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.

London Through Chinese Eyes

Source: Min-Ch’ien T. Z. Tyau, London Through Chinese Eyes; or, My Seven and a Half Years in London (London: The Swarthmore Press, 1920), pp. 142-143

Text: If the music halls are popular, the cinema shows are perhaps even more popular. Not only are the prices of admission exceedingly low, but the performance itself is continuous from eleven or twelve in the morning to eleven or twelve in the evening. In a theatre or music hall the hours for the performance are definitely fixed; here the exhibition goes on uninterruptedly for twelve hours. When the pictures are finished, the series will commence all over again. Therefore, one can drop in at any time and, for a matter of sixpence or a shilling, enjoy the pictures for two or three hours. Moreover, there is also here all the freedom and unconventionality of a music hall; so one can smoke through the performance or come however dressed.

As in the stage, so in the cinema world, each has its admirers and heroes. But in the popular mind the cinema profession is perhaps more romantic. Not only are the lives of a cinema actor and actress more strenuous and exciting but the tricks of the cinema photographer make their adventures look most realistic and sensational. When we see a man fall from the top of a cliff or being burned to death, we know that the tragedy is faked and that he will soon appear again, safe and sound, in another part of the film. But for the moment our senses run riot, and we watch the result with bated breath and palpitating hearts. We half believe and half disbelieve, and we cry and laugh like children. Can a romance ask for more response?

Comment: This travel guide to London by a Chinese writer describes a visit to a London cinema in 1917. Min-Ch’ien T. Z. Tyau was a student in London during the First World War, during which time he set up a Chinese newspaper. On returning to China he became a noted writer on law and politics.

The Diaries of Evelyn Waugh

Source: Michael Davie (ed.), The Diaries of Evelyn Waugh (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1976)

Text: Saturday 31 January 1931
Went to Indian cinema with commercial traveller. Old Charlie in transition stage Keystone – Goldrush. Polishes his nails before meals. Food stolen. Eats grass with salt and pepper and delicacy, rinses fingers. In the end handsome lover turns up and Charlie goes off. Followed Indian film; fairy story; very ornamental. Beautiful girl greeted with shouts (no women in building) and is led from her bed to a precipice and thrown over. ‘That is her dream.’ Supposedly beautiful youth gazes at her. ‘He wants to take her into the bushes.’ Later elephant with drunken attendant. ‘That is an elephant.’ Elephant escapes, wicked robber attempts entrap heroine. Her father dies saying he has never kept promise to irrigate desert, etc.

Comment: The writer Evelyn Waugh was a regular cinemagoer (as noted in his diaries), particularly in the 1920s when he also experimented with producing amateur dramatic films. This screening took place in Tabora, then in Tanganyika (now Tanzania) during Waugh’s expedition to Abyssinia to cover the coronation of Emperor Haile Selassie. There was a small Indian population in Tanganyika. The quoted comments in the diary entry are made by Waugh’s Indian companion. The Chaplin film shown is The Gold Rush (USA 1925), but I have not been able to identify the Indian film.

Movies and Conduct

Source: Herbert Blumer, Movies and Conduct (New York: Macmillan, 1933), pp. 105-106

Text: In the gloom of the Fox Theater, I sat with my gang, and I gasped in pleasurable anticipation as the tense moment approached. The hero placed his hands about the heroine’s divinely small waist and pulled her half-fiercely toward him. Her beautiful lips parted slightly; he looked into her heavenly eyes with infinite adoration and their kiss was perfect. My response was inevitable. My hand clutched Vera’s; we thrilled in ecstasy.

