Memories of Old Poplar

Source: John Blake, Memories of Old Poplar (London: Stepney Books Publications, 1977), pp. 34-36

Text: Round about 1908 there appeared something new in the field of entertainment. This was during our childhood days, when after school hours the streets were poorly lit. Fogs were everywhere in the winter months, and naturally the youngsters, and their parents, were eagerly seeking anything that would brighten up their outlook in the drab surroundings of those days. On the scene, then, came a wonderful idea. The Reverend Tyldesley [sic], the pastor at the Poplar and Bromley Tabernacle, in Brunswick Road, commenced showing pictures on Thursday evenings in the Chapel. These were Magic Lantern with still slides, or a very early model of a cinematograph show. Children were admitted to the first performance, and parents the second. A large sheet was hung on the rostrum, which could be pulled up and down, before and after the show. There was a gallery, running the length of the hall, and at the far end of the gallery, a projection box had been erected, which housed the cinematograph. During the summer months, the Reverend Gentleman had curtains installed in the windows, so that light could not penetrate, to spoil the view of the films. He always gave a speech before the show commenced, and went to great lengths to impress the children, of the tremendous expense that had been entailed to enable this to be done, so that they would still have their entertainment in the summer. He asked us not to kick the backs of the seats in front, in excitement at the adventures of Lt Rose, one of the prevailing heroes of the time. Their few coppers of admission would not allow for payments of any damage. For us children the excitement was intense and we were glad when the introductory prayers had been completed. For many years the Music Halls and Theatres enjoyed the popularity of the public with no opposition, but suddenly a rival entertainment appeared on the horizon. I refer to the silent films appearing at ‘Picture Palaces’. Some had a white sheet, suspended tightly, over which water was squirted before the show commenced, or even a white painted wall. The seating consisted of forms, and flooring all concrete. The first Picture Palace I remember was the ‘Empire’ in East India Dock Road, opposite Woolmore Street. Then there was ‘The Star’ in High Street Poplar. It was a case of lining up outside, where the attendant on duty was periodically shouting out at the top of his voice, ‘Standing only in the ha’pennies’. This form of entertainment was springing up everywhere such as ‘Grand Palace’, ‘Poplar Pavilion’, ‘The Gaiety’, all in East India Dock Road, and the interior decorations were improving rapidly. Better screens, improved fireproofed projection boxes, spring-backed covered seats, lady ushers with hand torch, to guide you to your seat, piano accompaniment to the silent film. Usually there were two feature films, and a News Reel and the performance was continuous. Chocolates and ices were sold by attendants from trays on wheels. The pianist had to operate in a curtained off enclosure. The music had to be adapted to the theme of the film, such as exciting, or sad and tearful passages, and the timing was important. As time went on, a violin was added, even a cello. In some of the sad moments of a film the musicians must have been crying their eyes out and too upset to eat or drink their lunch, during a break.

Comment: John Blake was born in 1899, one of seven children of a plumber’s mate. The Reverend Alfred Tildsley was Baptist pastor of the Poplar and Bromley Tabernacle. Tildsley came to the Tabernacle in 1898, and turned round a debt-ridden and neglected mission through an energetic programme of activities, which included what he called the Pleasant Thursday Evening series. These weekly meetings combined music, stories, lantern slides, and – from 1900 onwards – films. See Dean R. Rapp, ‘A Baptist Pioneer: The exhibition of film to London’s East End working classes 1900-1918,’ Baptist Quarterly vol. 40 (2003), pp. 6-10. Lieutenant Rose was a character who featured in a series of films made by British film company Clarendon.

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