I gave a talk the other day on children’s cinema-going before the First World War, which reminded me that it’s been a while since I had any of the testimonies of cinema-going in the silent era that I occasionally reproduce here on The Bioscope.
The extracts below come from the unpublished memoirs of Hymie Fagan, of Jewish working class origins, who was born in Stepney in 1903. His autobiography is one of a large collection of unpublished working class autobiographies which are held in the Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies at Brunel University. These autobiographies were collected by John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall while compiling their three volume annotated bibliography, The Autobiography of the Working Class (1984-1989). The texts aren’t available online, and there’s only an index available which gives author, title, and some indication of the location and time period of their memoir. So you’d have to go there to find out more, but here’s evidence from Hymie Fagan of why it would be a worthwhile trip for the dedicated researcher. Here he’s writing about going to the cinema in London before the First World War. It is full of observant detail:
The Picture Palaces, as cinemas were then known, or the Bioscopes, were becoming very popular. I vaguely remember once going with my father to one in Shoreditch High Street, where I was given a bag of sweets, and he a packet of Woodbines to popularise the cinema still more. After his death I used to go to one in Brick Lane. Admission was one ha’penny. Only one film was shown, usually a cowboy and Indian film. We cheered the cowboys like mad and hissed and booed the Indians, for they were always the baddies.
The one-film shows were for the childrens’ matinees. When the film ended the lights went on, and the children ushered out, to enable the next show to start, but some of the boys hid under the seats, so that they could see the film again without paying. Finally the manager became aware of this, and at the end of each performance the attendant would poke under the seats with a long pole to flush out the stowaways, who were then somewhat forcibly removed.
There was another, more expensive, picture palace in Commercial Street, where the gallery cost one penny and the stalls sixpence. A full programme was shown, and not only cowboy and Indian films. Such dramas as “Leah the Forsaken” all about the plight of a Jewess caught in the toils of the Spanish Inquisition. Another was “The Indiarubber Man” who could scale high walls with amazing jumps and disguise himself by changing the shape of his face. Then there were the serials. The heroine in most of these was a star named Pearl White. She was usually left tied to the rails whilst an express came thundering down towards her. I remember her in one serial named “The Perils of Pauline”, and I underwent agonies of suspense each week, until I learned how she managed to escape in the following episode.
Real picture lovers, but poor like me, went into the gallery. Others, who simply wanted to snog in the dark, went into the stalls. Looking down into it, it seemed that nearly all the seats were empty, as indeed they were, for the snoggers preferred the walls round the stalls. The floors from the gallery to the stalls were knee-deep in orange peel and pea-nut shells.
To keep Pearl White’s image before the public the P.R.O. [?] composed a song about her. It went
“My Little Pearl of the Army,
Pearl of my heart so true.
You’re the queen of the picture screen
And the pride of the whole world too.
Whilst the band plays Yankee Doodle
Rule Britannia too
There’s many a lad, who to die would be glad
For a Pearl of a girl like you”.
A later passage covers cinema-going during the First World War, and has useful evidence of the appeal of the cinema’ stars on the young:
Apart from reading and swimming, another joy was the cinema. It was becoming very popular indeed and there was a children’s matinee every Saturday afternoon. Admission was one penny and since mother had no objection because of the Sabbath, I went regularly. I used to arrive almost before anyone else, queuing up impatiently at the box-office, and as the crowd of children grew, so did the yells demanding that it opened, which at last it did, dead on two o’clock. Chaplin was always shown since he was the favourite, and I remember falling off my seat, helpless with laughter at “Champion Charlie”. Then there was Douglas Fairbanks, whose athletic exploits I tried to emulate. Once after he had escaped from his enemies by jumping down a cliff by a series of ledges, I tried to do the same thing on our pitiful crumbling cliffs, but when I jumped onto the first ledge it crumbled under me and I hobbled home on a badly sprained ankle.
There are several other such autobiographies in the Brunel collection, though in my research I looked only for those subjects who had lived in London in the 1896-1914 period. John Burnett’s books looking at nineteenth and early twentieth-century working class life through memoir evidence (Destiny Obscure, Useful Toil) are not hard to find in second-hand shops, and are well worth seeking out, even if none so far as I know touches on the cinema.
“I honestly believe that no generation ever enjoyed the pictures as much as
we did. Wrapped in the warmth of hundreds of young bodies, the tang of
peeling oranges in our nostrils, we sat under the dust- laden beam of the
projectionist’s lamp in total darkness and in complete harmony with our
idols on the screen. The airless cinema became a place of wonder: no
sweet-wrappers rustled, no ice-cream sellers broke the spell; howls of
derision greeted the occasional breakdown and when at times the screen
appeared to dissolve in flames we knew it was all part of the magic.
Art Accord, William S Hart, Hoot Gibson, Tom Mix, Lou Tellegan, J. Farrell
McDonald (trapped in the miner’s shack at the head of the canyon and aware
that the posse was getting closer: “Where was Moses when the light went
out?” he said, dropping his smouldering corncob into the barrel of
dynamite.) These were our heroes and there was Mary Miles Minter, Nazimova
of whom we sang a rather rude song, Louise Fazenda, Polly Moran and once a
glimpse of the Divine Sarah Bernhardt, her wooden leg tucked out of sight,
and the Queen of them all, Pearl White, who had a song written about her.”
excerpt from from Candles, Carts and Carbolic,” a Liverpool Childhood between the Wars. Jim Calaghan, Carnegie Publishing 2011