Short-lived this bliss which passed all understanding. From behind, where a group of boys sat there came a rude burst of laughter, of smacks and kisses. A furious wave of anger engulfed me. How revolting and vulgar they were! I wanted to knock their heads together, to destroy them, to tramp upon them for they had hurt my sensitive soul without a thought. They had ruined the sacred beauty of that moment with their vulgarity. I had experienced that moment because I had put myself in the heroine’s place; I had felt the sweeping silk of her garment against me; I had been as beautiful as she, in surroundings as glamorous; and the hero had been replaced by a certain boy a few rows away who, I felt, was watching me at that moment. It was a personal insult to me that they had laughed. I turned, haughty scorn in my glance, to look at those insufferable creatures,- and I caught his eye. He smiled – a warmth suffused me, in that moment I knew –

The minutes hurried by. There came the close-up, the flare of lights, the noise of stamping crowds, anxious to gain the exit. I walked in a dream, feeling a spell and a magic touch upon me. I had scarcely left my friends at the corner when the well-known lines of his roadster loomed before me, and the headlights cut gaudy streaks across the pavement. Came the creaking of brakes, a subdued question, my mute assent, the opening of the car-door, and the purr of the engine as we slid into the mystery of a vaguely fragrant night.

I had known it all along, from the moment I had seen that perfect embrace in the movies; I had felt that this would happen. He had parked in lover’s lane, his arms were about me, persuading. To my bewildered mind there came two thoughts; one, “Mama said, ‘ Don’t kiss the boys'”; the other, “What harm can it be? It is beautiful.” So I struggled no longer; and I learned the charm which before I had only dreamed of.

Comment:American sociologist Herbert Blumer’s Movies and Conduct presents twelve studies of the influence of motion pictures upon the young, made by the Committee on Educational Research of the Payne Fund, at the request of the National Committee for the Study of Social Values in Motion Pictures. The study solicited autobiographical essays, mostly from undergraduate students of the University of Chicago, and presented extracts from this evidence in the text. Most of the evidence relates to picturegoing in the 1920s. This extract, from a college girl aged nineteen, is given in the chapter ‘Emotional Possession: Love and Passion’. The full autobiographical essay is reproduced as ‘Case 5: My Movie Autobiography’ in Garth Jowett, Ian C. Jarvie, Kathryn H. Fuller, Children and the Movies: Media Influence and the Payne Fund Controversy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 255-260.

Links: Copy on Internet Archive

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.

A North London Childhood

Source: Louise M. Blundell, A North London Childhood 1910-1924 (Islington Libraries, 1985), p. 21

Text: I was now eleven and something wonderful happened. The cinema came! Two were opened in archway Road, the Electric Palace and the Highgate Empire. Opposite the Archway Tavern was the Electric Palace. It had an eastern look about it and had an arch with rows of electric lights and when they were switched on it looked like an Arabian palace in the fairy tale books that I read. An hour before the first performance crowds of children came, with their twopence-halfpennies clutched tightly in their hands. Nell and I were among them. We danced and played around the entrance hall until an attendant dressed in a smart uniform opened the doors for the cashier to take our money at the kiosk. We pushed and shoved and at last with tickets held tightly in our hands we rushed in – past the gilt mirrors and glossy photographs of famous stars, down the aisles to find the best seats and to wait for the magic to begin. We stared in wonderment at the ceiling which was covered in paintings of angels and cherubs with garlands of flowers and lovely ladies disporting themselves all over the ceiling. At last the pianist arrived to play as the film was shown … We were carried along on a wave of music and emotion … The cinema was really the only colourful thing in our world. North London was so drab and ugly, everyone wore such dark clothes in those days. It all seemed black and grey to me. I felt starved for colour.

Comment: In terms of the chronology of her memoir Louise Blundell is writing about the pre-WWI period of her London childhood, but the Electric Palace and the Highgate Empire were both built post-1914, and some of the memories seem to relate to the early 1920s. Blundell lived in Willesden, then Archway Road; her memoir was published by the local library.

I Was a Walworth Boy

Source: H.J. Bennett, I Was a Walworth Boy (Peckham Publishing Project, 1980), p.20

Text: If one turned to the left at the top of East Street the first pub was the Roundhouse. Here too was a little cinema where I saw my first silent films with a woman playing what was [sic] considered appropriate tunes on the piano. Among the films I saw here were ‘The Exploits of Elaine’ and the early Chaplin comedies.

