Dance Hall Days: Everybody knew my name at the Edinburgh Palais - 'Big Tam' Connery included

For four years she was the young woman whose name everyone knew at the capital’s most popular dance hall – including jazz legend Ronnie Scott and Sean Connery, who failed in his attempts to woo her.

Dressed in elegant top hat and tails and with Hollywood star good looks, Jean Stirrat, greeted thousands of ballroom patrons during her tenure at the Edinburgh Palais in Fountainbridge and even taught many of them how to dance.

Brought up in nearby Dalry, Jean started working at the famous ballroom in 1944 aged just 16. The Second World War was coming to a close and, while the venue sold soft drinks only, the Palais was soon to become flooded with US servicemen, which brought trouble.

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Now aged 92 and sharp as a tack, Jean has fond memories of the Palais.

She said: “It was a great job. I used to stand at the door in my top hat and tails and welcome the dancers. We also taught ballroom dancing, charging 2 and 6.

"It was absolutely packed full on the weekends and everybody knew me by name.

"When the war ended, the Americans frequented the dance halls and there were a lot of fights. The other guys in the ballroom would get jealous, as the girls always went for the Yanks”.

On a good night, up to 900 people would waltz and jive the night away on the Palais’ enormous sprung dance floor. The great novelty was the hand-cranked revolving stage, which allowed bands to seamlessly swap over, without any hint of an interruption to the dancing.

The regulars at the Edinburgh Palais ballroom were all familiar with Jean Stirrat - including Sean Connery.
The regulars at the Edinburgh Palais ballroom were all familiar with Jean Stirrat - including Sean Connery.

One Fountainbridge local who Jean became acquainted with was a confident and fresh-faced young man, two years her junior. The late Sean “Big Tam” Connery would later be employed as a doorman at the Palais on his road to becoming Scotland’s most famous son.

Jean said: "Big Tam – Sean Connery – went a lot. He was a couple of years younger than me and he’d arrive with his Brylcreemed hair and leather jacket.

"He’d say to me, ‘Hi Jean, are ye gaun’ up?’. I’d say, “No! I’m working here – I’m not allowed to dance!”. He was a bit of a lad then, but it was all put on; he wasn't really like that.

"I was sad to hear of his passing. I knew him quite well and he’d always say hello whenever he came into the Palais.”

Jean worked at the Palais from age 16.

Live music was a constant fixture at the Palais and Jean met all the big acts, from ‘Man with the Golden Voice’ Matt Monro – “he asked me to come to his place in Leith – which I didn't do!” - to the great saxophonist and London jazz club owner Ronnie Scott.

The dance hall days were sadly brought to a close in 1967, when the Palais was transformed into a bingo venue by owners, Mecca.

Having lain unlisted and unloved for a decade, the derelict ballroom was eventually demolished four years ago to make way for student housing – a “terrible” decision, says Jean.

"I couldn’t believe it when they tore it down and I think it’s awful there's no dance halls left.

Jean Stirrat is now aged 92.

“We've got to bring people together, and the only way to do it is in a dance hall.”

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Jean in her signature top hat and tails.
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