Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918

Source: Excerpt from interview with Jack Brenner, C707/391/1-2, 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, http://dx.doi.org/10.5255/UKDA-SN-2000-1

Text: A: Amusements at the time I’m speaking about, that is to say between the 1900’s going on – were actually the only type of amusement was either – dance halls – cinemas, in their early beginnings, and we as children paid a penny – to go to the cinema, and some cinemas we paid a ha’penny. Now I went to a cinema once – and we children, they put us at the back of the screen, so the words were – double dutch, because we couldn’t understand the words, you understand. All you could see was just the pictures of the silent altogether – there was also – we used to play cards …

Q: … Did your mother ever go out by herself to enjoy herself?

A: Oh we used to take her to the cinema. Or theatre. Variety.

Q: You, her sons?

A: Oh yes yes yes. Yes. Yes, very often …

Q: … Did you ever go to any concerts or theatres or music halls when you were young?

A: Well I think I told you I did used to go to music halls. There used to be the London – the London in Shoreditch. The Olympia, also in Shoreditch. The Cambridge Theatre in – Commercial Street. There was the Wonderland, in the Whitechapel Road. That was also – a boxing – for boxing, all kinds of sport – a few booths outside with – snake charmers and things like that. And there was one fellow in particular, a very good boxer, his name was Hack – Hackensmitt …

A: … Then the – then the Wonderland in the Commercial Road – that – that would – that was also changed after the first world war and come – and become a cinema. It was called the Reveille, and next the – next to that used to be – the old – it used to be a station called St Mary’s station.

Q: Did you go to the cinema at all?

A: Oh yes. Yes, yes. Quite a lot.

Q: Would there be quite a lot of cinemas at the same time as music halls?

A: Then were hun – there were hundreds, hundreds of cinemas. All over the place. In the Whitechapel Road there must have been about – ten or twelve cinemas, say from the Whitechapel Road – up to – what they called Burdett Road. There was also a cinema in Aldgate itself, from – from the Leman Street, up to Mansell Street. There was a cinema there. And there was quite a lot of provision shops and – tobacconist shops and all that. Tea shops.

Q: I suppose this was the great age of the cinema wasn’t it when it first started?

A: Oh yes, yes, yes, sure.

Q: Did they used to be crowded?

A: Oh definitely.

Q: How much would it cost to go in?

A: About ninepence. About ninepence. Nine old pennies.

Q: Could people afford that?

A: Well, they managed, they managed all right, yes.

Comment: Jack Brenner was born in 1900, the sixth of seven children of a Jewish family living in London’s East End. His father came from Lithuania and met his wife there. Father was a small master-builder and did oven work. Mother was expert cook and pastry maker. He was interviewed on 11 April and 5 July 1972, 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). Wonderland was a renowed boxing and amusements arena in Whitechapel Road. It converted into the Rivoli super-cinema.

Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918

Source: Excerpt from interview with Henry Elder, C707/71/1-2, 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, http://dx.doi.org/10.5255/UKDA-SN-2000-1

Text: Q: Did you go to music-halls?

A: Oh yes. Oh yes. You go – I think I told you the Islington Empire. Yes, the Islington Empire that was the Islington Empire. Yes, that was line up and tuppence to go in. Oh yes.

Q: What about cinemas?

A: Well, the first cinema that ever I went to was the corner of Lime Street and Caledonian Road which is a shop now, and it was no bigger than a shop and it was – a recognised thing for me to be tipped out of there because they used to issue you with a ticket and when you’d seen the programme they come round and collect this coloured ticket when you’d seen the programme. Well, I used to dive underneath the seat to see it – see it again.

Q: What programmes would they be?

A: It – used to have a little sheet up I suppose no bigger – no bigger than six foot square and a bloke’d come round every now and again and squirt water on it and then you’d have cowboys and Indians as well call it – and a bloke with a drum making the bullets. And sometimes the screen used to fall down. Yes, that’s the first place that ever I remember seeing the pictures.

Q: How old would you have been then?

A: Oh, let’s see. I was still at school. About twelve I suppose – about twelve years of age.

Q: Did your parents give you any pocket money?

A: Yes – this is up at – when we done that – a farthing for a farthing worth of sweets.

