Not far from Wellclose-square is a large tavern known by the Teutonic sign of the "Preussischer Adler," and into this palace of dazzling light our custodian led us. Bless you! Mr. R-- was as well known there as everywhere else, and a few mystic words spoken to the landlord were sufficient to give us the run of the establishment. We could hear the strains of music and the rushing of many feet coming from the floor above, and turning to a staircase on our left, we prepared to ascend. But a placard posted at the foot of the steps attracts our attention, and we pause to read it - this is the substance in brief:- "All persons are requested, before entering the dancing saloon, to leave at the bar their pistols and knives, or any other weapon they may have about them." Fancy such a regulation being necessary in civilised London! At any rate, it was very reassuring to us, and with renewed confidence we mounted to the domains of Terpsichore.
It was a long room, with tables and seats aligning the walls, the centre being given up entirely to a crowd of dancers, who were waltzing to the by no means bad music of half-a-dozen German players, who piped away in a raised orchestra close by the stair-head. But what an assembly! There were French, Spanish, Italian, German, and Dutch seamen; there were Greeks from the Aegean Sea; there were Malays, Lascars, and even the "heathen Chinee," disguised in European costume, with his pigtail rolled up under a navy cap. There were mariners in fezes and serge capotes; there were Mediterranean dandies, girt with broad crimson scarves, and with massive gold earrings glistening as they twirled about. No wonder it had been found necessary to collect the knives and pistols from the hot-blooded cosmopolitan crowd. A blow is soon given, and with weapons at hand, who can tell where a quarrel might end? Yet I must say that, while we were present, everything was conducted in the most orderly manner, though the animated impassioned talk in a dozen different languages led one to imagine that a breach of the peace was imminent at any moment. The waltz, which all alike danced admirably, had something of the heroic about it. Each couple made three or four sharp turns, and then came to a pause with a smart stamp and heads thrown back defiantly. Catching the time to a nicety, they would repeat the movement; and when I mention that there were considerably more than a hundred dancers on the floor, the staccato effect of the stamp, coming almost simultaneously, may be imagined. Of the female portion of the assemblage, I need not say more than that they were, in nearly every instance, foreign, the German and Flemish nationality mostly predominating. Short "Dolly Vardens," scrupulously clean, embroidered petticoats, and neatly-fitting high-heeled Hungarian boots, was apparently the favourite costume. To come suddenly upon the "Preussicher Adler's dancing saloon" out of the crowded streets of the English metropolis has a most startling effect upon the casual visitor, who is unprepared for any thing of the kind. It is absolutely as though one had been transferred, magically, to a casino in the neighbourhood of the docks of Marseilles or Genoa, or to the halls of "Tutti Nazioni" (all nations) on the Marina of Messina. But the hour is waxing late and, if we would complete our task, we must not linger amidst the delights of he "Preussicher Adler," as Hannibal did at Capua.
As we passed down Ratcliff Highway, in the direction of the "Jolly Sailors," an incident occurs which greatly impresses our party. Though detective R-- has given up to us some hours of his time, yet those whom it concerns are by no means left in ignorance of his whereabouts. A quick-looking and respectably dressed young man suddenly makes his appearance, and steps up immediately to Mr. R--, as though he knew to a minute at what square on the flags he could meet with the mysterious officer, whose ways and movements are dark to those who expect him not. We draw on one side while an animated whispered conversation occurs between them, and the newcomer having in all probability received his instructions, vanishes as rapidly and quietly as he came. It was not our province to be curious, and as our guide remained reticent, I am unable to enlighten the reader on the subject that brought about the interview. I have mentioned the incident, simply to show that Mr. R--'s apparent leisure meant as much work as play. But we had reached the "Jolly Sailors," and though there was nothing much to see after the "Preussischer Adler," we nevertheless looked in for a minute or two. The company here were unmistakably English, and as unmistakably more or less drunk. The were seamen from the neighbouring docks and lodging-houses, and, having just been paid off, were doing the best to get rid of the money, and in this laudable effort they were ably seconded by their companions of the opposite sex. There was no dancing going on, but a couple of acrobats were really doing some very good tumbling in the centre of the large room, and sixpences and "bronzes" were plentifully showered to them by those not in a too maudlin and drowsy condition to get at their pocket. There was not the slightest inducement to linger in this distasteful haunt, and as the hour hand was rapidly approaching midnight Mr. R-- suggested that we should hasten our steps to the last place indicated on our programme, and wind up with "The Ghost."
