Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Leggett, Emily (1875–1949)

by Betty Malone

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

This is a shared entry with Joseph Henry Leggett

Emily Leggett (1875-1949) and Joseph Henry Leggett (1876-1960), ballroom-dancing promoters, were wife and husband. Emily was born on 14 April 1875 in Melbourne, fifth child of English-born parents Henry Cohen, saddler, and his wife Mary Ann, née Eggleton. Harry was born on 20 April 1876, also in Melbourne, tenth child of Samuel Leggett, a coachsmith from England, and his Irish-born wife Rosina, née Nangle. The Leggett family was poor. Harry grew up on the streets of the city learning many of the skills he later used as a professional entertainer. He entered competitions and played at several Melbourne theatres where he earned a name as a promising dancer and comedian.

Henry Cohen taught his children to play musical instruments. He formed a troupe of young musicians, the Premier Juvenile Variety Company, which performed in the suburbs. In 1892 Harry Leggett was invited to join the troupe; he remained with it until the company was disbanded after Cohen's death in 1895. Harry often appeared at Melbourne's Bijou and at the Opera House (later the Tivoli). Emily, who showed talent as a dancer, teamed up with him. As a duo, they performed variety acts in Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney. They were married on 7 March 1899 at 422 Queen Street, Melbourne, with the forms of the Free Christian Church. Both continued their stage careers, and Emily taught music; their son and daughter were part of theatrical life from infancy.

Harry and Emily attempted several ventures of their own: they taught dancing at Collingwood, staged variety shows at the local town hall and operated an unsuccessful open-air cinema in Johnston Street. Following some financial set-backs, they moved to Hampton. Harry then took an engagement in Hobart while Emily stayed and taught dancing. When he returned in 1907, they moved to Windsor where they opened a dancing academy. The venture prospered and they organized balls at the Albert Hall, Windsor, and at the Prahran and St Kilda town halls.

During World War I the Leggetts supported the Australian Red Cross Society and the Prahran Patriotic Society. In 1920 they built a ballroom of their own in Greville Street, Prahran. Over the next decade they acquired more property nearby. The family lived on the premises and many of their staff were housed in the cottages they bought. The ballroom was gradually enlarged until it could accommodate four thousand people. There they trained thousands of dancers, organized national and international competitions, introduced new dances, and staged variety shows and balls. About one hundred dancers were hired to assist them and the ballroom was crowded six nights a week. Formal dress was obligatory in the evenings and behaviour was monitored. No intoxicating liquor was allowed on the premises. Half an hour before the official dancing began, free tuition was given.

The Leggetts showed their public spiritedness in numerous ways. In the Depression they organized free dancing in the afternoons, and at night those without the full admission price of 1s. 6d. (two shillings on Saturdays) were never turned away. In World War II the Leggetts organized patriotic shows and balls, paying the costs from their own pockets. Those in uniform were admitted free, and many servicemen were bedded down and served breakfast next morning. Constant innovation made Leggett's a popular ballroom. On particular nights the hall was decorated to illustrate such themes as 'A Night in Hades', 'An Evening in Paris', or 'Circus Night'. Prizes were generous. In the early 1950s Leggett's became the heart of Melbourne's square-dance boom.

It was very much a family business. Emily and Harry managed the ballroom until their retirement in 1942, after which their son Phillip took over. The Leggetts continued to offer hospitality to friends and young artists, and to show interest in dancing and entertainment. Harry was a justice of the peace and a police magistrate; Emily was vice-president of the St John's Home for Boys. She died on 29 January 1949 at her Brighton home. Survived by their son, Harry died on 2 January 1960 in East Melbourne. Both were buried in Melbourne general cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • P. Leggett, The Leggett Family and Their Famous Ballroom in Prahran (Melb, 1988)
  • P. Leggett, Select Your Partners, L. McCalman and B. Malone eds (Melb, 1991)
  • Age (Melbourne), 11 Nov 1946, 31 Jan 1949
  • Australasian Post, 6 July 1950
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 6 Oct 1956.

Citation details

Betty Malone, 'Leggett, Emily (1875–1949)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/leggett-emily-10809/text19173, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 12 December 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

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