Comment: Henry Elder was born in 1896 in Swindon Street, Gray’s Inn Road, London. His family then moved to Cumberland Street for 24 years, living in 8-room tenement house shared with other families. His father was musician, who worked in piano manufacturing as a finisher. He was interviewed on 30 October and 2 November 1969, 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). My grateful thanks to Sam Nightingale of the Islington’s Lost Cinemas site for pointing out that the cinema on ‘Lime Street’ is in fact on the corner of Lion Street. It was the Variety Picture Palace – see http://www.islingtonslostcinemas.com/portfolio/variety-picture-palace.

Yesterday’s Sunshine

Source: Verne Morgan, Yesterday’s Sunshine: Reminiscences of an Edwardian Childhood (Folkestone: Bailey Brothers and Swinfen, 1974), pp. 122-126

Text: The Moving Pictures, as we called them, first came to Bromley when I was about seven. They made their début at the Central Hall, and the performances took place on Friday nights. There were two houses, one at five o’clock for the children and one at seven for the grown-ups. The programmes lasted approximately one hour, and consisted of a succession of short films. Indeed some of them would last no longer than three or four minutes and there would be an appreciable wait in between while the man in the box got busy threading the next reel.

The Central Hall was a vast place with a huge gallery encircling it. It was used mostly for political meetings and the like, and quite often a band concert would be held there too. But it also had a pronounced ecclesiastical leaning and the man who owned it belonged in some way to the church and was avidly religious. He was an elderly man and wore pince-nez spectacles to which were attached a long black cord. He was a man of extremely good intentions and loved to stand upon the platform making long speeches spouting about them. Unfortunately, he had the most dreadful impediment and it was quite impossible to understand a word he said. But I well remember the enthusiastic claps he got when he eventually sat down, not because we had appreciated what he said so much as the fact that he had at last finished. The film programme could then begin.

The operating box was a temporary affair, and was perched up at the rear of the gallery. I used to get a seat as close to it as possible so that I could see how it was all done. The lighting was effected by a stick of black carbon, about the size of a piece of chalk, which lit up the small box with a brilliant blueish-white light and had a blinding effect if you looked right at it. Occasionally it would burn low and the operator would push it up a bit; this would be reflected by the density of light on the screen. The screen itself was also of a temporary nature, it was in fact little more than a large white sheet weighted at the bottom to keep it taut. Any movement close to it would cause it to wobble, and the picture would go a little peculiar. We were not critical of such minor details. The very fact that the picture moved was enough to satisfy us.

As each small reel was finished the operator would place it outside for re-winding, his box being of limited dimensions. On account of this I was able to study the technique as to how the pictures appeared to move. It was so simple I could hardly believe it. I told my Brother about it; I told my Mother about it; I told lots of people about it. But no one believed me. So, to prove myself right, I set about editing a film on my own account. I drew a succession of pictures in pencil on the bottom of a hymn book in church. Each one was just that little bit different, so that when the pages were flicked over the overall picture appeared to move. This technique, in ‘flicker’ form, has, of course, been used in many ways since then, but at the time it was entirely my own idea, and I was middling proud of it. I can’t say that anybody was particularly impressed, but at the time it thrilled me beyond description. In due course I pictorialised all the hymn books I could lay my hands on, during the sermon and other breaks in the church service. They consisted mostly of football matches with someone scoring a goal. Or it might be a boxing match with someone getting knocked out. Or an exciting race with a hectically close finish. Anything that inspired my sporting instincts was in course of time recorded in the hymn books of St. Luke’s Church, Bromley. I have often wondered since what the effect must have been on the boy who eventually took my seat in the choir pew when he found what he had inherited. I can only hope that he had as much enjoyment out of watching animated pictures as I had got out of drawing them.

The Central Hall was situated close to the top of Bromley Hill, nearly three miles from where we lived. It was a long walk for small legs, and there was no public transport at that time. Yet, whatever the weather, we never missed. Every Friday, shortly after school hours, a swarm of happy-faced youngsters were to be seen all heading in the same direction. The Central Hall had become the centre of a new culture. But, as yet, only the school kids had caught on to it.

