My Childhood in Hoxton

Source: Ted Harrison, ‘My Childhood in Hoxton from 1902-1918’, in When We Were Kids on the Corner of the Street (London: Hoxton Hall and Hackney Adult Education Institute, n.d.), p. 20

Text: Later on you had the cinema. There was a picture palace, nicknamed the ‘Fleapit’, on the corner of Forest Road in Dalston, where you could get in for a half penny. There were different coloured tickets for each performance, and a man would come round and check to make sure you didn’t stay for two performances. They were silent films and there was an old lady of about seventy who used to play the piano with appropriate music for the different scenes.

Comment: The cinema may have been the Dalston Picture Theatre, Dalston Lane, Hackney.

Years of Change

Source: Arthur Newton, Years of Change: Autobiography of a Hackney Shoemaker (London: Hackney Workers’ Educational Association/Centerprise Publications, 1974), pp. 37-38

Text: Entertainment was altering too. The new-fangled ‘Moving Picture Theatre’ was creeping up on us. People up to now had relied on the Music Hall and their own family gatherings to pass an evening away, but now were able to see real moving pictures. No sound – not yet – that was to come around 1928. The first moving pictures I can remember seeing was in Bethnal Green Road, opposite the Red Church. One penny to go in and hard, backless forms to sit on. They gradually increased in number. The Museum Cinema in Cambridge Heath Road. Morley Hall – one penny to see, and if you sat behind the screen and saw the picture backwards, one halfpenny. Empress by St Thomas’s Square, Mare Steet, where its patrons were given tea and biscuits in the afternoon, and the Pavilion (just recently demolished) was built around 1914-1915. These were the first cinemas in the locality.

Comment: Arthur Newton was born 1902 in South Hackney, London.

Not Expecting Miracles

Source: Alice Linton, Not Expecting Miracles (London: Centerprise Trust, 1982), p. 13

Text: On Saturday mornings when we would get a penny from mother, we went to the cinema in East Road. There was a serial called ‘Pearl White’. Poor Pearl White was always experiencing terrible dangers in those silent films and although I was terrified watching it and always felt that it was me going through all those awful dangers, yet it so fascinated me that I couldn’t keep away.

Comment: Alice Linton was born in Hoxton, London, in 1908. Pearl White was the name of the actress, of course; she was the star of the serial The Perils of Pauline (USA 1914).

Ben’s Limehouse

Source: Ben Thomas, Ben’s Limehouse: Recollections by Ben Thomas (London: Ragged School Books, 1987), p. 43

Text: The first moving film I saw was of a man being chased, who kept falling over and tripping over things. I thought it very funny, and there were roars of laughter from the children. The other picture was a sad one with a woman holding a little girl’s hand going through the snow. This was at the Brunswick Chapel, and they charged ½d to go in. The next moving picture I went to see, was at a little cinema in the High Street Poplar, called the Star, and it also cost ½d to go in. I saw John Bunny, Pearl White, and a lot of big stars of them days. We used to see two comics, two dramas and slides about what was being shown next week. The other cinemas I was taken to by my youngest sister, these were the Kinema, or Fleapit (its nickname) in Whitehorse Street, also the Ben Hur in Whitehorse Street.

Whitehorse Street was a busy market then, near the Church, and nicknamed the ‘Old Road’. The other cinema was the Majestic, which was in a cul de sac and near a school in Ben Jonson Road.

I remember people reading aloud in the days of the silent films. In them days a lot of people, especially the elderly, couldn’t read owing to little schooling or bad eyesight. So while you would be looking at the picture being shown, as soon as the captions or wording came on someone would read it aloud to the person they were with. It might be a man reading to his wife, or vice versa, or a couple of women, or some woman would have one of her kids read to her. So there was always a good deal of mumbling going on and if the cinema wasn’t too packed, you kept away from them. Jews done a lot of this reading aloud, for there were a lot of Russian, Polish and German Jews in the East End who couldn’t read or speak English.

Another thing at the Ben Hur cinema was women doing their potato peeling, during the 1914-1918 War and on until the late 1920’s. The ‘Old Road’ was a very cheap market, so what some women used to do, was to do their bit of shopping just before 2 o’clock, then queue up at Ben Hur’s which opened at 2 o’clock. While watching the films the women would peel their spuds or when the film changing was on, for the lights would go up then. So the cleaners, besides nut shells and orange peelings to clear up, had potato peelings as well, some women peeled carrots, swedes and parsnips as well.

Comment: Ben Thomas was born in London’s East End 1907, youngest in a lighterman’s family of seven. The cinema he refers to was the Palaceadium, 137 Whitehorse Street, which was run by a local businessman nicknamed ‘Ben Hur’.

