Racism in Britain and ‘The Paramount Dance Hall’

Racism in Britain and ‘The Paramount Dance Hall’, Tottenham Court Road, London, during 1950’s

In the 1950’s racism was everywhere but not as institutionalised as it is today, the black people did not understand its significance. To most of us it was a big joke especially the way it operated in the Dance Halls. We knew the men did not want to mix with us, but we did not care to mix with them either. On the other hand the women were very accommodating, young or old we had no problems.

At times racism became such a joke that we actually enjoyed playing the game. For example, to stop us going into the Dance Halls, we were turned away if we were not wearing a tie, this was no problem as we wore the most outrageous tie we could find, so they changed their tactics.

Next we were forbidden to enter the Dance Halls without partners but the young ladies put a stop to this by gathering in the foyer of the halls waiting for us to come along and invited us to be their partners. This was lovely because most of us would have our tickets waiting for us whether we knew them or not.

The Paramount Dance Hall in Tottenham Court Road London was quite different. In this case the racism was operated by the Police. Every weekend they would gather in front of The Paramount Dance Hall, and outside the Robuck Public House opposite with their cars and black marias waiting for the dance to finish and looking for trouble.

Some Policemen would be standing outside the entrance, their fun was to wait until a black man came out arm in arm with a beautiful girl, and then they would deliberately stick their foot out tripping up either the woman or the man that was the nearest. This would cause trouble involving a lot of black teenagers with the Police and before long many would be arrested on trumped up charges such as breach of the peace, obstruction and assault on Police Officers.

It was said by the Newspapers at the time that The Paramount Dance Hall should be closed because many white girls from the suburbs flocked there to mix with black people and that was degrading to white Britain.

I saw many of these assaults. To avoid being involved I always had an agreement with my girlfriends that we would leave separately and meet on the platform of Warren Street Underground Station.

On one occasion I had left ‘The Paramount Dance Hall’ alone and walked to the No.1. Bus Stop in Warren Street. As I stood in a long queue of mostly women I saw three African men with five English women enter a small cafe next to the Bus Stop. They were not in the cafe for more than five minutes when a gang of white men entered the cafe, pulled them outside and set about attacking them, one of the Africans was badly beaten so I rushed to the telephone to call the Police. It was not long before they arrived in their cars and Meat Wagons. The arrival of the Police did not help the Africans; the leading police car saw what was happening so he blew his horn repeatedly giving the white men the chance to escape, they then arrested the three Africans.

This did not go down well with the women in the queue, as they started attacking the Police using their stiletto heels as weapons. This resulted in many women being arrested along with the three Africans and taken to the Police Station off Marylebone road. I went to the Police Station and tried to explain to the Sergeant that I saw everything that had happened and I was the one who called the Police. I was abused by the Sergeant and other Policemen swore at me and told me where to go. I protested but was told if I did not leave immediately I would be arrested, so I left.

After waiting on the corner for some time, I met some of the women who were arrested and was told they were not charged, but the three Africans were charged for fighting each other. I did not know what the outcome of the case was.

There were humorous incidents at The Paramount Dance Hall. One night I was dancing with a young lady from Guildford, Surrey. As we danced closely I felt her hand running up and down my back. I thought she was getting over-familiar, especially as I was her first partner for that night.

In the conversation that followed it became apparent this young lady was so naive, she believed we all had tails, so she was more interested in finding out which part of my back the tail was hanging, she did not believe me when I said I had no tail. A week later she had ample chance to see my body was similar to hers.

I later learned this belief was very common it was understood we all had tails as many other black men had the same experience.

There was an incident when I saw the colour bar operate in the reverse direction. I took a white friend to ‘The Paramount’ he was well received by all the black men, but rejected by the white women, each time he asked them to dance with him he was refused.

The Police were determined to close The Paramount Dance Hall in Tottenham Court Road, London and sadly they succeeded in the end. It is now known as the ‘Empire Rooms’ catering for private functions only.

by Enrico A Stennett