The Secret City

Source: Hugh Walpole, The Secret City (London: Macmillan, 1919), pp. 61-64

Text: We had arrived. The cinema door blazed with light, and around it was gathered a group of soldiers and women and children, peering in at a soldiers’ band, which, placed on benches in a corner of the room, played away for its very life. Outside, around the door were large bills announcing “The Woman without a Soul, Drama in four parts,” and there were fine pictures of women falling over precipices, men shot in bedrooms, and parties in which all the guests shrank back in extreme horror from the heroine. We went inside and were overwhelmed by the band, so that we could not hear one another speak. The floor was covered with sunflower seeds, and there was a strong smell of soldiers’ boots and bad cigarettes and urine. We bought tickets from an old Jewess behind the pigeon-hole and then, pushing the curtain aside, stumbled into darkness. Here the smell was different, being, quite simply that of human flesh not very carefully washed. Although, as we stumbled to some seats at the back, we could feel that we were alone, it had the impression that multitudes of people pressed in upon us, and when the lights did go up we found that the little hall was indeed packed to its extremest limit.

No one could have denied that it was a cheerful scene. Soldiers, sailors, peasants, women, and children crowded together upon the narrow benches. There was a great consumption of sunflower seeds, and the narrow passage down the middle of the room was littered with fragments. Two stout and elaborate policemen leaned against the wall surveying the public with a friendly if superior air. There was a tremendous amount of noise. Mingled with the strains of the band beyond the curtain were cries and calls and loud roars of laughter. The soldiers embraced the girls, and the children, their fingers in their mouths, wandered from bench to bench, and a mangy dog begged wherever he thought that he saw a kindly face. All the faces were kindly – kindly, ignorant, and astoundingly young. As I felt that youth I felt also separation; I and my like could emphasise as we pleased the goodness, docility, mysticism even of these people, but we were walking in a country of darkness. I caught a laugh, the glance of some women, the voice of a young soldier – I felt behind us, watching us, the thick heavy figure of Rasputin. I smelt the eastern scent of the sunflower seeds, I looked back and glanced at the impenetrable superiority of the two policemen, and I laughed at myself for the knowledge that I thought I had, for the security upon which I thought that I rested, for the familiarity with which I had fancied I could approach my neighbours… I was not wise, I was not secure, I had no claim to familiarity…

The lights were down and we were shown pictures of Paris. Because the cinema was a little one and the prices small the films were faded and torn, so that the Opera and the Place de la Concorde and the Louvre and the Seine danced and wriggled and broke before our eyes. They looked strange enough to us and only accented our isolation and the odd semi-civilisation in which we were living. There were comments all around the room in exactly the spirit of children before a conjurer at a party… The smell grew steadily stronger and stronger… my head swam a little and I seemed to see Rasputin, swelling in his black robe, catching us all into its folds, sweeping us up into the starlight sky. We were under the flare of the light again. I caught Bohun’s happy eyes; he was talking eagerly to Vera Michailovna, not removing his eyes from her face. She had conquered him; I fancied as I looked at her that her thoughts were elsewhere.

There followed a Vaudeville entertainment. A woman and a man in peasants’ dress came and laughed raucously, without meaning, their eyes narrowly searching the depths of the house, then they stamped their feet and whirled around, struck one another, laughed again, and vanished.

The applause was half-hearted. Then there was a trainer of dogs, a black-eyed Tartar with four very miserable little fox-terriers, who shivered and trembled and jumped reluctantly through hoops. The audience liked this, and cried and shouted and threw paper pellets at the dogs. A stout perspiring Jew in a shabby evening suit came forward and begged for decorum. Then there appeared a stout little man in a top hat who wished to recite verses of, I gathered, a violent indecency. I was uncomfortable about Vera Michailovna, but I need not have been. The indecency was of no importance to her, and she was interested in the human tragedy of the performer. Tragedy it was. The man was hungry and dirty and not far from tears. He forgot his verses and glanced nervously into the wings as though he expected to be beaten publicly by the perspiring Jew.

He stammered; his mouth wobbled; he covered it with a dirty hand. He could not continue.

The audience was sympathetic. They listened in encouraging silence; then they clapped; then they shouted friendly words to him. You could feel throughout the room an intense desire that he should succeed. He responded a little to the encouragement, but could not remember his verses. He struggled, struggled, did a hurried little breakdown dance, bowed and vanished into the wings, to be beaten, I have no doubt, by the Jewish gentleman. We watched a little of the “Drama of the Woman without a Soul,” but the sense of being in a large vat filled with boiling human flesh into whose depths we were pressed ever more and more deeply was at last too much for us, and we stumbled our way into the open air. The black shadow of the barge, the jagged outline of the huddled buildings against the sky, the black tower at the end of the canal, all these swam in the crystal air.

Comment: Hugh Walpole (1884-1941) was a prolific British novelist, best known for Rogue Herries and its follow-up novels. He spent much of the First World War in Russia, working for for the Red Cross and then as head of the Anglo-Russian Propaganda Bureau, based in Petrograd. His novel The Secret City draws on these experiences. Ekateringofsky canal is in Petrograd/St Petersburg. Though there were British and American films made in 1915 called The Woman Without a Soul the film described is probably Walpole’s invention. Ellipses are in the original text.

Links: Copy on the Internet Archive

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).

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.

A Woman’s Impression of the Philippines

Source: Mary Helen Fee, A Woman’s Impression of the Philippines (Chicago: A.C. McClurg & Co., 1910), pp. 274-275

Text: Once in a while a travelling cinematograph outfit roams through the provinces, and then for a tariff of twenty-five cents Mexican we throng the little theatre night after night. I remember once a company of “barn-stormers” from Australia were stranded in Iloilo. They had a moving picture outfit, and a young lady attired in a pink costume de ballet stood plaintively at one side and sang, plaintively and very nasally, a long account of the courting of some youthful Georgia couple. The lovers embraced each other tenderly (as per view) in an interior that had a “throw” over every picture corner, table, and chair back. Some huge American soldier down in the pit said, “That’s the real thing; no doubt about it,” but whether his words had reference to the love-making or the room we could not tell.

The song went on, the lovers married and went North; but after a while the bride grew heartsick for the old home, so “We journeyed South a spell.” With this line the moving picture flung at us, head on, a great passenger locomotive and its trailing cars. To the right there were a country road, meadows, some distant hills, a stake and rider fence, and a farmhouse. The scene was homely, simple, typically American, and rustic, and it sent every drop of loyal American blood tingling. The tears rushed to my eyes, and I couldn’t forbear joining in the roar of approbation that went up from the American contingent. An Englishman who was with our party insisted that I opened my arms a yard and a half to give strength to my applause. I said I didn’t regret it. We poor expatriated wanderers had been drifting about for months with no other emotion than homesickness, but we had a lively one then. The Filipino audience at first sat amazed at the outburst; but their sympathies are quick and keen, and in an instant they realized what it meant to the exiles, and the wave of feeling swept into them too. The young lady in the pink costume grew perceptibly exalted, and in the effort to be more pathetic achieved a degree of nasal intonation which, combined with her Australian accent, made her unique.

Comment: Mary Helen Fee was an American working for the Education Department of the Philippine Islands, which at this time (1910) were under United States administration following the Philippine-American War of 1899-1902. The Australian troupe sounds not unlike the Corrick family of entertainers, who are known to have visited South East Asian locations at this time.

Links: Available on Project Gutenberg