Ben's Limehouse

Source: Ben Thomas, Ben’s Limehouse: Recollections by Ben Thomas (London: Ragged School Books, 1987), p. 43

Text: The first moving film I saw was of a man being chased, who kept falling over and tripping over things. I thought it very funny, and there were roars of laughter from the children. The other picture was a sad one with a woman holding a little girl’s hand going through the snow. This was at the Brunswick Chapel, and they charged ½d to go in. The next moving picture I went to see, was at a little cinema in the High Street Poplar, called the Star, and it also cost ½d to go in. I saw John Bunny, Pearl White, and a lot of big stars of them days. We used to see two comics, two dramas and slides about what was being shown next week. The other cinemas I was taken to by my youngest sister, these were the Kinema, or Fleapit (its nickname) in Whitehorse Street, also the Ben Hur in Whitehorse Street.

Whitehorse Street was a busy market then, near the Church, and nicknamed the ‘Old Road’. The other cinema was the Majestic, which was in a cul de sac and near a school in Ben Jonson Road.

I remember people reading aloud in the days of the silent films. In them days a lot of people, especially the elderly, couldn’t read owing to little schooling or bad eyesight. So while you would be looking at the picture being shown, as soon as the captions or wording came on someone would read it aloud to the person they were with. It might be a man reading to his wife, or vice versa, or a couple of women, or some woman would have one of her kids read to her. So there was always a good deal of mumbling going on and if the cinema wasn’t too packed, you kept away from them. Jews done a lot of this reading aloud, for there were a lot of Russian, Polish and German Jews in the East End who couldn’t read or speak English.

Another thing at the Ben Hur cinema was women doing their potato peeling, during the 1914-1918 War and on until the late 1920’s. The ‘Old Road’ was a very cheap market, so what some women used to do, was to do their bit of shopping just before 2 o’clock, then queue up at Ben Hur’s which opened at 2 o’clock. While watching the films the women would peel their spuds or when the film changing was on, for the lights would go up then. So the cleaners, besides nut shells and orange peelings to clear up, had potato peelings as well, some women peeled carrots, swedes and parsnips as well.

Comment: Ben Thomas was born in London’s East End 1907, youngest in a lighterman’s family of seven. The cinema he refers to was the Palaceadium, 137 Whitehorse Street, which was run by a local businessman nicknamed ‘Ben Hur’.

Going to the Pictures

Source: Ben Moakes, ‘Going to the Pictures’, in The Time of our Lives (Peckham Publishing Project, 1983), pp. 96-97

Text: All those people who, like me, were born in the early years of this century have grown up with the cinema, reached their prime with the cinema and are now declining with the cinema.

The early films had just a novelty value and were shown wherever a suitable hall could be rented. Music halls would feature ‘the bioscope’ as an added attraction.

No film lasted more than half an hour and was usually accompanied by a piano tinkling out appropriate music.

We children had plenty of choice between cinemas that catered for youngsters. There was one in Walworth Road, near Liverpool Grove, and the halls that stands behind the Visionhire premises nearby was called ‘The Electric’ cinema. There was also ‘The Gem’ in Carter Street opposite the Beehive Public House.

My elder brother and I were given a penny each for our weekly visit to the pictures. We favoured the little cinema near Liverpool Grove.

The procedure was to buy a penny ticket each at the paybox outside; then, on entering, half the ticket would be taken by an usher, the other half being retained.

The seating consisted of rows of wooden forms. After two or three short films had been shown, the lights were switched on and the remaining half tickets were collected from us. The children who had arrived earlier and seen their full pennyworth would have to leave.

At the end of the next part of the programme once more the lights went on and we, having no ticket, would go out.

But my brother and I liked to have sweets to suck, so we spent a halfpenny on toffee before getting to the cinema, then bought one penny ticket and one halfpenny ticket. This meant that one of us, it was always me, had to leave after the first half was seen. So we planned a fiddle. I would lay full length under the form when the collector came, hidden by the legs of the other children. They also spread themselves along to cover the space I had occupied. As soon as the lights went out I climbed back on the form. But after a while they got wise to us. A man came in with a broom that had a long bamboo handle. “Hold up your feet”, he shouted, then plunged the broom under the forms to detect anybody lying there.

Eventually Mum gave us an extra halfpenny for our sweets.

Eddie Polo was one of our early film heroes. He had fights in every picture, getting his shirt ripped each time.

Two of our cowboy heroes were William S. Hart and Broncho Billy Anderson. Tom Mix came later. Charles Ray was the college boy heart-throb for the girls.

In the many fights we saw on the screen, our heroes always fought fairly. When they had knocked down their antagonist, they stood back to allow him to get up. But the villains would frequently kick the man who was on the ground.