Then quite suddenly, the Grand Theatre in Bromley High Street, which up till then had housed nothing more spectacular than stage dramas of the “Maria Marten” and “Sweeney Todd” kind, put up the shutters and announced that in future Moving Pictures would take over. They would be put on once nightly with a full programme of films. A new firm moved in calling itself Jury’s. The old Grand was given a face-lift and transformed into a picture house.

This was revolutionary indeed.

The grown-ups were sceptical. But the programmes were of a higher standard than those at the Central Hall, and would sometimes have a two-reeler as the star attraction. The films began to take on a more realistic angle, with interesting stories, love scenes, cowboys and Indians, exciting battles and lots of gooey pathos.

People began to go.

When they announced a showing of the famous story “Quo Vadis” in seven reels, all Bromley turned out to see it. Even my father condescended, and grumbled volubly because he had to “line up” to get it (the word “queue” had not yet come into circulation).

It was the beginning of a new era. Very soon a place was built in the High Street, calling itself a cinema. Moving pictures were firmly on the map, and shortly to be called films. We watched with astonishment as the new building reached completion and gave itself the high-flown title of “The Palaise [sic] de luxe”.

Most of us pronounced it as it was spelt, “The Palace de lux”, but my cousin Daisy, who was seventeen and having French lessons twice a week, pronounced it the “Palyay dee Loo”. And she twisted her mouth into all sorts of shapes when she said it.

That being as it may, the Palaise de Luxe put on programmes that pulled in the crowds from far and near, and it wasn’t long before they engaged a pianist to play the piano while the films were in progress. I remember him well. A portly gentleman who hitherto had earned a precarious living playing in local pubs. He soon got into his stride and began to adapt his choice of music to the particular film that was being shown. If it was a comedy he would play something like “The Irish Washerwoman”; if it was something sad, he would rattle off a popular number of the day like, “If your heart should ache awhile never mind”, and if it was a military scene, he would strike up a well-known march. The classic example came when a religious film was presented and we saw Christ walking on the water. He immediately struck up a few bards of “A life on the ocean wave”.

Later on, all cinemas worthy of the name included a small orchestra to accompany the films, and in due course, a complete score of suitable music would be sent with the main feature film so as to give the right effect at the right moment.

The Palaise de Luxe was indeed a palace as far as we were concerned. We sat in plush tip-up seats and there were two programmes a night. Further, you could walk in any old time and leave when you felt like it. Which meant, of course, that you could, if you so desired, be in at the start and watch the programme twice through (which many of us did and suffered a tanning for getting home late). It was warm and cosy, and there was a small upper circle for those who didn’t wish to mix!

The projector was discreetly hidden away behind the back wall up in the circle, and no longer could you see the man turning the handle. We became conscious for the first time of the strong beam of light that extended from the operating box to the screen. It was all so fascinating and mysterious. The screen, too, was no longer a piece of white material hanging from the ceiling, it was built into the wall, or so it appeared, and it was solid, so that no amount of movement could make it wobble.

It quickly became the custom to visit the cinema once a week. It was the “in” thing, or as we said in those days, it was “all the rage”.

We learnt to discriminate. My Brother and I became infatuated with a funny little man who was just that bit different from the others. His tomfoolery had a “soul” we decided, and whereas we smiled and tittered at the others comics, we roared our heads off with laughter whenever this one came on the screen. We went to a great deal of trouble to find out who he was, for names were not very often given in the early days.

“He’s called Charlie Chaplin”, the manager of the cinema told us, a little surprised no doubt that one so young could be all that interested.

Comment: Verne Morgan lived in Kent, and became a writer of pantomimes and theatre sketches. Palais de Luxe cinemas were a chain, run by Electric Theatres (1908) Ltd. Jury’s Imperial Pictures was a producer and distributor, must did not manage cinemas. The period described is the early to mid-1910s: the Italian film Quo Vadis was made in 1913 and Chaplin’s first films were released in 1914. The mention of a piano player being introduced suggests that the earlier screenings had been watched without musical accompaniment.

