Fred Vokes 1846-1888

One of the enduring thrills for a Victorian theatre audience would be the pantomime dancing acts - the chance for some mild titillation when viewing a shapely female leg, where the glance of an ankle in everyday life might well  be considered outrageous. But such 'artistic' stage antics were not limited to the female of the species. Year after year in the Drury Lane theatre, where pantomimes drew in enormous crowds, the star was Fred Vokes and his Legmania.
One member of a theatrical family - very famous in the 1870’s as a dancing, acting, singing troup that comprised of three sisters, one brother and various adoptees who joined and then took on the family name – Fred was  by no means the most talented. But, he did excel in achieving great feats of contortionist dancing and so very impressive his moves that when appearing in Humpty Dumpty a Daily Telegraph critic wrote that he -

 ‘dances as few men in this world probably could dance or would wish to dance. The extraordinary contortions of limb in which his dancing abounds – contortions which in Mr Vokes’ hands – or rather legs – are not lacking in grace – are highly suggestive of the impossibility of his suffering at any time from such accidents as dislocations.’  
View Fred in the bottom right of this poster and you might imagine how the journalist from The Telegraph was concerned about dislocated bones.

A review in the Times in 1871 following a visit to Tom Thumb; or, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table was particularly enthusiastic and gives a good sense of the ‘mania’ abounding for Fred and his remarkably versatile lower limbs:

‘The manner in which first the crown and then the wig of Mr Fred Vokes as King Arthur persisted in tumbling off while that monarch indulged in unusual gyrations excited tumultuous laughter, and if there could be anything funnier than Mr Fred Vokes’ ‘split’ dance it was his step dance, Lancashire clogs, Cornish reels, transatlantic walk-rounds, cellar flaps and breakdowns, college hornpipes and Irish jigs. Nothing in the way of dances came amiss to the airy monarch whose legs and arms seemed to spin round on pivots and who seemed at once to stimulate the actions of the cockchafer and the grasshopper.

He was well assisted by MR Fawdon Vokes as the court fool who had apparently danced himself out of his  mind in his infancy and had lived on tarantula spiders ever since. All the Misses Vokes (Victoria, Jessie and Rosina) , fasincated in their attire, ravishing as to their back hair and amazing in their agility, were fully equal to the occasion. When they didn’t dance they sang and danced simultaneously and then all the Vokeses jumped on one anothers backs and careered – so it seemed  - into immeasurable space.’

Goodness, that reporter was impressed and certainly got his money's worth! But all good things must come to an end, as did the Vokes' spectacular run of success when the Drury Lane theatre changed management and even though  Mr Augustus Harris' new pantomime productions were bigger and better than ever before he regarded the Vokes family as being unruly, having become too powerful by far. In return the Vokes considered his style tyrannical, and so the family business moved on, continuing to perform in theatres elsewhere although several of them, including Fred, died while really still very young.

But, as we all know, the play - or in this case the dancing - must go on. Fred might have mastered the step toe and clog dance but as the century progressed others took on the mantel - including Miss Elsie whose own routine had the added benefit of being performed on a snare drum. The picture below is taken from the Victoria and Albert museum's archives and is dated as being late 19th century, Even so it looks particularly modern, immediate and full of life and somehow more reminiscent of jazz clubs in the 1920's.

Just as popular were the lady skirt dancers who performed by gracefully manipulating several yards of fabric and as less expertise was involved the 'art' it became a wide-spread hobby, performed by female family members in many a private drawing room, with instructions printed up the press - such as these from the Daily Graphic in 1892 -
Miss Topsy Sinden (pictured below left) was particularly alluring, and when Miss Letty Lind took her dancing act to America in 1888 the audiences were astounded to witness such a demure performance - not an inch of bare legs or breasts exposed. 

Miss Letty Lind's Skirt Dance - 'Going...Going...Gone!'

Such slow and quiet acts may have appealed for a while, but an audience loves variety - and an audience loves excitement - and what more sensational form of dance than the one that evolved from skirt dancing when Lottie Collins achieved great fame performing her 'Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay', a routine that began in the traditional form with muted strains of music and the gentle swishing of fabric until the first chorus had come to an end and Lottie would pause, place one hand on her hip, then lift her skirts and lace petticoats and commence the high kicking 'can-can' - a dance still performed to this very day.

The VV thinks that Fred would approve.

Addendum: With many thanks to Sarah Tregear for this link to her post about Little Egypt: late nineteenth century belly dancer/s, along with some wonderful film footage.


  1. Brilliant, fascinating and entertaining stuff, as ever - and I don't know about ladies ankles and d├ęcolletage not being on show, but ...erm... phew... Fred's *ahem* ski-pants leave very little to the imagination!

  2. Why Debs - being of the more demure skirt dancing community - the VV couldn't possibly comment! :)

  3. I think the can-can had been rocking and shocking Paris' cabaret goers for the same length of time, or perhaps even longer. And although there was the same moral tut tutting and calls for police censorship, in the end no Parisian died of shock at the sight of a shapely female leg.

    Poor old Fred Vokes and the other enterntainers had to be very talented, of course, but very cautious at the same time.

    Or perhaps the British audiences weren't as prudish as their reputation suggested.

  4. Hello Hels.

    I think the music halls and pantomimes could be very racy indeed - hence a lot of moral outrage.

    But then a lot of the prudishness associated with the Victorian age was not necessarily as popular a lifestyle as history likes to paint it. A lot of double standards along with the double entendre!

  5. Not for the faint of heart.

  6. Showing off a bit of ankle....scandalous. I have to say Fred's trousers caused a bit of a double take. Great photos!