After a few years we got the serials, with an exciting episode every week, the hero or heroine being left is a desperate situation each time. From this the word ‘cliff-hanger’ evolved.

‘The Shielding Shadow’ was a serial that intrigued us with its trick camera effects showing only the hands of an invisible man who foiled the villains every time. We all knew that Jerry Carson was The Shielding Shadow. He couldn’t be seen because he used a substance left in a jar by a scientist.

‘The Exploits of Elaine’, ‘The Hazards of Helen’ and ‘The Perils of Pauline’ were all serials and Pearl White was the blonde heroine who stole the hearts of growing lads – us!

Comment: Ben Moakes was born in 1904. His piece on cinemagoing is part of a local collection of memories of life in Peckham, London. The Perils of Pauline, The Exploits of Elaine and The Hazards of Helen were all American serials that began in 1914, The American serial The Shielding Shadow was released in 1916.

Mother Knew Best

Source: Dorothy Scannell, Mother Knew Best: An East End Childhood (London: Macmillan, 1974), pp. 46-47

Text: We went to the ‘pictures’ on Saturday mornings. The Picture Palace was like a huge garage with dirty red doors opposite Mrs Crutchington’s shop and it cost a ha’penny. It was called the Star Picture Palace and we would all cheer when the pictures finally started for the screen was a long time flickering and shaking and tearing itself in two with brief glimpses of the previous week’s serial before it settled down, and whenever it broke down during the performance, which was often, we would all boo loudly. A lady played the piano, sad music, frightening music, and happy music according to how the film was progressing and what was taking place. Because we had so few ‘arrants’ to do, we were nearly always the first ones there and so sat in the front row where the cowboys were nine feet tall, the horses hunched up in the middle and the heroine had a ‘Dish ran away with the spoon’ face.

Marjorie was the most terrible person to accompany to the pictures … We all left the world mentally, but she left it physically as well in a sense. When the heroine was tied to the railway line, and tried to fight her captors, Marjorie would fight in her seat. When the poor mother was pleading with the wicked landlord for her starving children, Marjorie was on her knees pleading too. Her screams of terror when the heroine was about to be tortured seemed louder to me than the frightening music being played by the lady pianist and I would thump Marjorie to bring her back to the world. All in vain, she never felt or heard me, and I ceased going to the pictures on Saturdays long before Marjorie did, for she could wait patiently until the next episode of an exciting serial. Rather than wait and wonder, I decided not to go. I hated serials, I just had to see a complete picture, and most of the films shown to the children had been cut and made into serials, for by chopping the films into little bits they would last the Picture Palace for weeks and weeks. I always thought it had been raining on the screen and it wasn’t until years later I realised it was the poor quality of the film. The black streaks moved everlastingly up and down.

Comment: Dorothy Scannell lived in Poplar; her father was a plumber and she was one of ten siblings living in the East End of London.. Her memoir covers memories from before the Great War and after (when she was Dolly Chegwidden), with this section on section relating to the pre-war period.

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.

Fleeting Notes

Source: Alexander Verner [Werner], ‘Beglye zametki’ [Fleeting Notes], typescript in Vishnevsky archive, Gosfilmofond, Moscow, quoted in Yuri Tsivian, Early Cinema in Russia and its Cultural Reception (Chicago/London: University of Chicago Press, 1998), p. 16

Text: It was a small, permanently stuffy room crowded with chairs. Down at the front stood some weird apparatus, which we lads found terribly fascinating, but which was jealously guarded by a mysterious man whom we called either ‘the mechanic’ or ‘the technician’. He was both impresario, owner of the ‘theatre of illusions’ and ticket collector. He was the one who cranked the handle and the one who collected the money. On the wall hung a bit of cloth, called the screen, and this was the focus of all our attention. The audience, which usually consisted of children and young people, were pretty unrestrained in their behaviour; they chewed seeds and munched apples, throwing the husks and cores on the floor, and sometimes at one another.

Comment: Russian actor Alexander Werner describes his childhood memories of a cinema in Odessa, dating around 1904-08.

Tell Me Grandpa

Source: Josef Morrell, Tell Me Grandpa (Easthill Brauton, Devon: Merlin Books, 1981), pp. 99-101

Text: However low were the family’s finances, most parents tried to afford one penny for each of their children to visit the local cinema on Saturday mornings. I think there was method in this sacrificial attitude, and mothers could be forgiven for an innocent piece of blackmail. What better reason for withholding the entrance money, if certain jobs weren’t accomplished, before being allowed to see the latest episode of the exciting thriller that had been eagerly discussed since last week’s instalment. Also, most mothers thought that to be rid of her offspring for two or three hours was no bad thing, and at least they knew where their children were.