Yesterday's Sunshine

Source: Verne Morgan, Yesterday’s Sunshine: Reminiscences of an Edwardian Childhood (Folkestone: Bailey Brothers and Swinfen, 1974), pp. 122-126

Text: The Moving Pictures, as we called them, first came to Bromley when I was about seven. They made their début at the Central Hall, and the performances took place on Friday nights. There were two houses, one at five o’clock for the children and one at seven for the grown-ups. The programmes lasted approximately one hour, and consisted of a succession of short films. Indeed some of them would last no longer than three or four minutes and there would be an appreciable wait in between while the man in the box got busy threading the next reel.

The Central Hall was a vast place with a huge gallery encircling it. It was used mostly for political meetings and the like, and quite often a band concert would be held there too. But it also had a pronounced ecclesiastical leaning and the man who owned it belonged in some way to the church and was avidly religious. He was an elderly man and wore pince-nez spectacles to which were attached a long black cord. He was a man of extremely good intentions and loved to stand upon the platform making long speeches spouting about them. Unfortunately, he had the most dreadful impediment and it was quite impossible to understand a word he said. But I well remember the enthusiastic claps he got when he eventually sat down, not because we had appreciated what he said so much as the fact that he had at last finished. The film programme could then begin.

The operating box was a temporary affair, and was perched up at the rear of the gallery. I used to get a seat as close to it as possible so that I could see how it was all done. The lighting was effected by a stick of black carbon, about the size of a piece of chalk, which lit up the small box with a brilliant blueish-white light and had a blinding effect if you looked right at it. Occasionally it would burn low and the operator would push it up a bit; this would be reflected by the density of light on the screen. The screen itself was also of a temporary nature, it was in fact little more than a large white sheet weighted at the bottom to keep it taut. Any movement close to it would cause it to wobble, and the picture would go a little peculiar. We were not critical of such minor details. The very fact that the picture moved was enough to satisfy us.

As each small reel was finished the operator would place it outside for re-winding, his box being of limited dimensions. On account of this I was able to study the technique as to how the pictures appeared to move. It was so simple I could hardly believe it. I told my Brother about it; I told my Mother about it; I told lots of people about it. But no one believed me. So, to prove myself right, I set about editing a film on my own account. I drew a succession of pictures in pencil on the bottom of a hymn book in church. Each one was just that little bit different, so that when the pages were flicked over the overall picture appeared to move. This technique, in ‘flicker’ form, has, of course, been used in many ways since then, but at the time it was entirely my own idea, and I was middling proud of it. I can’t say that anybody was particularly impressed, but at the time it thrilled me beyond description. In due course I pictorialised all the hymn books I could lay my hands on, during the sermon and other breaks in the church service. They consisted mostly of football matches with someone scoring a goal. Or it might be a boxing match with someone getting knocked out. Or an exciting race with a hectically close finish. Anything that inspired my sporting instincts was in course of time recorded in the hymn books of St. Luke’s Church, Bromley. I have often wondered since what the effect must have been on the boy who eventually took my seat in the choir pew when he found what he had inherited. I can only hope that he had as much enjoyment out of watching animated pictures as I had got out of drawing them.

The Central Hall was situated close to the top of Bromley Hill, nearly three miles from where we lived. It was a long walk for small legs, and there was no public transport at that time. Yet, whatever the weather, we never missed. Every Friday, shortly after school hours, a swarm of happy-faced youngsters were to be seen all heading in the same direction. The Central Hall had become the centre of a new culture. But, as yet, only the school kids had caught on to it.

Then quite suddenly, the Grand Theatre in Bromley High Street, which up till then had housed nothing more spectacular than stage dramas of the “Maria Marten” and “Sweeney Todd” kind, put up the shutters and announced that in future Moving Pictures would take over. They would be put on once nightly with a full programme of films. A new firm moved in calling itself Jury’s. The old Grand was given a face-lift and transformed into a picture house.

This was revolutionary indeed.

The grown-ups were sceptical. But the programmes were of a higher standard than those at the Central Hall, and would sometimes have a two-reeler as the star attraction. The films began to take on a more realistic angle, with interesting stories, love scenes, cowboys and Indians, exciting battles and lots of gooey pathos.

People began to go.

When they announced a showing of the famous story “Quo Vadis” in seven reels, all Bromley turned out to see it. Even my father condescended, and grumbled volubly because he had to “line up” to get it (the word “queue” had not yet come into circulation).

