The Hurdy Gurdy Girls stand at Stirling’s Saloon in Barkerville in 1867. BC Provincial Archives photo

HAPHAZARD HISTORY: The Hurdy Gurdy Girls of Barkerville

“These girls were pure women, who had kind hearts and wonderful patience.”

By Barry Sale

Special to the Tribune

When the news got out about the gold strike on the Horsefly River in 1859, the Cariboo Gold Rush was on.

It is estimated that more than 30,000 men flooded into the area between 1860 and 1865.

Very few white women ventured into the gold fields, and most of those who did were ladies of the evening.

Only a handful of “respectable” women could be found, and they were all married or engaged.

This is the story of the dance hall girls, often called the Hurdy Gurdy Girls.

A hurdy gurdy is a stringed instrument that looks something like a violin with a keyboard where the strings should be, and a hand crank keyboard where the strings should be, and a hand crank at the base.

It produces a sound something like the bagpipes.

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Depending upon where you look, it was brought to Europe by Ukrainian Cossacks in the early 1600s, or it originated in Spain around 1100 A.D.

It was primarily a peasant instrument, but its music enjoyed a brief period of popularity among the nobility in 17th and 18th century Europe.

In the 1820s the German peasant farm workers began to produce wooden brooms and fly whisks to supplement their meagre incomes.

They would craft them during the winters and sell them at local markets in the summers.

They soon discovered that their wares sold better if they brought along a couple of pretty girls who danced and played instruments to attract buyers.

At the time, the instrument of choice was the hurdy gurdy, and the dancers became known as “hurdy gurdy girls.”

Within a few years, the music and dancing entertainment at these summer markets gave rise to a kind of a 19th century talent promoter, called a “soul merchant.”

He would convince the parents of the girls to allow them to travel with him and entertain in dance halls on the promise that they would send a fair portion of their earnings home.

By 1865, laws were passed in Germany to prevent this practice of enticing young women into what was considered to be a debauched life, and by 1885, the hurdy gurdy troupe was a thing of the past in that country.

However, the era of the hurdy gurdies spread quickly to other countries, first to France, then England, and throughout Europe, even to Russia.

It was not long before troupes were being paid to cross the oceans to the gold rush towns in America, Australia and Canada.

A typical hurdy gurdy troupe consisted of four girls, always accompanied by a chaperone (often a married couple with children), the agent, or “boss gurdy,” who did the bookings and made all the arrangements, and one or two musicians.

Outside of Europe, the instruments were usually an accordion and a fiddle or two, since the hurdy gurdy’s sound was considered to be “foreign.”

The music was played at full volume so that it could sometimes be heard over the voices of the shouting miners and the stomping of their feet.

Hurdy gurdy companies would usually stay in one place for a month or two and then move on.

The girls were not prostitutes. During the gold rush, women were generally categorized as “good,” meaning of strong moral fibre, and “bad,” meaning sexually promiscuous.

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Hurdy gurdy girls were considered to be good women by the men, but certainly not by the respectable ladies of the towns.

Governor William McConnell of Idaho wrote “These girls were pure women, who had kind hearts and wonderful patience. They simply did the work they had bargained to do, and when their contracts expired, most of them returned home. Some married men whose acquaintance they had made while pursuing their vocation.”

Only occasionally did a girl slip into prostitution, usually brought on by hardships associated with abuse, drug addiction or alcoholism.

Now, back to our own gold fields, to Barkerville in the mid 1860s.

Before the dance troupe came to town, the miners had to make do with all male activities, of which gambling and drinking were most prevalent.

Sometimes, they arranged “stag dances” in the saloons with the “ladies” being represented by men with white handkerchiefs tied around their arms.

It was no wonder that the arrival of the hurdy gurdy girls was anticipated for months.

These girls provided both entertainment and company for the lonely miners.

The Cariboo Sentinel ran stories about the impending visit of “the wandering daughters from the sunny banks of the Oder, the Elbe and the Rhine.”

Even though the men of the town considered the girls to be “good” women, the ladies of Barkerville believed them to be morally corrupt.

From the Cariboo Sentinel again (July 1867): “Mrs. Partington says that just because the Hurdies are regarded as stars is no reason they should be regarded as heavenly bodies.”

It didn’t help, of course, that the girls dressed in scandalous calf-length skirts, wore kid boots which sported tassels and underneath had short bloomers with stockings held up by garters.

Their blouses were low cut to show cleavage, they wore makeup, and often, they dyed their hair.

In short, they exhibited the brazen, trashy look that most single Victorian miners obsessed about.

Peer pressure and saloon rules tended to keep the men in line, and the girls were treated with respect.

Often the miners would buy gifts for them.

It cost $1 to dance with a girl, which the company split with the saloon owner, and the girls also made a commission from the drinks that were sold.

At certain times during the evening, the music would stop, and the girls would steer the men to the bar.

After the men bought drinks for themselves (at 50 cents a shot), and for the girls (a shot glass of tea or coloured water disguised as high priced whiskey for 75 cents a shot), the dancing would begin again.

A dance lasted from five to 10 minutes, and a girl might average 40 or 50 dances a night.

It was a profitable venture for everyone, except the miners, none of whom ever complained.

Some saloons had balconies where a rich prospector could sit and watch the girls below, sometimes showering his favourite dancer with gold dust or trying to drop gold nuggets into the bosom of her dress.

In Barkerville, the men developed a unique dance that both surprised and exhausted the girls.

It was called “dancing on the ceiling.” The main point of this dance was for the man to lift his partner as high as he could off the floor, swinging her up so that her feet were literally touching the ceiling, if it was low enough.

Naturally the girl’s skirt would fall down, revealing her knees, bloomers, garters and stockings — a very risqué display, which all of the men present thoroughly enjoyed.

A dance on the ceiling cost $5 (that’s about $350 in today’s dollars), so the men would often chip in to see it happen.

Some writers claim that it was during one of these wild dances that a hurdy gurdy girl inadvertently kicked a kerosene ceiling lamp at Adler and Barry’s saloon, thus beginning the great fire of 1868, which virtually destroyed Barkerville.

The hurdy gurdy girls have become an interesting and often misunderstood chapter in the history of our Cariboo Gold Rush.

Their appearances were brief and limited, but the stories they produced continue on even today.


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