There were two picture palaces in the district, each competing with the other to show films that would fill their halls with screaming children each Saturday morning at ten o’clock. The proprietors no doubt were pleased to see a long queue of waiting customers, but whether the manager and his brave staff were as enthusiastic, is open to doubt.

However, the preparation of the showings were arranged with considerable thought. While each cinema had to provide a lengthy and attractive programme to ensure everybody had their money’s worth, the manager had to allow his staff sufficient time after the children had gone, to prepare for the adult programme starting early in the afternoon. It must have been a daunting task each week to clear the floor of sweet bags, orange peel and apple cores, thrown down by anything up to three hundred children.

The doors were opened and we filed in dropping our pennies into a box on the table, under the eagle eyes of two large gentlemen whose principal job was to see that no one disappeared through the curtains before their hot little hands had released their pennies. Once inside we scrambled to a seat, often resulting in skirmishes reminiscent of the action we were about to see in the films. There were another two attendants inside supervising the seating arrangements, but as I remember, they quickly lost heart when they saw the unruly and unorthodox manner the children chose their seats.

Miraculously, as soon as the curtains parted to reveal the screen, everyone was settled and cheered the announcement that the first film was to commence shortly. It was now that my praise of the management’s timing showed itself. Just as we were becoming restless, the lights went out and the beam from the projector showed on the screen.

Usually the first film was short and lasted about five minutes, and was probably a testing exercise to see that the apparatus was working correctly; it also allowed the lady pianist, seated below the screen, to be ready for her marathon performance. I still wonder at her marvellous concentration and ability to keep her eyes on the events of those silent screens and the synchronization of her hands to fit the action.

Immediately the introductory film finished, the title and captions of the main feature appeared. No time for the boy behind to be tempted to stuff orange peel down your collar, or to crawl under your seat and tie the laces of your boot together!

There was silence until the film got underway, then the piano gave the clues of the story. The pianist thumped the keys fortissimo when the hero was hurrying to rescue the heroine from all sorts of terrible fates, and we gave him every encouragement by raising our voices to a deafening pitch. It was when the leading lady’s baby was desperately ill, that the pianist gave her best. Soul stirring melodies were played in unbelievable silence, and the boys had to be on their guard not to be caught crying with the girls. Of course justice was seen to be done, and had we been able to reach him, we would have assisted the hero to throw the villain off the cliff. The end came with most of us standing on our seats cheering the epic drawing to a close.

With little or no time, in order to prevent private wars breaking out between children in the audience, the weekly serial appeared, and we had a few seconds flash-back to recount to the unfortunates who hadn’t been able to attend the previous week, what has so far taken place. ‘Pearl White’ and ‘Elmo the Mighty’ are names which only the very elderly will recall, but it is possible those not so old will remember their parents tell of those pioneers of the screen.

The makers of those serial films really knew their business and their audience. Our hearts beat fast when the train carrying the heroine approached the damaged railway viaduct, and the gallant hero tried to bring his galloping horse alongside to warn the train driver of the peril.

It had come to an end, and we were left with feelings nearly as emotional as the film, realizing it would be a whole week before we knew for certain whether our favourite would be in time to save his sweetheart.

As we jostled our way out, the relief of the watching attendants can only be guessed. Then they made a systematic check by turning up the seats and examining the toilets, in case someone had secreted themselves away in order to see the adult programme without paying.

Arguments took place on the way home, trying to guess what would happen the following week, and our parents were of little help; when relating the exciting finish to the serial and asking whether everything would turn out the way we wished, they smiled and irritatingly said we would just have to wait and see.

Very rarely, perhaps on my birthday, I was taken to the cinema by my parents. These visits were in complete contrast to the Saturday morning adventure, principally because we went in the evenings, and coming home in the dark was part of the grown-up world which I didn’t experience very often.

Mother and my sisters were always eager to go, but Father had to be coaxed. There were two feature films, and provided one of them was a western, he would be agreeable to come with us. I approved his taste, and hoped that if the other film was a love story, it would be shown first, so although having to endure it, I could sit and anticipate the fight between the cowboys and Indians later on.

Of course the quiet and peaceful atmosphere of the hall although nearly full, was in sharp contrast to the morning’s performance. For instance, with everyone orderly, there was no need for attendants to be waiting to throw out anyone misbehaving, and was therefore an early glimpse into the future and what was expected of me when I grew up.

Comment: Josef Morrell was born in 1906, the son of a tailor living in Fulham. His evocatively-written memoirs cover the pre-war, war, and 1920s period. This section on his cinemagoing habits is especially eloquent, covering most of the key themes as they relate to children, including the different modes of behaviour for different kinds of audience. Pearl White was the star of the hugely popular Perils of Pauline serial. American actor Elmo Lincoln was cinema’s first Tarzan.