Maud Allan and the Cult of the Clitoris

The Palace Theatre Cambridge Circus.
The Palace Theatre

On March 8th 1908, Canadian born dancer Maud Allan made her English debut at the Palace of Varieties (now the Palace Theatre) and caused an absolute sensation. 

She appeared in the Vision of Salomé, which was  was  loosely based on Oscar Wilde’s Salomé – a production of which, at the same theatre, had been banned by the Lord Chamberlain in 1892 on the grounds that the depiction of biblical figures in theatrical performances was forbidden by law.

Since Maud Allan was appearing in Variety as opposed to theatre, no such restrictions applied and her performance soon became the talk of London.

Her Dance of the Seven Veils shocked and enchanted Edwardian sensibilities in equal measure – whilst the extremely realistic head of John the Baptist that she used as a prop added a decidedly gruesome twist.

But, what set Edwardian pulses racing, either in delight or outrage, and sometimes both, was her costume –  or, to be more precise, lack of it. She appeared on stage clothed in the barest wisp of chiffon, her feet and legs bare and  her stomach totally exposed.

Dancer Maude Allan as Salome holding the head of John the Baptist.
Maud Allan as Salome

To the Edwardian public, who flocked to see her perform, she was, literally, the physical embodiment of an end to the strait-laced prudishness of the Victorian era.

In short, she was the Madonna of her age and she topped the bill at the Palace for two years.

She gave 250 performances, broke all box office records, and her “Oriental Performance,”  – for which she was paid the, for the time, astronomical sum of £250 a week – was equally popular with both sexes.  

In 1908, the liberal newspaper the Daily Chronicle observed that, at one performance, at least 90% of the audience had been female and commented that:-

“it might have been a suffragist meeting …the ladies were of all ages, well dressed, sedate.”

Such was her popularity with women that the theatre even introduced a matinee show at which smoking was strictly forbidden.

The press commented that these afternoon performances attracted “…well known socialites as well as suburban matrons and their daughters, out for a shopping day, equipped with their own binoculars…”

Maude Allan performing her celebrated Dance of the Seven Veils
Maud Allan Performing

But, by 1916, she had aroused the ire of an outspoken Member of Parliament by the name of Noel Pemberton Billing, a co-founder of the sinister sounding Vigilente Society, the objective of which was “promoting purity in public life”.

In January 1918, Billing was persuaded by the American born anti-homosexuality campaigner Harold Sherwood Spencer to publish an article in his paper, Imperialist,which claimed the existence of a secret society called the “Unseen Hand”, a pro-German influence determined to sabotage the war effort and bring about Britain’s ultimate downfall by propagating “evils which all decent men thought had perished in Sodom and Lesbia.”

According to the article, there existed a “Berlin Black Book” which contained “reports of German agents who have infested this country for the past twenty years, agents so vile and spreading such debauchery and such lasciviousness as only German minds can conceive and only German bodies execute.” 

A picture of Noel Pemberton Billing
Noel Pemberton Billing

According to Billing, this book contained the names of 47,000 British sexual perverts, many of whom were in positions of authority, who were being blackmailed by the German Secret Service.

He went on to state that:-

“It is a most catholic miscellany. The names of Privy Councillors, youths of the chorus, wives of Cabinet Ministers, dancing girls, even Cabinet Ministers themselves, while diplomats, poets, bankers, editors, newspaper proprietors, members of His Majesty’s Household follow each other with no order of precedence.” 

The reference to “dancing girls” was aimed at Maud Allan, whom, according to rumours that Billing was hearing, had become involved in a lesbian relationship with Margot Asquith, the wife of Herbert Asquith, the former prime minister.

When, in February 1918, it was announced that Maud Allan was to give two private performances of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé in the coming April, Billing went into overdrive and published a blistering attack on her in his newspaper – which he had re-named Vigilante – and he headlined the article  “The Cult of the Clitoris”.

In it he stated that:-

“To be a member of Maud Allan’s private performances in Oscar Wilde’s Salome one has to apply to a Miss Valetta, of 9 Duke Street, Adelphi, W.C. If Scotland Yard were to seize the list of those members I have no doubt they would secure the names of several of the first 47,000.” 

Maude Allan responded by commencing criminal proceedings against Pemberton-Billing for” obscene, criminal and defamatory libel.” 

The case, presided over by Chief Justice Charles Darling, was heard at the Old Bailey in May, 1918, and Pemberton-Billing conducted his own defence. 

Billing’s first witness was his mistress Eileen Villiers-Stewart who claimed to have been shown the Black Book by two politicians who had, conveniently, both been killed in action during the war. She claimed that the names of Herbert Asquith, Margot Asquith, and Richard Haldane, the former Lord Chancellor – who had been forced to resign in 1915 amid rumours of his being a German sympathiser – were in the Black Book.

At this point Darling stopped proceedings and ordered her to leave the witness-box. Her response was to claim that Darling’s name was also in the book!

A photo of Noel Pemberton Billing and Eileen Stewart arriving at the old Bailey.
Noel Pemberton Billing and Eileen Villiers Stewart arriving at court

The next witness was Harold S. Spencer who was asked to define what was meant by the “Cult of the Clitoris.”

He replied that:-

“In order to show that a cult exists in this country who would gather together to witness a lewd performance for amusement during wartime on the Sabbath… The Cult of the Clitoris meant a cult that would gather together to see a representation of a diseased mad girl.”

Billing then went on to produce a surprise witness, none other than Lord Alfred Douglas, whose involvement with Oscar Wilde had led to the latter’s downfall in 1893.

In his evidence Douglas described Wilde as “the greatest force for evil that has appeared in Europe during the last three hundred and fifty years,” and went on to say that he intensely regretted having met Wilde, and having helped him with the translation of Salome, which he described as “a most pernicious and abominable piece of work”

The case caused some confusion to, Lord Albermarle, an aristocrat of the old school, who is said to have enquired of an acquaintance “who is this Greek chap Clitoris they’re all talking about?”

But Billing’s courtroom stunts won the jury over and, on 4th June, 1918, he was acquitted of all charges, whereupon the onlookers in the public gallery leapt to their feet cheering, women waving their handkerchiefs and men their hats.

The reaction outside the court to Billing’s acquittal was equally enthusiastic, with the assembled crowd greeting Billings appearance with thunderous applause as they strew flowers in his path. 

However, Billing’s reputation was severely dented when, a few years later, Eileen Villiers-Stewart confessed that her evidence was totally fictitious and that she had, in fact, been coached beforehand by Billing and Spencer. 

Maud Allan never danced publicly again and  she spent the next twenty years living in comparative poverty in a section of the west wing, of a large mansion on Regent’s Park. When the house was damaged in the Blitz, she moved to America, where she died in a Los Angeles nursing home on 7th October 1956.