The Catadon Polka

The polka was the great dance craze of the 1840s. So how did the Australian Museum get its own Catadon (Whale) Polka?

The Catadon Polka front cover

 © Reproduction rights Australian Museum

The Polka Craze

Introduced to Paris in 1843, and first danced there to a tune by an up-and-coming young bandmaster named Jacques Offenbach, the polka crossed the channel in time for the London season early in 1844.

Despite its geographical isolation, Sydney was not far behind. As early as 19 November 1844, The Sydney Morning Herald was already explaining to its reader that the polka is:

“danced by a couple, and there is a lively skip in it, and a gentle beating of time, with heel and toe, and the female arm now and then kimboed a little, and they turn about, and dos-a-dos and then fall into a waltz position, and go backwards and forwards, and sideways, with a light and tripping step, to a pretty tune, in quickness something between a quadrille and a gallope, and so on, for about five minutes, without stopping, and then it is over […]”

A professional demonstration followed a few months later, on 27 February 1845 at Sydney’s Royal Victoria Theatre, when Signor Carandini and Madame Torning danced the polka onstage for “the first time in this colony”.

In the ensuing months, imported polka merchandise also started to infiltrate Sydney’s shops—polka cloth, polka coats, polka bonnets, and polka shawls (“polka dots” came a little later, in the 1860s)—just in time for the dance’s official launch into Sydney high society, at the annual Queen’s Birthday Ball, at Government House, in May.

For the next few years, Sydney’s theatre orchestra and town and military bands accompanied polka dancing with music imported from London. But by the early 1850s, Sydney composers started to produce their own music.

George Strong, WS Wall and the Catadon Polka

One such was George Strong. Born in Sydney in 1824, in 1845 he was 22 and already playing violin in the theatre orchestra when the polka was first introduced there.

As a young adult during 1840s George also watched with interest as the sandstone building that would house the Australian Museum was erected on the corner of William and College Streets. And once it was opened to the public, he became one of the hundreds of colonists who helped build its collections.

He first appears in the very first published list of donations to the museum in January 1854: “Hermit crabs, and specimens of phos, triton, murex, &c., &c., from Middle Harbour. Presented by Mr. George Strong.”

Strong was also one of many Sydneysiders fascinated by an extraordinary new maritime specimen at the museum, a skeleton of a huge sperm whale (Catodonis Australis) acquired by the museum’s curator. It inspired George to make a donation of another sort.

Late in 1853 he composed this polka in the catodon’s honour, and “respectfully dedicated” the music on publication in mid-January 1854 to “William Sheridan Wall, Esq., curator Australian Museum”. The first public performance of the polka, by Strong’s own orchestra, followed at the Royal Victoria Theatre on 23 January 1854.

When the new Prince of Wales Theatre, on the corner of Castlereagh and Market Streets, opened in 1855, George Strong was briefly the leader of the orchestra there.

Sadly, in 1861, he was declared bankrupt, and while his name thereafter disappears from the musical record, he did continue to donate specimens to the museum. The last of these appears in the published list of donations for May- June 1867, where we find: “A sea snake (Pelamis bicolor). By Mr. George Strong.”

He died, at his residence in Mitchell Street, McMahon’s Point, on 29 October 1878, aged 54 years.


 


Graeme Skinner
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