Dance hall girls

Frontier towns all over the world had their saloons and dance halls where cowboys, miners and railway gangers could let off steam, and the dance halls needed dancing girls. The gold rush settlements of New Zealand’s South Island were no exception, although civilization caught up with them in the end.

Robert Gilkison in his ‘Early Days in Central Otago’, published in 1930, wrote –
At those places young women were paid by the hotelkeepers to dance with the men, and they generally received a commission on the amount spent on liquor by their partners. The girls had little chance of keeping their positions unless they encouraged their partners to drink freely. Nor would ordinary beer suffice. The lucky digger loved to ‘shout’ champagne, not only to his friends, but for all in the house. Old ‘Champagne Bill’ (William Adams) ….. earned his soubriquet from the fact that he once spent £200 in one grand ‘shout’ of champagne, and insisted on bestowing a share on the horses.

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Queenstown in the 1870s. The gold prospectors’ tents are gone and civilization has arrived. Photo by Burton Brothers of Dunedin from the Te Papa collection.

The practice of employing dancing girls …. eventually was prohibited by Act of Parliament. The penalty for a first offence was twenty pounds, and for a second fifty pounds and forfeiture.

In a case at Queenstown in May 1863 a hotelkeeper (Cameron) sued a Miss Williams for fifteen pounds damages for breach of contract, inasmuch as she had received her coach fare and had undertaken to sing at the All Nations Hotel, but only sang once. The girl said she went once and sang but was compelled to dance with everyone against her will. She heard the house did not bear a good name and left. Wood, the magistrate, said: ‘Quite right, too. Case dismissed.’

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Queenstown beside Lake Wakatipu. Another view from Burton Brothers.

Cameron was back in front of the magistrate at the end of the month charged with keeping a disorderly house, and not for the first time. He was fined £5 and warned that the next offence would result in loss of his license.

In early June his hotel roof was “split” in a devastating storm that roared down Lake Wakatipu and caused havoc in the young settlement. By 8th July the All Nations Hotel was advertised for sale by auction – “A Sure Fortune” for the lucky bidder. Two weeks later the license was held by a Mr Arthur Simpson.

Modern Queenstown (link)