When blacking up was controversial

Young Australia League under construction, 1924

Young Australia League under construction, 1924

Above is the Young Australia League building on Murray Street. The Dodgy Perth team remembers it as a place to drinking absinthe cocktails during Goth nights there some years back. Not that we remember much after the fourth such beverage.

Founded in 1905 by ‘Boss’ Simons, the YAL was intended to promote patriotism, health and education among young Western Australians. So far, so good.

Before we continue, Dodgy Perth warns readers that the following contains racially charged language. Still here? Then we’ll continue.

For several decades, to raise money for the League, the boys would tour WA with a ‘nigger minstrel show’. In other words, they would do blackface and perform humorous sketches and songs. In other words, they mocked African Americans. To use their words, they did ‘clever coon impersonations’.

In the 1910s, these tours were immensely popular on the Goldfields and, for some strange reason, in Bunbury. They formed a major source of income for the League.

Unsurprisingly, they were also extremely controversial. But not for the reason you think.

Mr C. James of Cottesloe was outraged about such blackface. He noted the YAL’s motto was ‘Australia First’ and that they preached White Australia to their members.

So why were they doing an American form of entertainment? Why were good white Australian boys using burnt cork to pretending to be Negroes, complete with plantation songs and ‘nigger jabber’? Surely representing African Americans as a source of fun was contrary to the nationalistic ideals of the YAL.

But Mr James’ criticism was mild compared to that of Mr N. F. G. Wilson of South Fremantle.

He was sickened by seeing forty or fifty youngsters imitating a class of humanity that should be erased from the face of the Earth, if we were to remain true to our White Australia principals.

How can young Aussie lads, with their impressionable minds, honour their race when they are encouraged to dress up as “sons of Ham”? Boss Simons should realise that kids can never grow up to love their country and everything Australian if they are blacking up for fun.

And that, dear reader, is why the Young Australia League was controversial. Un-freaking-believable.

No dirty dancing at Gilkison’s


Young Australia League, Murray Street, under construction in 1924

The young couple are clasping their bodies suggestively close. In typical bodgie style, a cigarette dangles from his lip, and their expressions are fashionably bored.

His right hand is on her hip and her left hand rests gently on his bicep. They bend their knees and off they go, repeating the same three dance steps over and over. The boy going backwards all the time.

Welcome to the most shocking dance craze of 1953: The Creep.

For Sam Gilkison, who operated a dance studio from the Young Australia League (above), this was the type of thing only done by “sensation-seeking drug-addicts”:

“I can’t imagine any teachers having anything to do with teaching this type of thing,” he said.

Old time ballroom dancing was as risqué as it should get. Even modern ballroom, if you have to. But never dance crazes like the Creep, he fumed.

Mr Gilkison was not a big fan, we take it.

In any case Gilkison—who should know—declared that the Creep was not a legitimate dance since it had a “suggestive nature” which risked bringing the dancing profession into disrepute.

The “sex dance menace” alarmed those who had responsibility for the moral well-being of Perth’s youngsters.

Dance hall owners feared controversy if the Creep became too popular, as it threatened to do. So these owners got together to discuss banning it altogether from their venues.

Dodgy Perth nostalgically remembers Goth nights at Gilkison’s, sipping an absinthe cocktail, and seeing dancing on the floor of which Sam Gilkison would definitely not have approved.

We remember little more after the second absinthe cocktail, but hope our own moves were not even close to being of the sex dance menace type.