THIS week, a few memories of probably the best known pupil to attend Sir William Borlase’s School – the world famous bandleader and tap-dancer Ken “Snakehips” Johnson.

Born in British Guiana, his father was a Doctor and his mother a professional nurse.

He played violin as a child and had an early interest in dancing which was discouraged by his parents who wanted him to enter into the medical profession.

He was sent to Britain aged 15 in 1929 to finish his schooling at Borlase.

Arriving too soon, before the term started, the boarding accommodation was not ready and he spent a couple of weeks lodging at the Clayton Arms in Quoiting Square.

Ken was outstanding at sports, and the pictures above show him as goalkeeper in the school football team, and, some years later, returning to play cricket for the “Old Borlasian” 11.

In both pictures Ken is centre at the rear; the cricket group also including history master “Junk” Davis (the umpire) Tommy Dunham, Bill Oram and headmaster William Booth, seated third from right.

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Ken’s fanatical interest in music and dance caused him controversially to drop out of school early to pursue a showbusiness career, and he sought out lessons from American choreographer Buddy Bradley who had a dance school in London’s West End.

Initially inspired by tap dancer Bill “Mr Bojangles” Robinson Ken’s flexible and fluid dancing style soon earned him fame and the nickname “Snakehips’”.

In 1935 he appeared in the film “Oh Daddy!” before setting off for a year of touring. He visited British Guiana and Trinidad, performing with local musicians and causing wild ovations with his dance moves.

Then, with worldwide acclaim growing, he travelled to New York where after a short stint leading Leslie Thompson’s Band, he formed his own group called ‘Ken Johnson and his Rhythm Swingers’.

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This band comprised mainly of West Indian jazz and swing musicians, and was later renamed the West Indian Dance Orchestra, with their records appearing in the Hit Parades of that era.

The catchy tune “Ida, Sweet As Apple Cider” complete with vocal was the biggest seller in Great Britain and a 78rpm record is pictured above.

Having made many friends in Marlow he often returned, and one occasion, picture lower left, he came to be godfather of the daughter of his school friend Ted Moores.

That daughter, in Ken’s arms, became Marlow’s best known dog lover who many of you will remember - Pam Moores who sadly passed away last year, having only recently returned to this area after a period in South Wales.

The unique band photo lower right is signed to “Ted and Eira”, Pam’s parents.

When staying at the Clayton Arms he had befriended Kath, the landlady’s daughter who later became landlady herself.

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I have a sheet of paper that he drew for Kath in 1930.

I’ll keep you guessing and show you that another time.

Kath had some lovely stories of walking around the town with Ken.

If you have access to YouTube you will find many examples of “Snakehip’s” music and also a very short piece of film from 1935’s “Oh Daddy!” showing a great tap dance routine.

The spectacular career however soon came to a tragic end – details of that sad story in next week’s column.

Contact Michael at or 01628 486571.