Josephine Lucy Wood was born in Canning Town in 1912 to Charles, a Dominican merchant navy quartermaster on the local docks, and Emily, who described herself as a “gypsy girl”.
Sailortown and Draughtboard Alley
In the early 20th century Canning Town – known as ‘Sailortown’ – had the largest black population in London. Crown Street became known locally as ‘Draughtboard Alley’ because both black and white people lived there.
Although on the whole there were good relations between different ethnic groups, during and after the First World War tensions erupted into violence, and Josie recalled race riots during her childhood.
Sewing in Aldgate to dancing in Paris
At 14 Josie was working for a Jewish tailor in Aldgate. She got her break into show business when music hall star Belle Davis chose Josie and her brother Charlie to train with the Eight Lancashire Lads, a popular clog and tap dancing group with which Charlie Chaplin also started his career.
Later Charlie, Josie, and three other girls went with Davis to Paris as a tap dancing group called the Magnolia Blossoms. They joined La Revue Negre, the show which had made Josephine Baker a star a few years earlier.
In 1932 Josie and her brother joined a group called the Eight Black Streaks and came back to London. The Streaks were the first established black British dance troupe, described as “the world’s fastest dancers”. Josie toured with them for eight years, appearing at the London Palladium and in two films: Night Club Queen and Kentucky Minstrels, both 1934.
In 1933 Josie escaped an abusive marriage and made a vow never to allow a man to control her again. She formed several successful personal and professional partnerships with male performers, including singer Eddie Williams and Nigerian actor Willie Payne.
She also performed several times with comedian and musician Cyril Lagey demonstrating the latest dance crazes from Harlem to British audiences. In 1940 they launched a new dance called the ‘jitterbug’ in London, in a show called Jitterbug Jamboree at the Astoria Old Kent Road.
Josie told dance historian Terry Monaghan that she was so captivated by the jitterbug sequence in the 1937 Marx Brothers film A Day At The Races that she stayed in the cinema and watched the film several times in a row.
“She learnt it from the screen,” Monaghan said. “She featured it in her act, entered jitterbug competitions, and in dance halls she would teach it to anyone who was interested.”
Film extra and strike leader
As the popularity of music halls waned in the 1940s and 50s Josie found work in television variety shows and in films. She guest starred in Nitwits on Parade (1949) and appeared as an extra in Old Mother Riley’s Jungle Treasure (1951).
When the latter was being filmed she organised a strike for the black extras over late payment, and confronted the film’s producer, saying: “Either you pay us what we are owed, or you can kiss my black ass!”
Josie continued working into the mid 1960s as a dancer, teacher, and choreographer. In 1956 she had a son, Ralph, who went on to become a successful saxophonist.
In 1997, at 85 years old, her story was covered by the BBC documentary Black Britain. Josie moved to the USA in 2001 to be near her son, where she died in 2008.