That's the Way it Was

Source: Walter Southgate, That’s the Way it Was: A Working Class Autobiography 1890-1950 (Oxted: New Clarion Press, 1982), pp. 75-79

Text: There were very old houses and shops fronting the Narrow Way of Mare Street opposite the old Hackney Church tower then given up in their old age to such fleeting businesses as wax work shows and salacious picture machines offering the delights of “What the Butler Saw” and “A Night in Paris”.

During my youth I was a regular visitor to the gallery of the Hackney Empire music hall on Monday nights for tuppence … Monday was often a bad days for the halls and so one could get in the gallery for 2d or 3d.

… About the time that the Hackney Music Hall was opened there still existed off the Hackney Road one of the last of the “penny gaffs”. Mayhew describes them as existing in many parts of the metropolis in 1850. “Penny gaffs” had largely disappeared by the 1900s except “The Belmonts”, known locally as “The Flea Pit”. It maintained the tradition of such places right to the very end – colourful, noisy with melodrama and excitement …

… As the old “Flea pit” went out so the silent bioscope came in with a juvenile audience enjoying the blood letting, the shooting and the thundering of horse hooves necessary in a Wild West film. There again the appropriate noises and tempo had to be supplied by a versatile pianist. This fellow sat in the wings playing the same tunes and making the same noises twice nightly, seven days a week.

Comments: Walter Southgate was born in Bethnal Green, London one of seven children. His memoirs include an excellent section on ‘penny gaff’ cheap theatres, a name also given to some of the early cinemas because they were located in the same working class districts and attracted similar audiences. Mare Street is in Hackney, London.


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