articles of offence with which to point their wit, and they used them freely, not only upon the women, but also upon the men who accompanied them.

As one might expect, such indecorous behaviour was not without consequences, and the following morning the acting magistrate at Marlborough Street Police Court, Mr Peregrine Bingham, had his hands full. Having listened wearily to these tales of wrongdoing, he pronounced his verdicts.

John Crane Stubbs and Robert Cowling were represented by a solicitor who assured Bingham that the position they held in society made it impossible for them to conduct themselves in the manner described. Clearly Police Constable Bowles had fallen by accident. However, the evidence of other witnesses put paid to this line of defence, and the schoolmasters were banged up for seven days.

Their fate was shared by Middleton Ashdown and Oswald Foster, and, indeed, by Thomas Eadson and Daniel Cleaver, the gentlemanly commercial traveller who had assaulted Police Constable Parsons. The vociferous Daniel King received a seven shilling fine, and George Milton, who was guilty only of a crime against property, was ordered to pay up for the damage done to the cab.

And finally

We note with interest that Bentley’s Miscellany declared that

on the whole, Bloomerism may be prolonged, and even tolerated; but we are persuaded that it will never be generally adopted, or rather enforced as its advocates seem inclined to expect

And it is true that the fashion did not gain traction: even Mrs Bloomer gave it up as ‘a distraction’ in a matter of years. But there is no denying that the ideas that fuelled this move towards dress reform have improved women’s lives ever since.

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