It was the beginning of a new era. Very soon a place was built in the High Street, calling itself a cinema. Moving pictures were firmly on the map, and shortly to be called films. We watched with astonishment as the new building reached completion and gave itself the high-flown title of “The Palaise [sic] de luxe”.

Most of us pronounced it as it was spelt, “The Palace de lux”, but my cousin Daisy, who was seventeen and having French lessons twice a week, pronounced it the “Palyay dee Loo”. And she twisted her mouth into all sorts of shapes when she said it.

That being as it may, the Palaise de Luxe put on programmes that pulled in the crowds from far and near, and it wasn’t long before they engaged a pianist to play the piano while the films were in progress. I remember him well. A portly gentleman who hitherto had earned a precarious living playing in local pubs. He soon got into his stride and began to adapt his choice of music to the particular film that was being shown. If it was a comedy he would play something like “The Irish Washerwoman”; if it was something sad, he would rattle off a popular number of the day like, “If your heart should ache awhile never mind”, and if it was a military scene, he would strike up a well-known march. The classic example came when a religious film was presented and we saw Christ walking on the water. He immediately struck up a few bards of “A life on the ocean wave”.

Later on, all cinemas worthy of the name included a small orchestra to accompany the films, and in due course, a complete score of suitable music would be sent with the main feature film so as to give the right effect at the right moment.

The Palaise de Luxe was indeed a palace as far as we were concerned. We sat in plush tip-up seats and there were two programmes a night. Further, you could walk in any old time and leave when you felt like it. Which meant, of course, that you could, if you so desired, be in at the start and watch the programme twice through (which many of us did and suffered a tanning for getting home late). It was warm and cosy, and there was a small upper circle for those who didn’t wish to mix!

The projector was discreetly hidden away behind the back wall up in the circle, and no longer could you see the man turning the handle. We became conscious for the first time of the strong beam of light that extended from the operating box to the screen. It was all so fascinating and mysterious. The screen, too, was no longer a piece of white material hanging from the ceiling, it was built into the wall, or so it appeared, and it was solid, so that no amount of movement could make it wobble.

It quickly became the custom to visit the cinema once a week. It was the “in” thing, or as we said in those days, it was “all the rage”.

We learnt to discriminate. My Brother and I became infatuated with a funny little man who was just that bit different from the others. His tomfoolery had a “soul” we decided, and whereas we smiled and tittered at the others comics, we roared our heads off with laughter whenever this one came on the screen. We went to a great deal of trouble to find out who he was, for names were not very often given in the early days.

“He’s called Charlie Chaplin”, the manager of the cinema told us, a little surprised no doubt that one so young could be all that interested.

Comment: Verne Morgan lived in Kent, and became a writer of pantomimes and theatre sketches. Palais de Luxe cinemas were a chain, run by Electric Theatres (1908) Ltd. Jury’s Imperial Pictures was a producer and distributor, but did not manage cinemas. The period described is the early to mid-1910s: the Italian film Quo Vadis was made in 1913 and Chaplin’s first films were released in 1914. The mention of a piano player being introduced suggests that the earlier screenings had been watched without musical accompaniment.

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.

Mrs Bathurst

Source: Rudyard Kipling, ‘Mrs Bathurst’, The Windsor Magazine, September 1904, pp. 376-386, collected in Traffics and Discoveries (London: Macmillan, 1904), pp. 337-365

Text: “Yes,” said Pyecroft. “I used to think seein’ and hearin’ was the only regulation aids to ascertainin’ facts, but as we get older we get more accommodatin’. The cylinders work easier, I suppose … Were you in Cape Town last December when Phyllis’s Circus came?”

“No – up country,” said Hooper, a little nettled at the change of venue.

“I ask because they had a new turn of a scientific nature called ‘Home and Friends for a Tickey.'”

“Oh, you mean the cinematograph – the pictures of prize-fights and steamers. I’ve seen ’em up country.”

“Biograph or cinematograph was what I was alludin’ to. London Bridge with the omnibuses – a troopship goin’ to the war – marines on parade at Portsmouth an’ the Plymouth Express arrivin’ at Paddin’ton.”

