Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918

Source: Extracts from interview with Alfred Gotts, interview no. 366, Thompson, P. and Lummis, T., Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918, 1870-1973 [computer file]. 7th Edition. Colchester, Essex: UK Data Archive [distributor], May 2009. SN: 2000,

Text: Q: Everybody wasn’t in bed by then?

A: Yes, everything was alive. You used to see – see there was no electric lights – it was all gas. And darkness, and when anywhere where they lit up with all these little gas jets they used to have – rows and rows of little gas jets burning, with no mantle. Just the jets. And that used to light up the place. Oh everything was lit up – any shops opened you see, then when the – when I was – getting on, say round about fourteen, they started – letting you in picture palaces, you could go in some for a penny, some for a ha’penny. There was one round here you could go – Silverland they call it – ha’penny – go and see the pictures for a ha’penny, Bioscope they called – or whatever they called it. See it was no – talkie pictures, nothing like that.

Q: These were just the silent ones with the piano?

A: But there you could – they show the show and then that – you all went out you see. There was – they started one up at Aldgate next to Houndsditch there. I think it’s a photo shop called – or barbers shop, something now there. And – that was a penny pictures, oh it was a – great treat to see a penn’orth of pictures see. See trains on the pictures, you know, I’ve seen it – I’ve seen ’em – on one occasion – we’re sitting down, the train come along on the bioscope and all the people got up and ran out because they thought the train was coming in the room to ’em see, ’course it’s coming on the picture. But it put – and there’s no noise and it – they used to play in all those pictures that time – pianos or organ. They had all music for the pictures, see, and play – always play music to the pictures they did. And that’s – what used to go on. There was all – you’d see a woman there, tattooed lady, go in for a penny you could. Or you could go an see a man swallowing a sword for a penny. It’s – you know, but the tattooed lady, and a – I remember one tattooed lady, she must have weighed about eighteen stone – from her – right down to her ankles she was tattooed all over her body …

A: … or they – used to have a street organ come out – every now and then, go round, stop outside the pub and turn it, all the children’d be dancing outside the pub to the street organ see. That was the pleasure they had, that’s all, nothing else. ’Course – in later years as I say the penny pictures started coming, you could go to pictures for a penny or tuppence, in these here little places, threepence was top. I used to go to a – in Cambridge Road, the Foresters music hall, that was only tuppence for the gallery. We we wasn’t interested in the rich people that went downstairs in the pit for fourpence. We – there was tuppence threepence and fourpence see. I think a sixpenny seat would be top of the house, one of the boxes. Yes. Tuppence we used to pay at the Foresters …

Q: … Would you go to the pictures on a Sunday?

A: Yes, yes, Sunday and the Saturday, yes.

Q: That wasn’t frowned upon?

A: No, no no. You – there was – hundreds of little places where you could go for a penny or ha’penny, see – pictures …

A: … Pubs. There was a – here in Stepney Green here was a pub called the Mulberry Tree. And they they – they – up in the clubroom of the pub see they opened it as a little picture place. Pay a penny to go in – that time. And then – then – then further down here in Stepney Way here, was the Green Dragon, a – another little – was an old music hall what they had in them pubs, you know, they used to have benefits for – keep the clubroom see, like it’s a little music hall – of Saturday night mostly it was. And that. Make these leagues as they call them. Yeh, but the pictures they showed in them was little – ’cos they had a big clubroom you see and – they fixed up their bioscope there and – ’til the – what they call – I reckon – that time – the – when the – the depression came along. When the pictures started them bioscope that was when – these here little – picture palaces opened everywhere, some were a ha’ – as much as a ha’penny in Commercial Road here was one, they called it – Silverland, you could go in for a ha’penny children see, or anybody. And they they – they – you see the performance then they had a – then they’d have a fresh – send them out then there – there’d be fresh people come in. And that went on all – oh – a long long time.

Q: If you went to the cinema who would you go with? When you were a boy?

A: Well with a – a friend – a friend. Oh a friend or – friend you know, you got a lot of boys, the local boys always. We used to go …

Q: … Did you ever take your sisters out?

A: Well, if they’d have wanted to go I – I suppose we would have taken ’em. See we I we had a – a – two variety places here, one was the – Mile End Empire, opposite Stepney Green. And there was the Forrester’s Music Hall in Cambridge Road. They used to have a lot of drama there, and that was a cheaper place, it was tuppence, up in the – Paragon was only threepence. Then – then when – of course the bioscope came along, the pictures came along, everywhere was picture palaces. You could go where you liked see, see what picture was showing. Charlie Chaplin or who – when he first started you see. When I was young, he was a – only a young man as well.

Q: Were people quite excited by films when they first came out?

A: Oh yes. Yes, yes. Yes, I saw a film in Whitechapel Road – then – only paid a penny to go in there – and – opposite Whitechapel chutch and as this bio – like the train came in, so all the people got up and ran out, they thought it was coming on top of ’em. See the train come along, ch-ch-ch-ch-ch – like, see and that was – they thought – thought the train was coming into this here – fairly – a big size – room where you was all sat in side by side. Yeh, all the people got up and run out they thought the train was coming in the room to ’em. Yeh, never seen such a thing before like that. Oh yes, they was – good old times.

Comments: Alfred Gotts was born in Silver Street, Stepney, London in 1894, one of thirteen children, nine of whom survived. His father was a City carman, his mother was a cigar maker. His interview is embellished with creative elements, such as the memory of an audience panicked by film of an approaching train, which probably owe more to second-hand knowledge of a cinema history myth than they do to reality (Gotts was too young to have seen the first cinema shows with approaching trains in any case). Silverland was at 273 Commercial Road, Stepney. He was one of 444 people interviewed by Paul Thompson and his team as part of a study of the Edwardian era which resulted in Thompson’s book The Edwardians: The Remaking of British Society (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1975).


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