Our ghost, however, instead of appearing as the twelve strokes proclaimed "the witching hour when churchyards yawn and graves give up their dead," was, according to the police regulations, to vanish punctually at the signal from the neighbouring church steeples. The dreadful apparition led no shadowy existence but haunted the purlieus of Whitechapel and dwelt in a "penny gaff." We were just in time for the last performance, and we shouldered our way along a dark narrow passage, and through a flavoursome crowd, of which the greater portion was made up of extremely coarse and brutal looking boys and girls. As a matter of course the auditorium was kept in the deepest gloom, for how could a ghost go about his business in a brilliant light ? This obscurity would naturally be very favourable to trying pockets, so as an extra measure of safety we elected to go to the twopenny stalls, as being more select and less crowded. We most of us know the theatre at the Polytechnic Institution, and we are aware of the rustlings and gigglings that follow the lowering of the light in that well-frequented and extremely proper hall. I shall not attempt to describe the innocent and refined joking and horse-play that went on behind us, nor the graphic language in which thoughts and ideas were exchanged. At length the curtain rose, discovering a dimly lit stage, with a piece of gauze stretched across the proscenium to assist in giving a hazy effect. An individual in an old dressing-gown, supposed to serve as a nobleman's sumptuous robe, makes his appearance, and bemoans his fate that he cannot find a lock under which a treasure is said to be hidden. He has learned in a dream that an ancestor of his was foully murdered, and buried with his wealth beneath a rock in the forest. "I know it's about 'ere, 'cos the vision of the dream told me it was. Eh, he told me it was 'ere, and 'ere I'll go on a seekin' it. Ah! that stone." The individual strikes his shins against an old egg box, placed upside down, and begin to wrench at it, with simulated muscular power. "Ah! ah! ah! I 'ave it now, for beneath this stone lies the bones of my poor, poor ancestor." But the gentleman in the dressing-gown is not to have it all his own way. Some resinous flashes play at the wings, a big shot is rolled about, and a couple of demon sprites skip and tumble about him, reducing the wanderer to a state of abject terror. "Mercy, mercy; I will not touch the treasure. I will fly - fly from this terrible spot, and never come back no more." At this moment the lightning ceases, the thunder is heard no more. There are a few sharp chords from a solitary violin, which appear to give the demons a stomach-ache, for they double themselves up and make the quickest tracks. Then the stage becomes luminous with blue fire, a sudden energy replaces the wanderer's fear, he gives the egg-box a hearty wrench, and beneath it discovers a bag. As he clutches his prize the scene opens at the back, and the terrible ghost appears with a green limelight full upon him. Of course, the party in the dressing-gown quickly drops the treasure, but is encouraged by much pantomime to pick it up. The white sheet shrouding the apparition is wreathed into the most persuasive folds, and a kindly sepulchral voice informs the discoverer that- " The goold and jewelles are yourn, for were they once not mine? Take them, descendant of my murdered self, take them, and be for ever 'appy!'' This brought down the curtain, and sent the audience rushing pell-mell from the place, in hopes of securing another pint before the clock should strike the prohibitory hour. We followed, glad to reach the street, and lingering for a short time together to balance the common account, we then shook hands, and the various members of the exploring party went their several ways, to moralise on and dream of the life "down East."
Reprinted with permission of David Rich, Tower Hamlets History On Line.