“Seen ’em all. Seen ’em all,” said Hooper impatiently.

“We Hierophants came in just before Christmas week an’ leaf was easy.”

“I think a man gets fed up with Cape Town quicker than anywhere else on the station. Why, even Durban’s more like Nature. We was there for Christmas,” Pritchard put in.

“Not bein’ a devotee of Indian peeris, as our Doctor said to the Pusser, I can’t exactly say. Phyllis’s was good enough after musketry practice at Mozambique. I couldn’t get off the first two or three nights on account of what you might call an imbroglio with our Torpedo Lieutenant in the submerged flat, where some pride of the West country had sugared up a gyroscope; but I remember Vickery went ashore with our Carpenter Rigdon – old Crocus we called him. As a general rule Crocus never left ‘is ship unless an’ until he was ‘oisted out with a winch, but when ‘e went ‘e would return noddin’ like a lily gemmed with dew. We smothered him down below that night, but the things ‘e said about Vickery as a fittin’ playmate for a Warrant Officer of ‘is cubic capacity, before we got him quiet, was what I should call pointed.”

“I’ve been with Crocus – in the Redoubtable,” said the Sergeant. “He’s a character if there is one.”

“Next night I went into Cape Town with Dawson and Pratt; but just at the door of the Circus I came across Vickery. ‘Oh!’ he says, ‘you’re the man I’m looking for. Come and sit next me. This way to the shillin’ places!’ I went astern at once, protestin’ because tickey seats better suited my so-called finances. ‘Come on,’ says Vickery, ‘I’m payin’.’ Naturally I abandoned Pratt and Dawson in anticipation o’ drinks to match the seats. ‘No,’ he says, when this was ‘inted -‘not now. Not now. As many as you please afterwards, but I want you sober for the occasion.’ I caught ‘is face under a lamp just then, an’ the appearance of it quite cured me of my thirsts. Don’t mistake. It didn’t frighten me. It made me anxious. I can’t tell you what it was like, but that was the effect which it ‘ad on me. If you want to know, it reminded me of those things in bottles in those herbalistic shops at Plymouth – preserved in spirits of wine. White an’ crumply things – previous to birth as you might say.”

“You ‘ave a beastial mind, Pye,” said the Sergeant, relighting his pipe.

“Perhaps. We were in the front row, an’ ‘Home an’ Friends’ came on early. Vickery touched me on the knee when the number went up. ‘If you see anything that strikes you,’ he says, ‘drop me a hint’; then he went on clicking. We saw London Bridge an’ so forth an’ so on, an’ it was most interestin’. I’d never seen it before. You ‘eard a little dynamo like buzzin’, but the pictures were the real thing – alive an’ movin’.”

“I’ve seen ’em,” said Hooper. “Of course they are taken from the very thing itself – you see.”

“Then the Western Mail came in to Paddin’ton on the big magic lantern sheet. First we saw the platform empty an’ the porters standin’ by. Then the engine come in, head on, an’ the women in the front row jumped: she headed so straight. Then the doors opened and the passengers came out and the porters got the luggage – just like life. Only – only when any one came down too far towards us that was watchin’, they walked right out o’ the picture, so to speak. I was ‘ighly interested, I can tell you. So were all of us. I watched an old man with a rug ‘oo’d dropped a book an’ was tryin’ to pick it up, when quite slowly, from be’ind two porters – carryin’ a little reticule an’ lookin’ from side to side – comes out Mrs. Bathurst. There was no mistakin’ the walk in a hundred thousand. She come forward – right forward – she looked out straight at us with that blindish look which Pritch alluded to. She walked on and on till she melted out of – he picture – like – like a shadow jumpin’ over a candle, an’ as she went I ‘eard Dawson in the ticky seats be’ind sing out: ‘Christ! There’s Mrs. B.!'”

Hooper swallowed his spittle and leaned forward intently.

“Vickery touched me on the knee again. He was clickin’ his four false teeth with his jaw down like an enteric at the last kick. ‘Are you sure?’ says he. ‘Sure,’ I says, ‘didn’t you ‘ear Dawson give tongue? Why, it’s the woman herself.’ ‘I was sure before,’ he says, ‘but I brought you to make sure. Will you come again with me to-morrow?’