Comment: H.J. Bennett was born in East Street, Walworth, London, in 1902. The Exploits of Elaine was a 1914 American serial, starring Pearl White.

Nice Work

Source: Adrian Brunel, Nice Work: The Story of Thirty Years in British Film Production (London: Forbes Robertson, 1949), p. 16

Text: In 1912 my mother and I were film fans. We lived in Brighton where there were at least half-a-dozen bioscopes, as cinemas were usually called, although my mother’s maid always referred to them as “the fumes”. Many of them were converted shops, with hard, noisy, tip-up seats and bare boards, but they were cheap, the price of seats ranging from threepence to ninepence, and in some cases one shilling, and the programme varied in length between three and four-and-a-half hours. Threepence was our price; we generally managed to afford two or three shows a week, and if my mother went to town or I was on my own, my meagre savings quickly diminished while I went to as many as three shows in a day, starting at ten in the morning and finishing at eleven at night.

Comment: Adrian Brunel (1892-1958) was a British film director and editor, as well as a writer of guides to film production. His films includes The Man Without Desire (1923), The Constant Nymph (1928) and The Vortex (1928). Nice Work is his autobiography.

The East End Years

Source: Fermin Rocker, The East End Years: A Stepney Childhood (London: Freedom Press, 1998), pp. 60, 62. Freedom Press uses the Attribution- NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license.

Text: High on my list of favourites were the Indians of North America, a people for whom I had an unusual degree of admiration and sympathy. Their picturesque appearance as well as their skill and bravery as hunters and warriors greatly impressed me. Coupled with this regard and affection was a strong feeling of outrage aroused by my father’s stories of the deceit and treachery practised upon them by the white man. I dearly wished that some day the redskins would be able to turn the tables on their white oppressors and drive them from the continent which their cunning and duplicity had helped them conquer …

… My partiality for the redskin was to have some unhappy consequences when I received my first exposure to the cinema. The Westerns, which featured rather prominently in the repertory of those days, invariably had the Indians getting the worst of it in their encounters with the white man, a headlong rout of the redskins being the usual outcome. I found it quite impossible to look on calmly while my friends were being massacred on the screen. Not being nearly so stoical as my Indian idols, I would raise a tremendous commotion and have to be taken out of the theatre to prevent things from getting completely out of hand. After a few experiences of this kind, it was decided not to take me to the “pictures” any more, a resolution I did not in the least regret.

Comment: Fermin Rocker (1907-2004) was the son of anarchist theorist Rudolf Rocker and became an artist and illustrator. His memoir recalls a heavily-politicised upbringing in Stepney. His father was German, his mother a Russian Jew. He writes that he much preferred Punch and Judy to cinema.

Yesteryears

Source: Evelyn Jones, in Sylvia Bond (ed.), Yesteryears – School, Work and Leisure Remembered by Highgate Residents (London: Sylvia Bond, 1979)

Text: Then I went to the cinema. They were all silent films in those days and they had little captions underneath. We saw Lillian Gish, and one serial was very exciting yet; they’d stop at the most exciting part and it made you come the next week. But we weren’t all that regular. If it was a serial we used to like to go, but apart from that we weren’t a family that went just for the sake of going. There was a cinema down the bottom of Highgate Hill called the Electra Palace. People used to call it the Flea Pit. It was very small compared with the cinemas we get now and in those days there used to be queues of people. You’d go inside and they’d have a rope, or a piece of string or something, stuck across the bottom and you had to all stand behind before you got your seat. We used to hate that. There wasn’t much else to attract people – just concerts and cinema, so a lot of people used to go and you often had to wait a long time before you got a seat. Then there was a Plaza at Crouch End, a similar sort of place. There was a Marlborough Theatre, that was a theatre in my youth; they used to give pantomimes at Christmas time. Some years after it was turned into a cinema.

Comment: Evelyn Jones was born in 1903, and lived all her life in Milton Park, London. The cinema to which she refers is possibly the Electric Palace, 17 Highgate Hill. There is a copy of Yesteryears in Holborn archives.