Diverting Time

The Egyptian Hall

Courtesy of Maney Publishing, publishers of The London Journal, I am able to publish a PDF of my new essay, ‘Diverting Time: London’s Cinemas and their Audiences, 1906-1914’. Between 1906 and 1914, there were over 1,000 venues exhibiting film in London. They attracted a vast new, largely working class, audience, drawn to an entertainment which was cheap, conveniently located, placed no social obligations on those wishing to attend, and which was open at a time that suited them. The essay examines the rapid growth of the first cinemas in London and the impact that they had on audiences, particularly in terms of the value they offered, not simply economically but in terms of time spent.

The essay gets its title from Montagu Pyke, cinema chain owner, occasional rogue, and author of a fascinating pamphlet on the potential of cinema, Focussing the Universe (1910), in which he writes:

The Cinematograph provides innocent amusement, evokes wholesome laughter, tends to take people out of themselves, if only for a moment, and to forget those wearisome worries which frequently appal so many people faced with the continual struggle for existence. It forms in fact – I like the word – a diversion. It is in some respects what old Izaak Walton claimed angling to be: An employment for idle time which is then not idly spent, a rest to the mind, a cheerer of the spirits, a diverter of sadness, a calmer of unquiet thoughts, a moderator of passions, a procurer of contentedness.

Did anyone ever write a truer set of words to describe the appeal of cinema?

The essay is just one output from a research project into the film business in London before the First World War which was hosted at Birkbeck, University of London. Another output online, to which the essay refers in details, is the London Project Database of London film businesses and cinemas to 1914. More will follow, in due course.