“‘Willingly,’ I says, ‘it’s like meetin’ old friends.’

“‘Yes,’ he says, openin’ his watch, ‘very like. It will be four-and-twenty hours less four minutes before I see her again. Come and have a drink,’ he says. ‘It may amuse you, but it’s no sort of earthly use to me.’ He went out shaking his head an’ stumblin’ over people’s feet as if he was drunk already. I anticipated a swift drink an’ a speedy return, because I wanted to see the performin’ elephants. Instead o’ which Vickery began to navigate the town at the rate o’ knots, lookin’ in at a bar every three minutes approximate Greenwich time. I’m not a drinkin’ man, though there are those present” – he cocked his unforgettable eye at me–“who may have seen me more or less imbued with the fragrant spirit. None the less, when I drink I like to do it at anchor an’ not at an average speed of eighteen knots on the measured mile. There’s a tank as you might say at the back o’ that big hotel up the hill – what do they call it?”

“The Molteno Reservoir,” I suggested, and Hooper nodded.

“That was his limit o’ drift. We walked there an’ we come down through the Gardens – there was a South-Easter blowin’ – an’ we finished up by the Docks. Then we bore up the road to Salt River, and wherever there was a pub Vickery put in sweatin’. He didn’t look at what he drunk – he didn’t look at the change. He walked an’ he drunk an’ he perspired in rivers. I understood why old Crocus ‘ad come back in the condition ‘e did, because Vickery an’ I ‘ad two an’ a half hours o’ this gipsy manoeuvre an’ when we got back to the station there wasn’t a dry atom on or in me.”

“Did he say anything?” Pritchard asked.

“The sum total of ‘is conversation from 7.45 P.M. till 11.15 P.M. was ‘Let’s have another.’ Thus the mornin’ an’ the evenin’ were the first day, as Scripture says … To abbreviate a lengthy narrative, I went into Cape Town for five consecutive nights with Master Vickery, and in that time I must ‘ave logged about fifty knots over the ground an’ taken in two gallon o’ all the worst spirits south the Equator. The evolution never varied. Two shilling seats for us two; five minutes o’ the pictures, an’ perhaps forty-five seconds o’ Mrs. B. walking down towards us with that blindish look in her eyes an’ the reticule in her hand. Then out walk – and drink till train time.”

Text: Rudyard Kipling’s mysterious short story ‘Mrs Bathurst’, from which the above is an extract, features a conversation between four men – Pycroft, Pritchard, Hooper and the narrator – the first two of whom are in the navy. Collectively they relate the story of Vickery, a warrant officer, and Mrs Bathurst, with whom it is implied he has had an affair. While stationed in South Africa Vickery sees Mrs Bathurst on an actuality film screened as part of a circus entertainment, something which affects deeply as he returns to see the film several times. Vickery apparently deserts and later a charred corpse matching his description is found, and with it a second, unidentified charred corpse. The significance of the story in an early cinema context is discussed by Tom Gunning in Andrew Shail, Reading the Cinematograph: The Cinema in British Short Fiction 1896-1912 (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2010) which also reproduces Kipling’s text in full. A tickey was a South African threepence coin. ‘Phyllis’s circus’ is a reference to Frank Fillis, a South African showman whose ‘Savage South Africa’ troupe was filmed when it visited Britain in 1899-1900. The story suggests that the film element of Fillis’ show lasted for five minutes, just before the elephants. As Gunning points out, the reference to the “dynamo like buzzin'” not only suggests the sound of the projector but implies that there was no musical accompaniment. The film itself bears a strong affinity with the many train arrival films common in the 1890s.

Silent Magic

Source: Ivan Butler, Silent Magic: Rediscovering the Silent Film Era (London: Columbus Books, 1987), p. 15

Text: I saw my first film in 1915 – from the wrong side of the screen. It was at a private show at a school and my mother had brought me in, aged all of six, by a door at the back of the room. We were probably there for only a few minutes before someone discovered us and found us seats in the proper place. I have no memory of the programme apart from that brief glimpse, through wooden struts holding the makeshift screen in place, of what appeared to be a lot of pumpkins careering down a hill to the accompaniment of raucous laughter of (to me) enormous boys almost drowning a well-thumped piano. It must have been a very primitive production, probably a comedy short made some years previously, but in those pre-television days it was miraculous to a child that a picture could move at all – and I was hooked.

Comment: Ivan Butler (1909-1998), after a career as an actor, went on to become a notable writer on the art and history of cinema. His Silent Magic is a particularly evocative memoir of the silent films he could remember when in his eighties.

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.

The Romance of the Movies

Source: Leslie Wood, The Romance of the Movies (London: William Heinemann, 1937), pp. 69-72

Text: Showmen were convinced that despite public apathy there was nothing wrong with the show. What they had to contend with was ignorance. The public was simply unaware of the nature of the entertainment offered. The term ‘Animated Pictures’ did not hold sufficient allure. Several of the hardier spirits persevered, and the ‘barker’, borrowed from the fairground and circus, became an integral part of the early picture shows. His duties were to extol the wonders of the show, attract attention by whacking the billboards with a penny swagger cane and explain the nature of the entertainment as best he could. His descendants are, of course, the immaculate commissionaires who strut before the super-cinemas of to-day.

Then – stroke of genius! – some unknown showman coined the phrase ‘Electric Theatre’ to describe the show. The draughty shops and railway arches which housed these shows were of course in no sense ‘theatres’, but the word indicated the theatrical nature of the entertainment. Neither had electricity much bearing on the subject, but ‘Electric Theatre’ was curiosity-arousing and that was what the movies badly needed.

Before the century was out the converted shop had become the home of the despised flickers. The projector was usually placed in the window and pointed to the far end of the shop, on the end wall of which a sheet was stretched, the window itself being pasted up with bills advertising the show. The seating arrangements consisted of any odd chairs or forms the proprietor could lay hands on, or, when these were not available, up-ended boxes did duty as seats. There was no pay-box, a dingy curtain being the only barrier between the pavement and the auditorium. There were no fixed times for the performances; only when, by the ‘barker’s’ endeavours, the show was full would the films be shown. The admission charge was anything from a penny to threepence, according to the quality of the show or the wealth and gullibility of the neighbourhood. There was no differentiation between front and back seats. Before the programme began, a man would go round with an empty tin or cigar-box and collect the money, and if the collector were not the actual proprietor of the show, a good number of pennies usually found their way into his pockets instead of the box. It was not unusual to hear the proprietor admonishing: “didn’t ’ear the chink of that one going into the box, Albert!” Whereat Albert would look suitably aggrieved and take care to give the collecting-box a rattle next time he concealed a penny in his palm.

I remember one such show at Hackney that was housed in an unusually long shop. The projector was quite unable to ‘throw’ the pictures the whole length of the premises, so the astute proprietor suspended the sheet half-way down the hall. By constantly spraying the latter with oil, it was rendered sufficiently transparent to enable persons sitting behind it, as well as in front, to see the picture. For the front half of the auditorium a penny was charged, and for the rear a halfpenny, this reduction being in the nature of compensation for seeing the pictures reversed! Imagine, then, a hall in which the audience was divided in halves, each facing the other and with only a thin sheet intervening, and those in the rear portion unable to read the reversed explanatory matter shown on the screen. When the hero wrote a note to the heroine, those seated behind the sheet were unable to read it and set up a clamour for those on the opposite side to tell them what it was about, whereupon all those seated in front would chant with one voice: “Dear Agnes, meet me at the railroad depot at three – Jack”.

This was all very well up to a point, but when the action on the screen became particularly exciting, the audience sitting in front could not be bothered to help out their less wealthy neighbours at the other end. Consequently the ‘halfpenny patrons’ would give vent to their annoyance by uncomplimentary remarks, booing, stamping, and other signs of displeasure. Finally an emissary would crawl stealthily over the line of demarcation to take a peep at the screen from the ‘right’ side and report, until such time as he was discovered by the proprietor and chivvied back into the halfpenny fold.

This humble hall must surely have been the birthplace of the obnoxious practice of reading sub-titles aloud.

Comment: Leslie Wood wrote a number of anecdotal film histories including Romance of the Movies (1927) and Miracle of the Movies (1947).